The Fall of the King

Johannes V. Jensen (1873-1950)
1900-01 Se tidslinje

By Dorthe Sondrup Andersen, master's degree in literature and culture writer, 2006

The Realm is in want of Heroes 

If you mark the so-called Danish values to which Johannes V. Jensen pays tribute in his writing, the marks would not be that great. That said, The Fall of the King is probably the best novel ever written in Danish. And surely the fact that Johannes V. Jensen was awarded the Nobel prize for literature is an indication that he is right up there in the international Formula 1 group. 

Triumph of Death 

In a way it is strange, for the principal character of the novel, the mercenary foot soldier Mikkel Thoegersen is an unusually unpleasant person. However, in this respect he is no different from his employer, King Christian II, himself a veritable butcher, or from the King’s opponents, the noblemen, who behave like berserker killing machines.

Even peaceable peasants and townsmen run amok in an ecstasy of blood when the nobility deposes the King and locks him up at Soenderborg Castle. Of course there are good, loving and caring people in the novel, but to no avail - they all die anyway. 

Linguistic storm 

Johannes V. Jensen deserves ten out of ten for The Fall of the King, mainly for its pace and highly evocative language. For example, when lightning strikes it is followed by a crash that sounds like the crack of a canon, the rattling of falling stones and hollow thunder. A burning manor house is depicted through a gigantic rotating wheel of smoke high in the sky above. The King’s power politics include a plan for Danish cannon balls to ram the cliffs of Dover and for the heads of Swedish opponents to jump from the chopping block spraying long trails of blood. This is no surprise, for when a drunken Christian II hurls his pewter tankard against the wall, it falls to the floor completely flattened. If people have been drinking, they walk like ships beating up against the wind, and booze is only deadly dangerous when they see white mice the size of a castle gate. 

Aage Sikker Hansen was to illustrate the publishing house Gyldendal's edition of Kongens Fald from 1944. Here the front page of the edition. Made available by Odense Mediemuseum.
Aage Sikker Hansen made a large number of drafts and sketches for Johannes V. Jensen. They were drawn with pencil to later be drawn in large format with the bamboo pen and marker. Here you see "Eight small sketches", where several of the final illustrations that were used in Gyldendal's version of Kongens Fald can be traced. 1940. Made available by Odense Mediemuseum.

Did you know?

In his older days Johannes V. Jensen took distance from his youth work and demanded his earlier books to be written of his life work. It applied to all the books he wrote as a young man. Except The Fall of the King, which he probably did well in, when it in the late 1990s  was proclaimed the Danes' favorite book of the 20th century.

The committee's justification

By the Committee for Literature, 2006

“All was quiet in Stockholm city. The only sound to be heard in the streets was hoofbeats when the cavalry rode around to see that all the doors were kept shut”.

Such was the introduction to the chapters in The Fall of the King that describe the bloodbath in Stockholm in the year 1520. The King is Christian II; however, he is not the central figure in the novel – that is Mikkel Thøgersen, a rootless farming student who has fallen on hard times. Mikkel becomes a soldier, and subsequently becomes closer and closer to the King – and the closer he gets, the worse it gets for him. Mikkel is with the King in Stockholm and with him in his prison cell in Sønderberg fort. Before the King ends up there, the novel follows his confused, unpredictable journey back and forth across the Little Belt strait between Jutland and Funen again and again during his “Night of Despair”: “When the sun rose, he (i.e. the king) was on the Funen side; and there he stayed, simply because he happened to be there”, it states. Finally, the King and Mikkel are together in the prison at Sønderberg fort.

During his life, Mikkel hurts many people, among others Axel “the reckless”, who dies Danish poetry’s finest death one night, when “the heavens were as white roses”. In one of the final chapters, the giantesses Fenja and Menja of Norse legend sing as they turn their magical millstone in the polar night, creating as they grind. Fenja will grind: “The sunrise and cattle and fertile fields, shining clouds and rain, clover and yellow and white flowers”, whilst her sister Menja will grind: “Parched fields, waterless and dark, lightning and smouldering ruins”. The Fall of the King is in many ways a brutal, stark tale; but at the same time, it is a lyrical and an early modernistic novel. Linguistically it is an immeasurably rich, flowing poetic work.


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