Things fuck up. The more one tries to unfuck them, the more they get fucked up.This principle has been demonstrated in art as well as science. In all kinds of worthy books and stories, Fortune’s fools are dashed against the rocks of outrageous circumstance. In these epic tragedies, it’s as if the whole of creation has contrived to label them with a sign saying “kick me”.
Sometimes this misery just seems to come from nowhere – the short story “The Cold Equations” sees a pretty girl killed by unforgiving mathematics, while the old poem Beowulf has a monster mash a kingdom for no reason.
By authorial conceit, we often learn of some tragic flaw on the part of a character which then caused the sky to fall. That’s true, for example, of the film version of Beowulf, and also of another Danish epic, the novel Kongens Fald.
Johannes V Jensen (1873-1950) has been called “Denmark’s Kipling” and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1944. In 1999, Kongens Fald (1900-01) was independently named best Danish novel of the 20th century by two separate Danish newspapers. Though, er, until Jonathan Clements made me a present of a 1995 translation by Alan Bower, I had never heard of him.
It’s divided into three sections. Mikkel Thøgersen starts out in 1497, a not very studious student, dropping out of college to grow himself a beard. He ambles round the town, joins a rowdy bunch for beers but is not with them when they later take apart a carriage and reassemble it on a roof.
Mikkel’s not really sure what to do with his life, but he does want it to involve pretty Jewish girl Susanna Speyer A few other townsfolk have noticed she’s pretty, and there’s often rude graffiti daubed outside her house. Mikkel is neither so presumptuous or so bold as to approach her, so he bides his time…
When an old acquaintance forces himself Susanna, Mikkel swears revenge – and forces himself on the bloke’s meek fiancée. Well, it’s only fair…
There’s some rather anti-Semitic stuff about Jewish gold and curses, yet the injustices meted out to Susanna and her father provoke sympathy in the reader. It is rather brutish Christian hypocrisy that sets the tone of the proceedings. Jensen was apparently “a reckless polemicist and his often dubious racial theories have damaged his reputation” (says Wikipedia), but his treatment of these Jewish characters is complex and equivocal.
The second section picks up some 23 years later, when the spawn of these rapacious acts get it on together. Susanna’s son Axel never new his mum but has been bequeathed some Jewish treasure. Unfortunately, his own sexual exploits lose him his inheritance and get him in further hot water when Mikkel catches him up.
In the meantime, King Christian has also been busy. We’re witness to the “Stockholm Bloodbath”, in which the king trumped up charges against nobles who’d betrayed him, and then had everyone wait indoors while these nobles lost their heads. The viciousness of this act, the brute force and lack of mercy, are deftly juxtaposed with Axel and Mikkel’s base treatment of the ladies.
It’s the never-ending, unforgiving war, where whole families are struck down, that’s so reminiscent of Beowulf. Likewise, there’s an uneasy mix of old pagan gods beneath the surface of Christian virtue.
The “tragic flaw” of these people is then greed, their appetites for sex and power and gold. For all its vividly imagined digressions and haunting magical asides (Mikkel’s bastard daughter is made pregnant by Axel’s ghost), the book seems mostly about the terrible effect of our actions in grim reality, that we reap only what we sow. It’s bound, then, in what mark individuals can make on history, and what damage we unthinkingly do.
Part three sees an elderly Mikkel now assistant to the king, who has fallen on hard times and is living as a prisoner. Christian is depicted, says Wikipedia, with “characteristically Danish hesitancy and failures to act”. Mikkel, too, is a rather aimless wanderer, weeping when he kills a man but otherwise refusing to take responsibility for his actions and mistakes. His refusal to reconcile with one estranged family member in the final chapters is especially galling, the more when we’ve been witness to the great trek and effort the other party had gone to just to find him.
Mikkel’s story interweaves with the real historical events; sometimes affected by them, sometimes having an affect. In some ways, that’s rather like Vorenus and Pullo in the BBC/HBO Rome – the ordinary lives caught up in history giving insight into what those events mean. But the way Mikkel’s life shambles along, people being struck down by war and disease and poor luck all around him, also ties in with a later discussion about the discoveries of Copernicus.
King Christian has a crisis of faith at the thought that Earth revolves round the Sun – is he too not at the centre of things but the one doing all the orbiting. There’s a sense that all the people and the hard graft of their lives are caught up in the gravity well of things they barely comprehend. And if even the king is at the mercy of the elements, what hope for everyone else?
“The last little cluster of peasants defended themselves frantically, screaming madly. They cried through clenched teeth, but the sword was upon them. Iron and lead ripped through their lambskin coats and into their trembling bodies, while maces crushed their hands, cut through their fur hoods, and smashed their heads. No mercy was shown, and they were wiped out to the last man.
If King Christian had killed all the noblemen in Stockholm instead of only a score, then there wouldn’t have been so many to give vent to their irascibility later. The story of the [Stockholm] bloodbath has passed down through the centuries, but Johan Ranzau pulverized two thousand men at Aalbog and few have bemoaned the event. There the peasants were crushed so thoroughly that not even the story of the misdeed could be handed down. After that conflict an oppressive stillness fell over Jutland.
Not many came home to Graabølle. Niels Thørgersen fell at Aalbog. His eldest son had already died at Svenstrup. Mikkel sought out his brother’s body outside Aalbog and covered his face with earth. Neils had fallen as an honorable man, his back crushed by a cannon ball.”
Johannes V Jensen (trans. Alan Bower), The Fall of the King, pp. 218-9.