Peer Gynt

Peer Gynt
by Henrik Ibsen
Translated by William and Charles Archer
Illustrated by Per Krohg
The Heritage Press, New York (1957)
According to the translators� informative introduction, Henrik Ibsen (A Doll�s House; Ghosts) was thirty-seven or thirty-eight years old when he wrote Peer Gynt. Rooted in Norwegian folklore, this compelling and highly readable dramatic poem was published in Copenhagen in 1867, after Ibsen had spent more than two years away from Norway wandering and writing in Italy.

Peer Gynt is divided into acts and scenes which take place almost entirely out of doors in Norway, Morocco, the Saharan Desert, Cairo, and at sea, and over a period that begins in the early nineteenth century and ends in the 1860s. Most scenes are fairly short. A handful serve as connective tissue and are just long enough for a character to briefly speak his or her mind. Ibsen had strongly opposed a prose translation of the work. He and the translators each recognized, meanwhile, the difficulty in rendering the complicated rhyme scheme of the original. When a line-by-line unrhymed version was suggested, Ibsen readily agreed. The result was a rhythmic, poetic telling of Peer�s restless life that wonderfully captures his aimless exuberance and crippling inability to give himself completely to Life.

While the poem can easily be read and enjoyed for its story alone, it is worth noting that Ibsen also meant the character of Peer Gynt to represent the people of Norway, whom he felt were paralyzed by the traits revealed in the following verse:

Go but around in this our land,
and question every man you meet,
you�ll find each one has learnt to be
a little bit of everything.

In all he�s but a little bit;
his faults, his merits, go not far;
a fraction he in great and small,
a fraction, both in ill and good;
and, what�s the worst, the fraction�s parts,
each of them murders all the rest.

Be that as it may, the quality and theme of Ibsen�s work leave no doubt that the author was also describing people everywhere. Nor was Ibsen without compassion. Peer Gynt�s thwarted quest for self-knowledge is of universal concern. This is further strengthened by Per Krohg�s art work, which renders the fantastic, mythic elements of the story in a way that makes them real, as if dead gods were being restored to life. Though there is much to set them apart, I was reminded several times of Gustave Dor�s illustrations for Samuel Taylor Coleridge�s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

There are also a few references to the politics of the times and Norway�s neighbors, which I would no doubt have missed had they not been pointed out in the introduction. In fact, not being terribly swift in that department, I missed them anyway, and could only pick them out after reading the introduction again after I�d finished the book.

Now a bit about the story itself:

In the beginning, when we first meet Peer Gynt, he is a young, energetic, irresponsible blowhard who thinks he is irresistible and invincible. Like all good youths, he torments his widowed mother by getting into trouble all the time and then making up fantastic tales about himself instead of admitting what really happened. As a result, his mother is constantly exposed to ridicule and she curses her son, though she can�t help defending him in public. Finally, after getting drunk and kidnapping a bride-to-be on the day of her wedding as a way of reminding her that she used to, and really still should, belong to him, he flees before the outraged mob can exact its revenge.

From here on, Peer adopts many disguises and finagles his way through various high-flown adventures, telling himself in each instance that he is being himself and nothing more, and that his latest escapade is the right, noble, and inevitable thing, rather than the escape from facing the truth about himself it really is. In time and through various unsavory means he comes to be wealthy; he loses his wealth; he assumes the role of a prophet; and so on. Always, when one form of livelihood goes up in smoke, he recovers by convincing himself that some other equally ridiculous mode of living is what he ought to pursue. He is scarcely bothered by scruples, and his troubles are always someone else�s fault.

Peer Gynt, though, is not a bad person. As he grows older and fate brings him closer and closer to home, he is troubled that so much time has passed with so little to show in the way of meaningful results. His mother was dead before he had left home; now he, too, is presumed dead. No one knows who he is. And then upon the road he meets Death, who addresses Peer saying his time has come, and that his foolish, indecisive soul is neither good enough for heaven nor hell, and will therefore be boiled in a ladle and merged with countless other souls. At once, Peer sets up an impassioned argument for his own individuality, which Death refutes at every turn. Peer succeeds several times, though, in buying a little more time with which to assemble proof and witnesses, but each hope that he has counted on fails.

Finally, Peer returns home to find that Solveig, the daughter of newcomers to the district at the beginning of the story, has waited faithfully for him all through the years, despite the fact that he had turned his back on her and her simple life-giving love. (Darn. I should have mentioned this earlier, but at least I am doing so now.) With Death on his heels, he clings to her in fear. In her arms, he realizes, or at least begins to realize � or maybe I am the one who realized � that what he had been looking for everywhere in the world was within him and there at home all along.

Peer Gynt is an entertaining, powerful work. It is a poetic play that is a story with nearly the force of a novel. Most important, it is far better than this puny summary would lead one to believe � and for that we can all be thankful.

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A few words about my favorite dictionary . . .

From Peer Gynt
by Henrik Ibsen

Spoken by Peer, near the end of the book:

So unspeakably poor, then, a soul can go
back to nothingness, into the grey of the mist.
Thou beautiful earth, be not angry with me
that I trampled thy grasses to no avail.
Thou beautiful sun,
               thou hast squandered away
thy glory of light in an empty hut.
There was no one within it
               to hearten and warm;�
the owner, they tell me, was never at home.
Beautiful sun and beautiful earth,
you were foolish to bear
               and give light to my mother.
The spirit is niggard and nature lavish;
and dearly one pays
               for one�s birth with one�s life.�
I will clamber up high, to the dizziest peak;
I will look once more on the rising sun,
gaze till I�m tired o�er the promised land;
then try to get snowdrifts piled up over me.
They can write above them:
               �Here No One lies buried;�
and afterwards,�then��!
               Let things go as they can.

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