Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Sintram and His Companions

Book: Sintram and His Companions
Author:   Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué
Edition: online from Gutenberg
Read: October 6, 2015
124 pages
Genre:  Fiction
Rate: 3 1/2  out of 5

This is a story of knights and Norway when all was not civilized, while Biorn, Sintram's father is the ruler of the area. When Sintram was young, Biorn made a rash vow on the head of a golden boar. His wife intervened and prevented the fulfillment of the vow. She left for a convent after that and worked towards holiness. But from that time forward, Sintram was given a wild spirit, that is,  till a ship from Normandy appears.

This ship brings Folko and his wife Gabrielle, the best which knighthood has to offer, and a distant relation to Biorn. With Gabrielle, Sintram's wildness seems to be tamed and Sintram does great things. In addition, Biorn becomes Folko's vassal. But Sintram has two other companions which we gradually get to know has death and the devil. The devil tempts Sintram with lust after Gabrielle and he gives in with consequences he only recognizes, not too late, but with repercussions.

In the end Sintram makes right choices and is re-united with his mother.

Fouque, according to Charlotte M Yonge in her introduction to Undine, Undine is part of a quartet of stories based upon seasons:"Sintram", to winter; the tearful, smiling, fresh "Undine", to Spring; the torrid deserts of the "Two Captains", to summer; and the sunset gold of "Aslauga's Knight

Death and the Devil
Death and another are closely pursuing me!" Said by the young Sintram (chp 1) Fouque's story in essence is that Sintram struggles to overcome the one and recognizing the other as a companion throughout his life. They are called up by Biorn in the second chapter. Fouque shows us that the struggle with the devil is not a once and for all thing, but a constant fact of life. Sometimes we humans give in, other times we overcome. In Sintram's case, he gives in early, but he gains strength and understanding not to give in to his "Little Master".  This strength is chiefly through two people, Rolf, his foster-father who is godly. But in the background is his mother, never seen until the last of the book, but always praying for her son and husband. Fouque shows that prayer works mighty things, enabling to mighty to do their work.

Deception is shown as the Little Master's trade. He knows all of human history and shows it when he says in chapter 7: I am master of all secret knowledge, and well versed in the most intricate depths of ancient history. And his aim is not truth and understanding, but in lies and lust. He tries to show how Helen of Troy was won by Paris and compares Sintram to him. But Rolf, is one like a statue before this Little Master, but goes to one important strength: he stood as if spellbound and made the Sign of the Cross. Satan cannot stand before the Cross. This is a lesson to be learned.

Another lesson to be learned is that the devil; is persistent. He tempts again and again with the same mission: to bring people under his own power. He does this with the Helen of Troy story, several times. As an example:  And with detestable craft he wove in that tale with what was actually happening, bringing in the most highly wrought praises of the lovely Gabrielle; and alas! the dazzled youth yielded to him, and fled (Chp 17).

The other companion is death. While Sintram is wary of this companion, as time goes on, he welcomes him. He sees death as an escape from his "Little Master." It is interesting to me that Sintram has a name for the devil, but not for death.  To us death is something to be feared, something to avoid its company. As Sintram understands the nature of death, he starts to welcome his presence, not in a morbid seeking to die, but to understand that death is his  key to avoiding his Little Master. This is also the conclusion of Biorn on his death bead: it is the right companion! It is sweet gentle death (Chp 28)

Further references include:
  • One of them was a great tall man, frightfully pallid and thin; the other was a dwarf-like man, with a most hideous countenance and features. Indeed, when I collected my thoughts and looked carefully at him, it appeared to me— Chp 2  The tall one is death; short is the Little Master
  •  was starved with cold in our country, and that his own was much warmer (chp 10), refering to the devil
  •  Who are those two sitting yonder by the frozen stream—a tall man and a little one? (chp 18)
References to the sacred reverberate throughout this book. From Rolf, the foster parent, always being at Sintram's side trying to calm him, protect him and be his companion, to his mother praying for him. she resolved, in the walls of a cloister, by unremitting prayer, to obtain mercy in time and eternity for herself and her unhappy child (Chp 2) or the concern which the castle has for Sintram: "who is there now to watch over and protect our poor Sintram?" "The prayer of his mother," Chp 2
  • "I have prayed for thee most fervently, and I shall never cease doing so—but God alone is Almighty." chp 3 - Rolf says this
  •  they both sanctified their happiness with a silent prayer. (chp 18) This is Folko and Gabrielle.
  • committed his deep heartfelt cares to the merciful God, trusting that he would soon come to his aid; and the merciful God did not fail him (chp 20) speaking of Rolf concerning Sintram
  • Reconciliation through confession and forgiveness (Chp 21) This is what we have lost today, the thought of reconciliation, or even the desire. But then what do we have to confess to or why should we forgive. All of them are needed in our world.
  • We have overcome. Oh, how soft and easy does the good God make it to us! (Chp 24) I had not thought about making our ability to overcome sin and temptation easy. It has always seemed hard. in what way is it easy? Fouque has Sintram calling on Jesus' name to overcome..
Rolf's cry of O Father, help Thy servant! I believe, and yet I cannot believe.(Chp 1) sets the tone for the book. Rolf understands that only through faith can  the tragedy which engulfs Biorn's family be overcome. But it is so hard to see and believe that anything will change. It is the cry of the boy's father when Jesus heals his boy of an unclean spirit after Jesus' transfiguration (Mark 9:24). It should be the cry of each Christian as he is working towards better faith.

During Biorn's last days, he settles into a heathen belief, helped by the Little Master. Sintram comes along and struggles against the Little Master, calling on God's name to defeat him. After a long, all night battle, the Little Master is forced off and Biorn feels gratitude to Sintram in doing this. I think Fouque  shows how we can defeat the devil and that it does not need to be a personal battle, but we can fight for someone else.

One of the problems I have with this book is that Fouque sets up his characters in a way to be confusing. Such as Sir Weigand is mistaken for death all throughout the book. Chp 26 says: I am not Weigand. I am that other, who was so like him, and whom thou hast also met before now in the wood. I think Fouque knew he had that problem, but could not figure out how to get out of it. But Fouque does not let us in on the secret, even though you suspect something. Also Fouque has a large cast of characters for the reader to keep track of.

Sin has an effect on a person. When Sintram allows the Little Master to work on his behalf, Sintram changes. When Folko sees Sintram next, he exclaims, What have you done? (chp 15) Even Sintram can see the change which sin has worked in him when he looks into a polished mirror. Folko notes: still this youth has cause to watch himself narrowly; he whom the evil one has touched by so much as one hair of his head. (chp 15)
You should rather wish to live, that you may prove your repentance, and make your name illustrious by many noble deeds; for you are endowed with a bold spirit and with strength of limb, and also with the eagle-glance of a chieftain (chp 6). Purpose in a life. We each have a purpose which we were created for. To fulfill God's plans. Some are of small of nature, others have out-sized power. But each will despair at some point in their mission from reaching the grow. God help us to be the person whom we have been made to be. Sometimes this help comes through the intercession of another person: when struggling with temptation and deadly fear, how the heavenly breath of holy men floated round me and aided me. (Chp 28)

In chapter 23 there is a great Yule feast. Biorn is somewhat Christian, somewhat heathen. He knows he should be worshiping the one true God, but at the Yule festival he brings out the gold boar. This is where his people swear an unbreakable vow on the boar's head. Folko identifies that this is a heathen practice celebrating the Norse god Odin. I had not realized that the practice of celebrating Yule had its origins in idolatry. Fouque makes this identification. Christianity over time converted Yule celebrations to a celebration of the Christ's birth. I wonder if our Christmas celebration has now been converted to a heathen holiday of materialism and capitalism.

Other Comments:

CS Lewis from a letter to Arthur Greeves on March 6, 1917:

I am now (in German) at 'Sintram' a tale by Fourque. It has some good eerie touches in it, but none of the homely beauty of   'Undine' - indeed 'tis rather tawdry as a whole. The edition is so horrible that it ought to emanate from 'Satan&Co' & sometimes I have a ghastly suspicion that it is 'scripted': for these school editors are absolutely without conscience & wouldn't hesitate to mutilate a book and then publish it with a word of explanation.
In Louis May Alcott's story, Little Women, Jo wants to have Undine and Sintram for Christmas.

The Bamboo Bookcase blog makes a case that Sintram is a Christmas story.  Many parts of the story revolve arouond the Christmas time at succeeding years. Each Christmas brings a new crisis. So this is not one of those  A Night Before Christmas type stories, but more like The Nightmare Before Christmas.

This is a strange, layered and complicated book. It can be read both at the level of a fairly decent piece of literature written in the early 1800's, or you can go deeper in trying to figure what is Fouque trying to communicate to us.

And that is the problem with this book. There are just too many stronger characters in this short book some of them seem nearly identical. This caused me to wonder who is this which I am reading about. The action is non-stop, which does not lend to pondering what is Fouque getting at.

But before I get too negative, this is an interesting book, once you figure out what Fouque is trying to do. It is a myth type book where the hero, Sintram, is confronted with two companions throughout his life: death and the devil. As such, he is very much faced with choices and he often chooses wrong. But there is always redemption and grace in the mix, So when you read it, read it look for something deeper than just knights in shining armor and lovely pure ladies.

New Words:
  • Palmer (chp 4): a pilgrim, especially one who had returned from the Holy Land with a palm frond or leaf as a sign of having undertaken the pilgrimage.
  • Shawms (chp 6): The shawm is a conical bore, double-reed woodwind instrument made in Europe from the 12th century (at the latest) to the present day. It achieved its peak of popularity during the medieval and Renaissance periods, after which it was gradually eclipsed by the oboe family of descendant instruments in classical music.
  • thereat (chp 6): at that place, or on account of or after that.
  • Margrave (chp 6): Margrave was originally the medieval title for the military commander assigned to maintain the defense of one of the border provinces of the Holy Roman Empire or of a kingdom.
  • philtres (chp 7): a drink supposed to arouse love and desire for a particular person in the drinker; a love potion.
  • castellan (chp 7): the governor of a castle
  • samite (chp 9):  a luxurious and heavy silk fabric worn in the Middle Ages, of a twill-type weave, often including gold or silver thread.
  • pallidness (chp 20): Having an abnormally pale or wan complexion: the pallid face of the invalid.
  • presentiment (chp 20): an intuitive feeling about the future, especially one of foreboding
  • Hecla (chp 9): A volcano, 1,491 m (4,891 ft) high, of southwest Iceland. In medieval Icelandic folklore, Hekla was believed to be one of the gateways to purgatory. It is Iceland's most active volcano, having had more than a dozen major eruptions since the 1100s.
  • Portamour (chp 14):
    Montfaucon (chp 14):

Good Quotes:
  • First Line: In the high castle of Drontheim many knights sat assembled to hold council for the weal of the realm; and joyously they caroused together till midnight around the huge stone table in the vaulted hall.
  • Last Line: Gotthard Lenz and Rudlieb were pressed to Sintram's heart; the chaplain of Drontheim, who just then came from Verena's cloister to bring a joyful greeting to her brave son, stretched out his hands to bless them all.
  •  O Father, help Thy servant! I believe, and yet I cannot believe. Chp 1
  • how could we, any of us, stand before God, did not repentance help us Chp 17
  • We have overcome. Oh, how soft and easy does the good God make it to us! Chp 24
  • when struggling with temptation and deadly fear, how the heavenly breath of holy men floated round me and aided me.-Chp 28


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