Holger the Dane

By Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75)

Holger Danske still sleeps and dreams
... deep beneath Kronborg Castle.

 

There is an old castle in Denmark which is called Kronborg. It juts out into the Sound, and great ships sail past it every day by the hundreds. There are Russian and English and Prussian ships and ships of many other nationalities. They all fire a salute when they pass the old castle. Boom! they say, and the castle answers, boom! That is the way cannons say, "How do you do!" and "Thank you." No ships sail in the winter, for then the water is frozen over, right up to the Swedish coast, and it becomes a great highroad. Swedish and Danish flags fly, and the Danes and the Swedes say, "How do you do!" and "Thank you!" to each other, not with cannons but with a friendly shake of the hand. They buy fancy bread and cakes of each other, for strange food tastes best.

But old Kronborg is always the chief feature, and down inside it in the deep dark cellar lives Holger the Dane. He is clad in steel and iron and rests his head upon his strong arms, and his long beard hangs over the marble table to which it has grown fast. He sleeps and dreams, but in his dream he sees all that is happening up there in Denmark. Every Christmas Eve a holy angel comes and tells him that he has dreamt aright, and that he may go to sleep again because Denmark is not yet in any real danger. But should danger come, then old Holger the Dane will rise up, and the table will burst asunder when he wrenches his beard away from it. Then he will come forward and strike a blow that will resound in all parts of the world.

An old grandfather was sitting telling his little grandson all this about Holger the Dane, and the little boy knew that all that his grandfather said was true. While the old man was talking, he sat carving a big wooden figure which was to represent Holger the Dane as the figurehead of a ship. The old grandfather was a carver, the sort of man who carves a figurehead for each ship, according to its name. Here he had carved Holger the Dane, who stood erect and proud, with his long beard. He held in his hand a great broadsword and rested his other hand upon a shield with the Danish Arms. The old grandfather had so much to tell about remarkable Danish men and women that the little boy at last thought he must know as much as Holger the Dane, who after all only dreamt about these things. When the little fellow went to bed, he thought so much about the things he had heard and pressed his chin so hard into the quilt that he thought it was a long beard grown fast to it.

The old grandfather remained sitting at his work, carving away at the last bit of it, which was the arms on the shield. At last it was finished. He looked at it complete, and thought of all the things he had heard and read, and what he had been telling the little boy in the evening. He nodded and wiped his spectacles, and put them on again and said, "Well, I don't suppose Holger the Dane will come in my time, but perhaps the boy in bed there may see him, and will have his share of the fighting when the time comes." Then the old grandfather nodded again, and the more he looked at his Holger the Dane, the more plain it became to him that the figure he had made was a good one. He even fancied that the color came into it and that the armor shone like polished steel. The hearts in the Danish Arms got redder and the crowns on the springing lions became golden.

"It's the finest coat of arms in the world!" said the old man. "The lions are strength, and the hearts are love and tenderness." He looked at the uppermost lion and thought about King Knut who bound the mighty England to Denmark's throne. He looked at the second lion and thought of Waldemar, who united Denmark and subdued the Vandals. He looked at the third lion and thought of Margaret, who united Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. When he looked at the red hearts, they shone more brightly than ever. They became waving flames of fire, and in his thoughts he followed each of them.

Eleonora Christina Ulfeld ...
"the noblest and best of women."

 

The first led him into a narrow, dark prison. He saw a prisoner--a beautiful woman--Eleonora Ulfeld, daughter of Christian the Fourth. The flame placed itself as a rose on her bosom, and bloomed in harmony with her heart. She was the noblest and best of Denmark's women. "That is one heart in the Arms of Denmark," said the old grandfather. Then his thoughts followed the next heart, which led him out to sea among the thunder of cannon and ships enveloped in smoke. And the flame attached itself like an order to Hvitfeld's breast as he, to save the fleet, blew up his ship and himself with it.

The third heart led him to the miserable huts of Greenland, where Hans Egede, the priest, labored with loving words and deeds. The flame was a star upon his breast, one more heart for the Danish Arms.

The old grandfather's heart went in advance of the waving flames, for he knew whither the flames were leading him.

Frederick the Sixth stood in the peasant woman's poor little room and wrote his name with chalk on the beams. The flame trembled on his breast--trembled in his heart. In the peasant's room his heart became a heart in Denmark's Arms. And the old grandfather wiped his eyes, for he had known King Frederick and lived for him--King Frederick with his silvery hair and honest blue eyes. Then he folded his hands and sat, looking pensively before him. His daughter-in-law came and told him that it was late and he must rest; the supper was ready.

"What a grand figure you have made, grandfather," she said. "Holger the Dane and all our beautiful coat of arms. I think I have seen that face before."

"No, that you haven't," said the old man. "But I have seen it and have often before tried to carve it in wood, just as I remember it. It was when the English lay in the roads on the second day of April, and we knew we were true old Danes. Where I stood on the Denmark in Steen Bille's squadron. I had a man by my side. It seemed as if the balls were afraid of him. There he stood singing old ballads, fighting and struggling as if he were more than a man. I remember his face still, but whence he came or whither he went I haven't an idea, nor has anyone else either. I have often thought it must have been old Holger Danske himself, who had swum down from Kronborg to help us in the hour of danger. Now that's my idea, and there stands his portrait."

The figure threw its shadow right up the wall as high as the ceiling. It looked as if it were the real Holger the Dane himself standing in the light. The shadow seemed to move, but perhaps that was because the candle was not burning very steadily. The old man's daughter-in-law kissed him and led him to the big armchair by the table, and she and her husband, who was the old man's son and the father of the little boy in bed, sat eating their supper and chatting.

The old grandfather's head was full of Danish lions and Danish hearts and strength and gentleness. He could talk of nothing else. He explained to them that there is another strength besides the strength of the sword, and he pointed to the shelf where his old books lay--all of Holberg's plays, which were so much read because they were so amusing. All the characters from olden times were quite familiar to him.

"You see he knew how to fight too," said the old man. "He spent all his life in showing up in his plays the follies and peculiarities of those around him."

Then the grandfather nodded to a place above the looking glass where an almanac hung with a picture of the Round Tower on it, and he said, "There was Tycho Brahe. He was another who used the sword--not to hack at legs and arms, but to cut out a plainer path among the stars of heaven! And then he whose father belonged to my calling, Thorwaldsen, the old woodcarver's son. We have seen him ourselves with the silvery locks falling on his broad shoulders, and his name is known to all the world. Ah, he is a sculptur, and I am only a woodcarver. Yes, Holger the Dane comes in many guises, that the strength of Denmark may be known all over the world. Shall we drink to the health of Bertel Thorwaldsen?"

The little boy in bed distinctly saw the castle of Kronborg and the real Holger the Dane, who lived down below it, with his beard grown fast to the marble table, and dreaming about all that happens up above. Holger the Dane also dreamt about the poor little room where the woodcarver lived. He heard everything that was said, and nodded in his dreams, murmuring, "Yes, remember me, ye Danish people! Keep me in mind. I shall come in time of need."

Outside Kronborg it was bright daylight and the wind bore the notes of the huntsman's horn from the opposite shore. The ships sailed past with their greeting--boom, boom! And the answer came from Kronborg--boom, boom! Holger the Dane did not wake, however loud they thundered, because it was only "How do you do!" and "Many thanks!" It will have to be a different kind of firing to rouse him, but he will wake, never fear. There is grit in Holger the Dane.

 

*****

Story-teller Andersen paints a picture containing a series of vignettes out of the more than 1000-year-old history of Denmark. His Holger Danske, a paladin at the court of Charlemagne, still sleeps in the casemates of the old castle at Elsinore, and his Eleonora Christina Ulfeld spent 22 long years (from 1663 to 1685) in a prison cell at Copenhagen, accused of high treason against her half-brother, King Frederick the Third, but without the benefit of a trial.

According to legend Holger Danske, also known as Ogier the Dane and in the Geste de Doon de Mayence mentioned as Ogier de Danemarche, was the son of a Danish king named Gottfried and fought with Charlemagne against the Moors in northern Spain in 778 where he slew the giant Brehus.
After the battle at Roncesvalle in the Pyrenees he walked all the way back to his native land.