The Genre as a Mask: Hans Christian Andersen and Karen Blixen

“Not by the face shaH the man be known, but by the mask”.[1] These are the words of Kaspersen, the actor in “The Deluge at Norderney”, one of Seven Gothic Tales, who has killed his principal, the cardinal, and then played the role of being him during the day of the great flood. This has often been taken as an existential statement purparting the life view of the author of the story, Karen Blixen. It has been taken to express her idea that one must accept the cards that one is dealt, that one must embrace whatever destiny one is the receiver of and that one must play the part or role well that God has seen it fit to make one play. That might well be the case. But the statement is uttered by a literary character in a piece of fiction. As such, it is an open statement which might purport more views and ideas than just one.

Baroness Karen Blixen. Photograph by Carl van Vechten January 29, 1959. Library of Congress.

My suggestion will be that the statement is also a metafictive one. Blixen is famous – perhaps infamous to some – because of the apparent anachronistic character of her fiction. She does not write the kind of short stories or novels which one would associate with modernismand modernity. Instead, she adopts a genre which would appear to be dated in the modern era, the genre of the tale. She casts herself as a storyteller, a teller of tales, which, according to Walter Benjamin for example (something I will return to), belongs to a premodern era. Several of the more recent Blixen scholars have called the bluff. They have pointed out that Blixen indeed deals with themes and dilemmas which one would connect to the era of modernity. One might say that she communicates indirectly by means of her adoption of a genre which would appear to be dated.

This also means that she uses the genre of the tale as a mask in a sense. She hides behind it in order to surreptitiously deal with themes and dilemmas of modern existence. If one accepts this idea, one should however bear in mind Kaspersen’s statement. Blixen, the author, should be known by her mask. Or, perhaps rather, her tales should be known as and by the masks that they are. One should not disregard the form in order to get to the real message, the real face of the content. The form, the mask of the genre of the tale, is essential to the literary art of Blixen. Only if one respects the mask of the genre and studies it attentively will one arrive at an adequate understanding of what Blixen as a writer of tales is about.

I can think of only one genuine precursor of Blixen when it comes to the essentiality of the genre as a mask. I am thinking another teller of tales, of fairy tales and stories, Hans Christian Andersen. Andersen basically found a genre that he c?uld use as a mask in the fairy tale. Andersen did not pour the fairy tales from his childish and innocent heart as has to some extent been the popular idea-perhaps not Unassisted by the author, the apt myth-maker. He was way more calculated in his adoption of this genre than that. Only by means of this genre could he deal with themes and dilemmas which were pertinent to him, themes and dilemmas which are also of a modern character. Andersen’s fairy tales should also be known by and as the mask that this genre is in his case. Only if one respects the mask of the genre and studies it attentively will one arrive at an adequate understanding of what Andersen is about as a writer of fairy tales.

Did Blixen recognize that she had a precursor in Andersen in this sense? lt is not an easy question to answer. One does find allusions to Andersen in Blixen. But one does not find them in abundance. There might, however, be several such allusions which have not been identified yet. Thus, I eannot offer you an exhaustive study at this moment in time. But I might be able to offer you some preliminary steps when it comes to forming an idea about the possible connectedness or similarity of these two authorships, the two most important ones in Danish literary history apart from the authorship of Kierkegaard.

I will begin by discussing two possible allusions to Andersen in Blixen. The second one will be my essential point of departure for discussing the mask of the genre and the break with tradition in, first, Andersen’s “The Flying Trunk”[2] and, secondly, “Sorrow Acre”[3] by Blixen.

A Tale of Two Allusions

The first possible allusion to Andersen in Blixen I want to discuss is from Out of Africa. It is from the section about Lulu, the young Gazelle, which Blixen adopts at the farm. On her way to Nairobi one morning she drives past some boys standing at the side of the road who want to sell her the young Gazelle. They hold it up in the air by its jointed legs. When she drives back in the evening they are still standing at the roadside offering the buck for sale, but she also ignores them this time. But when she has gone to sleep in the night she suddenly wakes up in a state of terror. She feels like she has twice ignored a fellow being in distress and that she has played the very opposite role of a Good Samaritan. The animal now has to be found at all costs:

“I got up in real panic and woke up all my houseboys. I told them that the fawn must be found and brought me in the morning, or they would all get their dismissal from my service.”[4]

The baroness wakes up the houseboys in the middle of the night and sends them on a mission which, it appears, will cost them the better part of a night’s sleep. If they do not complete the mission successfully- and the odds would seem to be against this – they will, she threatens, be fired. Thus, she very much acts like the Emperor in a certain fairy tale by Andersen who demands that his houseboys, or servants, bring him a certain nightingale. If they fail to do so, they will, he threatens, be beaten upon their stomachs- after having eaten dinner. The parallel is hardly accidental, I think. The way Blixen describes the situation might thus well contain a subtle gesture towards Andersen. But if this is the case it does not tell us very much about Blixen’s deeper understanding of Andersen. The allusion highlights the faet that she, in her state of panic about the fate of the young buck, abuses her position of power in relation to her employees and behaves like a despotic dictator. The allusion informs us about Blixen’s retrospective understanding of her own behaviour in this situation.

The next possible allusion I want to discuss is from “The Blank Page” from Last Tales, a tale which is of course a highly metafictional one. In the frame of this story we are introduced to an old woman who is a storyteller. It appears she has adopted this profession at a mature age and in doing so she has followed in the footsteps of her grandmother who in turn followed in the footsteps of her grandmother. So the art of storytelling is rooted in tradition in this tale, it appears. It is something which is handed down from an older generation to a new one. But there is a strange break embedded in the way this handing down takes place. The art of storytelling is not transmitted from mother to daughter but from grandmother to granddaughter. Perhaps one should bear in mind this curious faet. As mentioned, the storyteller of the frame adopted this profession at a mature age, she did so at a time when she ceased to be young and attractive. When she was young and attractive she did not tell any tales. On the contrary, young men would tell her tales, and seductive ones at that:

“Indeed I have told many tales, one more than a thousand, since that time when I first let young men tell me, myself, tales of a red rose, two smooth lily buds, and four silky, supple, deadly entwining snakes.”[5]

The roetaphors applied here are elegant and poetic yet also quite visceral in the sense that they leave littie doubt as to what meaning they convey. One might be tempted to issue a parental warning that this tale contains explicit lyrics. But this is not what interests me most about this passage. What is intriguing is that in Andersen’s “The Flying Trunk” we meet another young man who tells tales of this kind to ayoung girl, a Princess. The merehant’s son of this fairy tale lands in his flying trunk at the roof of the royal palace of Turkey. He then climbs through the window of the Princess’ chamber. And then, after having taken the liberty to kiss the Princess and having introduced himself as the God of the Turks, he starts telling her tales:

“Then they sat next to each other and he told stories about her eyes: they were the most wonderful dark tarns, and thoughts swam there like mermaids; and he told about her brow: it was a snowy mountain, with the most beautiful rooms and images, and he told about the stork which delivers the sweet littie children.”[6]

Well, we certainly get some elegant and poetic roetaphors or similes here, even if they are decoded for us. What meaning they convey is evident from the context. In this case, however, there is no pertinent need for any parental warnings; at least not if we subscribe to the belief that babies are delivered by the stork. In this case the parallel between the two passages is so evident, that I am certain the allusion is very much intended on Blixen’s part. And it would appear that more could be at stake here, sinee “The Blank Page”, as mentioned, is very much a metafictional tale. But why would Blixen find it apt to allude to the “Flying Trunk” in the context of such a metafictional tale of hers? I will examine Andersen’s fairy tale in order to see if I can come up with some sort of answer.

“The Flying Trunk” and the break(s) with tradition(s) in its flight

The opening of this fairy tale is a strangehird indeed, so to speak. We hear about a merchant. But then, abruptly, we are informed that he died:

“Once upon a time there was a merchant, he was so rich that he could pave the entire street and almost a small alley as well with silver coins; but he did not do that, he knew how to spend his money otherwise; if he parted with one shilling he would get a pound note in return; he was that kind of a merehant – and then he died.”

The opening is the most traditional fairy tale one you can imagine: “Once upon a time”. But four lines later the one whom we areled to believe is the protagonist dies and leaves the story for good. Instead, we hear about the son of the merchant who turns out to be the real protagonist of the story. But he is a very atypical protagonist of a fairy tale. He shows littie initiative – apart from telling seductive tales to the Princess and a very strange tale about some matchsticks to her parents. It is pure chance that he discovers the trunk is a magical agent. Later, he accidentally occasions that it smolders to ashes. As a consequence of this he never marries the Princess, since he can no longer get to her. lnstead, he becomes a kind of errant storyteller.

Neither is he the kind of heir his father would probahly have liked him to be. He is themost prodigal son and heir imaginable, squandering his inheritance with rapid speed. He even skips stones with gold coins and folds paper dragons out of notes. Like father, like son? -well, definitely not in this case! Being a merehant is of course not a traditional profession or trade like being an artisan or a craftsman. But the son of the merchant could still have followed in his father’s footsteps. Or he could have invested his inheritance wisely and lived a comfortable and independent life. He does neither. On the contrary, he immediately proves to be a complete antithesis of his father. He does not continue or carry on any tradition whatsoever. He constitutes a clean break with everything relating to his own background.

Intriguingly, “The Flying Trunk” itself constimtes a continuation of something which is a break with a tradition. The case of this tale is a dialectical one in other words. The merehant’s son is a recasting of the soldier from “The Tinderbox” who is a very different kind of character. “The Tinderbox” is modelled upon a folk tale and the soldier has much in common with a traditional folk tale hero. He has left his home in order to pursue his fortune as a soldier and he meets someone who gives him access to a magical agent. He does not, however, pass any qualifying test in order to get in possession of this magical agent. He decapitates the witch and it is his. However, just like the merehant’s son he only accidentally finds out about its properties. Still, the soldier is resourceful in the way a fairy tale hero should be. And he is rewarded by becoming kingand marrying the Princess. But perhaps he is a littie too resourceful. By the aid of the dogs he abducts the princess while she is asleep. He kisses the sleeping beauty and perhaps takes other liberties with her too. In order to avoid being hanged he then has the dogs kill the King and the Queen and all of the council. The Princess does not mind because she can now become Queen herself, – “and she liked that”, as the narrator sardonically remarks.

It is not the nature of a traditional folk tale to be moralistic or ethical. This genre is beyond, or perhaps rather before or prior to good and evil, one might say. But Andersen highlights this aspect of the genre in a way which strips it of its traditional innocence. His soldier comes forward as a ruthless opportunist who will stop at nothing. He murders the witch even though he has received a huge amount of money thanks to her and without, at the time of decapitating her, knowing whether the tinderbox has any value at all. He then has no qualms about abclucting the Princess and having her parents and the entire council killed.

The real scoop of “The Tinderbox” is Andersen’s innovative and deeply idiomatic way of narrating the tale. Under the guise of “a fairy tale told for children” he confronts the reader with the atrocities of the soldier’s aetions in the story. And he gets away with it hig time. An institution in his home town, Odense, which arranges educative activities for kindergartens and school classes is called “The Tinderbox”. Talk about getting away with it!

With “The Tinderbox” Andersen does not merely adopt or adapt the traditional folk tale genre. He uses it. He uses and manipulates it in order to forward his own agenda, his own ends. Thus, he uses the genre of the folk tale as a mask. And he should be known by this mask, by the very specificity of this mask, not least by the way “The Tinderbox” is narrated in order to get away with it. In short: “The Tinderbox” continues or carries on the tradition of the folk tale genre. But it also decisively, albeit deceptively, breaks with this tradition, because it, as I have suggested, strips it of an innocence which eannot be maintained in a modern world with other ethical norms and standards. In doing this, the same ethical norms and standards of the modern world are seriously questioned. “The Tinderbox” is a thoroughly subversive tale. And one can only recognize this if one knows the story by and as the mask that it is.

The parallels between the stories of “The Tinderbox and “The Flying Trunk” are numerous and can in no way be conceived of as being accidental. Permit me to sum them up. Both protagonists come into possession of a huge sum of money. They both quickly squander it, the merehant’s son in the most reckless fashion. Then a magical agent comes to their aid. They both pursue a Princess who is kept in seclusion because of a prophecy. Both gain access to the Princess by irregular means or in an irregular way and kiss her while she is sleeping.

“The Flying Trunk”. Illustration by Hans Tegner, c. 1899. Hans Christian Andersen Museum.

“The Flying Trunk” thus very much repeats the story of <<The Tinderbox”. But that only makes the differences between the two fairy tales more significant. The merehant’s son is not resourceful and opportunistic in the way the soldier is. As a fairy tale hero the soldier, as I have argued, is stripped of his innocence or of the innocence relating to the genre of the folk tale. The merehant’s son in his turn is stripped of all the qualities of the traditional folk tale hero.”The Flying Trunk” thus constitutes an additional break with the tradition which <<The Tinderbox” already breaks with in order to use and manipulate it. The mask is still on in the case of ((The Flying Trunk”, but it has changed significantly.

The only resource of the merehant’s son worth mentioning is his alleged talent for storytelling – and for telling tall tales. He seduces the Princess by means of the stories I have already quoted as well as by means of the biatant lie that he is the god of the Turks. He then secures the sympathy and goodwill of the Princess’ parents by telling them the fairy tale of the matchsticks. This tale does not follow the template of the folk tale at all. It is Andersen’s first proper object tale (I have not got the time to argue that case here) and it is perhaps one of the most absurd examples of this subgenre. That it is a success with the parents of the Princess is even more absurd. We are informed that the King prefers moralistic or educational tales while the Queen prefers funny ones. The tale of the matchsticks is not moralistic or educative and it is not funny in any usual sense of the term.

The other artistic endeavour of the merehant’s son is the great display of fireworks he performs the night before his supposed wedding with the Princess. His sole aim is to entertain the masses, the people in the streets. Or, as he puts it, it is simply to “do something, too”. It is a reckless aet: a pure display, a pure show. It is something entirely superfluous or gratuitous. No one has called for it. It leads to nothing. It incarnates, in a way, the essence of art – such as the tale about the matchsticks in a way does too.

It is, however, not quite truethat the display of fireworks leads to nothing. It leads to the disaster that the trunk smolders to ashes because of a spark from the fireworks. The merehant’s son can then no longer get to his bride, we are told, the wedding never takes place and the Princess is still waiting for her lover boy, her Turkish god. This is also highly absurd. One would presurne the royal palace has entrances than one can access by other means than a flying trunk. Anyway, the merehant’s son will spend the rest of his life as an errant storyteller. The final piece of information we get is that his stories are no longer as funny as the one he told about the matchsticks. But, as mentioned, this one is not funny in any usual sense of the term.

So how should we know this mask worn by or as “The Flying Trunk”? As I have suggested, it is in several ways a very absurd piece. But it is also marks a significant break with the template of the folk tale. There is no final wedding and no “living happily ever after”. It is a piece of metafiction in a very different sense than the “Tinderbox” is. It is subversive in quite another way. It is a story about the conditions and consequences of art as well as about the nature or natures of art. Viewed from one perspective, it is a story about an artist, a storyteller, who becomes an artist because of the girl he did not manage to get. That is a story one has heard before. Viewed from another perspective, it is an absurd performance which in the manner of a mise en abyme is mirrored by the tale within the tale about the matchsticks as well as by the display of fireworks. These are both pure shows, pure performances, and thus in a sense prefigure or inaugurate aspects of what would later, much later, become part of the poetics of the avant-garde.

“The Flying Trunk” thus indicates that from this point of departure it will be possible for the author to go anywhere, or almost anywhere, wearing the mask of the genre of the fairy tale. Where Andersen did go wearing this mask we are perhaps still trying to figure out, to get to know. Did Blixen acknowledge this daring metafictive endeavour of Andersen’s when she chose to allude to “The Flying Trunk” in “The Blank Page”? This is not an easy question to answer. I will leave “The Blank Page” as it is, leave it as a blank in this present context, and instead turn to “Sorrow-Acre” from Winter’s Tales which is also very much a tale about carrying on tradition while breaking with it.

“Sorrow Acre”, ancient and modern tragedy

This tale has a source which is rooted in folk culture. lt is a legend about a mother who reaps a field in a day in order to save her son who is convicted for a crime and faces capital punishment. The king, who is the one who can pardon the son, has made this the condition she must fulfill. One version of this legend connects it to the village Ballum in Jutland. Allegedly a stone memorial can or could be found in the local churchyard. An engraving of a sickle is or was still discernible while the inscription had become unreadable. The episode is believed to have taken place around 1630. But since there were several versions of the legend, even in the region around Ballum, it is prohably an apocryphal story.

Blixen adopts this legend in “Sorrow-Acre”, but in her piece of fiction the events take place around 1770. The story takes place in and around the mansion belonging to an old nobleman. He adheres strictly to the moral codes of the noble class and the direct line of descent is the governing principle of his view of the world, his Weltanschauung. His nephew, Adam, is paying him a visit with the intention of staying at the mansion for a while. The old nobleman’s only son is dead and Adam is therefore the one to inherit him. While his unde is deeply rooted in the tradition he ariginates from, Adam has spent some time in England and has become acquainted with the ideas of the Enlightenment. He subscribes passionately to them and the New World, America, is his Utopia.

The old nobleman has recently remarried and therefore might still produce an heir which would ensure the direct line of descent. But several hints in the tale imply that he has become impotent. The line of descent can thus not be continued and it appears this will be Adam’s gain. But it is further implied that the old man indirectly urges Adam to have intercourse with his young wife so that they can produce an heir which in the eyes of the world will be the son of the old man. Deceiving the world in this way is hardly in accordance with the moral code of nobility. Faced with the possibility of a fatal break with tradition, the termination of the direct line of descent, the ethos of the old man apparently corrupts.

The nephew’s name is Adam. He roams about in the lovely garden of the mansion. And his unde tells him that he can freely eat from all of the trees. The young wife of his unde, the most tempting fruit, presumably, gives names to the foals arriving from her husband’s Hanoverian stud. So she is a kind of Eve. The tale is obviously also modelled upon the myth of the Fall from Genesis as well as it is modelled upon the folk legend or apocryphal story I have mentioned.

Even if they represent two contrasting views of the world, the relationship between the old man and his nephew is untroubled and harmonious to begin with. But then Adam learns of a deal or arrangement his unde has made with a woman, Ane Marie, one of his serfs. Her son has been accused of poaching and this is a crime which could cost him his life. The old man is not sure whether he is guilty or not. Anyhow, he has told Ane Marie that if she can reap a rye-field in a day, between dawnand sunset, he will see to it that her son is released without charge. Ane Marie has accepted his terms and is now hard at work in the field, exposed to the heat and light of a merciless August sun.

Adam is appalled by his unde’s capricious and despotic mode of behaviour and they have an argument. However, the old man remains firm and calm. Nothing can make him go against or betray his own word, even if he apparently is willing to deceive the world, as regards a possible legitimate heir of his.

Later in the afternoon it is implied that Adam does in fact have intercourse with his unde’s young wife. An heir might have been produced for the old man. And it appears that Adam reconciles himself with the situation and deeides not to leave the mansion in anger at and in disagreement with his unde. Ane Marie compietes her task, but drops dead when she has accomplished it. Her son goes free as the old man has promised.

Like the case is with “The Flying Trunk”, themask of “Sorrow-Acre” is kind of double. Fromone perspective, it is a tale about irreconcilable world views and the power of motherly love which perhaps transcends a conflict like this. From another perspective, it is a tale about the fate of tragedy and the traditional tale or legend in a modern world where no value systems or moral codes can daim authority. The key to the latter perspective lies in the application of a third textual source for this palimpsest of a tale, the essay on ancient and modern tragedy in the first part of Kierkegaard’s Either-Or. The ghostly presence of this source can most palpably be detected in the Danish version of the tale which is in itself a significant fact.

“The Reflex of Ancient Tragic Drama in Modern Tragic Drama” is a fictive address given by the aesthete, A., to a society or secret club which he refers to as his ccfellow dead”. We must presurne his audience consists of other aesthetes who are also dead to the bourgeois world of commerce and life in the bosom of the family. As the tide indicates, A. attempts to tease out what distinguishes modern tragedy from ancient tragedy. The ‘c Reflex” of the tide indicates that no absolute line can be drawn between the two modes (which should perhaps be kept in mind). The address consists of three distinet parts. The first part is a general outline of the topic in question. It does not add much to other aesthetic treatises of the era. The second part is a remarkable parahasis in which A. delivers an apology for the way he has been discoursing up until now. The third part is his own version of the legend of Antigone, the source of the tragedy of Sophocles. This new version serves as an example of modern tragedy.

As I have stated, the first part is not very original but rather a recirculation of commonly accepted ideas about what distinguishes modern tragedy from ancient one. Still, it highlights the faet that tragedy has become an endangered species in modern times. In A.’s historical outline modernity is connected to the advent of Christianity. Christianity brings with it the notion of sin and this notion does away with the notion of guilt which tragedy is based on, hamartia, the wrongdoing or wrong course of action of the tragic hero, literally the gripping or grasping wrongly of the hero – or heroine. Guilt in the guise of hamartia is relative. Oedipus, for example, did not know what he did at the moments in time when he killed his father and married his mother. But sin is an absolute category. Conceived of as a sinner, a tragic hero or heroine will depend entirely on his or her own actions. Therefore, his or her fate will be his or her own fault entirely and thus not be a tragic one. The genre of tragedy is facing a severe predicament in the modern era.

A. uses a pair of dialectically connected concepts to illustrate the difference between ancient and modern tragedy, sorrow [sorg] and pain [smerte]. When the ancient tragic hero realizes what he has done he and what has resulted fromit he feels sorrow. Sorrow can communicate and it can be shared by the audience. The effect of catharsis is a possibility. But sorrow eannot be worked through in modern tragedy. The modern tragic hero eannot take leave of his own aetions- or possible aetions-so to speak. The modern tragic hero gets caught up in a spiral of reflection. What shall I do? What will happen if I do this? What will happen if I do that? What will the consequences be? What did I do? Could I have acted otherwise? What would have happened then? The modern tragic hero eannot let go of such questions. They keep tormenting him. Sorrow which is not worked through because it is caught up in such a spiral of reflection is transformed into pain. Pain, in the imagery of the essay, is the result when the arrow of sorrow not only pierces the heart but then keeps rotating in the wound. Pain is also designated as “reflected sorrow” in the essay. And sorrow which becomes reflected is synonymous with anxiety. When one is caught up in a spiral of reflections and tormented by questions and thoughts of one’s own making one is in a state of anxiety. Key notions of this essay will resurface in The Concept of Anxiety. We can conclude that anxiety is a mental state which in the essay is related to the modern era and to themode of modern tragedy. That modern tragedy is an endangered species is made clear by the example of A.’s modern version of the legend of Antigone. It would not be easy to put on stage. All the drama or action takes place in the mind of the modern Antigone, it is played out on her inner stage. It is evident that the young wife in “Sorrow-Acre” is deseribed as being in a state of anxiety. She had expected something significant to happen when she got married to the old man. But nothing happens, of course due to his impotence. And this nothing, aroused or tinted by her vague expectations, makes her anxious. What she experiences, in the words of the tale, is likened to “a horror vacui, like a physical pain”/ The word pain is applied here, and we find the word smerte in the Danish version of the tale. In The Concept of Anxiety it is famously stated that anxiety is anxiety about “Nothing”. This is because what one is anxious about is ideas, thoughts and questions of one’s own making, produets of one’s own imagination. That anxiety occupies or hovers in an ambiguous zone between the psychic and the somatic is also stressed in The Concept of Anxiety.

By the way, thisis also evident from A.’s essay. Furthermore, The Concept of Anxiety contains a long meditation upon the loss of innocence in the myth of the Fall. Adam’s case is even more evident – or graver. He is caught in a spiral of reflection which feeds off both his past and his ideas about his possible future. His idyllic childhood memories of visiting his unde’s mansion are contrasted by the sudden erisis in their relationship. And how shall he react to this erisis? How should it affect his response to his unde’s “invitation” to have intercourse with his virgin wife and thus maybe produce an heir for him – something which will rule out any possibility of Adam himself inheriting everything? Moreover, l his entire future is completely open. Should he reconcile himself with his unde? Should he play his part in the old man’s scheme and attempt to provide him with an heir? Or should he not? What will happen in the latter case? Will he inherit it all? What would he then do with it? Should he inanyevent go to America, his Utopia? His head is spinning indeed:

“What was he to do, he thought [tænkte han smerteligt], if after eighteen years these filial feelings [for his unde, my comment] must change, and his second father’s figure to him take on a horrible aspect, as a symbol of the tyrannyand oppression of the world?”[8]

Only in the Danish version has Blixen added the word which points to the faet that Adam’s mental state is a painful one. I find this very significant. The word pain is used one more time a littie later in the Danish version: “Noget i hans Onkels Ord vakte hos den unge Mand et svagt Ekko af Eftermiddagens Uro og Smerte.”[9]

In The Concept of anxiety it is pointed out that the anxious subject, just like Adam, is situated or fixated between what is in the pastand what isyet to come in a way which prevents it from being present in or to the present. So after all we might well wonder whether Adam actually manages to go through with having intercourse with his young- aunt. We eannot know for sure. We arenot let in on the action. If there is any action worth reporting about.

The part of the action which we are let in on is what the outcome of Ane Marie’s monstrous effort in the field. Before she has accomplished her task, Adam and his unde get a view of her at close hand. She is deseribed in this way:

“The bony and tanned face was streaked with sweat and dust, the eyes were dimmed. But there was not in its expression the slightest trace of fear or pain [smerte].”[10]

The word pain is thus used with almost surgical precision in especially the Danish version of the tale when read in the light of A.’s essay. The state of being in mental pain is the privilege of Adam and his aunt, the two young people whom I have identified to be in states of anxiety. If one looks in the face of Ane-Marie one does not find the slightest trace of pain reflected there. The two young people could be the hero and the heroine of a modern tragedy in A.’s conception of the genre. Ane-Marie, who dies from reaping the field which willlater be known as “Sorrow-Acre”- and who ariginates from a folk culture which is probably not Christian in any deeper sense – is or could be the heroine of an ancient tragedy. But is she such a heroine? Or is she cast in a context where it is impossible for her to become a heroine of this kind? Thisis a tricky question!

If Godske, Ane Marie’s son, had been proven guilty of poaching to begin with it would probably have been the end of this part of the story. The uncertainty as regards his guilt is what creates the opportunity for the old nobleman to exercise his almost absolute authority or power in the perverted way that he does. This situation permits him to make his whim the Law which Ane Marie is subject to. In this sense you could say that Ane Marie is a victim of circumstance, of fate or destiny. But the circumstances leave her with a choice. She could have said no to the conditions set up for her. Reaping the field and thus accepting the whim of the old nobleman as the Law she is subject to is a choice she makes. You might say there is an element of hamartia in her choice to go along with the whim of the old man, perhaps. But had she denied making this deal with him, she would have given up upon the life of her son. And she would not seriously have threatened the authority and power of the old nobleman anyway. Perhaps the best answer she could have given under the circumstances would have been Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to”. But that would not have saved Godske’s life. The question whether she can qualify as a genuine tragic heroine remains tricky indeed.

In the tale the old nobleman explains how she could indeed have been transformed into a comic figure or perhaps rather a tragicomic one. This would have happened if he, as Adam urges him to do, had gone back on his word. As he phrases it:

“‘But with my own people I am, I believe, in good understanding. Anne-Marie [her name in the English version, my comment] might well feel that I were making light of her exploit, if now, at the eleventh hour, I did nullify it by a second word. I myself should feel so in her place. Yes, my nephew, it is possible, did I grant you your prayer and pronounce such an amnesty, that I should find it void against her faithfulness, and that we would still see her at her work, unable to give it up, as a shuttle in the rye-field, until she had it all mowed. But she would then be a shocking, a horrible sight, a figure of unseemly fun, – like a small planet running wild in the sky, when the law of gravitation had been done away with.”‘[11]

According to the old man, if he had gone back on his word by pronouncing a second one, it would have removed the centre of gravity from the universe of Ane Marie. She would most likely have continued her work even if it had in such a way been robbed of its meaning and purpose. And then, like a small planet torn from its orbit, she would have cut a tragicomic figure, a figure of unseemly fun.

So, in his own eyes the old nobleman, in relation to his own people, his serfs and vassals, he is the centre of gravity, the centre of their universe, their God almighty, not their tyrant and whimsical despot. He has the power, the ultimate authority to transform Ane Marie into a tragicomic figure instead of a tragic heroine. But perhaps it is he, the old nobleman, who, in his absolute vanity, is the genuine figure of tragicomic and unseemly fun in the tale.

He and Adam do in faet have a conversation about comedy and tragedy. According to the old man tragedy is the privilege of man, even the highest privilege. As he says:

“The God of the Christian Church himself, when he wished to experience tragedy, had to assume human form”.[12]

Yet, we might, with Kierkegaard, object that Jesus Christ was not a tragic hero in the ancient sense of the term of A.’s essay. He sacrificed himself for the sake of our sins by subjecting himself to the despotic whims of Pilate. The old man is not the equivalent of God in the tale. He is the equivalent of Pilate, the decadent and despotic ruler.

How sublime the hubris of the old man is becomes blatantly obvious as he goes on. Tragedy is the privilege of man according to him. But it is only the privilege of mere, of common man. Mernhers of the noble class, the equivalent of God in his own eyes, are exempt from this rule. They can “only” aspire to the comic:

‘”And here on earth, too,’ he went on, ‘we [the noble class, my comment], who stand in lieu of the Gods and have emancipated ourselves from the tyranny of necessity, should leave to our vassals their monopoly of tragedy, and for ourselves accept the comic with grace. Only a boorish and cruel master- a parvenu, in faet- will make a jest of his servants’ necessity, or force the comic upon them (…).”‘[13]

The latter observation turns out to be a brilliant, albeit unwitting, self-portrait. The old man, the boorish, cruel parvenu of a master has turned the whole thing into a gruesorne tragicomedy, a fatal farce. I will permit myself to conclude that Ane Marie eannot qualify as a tragic heroine in the ancient sense of the term because the comic has been forced upon her by a master of this kind. But she is not transformed into a modern tragic heroine for this reason. The comic eannot touch her in that way. There is not in her expression the slightest trace of fear or pain.

And you could say that all the central characters in the tale are puppets on a string in the fatal farce orchestrated by the old nobleman. He, his young wife and his nephew are all entangled in the web of his cruel and whimsical schemes. They all have the tragicomic forced upon them. If they are tragic heroes and heroines at all, they are modern ones in the sense of A.’s essay. They will all have to live with the pain. The foliowing passage, where Adam reconciles himself with the intolerable situation, is extremely important: “Anne-Marie and he were both in the hands of destiny, and destiny would, by different ways, bring each to the designated end.

Later on he remembered what he had thought that evening.” [14]

Later on, we must assume, Adam is still painfully reflecting on what took place during his stay at his unde’s mansion.

The figure of a sickle, still discernible

In his vanity, the old nobleman has also got vain aspirations to become an author. He aspires to become the author of a tale which will be a consolatory one for generations to come. He thinks that in times of hardship to come the tale about what Ane Marie accomplished will serve as the proper surrogate for daily bread to the people of her class. Just like the monstrous accomplishment of the construction of the pyramids, he believes, served countless generations of Egyptians. He is planrung ahead, to be sure.

This is, read at face value, what the classic tale of the classic storyteller can and should do according to Walter Benjamin in his classic essay “The Storyteller”. Through the medium of tales – and thus through the medium of the storyteller, the teller of them – worldly wisdom can be handed down from one generation to the next. Worldly wisdom is passedon in this way. But, still read at face value, thisis not the case in the modern era, Benjamin claims. The modern era is one of confusion and disorientation. There is no longer anytradition to guide us, we have broken with it or it has broken with us. When we eannot comprehend our world, worldly wisdom is no longer recognizable as such and therefore not of any use. Instead we hope that we can grasp the meaning of life from the lived biography of a given single individual (not necessarily in the sense of Kierkegaard, piease note). We hope that we can warm our shivering lives by the fire of the eandie of such a lived biography as it burns down. This, Benjamin says, is the possibility the novel as a modern genre offersus as modern readers.

The novel is the literary genre of modernityper se, Benjamin argues. And the novel deals with and is the expression of the same state of affairs as the modern tragedy of A. is, I will argue. But Benjamin does not turn to antiquity or ancient culture in order to find the dialectical opposite to the novel as his genre of modernity. He turns to pre-modern culture, the culture rooted in the world of artisans and craftsmen who pass their trade, as well as their worldly wisdom, on to the next generation. This is the kind of culture Benjamin’s storyteller is rooted in and derives from, even in his or her more modern guises.

Blixen, like Andersen, was acutely aware of the break with tradition which modernity is or constitutes. Unlike Andersen, she did not write any modern navels of the kind Benjamin is talking about. But like Andersen she chose to become an, at first sight, anachronistic kind of storyteller. Like him, she put on the mask of a seemingly dated genre as the very mask she should be known and recognized by. In this way, like Andersen, she carriedon tradition while breaking with it – acutely aware of what she was doing.

Therefore, she was also acutely aware that the aspiration of the old nobleman to become an author or creator of a story or tale of the aforementioned kind is vain. This, she demonstrates in a compelling manner in the tale. When the old man can see that Ane Marie has surmounted the insurmountable and accomplished her task, he is, it appears, filled with glee. His mission is now accomplished as well, he has laid the faundation for a tale which will be handed down from generation to generation in the future and teach serfs and vassals all the wisdom they need in arder to know their place in a cosmos ruled by the ruling class of aristocrats. He artfully pauses for several minutes and then thus speaks:

‘”Your son is free, Anne-Marie,’ he said. He again waited a little, and added: ‘You have done a good day’s work, which willlong be remembered.”‘[15]

In arder to aid this remembrance the old man later has a stone set up with a sickle engraved on it. The peasants on the land then effectively add the inscription on the stone by naming the rye-field “Sorrow-Acre”. But his aspirations have been in vain indeed. According to the famous last words of “Sorrow-Acre”, the tale of Ane Marie died and was forgotten:

“By this name it [the rye-field, my comment] was known a long time after the story of the woman and her son had been forgotten.”[16]

The name of the rye-field was known and remembered for a long time. Then even that name, it is implied, was forgotten. Until it, like sorne Lazarus, was resurrected by means of a certain tale by a certain Blixen or Dinesen.

What according to Benjamin remain in themodernage of the classic tales and the worldly wisdom they transmit are proverbs. As he puts it figuratively:

“A proverb, one might say, is a ruin which stands on the site of an old story and in which a moral twines about a happening [Gestus] like ivy araund a wall.”[17]

A ruin like a stone – the inscription on which is unreadable, has been forgatten – but where the outline of a sickle is still discernible. Let “Sorrow-Acre” be known by and as such a mask.

Lady with mask. Paper cut by Hans Christian Andersen, c. 1850. Hans Christian Andersen Museum.


  1. ^ Blixen, Karen: Seven Gatbic Tales. London: Putnam 1948 (1934), p. 264.
  2. ^ A first version of my reading of “The Flying Trunk” is part of my artide “Gevaldige Shows på gadeplan” in Gammelgaard et al (eds.): Gaden: æstetisk, sprogligt, kulturelt, København: Forlaget Spring 2016.
  3. ^ A first version of my reading of “Sorrow-Aere” ean be found in my artide “På smartens mark. “Sorg-Agre” I et intertekstuelt felt” in the literary periodieal SPRING 23 (2005).
  4. ^ Blixen, Karen: Out of Africa. Melbourne, London, Baltimore: Penguin Books 1954, p. 68.
  5. ^ Blixen, Karen [Isak Dinesen]: Last Tales. Penguin Books 1986, p. 99.
  6. ^ All translations from Andersen’s tales are by me, JB.
  7. ^ Blixen, Karen [Isak Dinesen]: Winter’s Tales. Penguin Classies 1983, p. 185.
  8. ^ Ibid., p.186.
  9. ^ Blixen, Karen: Vinter-Eventyr. København: Gyldendal 1998 (1942), p. 234.
  10. ^ Blixen, Karen [Isak Dinesen]: Winter’s Tales. Penguin Classies 1983, p. 191.
  11. ^ Ibid., p. 194.
  12. ^ Ibid., p. 188.
  13. ^ Ibid., p. 188.
  14. ^ Ibid., p. 198, my italies.
  15. ^ Ibid., 199.
  16. ^ Ibid., 200.
  17. ^ Benjamin, Walter: Illuminations. London: Fontana Press 1992 (1973), p. 107.
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