Gateway to the Classics: Andersen's Fairy Tales by Alice Lucas
Andersen's Fairy Tales by  Alice Lucas

Holger the Dane

There is an old castle in Denmark which is called Kronborg; it juts out into the Sound, and great ships sail past it every day by hundreds. There are Russian and English and Prussian ships, and many other nationalities; they all fire a salute when they pass the old castle; "boom," and the castle answers, "boom." That is the way cannons say "how do you do "and "thank you." No ships sail in the winter, the water is frozen over, right up to the Swedish coast, and it becomes a great high road. Swedish and Danish flags fly, and the Danes and the Swedes say "how do you do "and "thank you "to each other, not with cannons, but with a friendly shake of the hand. They buy fancy bread and cakes of each other, for strange food tastes best. But old Kronborg is always the chief feature, and down inside it, in the deep dark cellar, lives Holger the Dane. He is clad in steel and iron, and rests his head upon his strong arms, and his long beard hangs over the marble table where it has grown fast; he sleeps and dreams, but' in his dreams he sees all that is happening up there in Denmark. Every Christmas Eve a holy angel comes and tells him that he has dreamt aright, and that he may go to sleep again, because Denmark is not yet in any real danger. But should danger come, then old Holger the Dane will rise up so that the table will burst asunder when he wrenches his beard away from it, then he will come forward and strike a blow that will resound in all parts of the world.

An old grandfather was sitting telling his little grandson all this about Holger the Dane, and the little boy knew that all that his grandfather said was true. While the old man was talking, he sat carving a big wooden figure; it was to represent Holger the Dane as the figurehead of a ship; for the old grandfather was a carver, the sort of ram Who carves a figurehead for each ship, according to its name. Here he had carved Holger the Dane, who stood erect and proud, with his long beard. He held in his hand a great broadsword, and rested his other hand upon a shield with the Danish arms. The old grandfather had so much to tell about remarkable Danish men and women, that the little boy at last thought he must know as much as Holger the Dane, who, after all, only dreamt about these things. When the little fellow went to bed, he thought so much about the things he had heard, and he pressed his chin so hard into the quilt, that he thought it was a long beard grown fast to it.

The old grandfather remained sitting at his work, carving away at the last bit of it, which was the arms on the shield. At last it was finished. He looked at it complete, and thought of all the things he had heard and read, and what he had been telling the little boy in the evening. He nodded, and wiped his spectacles, and put them on again, and said, "Well, I don't suppose Holger the Dane will come in my time, but perhaps the boy in bed there may see him, and have his share of the fighting when the time comes." And the old grandfather nodded again, and the more he looked at his Holger the Dane, the more plain it became to him that the figure he had made was a good one. He even fancied that the colour came into it, and that the armour shone like polished steel; the hearts in the Danish Arms got redder and redder, and the crowns on the springing lions became golden.

"It's the finest coat of Arms in the world!" said the old man. "The lions are strength, and the hearts are love and tenderness!" He looked at the uppermost lion, and thought about King Knuth who bound the mighty England to Denmark's throne; and he looked at the second lion and thought of Waldemar, who united Denmark and subdued the Vandals. He looked at the third lion and thought of Margaret, who united Denmark, Sweden and Norway; when he looked at the red hearts, they shone more brightly than ever, they became waving flames of fire, and in his thoughts he followed each of them.

The first led him into a narrow, dark prison he saw a prisoner, a beautiful woman, Eleonora Ulfeld, daughter of Christian the Fourth. The flame placed itself like a rose on her bosom, and bloomed in harmony with her heart; she was the noblest and best of Denmark's women. "That is one heart in the Arms of Denmark," said the old grandfather.

Then his thoughts followed the next heart, which led him out to sea among the thunder of cannon and ships enveloped in smoke; and the flame attached itself like an order to Hvitfield's breast as he, to save the fleet, blew up his ship and himself with it.

The third heart led him to the miserable huts of Greenland, where Hans Egede, the priest, laboured with loving words and deeds: the flame was a star upon his breast, one heart more for the Danish Arms.

The old grandfather's heart went in advance of the Waving flames, for he knew whither the flames were leading him.

Frederick the Sixth stood in the peasant woman's poor little room and wrote his name with chalk on the beams. The flame trembled on his breast, trembled in his heart; in the peasant's room his heart became a heart in Denmark's Arms. And the old grandfather wiped his eyes, for he had known King Frederick and lived for him, King Frederick with silvery hair and honest blue eyes. Then he folded his hands and sat, looking pensively before him. His daughter-in-law came and told him that it was late and he must rest, the supper was ready.

"What a grand figure you have made, grandfather," she said. "Holger the Dane and all our beautiful coat of arms—I think I have seen that face before!"

"No, that you haven't," said the old man; "but I have seen it, and often before tried to carve it in wood, just as I remember it. It was when the English lay in the roads on the 2nd day of April, and we knew we were true old Danes. Where I stood on the Denmark  in Steen Billé's squadron I had a man by my side, it seemed as if the balls were afraid of him; there he stood singing old ballads, fighting and struggling as if he were more than a man. I remember his face still, but whence he came or whither he went I haven't an idea, nor anyone else either. I have often thought it must have been old Holger the Dane himself, who had swum down from Kronborg to help us in the hour of danger, now that's my idea, and there stands his portrait."

The figure threw its shadow right up the wall as high as the ceiling, it looked as if it were the real Holger the Dane himself standing behind; the shadow seemed to move, but perhaps that was because the candle was not burning very steadily. The old man's daughter-in-law kissed him, and led him to the big arm-chair by the table, and she and her husband, who was the old man's son, and father of the little boy in bed, sat eating their supper and chatting.

The old grandfather's head was full of Danish lions and Danish hearts and strength and gentleness; he could talk of nothing else. He explained to them that there is another strength besides the strength of the sword, and he pointed to the shelf where his old books lay, all Holberg's plays, which were so much read, because they were so amusing; all the characters from olden times were quite familiar to him.

"You see he knew how to fight too," said the old man. "He spent all his life in showing up in his plays the follies and peculiarities of those around him!"

Then the grandfather nodded to a place above the looking-glass, where an almanac hung with a picture of the Round Tower on it, and he said, "There was Tycho Brahe, he was another who used the sword; not to hack at legs and arms, but to cut out a plainer path among the stars of heaven! And then he  whose father belonged to my calling; Thorwaldsen the old woodcarver's son. We have seen him ourselves with the silvery locks falling on his broad shoulders, whose name is known to all the world—ah, he is a sculptor, and I am only a woodcarver. Yes, Holger the Dane comes in many guises, that the strength of Denmark may be known all over the world. Shall we drink to the health of Bertel Thorwaldsen?"

The little boy in bed distinctly saw the castle of Kronborg and the real Holger the Dane, who lived down below it, with his beard grown fast to the marble table, and dreaming about all that happens up above. Holger the Dane also dreamt about the poor little room where the woodcarver lived; he heard everything that was said and nodded in his dreams, murmuring, "Yes, remember me, ye Danish people! Keep me in mind, I shall come in time of need."

Outside Kronborg it was bright daylight and the wind bore the notes of the huntsman's horn from the opposite shore. The ships sailed past with their greeting, "boom, boom!" with the answer from Kronborg, "boom, boom." Holger the Dane did not wake, however loud they thundered, because it was only "how do you do!" and "many thanks!" It will have to be a different kind of firing to rouse him, but he will wake, never fear; there is grit in Holger the Dane.

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