Today on Project Gutenberg we have…
Han d’Islande by Victor Hugo
At last, something I recognize! Sort of! We all know the author, at least. Before such towering works of fiction as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables, Victor Hugo had to start somewhere. And he started here in 1821, with this novel that translates to “Hans of Iceland” in English. The version that PG happened to pull up is the original French, the only version it currently has. A full English translation does exist, however, and I managed to track it down to Archive.org. A link to one of the copies is right here, if you wish to see it for yourself.
So what is Hans of Iceland about? It’s a Gothic romance set in 17th-century Noway, with all the intrigue and melodrama that makes that genre so delightful. Ordener Guldenlew, son of the Viceroy of Norway, is our young hero. He’s madly in love with a girl named Ethel Schumacker, which is a bit awkward since their families are political rivals. That doesn’t stop them from sharing scenes like this:
Ordener rose to his feet abruptly, unable to repress the impulse to strain her to his heart with a convulsive thrill of rapture.
“Ah! Ethel, my beloved, call me thine Ordener. Tell me — ” and he gazed passionately into her tear-wet eyes, “tell me, dost thou love me, dear?”
The maiden’s reply was inaudible, for Ordener, beside himself with joy, stole from her lips as she spoke it, the first holy kiss, which in God’s eyes is all-sufficient to transform true lovers into man and wife.Page 36
When Ethel’s father is framed for aiding in a rebellion, Ordener sets out to clear his name. His journey brings him into conflict with the titular Hans of Iceland, who conducts himself like a cross between an evil Chuck Norris and a Tolkien orc. He lives only for the pleasure of killing others. He drinks from the skulls of his enemies. He’s implied to be a cannibal, and he would happily wear human skin if it wasn’t so damn cold up in Scandinavia. He fights a bear and a wolf at the same time, and he wins. Yes, this is all in the same story as the maudlin nonsense from the previous paragraph. It’s kind of amazing, in a “what the hell am I looking at right now?” kind of way.
To Monsieur Hugo’s credit, he actually seems well aware that Hans of Iceland is all sorts of ridiculous. The introduction that he wrote for it in 1833 is basically just him roasting his younger self for several pages. “‘Hans of Iceland’ is the work of a young man,” he writes, “and a very young man at that. One feels on reading ‘Hans of Iceland’ that the boy who wrote it, in a fit of desperation in 1821, had no previous experience of affairs, no previous experience of men, no previous experience of ideas, and that he was seeking to guess all that he did not know” (page v). He goes on to criticize it for “its jerky, grasping action, its inelastic characters, its clumsy diction, its pretentious but ill-conceived plot…and…the thousand and one offences [sic] which it commits” (page vi). Which is, he eventually says, exactly why people should see it as he first wrote it. It serves as an example of what he was like as a young writer and how he has (or hasn’t) changed in the years since its publication.
This book could be a pretty fun read if you have the patience for it. I know I’d like to check it out further at some point. As someone who’s just getting started on her own writing career, it’s cool to find and read something from one of the greats when they were still figuring things out. In a way, it’s kind of uplifting: even someone like Victor Hugo wasn’t perfect on the first try.
And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg. See you next time!