Everything’s up in the air at the start of Theodor Storm’s novella, The Rider on the White Horse, written in 1888 when Storm, who was not only a celebrated author but also a distinguished jurist, was on his deathbed. The story begins—begins almost reluctantly—with a strange confusion of voices. First we hear what we take to be the author—only he disclaims authorship. He tells us that we are about to read a story that he read maybe a half century ago in a magazine, a magazine that in the years since he has never been able to track down, a story, he somewhat puzzlingly adds, of which “nothing external” has ever reminded him. The story follows: its narrator, traveling along the coast of the North Sea, is caught in a terrible storm; battered by wind and waves, he repeatedly glimpses a spectral horseman galloping furiously and soundlessly past him. Taking shelter at an inn, the traveler mentions the apparition, and now the local schoolmaster steps in. It is he who tells what you might call the story proper—a ghost story, yes, but also, as these overlapping voices might suggest, a story that has a ghostly life of its own.
At first, however, there is nothing uncanny about the story the schoolmaster tells, about a young man making his way in the world sometime in the middle of the eighteenth century. Hauke Heien is a boy from a modest farming background who, with a talent for numbers and a fascination with the ways of water, apprentices himself to the local dikemaster and soon makes himself indispensable. When the dikemaster dies, his mantle falls upon Hauke, who also marries, very happily, his daughter. It is a success story.
Hauke’s story is set, as I mentioned, on the edge of the North Sea, in Frisia, where the proper construction and maintenance of dikes is crucial not only to the safety but also to the well-being of the community: as the network of dikes expands, so does the availability of land for grazing or cultivation. To open new fields, Hauke orders the construction of a new dike, built on new principles. Content with things as they are, the villagers grumble about the project. The dikemaster, however, is not lightly disobeyed, and they undertake it. They are—and this is where the story begins to grow unsettling—truly horrified when, after two years, the work approaches conclusion, and the dikemaster intervenes to prevent a step without which it will all have been in vain. “Something living has got to go into it,” one man tells Hauke, “Even our grandfathers knew that much….”
Hauke ordains that no sacrifice will take place. The dike is built and holds. The new land is cleared. Reason trumps superstition. Progress is made. So it appears, and yet Hauke remains a lonely figure, with only wife and child for company, distrusted by the larger community. He has done his job, neglecting nothing, except perhaps something about the human. He rides on his white horse along his dike and feels himself to be “at the center of all the Frisians alive and dead….[towering] above them all.”
There is an extraordinary moment in The Rider on the White Horse when Hauke’s wife is sick, and Hauke, unusually, prays:
O God, don’t take her away from me! I can’t do without her and You know it!… I know You can’t always do just what You want to do—not even You…. Speak to me! Just a breath!
Silence. A silence that is at the heart of Storm’s story, where the natural world is prowled by supernatural apparitions, while the supernatural itself, the divine—even the poignantly limited God, able only to help a bit, that Hauke addresses—never appears. A world in which you cannot trust your eyes or anything, much less—Hauke will discover—know yourself.
I’m not going to reveal the end—you’ll want to find it out yourself, I hope—and ruin the suspense, which mounts powerfully as the story proceeds. I will say that by the end we have been returned, in richer and stranger ways than we might have ever imagined, to the beginning: we are up in the air again. I began by noting the author’s odd disclaimer about “nothing external” having ever reminded him of the story he happened upon long ago and now intends to tell again, and one thing that becomes clear in the course of that telling is that the landscape of the story is an interior landscape—the landscape of conscience, say, where the real and the unreal exist under continual threat of confusion, kept apart by only the most fragile and provisional barriers—though Storm’s mud slicks, icy marshes, fog banks, crashing waves, and vulnerable dikes, not to mention Hauke and the villagers, never strike us as anything but unforgettably real.
And as to what I also mentioned to begin with, the strangely layered voices by which the story is relayed, by the end it is clear, I think, that the story we have heard is essentially choral: the story of any community and the sacrifices by which it ensures its survival; the story of the isolated souls that constitute all communities and of their deaths. Storm, as I said, was unsure he would live to complete it, and in the background of the story you can hear something like the dead saying to the living (as the living suppose), You are who we were and will be who we are. One of the mysterious effects of this extraordinary work is that at some point the modern reader realizes with a shock that he too is included—included already—in this ghostly chorus. It is ghost story in which, you could say, the reader is brought up short by his own apparition. The reader is the ghost.
The Rider on the White Horse is the title story and masterpiece in a selection of Storm’s novellas and stories translated by the very fine American poet James Wright for the Signet Classics series, when it was edited by E.L. Doctorow. If I see a book from that series that I haven’t read, I always pick it up, and in this case I was especially interested because of Wright’s involvement. I’d always meant to read Storm, though more as a matter of duty, I suppose, than anticipated delight. It’s not often that one starts a long story, finds oneself pulled irresistibly along through it, and finishes it both astonished and convinced that it is, in the strongest sense of the word, great—a work that will deepen with rereading, that matters. That was my experience with The Rider on the White Horse.
Edwin Frank, Editor