Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 984

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.

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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.

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