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Orm og Tyr (1952)

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Martin A. Hansen (1909-55) was a prominent Danish writer (Holberg Medal, 1952), primarily of fiction. Several months ago I read the English translation of his novel, Løgneren (The Liar), and I liked it so well I am now starting to read Orm og Tyr (Serpent and Bull), which many in Denmark think of as his greatest work. Because there is no English translation for it I am reading it in Danish. I can read Danish, but it makes for the slowest of slow reading as I have so little natural talent for other languages. At 390 pages it may take me years to finish it.

Orm og Tyr is a nonfictional book but is said to be otherwise unclassifiable. At its root it attempts to fathom the long, slow transformation of the Danish people from paganism to Christianity, which occurred roughly between the years 800 and 1200, by taking the reader on a tour of the Danish countryside to examine the traces of this long-ago change that are still discoverable. But it is also said to be a wide-ranging and even metaphysical book.

On my blog site, I have posted my English translation of the book's preface. I have posted here the second section of the preface, because I find it moving and beautiful, and I wanted to share it here. Are there any other Danish or Scandinavian readers hereabouts, who might know of this book?

The subject could have another name: the Romanesque churches and their Nordic Old Testament. The Christian ideas and traditions, which in their historical garments stood at the North’s doorstep in the run-up to the year 1000, are interesting, and they are important, but more has been very readably written about them, than about what it was people primarily did, why they did it, and what their assumptions were. Here, this side of the story is told most fully.

The idea to write about the past out of the churches came from abroad, but was only unexpected like a friend who suddenly arrives. When you think about it in this way, distant past emerges. But not that of the church house. This house is so old that it does not age in a person’s lifetime.

By mother’s hand one came there, the first time that is remembered. Look, look! it said in the church porch. It was our heels against the stone floor. A heavy door was straight ahead, it was dim here, and mother took the latch. It is God’s house we go into, she said. Is it? I said, although one had been given to know it before. Then we descended into God’s house, for you know one always steps down into churches. Familiar people sat in rows and so made for an odd sight. They turned not their heads at us, but only their eyes. There was a broad aisle open through. Above was a large vault. At the back, the strange beautiful pictures, burning candles, yes it was beautiful. It was God’s chamber, one understood. And then came this never forgotten smell of dying chrysanthemums.

It was probably not long thereafter that my grandfather died, it seemed the same afternoon. His casket was as high as a coach, as it stood among the pews. There were flowers and white sheets with black borders and many solemn people. They sang, much happened, and then the six strongest men in the family bore him out. They lowered grandfather down into the ground, and he disappeared. He ought to sleep near the church. So they sang, and afterwards the men put their hats on and left contented. They went down to the village hall and ate banquet food, all the people. They were merry, and it was a shame grandfather himself was not along, as he was fond of telling stories when it was full around the table. One understood, however, that they were not glad, and neither was it an old duty, which many others no longer understood.

A wedding in the family was the big to-do. In came grand young women with veils down their backs and greenery in their hair, such delightful and pure eyes. A tall, ugly fellow stood up in the choir. He's sweating! was whispered then, always by a woman. A boy found him ugly on all occasions: You know he stole from his family. In the wedding house one saw that which was a little crazy in the eyes of all the grown-ups, and since children were in the way, they got tired and came to rest in high, white beds in the quiet end and heard the thundering feast hall sail out into the night’s sea.

Others vanished. It goes quickly, coffins in and coffins out, great faces were gone forever, the town’s menhirs, which still stand upright in the memory. Young, strong people disappeared, from the Spanish flu. A little boy we knew well was lost, but about him only there is remembered the sound of weeping once: a plaint from the one who is without destiny. People end up in the church, and there they begin, one saw that. Infants were carried in in swaddling clothes and old, finely embroidered baptismal shifts, they were baptized, they were questioned, and the godmothers answered for them. Below that, women took omens from whether they bawled or were silent. Both portions were auspicious.

My father lifted me up in front of the small blackboard on the nave’s wall, and I spelled aloud the pale, curled letters that made up the names of the parishioners killed in the Schleswig wars.

Surely the church grew old, the one who remembers what others forget. And I was there with my teacher. He pointed with his walking stick to an odd change of stone in the choir’s bare limestone wall. Herringbone stonework, he said, it shows it is very old and lay here before Absalom was born. It was here in the days when the Wends came in from the bay. He was himself born here, knew everybody, and he fabulized. But the stones up there, which stood inclined against each other and bore witness to immensely far-off times, resembled a large ear of corn.

We went to the pastor, who was white-haired, delicate and absentminded. He showed and explained the church to us, and from there two things were remembered, worth preserving. He stood by the big, swelling, granite boulder font. Isn't it remarkable, remarkable? he said, and forgot to explain it. It went on being remarkable. He played for us on the organ, was perhaps not good at it, but then he played something delightful I would willingly hear once again. It sounded like he had a cold – he sniffled. He was a delicate and solitary man, who understood little, but among these was the soul heavier and troubled. After him stands a small stone and an inscription he, after months of pondering, composed to the church. Grace beyond grace, appears there.

But the intellect increased, it flourished, and the fifteen-year-old asked grandmother: Do you understand what you read? She sat mumbling and read psalms, for which she really did not need the book, because she knew them by heart. Father harnessed and drove her to church, and when she came home, she read again. I believe I understand it, she said. Can you explain it to me? I asked. I’m afraid I cannot, she said. If you understand something, you can also explain it! said the newly sprouted intellect. Well, my boy, she said, I only know that when I read, then the Holy Spirit turns to me, and then I understand it.

To this shy peasant wisdom, which lies forgotten under glorious hills of recorded folk belief, threads are linked here. And now we will surely turn from a past that ended with the young skeptic’s dispute with the old house, and keep to the latter’s past.

A photo of Strøby Church, Hansen's boyhood church:


Edited by tenpenny

For the Word of God and God wills always and in all things to accomplish the mystery of his embodiment. – Maximus the Confessor

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