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First published: Den siste viking, 1921 (English translation, 1923)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Regional realism

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Locale: Norway

Principal Characters:

Myran| Kristaver, the owner of the fishing boat Seal

Marza, his wife

Lars, his son

Elezeus Hylla,

Henry Rabben,

Kaneles Gomon, and

Arnt Awson, fishermen with Kristaver

Peter Suzansa, the owner of the Sea-fire

Jacob Damnit-All-with-a-Limp, the owner of the Sea-bird

The Story:

When Kristaver Myran brought home his own Lofoten boat, his oldest son Lars was tall and strong enough to join the next fishing trip to the islands off the coast of Norway. Lofoten men thought of their boats as descendants of dragon-prowed Viking ships, and Lars dreamed that he was an early Norseman who would do battle when the time came to sail north.

Kristaver had bought the Seal cheaply at auction, though even that low price was more than he could pay without guarantors. People said he must want to die early to have bought that boat which had capsized during the last three winters. Kristaver was sure he could tame her.

His crew consisted of Lars; Elezeus Hylla, a brother-in-law; Henry Rabben, who was always combing his beard; Kaneles Gomon, boyish except for his yellow mustache; and Arnt Awson, a shoreman who had never before sailed on a Lofoten boat. The boats to travel with them were Peter Suzansa’s Sea-fire, Andreas Ekra’s Storm-bird, and Jacob Damnit-all-with-a-limp’s Sea-bird. Kristaver had some trouble keeping the Seal up with the other boats as they sailed through the fjord to the open sea. As he and the rest lay in the long bunk on deck after their first day’s sailing, he slept, but even in sleep he was working on his problem. Half-awake, he got up and moved some of the cargo back a few yards. The next day the boat, in better humor, pleased Kristaver’s crew as she plowed steadily past the other boats. For days they sailed through the snow and anchored at night. The men began to look alike, snow-covered, and to learn to stand wind and cold.

As they passed Helgeland, the Nordland boats came out to join them. Soon the waters were covered with sailing ships and a few steamers. Held over by the weather at Bodo, Jacob was nearly killed in a fight. Henry Rabben carried him on board, and the next day Jacob was sailing along with the rest. Whenever the Southlanders met the Nordlanders, there was likely to be a fight in which everybody joined.

One day, across the West Fjord, they sighted Lofoten, a long chain of snow-streaked mountains. At the foot of the mountain wall lay the fishing station from which rose the odor of fish-oil pitch, and fish. Peter’s and Kristaver’s crew were to share a hut there for the winter.

When the Inspector raised the signal flag for the first sea-going day, everybody was ready to head for the banks. It was a great day when they first put out the nets. Each man knew that only plenty of cod in those nets could make it worthwhile to bear the wind, snow, and sea for months in that frozen place. The first day’s catch was poor, and the men were discouraged when bad weather kept them imprisoned at the station. They slept all day. When it was time for supper, each man went to his own chest to take out the flat bread, cheese, and butter his own wife or mother had put in for him; the fishermen felt that they were paying a short visit home. After the storm, they found their nets torn and tangled—a bad beginning.

When the cod came, there was no time for rest. The men pulled on their nets and filled their boats until they lay far down in the water. There was hardly time to rest after cleaning the fish before Kristaver had the men out for the next day’s fishing. Even with their big woolen gloves, their hands were rubbed raw, and ice clung to their clothes. Nevertheless, with fourteen hundred cod in a day, each man figured he would be wealthy by spring. They worked until Saturday night, when they dropped into a heavy sleep that lasted until dark on Sunday. Then, rousing themselves, they called for “Melja,” a dish fit for a wedding. They broke flat bread, put boiled fish liver over it, then grated goat’s milk cheese, and long streams of treacle. They had lived on coffee and bread for so long they could not get enough “Melja,” and Henry Rabben had to make more and more for them.

Lars was not yet a full-fledged Lofoten man; he was a “scaurie” until he stood treat. To save him embarrassment, his father gave him money to buy French brandy for all who came to the hut. Then he could hold up his head among the fishermen.

As the fishing slackened, the men began to wonder whether this would be a golden year after all. After weeks passed with no cod running, Kristaver listened to the inner voice that had led him right before; this time it told him to turn east. He spoke to Peter about it and then led his men silently down to the Seal at night to row away. As dawn came, they saw a host of boats coming out of harbors, all hurrying as though they had news of fish. Then they saw a whale spouting. Where there is a whale, there are herring; where there are herring, there are cod.

After the whale had been driven into a fjord, trouble began because the steamers came and blocked the entrance to keep the fishermen out. The fishermen, seeing shoals of fish just inside the fjord, were frantic to get them. The cod were gold just outside their reach. Men cannot stand back under such circumstances, and so they began to fight the men on the steamers. Driven back by streams of boiling water from hoses, the fishermen were about to give up when Kaneles swam under the steamer and came up on the other side to turn the hoses on the steamer men. Then the fight started all over the ships until the fishermen drove their little boats past the steamers. Soon the fjord was packed with boats. The fish were so thick that nets filled immediately, but the boats were so close that the nets fouled. Not until the next day, when the Inspector brought law into the fjord, could the fishermen pull in their nets. Then Arnt came into his own. He built a cabin on the shore so that Kristaver’s men would not freeze while they slept at night. Elezeus was nearly frozen that first night, and he never recovered; but Henry Rabben gave him the sacrament, and he died in peace.

Sailing back to the fishing station, the Seal heeled over in a storm. Kaneles was knocked unconscious, but Kristaver held him while the others clung to the keel. Peter Suzansa, in the Sea-fire, was swept by them in the storm. Jacob Damnit-all-with-a-limp was able to tack around and drive his boat over the keel while his own men pulled in the survivors, all but Kaneles.

When his boat was recovered after the storm, Kristaver put his new mast four inches farther aft than it had been before. After that he was able to make her stand up. When he sailed home in the fair spring winds, he felt that she was a Viking ship and he a chieftain.

Critical Evaluation:

THE LAST OF THE VIKINGS is an epic of the lives of Norwegian fishermen who spend the greater part of their days on the sea, and of their wives who are condemned to bitter anxiety during the months of their husbands’ absence. In open boats scarcely different in construction from those used by their Viking ancestors, these fishermen, in constant battle with the elements, sail the long distance north in search of cod. Johan Bojer vividly depicts the struggle against wind and weather, with danger lurking in every wave.

It is a simple story that Bojer has to tell, and yet it is most effective. It is one of those books that unrolls a canvas on which the artist has employed no bright colors to attract the eye, and yet the characters become living personalities and grip the onlooker. With a few strokes of the pen, Bojer can produce a striking contrast between the peace of the land and the danger of the sea. The peace on shore is a peace made almost insufferable because of the difficulty of the humble peasants of the Norwegian coast country to make a bare living on the land.

Kristaver Myran, the protagonist of THE LAST OF THE VIKINGS, is one of the great characters of modern Norwegian fiction. He is the embodiment of a starkly realistic spirituality characteristic of a race with special depths of darkness to set off the beauty of its northern sunlight. Kristaver had become sole owner of a boat with a reputation for capsizing so often that when it was put up for auction he was the only bidder. He had been a headman for many years but only part owner in the boat; an occasionally successful fishing season did him little good because the profits had to be divided among six men. He owed for the boat, it is true, and would have had to go deeper in debt if he alone had to equip six men for a winter’s fishing. It was foolhardy, but he had made his choice. This attitude is characteristic of Bojer’s pessimistic realism or perhaps of a vague optimism in which things can get no worse so one strikes out hoping to improve his lot a little. It is not the sort of vision to lift the author into the charmed circle of the purveyors of gladness or of that benign optimism which is soothing to, and eagerly consumed by, some readers.

Kristaver’s wife presents a touching picture of a woman who had passed the seventeen years of her married life on the coast but who had lived her earlier life in a valley among the forests and mountains and was now as little reconciled to her life by the sea as she had been on the first day of it. Kristaver was out on the sea the greater part of the year, chaining Marza to a life on the barren shore and filling her with such fear and unrest during the long winter nights that it was all she could do to restrain her impulse to flee from it all. She was as homesick now as she had been through the first year of her married life; she might do the work of two or three, but she never succeeded in working herself into a feeling of belonging.

It is in the person of Lars, Kristaver’s son, at sea for the first time, that Bojer tells of his own experiences as a Norwegian fisherman. He writes of a life of which he has been a part, and his vivid descriptions are the result of his experiences with the fishing fleet. He is quoted as saying: “I have written the novel as a monument to my comrades of the Lofoten fishing life.” Bojer was a poor boy, born March 6, 1872, at Orkdalsora, near Trondheim. The greater part of his childhood was passed at Risen, on the other side of the fjord. He fished in the fjord, tended cattle in the fields in summer, and went once a week to school, to stay two days. On Sundays he went to church with his parents, and in the evenings he sat around the fire and listened to stories. All was preparatory to the time when Bojer turned to writing.

Bojer’s novel is a worthy monument to the life of the Norwegian fisherman, and it is proving to be an enduring one. Bojer has done for the Lofoten fisherman what Bjornstjerne Bjornson, in his early peasant tales, did for the simple Norwegian peasants. Bojer’s unique talent lies in his psychological study of the fishing society in which the fishermen and their families participate, an analysis as profound as any that has been made of one of the more complicated existences. Bojer is deceptively simple in his depiction of character, and yet in this simplicity there is a ruthless objectivity and a dispassionate view. He declines to destroy his objective stance by interjecting himself in the novel or by interfering on behalf of his central figures. He steps back and allows the worst to happen if it must, for his is an uncompromising realism stemming from his own experience.

No other Norwegian writer of his generation has succeeded in gaining the ear of the American public more quickly than did Bojer. Before 1919 his name was virtually unknown on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. THE GREAT HUNGER (1918) was the first of his books to appear in English. THE FACE OF THE WORLD (1917) was also published in English in 1919. Three other works followed in 1920, which was the heyday of his literary activity. THE LAST OF THE VIKINGS is a work from the latter part of this productive period. While lacking some of the fire of his earlier works, THE LAST OF THE VIKINGS stands unexcelled as a sea story in the Jack London tradition of intense realism.