Friday, June 21, 2019

Fire and Ice (The Long Journey, Volume 1) by Johannes V. Jensen

Darwinian epic of Scandinavian genesis
Danish author Johannes V. Jensen (1873-1950) won the 1944 Nobel Prize in Literature. His magnum opus was a series of six novels, completed from 1908 to 1922, collectively titled The Long Journey. In 1923 this work was published in English translation as a three-volume set. The first of these three volumes, Fire and Ice, is comprised, appropriately enough, of Jensen’s Book One: Fire and Book Two: Ice. As a whole, The Long Journey is a historical epic chronicling the development of European man from prehistoric times to the voyages of Christopher Columbus. Jensen creates an alternative to the biblical account of mankind’s creation and early history, one based on rationalistic scientific concepts like Darwinian evolution. His intention is not to create a narrative that is rigorously accurate either scientifically or historically, but rather to craft a sort of secular mythology stylistically akin to the Judeo-Christian Old Testament.

The narrative begins prior to the dawn of Homo Sapiens, when furry, tree-dwelling primates first opted for life on the ground. These proto-humans dwell in a European jungle where their lives center around a volcano called Gunung Api that they both fear and worship as a god. One precocious member of the herd, however, learns to tame the dreaded fire by bringing it down from the mountain and putting it to the service of man. This early hominid Prometheus, named Fyr, is rewarded for his achievement by assuming godlike status within his tribe.

Book Two: Ice jumps ahead an unspecified number of generations and focuses on one of Fyr’s descendants named Carl. The volcano has gone dormant, and the climate is becoming colder. Glaciers descend on Europe as an ice age sets in. While most of the humans migrate to the South, Carl, who has been outcast from his people for having committed a transgression, sets off to the North to live amid the ice. Like their ancestor Fyr, Carl and his descendants use their ingenuity to produce technological advancements that help mankind adapt and evolve. To tell his story, Jensen attributes millennia worth of human progress to a handful of fictional geniuses. Over the course of the story, the mythos of The Long Journey encompasses not only the taming of fire, but also the development of religion and social inequality, the origins of hunting and agriculture, the building of ships and the invention of the wheel, and the spawning of the various races of man.

In this specifically Scandinavian Genesis, the birthplace of humanity is in southern Sweden, just a short boat ride from Jensen’s native Denmark. The underlying thesis to The Long Journey is that those who fled from the ice age to tropical climes became indolent and weak while those who stayed in the North to contend with the cold became heartier, stronger, and smarter. There is some potential for racism here, obviously, but Fire and Ice comes across as more of an expression of intense nationalistic pride. Jensen’s Nordic bias is not any more offensive than the many religions in the world that consider their followers to be “the chosen people.” The difference, of course, is that this is a secular creation story, and what makes it great literature is how Jensen expertly mixes naturalistic scientific theory with romantic grandeur of mythic proportions.

Given the subject matter, it is not surprising that The Long Journey is little known outside of Scandinavia, but Jensen’s writing is powerful, and this fascinating book merits a wider audience. Jensen won his Nobel for a reason, and judging from this excellent novel, he deserved it. I am very much looking forward to the next two volumes of The Long Journey.

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