April – Hans Christian Andersen: “Ole Luk-Oie, the Dream-God”

April is the cruelest month, said T.S. Eliot, and I did consider choosing his ”Waste Land” as the April submission for this literary calendar, but wouldn’t that have been predictable and clichéd? Yes, it would.

Instead I have chosen to celebrate Danish national poet Hans Christian Andersen, since April was HCA’s birth month. He was born on April 2 1805, which means that this marks the two-year anniversary for that absolutely hideous and very embarrassing Las Vegas-wannabe show they arranged in celebration of his 200th birthday, featuring a selection of completely arbitrary, non-HCA-related artists, such as Tina Turner singing “Simply the Best”, Olivia Newton-John singing “Xanadu”, and some random comedian whose act consisted of dressing up in paper-clothes to music. It was horrible. Very bad taste. And about as far away from poetry as it could possibly get.

So this year, I’ve decided to celebrate old H.C. the best way one probably can anyway; by reading one of his amazing stories. The story is “Ole Luk-oie – the God of Sleep” (also known, in some translations, as “The Sandman”), which is probably my favourite Hans Christian Andersen story. 

Ole Luk-Oie 

The edition of “Ole Luk-Oie” that I grew up with – the illustrations are by excellent illustrator Lillian Brøgger. 

Ole Luk-Oie (or “Ole Lukøje” in Danish) means “Ole Close-Eye”, and the story revolves around the question of what exactly happens when we dream. The story answers the question quite unambiguously: When people (especially children) go to sleep, they are visited by Ole Lukøje, an elflike little creature, who blows softly on their necks until their heads grow heavy and throws fine dust into their eyes until they blink with fatigue, and as soon as the children are in their beds he spreads an umbrella over the children’s heads. He’s got two umbrellas, one for the good children and one for the bad ones, but they both basically work like a kind of parabolas, channelling either pleasant or grim stories to the perceptive, sleeping children. Ole Luk-Oie is the network executive so to speak, he makes up all the stories and “there is nobody in the world who knows so many stories as Ole Luk-Oie” as the narrator informs us at the beginning of the story. We, the readers, are introduced to Ole’s skills in the story through the sleep-bound boy Hjalmar, and the short story consists of the seven stories that Ole tells Hjalmar in the course of a week.  I had this story read to me countless times as a child, completely in love with the fantastic imagery of the stories and then I sort of forgot about it by the time of my adolescence, but I re-discovered the story as an adult three years ago, when the excellent Copenhagen children’s theatre Anemone teatret staged the story as a play. In the staging they stressed very beautifully the point that will naturally be an adult’s approach to the story: The reading of the seven stories as the depiction of seven stages of a human life, with Hjalmar as a kind of Everyman persona. I absolutely love that interpretation, and I think it’s a great example of how HCA’s tales work just as well for children as for their parents. It’s also funny to see in this tale of nightly dreams how Freud virtually existed before he existed, or at least before he had had the chance to share his ideas with the world: The first dream, the Monday dream, of Hjalmar’s is dominated by repressed feelings – childish guilt feelings as it is. The Monday dream depicts one of the first trials a human being suffers through; that is going to school and coming face to face with one’s own inadequacy. Ole Luk-Oie tries his best to create pleasant dreams for his young client, but the nagging guilt stemming from poorly done homework threatens to wreck Hjalmar’s fantasy of pure childish, sensual pleasure “…all the flowers in the flower-pots became large trees, with long branches reaching to the ceiling, and streatching along the walls, so that the whole room was like greenhouse. All the branches were loaded with flowers, each flower as beautiful and as fragrant as a rose; and, had any one tasted them, he would have found them sweeter even than jam. The fruit glittered like gold, and there were cakes so full of plums that they were nearly bursting. It was incomparably beautiful. At the same time sounded dismal moans from the table-drawer in which lay Hjalmar’s school books.” Hjalmar’s school accessories are lamenting their poor state, and I particularly love the description of the copy-book’s sorrow: “On each leaf stood a row of capital letters, every one having a small letter by its side. This formed a copy; under these were other letters, which Hjalmar had written: they fancied they looked like the copy, but they were mistaken; for they were leaning on one side as if they intended to fall over the pencil-lines.” Last year I was in the street and I was struck – somewhat pathetically, I admit – by an everyday image that has haunted me, and which reminds me of this paragraph in Ole Luk-Oie: I saw a toddler pushing his own big stroller in front of him with much trouble, his mother smiling and laughing beside him. There was something so significant about that image, I thought, something so sad: This is what we do most of our childhood, we try to grow up as quickly as we possibly can, pushing our stroller in front of us while it’s still twice our own size, or trying to copy neat letters in a copy-book, and failing. Childhood is, to me, a great mixture of fantastic dreams of sensual pleasures like delicious treats and trees growing wildly into the sky, and the harsh reality of our incapability. The Monday story in “Ole Luk-Oie” depicts this so well I think, ending with the words: “…[Ole Luk-Oie] drilled them till they stood up gracefully, and looked as beautiful as a copy could look. But after Ole Luk-Oie was gone, and Hjalmar looked at them in the morning, they were as wretched and as awkward as ever.” The Tuesday story was my favourite as a child, and actually I think it has something appropriately April-like to it. Hjalmar, trapped in the previous dream within his own little room, goes off into a beautiful Spring landscape, and drifts in a boat down a stream which is significantly headed for the vast sea: Hjalmar is on a adolescent Wanderung in this story, and it is a wonderful experience. Beyond the pure pleasure-seaking fantasies of childhood, Hjalmar encounters fantastic creatures: “..six swans, each with a golden circlet round its neck, and a bright blue star on its forehead, drew the boat past the green wood, where the trees talked of robbers and witches, and the flowers of beautiful little elves and fairies, whose histories the butterflies had related to them. Brilliant fish, with scales like silver and gold, swam after the boat, sometimes making a spring and splashing the water round them, while birds, red and blue, small and great, flew after him in two long lines. The gnats danced round them, and the cockchafers cried ‘Buz, buz’.”There are women there, too, two of them, each playing an important part in Hjalmar’s life: One is a princess who is the likeness of a little girl Hjalmar knows, with whom he playfully shares a piece of candy, and the other is his old nurse from his infancy, who only nods at him and then sings a melancholy little song: “How oft my memory turns to thee,/my own Hjalmar, ever dear!/When I could watch thy infant glee,/or kiss away a pearly tear/’Twas in my arms thy lisping tongue/first spoke the half-remembered word,/while o’er thy tottering steps I hung,/my fond protection to afford./Farewell! I pray the Heavenly Power/to keep thee til thy dying hour.” I was very fond of this verse when I was a child, thinking it was beautiful. When I saw the staging of “Ole Luk-Oie” at Anemone teatret, I was momentarily shocked and sad to find that they had chosen to portray the nurse as a ridiculous looking matron, accompanying her loud, insisting singing on a squeaky accordion, but then I thought about it, and I realized that it was actually a rather good presentation of this woman from Hjalmar’s past: The verse is sentimental, bordering on the saccharine, and while Hjalmar may feel a sting of nostalgia upon hearing her singing and thinking of the care she offered him, his boat is still flowing down the stream and the nurse will necessarily be contrasted by the pretty young princess-girl who has something to offer him.  But of course youth isn’t all fun and games and fairy tales, and Hjalmar learns as much from the Wednesday story, where he’s confronted with the force of peerpressure and slander. One of the things that makes “Ole Luk-Oie” such a great story is that the multitudinous of stories obviously made it possible for HCA to use many of his different talents as a story-teller. In the Monday story he demonstrates his ability to understand the sentiments of a young child, in the Tuesday story he uses his imaginative skills in the wonderful descriptions of a fairy tale landscape, and in this story, the Wednesday story, he uses his talent as a satirist. As stories such a s “The Shepherdess and the Chimney-Sweeper” and “There is No Doubt About It” bear witness, HCA was more than a light-headed dreamer, he was a poignant and humorous observer, and this is very clear in the Wednesday story. Hjalmar reaches the sea in this dream, and he follows a stork, who is placed in a henhouse among hens, ducks and turkeys as he grows tired from travelling. HCA depicts very accurately that certain high school kind of atmosphere among the rural fowl as the in-crowd that isn’t about to accept an outsider into their group, and who, xenophobically, would rather miss out on some great in-puts than to admit to their own significance: “…the stork told them all about warm Africa, of the pyramid, and of the ostrich, which, like a wild horse, runs across the desert. But the ducks did not understand what he said, and quacked amongst themselves, ‘We are all of the same opinion; namely, that he is stupid.’ ‘Yes, to be sure, he is stupid,’ said the turkey-cock; and gobbled. Then the stork remained quite silent, and thought of his home in
Africa. ‘Those are handsome thin legs of yours,’ said the turkey-cock. ‘What do they cost a yard?’ ‘Quack, quack, quack,’ grinned the ducks; but the stork pretended not to hear.”Luckily, Hjalmar is able to learn the right lesson from the encounter: Recognising the worldliness of the stork and the beauty of its storytelling, he dismisses the feathered clique as the temporary, uninteresting creatures they are: “‘Tomorrow you shall be made into soup,’ said Hjalmar to the fowls; and then he awoke and found himself lying in his little bed.” 

The stories of Thursday and Friday are connected in a sense, in as much as they both depict a wedding ceremony. While Thursday, however, is all about glamour, Friday has something remarkably prosaic to it, and as such one might say that the two stories depict a youthful, and a more disillusionized, mature approach towards love and marriage, respectively. Hjalmar is attending the wedding between two mice in the Thursday story, and it’s all about show and illusion right from the beginning. Hjalmar must get dressed up in his tin soldier’s uniform in order to look proper for the ceremony, and the ceremony is imbued with the satirical take on artificiality that HCA did so well (for instance with his depiction of the Princess in “The Swine-Herd”). The bridal pair’s love for each other is scarcely mentioned and the party is dominated by a sense of unfulfilment and shallow showiness: “The room had been rubbed over with bacon-rind, like the passage, which was all the refreshment offered to the guests. But for the dessert they produced a pea, on which a mouse belonging to the bridal pair had bitten the first letters of their names. This was something quite uncommon. All the mice said it was a very beautiful wedding, and that they had been very agreeably entertained.” Hjalmar is obviously fascinated with the splendour, but also aware of the violence he’s had to do to his own nature: “He had certainly been in grand society: but he had been obliged to creep under a room, and to make himself small enough to wear the uniform of a tin soldier.” It’s a different atmosphere, if not a less satirical one, we find in the Friday story, which describes the wedding of Hjalmar’s sister’s dolls Herman and Bertha. Hjalmar frets somewhat upon being invited to the wedding by Ole, noting that the two dolls have easily been married a hundred times already by his sister. “’Yes,’” says Ole, “’but tonight is the hundred and first wedding, and when that has taken place, it must be the last, therefore this is to be extremely beautiful.’” Yes, this is the last wedding, and the irrevocability of it hangs heavily over the story, which is dominated by the limitations and fixation that comes with marriage. HCA does love his fowls, so there’s a swallow and a hen present at the wedding to advise the bridal pair about where to settle down, and while the swallow speaks beautifully of all the sights to be seen abroad, the hen wins with her prudent, prosaic defence of their home country: “’Cold weather is good for cabbages,’ said the hen; ‘besides we do have it warm here sometimes. Four years ago, we had a summer that lasted more than five weeks, and it was so hot one could scarcely breath. And then in this country we have no poisonous animals, and we are free from robbers. He must be wicked who does not consider our country the finest of all lands. He ought not to be allowed to live here.’ And then the hen wept very much (…)”The best part of this satirical take on stupidity and cowardice in the name of patriotism is, however, the song the hilariously bad song that has been written by one of the guest (the led pencil) for the occasion: “’What merry sounds are on the wind,/as marriage rites together bind/a quiet and a loving pair,/though formed of kid, yet smooth and fair!/Hurrah! If they are deaf and blind,/we’ll sing, though weather prove unkind.”Hee! This never fails to crack me up. And having applied to go abroad to study next semester, of course this is totally grist to my mill. The Saturday story revolves around the Big Questions in life, and Hjalmar is torn between superstition and fact as the imaginative Ole has a battle of words against the portrait of Hjalmar’s grumbling great-grandfather who insists on reason and science. Ole, however, wins, and with him the power and omnipresence of imagination and dreams over petty nitpicking: “I thank you; you may be the head of the family as no doubt you are, but I am older than you. I am an ancient heathen. The old Romans and Greek named me the Dream-God. I have visited the noblest houses and continue to do so; still I know how to conduct myself to both high and low (…)’”  

This serves as a countdown to the last story which is, very appropriately, a story about Death. HCA ventures into meta-fiction here, one might say, as he describes Death as an older brother of Ole’s, that is, a storyteller just like the Dream-God. The afterlife is described as follows: “Hjalmar saw that this Ole Luk-Oie [Ole’s older brother, Death] rode on, he lifted up old and young, and carried them away on his horse. Some he seated in front and some behind, but always inquired first, How stands the mark-book?’ ‘Good,’ they all answered. ‘Yes, but let me see for myself,’ he replied, and they were all obliged to give him the books. Then all those who had ‘Very good’ or ‘Exceedingly good’ came in front of the horse, and heard the beautiful story; while those who had ‘Middling”’ or ’Tolerably good’ in their books, were obliged to sit behind and listen to the frightful tale. They trembled and cried, and wanted to jump down from the horse, but they could not get free, for they were fastened to the seat.” Apart from the fact that Death sounds kind of like a – well, like a horse’s ass, actually, it’s very interesting in a meta way that HCA makes storytelling the premise for the afterlife. Rather than frolic actively in the meadow’s of Paradise or writhe in pain in the flames of Hell, in the afterlife described in this story, we become forever subjects to our imagination, like passive children being told stories at bedtime. As such I think “Ole Luk-Oie” is an important part of HCA’s life’s work and a wonderful celebration of imagination and dreams – a celebration that I hope I haven’t sucked all the life out of with this interpretation. I love the story dearly and recommend it to any lover of stories out there. 

Happy 202nd Birthday, Hans Christian. And Happy April, everyone.



April 28, 2007. A Literary Year, Literature, The course of the year.

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