‘The Dykemaster’ by Theodor Storm

GLM-V 2015The Dykemaster was originally published in Germany in 1888 as Der Schimmelreiter. It is also known in English as The Rider on the White Horse. The Dykemaster is novella length story that begins almost like a ghost story and where the main story appears as a story-within-a-story-within-a-story. The original narrator tries to recall a story that he read as a child fifty years previously which appeared in a magazine. The magazine narrator recounts travelling along a North Friesian dyke during a storm.

…I now saw nothing but the yellow-grey waves beating continuously against the dyke as though bellowing with rage, from time to time spraying dirty spume over my horse and me, and further out, a bleak half-light in which it was impossible to tell earth from sky, for even the half-moon, now at its height, was more often hidden behind swirling dark clouds.

Storm_Dykemaster-fc-mag-XC-700pxHe believes he sees a rider on a grey horse go past him and later he thinks he sees him in the distance. When he arrives at an inn he encounters some men having a meeting, it turns out they are members of the dyke committee. When he mentions the ‘man on the grey’ the others become interested and soon the schoolmaster is telling the story of Hauke Haien beginning with his childhood as the son of a farmer. Hauke shows an early interest in the local dykes and mathematics and prefers being alone to the company of other children. One day Hauke, in a furious rage, strangles an old woman’s cat and this event leads to Hauke leaving his father’s house to take up work, as a farmhand, with the dykemaster, Tede Volkerts. There is also the attraction of the dykemaster’s daughter, the eighteen year-old Elke Volkerts. Hauke works hard and helps out with the dykemaster’s accounts but he makes an enemy of the head farmhand, Ole Peters.

Hauke learns the dykemaster’s job quickly and is soon doing most of it himself. After a few years both his father, and then Elke’s father both die, and when it is revealed by Elke that Hauke and Elke are betrothed to one another it is agreed that Hauke will become the new dykemaster. The story starts to become more interesting from this point as we follow Hauke as he tackles his new job, as he ponders over making changes to the dyke and has to challenge the resistance of the populace. He has an idea to create a dam that will divert the watercourse so that with a new dyke built more land will be reclaimed. He then begins to work on diagrams and calculations as well as the funding requirements for the whole project before presenting his ideas to the authorities. Elke, as daughter of the previous dykemaster, is fully aware of what lies ahead.

    “Have you really the stomach for it, Hauke?” his wife asked him.
    “I have, Elke!” he responded quickly.
    “Don’t be hasty, Hauke; it will be perilous work; and nearly everyone will be against you – no one will ever thank you for your worry and trouble!”
    He nodded: “I know!” he said.
    “And if it were to go wrong?” she asked again. “Ever since I was a child I have heard that the watercourse cannot be blocked, and for that reason should never be touched.”
    “That was a lazy man’s excuse!” said Hauke; “why shouldn’t it be possible to block the watercourse?”

Elke’s concerns are valid but Hauke is determined to go through with his plans. Hauke also buys a half-starved grey horse which he nurses back to health and which he uses to ride along the dyke. Work on the new dyke begins and we begin to see Hauke in a slightly different light, he becomes even more isolated and hard as he faces opposition from others. This is in comparison with his homelife where we learn about the couple’s hopes of having a child. There are some tender moments, particularly between Hauke and his daughter, epecially when he takes her out with him along the new dyke. Hauke is an extremely rational man which makes him conspicuous; not only can he see the advantage of the new dyke but he realises that his daughter is backward before others do, and he dismisses stories of ghosts, demons and mermaids. Even his religious beliefs appear paganistic, almost atheistic, to others. However when, on All Saints’ Eve in October, a storm is brewing the new dyke is going to face the ultimate test.

This is a very powerful story which builds to a climactic ending. I thought it was a little dull at first but it picks up once Hauke begins to work for the dykemaster. Storm’s style is very realistic or naturalistic but he does intersperse the narrative with poetic flourishes, especially at the beginning and end of the story. Personally, I feel that the story would have been better without the frame stories as they just distract us from the main story and don’t really add anything to it.

The edition that I read was published in 1996 by Angel Classics and was translated by Denis Jackson. It contains loads of notes (too many really), an afterwood and a couple of maps of the area from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which it was believed that Storm used when writing his story. The main story was based on a story called ‘The Ghostly Rider’ that Storm read as a child and it is this story that is presumably alluded to in the original frame story. The story also appears in the New York Review of Books (NYRB) edition called The Rider on the White Horse and Selected Stories and Angel Classics have other collections of stories by Storm and translated by Jackson so there’s no shortage of material available for the interested reader.

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19 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Storm, Theodor

19 responses to “‘The Dykemaster’ by Theodor Storm

  1. I did not know those two titles referred to that same story. Based on your review I think I will pluck that one out of the NYRB edition and read it first. I have gotten bogged down in one of the earlier pieces in the collection which is okay but not exactly competing for my attention.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      Which story are you stuck on? I was thinking of reading Aquis Submersis next in the NYRB collection – I’ll be reading the collection backwards!

      By all means read the title story first; I don’t know why they placed it last.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The title story is last because it is Storm’s last work.

    I think of Immensee as essentially perfect. But the NYRB collection can be monotonous.

    Having said that, I strongly disagree with the closing line. I have read everything available in English. I am facing a shortage! German-reading fans tell me there is quite a bit more to be translated that is comparably good to what I have already read.

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  3. Jonathan

    I’m looking forward to reading Immensee as I’ve heard from several sources that it’s good.

    I suppose from my vantage point, having only read one Storm story there seem to be many more to read, whereas from your position it doesn’t look so good. In a couple of years time I may be in the same position as you.

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  4. To make my position clear, I have vacationed in gray Husum, visited Storm’s home and grave, wandered upon the dykes, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. That story within a story within a story does seem rather a complicated structure. I’m sure I would lose track ..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      Well, it’s not too confusing as the bulk of the story is told with only a few interruptions. It’s definitely worth reading. I’m halfway through another and it’s just as good.

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  6. Great commentary.

    I wonder why the plot includes the story within a story within a story framework. One has to think that the author intended this to mean something.

    In several of Philip Roth’s Zuckerman novels. he uses his protagonist to tell stories that really could have been stand alone tales. I think that he uses this technique to say something about the nature of storytelling and perception. I wonder if something similar is going on here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I feel that Storm was playing around with conventions as normally the frame story will be realistic while the story contained within will have fantastic elements, whereas in this story it’s the other way round – though all fantasy elements are ultimately dismissed. Still, frame story or not it’s a brilliant story beautifully told.

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  7. The author does intend it to mean something! The story Jonathan wanted to read might be better without the frame, but not the story Storm wanted to tell.

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  8. This was a book we read in school in an edition of the famous Reclam Universal Edition with the yellow cover (generations of German students know about what I am talking). Fortunately we had a good teacher that didn’t spoil this and other books we had to read for me.
    The Dykemaster is Storm’s most mature and refined work, a good starting point to discover this great realistic author. Storm, Fontane and Raabe (who is almost unknown abroad although he was a literary giant) are the most important German prose authors of the second half of the 19th century. As always, an interesting and thoughtful review. Thank you!

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    • Jonathan

      Thanks. It was one of those stories that just drew me in and I liked it more and more. Storm’s style is certainly captivating. I think I first heard of him from some reviews on last year’s GLM. Stifter is a relatively new favourite author of mine and I think they’re quite similar in some ways. I haven’t heard of Raabe.

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  9. lizzysiddal

    A quick comment on the story within a story (sometimes within a story) framework – One of Storm’s major themes is the transience of life. This structure is quite an effective way of demonstrating such without overt commentary.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      And it’s used to brilliant effect with Aquis Submersus. But it can at times distance us from the story and make the story seem less reliable. I didn’t think it was so necessary with the Dykemaster but I’m no expert. It was still a great story either way.

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      • PYorck

        In The Dykemaster the least ambiguous supernatural element is found in the Traveller’s narrative. It wouldn’t be much like Storm to let that stand without a more skeptical and detached frame around it.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jonathan

        I’m guessing that Storm is playing around with the form here. Ghost stories are often the story within with the frame story as realism. Storm seems to switch it around.

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  10. Pingback: German Literature Month V: Author Index | Lizzy's Literary Life

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