These are the famous words from the opening scene of Henrik Ibsen´s screen play Peer Gynt, written in 1867. As a Norwegian I have grown up with quotes from this play, and many of them are engraved in my mind just as well as random German grammar rules and my grandfather´s firm advice on cross-country skiing. If you can quote the infamous Peer, you are definitely a true Norwegian. So what does Peer Gynt have to do with kayaking?
Peer was an adventurerer, a womanizer and a coward, demanding attention at every corner. He entered the Norwegian stage with a bang, knocking over traditional Norwegian belief that a person should be responsible, work hard and not draw too much attention to himself. Instead he stole a bride, chased the farm girls, rode on the back of a reindeer buck, got a child with a mountain troll and only just escaped the halls of the Mountain King. He also enjoyed the harems of the Middle East, talked to the Sfinx and of course – stayed away from any kind of decent, hard work. He left the love of his life, Solveig, and ventured out into the world to follow his own destiny – to become a world citizen.
Simply put – he was the ultimate adventurer of his days, a flamboyant, extravagant spirit that believed that his dreams ought to become reality – only then could he be himself fully and fulfill his potential as a human being. Sounds familiar?
Peer is quite possibly the most narcissistic character in Norwegian literature. No other is more self-centered and high on life, but he is also the most discussed, celebrated and even admired anti-hero of them all. And more to the point, he is a perfect mirrored image of most of todays extreme sport athletes. If Ibsen would have had any idea about our modern society, Peer most certainly would have been base-jumping, rafting and kayaking his way across the globe. Without a doubt, his Instagram and Facebook accounts would have attracted thousands of followers.
As a matter of fact – to be named a Peer Gynt today is equal to be complimented as a daredevil and an outsider, one that thinks outside the box. The fact that Peer throughout his life did not manage to admit his own short-comings until the very end, is something that most Norwegians forget. Despite the fact that he shied away from all difficulties, and would simply chose the easy way around a problem, today we even hand out the Peer Gynt prize to a person who has done outstanding work for the common good in the Norwegian society, one that has left a positive imprint on the international global community. The irony is almost too much.
So what is the big deal with Peer? As a stage character he is most interesting – an anti-hero who keeps slipping away from death, which appears in the play as a mysterious button-molder. He wants to take Peer´s soul and re-mold it as it is simply useless in its current form. The only thing that can save him is if he can come up with an occasion in his life where he has been himself fully. Peer protests: He, if anybody, has been himself fully – lived life to the fullest and followed his own wishes and dreams. He has walked his own steps, fulfilling his destiny wherever it may take him. But this is when the Mountain King re-appears, stating that Peer actually has been mostly a troll all his life!
To clearify: The trolls live by the motto: To be yourself – and to hell with the rest of the world! (Troll, to be yourself – enough!) As a human though, to be yourself means that you still have to take responsibility for your own actions, good and bad. This crucial point was missed entirely by Peer as he is extravaganting around the world, breaking hearts and running headfirst into his own pleasures and desires.
The end of the play is intriguing – Peer returns home to Norway as an old man to find that Solveig has waited for him all along. His salvation it seems, lies in the ever-lasting purity of Solveig´s soul – the only place where he has been as he ought to be – she has kept this version of Peer polished in her heart and her strong belief in his goodness seems to smooth out the rest of his selfish life. Perhaps.
As Solveig´s lullaby closes the play – the mysterious Button-Molder lingers in the shadows, warning about the next cross road where they are to meet again. He indeed claims the final words but what happens to Peer, Ibsen does not make clear. It is up to us to decide what destiny Peer would have – whether he lives or dies. Never has an open end been more intriguing – and the play continues to fascinate to this day.
As a modern-day adventurer I find it useful to once in a while do a reality check – am I myself – or am I simply myself enough? I would rather not be labelled as a troll whose goals are only selfish and narcissistic. I like to believe that by living outside the box I find happiness for myself, and thus become a positive part of the world. However, I wonder what Ibsen would have made of our extravagant way of life, snapping selfies and hunting likes on social media platforms. Filling my life with waterfalls, exotic trips to far-away places, competitions on man-made courses and doing exactly what I want, when I want it… What difference is there really between me and Peer, except that I do not lie as much as he does?
To me it seems that eventhough Peer only got one child with the female troll in the mountain hall of Dovre – his family has grown hugely in the past decades. For good and for bad.