The Sailor-Boy's Tale Summary
by Isak Dinesen

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(Short Stories for Students)

Isak Dinesen’s ‘‘The Sailor-Boy’s Tale,’’ was first published in 1942 in Winter’s Tales, her second collection of short stories.

In this story, Simon, a young sailor boy, rescues a falcon, which has gotten tangled in the ropes of the main mast of a ship. Two years later, Simon, now seventeen and working on a different boat, goes ashore at a port town on the northern coast of Norway. There he meets Nora, a girl of thirteen or fourteen, who promises to give him a kiss if he comes back the next day. The next night, however, he accidentally kills Ivan, a Russian sailor whom he has befriended. He runs to Nora, who gives him the promised kiss. He is eventually taken in by Sunniva, an old woman, who helps him to evade capture for the murder by pretending that he is her son. She then explains to him that she herself was the falcon he rescued (as she sometimes changes into a bird) and that she is now rescuing him in return.

This story contains several stylistic elements typical of Dinesen’s fiction. It is narrated in the style of a fairy tale and includes the supernatural element of the old woman, presumably a witch, who is able to change herself into a falcon. It is also a coming-of-age story, in which the sailor boy, through the rites of passage enacted by the act of murdering a man and the kissing of a girl, is transformed into a man. Destiny is another theme central to the story, as Simon seems to have been destined to meet the falcon/old woman just when he is in need of her help; his passage into manhood is also marked by his ability to accept his destiny. The theme of storytelling is indicated both by the title of the story and by the ending line, which assures the reader that Simon lived ‘‘to tell the story.’’


(Short Stories for Students)

‘‘The Sailor-Boy’s Tale’’ opens with the sailor boy, Simon, aboard a ship, the Charlotte, observing a falcon whose foot has gotten caught in the mesh atop the main mast. Simon climbs the mast to untangle the falcon’s foot. When the bird scratches his hand, drawing blood, he hits it over the head and tucks it into his shirt. After her climbs down from the mast, Simon lets the bird go, and it flies off.

Two years later, Simon is working aboard the Hebe, which is docked at Bodo on the coast of Norway. Wandering around ashore, Simon comes upon a girl of thirteen or fourteen, whose name is Nora, standing at a fence. He asks whom she is waiting for, and she replies that she is waiting for the man she is going to marry. Simon offers Nora the orange he has purchased in exchange for a kiss; but just as she is about to kiss him she is called away by her father. She tells Simon she will kiss him if he comes back the next day. The following day, Simon goes ashore with a group of Russian sailors from another ship. He goes for a drink with them and is set upon by Ivan, who drunkenly expresses great affection for the young man. Simon leaves to find Nora but gets lost and comes upon Ivan instead. Ivan embraces him with great fervor, and Simon, repulsed by the man and wishing to get away to find Nora, pulls out a knife and stabs him. Ivan falls to the ground, dead, and Simon runs off to meet Nora.

He confesses to Nora that he has killed a man, and she assures him that she does not hate him for it. But she explains that she cannot help to hide him because her father is a parson and would not allow it. She kisses Simon, and he runs off in hopes of evading capture for the murder of Ivan. He enters a dance hall. An old woman enters the dance hall, demanding to see her son. Although Simon does not know her, she seems familiar to him, and he obediently leaves with her. The old woman, whose name is Sunniva, takes Simon to her home where she disguises him as a boy native to the region. When the Russian sailors enter in search of the man who murdered Ivan, Sunniva claims that Simon is her son, and they leave. Sunniva then explains to Simon that she herself was the falcon he rescued years ago; she sometimes changes into a...

(The entire section is 1,403 words.)