Even Arntzen: The wanerer in Hamsun's works

Knut Hamsun spent a major part of his life travelling and wandering from one place to another. In his teens, he roamed about different parts the country – Lom, Bodø, Bø (Vesterålen), Kjerringøy and Tromsø. Later he travelled to Kristiania, Copenhagen and Hardanger, twice to the America in the 1880s, Paris in the 90s, Finland and the Caucasus around the turn of the century, continuing to roam about domestic hotels and pensions until the late 1930s. And after the war, he was forced to stay at both a nursing home as well as a psychiatric clinic.

2017-04-2609:07 Marianne Gjelseth

Therefore it is hardly surprising that the wanderer is a recurring symbolic figure throughout Knut Hamsun’s works, first introduced in his debut novel The Enigmatic One (1877): Knud Sonnenfield comes from a wealthy home, but assumes the identity of the pauper “Rolf Andersen”. He flees from the city to the countryside, before once again returning to the city toward the end of the novel. The following novel, Bjørger (1878), introduces us to the quintessential wanderer through the main character of Bjørger and his constant excursions into the world of nature. Also the unnamed hero of Hunger (1890), Hamsun’s debut novel proper, is without doubt a wanderer. This is particularly evident in his feverish and labyrinthine walks down the streets of Kristiania, but the wanderer-motif is further emphasized by the fact that the hero of Hunger comes from the outside: he is a visitor, a wayfarer, and his dialect exposes him:

“You are a stranger here?” he said.
For that matter, he could hear at once that I was a stranger.There was something in my accent which told him.

The peculiar Kven (a term used to describe a person of Norwegian and Finnish descent) Johan Nilsen Nagel of Mysteries (1892) twice uses the term “wanderer” in reference to himself, but with the adverb “stalled” placed before it. Undoubtedly, the adverb refers to Nagel’s position as an outsider as well as his sense of alienation, but above all to the fundamental feeling that his life has come to a halt, and perhaps to the fact that his motivation and zest for life have diminished, if not disappeared altogether.

Lieutenant Thomas Glahn, the protagonist of Pan (1894), shares many of the characteristics of the wanderer as well: he has renounced his military career (a career associated with civilization and urban life) to travel northward, deep into nature and the Northern Norwegian woods in desperate pursuit of love, authenticity and intoxication. When his frantic search fails, his dream of love brutally shattered, he wanders far to the East, all the way from Nordland to the Orient and the forests of India, where he succumbs to alcohol and disillusion.

Also Johannes, the miller’s son in Victoria (1898), has many traits of Hamsun’s typical wanderer type. Not only does he leave his native village to travel to the city and later on abroad (and ultimately returning home again), but – just like Glahn, the hero of Hunger, and to some degree Nagel – he, too, is maladjusted as a poet and falls victim to ill-fated love. Much the same may be said of the main character Munken Vendt in the verse drama bearing the latter’s name (1902). Just like retired Lieutenant Thomas Glahn, former theology student Munken Vendt has forsaken a “civilized” career to seek out the northern woods of Nordland, where in a state of nervous excitement he plays poet and womanizer, drunkard and ruffian – with tragic consequences.

The fascinating travelogue In Wonderland (1903) is to some extent based on a journey Hamsun undertook together with his first wife in autumn of 1899, travelling from St. Petersburg to the city of Batum (now Batumi) on the Black Sea. But only to some extent. The first edition was subtitled “Experienced and Dreamt in the Caucasus”, and one cannot sufficiently stress the fact that the text is every bit as much “dreamt” as it is “experienced”, frequently tipping far over into the realm of fiction. Here, none other than Hamsun himself takes on the part of wanderer, writer and knight errant in search of adventure. It is worth noting how the Orient magically conjures up countless reminiscences of the Occidental “wonderland”, i.e. childhood memories of Nordland and the writer’s native Hamarøy: “‘Nothing, nothing in the world is like being far away from it all!’ I continue to think. This I remember from my childhood, going off to tend the livestock back home.”

In his so-called Wanderer trilogy (Under the Autumn Star, 1906; A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, 1909; The Last Joy, 1912), Hamsun takes on his original birth name of Knut Pedersen. A similar pattern as that we observed in regard to both Glahn and Munken Vendt is shared by all three novels: a departure from urban life in favour of seeking out nature. The first two Wanderer novels take place in the area around Kongsberg in Southeastern Norway, but the final volume brings Knut Pedersen all the way to the northern woods of Nordland. One of the triggering factors seems to be Knut Pedersen’s nervous disposition: “Ah, for I still have my neurasthenia”, we read in Under the Autumn Star. In A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings: “[…] It’s my nerves.” Similarly in The Last Joy: “And my neurasthenia […] follows me.”

The double novel Benoni and Rosa (1908) introduces a number of wandering characters, among them Svend Vekter, Nikolai Arentsen, Gilbert Lapp, Edvarda, but above all Munken Vendt and the first-person narrator of Rosa, the student Parelius: “I had an acquaintance and friend in these parts, and his name was Munken Vendt; my errand, as the two of us had agreed upon, was to set out upon a journey on foot together.”

In a certain sense it is possible to view Thobias Homengraa (Children of the Age, 1913, and Segelfoss Town, 1915) as a wanderer: a poor boy from Segelfoss, returning to his native town as a wealthy man of the world to start a milling plant and other large-scale projects. But another character has more of the typically Hamsunesque wanderer, namely the frivolous telegraph operator Baardsen. Toward the end of Children of the Age, the strapping Baardsen comes swaggering in on the scene. It is particularly noteworthy that Baardsen repeatedly appears as a mouthpiece for an existential philosophical pessimism and tragic awareness of life in line with Schopenhauer’s philosophy, which clearly exerted an influence on Hamsun.

Police constable Geissler in Growth of the Soil (1917) is a wanderer by nature as well, roaming from here to there, back and forth to Sellanraa, round about the mountains, to Sweden and to Trondheim. A number of other traits speak for the fact that Hamsun – at least in part – used Geissler as an advocate for himself: “I am something, I am the mist, I am here and there, I swim, at times I am rain in a dry place.” Furthermore, Geissler expresses that he too, like Hamsun, comes from Garmo in the Lom area: “I remember back to when I was one and a half: I stood swaying on the barn bridge at Garmo farm in Lom, noticing a distinctive smell. I can remember the smell to this day.”

August, the pathological liar of the Vagabond trilogy, also known as the August trilogy (Wayfarers, August, and The Road Leads On), is, of course, the archetypal figure of the wanderer, drifting about by land and by sea, throughout Northern Norway, Europe and America. No doubt, Hamsun’s view of the quixotic dreamer August is rather ambiguous: on the one hand he plays the part of the moralizing and judgmental schoolmaster, on the other he is generous, inclusive and chummy. Perhaps this is not so surprising, as the mysterious, restless and stargazing prevaricator August can be understood as a grotesque aberration of Hamsun the writer himself.

Martin from Kløttran on Hamarøy (On Overgrown Paths, 1949) was to be Hamsun’s last wanderer, as well as his final fictitious character:

But all of a sudden I heard him use a typical expression from Saltvær:
Do not vex yourself with it! A remembrance passed through me at these simple words. Are you from Nordland? I asked.
Oh yes, he said. But you do not know me.

To view Martin as a kind of distorted mirror image of Hamsun himself, seems entirely plausible. The parallels abound: Like Hamsun, Martin is a wanderer from Hamarøy gone astray. He, too, talks in public, writes stories about Nordland and a girl named Alvilde (who also appears in Hamsun’s cycle of poems "Feberdikte", “Fever Poems”), and has a hole-up in the woods where he goes to write. But above all, their deep affinity and identification with one another is linked to a common place of birth – Nordland and Hamarøy.


What, then, does the wanderer-motif encompass, both in a literary as well as a fundamental sense? Why do so many of Hamsun’s characters roam about as much as they do?

Literally speaking, the wanderer-motif represents concrete physical and geographical journeys. However, these journeys invariably reflect the search for something spiritual or cerebral, at times even a search for psychological development and enlightenment. But once again: What goal does Hamsun’s wanderer seek, what drives him, what is his mission? Is it the search for enlightenment, knowledge, authenticity, origins, existential harmony and belonging, a search for identity, ancestry or fellowship? Yes – in a sense all of the above, but equally it is an attempt at breaking away, an unconditional departure from anything that may be called home, a total liberation from all that is – and not so rarely in a rush of pantheistic intoxication, accompanied by an underlying artistic impulse. One may be justified in asserting that many of Hamsun’s wanderers are outsiders with a prevailing sense of estrangement, both in terms of their environment, civilization as such, and not least in regard of themselves. It is the very act of wandering, frequently in the context of nature and accompanied by an artistic “pursuit”, that allows them to achieve some sense of meaningful existence.

In summary, one can say that a conspicuous number of Hamsun’s wandering figures have a distinct touch of the author’s own idiosyncrasies. Most of them are high-strung and plagued by “neurasthenia”, typical artist types with a surplus of nervous susceptibility, intensity and erotic appetite. Many are semi-anarchists in their attitude toward life, unstable dreamers and curmudgeons who oppose established truths and power hierarchies.

And many of them are natives of North Norway, who share an affiliation with that part of the country through fate or other bonds.


Even Arntzen is Associate Professor at the University of Tromsø, and Chairman of the Norwegian Hamsun-Society.

English translation: Thilo Reinhard