Eiler Jensen

Bent Haller – a storyteller

Eiler Jensen


One of the most famous authors in Denmark, Karen Blixen – or Isak Dinesen – whatever she is called around the world, called herself a storyteller. She wrote in her life only one novel (Gengældelsens veje (The angelic Avengers), 1944 under the pseudonym: Pierre Andrezel). Apart from that book, all her writings were stories. The stories were so to speak born orally, and first after telling the stories, they are put in writing. Many of the stories were conceived in Africa. I think one of her inspirations was H. C. Andersen, who thought likewise about telling and writing. In his diary he once wrote: I have been writing all night, my tongue hurts.

And that underlines his theory that: children were meant to hear his stories, the adults could read them (for the kids). Now we shall hear … or maybe you have heard … are common phrases in his writing.

I think, that children up to the age of 6-8 years prefer to listen to the good told story in stead of listening to the well read story. Later on, they can read them themselves and find the pleasure in that …

I was once invited to a first grade class to tell them a fairy tale, and when I entered the room, a little girl came up to me and asked: Are you the one who is going to tell us a story? And when I confirmed that, she asked: Where is your book? And as I told her, that I didn’t bring a book, she asked further: How can you then know, what it is all about? But I knew – I knew by heart.

Bent Haller, who is one of our most outstanding writers for children and young people, started out as a novelist in 1976, but already three years later, he started making novels, who were not really novels, but more like stories. In one way they were similar to Karen Blixens stories. But on the other hand Mr. Haller conceived his stories from another oral tradition. He consequently calls his works legends, fairy tales, saga, stories, myths and so on.

The big question is of course, why Bent Haller made this change of direction in his works? Can it only be because of the heavy and brutal reviews he got? People (the critics) really didn’t like his first two books because of the political contents and maybe even more because of the way he looked at children and the way he told about the relation between children and their parents. Maybe all that scared him a bit – but I think there’s more to it than this.

Maybe one can “read” this change as a counter movement to what goes on in real post-modern life. The modernity with its hyper complexity may seem as a period of time, where people seem to be unable to find a center or a basis in their lives, other than possibilities and choices in order to realize themselves  (the Germain sociologist Ulrik Beck calls man in modernity: Homo optionis, maybe because life seems to consist of only options?) - but the risk is merely, that you develop some confusion and restlessness – and maybe through all that loose the sense of meaning of life. And then Bent Haller enters the scene with a type of stories that gives back the possibility: to find meaning of life in writing modern stories – but in using the old oral genres as his form of expression.

During this short lecture, I shall concentrate my speak about only myths and fairy tales.

But what is a myth? The Danish philosopher and Professor Johannes Sløk wrote about the myth as a genre back in 1981:
A myth doesn’t want to bring things forward, but to bring them back to their foundation. It doesn’t solve problems, it makes them go away. The myth doesn’t bring news, it tells in a distinct way the old stuff, the well known things. The myth doesn’t conquer, but shows consistency and he who speaks mythoi  is the really well-informed, he who knows about the old things … The unveiling that a myth arranges is namely not an unveiling of something hidden, it is an unveiling of something that at the same time produces what have been unvealed. Unveiling consists precisely in bringing forward, in producing.  Namely the old stuff – the conditions of life. That means, that there are things in life, you can’t change, likewise things done can’t be undone, and some things are inevitable … and so on.

As a contrast to this mythological way of telling stories, one can see the fairy-tale.

And why so?

Because the fairy-tale offers the reader a possibility to se the impossible become a reality.

But either the author writes myths or Fairy tales, he or she makes a kind of contract with the reader. Now you are reading a myth – and it is familiar to you, you know what can go on inside this kind of frame. Now you are reading a fairy tale, and you know exactly what can be expected. The choise of genre gives you a key to understand, what is going on in the fiction, you are about to read.

But the kick can be even bigger, if the rules are deliberately broken and the reader is left a bit confused. In that way you can change a myth to a fairy-tale and vice-versa.

Let’s have a brief look at two of Bent Haller's works, namely Silke from 1991, which can be read as a myth and the story Mig og Fanden (Me and Satan) from 2002, that can be read as a Fairy-tale.

The brilliant story about Silke (1991) Bent Haller calls a story about change – but it is not a change in the sense, that something just alters. It is a change that is closely connected to necessity, something that you can’t avoid, it has to develop the way it does, you can’t do anything about it! In that way the story so to speak is a myth - namely a story about life conditions.

The little girl Silke is born, and from the very beginning something is not quite all right with her, her skin is very rough, and the doctor thinks it must be some kind of allergy. And he tries in every possible way to cure her. But nothing can be done; the truth is that Silke is conceived under water, the merman is her father, and her determination is not to grow up as a human being and becoming a woman, but to become a mermaid.

In the little story Silkes mother one day says to her, that the summerhouse, they have bought, because it lies near the ocean, needs to be painted, and when the mother proposes to paint it white, Silke claims: A blackbird is of course a black bird with a yellow beak.  And the point in this little conversation is, that the black summerhouse is called Blackbird, which means nothing to the mother – but everything to Silke. A summerhouse called Blackbird must be black that is according to nature and thereby to necessity.

So everything that the parents and doctors try to do in order to cure her doesn’t help. The only thing that gives her comfort and meaning is staying in the water – and eventually she cannot stay on shore any more, but must spend the rest of her life in her right element, the water. The fullfilling of a destiny.

Bent Haller has written other myths, like for example Alfa Beta (2000) – a story of the first times after creation – but with no God, and the 900 pages long Little Lucifer from 1996 – Bent Hallers 50th birthday-present to himself – at giant myth about good and evil.

The novel from 2002 is called Mig og Fanden (Me and Satan). The book carries this genre indication: a story about a fairy-tale.

The main character in the story is Benne, whose grandmother passes away. But what happens is, that Satan comes to the grandmothers house and steals her eyes and telling Benne, that the eyes are the mirror of the soul. Benne is sad and mournful and starts to cry and Satan says: Oh, you could soften my heart, if only I’d got one.

And then he disappears.

Benne decides to go out in the world to get hold of his grandmother’s eyes. He sells all her belongings and takes off. First of all he rescues a little dead girl. Some robbers want to take, what kind of value there might be in her coffin, they claim, that the girl owes them money. Benne pays her debts. On the next day he meets this girl, Marie, who turns out to be the dead girl from the coffin, and she is going to be his helper. At nights Benne has severe dreams about bats and about Satan, Maria claims that he has a vivid imagination, but Benne knows better, and he also seems to know, that Satan is afraid of love and thinks that it exists no longer, that’s why he is so cocky.

One night Benne sees a girl cycling across the sky. He tells Maria, who won’t believe him.

Together they come to the big city, where the king and his daughter live. Benne falls in love with the princess (who by chance is the girl he saw cycling across the sky), he just knows, that he must marry her. But in order to do so, he must win her. And that he can only do by telling, what the princess is thinking about. The problem is, that guessing other peoples thoughts can be difficult enough, men even worse it gets by the fact, that the things she thinks about are not her own thoughts, but things Satan has told her to think. But again Maria is the helper at hand. She listens to the princess talking to Satan and can therefore tell Benne that the items in question are: The bum, the tongue and Satans head on a plate. This last thing he shall not tell, but show her. And so he does and Satan is (once and for all?)out of the game..

Now Benne has won the princess and can marry her, as he wished. The problem is however that the princess is so influenced by Satan, that she slowly is going to be one herself. Her eyes have already turned red, and she has developed horns in her forehead. Again Maria can help. She has a balsam with which he must treat her, in order to cure her. But at the end, when the princess has recovered, he doesn’t want her after all and gives her up. He leaves the big city and looks for Maria – but first now he realizes that she is the dead girl, whom he can never win. Although she was there for him..

This story (inspirered from H. C. Andersen's: Rejsekammeraten -The travelling companion, 1835) so to speak breaks up with the rules for fairy-tales. According to those Benne should have married the princess. On the other hand there is no doubt about us reading a fairy-tale, but a kind of fairy-tale where at the end the rules were bend a bit, and by that little trick it may have learned us a bit more about everyday life by turning away from the traditional ending.

And that is the funny and miraculous thing about literature – that by telling us something, that has nothing else to do with our lives (reality) than the imagination it turns on in our heads while reading, it can - if we’re lucky - learn us about and make us wiser concerning our own lives. And even if you – as Mr. Haller – choose a traditional form of expression, you can express yourself both traditionally – and in a beyond going form.   

And to create stories like these Bent Haller is with no doubt one of the best..