Monday, December 22, 2014

Ingemann's Guardian Angel - A Robber's Tale?

While not directly a Christmas story, this post will resonate somewhat with the holiday season, for a very good reason. 

Bernhard Severin ("B.S.") Ingemann was one of the great Danish literary figures of the 19th Century. He was a close friend and confidant of H.C. Andersen, who he corresponded with for decades, until his own death in 1862. Ingemann wrote many different kinds of prose, including several historical novels, but the average Dane will readily associate him with his popular hymns - especially those connected with Christmas. You'd actually be pretty hard pressed to find a Danish family walking around the tree on the 24th, who won't be humming along to at least one of his tunes. But there is another explanation altogether for my sudden interest in B.S. Ingemann, and it doesn't involve Christmas. Last year, I came across an article in an old issue of the Danish spiritualist publication, Spiritistisk Tidende, about Ingemann and a guardian angel that once saved his life. The article was written in 1936 and goes on to relate the following (my translation):

One night, a hundred years ago, while Ingemann was a teacher at Sorø Academy (an elite boarding school in the western part of Zealand), he was invited to a small celebration by some friends. The festivities went on for a long time, and it was past midnight before the guests started leaving. This suited most of them fine, since they lived very close by, but for Ingemann who had a long way home - most of it through a forest where many robberies had taken place at the time - it was a different situation. Everyone tried to talk him out of walking home, and spend the night at the house instead, but he insisted that he could make it. "I know that God is on my side, so I have nothing to fear. I know that my heavenly father will put up a guard of angels and guide me home safely", he said.
Ingemann then went on his way. The wind was blowing fiercely by now - it was a real cold and scary night in the fall, but Ingemann didn't take notice of this nor the darkness. He went steadfastly forward, and soon found himself deep inside the forest. Suddenly he got a feeling that someone was following him. He turned around, and in the darkness he thought he could see the outline of a character hiding behind the trees, some distance away. Ingemann then remembered all those robberies that had taken place in the woods, and it struck him that it might be one of the culprits behind these, who was now following him. Not a very comforting thought. Ingemann stood still for a moment, folded his hands, bowed his head and began praying to God for protection, asking him to send down one of his glorious angels of light, to protect him from everything dark and evil. Afterwards, it was as if a wonderful sense of peace and security came upon him. Happy and carefree he went on, and after half an hour he had reached his home safely.

Sorø Academy with Ingemann's House in the centre. B.S. Ingemann lived here from 1822-62.

A few years went by. Then one day, Ingemann was sent for by a man living at a cabin at the other end of the forest. The man was very ill and knew that he would die soon, but had something important to confess before leaving this earth. When Ingemann entered the cabin, the man called him over and said to him in a weak voice:
"I suppose you are wondering why I have asked you to come. You do not know me, but one night a few years back, I followed you on your way home through the forest. My intention was to rob you. For about 10 minutes I had been trailing you, and I was ready to close in for an attack. I was armed with a long and sharp dagger, but just when i was about to strike, I saw that you began praying. Then, just behind you, I saw the most wonderous sight in all of my life. It was a large and glorious figure, who stretched out its arms in a protective manner around you. I was horrified and almost didnt' believe my own eyes. I immediately gave up my pursuit, and ever since that day, the vision has been as clear to me as the night it happened, and I have had no peace in my soul. I felt that I could not die before telling you all of this, and receiving your forgiveness".
When Ingemann heard this, he understood that it was God who had listened to his prayers that night in the forest, and had sent one of his angels down for protection. It was this angel that had become visible to the robber, and in a peculiar way saved Ingemann's life.

Fascinating stuff for sure, but what to make of it? It is certainly true that Ingemann was attached to Sorø Academy one hundred years earlier, during the 1830's, but I had a very difficult time verifying the story. According to the Spiritistisk Tidende article, it was related by an organist at the (now defunkt) spiritualist Church, Daniel-Kirken, in Copenhagen, by the name of Orla Knudsen. The article also mentions that Mr. Knudsen had included the story in a recently published children's book. But where did he get the story from in the first place? I simply could not find any information about an Orla Knudsen or his book, nor could i find any other mention of the story, even in detailed books about B.S. Ingemann.

As a more direct attempt of finding an original source, I contacted the staff at Dansk Folkemindesamling (the part of the Royal Library of Copenhagen which houses Danish folklore material). They had never heard the story before, but recommended that I looked at Ingemann's collection of letters to and from H.C. Andersen, which had been published in three large volumes during the late 1990's. I proceeded to go through all of these, but still no lucky.

At some point during my search I discovered the Danish B.S. Ingemann Society, who puts out the tri-annual magazine, Tankebreve ("Thought Letters"). I contacted the magazine's editor, Kristian Nielsen, who turned out to be very familiar with the story indeed. He could also tell me that Ingemann had vivid spiritual and "supernatural" experiences throughout his whole life, and that these became more intense and visionary in the years leading up to his death. This shines through in many of his final writings as well. 

This confirmed my suspicion that there was more to Ingemann than most people know, something I had gathered from reading several of his letters to H.C. Andersen - especially those from the 1850's. In these letters, Ingemann openly shows a fascination with "the otherworld", and even displays some very cosmic-spiritual thoughts about inhabited planets elsewhere in the solar system. Ingemann's worldview was perhaps closest to that of spiritualism, a movement in its infancy at the time, but which he must have been aware of.

An issue of Tankebreve, the official magazine of the B.S. Ingemann Society. The publication deals with all things Ingemann, but focuses a lot on the spiritual aspects of his work.

But back to the story itself. If indeed it did take place, it must have happened while Ingemann was still fit enough to walk around. But we cannot really narrow it down further than that. Kristian Nielsen is unsure about the date too, but he did turn my attention to a series of articles about the story, that had appeared in Tankebreve over the years. From these articles I learned that more than one version of the story actually exists, which really got me interested. 

It appears that the earliest known printed account is found in the 1886 book Fra Det Virkelige Liv (which translates to "From Real Life (Events)), by H.D. Lind, a Vicar from Sorø. As the title suggests, it's a collection of unusual real-life anecdotes from all over Denmark, and the source of the Ingemann story is attributed to a Countess M. Moltke. This may very well have been the source for Orla Knudsen's "version" in Spiritistisk Tidende, but as we shall see there are some notable differences between the two. The following is my translation of the Moltke account:

The poet B.S. Ingemann had been visiting some dear friends near Sorø one night, and the hour had become late before he decided to go home. Some of the young people in the house offered to follow Ingemann back to his home in Sorø, since it was not a very comfortable journey, alone through the woods. But Ingemann insisted that he preferred walking alone, as he was very fond of the peace and loneliness of the great forest. So it was that he bid farewell to his friends and walked home in good spirit. But after he had covered a good deal of distance through the forest, a sense of dread suddenly came over him. He kneeled and asked god to relieve him of the feeling, and after praying for a while he felt normal again, and continued calmly home. 
Many years later, a well known criminal from the Sorø area was arrested, and during his interrogation he made the following confession: 
"Yes, once I even went after old Ingemann. I knew he had been visiting some friends on the other side of the forest, alone, so I waited for him to return home". 
"Then why did you let him go? Asked the lead interrogator. 
"Because someone was following him - He was not walking alone!" 
This confession was later presented to Ingemann, and he clearly remembered that night in the woods when he had been struck by that indescribable and unexplaniable feeling of dread. But now an answer had been found, both for the horrible sensation and for the following calm and peace that came upon him: God had sent an angel to follow him safely home.

This version contains all of the same elements as Orla Knudsen's, but many details are missing as well. Furthermore, Knudsen's account is presented in a very emotional way, with a narrative style more akin to a fairy tale. Ingemann is almost portrayed as a hero figure in it, which would make sense if it really was made for a childrens book, as the Spiritistisk Tidende article states. Still, it is presented as a real event in both cases, which is the hallmark of folklore rather than fairy tales. We could perhaps say, then, that it is more like an urban legend, or "Friend Of A Friend Tale". Funnily enough, an old but still popular Danish term for such a tale is røverhistorie ("robber's tale"), which is literaly what the Ingemann story is! 

I do not mean to diminish the potential reality of the story by pointing this out, since there is no reason that Ingemann couldn't have had a true experience, which perhaps he just never wrote down. Over the years, as the story circulated around from person to person, it lost and gained details until noone remembered the original anymore. It might have begun with a very simple format, such as Moltke's account, and spread onward from there.

Yet another version...and another...

In later issues of Tankebreve, Kristian Nielsen presents us with two further variations of the robber's story, and even refers to a similar tale that he was told by singer Ingolf Olsen, but didnt write down at the time.

The first of these accounts was sent personally to Nielsen in 2009, by a woman named Birthe Vang. She had heard it from her mother while growing up, who in turn had heard it from her father, a prominent figure in the Sorø lumbering industry in the 19th century. Here we get some more details about the "friends" Ingemann was visiting that night. According to Vang it was "the family at Frederikskilde". There is indeed a link between Ingemann and the Frederikskilde estate, which is located in the nothern area of Tystrup Lake, as a family living here once called upon him to write poetry for their dying daughter. This of course does not prove anything, but it does point towards a more concrete lead than in the other stories, which perhaps could be investigated further. 

Vang's version also deviates from the previous, in that the robber contacts Ingemann already the next day. He excuses his actions on the basis that his family was starving. With Christmas approaching rapidly, he had simply acted out of desperation, and decided to follow Ingemann on his way home that night and rob him. But just as he was getting ready to attack, he saw a small "angel of light" on each of Ingemann's shoulders. This horrified him so much, that he pulled back and laid on the ground for a long time afterwards. In this version, Ingemann forgives the robber too, but on top of that he makes sure that he gets a job, and that his family receives financial support to make it through Christmas. So we got a little Christmas twist out of this post after all. :)

The final variant of the story surfaced in early 2014, as an old newspaper clipping from Sorø Folketidende (year and date unknown). This particular retelling of the story originates from a local Sorø Bishop, and was told, perhaps in 1930, to a group of confirmands. Many of the main details are present again. Even the headline reads "he was not walking alone", which we know from the Countess Moltke account. The main difference here is that Ingemann was not actually at a party that night, but instead visiting "The priest of Slaglille" - probably referring to Pastor Wilhelm Theodor Lindegaard, who served there from 1832-59. Again, Ingemann is called upon to meet his would-be robber some time after the event, but this time around he is summoned to Sorø Confinement, where the robber is being kept for other reasons. Again, he receives the pardon of Ingemann.

Sorø Folketidende article, relating a version of the Ingemann story.

I don't think there is much doubt that all of these stories refer to the same event. But which version is the most correct? Can we even truly say that it happened, or could it have been a fabrication right from the start, based on the type of person Ingemann was known to be? Perhaps there was some real event behind, which was then absorbed into a neater and more fitting folk tale narrative, which then became "viral"?

I don't have the answers, but whether or not it can ever be definitively traced back to Ingemann, it still appears to have been such a good story, that it survived in a fairly consistent way, perhaps for over a century. And this takes us into an area of study which I will focus a lot more on in 2015: the spreading and embellishment of Danish folklore and urban legends, from the perspective of modern theories of social contagion.

So tune in again when we reach 2015. Until then...

Merry X-Mas and a Happy New Year

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