Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 876

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It is clear that the salient thematic issue involves the blindness of the king (monarchical authority) to the plight of his subjects; the injustice of a hierarchical, feudal system based on private ownership of property (land, in particular) that fosters violent competition; and the priority of the spiritual good of the community over the claims of the wealth-seeking individual. On the surface, it is easy to reduce such a complex web of thematic motifs to the simplistic idea that money, or speculation of property, corrupts; that wealth is the root of all evil. If one reflects further, however, one can see that it is on the problematic relation between the king and the parson, who represents the peasantry or common people, that the text focuses. Although the prospect of owning the silver ruins the people, the parson believes that it can do good in the service of the country.

When the king inquires if the pastor is ready to be responsible for surrendering that wealth to the Fatherland no matter what happens to the parishioners, he says that he is, and that the fate of his flock “can rest in God’s hand.” This demonstrates the pastor’s independence of mind, his strong faith, and his loyalty to the welfare of the nation. He is therefore selfless both as peasant and as pastor in relation to a larger good to which, he believes, even the king should submit. This value the king confirms when he decides to preserve the integrity of the peasants: “Inasmuch as you have labored and starved a lifetime to make this people such as you would have it, you may keep it as it is.”

Connected with this paternalistic care for the spiritual health of the peasants is the king’s conservative attitude that these subjects should not disturb the status quo or rebel against the present social arrangement. The silver mine betokens disruption and subversion of the existing class system. The fratricide committed by Olaf Svard (recounted in the parson’s story told to the king) and the promise Svard exacts from the parson before he is hanged (that nothing of the mine be given to his children) proves this unsettling effect of the possibility of access to power through wealth.

The fact that the peasantry delegate their right of representation to the pastor may argue for their conservatism, their habit of allowing others to speak and make decisions for them. Because of his poverty and honesty, however, the pastor demonstrates the unifying and stabilizing practice of democracy: He refuses to make his wisdom dominate his flock. He subordinates himself to his parishioners. In contrast, the king maintains his aristocratic distance up to the end, refusing even to acknowledge openly his mistake in not recognizing the pastor underneath the peasant, even though he affirms the superior value of such “men” over money. The king reconfirms the pastor’s role of “spiritual adviser” in this validation of unflinching self-denial of which the pastor is the model.

Where, then, is the criticism of hierarchy? It appears in the pastor’s decision not to reveal himself to the king and simply deal with him as a peasant, forcing the king to regard him seriously for what he has to say. The king not only ignores the peasants but also despises them. By expressing his criticism of the pastor as “a bit arbitrary” and authoritarian because he “wants to be the only one to counsel and rule in this parish,” preaching “a pure and clear gospel,” the peasant detaches himself from his assigned role as pastor and indirectly voices the protest of the dispossessed subjects and plebeians against indifferent rule. The king’s patronizing approval of the pastor as portrayed by the peasant sanctions the fact of class division: “’Then, at all events, he has led and managed in the best possible way.’ He didn’t like it that the peasant complained of one who was placed above him. ’To me it appears as though good habits and old-time simplicity were the rule here.’” “Good habits” and “simplicity” imply submission to an unjust social order. It is only through this ruse, an example of peasant cunning, that the peasant succeeds in bringing the king to listen to him and realize that the dominated class has something that equals if not transcends the honor and aristocratic learning of the privileged nobility.

However, this project of the narrator-peasant to engage in dialogue with the king and teach him a lesson is accomplished at the expense of maintaining the peasants’ poverty as their only resource, the sole guarantee of their virtue. So long as the king represents the Fatherland, his right to rule is not questioned—but then the peasants in the beginning do not really recognize him. In effect, the king has not earned the right to exercise kingly authority, and he remains powerless at the end, even though he may have gained insight into the humanity of his peasant subjects. His rule remains arbitrary; the “silver” quality of the people remains hidden, unexplored and untapped. The egalitarian peace and communal wholeness of such rural retreat, with nature and religion blended together, will endure despite intrusions of arbitrary power and the seductions of the individualistic, war-ridden world.