Johannes Vilhelm Jensen
The Long Journey
1908-22

The Plot

To the north-east of Sealand the long promontory of Kullen thrusts out from Skoane into the open sea, where the Sound passes into the Cattegats a broken rocky outline which has a strange look to one accustomed to the lowlands, taking his thoughts back to other epochs. It is an ancient line, which seems to resemble an upturned face with vague, eternal features, the face of Time.

The Sealander of a thousand and two thousand years ago saw the same profile; at the foot of Kullen old fishing sites of the Stone Age have been found; the existence of our earliest ancestors was bounded by the same horizons as ours to-day. Kullen as we see it has been crushed into shape by the ice.

But before the Ice Age, in an earlier period of the earth's history, when the northern zone still possessed its warm forests, there were mountains in Skoane, volcanos, whose eruptions have left traces like the streaks of ashes in the brick-earth of the island of Mors, which is an old sea-bed of the Tertiary Age. Infinitesimal marine creatures deposited their shells, the imperceptible accumulation of thousands of years, until they formed strata as high as hills; the sea has disappeared and its bed is stratified — so long ago is it since that hour-glass ran out. But still those streaks bear witness with the clarity of a petrified instant to the ancient volcanic eruptions: veiled halos round the sun and mighty opal sunsets with an atmosphere full of dust, inconceivably long ago. The dust fell on the sub-tropical forests at, the foot of the volcano, and a hairy being up in the trees after fruit marvelled at the flames in the air and ceased chewing an instant: what frightful man of fire could that be up in the sky? He wagged his long jaws and got smudges of dust on his nose, for there is a fine layer of dust on fruit, leaves and everything, he gets it on his fingers and it grates between his teeth. This is Man, and the tree beneath him stands in the Garden of Eden.

Kullen as it is now is like the empty site of a vanished building, the root of a mountain. When great summer clouds pile themselves dome-like over the Sound and up over Sweden, they form the outline and the peaks of a mountain-chain which once loomed here as high as they. In the light midsummer nights, when a thunderstorm beleaguers the sky and the lightnings flash out from a world of clouds like the ghosts of fires in heaven, one seems to see an immense cone astride over half the horizon with its summit crowned by lightning and with a pillar of smoke reaching upwards towards the moon — this is Gunning Api, the Source of Fire, the Father of Fear — but also of loving kindness, for at his foot the man of the woods received the gift of fire and became human, with every possibility in germ, and terror in the depths of his soul.

Here in warm forests but in a northern latitude Mankind began its long journey. And the memory of an existence in perpetual summer lives again in the innermost consciousness of all later generations, like a buried heritage of the soul, which grows with the soul and passes into ideas — imagined worlds more and more beautiful as the human extends its sway within the once unconscious creature of the woods; and from an inherited memory arise the legends of the Garden of Paradise, the Tree of Life, Happy Isles somewhere or other in the ocean which, still, spared the debasement of the world, are a refuge for the Blest; finally the idea of spheres in Heaven itself, where fallen humanity will recover its happiness — all obscure mem-ories, transfigured in the light of desire, of the Lost Country, growing and shrinking with the swing of the seasons between winter, which drives out hope, and the brief northern summer, which kindles it again, and calls up visions of promise deep down in the soul.

In winter, when thick banks of cloud heavy with snow shut out one side of the sky, with the sun low down on the other like a distant refracting disc of ice, we are reminded of the Ice Sheet which once lay right across Northern Europe, gaping towards the south with cliffs hundreds of feet high and miles wide and with deserts of ice on its back which extended to the Pole; nothing passed there but freezing hurricanes; but in the wet, slushy lowland below the edge of the ice-sheet the rein-deer splashed with broad hoofs and the mammoth felt its way among the rocks with pounding feet; the roving man, long--haired and benumbed, sought refuge in caves, or hollows in the foot of the ice-sheet from which rivers rushed forth; squadrons of' calving icebergs floated out into the Western Ocean.

When at last the ice was melted and had retreated towards the Pole it had ground the mountains of Skoane off the face of the earth, right down to their roots, and had deposited them as shingle in the Baltic; centuries of torrential rain — the Deluge — furrowed the tundra, and to the cold land that was exposed when the mills of the ice had ceased, man returned and began to learn in the school of adversity the elements of a new kind of life — though the memory of life's carefree dawn was never lost, as a race inheritance.

So great are the contrasts that have formed man's nature. But not all were thus formed. The Ice Age marked the division; it was the cause of the parting of mankind on its journey into two distinct roads, since one body remained in the North and took up the struggle with harsh conditions, became transformed, grew in humanity inwardly and upwards; while the rest turned aside from adversity and fled instead of growing; they lost themselves to the southward, followed the warm climate and continued to be the naked jungle folk they were in the beginning; even to-day their descendants live in their primitive state in the tropics.

The old warm forests of Northern Europe were razed by the ice, like the volcanos of Skoane; but man retained the fire, the hearth. In time the Northerners had new forests to dwell in, the cool leafy forests of the North; in their shade and in constant mists our ancestors grew up. A firmly rooted but profoundly restless folk; time after time, in prehistoric and historic days, the forgotten tradition of the Lost Country, still persistent in their blood, drives the Northerners from their wintry dwelling-places towards the South and brings them to prosperity in warmer climates. But as Northerners they are lost in their new home; they become absorbed in other peoples and lose the germinating power of their nature, which is bound by their destiny to the North and to a beneficent yearning to leave it. This is the history of the Migrations, of the Vikings, of the Normans. A primitive instinct finds vent in voyages: the forests change into the Ship.

Old Northern forest myths soon condensed to a universal image, the world-tree Ygdrasil. The childhood of the race and all that it absorbed in its native land, together with the craving for an outlook upon the wide world, the spirit of the race, seeks a form in Old Northern poetry and may be summed up, with a leap through time, in the old fragmentary saga of Norn Guest, who was himself imagined as a gatherer and hoarder of the ages.

In him as a figure the Northern spirit yearns beyond the North. He outlives his generation and seeks it in the Land of the Dead. North and South, which since the Lost Country have been sundered worlds, begin to come together again. Cimbrians and Teutons move southwards in Norn Guest's footsteps, and the first clash takes place between Northern "barbarians" and the nations of Antiquity. Later, when Christianity begins to penetrate to the North, it meets the people streaming southward; the Christian belief in immortality directly revives the memory of the Lost Country: from this union of South and North springs the most beautiful myth of the Middle Ages — the Virgin Mary, Goddess of Spring, the soul of the Northerner and the art of the Ancients in one, blossoming into its highest consummation at the Renaissance.

The ash Ygdrasil spreads beyond itself. In the Middle Ages it rises into a greater image, which combines with religious symbols and finds its expression in Gothic art: the Cathedral. A migration checked for the time leads to expansion in the domain of the soul; thus the aspiration of the Northerner gathers and transforms memories of the youth of the race and Christian symbols into a work of art, as the snail builds up its shell from its body: the Forest and the Ship become the Church.

With the voyages of discovery the primeval dreams force themselves to the front again, seeking their embodiment not in Heaven, in another life, but, with a certain impatience, in reality, on earth, in distant lands: the Church changes back into a ship.

Columbus seeks the Kingdom of Heaven and finds the savages of Guanahani. The Northern soul in its complete development here for the first time meets again its origins, primitive man; the Lost Country is confronted with the Tropics. The symbol is lost; but in place of it mankind enters the New World. The Ship is once snore Forest, earth. The ring is complete.

It is an imaginary ring; perhaps it has come about of itself as a shadow of the curve within which an individual human life begins and returns to its starting-point. Unless we have a form we cannot survey things that are dispersed in time and place without any known plan. Outside our circle the world may be viewed in many other ways, more accurately and more completely. Here at any rate one fixed, point has been chosen from which the upward march of humanity is viewed. Within the circle as it is laid out, with the building that has been raised upon it — a work of art in its way, this too, I suppose, which does its best to shape the materials at its disposal; and with the life of a work of art, which lasts only until the mind has created new ones — within this circle "The Long Journey" is to be read.