Monday, September 16, 2019
Christopher Columbus by Johannes V. Jensen
The climactic conclusion of an epic saga
From 1908 to 1922, Danish author Johannes V. Jensen wrote a series of six novels collectively entitled The Long Journey. When these books were translated into English, they were published in three volumes. Christopher Columbus is the third and final volume in this epic work by Jensen, who would later go on to win the 1944 Nobel Prize in Literature. Through a Scandinavian-centric narrative that is part science, part mythology, and much poetic license, The Long Journey chronicles the evolution of man from prehistoric Europe to modern civilization. The first volume of The Long Journey, entitled Fire and Ice, and the second, The Cimbrians, were both excellent reads. This third volume, not surprisingly, devotes a fair amount of its length to Columbus’s voyage of discovery to the New World, but the novel also ventures farther afield, covering centuries of history in its sweeping scope.
Though The Cimbrians ended in ancient Rome, this novel briefly flashes back to the Iron Age, when a mythical hunter gives up his nomadic ways to settle down and build himself a home, one that doubles as a pagan temple. From there, Jensen relates the story of St. Christopher and depicts the building of a Gothic cathedral before diving into the narrative of Columbus and his journey to the Americas. Though Columbus was an Italian who sailed for Spain, Jensen sees him as embodying a union between Northern and Southern European peoples and their natures. (Given the amount of genetic mixing in prehistoric Europe, to claim that Columbus had some Scandinavian DNA would not be a stretch). Columbus is also depicted as the representative of two opposing faiths, a philosophical admixture of his Christian religion and the pagan tradition of empirical scientific exploration passed from Aristotle on down. Jensen presents Columbus as a mythic hero of great size and strength, but also a tragic hero with the flaws of a real mortal man.
Though The Long Journey is essentially an extended saga of white European migration, Jensen displays a surprising sensitivity toward Native Americans. When the whites reach the New World, Jensen makes it clear that the European voyagers are meeting their long-lost cousins who migrated through Asia to the Americas during the Ice Age. Jensen also devotes a few chapters to the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés. In contrasting the Aztecs with the Spanish conquistadors, he asserts that the latter triumphed because the Europeans were technologically superior to the Americans in the realm of warfare, but by no means were they intellectually, morally, or culturally superior. For a Dane, Jensen is surprisingly well-read in the history of the Americas and has done his research well. He even comes up with a novel interpretation of the Aztec myth of the god Quetzalcoatl, one that cleverly harkens back to events in previous volumes of The Long Journey. Readers looking for a historical novel about the expeditions of Columbus and Cortés will find this a satisfying read, but it does allude to some of the characters and events from the prior volumes, so The Long Journey is best appreciated as a three-volume whole. Jensen doesn’t stop with the 16th century either, but continues his exploration of humanity’s cultural evolution right up to modern times, with even Charles Darwin making an appearance along the way.
The Long Journey is really an impressive masterpiece of world literature that powerfully and imaginatively combines the mystical romanticism of a mythic saga with the brutally rational realism of natural science. Jensen’s fascinating work really deserves to be better known by English-language readers, for whom there is fortunately an excellent translation by A. G. Chater.
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