[LMB] OT: The Fall of the King

Nicholas D. Rosen ndrosen at erols.com
Mon May 21 04:48:20 BST 2012

I first learned about Johannes Jensen's novel *The Fall of the King* from 
an appreciation of Jensen written by Poul Anderson (it's in Anderson's 
*All One Universe*, as I recall).  I looked for the book in my local library, 
which didn't have it, and online, where I found someone offering a copy 
printed in the 1920's, and supposedly in good condition, for a rather 
astronomical price.  I wasn't that eager to obtain it, but I recently found 
a trade paperback for sale online (I was actually hoping that Amazon 
might have digitized it, and offered a Kindle edition), and I ordered it.

This is supposed to be the Great Danish Novel of the 20th century, for 
which Jensen was awarded the Nobel prize in literature.  Whether the 
Nobel Committee could have found a better book and a better author is 
a question to which I do not claim to know the answer; I will say that 
*The Fall of the King* is an impressive achievement in its way, although 
not always pleasant reading.

The king of the title is Christian II of Denmark, who fought the Swedish 
rebels to preserve the Union of Kalmar, and remain king of Denmark, 
Norway, and Sweden, along with such possessions as Iceland.  After 
Stockholm surrendered on terms, after he promised amnesty, he held 
a great feast for prominent Swedes, and then seized them, and had 
them beheaded in the public square, beginning with a couple of bishops, 
and proceeding with city councilmen and other leading burghers.  He 
made enemies at home in Denmark as well; he seems to have alternated 
between ferocity and vacillation; and he ended up being overthrown by 
his uncle and most of the Danish nobility.  Whatever his faults, he had 
favored the peasants and middle class against the nobles.

This is not a history text, however, and the protagonist is not the king, 
but a man much further down the social scale, Mikkel Thogersen, whom 
we meet as a not very studious student at the University of Copenhagen.  
He has what one might call social and psychological problems, or 
spiritual problems, as they would likely be seen in his time.  After being 
expelled from the university, he becomes a mercenary soldier, and years 
later is in Stockholm to witness the massacre.  As a yet older man, he 
returns from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, drops by at the old homestead, 
where his brother has become a substantial yeoman, and witnesses the 
peasants' attempt to  restore Christian the Second to power, which the 
nobles and their mercenaries suppress with bloodshed far exceeding -- 
as Jensen points out -- the Stockholm butchery.

The book was originally published as three short novels, and even in 
one volume, it is not especially long.  Jensen could have written a 
doorstop, following Mikkel's life in much greater detail.  I can only 
wonder what impulse or what spiritual crisis led Mikkel, who has 
committed his share of violence, and not only on battlefields, to go on 
a pilgrimage.

There are episodes of the supernatural or the surreal.  I am not sure 
what Jensen intended to be taken as literal truth within the context of 
his tale, what to be taken as symbolism, and what to be taken as 
hallucinations experienced by the characters.  Perhaps the matter is 
deliberately left ambiguous.

A woman friend to whom I described some of this told me, "It sounds 
dreadful!" and thanked me for sparing her from reading the book.  I can 
understand that reaction, especially from a woman (as I didn't get 
around to telling her, there are various instances of men behaving very 
badly toward women).  Yet, although I don't recommend *The Fall of the 
King* for those with low squick thresholds, I cannot deny that it is a 
powerful book that makes a strong impression.  You can despise some 
of Jensen's characters, but it would be hard to call them pallid and 
forgettable, or to lose all thought of the book's images and scenery: 
the white nights of a Danish summer, a frozen winter in a Swedish 
woodsman's hut, burning manor houses, an enterprising German 
merchant's shipload of whores, a scholar's homunculus; the giantesses 
turning their quern Grotte, and speaking of what they grind. 

Nicholas D. Rosen
ndrosen at erols.com

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