"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

August 26, 2014

"The Rider on the White Horse" by Theodor Storm (The Art of the Novella 20)

The northern parts of the Netherlands and Germany - all the way to Denmark - are boarded by a shallow sea with tidal mud flats and wetlands, as well as a series of small islands. The land here is continually contested by the sea and must be protected behind tall dikes - the landscape was in fact formed by storm tides in the 10th to 14th centuries. At low tide, nowadays mud flat hiking is a popular pastime. For its biological diversity (you can find seals here), the Wadden Sea has been ascribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List.

[Mud flats of the Wadden Sea - Photo Wikipedia]

It is in this area, along the German coast, that Theodor Storm's novella The Rider on the White Horse (Der Schimmelreiter), written in 1888, is situated. It is, not surprisingly, the story of a dikemaster and his dike, which is battered by a huge storm as well. But the tale starts as a ghost story: a traveler along this North Sea coast is caught in rough weather, and through the wind and rain glimpses a ghostly rider on a white horse, rising and plunging somewhere offshore. He takes shelter at an inn in the area and when he happens to mention the apparition, the local schoolmaster volunteers to tell the history behind it - an alien tale, about a different world.

The story tells of an intelligent and determined young man, Hauke Haien, living in a remote community at the coast, close to these coastal marshlands continually threatened by storms and floods. He has a talent for numbers and a fascination with the ways of water and not surprisingly, becomes an apprentice to the local dikemaster. He soon makes himself indispensable and also falls in love with the daughter, Elke. When the old dikemaster dies, despite his youth, Hauke becomes his successor, and marries Elke.

[German Wadden Sea - Photo Wikipedia]

Hauke is full of ambition. His study of geometry has taught him that the present dikes with their steep sides towards the sea are not very good - it would be better to have dykes with more gradual profiles. This will also make the village safer.

Dikes are not only built for protection against the sea, they also serve to extend the land for grazing and cultivation. To open up new fields, Hauke orders the construction of a new dike, built on his new principles. But that goes against the wishes of the villagers - it will be much hard work and cost a lot of money before the new fields start bringing in profit. The villagers are also content with the dikes as they are and don't see why a - more laborious and expensive - new technique is necessary. They obey grumbling, as a dikemaster is not easily disobeyed, and the new dike is built, but Hauke stands all alone in the village, distrusted by the community. The fact that he forbids superstitious practices, such as burying something alive in the new dike (a dog), makes the separation only greater, which finally leads to sabotage. He is doing his job to technical perfection, but he forgets the human element. Symbolic for his isolation is the figure he makes when he sits on his white horse, towering high above the other villagers.

{Storm on the North Sea - Photo Wikipedia]

Of course, this is not the end of the story. A huge storm hits the village, and the old dyke is threatened... but read for yourself how this strange and powerful story ends. The climax is full of suspense... let me only say that finally, in death, Hauke becomes a ghost, galloping on his otherworldly horse along his dyke, as the narrator at the beginning of the story saw him.

This is a story of determination and devotion, of pettiness and superstition, of pride and loneliness, of the beauty and indifference of the natural world. Theodor Storm fills his tale with mud slicks, icy marshes, fog banks, raging waves, vulnerable dikes and howling winds, but in the end this is an inner landscape as well, where the savagery that forms the basis of human society is revealed. In this unenlightened universe, a great man pays with his life for his pride and creativity - a very pessimistic conclusion, were it not that his achievement - the new dike - survives his death.

The German original "Der Schimmelreiter" is available at Zeno.org and the German Gutenberg site. A new English translation by James Wright is available from New York Review Books under the title The Rider on the White Horse. This book also includes several other stories by Theodor Storm, such as the famous lyrical love story Immensee.