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80 novels about the life in the Wilderness 1917 - 1973

Posted on November 21, 2016

Mikkjel Fønhus is a unique source to explore the development of Norwegian attitudes to nature throughout the 20th century.

Mikkjel Fønhus is well known as the foremost author of animals and life in the wilderness in Norwegian litterature. He published 43 books on these themes during his life, and another 34 were published after his death. Less known is it that he – through his life and writing – engaged in an active dialogue with central movements in his time, and that he is unique source for understandig the development of the Norwegian and Nordic attitudes towards nature through the 20th century.

Mikkjel Fønhuus, 1894-1973, Norwegian author of the Wilderness. Born 14.3.1894 in Sør-Aurdal, Oppland, Norway. Parents: Arne Mikkelsen Fønhus (1860-96) and Olava Olsdatter Storsveen (1867-1948). Married 1) 23.4.1926 to Helga Karlsgot (1901-1992), marriage dissolved, and 2) 1934 to Margrethe Frøshaug (1914- ). He died 28.10.1973 in Sør-Aurdal.

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Background

Mikkel Arnesen Fønhus – which he was baptized – grew up in Sør-Aurdal in the valley of Valdres in the inland of Norway. He was destined to become the next farmer at the forest farm Nordre Fønhus where his family had roots stretching back for centuries. But two years before his birth his father had traded the farm for his brother’s newly established grocery store – and he died when Mikkel was two years old. In this way Mikkel – a child of the old farmer society – got a very modern upbringing with his single mother Olava and the two year younger brother Olaf on the first floor of the grocery store.

His mother wanted him to get an education to get out in the world ”to become something”. After six years of primary school he was sent to four years of middle school in Aurdalsbyen and to three years of secondary school in Norway’s capital Oslo (at that time called Kristiania). Then he started studying law at the University of Oslo. However, after one session of Roman Law the young student had got enough and went home to Valdres to hunt for hares.


Debut in the time of polar explorers, Jack London and social darwinism

Home in Valdres he had grown up with hunting and fishing. The experiences had grown into writings at school and later on he had gotten stories published in magazines and newspapers. Now he started working with the story which developed into his first novel, Skoggangsmand (The Outlaw). When this book was published he had changed his first name. The farmer’s son Mikkel Arnesen Fønhus was now the author Mikkjel Fønhus.

Skogggangsmand tells the story of the wild tempered Hans Trefothaugen, who feels imprisoned in the life of the cotter in the parish, gets into fights and stabbing and has to flee into the wilderness as an outlaw. There he fully enjoys the free life in the open nature. But he also has a longing for women – and through this he is driven into new conflicts with the local farmer society and ends up in slavery. The book did not get much attention among Norwegian litterary critics. In Denmark, however, the later Nobelprice winner Johannes V. Jensen wrote enthusiastic about it in the major Copenhagen newspaper Politiken: ”Mikkjel Fønhus makes his debut as a fully qualified writer. It is Norwegian air, Norwegian rough and inexhaustible nature. A new man who understands it, has it in him and can express it, has now come forward”.

Jensen pointed out the connection between Fønhus’ writing and the international genre of the wilderness. Mikkjel Fønhus read these authors and in his breakthrough novel ”Der villmarken suser” (1919) the inspiration from Jack London’s worldwide bestseller ”The Call of the Wild” is easily grasped. Critics like Niels Collett Vogt in the Oslo newspaper Dagbladet wrote: ”the joy of the wild animal over a life in freedom in an untouched nature is sucked in liberating breaths and rendered in dear memory”. It became the book of the year for young people at this time inspired by the polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen praising of the life in the great nature.

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Where can we listen to the voices of nature?

Mikkjel Fønhus was, however, on his way onwards. In the next novel Det skriker fra Kverrvilljuvet (1920) the identification has moved from the hunter’s urges to the sufferings of the victim. And in Trollelgen/The Troll-Elch (1921) we follow with vibrating power a lifelong struggle between the wild-animal human Gaupa and the nature mysticism in the form of the giant elch Rauten.

After the Troll-Elch Mikkjel Fønhus – but not his litterary agents, critics and readers – was finished with the inspiration from Jack London and the young Norwegian nation’s joy in being able to make itself the master over nature with the help of industrialism. The gap between what his surroundings expected from him and the course he wanted to follow in his authorship became painfully large – and the tension in this was never relieved before the wave of environmentalism arrived among young people in the 1960ies.

His interest had now moved on to the idea in the folk tradition of a nature striking back against the harm being done against it, as in the short story Ropet fra Helvetesjuvet in Raudalsdansen 1924. But also in listening to voices of an inner nature in man’s conscience, dreams and unconscious impulses of the soul in the conflict zone between natur and industrial society, as in Gråbeinstad in 1925. At this time Mikkjel Fønhus had read Sigmund Freud’s The Unconscious and Gråbeinstad is among the very first Freud-inspired works written in Norway. But the manuscript was stopped by his publisher and did not get published until 1993.

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From internal to external conflicts

In Reinsbukken på Jotunfjell, however, Fønhus gave the publisher and his audience what they wanted. But at this time the author has got an ironic distance to the romanticism around the freedom of the wild animals. The Reindeer in this book is no longer majestetic and impressing like the Troll-Elch. It is beautiful, vulnerable and threatened by ruthless hunters. And the hunters do no longer have both the hunting urge and the empathy for the animal within themselves as an inner conflict. Now this polarity has been transformed into an external conflict between friends and enemies of the nature – and the conflicts in Fønhus’ books hardens.

Fønhus now wants to cut through the romanticism and expose the hard realities behind the beautiful dreams. This trend is clearly visible at this time in his attitude to women and marriage – as he expressed it towards his author colleague and friend Tarjei Vesaas. It can be seen in the discussion about communism in the Norwegian authors guild and in rough newspaper polemic with the raising Labour Party in Valdres. The antiromantic trend colours the book Fjellkongen (1930) which draws a picture of a nature which are pushed into a corner and strikes desperate and brutally against its enemys. And it slumbers under the surface of the book Løvene i Killiamtui, with the roar in Africa’s dark nights from the lion which is pushed back by railways and expanding civilisation, but proudly refuses to surrender.

Into this field come German impulses. With the inspiration from Jack London the publisher expected to see a future for Mikkjel Fønhus in the Anglo-American market. Some books were translated, but did not get any resonance there. In Germany, however, Fønhus’ books became a success from the late 1920ies where the critics saw Fønhus as the man of the nature in the midst of a vast and mysterious natur.

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The Nazi war machine rolling over Norwegian nature

After the Nazi takeover the litterature of the wilderness was elevated to a healthy and Germanic genre by the nazi-ideologist Thilo von Trotha in 1935. In the years 1937-40 The Troll-Elch was printed in 410.000 as a reward prize in a Nazi book club. Mikkjel Fønhus visited the culture organisation Nordische Gesellschaft in 1937 and made a tour of lectures in German cities in 1938. His lecture had nothing of Nazi ideology in it, but his appearance was used by the arrangers as a support for the regime. One and a half year later the German war machine invaded Norway and the hardest fightings during the April days 1940 took place in Bagn in Valdres, few kilometers from his home. In his later books this became the picture of the wildanimal-human’s encroachment against nature.

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The early Environmentalist gets an Indian Summer during his last years

In 1949 Mikkjel Fønhus made a last effort to bring the fight for preserving Norwegian nature on the political agenda through his book manuscript Fjellsjøen about the negative consequences of building electrical power stations in a small rural municipality. The publisher turned it down, and Fønhus went into an inner excile: He left all debate about modern industrialism and nature behind, and concentrated about writing about the life in the nature in itself – to give nourishment for the Norwegian love for untouched nature in the hope of time working for him. It did. Every year a new Fønhus-book was published and sold in large numbers, and with the growing ecology-movement of the 1960ies Mikkjel Fønhus appeared as a pioneer in the fight for preserving nature.


Litterature

Rolf Brandrud: Drømmejegeren - en biografi om Mikkjel Fønhus / The Dream Hunter - a biography about Mikkjel Fønhus, Aschehoug forlag, Oslo, Norway 1993

Trollelgens rike - Streif gjennom Mikkjel Fønhus' landskaper / The Realm of the Troll-Elch - Rambling in the Landscapes of Mikkjel Fønhus. Selected texts from Mikkjel Fønhus' books. Photos by Ulf Myhrvold. Edited by Rolf Brandrud. Aschehoug forlag, Oslo, Norway 1994