Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 924
Although he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1944, the Danish writer Johannes V. Jensen has been little known in the United States—a remarkable oversight in view of the fact that for almost fifty years after his first visit to the United States in 1897, Jensen was a major interpreter of American life and letters for Scandinavian readers. His preoccupation with the United States was only part of a larger interest in and frank acceptance of the modern age in all its nervous variety. Jensen’s probing curiosity and rich imagination ranged over the whole of the modern world and found expression in a large published body of novels, verse, essays, short stories, and travel writing.
Jensen was born in that section of Northern Jutland that is known as Himmerland, a region characterized by large tracts of somber landscapes broken only by a few sparse settlements and occasional farms. His descent from peasant stock and a boyhood spent in play among the burial mounds of Jutland left a distinct mark on Jensen’s writings. It shows up not only in a dry and often mordant humor but also in the fact that, throughout his career, Jensen kept his origins and the distant past that lay behind his people as constant points of reference. He was a prolific writer. In addition to the monumental The Long Journey, he published several other books on a variety of subjects, often with his own interpretations of Darwinism. Few writers have done so much to interpret in creative terms the past of their own races and to point to the interdependence of past, present, and future; and perhaps no writer has caught the intimate charm of Danish nature quite as has Jensen.
The English translation of The Long Journey, the author’s most ambitious work, takes the form of a long cyclic novel of three volumes: Fire and Ice, The Cimbrians, and Christopher Columbus. The epic traces the journey of the people of the North from the forest through the rigors of the Ice Age and out on many journeys in search of the “lost land,” which is represented symbolically by the warm tropical forest of the race’s infancy. The work’s aim is to show the development of humankind from primeval chaos to modern civilization. The narrative is in story form, showing how the actual stages of the ascent of humankind and of the climatic conditions of the earth’s surface have left their traces in mythology and religion. On a symbolic level, the work shows how the forest became a ship and the ship became a church, until people such as Christopher Columbus changed the church back into a ship in their quest for the New World. With the discovery of the New World and its natives, the ship reverts to the forest, and the cycle is complete.
The Long Journey should not be taken seriously as anthropology, yet to refer to it simply as a novel falls short of an accurate appraisal of its merit. It is a work of mythology that, in the boldness of its conception, deserves a place among the finest works of fiction of the modern era. To readers who hold a firm conviction that the account of the world related in the first five books of the Bible is literally true, The Long Journey may be heresy. Jensen was convinced that the world, as it stands, is open to various explanations. Although in this work he makes no direct statements about evolution, he regarded this theory as another indication of the advance of humankind. Few readers will contend, however, that Jensen wrote this novel as a conscious and scientific attempt to refute biblical interpretation, or that he unconsciously refuted it. Evolution, according to Jensen, is strong evidence for the existence of a supernatural deity and is probably the one principle of life that makes homage to God obligatory. In The Long Journey he implies that the world would be lacking as a piece of divine handiwork if there had been no progress, no evolution, within the most recent thousands of years.
In many respects, The Long Journey is similar to Knut Hamsun’s Markens grøde (1917; Growth of the Soil, 1920), in that both novels go back to a primitive world, both deal with elemental traits in human beings, and both rise, in some instances, to great heights as truly epic portrayals of the workings of the human heart. Here the similarities stop, however. When Hamsun’s novel concludes, the sons of Isak and Inger have grown up, and even Barbro, the once citified lady, has married and settled down. Hamsun covers the period from about 1916 to roughly 1950. In contrast, when Jensen’s Gunung Api stands in airy solitude in the third paragraph of The Long Journey, chewing the fire within him, there is no fire, no ice; there is nothing but unmeasured time, millions of years before the modern era. When Jensen is through, Christopher Columbus has discovered America. Jensen does not note time except by its passing.
A full understanding of The Long Journey requires some familiarity with archaeology, geology, ethnology, and mythology, for the work deals with the unfolding of a particular idea and the delineation of that theory of origin, growth, and development through a long period of time. Parts of the novel are ostensibly irrelevant, in that they apply neither to science nor to literature. On the whole, however, The Long Journey is a unique and epic treatment of the genesis of humanity and the world.