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By Johannes V. Jensen
Translated by Alan G. Bower
Seattle, Washington: Mermaid Press, 1992
ISBN: 1-880755-06-8
277 pages

Bob Corbett
January 2015

Sven H. Rossel writes an afterword to this novel. I noticed it was there, and it is, as the term suggests, at the very end of the novel, but I decided not to delve into that for fear it would prejudice my reading of the novel. However, after I wrote my comments on the novel, I decided to read the novel since I was deeply troubled of how to understand what I had just read. It was an enormous help, but I was quite happy that I didn’t read the afterword first. Thus I will make my comments on the novel below which I made as I read along, and then, only at the end of those comments, which marked the ending of my reading the novel, will I share more about Rossel’s very useful remarks. Despite the fact that they are very enlightening, I think it would be better to read the novel before reading any of his comments. With that “caution” I present my comments that come from reading the novel without any “background” information.

I found this to be an interesting but rather difficult work to follow. It seems to have been written just about 1900-1901. For the first 100 pages or so I thought I was probably reading about the history of Denmark and Sweden in the earlier 19th century. I simply don’t know much of the earlier history of those two countries. Thus I was quite surprised to be given a date 1520 about 100 pages into the work.

The novel opens with the story of Mikkel Thogersen, a university student for a short while, and then he drops out. He was a composer of odes and couplets. He is very poor, and struggling always for food, living in a sort of student quarters of the university.

He has an attraction with a beautiful young woman in his area of Copenhagen, and is simply shocked with a soldier, who was born and raised in the same rural area a Mikkel, sneaks into the garden of the woman’s house and rapes her. This is sort of a last straw of disgust for the city on Mikkel’s part and he leaves the university and Copenhagen returning home to his small village and family farm.

Lots goes wrong there, but most especially his behavior to Ane Mette, a local girl he has always liked, but he takes her out into a boat and captures her and rapes her and runs away with her, but she eventually ditches him. She never goes back home and ends up marrying and having a number of children.

There is a gap of some years and we pick Mikkel now in military service. After some years he was a bishop’s servant and was sent to deliver a message to another bishop. This leads to more message carrying and his rise in position.

To this part of the novel this has primarily been the story of Mikkel and his life. Now he teams up with Axel, who claims to have a map of a treasure. He blabs about it to anyone who will listen. The treasure map and directions are written in Hebrew, which Mikkel can read. Among others Axel tells Otte Iversen about the treasure. Otte was the soldier who came from the same area as Mikkel and wanted and planned to marry Ane Mette, the woman whom Mikkel had raped and run away with. Otte recognizes that the man who gave the map to Axel was Mendel, Susanna’s son, the woman whom he had raped in Copenhagen some years earlier. However, we have skipped many years and by this time Otte, the young soldier of the early part of the novel had been married for 20 years and has 8 kids. Mikkel, himself, is over 40 and has a new job he loves as the King’s Guard, thanks to the archbishop for getting him the job.

Mikkel grows slowly in importance, first as a bishop’s servant and then he becomes a member of the King’s guard. Axel comes to deliver a message to the bishop and he and Mikkel become close. Axel constantly makes his claim to know of this treasure and it is actually from the woman that Mikkel had loved at the beginning of the novel.

Slowly there is a gradual change from Mikkel being the central character to Axel filling that roll. On Nov. 7, 1520 there was a huge massacre in Sweden and Lucie, a girl of the streets, steals Alex’s map and runs away. From this point on for the next hundred or so pages the focus is on Alex and no longer Mikkel. However, the primary story is about one of the two of them, and what’s going on in Denmark and Sweden is sort of a side-bar to the novel.

Axil simply adores women and flits from one to the next, often several at the same time. He and Sigrid get engaged, but Axel has no idea his map and paper have been stolen.

Axel does marry Sigrid, but runs away the same day, heading back to Denmark to see Kirsten!!! On the way Axel meet Magdalene in a deep forest and spends nearly a year there!!! The guy’s taste for women in insatiable!

“As for Axel, the one who had no birthright, it can be reported that he traveled far and wide, with many changes of fortune. . . Axel was impelled by a shifting infatuation with the young women of the world. It should be mentioned that his sublime experiences with the loveliest of these girls led gradually to a surfeit. Not so much that he avoided them – no, not at all. It was only that he was just as thankful as he was insatiable. When it came his way he was happy with a drop of joy – but also with a flood, of course.”

After a few years Mikkel finds Axel in this journeying about and thinks Axel has wronged him, so he kills Axel and steals the capsule where the map is supposedly hidden, but discovered it is empty, Lucie had stolen it.

Finally in a third section of the novel we turn to larger historical issues. We learn more of King Christian’s fateful night of Feb. 10, 1523. He sails back and forth several times from Jutland to Middlefart and can’t decide where to go or what to do. His power and kingdom seems (and is) lost. He is at the end of his reign as king and things are simply falling apart, including himself and he just doesn’t know what to do.

Later in that same year four German mercenaries turn up in Amsterdam and reclaim the debt of gold which they got with the document they had stolen from Lucie. Axel’s treasure map was real! However, they simply squander the wealth.

Finally we return more fully to the life of the aged Mikkel. In those later years he returns to visit his boyhood home. He brother lives there with his wife and their three sons. The whole area of peasants is gearing up for war to defend the king against the nobles. However, Mikkel, old now and tired of war, declines to get involved. The peasants do well for a while but soon the nobles bring in foreign fighters and have better weapons, including guns against the traditional axes and such of the farmers. They are defeated and many put to death.

Mikkel goes off to care for his king who now is in captivity. During this period the figure of Jacob and his little deaf-mute girl enter the novel. She is likely to be Mikkel’s granddaughter but he has little to do with her or Jacob. The two are musicians, even though the girl is a deaf-mute and people love them.

We move to some years later and the girl is now about 18. They decide to make contact with Mikkel and go to where he is caring for the king, but just at that time Mikkel is sent away by the king on a mission and the king himself becomes friends with Jacob and enjoys the music the two make for the people who are there with him in his captivity.

Mikkel’s “assignment” from the king has been to go to a very learned man, Zacharias, and to have a question answered for the king: Does the sun revolve around the earth or the other way round? Mikkel presents the question to Zacharias. He isn’t much interested in the question, but decides to tell Mikkel about the unnatural (to put it mildly) son of the king who is hidden away with Zacharias and whom he cares for. Mikkel is so disturbed by what he sees that he goes out, gets drunk and tells people of what the king and Zacharias have done. The people are wildly incensed and burn both Zacharias and the kings’ unnatural son at the stake. This drives Zacharias’ pain over the top and he quickly declines and, back at the king’s castle, dies a short time later.

The novel was such a mix of seeming historical details, yet wild and fantastic happenings as well. Further, while the novel is called THE FALL OF THE KING and the “frame” of the story concerns the fall of King Charles II of Denmark, the king is actually a relatively minor character in the novel itself. I came away with some strong sense of the nature of life in Denmark in the late 16th century, but not with any clear sense of the “fall” of the king himself.


Rossel points out that”

“Jensen blends dream passages of exquisite lyrical beauty with explosive, ruthless naturalistic scenes.”

He also argues that Jensen was not aiming at historical accuracy:

“In contrast to so many other historical novels, “The Fall of the King” does not depict the life of the principal characters in great detail.”

That particular fact had been a troubling aspect for me in reading the novel. We follow the life of Mikkel mainly, but also significantly of Axel and a few other characters as well, but relatively little about the king himself or the progress of the deposing of the king.

Rossel further argues that evidence that Jensen did exactly as he wished with the novel is evidenced by an ad which Jensen approved that was to help sell the novel:

“Medieval mysticism is here spun together with love and bloody scenes from the rough period of the reign of Christian II, when Denmark’s time as a great power was turning into decline.”

Thus is seems quite clear that the challenging structure of the novel was carefully crafted by Johannes V. Jensen. It was indeed a challenge, but I’m just not sure it worked so very well for this reader.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett