The Saga of Gösta Berling

The Saga of Gösta Berling
by Selma Lagerlof

And I suppose I have to add this one, weird though it is.  The Saga of Gusta Berling is the author’s debut novel published in 1891. The novel is a notable and still much read example of the 1890s Swedish literature. The author uses wolves, snow, elements of the supernatural and eccentric upper-class characters to project an exotic image of 1820s Värmland. Today I suppose we’d regard the novel as a type of magic realism.

The title is an allusion to the Icelandic sagas. The author wrote it to keep the stories she was told as a child alive – it’s a kind of historical novel of Swedish folk-lore and magic.

The book opens with a prologue in where Gösta is defrocked for general drunkenness, even though he gave an excellent sermon. He then takes off for parts unknown, has adventures with women, the Cavaliers (Napoleonic War vets), the land and its natural as well as supernatural inhabitants, witches, countesses, silver bullets and so on.

I can’t really recommend it generally because it’s long and hard reading – difficult for 21st century Californians even if they have the Scandinavian heritage. The plot is more of an interwoven picaresque than anything. I enjoyed it but had to read it a couple pieces at a time.

From Wikipedia:

“Gösta Berling’s Saga (Swedish: Gösta Berlings saga) is the debut novel of Selma Lagerlöf, published in 1891. The novel is a notable and still much read example of the 1890s wave of Swedish Neo-romanticism. Using wolves, snow, supernatural elements and eccentric upper-class characters to project an exotic image of 1820s Värmland, the novel can be compared to magic realism. The title is meant to give associations to the Icelandic sagas. The novel is set inVärmland, Sweden, the author’s birthplace, between 1820 and 1830. The first sentence, “Finally, the vicar was in the pulpit,” is one of the more famous in Swedish literature.”

The Saga of Gösta Berling opens with a prologue in which Gösta is defrocked for general drunkenness, even though he gave  an excellent sermon.   He then takes  off for parts unknown.

The second chapter  of the prologue deals with Gosta helping a small girl bring grain to the store,  but he gets drunk and sells the grain.  He almost dies in a snowdrift but the Majoress finds him and tries to bring him to her home.   Gosta wants to die but the Majoress convinces him to live.  She tells him some of her own background and Gosta agrees to live with the other Cavaliers at Ekeby.  The girl also goes there.
Chapter 1.   the whole landscape is personified, the lake, the hills, the river.   It’s a beautiful, enchanting chapter .

Chapter 2.   The 12 Cavaliers are all there  at Ekeby on Christmas Eve – old veterans of the Napoleonic Wars (?).  They just basically drink and play cards – they bring pleasure and music and dance to the area.  One of them is supposed to die that night and another appear but they don’t have 13 to do that with.  So Gosta calle up the devil, satan, complete with horns and a tail, who drops down the chimney to join them.   He explains that the Majoress has agreed to send him a soul each year in exchange for her 7 ironworks which make her wealthy.   They make their own agreement with the devil – they will act like Cavaliers for one year in exchange for the ironworks.  They tell the devil he can take Sintram (who is the evil one).

Chapter 3  So the next day at Christmas Dinner the truth is spilled about how the Majoress has been unfaithful to her husband and her seven ironworks are taken from her. She is sent out into the cold.

Chapter 4.  A Christmas ball  at a neighboring farm –  the old rich Dahlburg is going to marry the young rich Anna.  But Anna escapes with Gosta whom she will marry instead.  They are attacked by wolves and Gosta manages to get Anna to the Berg house where they part with love.

Chapter 5.   With the Cavaliers,  Lilliecrona plays “la cachucha” and remembers Rosalie – but he is old now, and can’t dance anymore.

Chapter 6.  The Major and the Majoress are gone so Ekeby is in the hands of the Cavaliers.  They have a party.  Pretty girls are there but the story is about Marianne who is waiting to fall in love with the strongest man.  She sees the monk in a play recite a poem in a play and challenges him.  He jumps to her and falls to his knees.  They kiss but pretend it’s part of the play.  Later Gosta wins her hand at cards from her father.  Sintram comes along and tells Dad all about it.  He and her mother leave the ball. Marianne looks for them and has to run home in the snow.  She is locked out of the house.  She screams, her mother is beaten and she falls into the snowbank ready to die.  The Cavaliers save her and she falls harder in love with Gosta.

Chapter 7. Meanwhile, the Majoress is facing the cruel winter homeless and hated by the community.  She begs and thinks of her mother who cursed her.  She goes to Ekeby to say goodbye to her old home and things. But she gets riled seeing the Cavaliers and so sets fire to a haystack and yells fire.  The Cavaliers are captured as they try to escape.  But Marianne who was sleeping there has also escaped and gone to the Major’s.  There she finds that the Major is coming with his bears.  She runs back to Ekeby to warn the Cavaliers and somehow manages to beat them all.  The Majoress is a heroine,  letting them go, advising Marianne, etc.

Chapter 8.  The biggest bear, the one who terrorizes the community, has to be shot with a silver bullet, made on Thursday ,  etc.  (lol)   The little parish organist manages to kill the bear because the Major has provided the gun.  The reason is that the organist is in love with the daughter of the big house but her father won’t let them marry due to lack of a dowry.  So the Major is touched and provides the gun so that the organist will be a hero.  Then he stuffs the bear’s mouth with money so that there will be a dowry (or bride price).   And the Major is sad because he didn’t get to shoot the bear.

Chapter 9.  Marianne is in bed at Ekeby  ill with small pox.  Her father is auctioning off the entire household so that she won’t get it as an inheritance.  The minister from Broby bids on it all to save it. Gosta manages to talk to the mom and gets to Marianne who finally makes it up to the house and after some time speaks with her dad.  Her face is terribly disfigured from the snow and the pox.  But she has left the place where she promised Gosta she would stay so Gosta stops loving her – can’t trust her.   The chapter ends with poetry of Gosta.

Chapter 10. The Countess is a happy sweet young Italian thing married to a rich man who loves her.  One night, before a ball,  the Countess sees the Majoress in jail near her house.  The Majoress paces in the small barn room.   Everything is making her crazy.  The guard, who agrees it’s unfair to convict the Majoress  helps the Countess free the her.  They talk.  The Countess goes for Gosta who declines to dance with her and refuses to save the Countess.   But later he races through the ladies’ changing room and abducts her, taking her to the sleigh to take her home.   The Count comes out and because the Countess has refused to dance with Gosta says the Countess must kiss Gosta’s hand.  But his hands are messed up so he tries to burn them more.  She refuses to kiss them until they are healed.  The Cavaliers curse Gosta for making noise.

The book goes on… Ghosts,




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