Terje Vigen

Valor implausible—Usannsynlig tapperhet

Terje Vigen

Image: Norsk Folkemuseum

M. MICHAEL BRADY
Asker, Norway

One of the enduring legends of Norway is that of Terje Vigen, celebrated in an 1862 poem by Henrik Ibsen. It describes the saga of Terje, who in 1809, when southern Norway was blockaded by the British during the Napoleonic Wars, attempts to run the blockade in a small rowboat to smuggle in barrels of grain from Denmark to make bread to feed his starving wife and daughter.

Terje’s attempt was futile. He was captured and imprisoned on a British prison hulk. After the wars were over in 1814, he returned to Norway to find that his wife and daughter had died. He then became a pilot and later rescued an English lord, who he subsequently found had been the commander of the ship that had captured him in 1809. He has a chance for revenge, which he graciously does not take.

The poem and its hero became icons of Norwegian coastal culture. That made Terje Vigen nigh real. A late 19th-century artist’s image of a bearded coastal fisherman, smoking a pipe and wearing a sou’wester oilskin hat, was so much used in Tiedemanns Tobacco Company (1778-2008) advertising that it became accepted as a portrait of Terje Vigen.

The legend of Terje Vigen was based on the experiences of real-life coastal pilots. There has long been speculation as to whether it actually happened. Most recently, social anthropologist Runar Døving pointed out in the Morgenbladet cultural weekly that the chances are slim. Why, he asks, would anyone row across the Skagerrak, the arm of the North Sea between Denmark and Norway, when they easily could pick oysters on the shore?

The answer, he believes, is that ways of thinking vary. A hungry coastal fisherman farmer doesn’t think of grain. Fish proteins taste better, satisfy better, and are healthier. But a hungry inland farmer doesn’t seek edible fish. In Ibsen’s time and perhaps long thereafter, the mindset of the inland farmer prevailed and dictated that only grains and meats could assure sustenance.


Terje Vigen

Usannsynlig tapperhet

Translated by ANDY MEYER

En av de langvarige legendene i Norge er den som handler om Terje Vigen, feiret i et dikt fra 1862 av Henrik Ibsen. Legenden og diktet beskriver sagaen om Terje, som i 1809, da Sør-Norge ble blokkert av britene under Napoleonskrigene, forsøkte å bryte blokaden i en liten robåt for å smugle inn byggtønner fra Danmark for å lage brød til sin sultne kone og datter.

Terjes forsøk var nytteløst. Han ble tatt til fange og fengslet på en britisk fengsel. Etter at krigene var over i 1814, vendte han tilbake til Norge for å finne ut at kona og datteren var døde. Han ble deretter pilot.
Senere reddet han en engelsk herre. Han fant ut at herren hadde vært kapteinen på skipet som hadde tatt ham i 1809. Han har en hevnsjanse, som han nådig ikke tar.

Diktet og helten ble ikoner i norsk kystkultur. Det gjorde Terje Vigen nærmest ekte. Et kunstnerbilde fra slutten av 1800-tallet av en skjegget kystfisker, som røyker pipe og har på seg en sydvest, ble så mye brukt i Tiedemanns Tobakksfabrikk reklamer at det ble godkjent som et portrett av Terje Vigen.

Legenden om Terje Vigen var basert på erfaringene fra kystpiloter i virkeligheten. Det har lenge vært spekulasjoner i om det faktisk skjedde. Senest påpekte sosialantropolog Runar Døving i Morgenbladet at det er lite mulig. Hvorfor, spør han, ville noen ro over Skagerrak, armen til Nordsjøen mellom Danmark og Norge, når man lett kunne plukke østers i fjæra?

Svaret, mener han, er at tenkemåter varierer. En sulten kystfiskerbonde tenker ikke på korn. Fiskeproteiner smaker bedre, tilfreds­stiller bedre og er sunnere. Men en sulten inn­landsbonde leter ikke etter spiselig fisk. På Ibsens tid, og kanskje langt etterpå, hersket tankegangen til innlandsbonden og dikterte at bare korn og kjøtt kunne sikre næring.


This article originally appeared in the Sept. 18, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.

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