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The Saga of Gosta Berling Reader’s Guide

By Selma Lagerlof

The Saga of Gosta Berling by Selma Lagerlof



Readers Guide to The Saga of Gösta Berling by Selma Lagerlöf
The Saga of Gösta Berling is a sprawling work of fiction (first published in Swedish in 1891) that blends melodrama, ghost stories, romanticized history, all seen through the lens of nostalgia.
     The “saga” in the title evokes myth and epic (and Icelandic sagas), as well as the Swedish meaning of the word as “fairy tale.” Readers should not expect psychological realism or strictly observed chronology, but instead enjoy the abundance of colorful characters and exalted rhetoric.
     Lagerlöf makes frequent use of the literary device of apostrophe and direct address, for example, “dear reader” or “Friends, children of humankind!” Another recurring device is anthropomorphism (personification): animals, birds, rivers, and hills are all given human characteristics.
     A plot summary of the book is difficult, as many of the chapters tell a self-contained tale. A guided tour through the book, however, might serve as a helpful road map.
     The two central characters are introduced in a two-part prologue. In “The Minister” we meet Gösta Berling, a handsome, charismatic young pastor who has been neglecting his clerical duties due to excessive drinking. His rural congregation has complained, and the bishop comes from the provincial capital to investigate. At one last Sunday service, Berling is convinced he will lose his position, but divine inspiration comes and he gives a stirring sermon. The congregation is appeased and the bishop relents. But one of Berling’s drinking companions intervenes, with unfortunate consequences.
     In “The Beggar” the defrocked minister has almost hit rock bottom, and after stealing from a twelve-year-old girl to buy liquor he decides to end his life in a snowdrift. But the “renowned majoress of Ekeby” happens to pass by and saves his life. She confronts him, saying that he cannot kill himself because he is not really alive. In the process she confesses that, despite her wealth and status, she is not a living person either. Her mother forced her, the young and beautiful Margareta Celsing, to marry Major Samzelius because her mother thought he was rich, rather than allowing her to marry the man she loved. Years later when she comes for a visit, the majoress refuses to acknowledge her as her mother. As she departs, her mother slaps her, and the majoress slaps her back. Her mother then puts a curse on her. After their talk, Berling agrees to go on living and join the other “cavaliers” who live at her estate, Ekeby.
     A note on the “cavaliers”: It was customary at that time in the province of Värmland (and elsewhere in Sweden) for farms and estates to feed and house indigent, elderly individuals. More upper-class examples, often old army officers, were referred to as “cavaliers” (adventurers), who might stay for shorter or longer periods. The majoress is perhaps unusual in the scale of her hospitality for a dozen such “cavaliers.”
     “The Landscape” presents the geographic backdrop against which the events of the book take place. Lagerlöf has set the story in a not-too-distant past (the 1820s, from the narrator’s vantage point in the late 1880s). The physical features, ironworks, and other places in the book are modeled on her home district in the Swedish province of Värmland, but given different names (see map below). The events in the book take place roughly over a one-year period, starting on Christmas Eve, but there are more than a few detours along the way.
     “Christmas Night,” where we meet the cavaliers, who live in a separate wing on the Ekeby estate, begins the story on a diabolical note. At age thirty, Gösta Berling is the youngest of this motley assortment of older men, most of them having a military background, each with a particular talent or eccentricity. They are celebrating Christmas Eve by drinking in their living quarters. Gösta proposes a toast to the thirteenth person in their company; the other cavaliers object that there are only twelve of them. Then Sintram, the malevolent owner of a neighboring ironworks (and a recurring figure in the book), emerges from hiding dressed as the devil. The others are fooled, both by his disguise and by Gösta’s claim that their patron, the majoress, is in league with the devil. They agree to become masters of the seven ironworks the major owns (and the majoress runs) for one year, with the provision that they act only as cavaliers, that is, that they do no useful work.
     The next day, the majoress hosts “Christmas Dinner” for fifty guests but snubs the cavaliers by seating them in a corner away from the main table, like children. Their anger from the previous night returns, and when one of the cavaliers publicly confronts the majoress with a long ago infidelity in front of her husband, Major Samzelius, the scene ends with the major banishing his wife from Ekeby. In seeming fulfillment of their contract with Sintram, as the devil, he turns over management of the ironworks to the cavaliers, feeling certain that this will end in disaster. The major then withdraws to his own property.
     The next chapter, “Gösta Berling, the Poet,” relates an all-day solo excursion by Gösta to a Christmas week ball at Borg, an estate on the other side of the lake. Berling is called “the poet” even though he objects that “I have many sins on my conscience, but I have never written a line of poetry.” This chapter presents an idealized image of Gösta Berling, but also reveals his self-doubt and vacillation. In the course of the day, Gösta goes from promising to bring the beautiful Anna Stjärnhök back to her fiancé, Ferdinand, and his family, to vowing his own love for her, as they are pursued by wolves in the forest in a sleigh after the ball.
     The narrative often deviates from the basic “plot” of the book (the conflict between the majoress and the cavaliers resulting in her year-long exile from Ekeby). The first of these “detours,” “La Cachucha,” features the aging cavaliers and their response to the fiddler Lilliecrona’s endless playing of a mournful Spanish melody, in a brief homage to the power of music over matter.
     Gösta Berling falls in love with yet another beautiful woman in “The Ball at Ekeby.” The festivities include a tableau in which Gösta and Marianne Sinclaire, the daughter of another wealthy mill owner, take part. With the curtain down, they share a spontaneous kiss; suddenly the curtain rises again and they are exposed. (There is a similar scene in the 2003 film Love Actually.) They stay in character, and no one suspects that this wasn’t part of the play. When her father finds out that the kiss was not play-acting, he is furious and locks her out of their house in the freezing cold. Gösta and the other cavaliers find her in a snowdrift and take her back to Ekeby to recuperate.
     The majoress is now in exile from Ekeby, wandering the roads and homeless since Christmas Day. She is also tormented by how she treated her mother long ago and decides she needs to travel to see her in her home district (not knowing if she is even still alive) to be free of the curse, which she associates with her present hardship. Before leaving, however, she is determined to evict the cavaliers from Ekeby to safeguard the ironworks and makes a plan to do so while they are asleep after the great ball. “The Old Conveyances” describes her plan, and how it almost succeeds.
     Detour: “The Great Bear in Gurlita Bluff” can be read as a stand-alone story, featuring one of the cavaliers, Beerencreuz, who has long dreamed of felling the elusive bear with a silver bullet.
     “The Auction at Björne” (the estate owned by Marianne Sinclaire’s father) tells what happened after her rescue from the snowdrift and her subsequent illness. Gösta Berling, passionate toward her at first, refuses her love in the end, while Marianne and her parents are reunited. In the narrator’s view, Marianne represents the modern-day curse of self-observation. Her brief passion for Berling was the only thing that could bring her out of her state of emotional coldness.
     “The Young Countess” introduces another one of Gösta Berling’s love interests, Elisabet Dohna, married to Count Henrik Dohna. Insulted when she refuses to dance with him at a ball at the sheriff’s farm, Gösta decides to abduct her, and they go on a wild sleigh ride across the frozen lake. In the ensuing confusion, the majoress, who has been arrested and confined in one of the outbuildings, escapes.
     Detour: “Ghost Stories” is another interlude only loosely connected to the plot. Here the narrator (who appears in various guises throughout the book) emphasizes the oral tradition behind the book: “I have nothing new to tell you, only what is old and almost forgotten. Legends I have from the nursery . . .”
     “Dohna” detour: The next four chapters feature members of the Dohna family: the “young countess” (Elisabet); her “stupid” husband, Henrik; his late younger (and saintly) sister, Ebba; and their widowed mother, Countess Märta. “Ebba Dohna’s Story” is a story-within-a-story told by Anna Stjärnhök to Elisabet about when Gösta was a tutor on the Dohna estate for a time, and Ebba sickened and died after falling in love with him. (It may be consoling for the reader that after this point, no other beautiful women attract Gösta Berling’s attention.) In “Mamsell Marie,” Countess Märta returns from five years of high living in Europe. “Cousin Kristoffer” has waited five years for Countess Märta’s return but rejects her when he sees how cruel she can be. In “The Paths of Life” the young countess, Elisabet, crosses ice-covered Lake Löven on foot to prevent Gösta Berling from following through on his stated intention (cruel but meant jokingly) to marry a mentally deficient but beautiful young woman; the upshot is that Elisabet’s passion for Gösta is revealed. Her subsequent punishment and torment by Countess Märta is told in “Penance.”
     Storylines converge again, literally, in “Iron from Ekeby.” The cavaliers undertake to deliver a load of iron to the port at Gothenburg, even though Ekeby and the other six ironworks owned by the major have been idle all winter. Elisabet has fled from her husband and mother-in-law, Countess Märta, and comes walking down the road just as the cavaliers are about to depart in their barge. The Countess and Henrik are right behind her, and she boards the barge to escape them. She insists on leaving the barge, however, rather than stay with the cavaliers, and Berling reluctantly helps her to shore. The iron has been weighed prior to delivery (or has it?), but en route to Gothenburg the barge sinks in a storm and all is lost. When they return, they hear the news that the marriage between Count Henrik and Elisabet has been annulled in Italy.
     A longer detour: The short chapters that follow could be seen as a collection of stories attached to the main narrative, examples of the traditional, oral storytelling the narrator evokes throughout the book. These include sketches of individual cavaliers (“Lilliecrona’s Home”), Countess Märta (“The Witch of Dovre”; the premise is not unlike Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds), the demonic Sintram (“Midsummer”), and a melancholy Gösta Berling (“Lady Musica”).
     “The Minister of Broby” tells an unlikely love story, and in “Squire Julius” a cavalier leaves Ekeby to go home to his mother and die. In “The Clay Saints,” after Count Dohna has paid to have Svartsjö Church repaired, whitewashing over and removing the old sacred images, the cavaliers intervene to put him in his place.
     The stories that follow have a more somber tone. Berling and the cavaliers play a cruel joke on Captain Lennart when they get him drunk after he returns home from a five-year prison sentence. When as a result his wife rejects him, he becomes “God’s Pilgrim.” In “The Cemetery,” several of the cavaliers go to visit Acquilon, the card player, a cavalier who committed suicide. Marianne Sinclaire returns, recalling the mournful “Old Ballads” her mother sang to her, gets a new suitor, and reconciles with her father.
     Return to the main plot: “Death the Liberator” brings us back to two characters from early in the book, Anna Stjärnhök and her fiancé Ferdinand. (Readers can be forgiven if by now they’ve forgotten that, after the wild sleigh ride with Gösta Berling, Anna promised not to break off their engagement out of compassion for Ferdinand and his family.) In this story, Death, “my pale friend,” finds himself welcome for once, at least to start with.
     The disorder resulting from the cavaliers being in charge, “this contagion of anxiety,” has spread beyond Ekeby and even to nature. Subjected to a devastating lack of rain (“Drought”) the local people feel that the extreme weather is the result of someone being punished by God, and their blame lands on the miserly Broby minister.
     “The Child’s Mother”: After the young countess Elisabet escapes and then leaves the cavaliers, she travels to a remote parish and finds refuge with a farm family, making herself useful by weaving and doing other chores. At the end of the summer she gives birth to a child prematurely. Desperate that the child should be baptized and have an acknowledged father (since Count Henrik has had their marriage annulled), she summons Gösta Berling and convinces him to marry her. The child dies anyway, but Elisabet now goes to live at Ekeby.
     A short detour: Old uncle Eberhard is a philosopher and has been working on his magnum opus for years, the impact of which will be the end of all belief in gods and an afterlife. Countess Elisabet’s reaction, however, causes him to put his work away in a locked box in the basement of the church for a future time. Contrary to his philosophical findings, “Amor Vincit Omnia”: Love conquers all[HK1] .
     “The Girl from Nygård” has gone missing, and the people scour the countryside trying to find her. Gösta Berling’s prank to make her his betrothed has backfired, and the people blame him for her disappearance. They march en masse to Ekeby, but the cavaliers distract them with food and drink. When they catch sight of the young countess in a window, they mistake her for the missing girl and go on the attack. When they bring Countless Elisabet out and the body of the missing girl has been found, Gösta Berling is finally able to calm them.
     “Kevenhüller” is a cavalier, born to a noble German family, who abandoned his status to become a clockmaker and inventor. His encounter with a forest witch in Karlstad as a young man left him with an ability to make marvelous inventions, such as a self-propelled wagon and a flying machine, but only in one unique copy. When he thinks he sees her again at Ekeby, he is inspired again and creates a fire wheel. What has seemed like a digression leads back to the main plot of the book. In his confusion he thinks that Elisabet Dohna is the forest witch, and Kevenhüller uses the fire wheel to burn down Ekeby.
     “Broby Market” starts on the first Friday of October, the great autumn festival. The year that the cavaliers are in charge at Ekeby is almost at an end. A fistfight breaks out, and strong Måns goes on a rampage, with lethal consequences for Captain Lennart.
     Countess Elisabet and the Broby minister’s daughter visit “The Forest Croft,” where they encounter a desperate Gösta Berling, who has again considered suicide, feeling responsible for the death of Captain Lennart.
     As the year comes to an end, “Margareta Celsing” (the maiden name of the majoress) returns to Ekeby, having reconciled with her elderly mother. The cavaliers work to rebuild Ekeby after the fire, but the majoress dies before she can fulfill her intention to make them her heirs.
     A final fable again emphasizes the role that the power of imagination plays in this remarkable book.


Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Chapter 1 (“The Landscape”) describes “the setting where Gösta Berling and the cavaliers of Ekeby lived out their eccentric existence” (p. 23). Should the landscape be considered a character in the book? Find other passages where elements of nature are personified. What is the relationship between the protagonists and their environment?

2. Gösta Berling has passionate feelings for a series of women (Anna Stjärnhök, Marianne Sinclaire, Elisabet Dohna, and in the past, Ebba Dohna). Discuss how these young women are described. Do they have any features in common? Do these relationships differ in any way?

3. The characters Gösta Berling and Henrik Dohna are both male and roughly the same age. Compare the author’s descriptions of these young men. In what ways do they embody their social class/other position of the time? Discuss their confrontation in Chapter 10 (“The Young Countess”).

4. Compare and contrast the power dynamic between the majoress, described as “plucky as a man” in Chapter 2 (p. 28), with the cavaliers. In what ways is power expressed in this narrative?

5. Death is a recurring theme in the book, and even appears as a character in Chapter 28 (“Death the Liberator”). Discuss the narrator’s attitude to death in that chapter and in passages from “The Ball at Ekeby” (pp. 79–80, “Oh Death, pale friend”) and “The Cemetery” (pp. 293–94, “Friends, children of mankind, when I die”).

6. Discuss the parent-child relationships in the book: the majoress (Margareta Celsing) and her mother; Melchior Sinclaire and Marianne; the captain’s wife and Ferdinand. What distinguishes these relationships? What do they have in common?

7. When Marianne Sinclaire knows she has lost Gösta Berling forever, she writes a long poem (“a kind of verse”) (p. 133). Is Marianne’s writing better for not being “tied up in the chains of rhyme and meter”? What does this suggest about the power of writing?

8. Chapter 29 (“Drought”) begins with a remarkable address to nature (“If dead things love,” p. 313). Discuss the narrator’s view of nature and the connection between human life and the natural world.

9. Who is telling this story? How do we know? Is the narrator (or narrators) a naive provincial storyteller or a conscious literary artist?

10. Is The Saga of Gösta Berling a novel? A collection of short stories? Does this matter for how we read the book? Choose one of the “stand-alone” stories to discuss in more depth.

11. “Kevenhüller” is a fantastic tale about a remarkable cavalier who is only mentioned in passing early in the book (p. 29). What is the source of Kevenhüller’s genius? Discuss the events in this tale from the point of view of Kevenhüller himself and the narrator.

12. The Saga of Gösta Berling was written in a different era (the 1890s) and is set in an even earlier period (the 1820s). Which aspects of the narrative feel the most remote from our vantage point in the twenty-first century? Which, if any, feel most contemporary?

13. What works of literature do you think The Saga of Gösta Berling might be in conversation with, i.e., what works were in the reader’s realm at the time?

14. How is religion portrayed in the book? Is there a tension between religion, the emergence of science/philosophy, and love? Or are they harmonious?

About this Author

About Selma Lagerlöf
Selma Lagerlöf (1858–1940) was the first woman, and the first Swedish author, to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1909. In 1914 she also became the first woman to be elected to the Swedish Academy. Among her many books are The Adventures of Nils Holgersson [HK2] and Jerusalem.
     Lagerlöf was quite interested in the new (at that time) medium of film, and a number of her books have been made into films, both in the silent era and later. The Saga of Gösta Berling (1924), a silent film directed by Mauritz Stiller, was the first major film role for Greta Garbo (as Elisabet Dohna).
     For the critical reception of The Saga of Gösta Berling and more about Lagerlöf’s life and works, see the Introduction by Prof. George C. Schoolfield.
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