Littell's Living Age/Volume 139/Issue 1792/For and Against Norway

From The Spectator.


We English are not beloved in Norway. The grievances of the people against us are that we have spoiled their pleasant, simple, happy country, destroyed their game, corrupted their ideals, sophisticated their manners, raised their prices; finally, that we think a great deal too much of ourselves, and treat the natives of that grand Northland, whose heroic pirates and robbers gave our forbears, a thousand years before steam-launches and salmon-fishing, such severe drubbings, with the insular insolence which also arouses comments in other parts of the globe. The Norsk people — that is to say, all those who have not rivers to let, or furs to sell, or "stations" to keep, and who do not live by hiring out carrioles and ponies to the incomprehensible people who are always waiting to see the midnight sun, and to behold reindeer in the act of scraping their food from under the snow — wish we would keep away, and let Gamle Norge be really Old Norway, instead of another big piece of playground for the autumn excursionist from that island out of which the raven formerly got such solid and unctuous pickings. They like us better in Sweden, but Sweden means Stockholm, and the lovely little red and green city of boats and bridges is a good deal Frenchified, its staunch Protestantism notwithstanding, in all the respects that strangers are likely to gain any knowledge of. The traveller in Norway needs not, and as a matter of fact does not, trouble himself about the disfavor with which he is regarded in the abstract; it does not come in his way, which lies among the classes who are liable to the obscuration of the ideal by that powerful persuader, gain; and among the "fors" of Scandinavian travel, general civility must be placed.

Supposing one does not want to kill things, that the rivers rather than the fish are "running in one's mind," that the scarcity of bears and the falling-off of reindeer for purposes of slaughter are not fatal to enjoyment, and that the spectacle of inconceivable numbers of beautiful, feathered creatures, with never a "hot corner" in the neighborhood, be congenial to one's taste, there is immense pleasure in travelling along roads "magnificently engineered" — so Captain Clark Kennedy pronounces them to be — in a vehicle both novel and comfortable, through scenes of marvellous and various beauty. Whether it be for or against Norway, and indeed Scandinavia generally, that the natives are never in a hurry, are stolidly unsympathetic with the foreigner who is, and treat time with as much disregard as if it were eternity, each individual must decide for himself; to our mind, the holiday feeling would gain by this charming indifference.

Just as in former times, when, for instance, Colonel Newcome came home on leave, every reader of Eastern travel knew Shepherd's Hotel as well as the lord warden, so travellers in Northland and readers of its lore are acquainted with Mr. Bennett. He is the real, live Wizard of the North, the earthly providence of the tourist, instructing him, through his faultless little "Handbook," before he starts, receiving him on his arrival at Christiania, when he naturally rushes to "Bennett's," extending his protecting care over him until he is safely "through," as the Scotch say, and has seen the midnight sun, the walrus at home, the little Lapps, even more at home than the walrus; and finally speeding the parting guest when he has delivered up his carriole, after his photograph has been taken in the proud attitude of occupation of that queer carriage. When you stop at Bergen, or Throndhjem, you will be pretty sure to buy specimens of the carved wood, and the silver ornaments, and the skins of furry animals, for which Old Norway is famous. Do not add them to your luggage, but pack them off per coasting steamer to Mr. Bennett; he will take charge of them until you arrive, when he will give you the latest information about everywhere, and the soundest advice about everything, if you do not happen to require anything more. If you do, go to his store, a sight in itself, and get the carriole and harness, the books, the maps, the preserved meats, the small coin for change, and the "straight tip" all round, even as to the best way of rectifying the defects of the "station" beds, which are too short for everybody, and have wedge-shaped pillows. Familiar as the sound of "backsheesh" in the land of the Nile is that of "Bennett" in the land of the fjord and the fjeld. Fairly off in the carriole, with a sure-footed pony — which let no man maltreat, for the Norwegian farmers do not like it, and the station-master will find means to punish, by delay and incivility, the tourist who overdrives the docile and willing little steeds — all the stages of the journey, in whatever direction, are full of charm; the exhilarating freshness of pure air, the keen scent of pines, the peace of the smiling country, the grandeur of distant mountains, the music of streams and waterfalls, and until the extreme north be reached, where only the Scotch fir grows, the poplar, the willow, the mountain ash-trees flourishing in great luxuriance. The northern route is full of grandeur, and Captain Clark Kennedy tells of one stage, on the road to Dovre, which combines every feature of Alpine scenery, "snowcapped hills towering above the road, vast forests of birch and pine, and masses of granite rocks, interspersed with juniper, on every side; and the river, pent up between narrow, precipitous banks of solid stone, dashing at breakneck speed far below." Next to the beauty of nature in these regions, one is led to admire the laziness of the natives. They are past-masters in idleness, they have elevated dawdling to an art. It is quite curious, — only when your pony casts a shoe, and four persons consume a whole hour in replacing it, you begin rather to count up your years. On the Dovrefjeld, which reminds us of Miss Martineau and Frederika Bremer, wolves are scarce, though they still haunt farmyards in the winter, but there is found the lemming, in Norway as large as a water-rat, in Lapland and northern Russia no bigger than a mouse. The migration of the grey squirrels, sung with such spirit and pathos by William Howitt — who has ever made us know the wonderful Arctic world like him? — is not so strange and interesting as that of these puzzling little creatures, who travel in countless hordes, like locusts, and are little less destructive, and which were formerly believed by the Laplanders to be "rained down" from heaven. Captain Clark Kennedy imputes this notion to the fact that the birds of prey which follow closely on the tracks of the lemmings sometimes drop their prizes alive from their talons, while flying at some height from the ground. They are yellow and white in color, with brown markings, and not at all ugly, and though few travellers are fortunate enough to witness a migration of them, they are frequently observed in the pinewoods, and occasionally seen to sit up and "wash their hands" like rabbits. Their appearance in great force takes place every three or four years, and they move invariably in a westerly direction, finding their only insurmountable obstacle in the North Sea. The same writer (who has interpreted so many of our English birds to us) says, in reference to this migration: "It is wonderful to think that such countless millions of tiny animals are all stirred by the same impulse to proceed in a given direction, and in a straight, unbroken line, no obstacle daunting this army of rodents in their migrations towards the ocean. They climb the steepest mountains, unless they can easily pass round them by traversing their lower ridges; they swim the broadest lakes, the widest arms of the sea, and all rivers that may lie in their line of march, utterly devastating the land over which they pass, and traversing in a short time immense tracts of country." In former ages, a solemn form of exorcism was used in Norway against these swarming creatures, which were bidden, in the name of the Blessed Trinity, to go away to those places in which they could harm no person, and there to waste away and decrease daily, until no remains of them should be found in any place. After the desolate but majestic fjeld, where clusters of heartsease and beautiful wild flowers grow amid the patches of snow and reindeer moss, where for a long day's journey Sneehatten, with its black-walled, snow-filled crater, is in view, where the snowy owl, and the eagle-owl, and the great eagles are seen, where the cold is bitter, come lovely open country, the beautiful Gunl, its fair valley, and such heat that exposure to the sun is dangerous. The sudden changes of climate are among the "againsts" of Norway, and so, very strongly, are the mosquitos. At Gunldal, where many bloody battles were fought in the wars between Norway and Sweden, there are hop-gardens and beds of lilies of the valley, strawberries and apricots.

At Throndhjem, famous in the old, savage times, the royal city of later days, the carriole is exchanged for the steamer, when one is en route for the Arctic circle, and the sea has its example of life in innumerable masses like the land. Near Besaker, the steamer cuts her way for hours through vast shoals of floating jelly-fish, moving with the tide, and shining with countless hues. The voyage among the islets along the coast is full of interest: the steamer passes quite close to their rugged sides, covered with masses of bird life, some of them quite white with seagulls, others colonized by terns, which decline to mix with the gulls; and the salt air full of their whirr and clangor, ceaseless by night and day. Anon one comes to the islands of Apelvaer, and to such heaps of codfish as can only be got hold of by the mind by the aid of the figures, that tell us how one year's fishery alone produces sixteen millions of fish, twenty-one thousand five hundred barrels of cod-liver oil, and six thousand barrels of cods' roe!

Near the Arctic line the scenery becomes most grand and beautiful, with its wonderful diversity of cliff and mountain and island, its deep, calm sea, with all the bird-laden islets, the life-thronged solitude in the steady, sustained smile of the sun, whose royal pomp is never bated there. The snow-crowned mountains, the steel-blue glaciers, the four peaks of the sentinel islands of Threnen, warders of the gates of the polar seas; Hestamandö, where the giant cavalry soldier, in everlasting rock, breasts the waves, and the Norse fishers doff their caps to "the horseman," — these are fine to see, and it is not surprising that when, at twelve o'clock at night, the blood-red ball of the sun hung over the gold and purple sea, and a thousand tinted rays danced in constant motion on the snow, there was deep silence on board the steamer whose voyage we are following, and the awe of a sublime spectacle in a measureless solitude fell upon all hearts.

Between the Loffoden Isles and Tromsö "there is an arm of the And Fjord to be crossed, and the water is literally covered and alive with birds, and with great shoals of mackerel and tumbling porpoises; sea-eagles sway and swoop above the ship, and the air is darkened with the strong flight of the northern diver, the guillemot, and the cormorant; while the masses on the rocks are hardly to be distinguished from the great heaps of seaweed." Thus, with so much to impress the imagination, and surely with all the pleasure that utter strangeness can bestow, change so complete that it must rest the weariest brain, and stir to activity the least-used fancy, one may steam up the fjord to the town of Tromsö and find oneself in real Arctic life, with the everlasting, glittering white snow on every side; and within a day's journey, the wild, wandering Laplanders, and their herds of those wonderful animals which render human existence possible in the wastes of the northern world.