Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Creepy Christmas Story of Sintram and his Companions

After reading Undine, by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, I moved on to the next de la Motte Fouqué novella, Sintram and His Companions. I read the 1845 volume that includes both stories, with an introduction by Charlotte Yonge, the same edition that Jo wants for Christmas in the first chapter of Little Women. It makes sense that Jo would want this book for Christmas, because Sintram is a Christmas story. But it’s not about a cozy, comforting Christmas like the one in Little Women. It’s about a series of bleak, demon-haunted Christmases celebrated by Vikings in the icy mountains of Norway.

In her introduction, Yonge says that de la Motte Fouqué intended some of his stories to reflect specific seasons. Undine is a story about spring, while “the stern, grave ‘Sintram’” is a winter tale. Yonge is right: Sintram is mainly set in the cold, dark heart of winter. It’s the story of Sintram, the son of a brutal knight and a saintly nun, who spends his life torn between those two influences. Sometimes Sintram gives in to his violent side and joins his father in burning and pillaging villages; at other times he is overwhelmed by guilt and spends his time in solitary prayer, and it’s not clear which side will win out. Sintram finds himself in particular difficulties when a French knight and his wife – Folko and Gabrielle – come to Norway and become guests at his father’s castle. Sintram wants to be like Folko, who is the epitome of the chivalrous, courtly knight, but he is tempted by his lust for the beautiful Gabrielle.

(Sintram being knighted by Folko, illustrated by Gordon Browne.)

I found this story difficult to read, and the character of Sintram difficult to like. But I did like the wildness of the landscape and the characters – I love that Sintram is so wild and strong, for example, that he would break the strings of a regular harp, and so he has to play music on a special giant harp strung with bear-sinews. And I liked the creepy, supernatural aspects of the story. According to Yonge, Sintram is inspired by a 16th-century Dürer engraving called “Knight, Death and the Devil,” which shows a warrior on horseback accompanied by Death, who looks like a skeleton crowned with serpents, and the Devil, a little horned creature with a goat-like face. These creepy figures are Sintram’s companions, although they change their appearance throughout the book.

(Albrecht Dürer, "Knight, Death and the Devil.")

Death usually looks like a tall, pale man dressed like a pilgrim, with clattering bones hung all over his robes. The best dialogue in the book occurs when he talks to Sintram, as in this scene when Sintram is giving him a ride back to the castle:

“’Draw thy garment closer around thee, thou pale man, so the bones will not rattle, and I shall be able to curb my horse.’

‘It would be of no avail, boy; it would be of no avail. The bones must rattle.’

‘Do not clasp me so tight with thy long arms, they are so cold.’

‘It cannot be helped, boy; it cannot be helped. Be content. For my long cold arms are not pressing yet on thy heart.’”

(Gordon Browne's illustration of the tall, pale pilgrim.)

The Devil, on the other hand, appears in the form of a little man dressed in fur, with one long feather in his cap. When he first meets Sintram he claims that he is a snail-hunter:

“’Why should you find fault that I go hunting here for snails? … I know how to prepare from them an excellent high-flavoured drink; and I have taken enough for to-day; marvelous fat little beasts, with wise faces like a man’s, and long twisted horns on their heads. Would you like to see them? Look here!’

And then he began to unfasten and fumble about his fur garment; but Sintram, filled with disgust and horror, said, ‘Psha! I detest such animals! Be quiet, and tell me at once who and what you yourself are.’

‘Are you so bent on knowing my name?’ replied the little man. ‘Let it content you that I am master of all secret knowledge, and well versed in the most intricate depths of ancient history.’”

That’s right. The Devil is an ancient historian. As a classics professor married to an ancient historian, I found this hilarious. The Devil knows all about classical literature and mythology, as we see when he tempts Sintram to run off with Gabrielle by telling him the story of the Judgment of Paris. Every time Sintram hears about the beauty of Helen, he wants to seize Gabrielle. So we can add Sintram to the list of works about the dangers of studying classics – and before I started this blog, I had no idea how many such works were out there. But now I know that classics will make you see demons (as in “The Raven,” “Green Tea,” and basically everything by M.R. James), arouse evil lusts, and turn you into a sorcerer (which is what the Devil is trying to do to Sintram). But it’s not just Greek and Roman mythology that is evil in this book. The pagan traditions of the Norsemen come in for their fair share of criticism, including a heathen Christmas tradition practiced by Sintram’s father that involves swearing an oath over a golden boar’s head.

Despite some wonderful details such as these, the plot of Sintram tends to drag. Sintram’s temptations are interesting; his repentance, not so much. But if you are looking for something really creepy, dark, and grim to read for Christmas, look no further.

(Sintram and his servant Rolf, being followed up a snowy mountainside by the two creepy companions.)


  1. The perils of studying ancient history and the classics - I had no idea! So did Sintram's saintly mother become a nun before or after his birth - was she married to the brutal knight at some point?

    I thought I remembered something of Sintram & Folko in connection with Yonge. I checked my edition of The Heir of Redclyffe & according to the introduction this was a major influence on that story.

    Your posts on this and on Undine have given me a whole new light on Jo's reading in Little Women. It sounds like Sintram might have influenced Philip Tempest in A Long Fatal Love Chase.

  2. Yes, I think you are absolutely right about the influence on Philip Tempest!

    Sintram's mother was married to his father before she left him to become a nun. It was her reaction to a particularly evil deed of his. She's such a strange character -- she barely appears in the book, but apparently she has psychic powers, so she keeps sending warnings to Sintram.

    I really need to read The Heir of Redclyffe next!

  3. Having just read Sintram (and Undine and Aslauga's Knight) for a paper on Alcott, I very much enjoyed your post. I love searching estate sales and thrift shops for books that once were popular. I find the loveliest gems. English lit scholar, a career I blame on being a bibliophile for as long as I can remember. I look forward to reading more!