The book from which ‘The Sailor-Boy’s Tale’ comes, Winter’s Tales (Vinter-eventyr) is a collection of short stories and novellas that all share a number of narrative techniques and themes.
The stories take place in nineteenth-century Europe, partly in Denmark. Although they reach back in time they can still be read as critiques of the same subjects that many of Blixen’s contemporaries were concerned with. For example, the story ‘The Heroine’ is set in a time of war: ‘While [Frederick] was thus wandering in his own thoughts, the world of hard facts round him was not standing still, but was, on the contrary, moving with feverish haste. A great war was about to break out.’ The war referred to is the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, but it is precisely this distance in time that gives a sense of the relationship between the individual and his or her age, which, paradoxically, are both interlinked and separate. Whereas on the level of social realism the texts are concerned with a social critique, on the allegorical level they become sketches of the whole of human consciousness stretching out over time. The book’s overall message would seem to be that we are all at the mercy of fate.
All the stories explore the tensions and contradictions between materialism and idealism, captivity and freedom, childhood and old age, creation and destruction, the relationship between life and death and ultimately between art and reality. In ‘The Sailor-Boy’s Tale’, which of all the 11 stories is the one most clearly influenced by fairytales and makes most use of magic realist techniques, the sailor-boy Simon rescues a bird which later turns out to be an old woman: ‘A bird that had sought refuge upon the mast had got her feet entangled in some loose tackle-yarn of the halyard, and, high up there, struggled to get free. The boy on the deck could see her wings flapping and her head turning from side to side.’ Already in this second paragraph, the story takes an allegorical turn, which is characteristic of all the stories. The theme of this sequence runs through the whole book: the relationship between the place occupied by the individual in time and his or her relationship to others and to fate. As a result Winter’s Tales’ recurring concern is the extent to which the individual is determined by fate—can the individual change time and fate? The answer would appear to be yes: through storytelling, through art.
‘The Young Man with the Carnation’ and ‘A Consolatory Tale’ are the first and last stories of Winter’s Tales. The protagonist of both stories is the author Charlie Despard. He has lost his muse and begun doubting his artistic vocation. In the first story he has a conversation with God: ‘”Come,” said the Lord again, “I will make a covenant between me and you. I, I will not measure you out any more distress than you need to write your books.”’ Thus the author points to the act of storytelling as a kind of sacred act, but one that is willed by God, and thus deterministic.
Fate is the thread of life and art is made of life and thus bound up with fate. The act of storytelling, the position of the artist, thus becomes divine.
Henrik Romby Smith Madsen
(translated from the Danish version at Litteratursiden http://www.litteratursiden.dk)