When the Church Bells Ring: Themes and Proclivities of the Danish Folktale "Agnete and the Merman"


Fascination with the Danish ballad Agnete og Havmanden , or “Agnete and the Merman”, has long been prominent in the Scandinavian countries. In spite of arguments over origin and dating, the poem has survived centuries of uncertainty through its thrilling themes of forbidden sexuality, spiritual toil, and outright abandonment.

A Tragic Tale

Axel Olrik dates this ballad to the post-medieval period, though its precise origin date is uncertain. Olrik also believes that the source is German rather than the assumption that it is natively Danish. There were many variations of the ballad written during the 18th and 19th century which are considered the foundation for modern alterations. Among these texts, the ballads written by Jens Baggesen, Adam Gottlob Oehlenschläger, and Hans Christian Andersen are the most widely circulated.

In Jens Baggesen’s rendition, c. 1812, the story is as follows: a beautiful young Danish woman, Agnete is approached by the unnamed merman while sitting near to the sea. The merman approaches her, professing his love, and she agrees to return to the sea with him admitting similar feelings. During her time under the sea, she bears the merman two children, but upon hearing the bells of the church from the surface, she begs her husband to allow her to go to the surface just one more time. Vowing to return the following day, the merman grants her request, and she leaves her children with her husband to return to the surface.

Coronation of the Sea Queen: “Now you shall be my queen & stay with me forever.” Illustration by John Bauer. ( Melusina Mermaid )

Yet the church does not provide the comfort Agnete hoped for. Approaching the church at midnight, Agnete finds herself confronted by her mother, who breaks the terrible news to her that the bells Agnete had heard were chimes signifying the funeral of Agnete’s father, who had killed himself when the search for his daughter went unresolved. While begging her daughter to return to the surface, Agnete sees a tombstone beyond her mother—one which bears her mother’s name. It is then Agnete realizes that her time in the sea was not equivalent to the time on land, and her entire family has died while she remained under the sea.

Alterations to the Ballad

Adam Gottlob Oehlenschläger wrote a variation in the 19th century as well, with only a few minor changes. Agnete’s name becomes Agnes, and Agnes has seven children rather than a mere two. Furthermore, it also discusses Agnes’ death—absent from the original version—yet her death merely occurs after surfacing from the water.

Hans Christian Andersen wrote a version similar to Oehlenschläger’s in 1832-4, made all the more intriguing to modern scholars by the inversion of gender roles in comparison to his earlier “The Little Mermaid,” in which the mermaid fails to obtain her human true love and perishes at the end of the tale. Andersen’s tale was performed at the Royal Theater in the 1840s, and it is likely because of his prominent name in fairy-tale circles that “Agnete and the Merman” remaining in circulation.

Hans Christian Andersen in the garden of "Roligheden" near Copenhagen, Denmark. in 1869.

Hans Christian Andersen in the garden of “Roligheden” near Copenhagen, Denmark. in 1869. ( Public Domain )

In contrast to these Danish versions, an examination of a variation from Sweden will show the ways in which the tale altered depending on culture. A Swedish version keeps similar elements, however Agnete’s love for the merman is falsified. In this ballad, Agnete refuses the merman’s advances, offering him flowers instead, but is pulled beneath the waves and wiped of her human memories.

She then proceeds to marry the merman and produce seven children in eight years. It is only after—once again—hearing church bells that call her to resurface that she regains her memories and chooses to leave her underwater husband and children. When her husband comes for her, in an evident deus ex machina moment, God intervenes, banning the merman from entering the church and allowing Agnete to remain with her father.

“Agneta, look at me,” he pleaded. But she did not raise her face. She kneeled on the spot as still as a statue. Illustration by John Bauer.

“Agneta, look at me,” he pleaded. But she did not raise her face. She kneeled on the spot as still as a statue . Illustration by John Bauer. ( Melusina Mermaid )

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