Of Monsters, Inventions and Northern Lights

One may see in Jonas Lie’s wonderful story Jo i Sjøholmene, translated as Jack of Sjöholm and the Gan-Finn, an allegory of human nature and modern science. Lie examines the wonder that is the scientific method and its profound connection with nature, even as humans possessed of the scientific method seek futilely to fight natural law and isolate themselves from it.

In the days before men learned to built good, strong boats, fishermen were at the mercy of an irascible, capricious old man called the Gan-Finn, and had to buy good winds from him. Jack (Jo in the original) is a young fisherman who laughs at the fears of experienced men, and tries his strength recklessly against the winds and the open sea. After great trials, he is rewarded with a gift to his people. But things don’t end there.

Scientists are often reckless with their own interests and those of others, willing to gamble and risk all for an idea. Sometimes they cannot find what they’re looking for in the place and time they live in, and they need to sail beyond restricting contemporary thought to find or create for themselves another environment. Sometimes they must struggle against an establishment that resists upheaval and change. They may also have to brave incredulity and ridicule. To make his discoveries, Jack must make sacrifices, leave his home behind and explore the rushing waves of the open sea and the wild lights of the north. He must also fight the power that rules the fearful winds, that dreads being unseated by the modern method. When he manages this, he returns home with a gift to his kind. He lets people laugh at him and works steadfastly until his idea becomes a reality. People realise the value of his invention and he is able to fulfil his project of humanitarian aid.

A great deal of the power of the idea lies in Jack’s careful observation of and closeness to nature. Symbolically, after his long and difficult struggle, it was a natural current that led him ashore to his discovery. He seeks to use the secret of a wild natural power (the Draug) and build a boat that moves like a bird, that shakes the sea aside like the slippery fin of a fish.

But scientists who start out working for the public weal, caught by the fire of an idea, can lose sight of their original purpose or be blind to the ill consequences of their work. This happens when science is generally accepted and becomes part of the establishment, part of materialistic human society. Jack finds himself earning a great deal of money, and he starts to be proud and careless with the lives of the people who buy his boats. But scientific hubris is unsustainable, and his oversight pursues him. Helplessly, he cries out that things would have been much worse without his discoveries. Nature and destiny are inexorable.

In the end, Jack abandons the establishment and sets out on a voyage into the open sea. He has abandoned his attempt to subdue nature beneath the tyranny of the human establishment, and instead floats peacefully into wild nature, personified as Seimke, his wild bride. Seimke shrieks and laughs and shakes and throws herself upon his neck, takes her turn at the oars, and plays familiarly with the northern lights. Nature is not an adversary, but a fascinating and affectionate equal. The ultimate purpose of science is familiarity with nature, beautiful and untameable as it is.

(You can read the story in English here, and download the original text here. A big thank you to Project Gutenberg, the University of Oslo’s Documentation Project and MobileReads!)