Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Peer Gynt

I decided to teach a unit on Peer Gynt this semester, and I had found a copy of the Ibsen play over the summer. The children's versions of the story are all so different from each other I wanted to know what the original was and teach that to my kids.

Well, first of all, I learned that the Ibsen play isn't the original, and I also learned why children's versions are so vastly different from each other. Nothing about the play is child-friendly. Apparantly Ibsen meant it as a critique on Norwegian culture, particularly the life "based on avoidance."

I enjoyed the first part of the play more--probably because I had associations with the scenes I knew from the music, and because I thought Peer would eventually be redeemed. But it starts off with Peer, notoriously lazy and an exaggerater of stories, kidnapping and raping another man's bride and then leaving her. He finds some peasant women out to seduce trolls and says they can seduce him instead. There's the famous In the Hall of the Mountain King scene, but whereas in the children's versions they make the Troll King's daughter out to be the villain and Peer the innocent victim, Peer's really the one taking advantage of the Troll Princess.

Basically the whole rest of the play is Peer going around taking advantage of people. Towards the end it got pretty trippy. From wikipedia: "Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt in deliberate, liberating[neutrality is disputed] disregard of the limitations that the conventional stagecraft of the 19th century imposed on drama.[7] Its 40 scenes move uninhibitedly in time and space and between consciousness and the unconscious, blending folkloric fantasy and unsentimental realism.[8]"

I can't really imagine this play being a hit today, I'm surprised the first edition sold as well as it did in 1867.

What keeps the story known today is the incidental music Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg wrote to accompany it. The music for "In a Morning Mood" is also very famous and pretty but I wanted to share the pieces that are utterly sad and yet so beautiful.

"Solveig's Song"-Solveig left her family and the good graces of her town to stick with Peer, and waited for him her whole life while he was off traveling and seducing other girls. This piece is a perfect picture of her waiting for him to come home, perhaps tormented as she wonders if he ever will...(or WHY she decided to go with him in the first place...)

Aase is Peer's mother. Though he's a grievance to her, Peer does have true affection for his mother. Aase is torn by her mother love for Peer-knowing that part of who he is was because of his drunk father, but also knowing that what he does is wrong. Often, she'll be chastising Peer in the play, and then another character will agree, and she'll get all offensive and "How dare you insult my boy! No son could be better!" (not a direct quote). In fact I think Aase is my favorite character in the play.

Before I read the play I was familiar with Grieg's "Aase's death," so I knew she was going to die. I hate spoilers.

I tried tracking down the "original" story. Supposedly it can be found in the collected Norwegian tales of P.C. Asbjornsen and Jorgen E. Moe, but none of the copies at my library had a story with a character called "Peer Gynt." Which would be pretty unusual--characters in Western fairy tales rarely have names other than those which define their physical traits. Except for Russian tales, where all the men are named Ivan. Ibsen believed Peer Gynt to be a real person, so one person's name probably got attatched to one of the legends.

The original fairy tale involved Peer Gynt saving maidens from a troll. Trolls are pretty common in Norwegian folklore, like evil jealous stepmothers. So there are several fairy tales that could be the predecessor to Peer Gynt--I may do a later post on those.


  1. I, too, cannot find the « original » tale of Per Gynt, in neither English nor French (trying to find it in French).

      It would probably be in this book, the original stories of Peter Gynt...I have read them and the story of the Boyg is in them!

  2. I think one of the most piercing motifs present is that of the Boyg. The Boyg, in Norwegian folklore and myth, is a hazy, almost fog-like, creature whose presence prevents the journeyer from advancing on his or her path. In the original Peter Gynt story, as retold by Asbjornsen and Moe, describes the Boyg as a troll, whose appearance in the story resembles that of the ouroboros, serpent devouring itself, as it encircles a cabin of three beautiful milk-maids Gynt is attempting to rescue. He manages to injure the Boyg enough to get through and save the maidens. And while I cannot say why Ibsen used this creature in the play, it is clear one quote in particular suggests that perhaps it was to illuminate one of the most enigmatic features of Life; meaning and purpose. The Boyg consistently states 'Round about," to prevent Peer from arriving at his destination, whatever that is, and to force him on another course. Even near the end, as Peer's beloved is dying, the quote "Round about said the Boyg," echoes through the forest between the old cabin and the button-molder hoping to meet Peer later to 'melt his 'self' down' as it could be used by another more genuine soul. Ultimately, the theme of the self, the will, determinism, fate, and most of all, the impermeable course of the will as submits to an indistinct higher power forcing its will over the self.