It’s felt timely to pick up Theodor Storm’s classic novella The Dykemaster (in German der Schimmelreiter, The Rider on the White Horse) during this November week: the COP 26 conference has just finished in Glasgow and followers will be aware of the precariousness of island nations, and indeed all low-lying countries, in these times of global heating, rising tides, catastrophic storms and flooding. Though written in 1888, and set in the pre-industrial mid 18th century, the novella illustrates the relentless struggle of coastal communities for survival in the face of the ferocious and unpredictable forces of nature, namely the sea. It also illustrates the dichotomy between science and superstition in their response, not to mention the influence of politics and personal ambition. Sounds familiar?
The novella is bookended by a complex narrative framework, but the main story takes place in the area of North Germany which is now Schleswig-Holstein, just south of the Danish border. Though places are never named in the story it’s clear that the setting is around the North Sea town of Husum, where Theodor Storm lived for much of his life. The Angel Classics edition I read, translated by Denis Jackson, has a handy map of the area, based on an older 1652 map, also included, and I needed to refer to the map several times while reading.
The main character is Hauke Haien, whom we first meet as a young lad, and a clever young lad at that, as he’s a maths and geometry whizz, and has already worked out that the gradient of the dykes, which surround and protect their community, makes them more vulnerable to storm breaches. He goes to work for the dykemaster as a lowly servant and, thanks to his intelligence and hard work, eventually marries Elke, the boss’s daughter, and becomes dykemaster himself. He then sets about a tireless programme of dyke management and improvement, including building a new dyke to facilitate the reclamation of a new area of land or polder. But his relentless hard work ethic and insistence on new methods of dyke management win him few friends in the community, and indeed bring him enemies, which plays out in the final dramatic denouement of the worst storm they’ve seen in decades.
Now, weaving in and out of this narrative of Hauke’s purposeful attention to the dykes—and I did find all that quite fascinating—is the story of the ghostly rider on the white horse. He was first seen by one of the narrators of the frame story, but the story then resurfaces when Hauke buys a white horse and the villagers note that the skeleton of a white horse which they could see lying on a low lying island off the coast has disappeared. It’s this white horse which Hauke is riding on that last fateful night. The skeleton then reappears, visible again on the island off the coast. Now while we sophisticated 21st century readers can enjoy this ghostly aspect of the story, knowing it’s a fiction, and Storm is excellent at painting the weird ghostliness of this coastal landscape, the story also highlights the contrast between rational thinking and the superstition and fearfulness prevalent at that time. When Hauke and his little daughter Wienke are looking out over the wintry ice he observes that the invisible swelling currents of water had split the ice, and …out of the fissures… the mist rose like billowing smoke, in which a line of weird droll figures jumped against one another once more, bowing and scraping, and suddenly expanding in a terrifying manner. Wienke is terrified, thinking the figures are sea-devils or mermaids. Hauke, ever rational, comforts her, saying they’re poor hungry birds…catching the fish which come in those cracks when the mist is rising.
I really enjoyed the details of everyday life related in both the main and frame narratives. These are elucidated further in the detailed notes and translator’s preface in the Angel Classics edition and in the Afterword by academic David Jackson which contains a really useful account of the historical, political and literary movements of the time. (Though I didn’t agree entirely with his take on Elke as the ever supportive wife. I thought Storm was hinting that she got a bit fed up with Hauke riding off to inspect the dykes at all times of the day and night.) I appreciated the chance to read the novella in translation as the technical and topographical details would make this a demanding read in the original. I found the translation conveyed well the atmosphere of this mysterious coastal landscape, however it needs an update in its word choice for Wienke’s learning difficulties please, both in the text and in David Jackson’s Afterword.
The thing I most enjoyed though was learning about the struggles of this coastal community to combat the powerful and catastrophic forces of nature some 250 years ago. And the plea of Theodor Storm, through his intelligent and progressive dykemaster Hauke, for a rational approach to dealing with such problems. How much more now, faced with such problems on a global scale, and of our own making, do we need to listen to the science.