Theodor Storm, The Dykemaster (first published in German as Der Schimmelreiter – The Rider on the White Horse (or ‘the Grey’) in 1888 in a literary journal. It was the last of his sequence of fifty novellas. Translated by Denis Jackson. Angel Books, London1996
Theodor Storm (1817-88) was born in Husum on the flat, windswept N. Frisian coast in western Schleswig – now part of Germany, but formerly a Danish duchy. Like the Netherlands, it’s land constantly threatened with flooding by the ‘wild North Sea’. Life for the farming communities there in the 19C was ‘an eternal struggle against its terrifying and destructive power’ (Translator’s Preface). That struggle is conveyed with starkly animistic imagery; at one point the stormy sea is described as
the line of foaming surf clawing its way further and further up the side of the dyke
It’s a dark, supernatural tale of the rise of ambitious, vengeful Hauke Haien to Deichgraf or Dykemaster of the polder regions, responsible for the maintenance of the sea defences that protected the precarious, meagre fenland crops and pastures behind them. It’s a coastline where it’s not unusual for bloated corpses to be washed ashore after a storm.
A young man with vision, he sets about the construction of a revolutionary new kind of dyke – a scheme so innovative that it provokes the animosity of his narrow-minded, ignorant community – in which he’d never been popular.
His humble origins as the son of a poor smallholder are constantly held against him. But even as a child he’d seen that the traditional, ancient system of building and maintaining the dykes was inadequate: ‘The dykes must be changed!’ he’d cried when still a child.
The story is told in a complicated double-frame narrative, setting the events in a distant past to add to its sense of elemental potency that transcends its provincial setting. A traveller on a stormy night has a terrifying encounter on a dyke with a spectral rider on the eponymous ‘lean grey’: as this figure passes by –
a pair of burning eyes looked at me from a pallid face.
He’s told its story (its climax set appropriately at Hallowe’en) by the superstitious old men, principally an old schoolmaster, at the inn he shelters in. So far, all very MR James. But Storm’s tale is told with far more grit and passion. It reeks of the saltmarshes and wind-whipped North Sea, and contains savage images. Like the cat that’s brutally killed by Hauke in a rage (and whose pelt is later revealed as the covering for a footstool!), or the fierce legends of the region, principally the belief that for a newly built dyke to be strong and efficacious it’s necessary to throw into its foundations a living creature: “a child’s best of all; but when there’s none, a dog will do!” the dyke-builders callously claim.
Offshore is a system of mudflat-islands known as ‘hallig’, one of which, previously used for grazing sheep, but lately inundated by the relentless tides, is described with typically salty grimness:
So it came about that the hallig’s only visitors were gulls and other birds that fly along the shore, including occasional osprey; and from the dyke on moonlit evenings only thick or thin blankets of fog could be seen drifting over it. A few bleached bones of drowned sheep and the skeleton of a horse – no one quite understood how that came to be there – were also claimed to be recognisable when the moon shone on the hallig from the east.
That skeleton horse is to play a part in the terrifying ghost story that follows. Even more so is the story of the ‘satanic’ white horse of the title. Hauke at one point of extremity makes a terrible prayer that may or may not bring about the baneful dénouement.
As the Afterword by David A. Jackson points out, Storm’s is a fictional world ‘governed by transience, renunciation and death.’ It makes MR James seem like Enid Blyton.
I was alerted to this strange, haunting novella by a fellow blogger – I’m afraid I can’t remember who. I subsequently came across a terrific sequence of posts about this and other Storm novellas at Tom’s blog, Wuthering Expectations, which I’d commend to you.
There’s also a fascinating and highly informative Theodor Storm website, with photos, maps and other background materials that help bring the location to life.
Update a few hours after publishing this post: thanks to Tom at W. Expectations for his comment, identifying Lizzy Siddal and her blog. Here’s the link to her collection of posts on T. Storm, including one with the translator, Denis Jackson, and stories of her own trips to Hulsum and N. Frisia.