For a while now, I’ve been wanting to write about one of my favorite short stories, Isaak Dinesen’s “The Ring.” If you’d like to read the story, you can do so here.
I recently received additional impetus to write about it because of something Nicola Griffith said. You may or may not know that there has been quite a lot of controversy recently about women writers. Some of it came from V.S. Naipaul’s statement that he was better than any woman writer, which is discussed in an article in The Guardian. Some of it came from a poll in The Guardian that asked readers for their favorite science fiction stories. Most of them turned out to be by men. So there’s been an ongoing dialog about women writers, and specifically women science fiction writers, in the press.
Nicola called on writers to take what she calls the Russ Pledge:
“The single most important thing we (readers, writers, journalists, critics, publishers, editors, etc.) can do is talk about women writers whenever we talk about men. And if we honestly can’t think of women ‘good enough’ to match those men, then we should wonder aloud (or in print) why that is so. If it’s appropriate (it might not be, always) we should point to the historical bias that consistently reduces the stature of women’s literature; we should point to Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing, which is still the best book I’ve ever read on the subject. We should take the pledge to make a considerable and consistent effort to mention women’s work which, consciously or unconsciously, has been suppressed. Call it the Russ Pledge. I like to think she would have approved.”
I’m not going to talk about male writers today, so I’m not worried about that sort of parity. But in a post called “Female Invisibility Bingo,” Cheryl Morgan said,
“If we want women writers to get recognition we have to do something about it. We have to talk about them, and we have to get them back into print. Nicola’s post, having noted the problem, was very much all about how we needed to do something, not just sit back and complain.”
And Nicola said, in comment to Cheryl’s post, “To that end, I’d like to encourage everyone to use their platform to discuss one book/story by a woman this month: a Classic or an Unknown or a Young Turk, doesn’t matter.”
Well, this is my platform, and I’ve been meaning to discuss this story for a while. I’m doing it not because Dinesen is a woman but because I think she’s one of the best writers in the English language. Significantly better than Naipaul. But it’s nice that doing so gives me an opportunity to show support for Cheryl’s and Nicola’s positions.
So, “The Ring.” This is now it starts:
“On a summer morning a hundred and fifty years ago a young Danish squire and his wife went out for a walk on their land. They had been married a week. It had not been easy for them to get married, for the wife’s family was higher in rank and wealthier than the husband’s. But the two young people, now twenty-four and nineteen years old, had been set on their purpose for ten years; in the end her haughty parents had had to give in to them.
“They were wonderfully happy. The stolen meetings and secret, tearful love letters were now things of the past. To God and man they were one; they could walk arm in arm in broad daylight and drive in the same carriage, and they would walk and drive so till the end of their days. Their distant paradise had descended to earth and had proved, surprisingly, to be filled with the things of everyday life: with jesting and railleries, with breakfasts and suppers, with dogs, haymaking and sheep. Sigismund, the young husband, had promised himself that from now there should be no stone in his bride’s path, nor should any shadow fall across it. Lovisa, the wife, felt that now, every day and for the first time in her young life, she moved and breathed in perfect freedom because she could never have any secret from her husband.
“To Lovisa – whom her husband called Lise – the rustic atmosphere of her new life was a matter of wonder and delight. Her husband’s fear that the existence he could offer her might not be good enough for her filled her heart with laughter. It was not a long time since she had played with dolls; as now she dressed her own hair, looked over her linen press and arranged her flowers she again lived through an enchanting and cherished experience: one was doing everything gravely and solicitously, and all the time one knew one was playing. It was a lovely July morning. Little woolly clouds drifted high up in the sky, the air was full of sweet scents. Lise had on a white muslin frock and a large Italian straw hat. She and her husband took a path through the park; it wound on across the meadows, between small groves and groups of trees, to the sheep field. Sigismund was going to show his wife his sheep. For this reason she had not brought her small white dog, Bijou, with her, for he would yap at the lambs and frighten them, or he would annoy the sheep dogs. Sigismund prided himself on his sheep; he had studied sheep-breeding in Mecklenburg and England, and had brought back with him Cotswold rams by which to improve his Danish stock. While they walked he explained to Lise the great possibilities and difficulties of the plan.
“She thought: ‘How clever he is, what a lot of things he knows!’ and at the same time: ‘What an absurd person he is, with his sheep! What a baby he is! I am a hundred years older than he.'”
Although Sigismund and Lise are both technically adults, they are still very much children. Lise, at least, is almost playing at her life, particularly her married life. From his shepherd Mathias, Sigismund receives news that some of the sheep are sick. He also hears that there is a sheep thief in the neighborhood. The thief stole some sheep and even killed a man who attempted to prevent the theft. Since Sigismund needs to deal with the sick sheep, he tells Lise to walk on ahead. He will catch up.
“So she was turned away by an impatient husband to whom his sheep meant more than his wife. If any experience could be sweeter than to be dragged out by him to look at those same sheep, it would be this. She dropped her large summer hat with its blue ribbons on the grass and told him to carry it back for her, for she wanted to feel the summer air on her forehead and in her hair. She walked on very slowly, as he had told her to do, for she wished to obey him in everything. As she walked she felt a great new happiness in being altogether alone, even without Bijou. She could not remember that she had ever before in all her life been altogether alone. The landscape around her was still, as if full of promise, and it was hers. Even the swallows cruising in the air were hers, for they belonged to him, and he was hers. She followed the curving edge of the grove and after a minute or two found that she was out of sight to the men by the sheep house. What could now, she wondered, be sweeter than to walk along the path in the long flowering meadow grass, slowly, slowly, and to let her husband overtake her there? It would be sweeter still, she reflected, to steal into the grove and to be gone, to have vanished from the surface of the earth from him when, tired of the sheep and longing for her company, he should turn the bend of the path to catch up with her.
“An idea struck her; she stood still to think it over.
“A few days ago her husband had gone for a ride and she had not wanted to go with him, but had strolled about with Bijou in order to explore her domain. Bijou then, gamboling, had led her straight into the grove. As she had followed him, gently forcing her way into the shrubbery, she had suddenly come upon a glade in the midst of it, a narrow space like a small alcove with hangings of thick green and golden brocade, big enough to hold two or three people in it. She had felt at that moment that she had come into the very heart of her new home. If today she could find the spot again she would stand perfectly still there, hidden from all the world. Sigismund would look for her in all directions; he would be unable to understand what had become of her and for a minute, for a short minute – or, perhaps, if she was firm and cruel enough, for five – he would realize what a void, what an unendurably sad and horrible place the universe would be when she was no longer in it. She gravely scrutinized the grove to find the right en-trance to her hiding-place, then went in.”
Something interesting has happened here. If I could describe exactly what it was, this story wouldn’t be as powerful as it is. But we see a thought in Lise, the child. A thought that indicates the potential for change in her. The possibility of a sort of cruelty, and the desire for things she has never had before – solitude, power. And a kind of mystery.
Dinesen’s stories are great in part because they operate on the moral principle of fairy tales. Fairy tale morality is different from the morality of ordinary human society. In fairy tales, you must figure out the proper moral action for any particular situation. Sometimes you must sew a stone into the wolf’s stomach. Sometimes you must thrust an old woman into an oven. It is a morality that is closer to the natural world, to nature itself, than to abstract human laws. Lise is imagining what it would be like to make her husband feel sorrow, and in that moment she is also finding herself. The self that she genuinely and truly is. The adult that will understand cruelty and tragedy and loss. But because she is still a child, she is playing with those concepts.
In the grove, she sees a man.
“She took him in in one single glance. His face was bruised and scratched, his hands and wrists stained with dark filth. He was dressed in rags, barefooted, with tatters wound round his naked ankles. His arms hung down to his sides, his right hand clasped the hilt of a knife. He was about her own age. The man and the woman looked at each other. This meeting in the wood from beginning to end passed without a word; what happened could only be rendered by pantomime. To the two actors in the pantomime it was timeless; according to a clock it lasted four minutes.
“She had never in her life been exposed to danger. It did not occur to her to sum up her position, or to work out the length of time it would take to call her husband or Mathias, whom at this moment she could hear shouting to his dogs. She beheld the man before her as she would have beheld a forest ghost: the apparition itself, not the sequels of it, changes the world to the human who faces it.
“Although she did not take her eyes off the face before her she sensed that the alcove had been turned into a covert. On the ground a couple of sacks formed a couch; there were some gnawed bones by it. A fire must have been made here in the night, for there were cinders strewn on the forest floor.
“After a while she realized that he was observing her just as she was observing him. He was no longer just run to earth and crouching for a spring, but he was wondering, trying to know. At that she seemed to see herself with the eyes of the wild animal at bay in his dark hiding-place: her silently approaching white figure, which might mean death.
“He moved his right arm till it hung down straight before him between his legs. Without lifting the hand he bent the wrist and slowly raised the point of the knife till it pointed at her throat. The gesture was mad, unbelievable. He did not smile as he made it, but his nostrils distended, the corners of his mouth quivered a little. Then slowly he put the knife back in the sheath by his belt.”
She has gone into the forest and met a man who symbolizes everything outside the comfortable life she has known. He symbolizes the wilderness, and the wildness of human life itself. This is from directly after the last quotation:
“She had no object of value about her, only the wedding ring which her husband had set on her finger in church, a week ago. She drew it off, and in this movement dropped her handkerchief. She reached out her hand with the ring toward him. She did not bargain for her life. She was fearless by nature, and the horror with which he inspired her was not fear of what he might do to her. She commanded him, she besought him to vanish as he had come, to take a dreadful figure out of her life, so that it should never have been there. In the dumb movement her young form had the grave authoritativeness of a priestess conjuring down some monstrous being by a sacred sign.
“He slowly reached out his hand to hers, his finger touched hers, and her hand was steady at the touch. But he did not take the ring. As she let it go it dropped to the ground as her handkerchief had done.
“For a second the eyes of both followed it. It rolled a few inches toward him and stopped before his bare foot. In a hardly perceivable movement he kicked it away and again looked into her face. They remained like that, she knew not how long, but she felt that during that time something happened, things were changed.
“He bent down and picked up her handkerchief. All the time gazing at her, he again drew his knife and wrapped the tiny bit of cambric round the blade. This was difficult for him to do because his left arm was broken. While he did it his face under the dirt and suntan slowly grew whiter till it was almost phosphorescent. Fumbling with both hands, he once more stuck the knife into the sheath. Either the sheath was too big and had never fitted the knife, or the blade was much worn – it went in. For two or three more seconds his gaze rested on her face; then he lifted his own face a little, the strange radiance still upon it, and closed his eyes.
“The movement was definitive and unconditional. In this one motion he did what she had begged him to do: he vanished and was gone. She was free.”
Lise turns around and leaves the grove. Sigismund sees her and calls to her, then catches up to her. He sees something in her face that makes him ask her what is the matter. She tells him that she has lost her wedding ring.
“As she heard her own voice pronounce the words she conceived their meaning. Her wedding ring. ‘With this ring’ – dropped by one and kicked away by another – ‘with this ring I thee wed.’ With this lost ring she had wedded herself to something. To what? To poverty, persecution, total loneliness. To the sorrows and the sinfulness of this earth. ‘And what therefore God has joined together let man not put asunder.’
“‘I will find you another ring,’ her husband said. ‘You and I are the same as we were on our wedding day; it will do as well. We are husband and wife today too, as much as yesterday, I suppose.’
“Her face was so still that he did not know if she had heard what he said. It touched him that she should take the loss of his ring so to heart. He took her hand and kissed it. It was cold, not quite the same hand as he had last kissed. He stopped to make her stop with him.”
Sigismund asks her if she remembers where she had the ring on last, where she lost it. To both questions, she answers “No.” And that’s how the story ends.
It’s a strange, enigmatic story, one of my favorites. It’s about a woman who has, in one moment, become an adult. Who has realized that her former life was a sort of game she can no longer play. She thought of playing at cruelty and loss, and then she encounters it, the reality of it. The reality of the tragic impulse at the heart of things, which is more evident perhaps in the natural world than in human society, particularly for a wealthy young woman.
For me, this is in a strange way a love story. In the grove, Lise encounters her opposite and complement, the wild man who shows her the path to her own identity. She is not, after all, the Lise she thought she was. And something happens to him as well, although we do not know what. They are both transformed by the encounter. The wife Sigismund had yesterday is not the same one he has today. We do not know where Lise will go from here, what will happen to her. But it will not be at all what her family wanted or expected for her. She will go on a different path.
Dinesen often ends stories like this, with us not knowing, and yet knowing, what will happen. But the heart of the story is the transformation in the grove. Lise loses something (the ring, her old certainties), and yet this is also the way to become the person she must become. That vision – of needing to understand a way of being that is not society’s way, but the way of the natural world or the fairy tale – is perhaps what I value most about Dinesen as a writer. And why, although her stories contain almost no magic, I nevertheless find them magical.