on 30 January 2013
Theodor Storm's novella `Der Schimmelreiter' is the tale of a man's determination to implement his vision in the face of opposition from his community. Hauke Haien is a studious young man enthralled with his father's copy of Euclid, the Greek mathematician. After entering employment with the local dykemaster Tede Volkerts, his employer soon notes he can make more use of his cerebral skills in the office than laboring activities. Haien has his sights set on the creation of a new dyke to protect the community against the inclement weather in the flatlands of Frisia. Unfortunately his new ideas do not endear him to all his neighbours, and especially not to Ole Peters who is resentful of Hauke's appointment as the new dykemaster after Tede dies, a role he wins through merit and his engagement to Tede's daughter Elke, which secures him the funds necessary for the post.
Despite and indeed because of his supremely rational outlook and his aloofness, Hauke is viewed with suspicion by the locals and his white horse is regarded as an agent of the devil. Strong willed and determined, he can lack empathy, and has no patience with customs he regards as futile and superstitions that entail cruelty such as throwing a dog into the new dyke as it is believed that a living thing needs to be sacrificed to ensure the dyke's success. However, on another occasion, Hauke has no hesitation killing the treasured cat and companion of an old woman that steals a bird he has caught.
Haien maintains strict vigilance over his workers, and makes little effort to integrate. As a result, they see the stern master rather than the caring family man who enjoys a strong relationship with his wife and exhibits tenderness towards his mentally disabled daughter.
There is ample evidence of Hauke's qualities as a responsible, confident, conscientious, highly intelligent and far sighted individual. At the same time, his brusque attitude towards his fellows and his impatient dismissal of their ways lead to a lack of faith and at the crucial moment they turn to Ole Peters, the traditionalist who is infinitely less capable and whose direction leads to the final catastrophe.
The novella is told within the framework of a narration by a retired schoolmaster to a traveller passing through the region about a century after the events in question. The traveller observes a horse and rider silently go by and is told in the nearby pub that he has seen the ghost of Haien, der schimmelreiter who haunts the scene of his life's work. The incursion of the supernatural poses the problem of whether the author is conceding to some extent to the legitimacy of a world beyond the factual and rational which is difficult to reconcile with the history of a mathematician and engineer who had no truck with such fancies. It implies validity of perceptions beyond Hauke's ultra rational outlook that estranges him from his neighbours.
Hauke compared by the schoolmaster both to Socrates, the model of rational thought processes and to Jesus Christ, the mystical visionary. At the tale's climax, he incorporates both the role of decisive leader and the living sacrifice thought so crucial by the Frisians. Hauke's dyke is still standing 100 years later as he himself predicted it would, and stands as testimony to the industry and vision of one inflexible man.
on 6 September 2013
Despite being two hundred years old, this is a rivetting story, with a terrific atmosphere. The descriptions of the dyke-bounded landscape of Schleswig-Holstein are superb and the characters give a good impression of the people of that time.
For a third-year German student the German is quite hard at times, requiring much use of the dictionary, but not impossible.