A Symbol for Norway

Agnar Mykle’s unnamed “student”, near the beginning of his trip by motorcycle from Norway to Paris in June 1939, likens the German border to the Rubicon River, which in the Roman Republic defined the boundary between Cisalpine Gaul and Italy proper. By crossing the Rubicon, Caesar instigated the civil war that brought an end to the Republic. For the student, crossing the German border has become in his mind an equally momentous event, crossing his “Rubicon” into Hitler’s Germany filling him with dread. “When Caesar stood on the banks of the Rubicon, did it ever occur to him that he could turn around and go back, that he was not obliged to cross? That thought occurred to this young man now.”

Now, waiting at the border, the student continues his disturbed musings:

Germany …

For him it conjured up Dürer’s horrible engraving “The Knight, Death and the Devil”. The devil was depicted as having the head of a wild boar and tiny, piercing eyes. …

The student shivered in the blazing sunlight.

Was there, he wondered, a corresponding national symbol in his own country’s history? If you wanted to explain to a foreigner what Norway was, what would you say? Thinking back, he could not remember a single knight in armour. Perhaps Norway had not had any Middle Ages? He had to go right back to the age of the Vikings, and suddenly he smiled … he had just thought of a king, a young king with a golden helmet. There was a tall statue of this king in the market square of his home town — were he to survive this trip, he would certainly go and lay a wreath of flowers at that king’s feet.

He had walked along his ship’s oars when they were overboard, that was the sort of king he was. He had not ridden heavily across the dark earth, but sailed gaily across the blue sea (his golden helmet glinting …). When this king had nothing else to do aboard his long ship, he had walked overside along the oars!

If I were an engraver, the student thought, or a painter — I would do a picture of that. Not of the knight and his horse, but of the king and his ship!

Of course, Death and his scythe had caught up even with King Olav Trygvason.

— Agnar Mykle, Rubicon, translated by Maurice Michael

Albrecht Dürer: Ritter, Tod und Teufel

Albrecht Dürer
Ritter, Tod und Teufel

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