Friday, August 2, 2019

The Cimbrians (The Long Journey, Volume 2) by Johannes V. Jensen

From Stone Age Denmark to ancient Rome
The Long Journey is a cycle of six novels by Danish author Johannes V. Jensen, winner of the 1944 Nobel Prize in Literature. Originally published in Danish from 1908 to 1922, these six books were published in a 1923 English translation as three volumes. Thus the second of these English volumes, The Cimbrians, is comprised of Jensen’s third Long Journey book, Norna Gest, and his fourth book, The Cimbrians. In The Long Journey series, Jensen creates an alternative creation myth with Scandinavia as the cradle of civilization, and he presents a modern secular mythology that charts the Darwinian development of European peoples.

The first volume, Fire and Ice, begins with prehistoric apeman’s early existence in a tropical jungle in southern Sweden and goes on to cover mankind’s survival of the Ice Age. The second volume, The Cimbrians, begins in the Stone Age. As he did with the previous protagonists of Fire and Ice, Jensen singles out a lone genius hero who leaves his homeland and strikes out on his own to accomplish advances in technology and culture. Here the hero is Gest, a Dane of the seafaring peoples of Zealand, the largest island of Denmark. In the first volume, Jensen allowed one of his heroes a brief mystical view into the future. Here he goes further down the science fiction road by introducing the unexpected element of immortality. Gest morphs into Norna Gest, the hero of a popular Danish folk legend, and becomes a sort of wandering troubadour/fisherman who travels the world, mingling incognito among the people he meets and observing humanity in all its varied forms. Through the eyes of this ageless character, Jensen shows us European man’s progress from the Stone Age through the Iron Age to the Bronze Age.

The second half of the book shifts to Jutland, the mainland peninsula of Denmark, where Norna Gest encounters the tribe known as the Cimbrians (a.k.a. the Cimbri). For a time he settles in the Cimbrian village and observes their customs, including an elaborate pagan festival to celebrate the coming of Spring and their agricultural practices through the four seasons of the year. A catastrophic rise in sea level forces the Cimbrians to flee their homeland. Migrating southwards, they clash with the Roman Republic. Here Jensen’s narrative passes from the realm of archaeology and legend to the domain of recorded history, beginning with the Battle of Noreia in 112 BC. In doing so, he chronicles a Danish diaspora that expands the narrative from a Scandinavian-centric focus to a wider European scope, which will presumably set things up for the third volume, entitled Christopher Columbus.

Because of Norna Gest’s immortal presence throughout the volume, constantly observing mankind’s progress, The Cimbrians is more descriptive in nature and less character-driven than Fire and Ice. While that first volume had a style that could be described as almost Biblical, this second volume is more firmly grounded in history, even so far as to include quotes from Plutarch and other Roman historians. Even so, the story of The Cimbrians is no less epic than the awesome events of Fire and Ice. The literary style with which Jensen crafts The Long Journey is a unique and remarkable blend of grandiloquent romanticism, scientific naturalism, and poetic prose. The translator, A. G. Chater, deserves some credit for the fact that each sentence is eminently quotable and a joy to read. So far the first two volumes of The Long Journey have proved to be a stunning literary achievement, leaving the reader to wonder why Jensen has undeservedly faded into relative obscurity compared to other Nobel laureates. Although Jensen certainly aimed The Long Journey at a Scandinavian audience, this is one saga that truly deserves a worldwide readership.
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