The Spell-Bound Fiddler

KRISTOFER JANSON, who has recently visited the United States, and possibly will make his home among us, is one of the four Norwegian poets who enjoy a sort of official recognition from the government, being the recipient of a regular “ poet’s salary ” of about six hundred dollars. The others are Björnstjerne Björnson, Henrik Ibsen, and Jonas Lie. Mr. Janson first became prominent in Norway as the advocate of a linguistic revolution aiming at the substitution of the peasant dialect for the Danish language, which is now the vernacular among cultivated people; and in all his tales, romances, dramas, and poems he has endeavored to demonstrate the fitness of this somewhat heterogeneous tongue (constructed by judicious selection from various dialects) to take the place in speech and writing of the imported Danish.1 The cordiality with which his first book, Fraa Bygdom (From the Parishes), was received was undoubtedly due to the power and freshness of the two tales it contained, rather than to any sympathy on the part of the public with the linguistic innovation ; while the very moderate success of his later works is due not to their lack of merit, but to the impatience of the public with the dialect and their unwillingness to read it. It is very unfortunate for a man in Mr. Janson’s position to be obliged to depend upon the classes of society with which he is really at war. For it is the people of culture who buy and read books, and whose judgment asserts itself through the press and thus influences the market. The peasants, whose life and emotions Mr. Janson portrays and whose language he speaks, have as yet not reached the stage of development required for the enjoyment of good literature. The wretched prints which circulate among them, descriptive of the deeds of the master thieves Ole Höiland and Gjest Baardsen, correspond exactly to the dime novels and story papers which have their vogue among people of crude and youthful taste on this side of the ocean. Mr. Janson must have been painfully conscious of the hopelessness of appealing to such a public ; but instead of abandoning his innovation, which with him was founded upon a deep conviction, he took a truly heroic step. He undertook to educate his public. He established a school for peasant lads and girls, and offered them for a merely nominal sum instruction which would dignify their lives and raise their standard of taste, without unfitting them for the manual toil which was inseparable from their position as tillers of the soil. It was a school on a severely democratic principle ; the pupils and teachers lived in the same houses, and to a certain extent formed one family. The teaching was not confined to classrooms, but was continued by lectures and conversations in the Socratic method, whenever the opportunity seemed favorable.

Mr. Janson and his friend, Kristofer Bruun, invested nearly all they possessed in this laudable and unremunerative enterprise ; others followed their example, and soon a number of “ People’s High Schools” were established on similar principles in all the more populous districts of Norway. Educational establishments of a similar scope and character had, however, existed for several years in Denmark, and the system had, if we remember rightly, been introduced into Norway by Mr. O. Arvesen of Sagatun.

Pecuniarily, of course, these enterprises were rarely successful; the men who conducted them, on account of the novelty of their convictions, were suspected of republican and revolutionary designs, and the government, after much deliberation, resolved to put a check to their activity. It was, indeed, a master stroke on the part of the conservatives who represented the government policy in the Norwegian Storthing when, instead of persecuting the obnoxious educators, they entered into competition with them in their benevolent work, establishing county schools for peasant lads and girls, and offering apparently the same instruction without even a nominal return. It is superfluous to add, however, that the tendency of the teaching in these official schools was and is widely different from that of the People’s High Schools. But the peasants were unable to discriminate ; in the great majority of cases they regarded merely the cost and not the quality of the instruction, and they deserted to their enemy. Mr. Janson thus finds himself, in middle life, forced to abandon his cherished undertaking, but has, we are told, resolved to continue his work as a teacher and writer among his countrymen on this side of the Atlantic.

The Spell-Bound Fiddler,2 which is not, in our opinion, Mr. Janson’s best work, presents vividly some of the most peculiar phases of Norse folk life. The hero belongs to one of those families (which are found in almost every Norwegian parish) in which musical genius is hereditary. The model whom the author had in view was obviously the once famous Miller Boy, whom the late Ole Bull, with the noblest intentions, dragged out of his rural obscurity and presented to wondering audiences in the

principal cities of the kingdom. His music, which was unlike anything that had ever been heard in a concert hall before or since, created a furor of enthusiasm, and was supposed to herald the awakening of a new national school of music. It is almost impossible, in describing it, to convey the remotest idea of its weird and haunting fascination. It consisted, to the superficial and unprofessional ear, of a simple theme wildly varied with fantastic trills and grace notes in falsetto, a perpetual rumbling on the bass string, and occasional fingering of four small metallic strings situated under the four principal ones. The effect was very singular, and would have been utterly incomprehensible to any one but a born Norseman ; but he who had heard the wildly melodious folk songs crooned over him as a babe, who had listened to the cataracts and the whispering rush of the wind through the pine tops, and was conscious of a sympathetic chord being stirred within him at the sight of the red-painted little farm-houses climbing the steep hillsides, — he would not fail to detect in the Miller Boy’s tempestuous improvisations an absolutely new note, and a genuine one, caught from Nature’s own breast. A few imperfect attempts have been made to render the weird, unearthly quality of this music in a regular composition, and to imprison it in written, definable notes. Thus Tellefsen’s Hulder’s March gives a faint idea of the Miller Boy’s strains, and in a beautiful collection of Norse, Swedish, and Danish ballads, with the melodies added, which was published some thirty or forty years ago, there was a wealth of unhackneyed musical themes which, as we can affirm from actual knowledge, has already enriched by fertile suggestions the musical literature of Germany. In Kjerulf’s melodies to Björnson’s songs, and in Edward Greg’s varied compositions, the true national ring is also recognizable, though here in a more conventional garb, and sobered, as it were, by polite society and other civilizing influences. And Ole Bull himself, who was the chief interpreter of Norwegian music, owed undoubtedly, in some measure, the suddenness of his fame to the newness of the Norse element in his strains. This, too, will perhaps account for the decline of his popularity in later years, outside of his own land and Italy. The strain was no longer new, and though its charm was yet felt, the trained connoisseur could not define it, and therefore rebelled against it. His music, as that of his people, was not one of great thoughts, but of subtle sensuous impressions, which are no less poetic because they defy definition and appeal to a deeper stratum of the being than that of the intellect.

Ole Bull figures in Mr. Janson’s tale in exactly the róle which he assumed towards the Miller Boy, although, to guard his hero against the sordid fate which overtook the Telemark fiddler after his return from the capital, the author makes him go astray on the mountain in a fog, and thus prevents him from reaping the benefit of Ole Bull’s offer.

In the introduction, too, by Professor R. B. Andersen, many interesting incidents from the life of the artist are related, so that until an authorized biography is published the present volume may be accepted as a satisfactory sketch of his career.

The tale in itself will probably interest transatlantic readers merely as a picture of a singularly fresh and primitive civilization. It is quite destitute of literary graces in the translation, even more so than in the original. The absence of dramatic incidents is the rule rather than the exception in Norse literature. Life in Norway is externally monotonous, and the poets represent it as it is. On the other hand they concentrate their energy on the inner soullife of their characters, and often produce psychological studies of rare excellence. Thus in Jonas Lie’s The Man of Second Sight, in spite of the commonplaceness of the incidents,one is thrilled with interest in the hero’s fate. If Mr. Jan son in The Spell-Bound Fiddler fails to arouse this interest to the same extent, it is apparently his creed that is at fault rather than his imagination; for in the tale Liv, in From the Parishes, he displayed a depth of insight and an intensity of thought which left upon the reader the impression of rare dramatic power. Since then he has become steadily more didactic ; he writes very much as he would speak, and with a view to instruct. A moral is always lurking somewhere, even if ever so charmingly disguised. He keeps his Norse peasant before his mind’s eye, and while describing his struggles and temptations, his victories and defeats, which have a common human value apart from the audience to which they are addressed, he takes pains to inculcate some wholesome lesson, which will do good if it reaches its destination, but which seems gratuitous when presented to a public which is in no danger of adopting a too lugubrious philosophy of life.

The literary style of the modern Norwegian authors, and of Janson among them, is consciously or unconsciously modeled after the Sagas, and is so direct and simple as almost to convey the impression that it is addressed to the intelligence of very young readers. Take, for instance, the following passage from the opening chapter of The SpellBound Fiddler—

“ He whom I am going to tell about here came from one of these musical families. His name was Torgeir. His father was named Jon, and was one of the best fiddlers in the parish, but he never went beyond the parish limits with his fiddle. He was always on hand to play at feasts and dancing parties, when he was asked to do so, but otherwise he stayed about his own little place,” etc.

This is the way a man would naturally talk to a child as a person of undeveloped intelligence, and the fact that the Sagas are written in this style merely argues (what is self-evident) that the Norsemen in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a rude and powerful race, with strong fists and rudi-

mentary intellects. Moreover, the prose Sagas are mostly the written records of oral tradition, and the colloquial style is thus doubly accounted for. But whether this style is worthy of imitation in an age which has long outgrown it may well be questioned. If it is the true and spontaneous expression of Mr. Janson’s own individuality, and not a manner consciously adopted for didactic purposes, then of course it is perfectly legitimate, and the critic has only to judge of its merits.

  1. The merits of this controversy were discussed in the North American Review for October, 1872, where a sketch of Janson’s life and literary activity will also be found. His poem, Sigmund Bresteson, was noticed in The Atlantic Monthly, vol. xxx. pp. 497, 498.
  2. The Spell-Bound Fiddler. A Norse Romance. By KRISTOFER JANSON. Translated from the original by AUBER FORESTIER, author of Echoes from North-Land, etc. With an Introduction by RASMUS B. ANDERSEN. Chicago: S. C. Griggs & Co. 1880.