Winter’s Tales

Karen Blixen (1885-1962)

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

Tales for long winter's evenings 

It only takes a few minutes’ reading to realize that the stories in Karen Blixen’s Winter’s Tales are not about real life. But then the title of the book already says as much. What happens in the stories is wildly improbable, and Karen Blixen never lets the reader forget that she is the narrator, she chooses the style, and she alone decides what is to be included or not. She even goes as far as to say that the heroine’s story should really have been written in verse instead of in prose. 

Playing with words 

So it doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination when Karen Blixen insists that in a way her stories are also plays. They may be tragedies or comedies, but what they have in common is an invented reality, an illusion created by actors, curtains and backdrops, a sloping stage floor, setpieces, props, sound and light machines. 
Karen Blixen continues her reflections by saying that the scenes in a play can also be regarded as a row of pictures. She clearly plays on this when describing characters, events, landscapes and interiors as if they were symbols in a coat-of-arms, paintings in a museum or illustrations in a book. Whatever her emphasis, Karen Blixen’s point seems to be that like a sorceress she can transform letters, words and writing into something that could have happened. 

Farmer and big-game hunter 

Fortunately, it is a matter of taste whether you are fascinated by baroness Blixen’s literary riddles or prefer the tough woman whose writings about Africa made the lions roar and lovers fall out of the sky. One thing, however, is certain: she is a master storyteller. That is a view shared by many across the globe... 

The actor Kirsten Olesen in the television film Sorg Agre, shown at DR 1987. Manuscript (based on Karen Blixen's tale) and instruction: Morten Henriksen. Production: Crone Film.
Karen Blixen wrote both under her own name and under the pseudonyms Isak Dinesen and Pierre Andrézel. Photo: Gyldendal.

Did you know?

Source: Thor Eskiltuna(Klaus Rothstein): Litteratur quiz: 350 spørgsmål fra bøgernes verden. Aschehoug, 2004.

The whole world loves Karen Blixen's strange stories, but in many places you know the authoress under her artist name, Isak Dinesen. Therefore, one of the many biographies about her came to be called Isaac Dinesen. The Life of Karen Blixen (Judith Thurman, 1982). In fact, Blixen also operated with another pseudonym, Pierre Andrézel.

The committee's justification

By the Committee for Literature, 2006

“In the short Danish summer, there is a no richer or more blissful time than the week in which the lime trees blossom.”

And it’s just as the lime trees blossom that the tale “Sorrow-Acre” unfolds, a bitter test of strength when a farmer’s wife, Ane Marie, must mow a field between sunrise and sunset to save her son’s life. This is a story about fate, about human suffering and self-sacrifice, told in a refined, unique language. The collection Winter’s Tales contains ten other short stories, where one tale is mirrored in another. Winter’s Tales encompasses, among others: ‘The Sailor-Boy’s Tale’, a story about a ship’s boy who rescues a peregrine falcon after it has become caught in some ropes. But when it pecks him on the finger, he strikes it on the head. He later runs into difficulties, but is saved, and just before he can make his way back to his ship, he is beaten in retribution by one of those who helped him.

‘The Heroine’ plays out during the Franco-German War in 1870, while ‘The Dreaming Child’ tells of the poor child Jens, who has been told by an old maid that he is the rightful inheritor of the happiness that she herself never reached. He finds his “mother”; however, Jens and real life do not get along together. On the other hand, his “mother” gains a new, deep insight. ‘Peter and Rosa’ is a story of the love and death of two children on an ice floe, but is mainly about the impressions the two form of each other.
A bitter worldliness permeates the collection, called Winter’s Tales after William Shakespeare, who said that winter is well suited to the telling of tragic stories. Karen Blixen’s stories were written during the German occupation of Denmark and even though not a single word of this fact or the Second World War is mentioned, the events of the war lie behind these remarkable, linguistically sparkling stories.


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