Sitting deep in the human heart

Dear Selma,

Your short-story collection Invisible Links, tr. Pauline Bancroft Flach (1899. Original: Osynliga länkar,1894) reads like a visit to one of those Scandinavian wooden churches, decorated with dragon heads on the outside and Christian symbols inside.

The book is composed of fourteen short-stories crossed by mythical elements drawn from pagan and Christian legends. Natural beings and supernatural entities are treated as complementary forces that act upon human life, and the boundaries between good and evil are never quite clear. We are led through forests, fishing villages, and deserted beaches, where the landscape seems to be a character all by itself.

My favourite story from the collection was The Outlaws. Berg, the strongest man in his region, called a giant by the villagers, kills a monk and flees to the woods so as not to face punishment. There, he meets another outcast, the sixteen-year-old fisherman Tord, who had also escaped to the forest after being accused of stealing a fishing net. The two men meet and start to live together, sharing a cave. Berg comes from a respected Christian family, whereas Tord’s parents were Viking pagans. Exiled from the community, the two live in strict communion with the forest. At first, their relationship seems hierarchical: Tord serves Berg, ‘the giant’, as if he were a god, whereas Berg simply ignores him as a worthless thief. Nevertheless, loyal to his master, Tord always evades the villagers’ insistent pleas for him to help them to capture ‘the giant’. Not long afterwards, however, the boy falls ill.

Having to take care of Tord, and noticing that the boy has no fear of death, Berg ceases to think of him as worthless, and the two become true friends: a balance is finally achieved, where both men are like equals to each other. Neither Tord is a servant, nor Berg is a god. When the boy gets better, the two go on a fishing expedition on a lake. While dozing off, they catch a glimpse of a strange being, a mermaid, who soon disappears in a green light.

Shortly thereafter, Tord gets to know why Berg killed the monk, and Berg notices that the boy cannot see the evil in that. “Berg Rese noticed again what had astonished him before in the boy. He was like a heathen, worse than a heathen; he never condemned what was wrong. He felt no responsibility. That which must be, was. He knew of God and Christ and the saints, but only by name, as one knows the gods of foreign lands. The ghosts of the rocks were his gods.” So, Berg sets about to teach Tord about Christianity.

By doing that, the ‘giant’ induces the boy’s fall from paradise: his loss of innocence. Tortured by the injustice of Berg’s murder, and compelled by the ‘invisible force’ that commits him to restore justice, Tord is conflicted between helping his friend to evade punishment; or betraying him, sacrificing his friendship, so that Berg can expiate his crime and, ultimately, save his soul. There is no easy answer for Tord here.

In another of my favourite stories, The King’s Grave, a peasant couple, Tönne and Jofrid, make their home beside the grave of an old king. They are very poor, but they are free: they belong only to themselves. They lived happily for many years and, because of their good reputation among the villagers, they are given a child to take care of as foster-parents. The child’s father was a widower, a very poor peasant, and he believed that his son would be in better hands with the couple.

However, shortly thereafter, the child dies: his foster-parents had no idea how to treat him, they only had eyes for themselves. After the child’s funeral, the couple starts to hear strange sounds at night: it is the ghost of the baby, and he is crying. One night, Jofrid, unable to sleep because of the ghost, goes out and sits on the doorstep of the house. Then, she sees that the pile of stones on the king’s grave has taken the form of a warrior: the old king was watching her. She is conflicted between repenting and offering herself as a slave to the child’s father, to compensate for the loss of the child; or rebelling against her fate, brought about by the gods.

The king seems to be whispering to her, “why shall the children of earth mourn because they have done what the immortal gods have forced them to do?” Here, again, we have a clash between a pagan and a Christian sense of justice: should Jofrid renounce her freedom in the name of an abstract sense of morality? Or should she blame the gods for the ‘invisible chains’ that tie her to her fate? Ironically, it seems that Jofrid can only be free if she makes the choice to renounce freedom. Looking at the old king, Jofrid has an epiphany: “There he sat dark and mighty, and Jofrid had a faint, indistinct idea that he was an image of something which was in herself and in all men, of something which was buried in far-away centuries, covered by many stones, and still not dead. She saw him, the old king, sitting deep in the human heart.” She will throw herself against the king’s stones as one who throws himself against this buried heart.

In The Romance of a Fisherman’s Wife, moral conflicts also play a prominent role. A poor widow, Astrid, muses about the day she first came to her house as a bride. Her husband had lied to her family, saying he was a rich man, when he was a poor fisherman. Throughout the journey from her family’s house to his home, her husband told her a series of lies about the place they were going to inhabit. Only when they come to the door of his hovel does she discover the truth about him: he was poor, and he had lied because he was afraid to lose her. However, the ultimate betrayal, for Astrid, consisted not in the lie itself, but in the fact that her husband believed that his poverty would make her love him less. The pain of this betrayal never abandoned her. Now, she is an old woman, a widow, and has no children; she feels her life was wasted and had no meaning. “It never occurred to her to think that she who considers her life a failure because she has done no good to others, perhaps by that thought of humility has saved her own soul.”

Some stories give also some comic relief. In His Mother’s Portrait, an old pilot, Mattsson, is tormented by his dead mother’s picture on the wall. He is now seventy years old, but his dead mother, through her picture, insists that he should get married. Despite having prevented him to marry twice before, when he was still young, the ‘portrait’ will not rest until he obeys its message. And, as it turns out, the portrait (as the mother…) will prove to be always right. “Truly there is no one in the whole fishing-village who understands getting married better than that picture.”

The stories seem to dwell in the gulf between concrete mysticism and abstract morality. Each story enacts a subtle variation of the relationships between man, nature, the supernatural, and god. It reads almost as if you were appropriating the Christian symbology in order to explore a more personal, pagan mythology. God, or at least his law, frequently transmutes itself into a snake, a stone, a mermaid, a picture on the wall. Moreover, the god in the stories sometimes even reads like a barbaric avenger, to whom the characters implore, in vain, for salvation.

In these stories, only nature can nurture their innocence and protect them against the knowledge of evil; however, anyone who violates nature’s will and balance also violates god’s law, and must thereby be punished with the burden of knowledge and choice. There seems to exist some ‘invisible links’ that tie the characters to an idea of justice that goes far beyond anything they are able to really grasp and understand. They seem to be tightly tied to their fates, their natures, their families, their passions – as if compelled to act by ‘invisible links’ that are constantly throwing them back to the imposition of choice that is their only possible exercise of freedom. Like Jofrid, they will, at one point or another, be thrown against the stones, against the heart of the matter.

Yours truly,

J.


Caspar David Friedrich, ‘Moonrise Over the Sea’, 1822.

“Reor went on, but now the honey-sweet fragrance seemed to follow him wherever he went. And he felt that in the wood was hidden a longing, stronger than that of the flowers, that something there drew him to itself, just as the flowers lured the butterflies. He went forward with a quiet joy in his heart, as if he was expecting a great, unknown happiness. His only fear was lest he should not be able to find the way to that which longed for him.” ― Selma Lagerlöf, Invisible Links

“He needed so much to weep. All the distrust of life which misfortunes had brought to the little Värmland boy needed tears to wash it away. Distrust that love and joy, beauty and strength blossomed on the earth, distrust in himself, all must go, all did go, for it was Easter; the dead lived and the Spirit of Fasting would never again come into power.” ― Selma Lagerlöf, Invisible Links


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