Last month I spent a memorable week in Denmark. Not the little West Australian town of that name but the Scandinavian country, which I was visiting in person for the first time. Yet this wasn’t a first encounter with Denmark, because in my imagination I’d often travelled there on a magic carpet of stories.
For one thing, I’d read fiction by a few Danish writers. A handful of sentimental tales by Hans Christian Andersen had assuaged the growing pains of my childhood. Later, Karen Blixen, who wrote as Isak Dinesen, had beguiled me with her novel Out of Africa and her short story Babette’s Feast, both of which were converted into memorable movies. I’d also admired Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, by Peter Hoeg. In a broader non-fictional sense, ‘stories’ about aspects of Nordic identity are implicit in sombre essays I’d dipped into years ago by the 19th-century proto-existentialist Soren Kierkegaard, and in the writings of his antagonist, the famous nationalist poet, educator and politician N.F.S. Grundtvig, to whose work some Copenhagen friends had recently introduced me.
But more deep-seated were certain non-Danish sources for some of the Danish images in my head. The experience of being physically present in Denmark reminded me that two of the greatest masterworks of English literature have Danish settings and vividly express distinctive elements in the cultural history of that nation.
One can’t walk around Kronborg castle in Elsinore without recalling scenes or lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and recognising how much the mood of that play was shaped by the upheavals of the Lutheran reformation that had begun not far south of Elsinore. (In some ways Danish culture remains profoundly Lutheran in character.) When the play opens, the young prince himself has been studying at Wittenberg University, where Martin Luther was a Professor.
The conscience-burdened self-questioning that suffuses Hamlet’s soliloquies, troubling his sense of purpose, is deeply Protestant in character. Standing in the lavishly decorated chapel, the sole part of Kronborg Castle that has survived in its original 1572 form unscathed by fire and decay, one can readily picture Claudius confessing there to the king’s murder. Several tapestries still hanging on the castle walls are original furnishings, some large enough for a ‘wretched, rash, intruding fool’ like Polonius to hide behind.
Shakespeare adapted his plot from an old Scandinavian legend recounted by the 12th-century historian Saxo Grammaticus, but the English stage version from Tudor times ensures that Elsinore’s 16th-century castle has become Hamlet’s home, contributing to the allure of Denmark as a story-haunted place.
In a similar way the mighty Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf belongs to both Denmark and England. Written down a thousand years ago on the basis of previous oral transmission, it’s the earliest extant long poem in the English language, but its story has a Danish origin, incorporating people and events from 6th-century Denmark. While the eponymous hero himself is actually from the Geat tribe in what is now southern Sweden, the main narrative action begins when he comes to the aid of Hrothgar, King of the Danes, whose mead-hall Heorot is being terrorised by the monster Grendel. Archeologists have recently established that Heorot had a historical reality on the island of Zealand, where modern Copenhagen, Elsinore and Roskilde (the country’s ancient capital) are located. At Lejre (near Roskilde), the site of a royal court in pre-Viking times, the remains of a huge 6th-century feasting hall have been uncovered.
So Hamlet and Beowulf, this pair of ‘English’ literary heroes, have Danish origins. Yet the influence has not been in only one direction. The two quintessentially Danish 19th-century philosophers mentioned above were admirers of the great English works that their own culture had generated. Grundtvig, an enthusiast for Anglo-Saxon literature, translated Beowulf into Danish, and Kierkegaard made frequent reference to the hero of Hamlet as a way of meditating indirectly on his own habits of melancholy introspection.