Read NORDLAND AND NORDLANDERS of The Visionary Pictures From Nordland, free online book, by Jonas Lie, on ReadCentral.com.

In so far as a man like myself, who lives in such a sad reality, dare talk of illusions how great, and what a number of illusions I have had shattered, during the two or three years since I left my home in Nordland, and became a student; how grey and colourless is the world down here, how small and mean, compared with what I had imagined it as regards both men and conditions of life!

This afternoon, I was out fishing in the fjord with some friends; of course they all enjoyed themselves and I pretended that I did. No, I did not enjoy myself! We sat in a flat-bottomed, broad, ugly boat, that they called a “pram,” a contrivance resembling a washtub, and fished the whole afternoon in muddy water a few feet deep, with a fine line, catching altogether seven whiting and then rowed quite satisfied to land! I felt nearly sick; for the whole of life down here seems to me like this pram, without a keel, by which to shape a course, without a sail, which one cannot even fancy could be properly set in such a boat, without rough weather, which it could not stand, and like this muddy, grey, waveless sea outside the town, with only a few small whiting in it. Life here has nothing else to offer than such small whiting.

While the others talked, I sat and thought of a fishing expedition when she was with me, out among the Vaette Rocks at home, in our little six-oared boat what a different kind of day, what a different kind of boat, what a different experience! Yes, how unromantic, poor and grey, life is down here among the rich, loamy, corn-producing hills, or on the fjord of the capital, sooty with steamboat smoke, or even in the town itself, compared with that at home! But if I uttered this aloud, how these superior people would open their eyes!

They talk here of fishing, and are pleased with a few poor cod and whiting. A Nordländer understands by fishing a haul of a thousand fish; he thinks of the millions of Lofoten and Finmark, and of an overwhelming variety of species, of whales, spouting through the sounds, and driving great shoals of fish before them, as well as of the very smallest creatures of the deep. The only fish that I know down here worth noticing and I always look at them whenever I come across them are the gold and silver fish, that you keep in a glass-bowl, just as you keep a canary in a cage: but then they are from another fairyland in the south.

When a Nordländer speaks of birds he does not mean as they do here, only a head or two of game, but an aerial throng of winged creatures, rippling through the sky, flying round the rocks, like white foam, or descending like a snowstorm on their nesting-places; he thinks of eider-duck, guillemot, diver and oyster-catcher swimming in fjord and sound, or sitting upon the rocks; of gulls, ospreys and eagles, hunting in the air; of the eagle-owl, hooting weirdly at night in the mountain-clefts in short, he means a whole world of birds, and has a little difficulty in confining his ideas to the poor capercailzie, surprised and killed by a sportsman in the midst of a love-frolic, when the sun is rising over the pine-clad hills.

Instead of the fruit-gardens here, he has the miles of cloudberry moors at home. Instead of a poor, uniform shore with nothing but mussels, he remembers a grand beach strewn with myriads of marvellously tinted shells.

All natural conditions are intensified in Nordland, and are far more powerfully contrasted than in the south of Norway. Nordland is a boundless stone-grey waste, as it was in primaeval times before man began to build, but in the midst of this there are also countless natural treasures; it has a sun and a summer glory, whose day is not twelve hours only, but an uninterrupted period of three months, during which, in many places, one must wear a mask as protection against the swarms of mosquitoes; but, on the other hand, the night is a time of darkness and horror, lasting nine months. Everything there is on a gigantic scale without the gradual transitions between extremes, upon which the quiet life here in the south is built; in other words, there are more occasions for fancy, adventure and chance, than for calm reasoning, and quiet activity with certain results.

A Nordländer, therefore, down here, is at first apt to feel like Gulliver, who has come to Lilliput, and, on the whole, does not get on well among the inhabitants, until he has screwed down his old customary ideas to the simple proportions of their insignificant life; in short, until he has taught himself to use his intellect, instead of his fancy.

The Lap on snow-shoes with his reindeer, the Fin, the Russian, not to mention the constantly moving Nordländer himself, who, though slow on land, is quick in his boat are all undeniably far more interesting people than the dull southern rustic, whose imagination reaches scarcely farther than his own field, or to wondering whereabouts in the pasture he must go to fetch his horse.

When Southerners talk about storms and waves, they mean a little bit of a storm and rough sea in the Kristiania Fjord, which can even do a little damage in the harbour; and they consider it deeply affecting when a clumsy boatman is drowned. A storm suggests something very different to my mind: a sudden down-rushing wind from the mountains, which carries away houses for which reason they are secured with ropes at home; waves from the Arctic Sea, which bury high rocks and islands in foam, and roll ground-seas of innumerable fathoms’ depth, so that vessels are suddenly dashed to pieces in the middle of the ocean; crowds of brave men sailing for their very lives before the wind, and not for their lives only, but also to save the dearly-won cargo for the sake of those at home, and, even in deadly peril, trying to lend a hand to a capsized comrade; I think of the shipwreck of countless boats and vessels on a winter evening, in the hollows of the foaming waves. It would, for once, be worth while to see such waves (usually three in succession, and the last the worst) advancing with their crests higher than the custom-house roof, and bearing on their shoulders a yacht, which has to be run ashore, rushing into Kristiania’s peaceful little harbour, carrying ships up with them into the town, and followed by correspondingly fierce bursts of wind, lifting off the very roofs. If they came, I know well it would be me they wanted, me the poor visionary, hidden away in the civilisation of the town, who, they consider, belongs to them; and I think a moment after the terror I should greet them as friends from home, although they came bearing death and destruction on their wings. They would, for once, show to all this civilised littleness the terrible grandeur and greatness of the mighty ocean, and flavour the insipidity of the town with a little sea-salt terror. I should like to see a whale squeezed in between Prince’s Street and Custom-house Street, glaring at a family on the upper floor, or the fine, gold-laced policemen trying to bring into court a stranded sea-goblin. I should like, too, to see the town’s theatrical reviewers, who are accustomed to see “Haupt und Statsaction” in vaudevilles twice a week, stand with their eye-glasses to their eyes, before such a play, which, without more ado, would swamp all their critical ideas and inkstands, and show them death and horror in real downright earnest.

How such a reviewer would grow in ability to understand what is imposing and powerful in a poetical composition, and in the desires it awakens, if he only once in his life had seen the “Horseman,” [A remarkable mountain in Nordland.] on a stormy day, with its height of 1700 feet, riding southwards out in the surf, while his cloak fluttered from his shoulder towards the north, and, besides the giant himself in his might, had seen, in prefect illusion, the horse’s head, his ear, his neck, his snaffle and his majestic chest.

It is up in the north that northern popular imagination, from the time of the myths, has laid the home of a whole army of wickedness; there the Fin folk have practised their magic arts, and woven their spells; and there by the dark, wintry-grey breakers of the Arctic Sea, live yet the ancient gods of evil, driven out to earth’s farthest limits, those demoniacal, terrible, half-formless powers of darkness, with whom the Aases fought, but St. Olaf, with his victorious, dazzling, cross-hilt sword, “turned to stock and stone.”

That which can so easily be put aside as superstition, when one is sitting safely in the middle of civilisation and yet still lives as a natural power in the people is represented, on the whole, in pigmy proportions in the south. Here they have a little terror of small hobgoblins, good-natured fairies, a love-sick river-sprite, and so forth, beings who with us in the north, almost go about our houses like superstition’s tame domestic animals. You have there, too, good-natured elves, who carry on their peaceful boating and coasting trade invisibly among the people. But then, in addition, natural terror creates a whole host of wicked demons, who draw people with an irresistible power, the ghosts of drowned men, who have not had Christian burial, mountain ogres, the sea-sprite, who rows in a half boat, and shrieks horribly on the fjords on winter nights. Many who really were in danger have let their chance of safety go for fear of him, and the visionaries can actually see him.

But if Nature’s great power, brooding with crushing weight over life on this wintry, surf-beat, iron-bound coast, which lies in twilight for nine months, and for three of these altogether loses the sun, creates a terror of darkness in the mind, yet the north also possesses in the same extreme the exactly opposite character, a warm, sunny, summer nature, clear-aired, heavily scented, rich with the changing beauty of countless colours; in which objects at ten or twelve miles’ distance across the sea-mirror, seem to approach within speaking-distance; in which the mountains clothe themselves with brownish green grass to the very top in Lofoten to a height of 2000 feet in which the small birch woods wreathe themselves up on the slopes and ravines, like white, sixteen-year-old maidens at play; in which too the air is laden, as in no other place, with the scent of the growing strawberries and raspberries there, and when the day is so hot, that you are compelled to walk in shirt-sleeves, and you are longing to bathe in the rippling sea, always saturated with sunshine, and perfectly clear to the very bottom.

The powerful aroma and bright colour of things growing there, have been attributed by the learned to the strong light that fills the atmosphere, when the sun is above the horizon uninterruptedly the whole twenty-four hours. And in no other place can such deliciously flavoured strawberries or raspberries, nor such fragrant birch-boughs, be gathered as in Nordland.

If there is a home for a wonderfully beautiful idyl, it must be in the fjord-valleys of Nordland in the summer-time. It is as though the sun kisses Nature all the more lovingly, because he knows how short a time they have to be together, and as if they both, for the time, try to forget that they must part so soon. Then the hill grows green as if by a sudden miracle, and the bluebell, the dandelion, the buttercup, the dog-daisy, the wild rose, the raspberry and the strawberry spring up in lavish abundance, by every brook, on every hillock, on every mountain-slope; then hundreds of insects hum in the grass as in a tropical land; then cows, horses, and sheep are driven up the hills and the mountain-sides, while the Fin from the highlands comes down into the valley with his reindeer and waters them in the river; then the cloudberry moors lie reddening for many a mile inland; then there is quiet, sunny peace in every cottage, where the fisherman is now sitting at home with his family, putting his tackle in order for the winter fishing; for in Nordland the summer is more beautiful than in any other place, and there is an idyllic gladness and peace over Nature, which is to be found nowhere else.

The Nordländer, too, has a touch of Nature’s caressing softness in his character; when he can manage it, he is fond of living and dressing well, and lodging comfortably; with regard to delicacies, he is a thorough epicure. Cod’s tongue, young ptarmigan, reindeer-marrow, salted haddock, trout, salmon and all kinds of the best salt-water fish, appropriately served with liver and roe, nourishing reindeer-meat and a variety of game are, like the fresh-flavoured cloudberries, only every-day dishes to him. And the Fin as well as the Nordland plebeian is also childishly fond of all sweet things, and his “syrup and porridge” are widely known.

Brought up in the midst of a nature so rich in contrasts and possibilities, and amidst scenes of the utmost variety, from the wildest grandeur to the tenderest beauty, charm and fascination, the Nordländer is, as a rule, clever and bright, often indeed brilliant and imaginative. Impressionable as he is, he yields easily to the impulse of the moment. If there is sunshine in your face, there is sure to be sunshine in his. But you must not be mistaken in him, and take his good-nature for perfect simplicity as is often done here in the south. Deep in his soul there lurks a silent suspicion, unknown even to himself, he is always like a watchful sea-fowl that dives at the flash of the gun, and before the bullet has had time to strike the spot where it just now lay on the water. He has been used from childhood to think of the unexpected, the possibility of all possible things in Nature, as a sword hanging over every peaceful, quiet hour, and he generally carries this instinct with him in his intercourse with his fellow-creatures. While you are talking to him, he may dive into his mind like the sea-fowl, but you do not suspect it, and are not therefore disconcerted. This introspection may occur while he has tears in his eyes, and in moments when he is most deeply affected it is his nature, and he will always retain a dash of it, even when he has moved, with all his belongings, from natural into civilised surroundings. He eludes you, steals, with his imagination and his watchful suspicion, in, among, and around your thoughts; indeed, if he is a really talented Nordländer I am too dull and disinterested to be able to do it I believe that, without your suspecting it, he can go, with his hands in his pockets, right through your mind, in at your forehead, and out at the back of your head. He would be invaluable as a detective or a diplomatist, if only he had more strength of character, and succumbed with less childish weakness to the influence of the moment; but these are unfortunately his weak points. I am speaking now of the strong trait in the national character as it shows itself in the more conspicuous natures, and would not be misunderstood to mean that men of character are not to be found in Nordland too many a time, perhaps oftener than elsewhere, they are hardened into something grand.

In a native Nordland family there will generally be found such, at least, is my belief some drops of Fin blood. It has been remarked elsewhere that in the Sagas, when the greatest peasant races in Halgoland were spoken of as descended from half-trolls, or mountain-ogres, this only meant Finnish descent. Our royal families were of Finnish extraction, and Fin was a good-sounding name borne by the greatest men in the land for instance, Fin Arnesen. [One of Olaf the Holy’s most trusted men.] Harald Haarfager and Erik Blodoexe both married Fin maidens. The mystic sense-affecting influence which has been ascribed to them, was only the erotic expression of the great national connection between the two differently derived elements; the fair-haired, blue-eyed, larger-minded and quieter Norwegian, and the dark, brown-eyed Fin, quick of thought, rich in fancy, filled with the mysticism of nature, but down-trodden and weak in character. The Fin, to this very day, goes as it were on snow-shoes and sings minor strains, while many a Norwegian, in his pride of race, little suspects that he has any connection with that despised people.

There is also, in my experience, a great difference in our national character, which depends upon whether the crossing has taken place with the weak Laplander, or with the well-grown, strong, bold Fin. It makes a difference in temperament, as great as between minor and major in the same piece of music. That touch of rich colour in our nation, of which the poet Wergeland’s endless wealth of imagery and flight beyond logic are a representation, is certainly Finnish at any rate, there is very little of it in our old Sagas. And it can be understood from this, what grandeur of nature the Fin has added to the Norwegian character. The Fin admixture has been a great and essential factor in the composition of the mental qualities of our people at the present day.

I have often talked with people about this Finnish admixture, which, in a near degree, is looked upon almost as a disgrace, and I have found a surprisingly large number who were secretly of my opinion. Finnish admixture makes energetic, logical, bold, enterprising men; it has, to a great extent, given a backbone to the character of our Eastland and Trondhjem people. In Nordland, on the contrary, the Lap element is predominant, and has in a measure altered the character of the people. The Fin-Norwegian is master of Nordland nature; the Lap-Norwegian is subject to it, and suffers under its oppression.

Nature’s contrasts in Nordland are too great and extreme for the mind of the race that lives there not to be exceedingly liable to receive permanent injury from them. The extreme melancholy and sadness which is found there in the poor man, and which so often results in mental derangement and suicide, has most undoubtedly its connection with and reason in these natural conditions; in the long winter darkness with its oppressive, overwhelming scenes that crush down the mind in light-forsaken loneliness; and in the strong and sudden impressions that, in the dark season as well as in the light, affect all too violently the delicate inner fibres of being. I have thought over these things as perhaps no one else has done thought, while I myself have been suffering under them; and I understand although again, when it is a question of my own person, I do not understand it in the least why “second sight,” fremsynethed as it is called in Nordland, can there, just as in the Shetland and Orkney Isles, make its appearance, and be inherited in a family. I understand that it is a disease of the mind, which no treatment, no intelligence or reflection can cure. A visionary is born with an additional sense of sight. Beside his two sound eyes, he has the power of looking into a world that others have only a suspicion of, and when the occasion comes it is his doom to be obliged to use his extraordinary power; it will not be stopped with books or by intelligent reflection; it will not be suppressed even here in the “enlightened capital”: it can at the most only be darkened for a while with the curtain of forgetfulness.

Ah! when I think how, at home in Nordland, I pictured to myself the king’s palace in Kristiania, with pinnacles and towers standing out grandly over the town, and the king’s men like a golden stream from the castle court right up to the throne-room; or Akershus fortress, when the thundering cannon announce the king’s arrival, and the air is filled with martial music and mighty royal commands; when I think how I pictured to myself “the high hall of light,” the University, as a great white chalk mountain, always with the sunshine on its windowpanes; or how I imagined the Storthing [Norwegian parliament] Hall, and the men who frequent it, whose names, magnified by fancy, echoed up to us, as though for each one there rang through the air a mighty resounding bell, names like Foss, Soerenssen, Jonas Anton Hjelm, Schweigaard, and many others; when I compare what I, up in the north, imagined about all this, with the “for our small conditions most respectable reality,” in which I now live and move it is like a card-castle of illusions, as high as Snehaetten, [Snehaetten a mountain in the Dovre range, 7400 feet high.] falling over me. Until I was over twenty years of age, I lived only in a northern fairyland, and I am now for the first time born into the world of reality: I have been spell-bound in my own fancy.

If I were to tell any one all this, he would certainly and the more sensible the man was the more surely be of opinion that my good Examen Artium [Artium an examination to be passed before admittance to the University is granted.] must clearly have come about by some mistake. But if life depends on theoretical reasoning and knowledge, I have, thank God, as good abilities as most men. And I know that in them I have a pair of pliant oars, with which, as long as I require to do so, I shall be able to row my boat through practical life without running aground. The load which I have in the boat, at times so very heavy, but then again so blissfully beautiful, no one shall see.

I feel a longing to weep away the whole of this northern fairy tale of mine, and would do it if I could only weep away my life with it. But why wish to lose all the loveliness, all the illusion, when I must still bear with me to my dying day the sadness it has laid upon me?

It will be a relief to me in quiet hours to put down my recollections of this home of mine, which so few down here understand. It is the tale of a poor mentally-diseased man, and in it there are more of his own impressions than of outward events.