Ibsen himself has told us, in his preface to the second edition of The Feast at Solhoug, how the reading of the Icelandic family-sagas suggested to him, in germ, the theme of The Vikings at Helgeland. What he first saw, he says, was the contrasted figures of the two women who ultimately became Hiördis and Dagny, together with a great banquet-scene at which an interchange of taunts and gibes should lead to tragic consequences. So far as one can gather from this statement, the particular theme which he ultimately borrowed from the Volsung-Saga had not yet entered his mind. On the other hand, the conception of the two women’s characters was certainly not new to him, seeing that a similar contrast presents itself in his very earliest work, Catilina, between the aptly-named Furia and the gentle Aurelia; while even in Lady Inger of Ostråt it reappears, somewhat disguised, in the contrast between Inger Gyldenlöve and her daughter Eline. While the scheme of The Vikings was still entirely vague, however, fresh influences, both of a personal and of a literary nature, intervened, and, transposing the theme from the purely dramatic viiiinto the lyrical key, he produced The Feast at Solhoug. The foster-sisters, Hiördis and Dagny became the sisters Margit and Signe, and the banquet, instead of being the culminating-point of the dramatic action, became its mere background.
The fact probably is that in 1855 the poet found himself still unripe for the intense effort of dramatic concentration involved in such a work as The Vikings. Probably, too, he knew that neither his actors nor his public at the Bergen Theatre were prepared to go back to the primitive austerity of the heroic age, as it was beginning to body itself forth in his mind. The good Bergensers were accustomed either to French intrigue (such as he had given them in Lady Inger), or to Danish lyrical romanticism; and he perhaps foresaw that the ruling taste of Bergen would be as hard to contend against as, in the sequel, the ruling taste of Copenhagen actually proved to be. At all events, from whatever mingling of motives, he put the heroic theme aside for two years, while he kept to the key of lyrical romanticism not only in the Feast at Solhoug, written in the summer of 1855, but also in the very feeble Olaf Liliekrans, conceived much earlier, but written in 1856. Not until he had left Bergen behind him and returned to Christiania in the summer of 1857, did the poet take up again, and rapidly work out, the theme of The Vikings. It is almost inconceivable that only a year should have intervened between it and Olaf Liliekrans.
Paul Botten-Hansen, perhaps Ibsen’s closest friend of those days, has stated that The Vikings was begun in verse. If so, the metre chosen was probably the twelve-syllable measure of Oehlenschläger’s Balder’s Death, supposed to represent the iambic trimeter of the Greek dramatists. In an essay On the Heroic ixBallad, written in Bergen in the early months of 1857, Ibsen had condemned, as a medium for the treatment of Scandinavian themes, the iambic deca-syllable (our blank verse) in which Oehlenschläger had written most of his plays, and which Ibsen himself had adopted in his early imitation of Oehlenschläger, The Hero’s Grave. Blank verse Ibsen regarded as “entirely foreign” to Norwegian-Danish prosody, and, moreover, a product of Christian influences; whereas pagan antiquity, if treated in verse at all, ought to be treated in the pagan measure of the Greeks. At the same time we find him expressing a doubt whether Oehlenschläger’s Hakon Jarl might not have been just as poetic in prose as in verse—a doubt which clearly shows in what direction his thoughts were turning. It must be regarded as a great mercy that he abandoned the iambic trimeter, which, in Oehlenschläger’s hands, was nothing but an unrhymed Alexandrine with the cæsura displaced.
This same essay On the Heroic Ballad throws a curious light on the difficulties which occasioned the long delay between the conception and the execution of The Vikings. He lays it down that “the heroic ballad is much better fitted than the saga for dramatic treatment. The saga is a great, cold, rounded and self-contained epos, essentially objective, and exclusive of all lyricism…. If, now, the poet is to extract a dramatic work from this epic material, he must necessarily bring into it a foreign, a lyrical, element; for the drama is well known to be a higher blending of the lyric and the epos.” This “well-known” dogma he probably accepted from the German æstheticians with whom, about this time, he seems to have busied himself. A little further on, he adds that the accommodating prosody of the ballads gives room for x“many freedoms which are of great importance to dramatic dialogue,” and consequently prophesies a great future for the drama drawn from this source. It was a luckless prophecy. He himself, though apparently he little guessed it, had done his last work in lyrical romance; and though it has survived, sporadically, in Danish and even in German literature, it can count but few masterpieces during the past half-century. Perhaps, however, Hauptmann’s Sunken Bell might be taken as justifying Ibsen’s forecast.1
It must have been very soon after this essay was published (May 1857) that Ibsen discovered how to impose dramatic form upon the epic material of the sagas, without dragging in any foreign lyrical element. He suddenly saw his way, it would seem, to reproducing in dialogue the terse, unvarnished prose of the sagas themselves, eloquent in reticence rather than in rhetorical or lyrical abundance.
Had he, or had he not, in the meantime read Björnson’s one-act play, Between the Battles? It was not produced until October 27, 1857, by which time The Vikings must have been almost, if not quite, finished. But Ibsen may have seen it in manuscript several months earlier, and it may have put him on the track of the form in which to cast his saga-material. The style of The Vikings is incomparably firmer, purer, more homogeneous and clear-cut than that of Between the Battles; but Björnson’s mediæval comedietta (it is really little more) may quite well have given Ibsen a valuable impulse towards the adaptation of the saga-style to drama. The point, however, is of little moment. It is much more important to xinote that while Ibsen was writing The Vikings Björnson was writing his peasant-idyll Synnöve Solbakken; so that these two corner-stones of modern Norwegian literature were laid, to all intents and purposes, simultaneously.
In an autobiographic letter to Peter Hansen,2 written in 1870, Ibsen mentions this play very briefly: “The Vikings at Helgeland I wrote whilst I was engaged to be married. For Hiördis I had the same model as I took afterwards for Svanhild in Love’s Comedy.” More noteworthy is his preface to a German translation of the play, published in 1876. It runs as follows:
“In issuing a German translation of one of my earlier dramatic works, it may not be superfluous to remark that I have taken the material of this play, not from the Nibelungenlied, but in part—and in part only—from a kindred Scandinavian source, the Volsung-Saga. More essentially, however, my poem may be said to be founded upon the various Icelandic family-sagas, in which it often seems that the titanic conditions and occurrences of the Nibelungenlied and the Volsung-Saga have simply been reduced to human dimensions. Hence I think we may conclude that the situations and events depicted in these two documents were typically characteristic of our common Germanic life in the earliest historical times. If this view be justified, it disposes of the reproach that in the present drama our national mythic world is brought down to a lower plane than that to which it belongs. The idealised, and in some degree impersonal, myth-figures are exceedingly ill-adapted for representation on the stage of to-day; and, however this may be, it was not my aim to present our mythic world, but simply our life in primitive times.”
xiiThe reasoning of this passage does not seem very cogent; but it expresses clearly enough the design which the poet proposed to himself. Before discussing the merits of the play, however, I may as well complete the outline of its external history.
Part of that external history is written by Ibsen himself, in letters to the Christiania Press of the day. In the autumn of 1857, he presented the play to the Christiania Theatre, then occupied by a Danish company, under Danish management. After a long delay, he ascertained that it had been accepted and would be produced in March 1858. He then proposed to consult with the manager as to the casting of the piece, but found that that functionary had no clear conception of either the plot or the characters, and therefore left him a couple of months in which to study it. At the end of that time the poet again reminded the potentate of his existence, and learned that “since the economic status and prospects of the theatre did not permit of its paying fees for original works,” the proposed production could not take place. Ibsen hints that, had the choice been offered him, he would have consented to the performance of the piece without fee or reward. As the choice was not offered him, he regarded the whole episode as a move in the anti-national policy of the Danish management; and the controversy which arose out of the incident doubtless contributed to the nationalisation of the Christiania Theatre—the supersession of Danish by Norwegian managers, actors and authors—which took place during the succeeding decade.
In the meantime, almost simultaneously with the rejection of the play by the Christiania Theatre, it was rejected by the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. The director, J. L. Heiberg, was then regarded as an xiiiautocrat in the æsthetic world; and his report on The Vikings is now a curiosity of literature. He declared that nothing was so “monotonous, tiresome and devoid of all poetry” as the Icelandic family-sagas; he could not endure their “wildness and rawness” on the stage; the saga style, as reproduced by Ibsen, seemed to him “mannered and affected”; and he concluded his judgment in these terms: “A Norwegian theatre will scarcely take its rise from such experiments, and the Danish theatre has fortunately no need for them.”
The play was published in April 1858 as a supplement to a Christiania illustrated paper, the author receiving an “honorarium” of something less than £7. On November 24, 1858, it was produced at the little “Norwegian Theatre” in Christiania, of which the poet was then director. At the Bergen Theatre it was produced in 1859, at the Christiania Theatre (by that time pretty well Norwegianised) in 1861. It did not make its way to Copenhagen and Stockholm until 1875. In 1876 it was acted at the Court Theatres of Munich and Dresden, and at the Vienna Burgtheater. Thenceforward it was pretty frequently seen on the German stage; but it does not seem to have reached Berlin (Deutsches Theater) until 1890. In 1892 it was produced in Moscow. The only production in the English language of which any account has reached me took place in 1903 at the Imperial Theatre, London, when Miss Ellen Terry appeared as Hiördis and Mr. Oscar Asche as Sigurd. The scenery and dresses were designed by Miss Terry’s son, Mr. Gordon Craig.
It would need not merely an essay, but a volume, to discuss the relation of The Vikings to its mythic material, and to other modern treatments of that material—Friedrich xivHebbel’s Die Nibelungen, Richard Wagner’s Ring der Nibelungen, &c. The poet’s actual indebtedness to the Volsung-Saga is well summarised by Henrik Jæger in his “Life of Ibsen”: “Like Sigurd Fafnir’s-bane,” he says, “Sigurd Viking has achieved the deed which Hiördis (Brynhild) demands of the man who shall wed her; and, again like his heroic namesake, he has renounced her in favour of his foster-brother, Gunnar, himself taking another to wife. This other woman reveals the secret in the course of an altercation with Hiördis (Brynhild), who, in consequence of this discovery, brings about Sigurd’s death and her own. The reader will observe that we must keep to very general terms if they are to fit both the saga and the drama. Are there any further coincidences? Yes, one. After Gudrun has betrayed the secret, there comes a scene in which she seeks to appease Brynhild, and begs her to think no more of it; then follows a scene in which Sigurd explains to Brynhild how it all happened; and finally a scene in which Brynhild goads Gunnar to kill Sigurd. All these scenes have their parallels in the third act of The Vikings; but their order is different, and none of their wording has been adopted.” From the family-sagas, again, not only the stature of the characters, so to speak, but several details of incident and dialogue are borrowed. The boasting-match at Gunnar’s feast, which, as we have seen, was one of the first elements of the story to present itself to Ibsen’s mind, has many analogies in Icelandic lore. Örnulf’s questions as to how Thorolf fell are borrowed from Egils Saga, and so is the idea of his “drapa,” or funeral chant over his dead sons. Sigurd and Hiördis are, perhaps, almost as closely related to Kiartan and Gudrun in the Laxdæla Saga as to Sigurd Fafnir’s bane xvand Brynhild. Indeed, Ibsen seems to have reckoned too confidently on the unfamiliarity of his public with the stores of material upon which he drew. Not, of course, that there could be any question of plagiarism. The sagas were as legitimately at Ibsen’s service as were Plutarch and Holinshed at Shakespeare’s. But having been himself, as he tells us, almost ignorant of the existence of these sagas until he came across N. M. Petersen’s translation of them he forgot that people who had long known and loved them might resent the removal of this trait and that from its original setting, and might hold it to be, in its new context, degraded and sentimentalised. “It may be,” writes H. H. Boyesen, in his generally depreciatory remarks on the play, “that my fondness for these sagas themselves prevents me from relishing the modification and remoulding to which Ibsen has subjected them.” Dr. Brandes, too, points to a particular instance in which the sense of degradation could not but be felt. The day-dream as to the hair-woven bowstring which Hiördis relates to Sigurd in the third act is in itself effective enough; but any one who knows the splendid passage in Nials Saga, on which it is founded, cannot but feel that the actual (or at any rate legendary) event is impoverished by being dragged in under the guise of a mere morbid fantasy.
On the whole, I think Ibsen can scarcely escape the charge of having sentimentalised the sagas in the same way, though not in the same degree, in which Tennyson has sentimentalised the Arthurian legends. Indeed, Sigurd the Strong is not without points of resemblance to the Blameless King of the Idylls. But, for my part, I cannot regard this as a very serious charge. The Vikings is the work of a man xvistill young (29), who had, moreover, developed very slowly. It is still steeped in romanticism, though not in the almost boyish lyricism of its predecessors. The poet is not yet intellectually mature—very far from it. But here, for the first time, we are unmistakably face to face with a great imagination and a specifically dramatic endowment of the first order. The germs of promise discernible in Lady Inger have ripened into rare technical mastery.
Ibsen was doubtless right in feeling that the superhuman figures of the mythical sagas were impossible on the non-musical stage, just as Wagner was right in feeling that the world of myth could be embodied only in an atmosphere of music. The reduction, then, of the Volsungs and Niblungs to the stature of the men of the family-sagas was not only judicious, but necessary. But was it judicious to go to the myth-sagas for the initial idea of a play which had to be developed in terms of the family-sagas? Scarcely, I think. The weak points in the structure of the story are precisely those at which the poet has had to replace supernatural by natural machinery. To slay a dragon and to break through a wall of fire, even with magical aid, are exploits which we can accept, on the mythic plane, as truly stupendous. But it is impossible to be really impressed by the slaying of Hiördis’s bear, or to share in the breathless admiration with which that achievement is always mentioned. If the bear is to be regarded as a fabulous monster, it might just as well be a dragon at once; if it is to be accepted as a real quadruped, the killing of it is no such mighty matter. We feel it, in fact, to be a mere substitute, a more or less ludicrous makeshift. And in the same way, Sigurd’s renunciation of Hiördis becomes very difficult to accept when all supernatural agency—magic potion, xviior other sleight of wizardry—is eliminated. We feel that he behaves like a nincompoop in despairing of winning her for himself, merely because she does not show an obviously “coming on” disposition, and like an immoral sentimentalist in handing her over to Gunnar. This, to be sure, is the poet’s own criticism of his action. It is the lie which Sigurd and Gunnar conspire to tell, or rather to enact, that lies at the root of the whole tragedy. We have here Ibsen’s first treatment of the theme with which he is afterwards so much concerned—the necessity of truth as the basis of every human relation. Gunnar’s acquiescence in Sigurd’s heroic mendacity is as clearly condemned and punished as, in Pillars of Society, Bernick’s acquiescence in Johan’s almost equally heroic self-sacrifice. Both plays convey a warning against excesses of altruism, and show that we have no right to offer sacrifices which the person benefiting by them has no right to accept. But to indicate a correct moral judgment of Sigurd’s action is not to make it psychologically plausible. We feel, I repeat, that the poet is trying in vain to rationalise a series of actions which are comprehensible only on the supernatural plane.
This unreality of plot involved a similar unreality, or at any rate extreme simplicity, of characterisation. All the personages are drawn in large, obvious traits, which never undergo the smallest modification. Sigurd is throughout the magnanimous hero, Dagny the submissive, amiable wife, Hiördis the valkyrie-virago, Gunnar the well-meaning weakling, not cowardly but inefficient. By far the most human and most individual figure is old Örnulf, in whom the spirit of the family-sagas is magnificently incarnated. We feel throughout the inexperience of the author, his incuriousness of half-tones in character, his tendency xviiito view human relations and problems in a purely sentimental light. To compare Hiördis with Hedda Gabler, Sigurd with Halvard Solness, is to realise what an immeasurable process of evolution the poet was destined to go through. Indeed, we as yet seem far enough off even from Duke Skule and Bishop Nicholas.
But the man of inventive imagination and the man of the theatre are already here in all their strength. Whatever motives and suggestions Ibsen found in the sagas, the construction of the play is all his own and is quite masterly. Exposition, development, the carrying on of the interest from act to act—all this is perfect in its kind. The play is “well-made” in the highest sense of the word. Already the poet shows himself consummate in his art of gradually lifting veil after veil from the past, and making each new discovery involve a more or less striking change in the relations of the persons on the stage. But it is not technically alone that the play is great. The whole second act is a superbly designed and modulated piece of drama; and, for pure nobility and pathos, the scene of Örnulf’s return—entirely of the poet’s own invention—is surely one of the greatest things in dramatic literature. It is marvellous that even æsthetic prejudice should have prevented a man like J. L. Heiberg from recognising that he was here in presence of a great poet. The interest of the third act is mainly psychological, and the psychology, as we have seen, is neither very profound nor very convincing. But the fourth act, again, rises to a great height of romantic impressiveness. Whatever hints may have come from the sagas, the picture of Örnulf’s effort of self-mastery is a very noble piece of work; and the plunge into supernaturalism at the close, in the child’s vision of Asgårdsreien, with his mother leading the rout, seems xixto me an entirely justified piece of imaginative daring. I cannot even agree with Dr. Brandes in condemning as “Geheimniskrämerei” Sigurd’s dying revelation of the fact that he is a Christian. It seems to me to harmonise entirely with the whole sentimental colouring of the play. The worst flaws I find in this act are the terrible asides placed in the mouths of Gunnar and Dagny after the discovery of Sigurd’s death.
The word Vikings in the title is a very free rendering of Hærmændene, which simply means “warriors.” As “warriors,” however, is a colourless word, and as Örnulf, Sigurd, and Gunnar all are, or have been, actually vikings, the substitution seemed justifiable. I would beg, however hopelessly, that “viking” should be pronounced so as to rhyme not with “liking” but with “seeking,” or at worst with “kicking.” Helgeland, it may be mentioned, is a province or district in the north of Norway.
Örnulf’s “drapa” and his snatches of verse are rhymed as well as alliterated in the original. I had the less hesitation in suppressing the rhyme, as it was actually foreign to the practice of the skalds.
- Though he himself wrote no more plays in the key of The Feast at Solhoug, the “accommodating prosody” of the ballads had doubtless its influence on the metres of Peer Gynt.
- Correspondence, Letter 74.