Short summary - Niels Ebbesen - Kaj Munk

Scandinavian literature summaries - 2023

Short summary - Niels Ebbesen
Kaj Munk

Nils Ebbesen, the leader of the Danish peasants who rebelled against the Holstein rule (Holsteinia is the Russian name for the historical region of Germany Golyltein adjoining Denmark), died in a battle at Skanderborg on November 2, 1340. However, another event that happened earlier in the spring of the same year glorified him. Sung in the Danish folk ballad "Niels Ebbesen", it later formed the basis of the plot of several classic works of Danish literature, including Munch's drama, written during the Nazi occupation of Denmark.

The first three acts of the play take place on the territory of the rich estate of Niels Ebbesen in Jutland. By a stream not far from the house, the owner's daughter Ruth is rinsing clothes. The young knight Niels Bugge is hovering around her, he just had a big fight with the owner, and now he is trying to break the kiss from his daughter, which he does not succeed in: the girl is ashamed, and Bugge himself is too awkward and straightforward. He is left with nothing. A father comes up to his daughter, he sets up scarecrows by the stream ... from wolves, perfectly understanding the senselessness of this enterprise. But what if the watchdog on his estate made friends with a wolf and, not wanting to fight with him, prefers to pick up the carrion remaining after him (and is the same not happening with Denmark: after all, the Danish king Kristoffer gave its largest territory - the Jutland peninsula under a pledge of his debt to the Holstein Count Gerhard III, who is now establishing his own “new order” on it?).

Father Lorenz, a local priest, appears at the manor house, he is very tipsy: fooling around, he tries to saddle a pig. Nils Ebbesen's wife Fru Gertrud orders him to go into the house, lie down and sleep. But does Frau Gertrud know what Lorenz said to the young Bugga, who was about to gore Count Gerhard? He told him: his idea is wonderful! And God bless him after that to burn in the eternal flames of hell! War is good! Cities will be burned, new ones can be built. They kill people, women give birth to more. The tipsy priest is clowning around, but bitterness comes through in his jokes - he is aware of the impotence of the Danes in front of Count Gerhard.

Soon Niels Ebbesen's brother-in-law Ove José joins the company at the house. He asks the owner a direct question: is he at the same time with Count Gerhard or against him? The count delivered them from the weak King Kristoffer - after all, he had not liked Niels and his wife Gertrud before? And the count is an energetic and capable ruler. With him, the country will change, the power of the count will mean for her calm, order, power and upsurge. Gerhard III - invincible. Are Niels and his wife against him only because he is a Holsteiner and not a Dane?

Yes, Niels Ebbesen is against the count, although he is not going to oppose him, which the young and imprudent Bugge incited him to do. Let Ove and others consider Ebbesen to be anyone - a coward or a traitor, the main thing for him is that there should be no war. Therefore, he refuses to take sides. Is that his firm answer? asks Ove José. Then let him get acquainted with the Holstein officer, his name is Wietinghof, he will henceforth live in the estate near Ebbesen and study the system of Danish agriculture. At the same time, he will collect weapons from the local peasants - all these crossbows, arrows, spears, battle axes and swords.

Several months pass. Niels Ebbesen and his tenants celebrate the harvest festival. Fun, tranquility and peace reign in the estate. The only one who, for some reason, is not happy with the holiday is Fru Guerre Trud, she does not believe in outward calm and wonders how a husband can be calm when a foreigner has taken over their country? In addition, Fru Gertrud looks with displeasure at Whitinghoff's courtship of her daughter: as it seems, they are accepted by her favorably. Wietinghoff also charms Ebbesen's son, a teenager who admires his decisive character and code of knightly honor. The holiday is interrupted by a messenger who arrived at the estate: he announces the imminent arrival here of Count Gerhard himself with his five hundred horsemen. Fru Gertrud immediately blows his horn, summoning the peasants—they must put up resistance against the insolent Holsteiners! But the matter does not come to a collision: the messenger reports that the count is seriously ill, he is almost dying and is traveling on a stretcher. According to the law of hospitality, Niels Ebbesen cedes the estate to him, while he himself, along with his children and household, temporarily moves to a farm standing nearby in the wasteland.

A few more months pass. It's time for sowing. Niels Ebbesen is dissatisfied with his son's behavior: he gives him a slap for expressing his desire to become a soldier. "What will young Ebbe do when he has conquered the whole earth?" the father asks his son. It is better and more reliable to take land from the marshes, draining them. Ebbesen is no less strict with his daughter Ruth, she too willingly accepts Whitinghoff's courtship. Does she really want her sons to kill people in the future? In general, this spring everyone is dissatisfied with everyone: a premonition of trouble hangs in the air. Fru Gertrud also reprimands her husband. The Holsteiners, in her opinion, have already completely taken over the country; they now act not only with rudeness: when necessary, they are not averse to joking and can be courteous. The Danes are completely softened: Count Gerhard is exhausted by illness, but even he, the living dead, inspires such fear in the Danes that his army conquers the country with threats and promises alone, Fru Gertrud does not understand her husband’s optimism when he frivolously tells her that “with the singing of a lark the peasants will take up the plow and the Holsteiners will soon be gone.”

Father Lorenz comes to the farm. He brings important news with him: Count Gerhard recovered, he left the Ebbesen estate and went to the town of Randers. But the count did not forget about the local peasants: he ordered them to also come to Randers for military service there.

If this is the case, Niels Ebbesen immediately sets off - he is going to his estate! He will stop the peasants! Father Lorenz warns Niels: the peasants are unlikely to welcome his return - it was Nils who ordered them to hand over their weapons to Whitinghoff. In general, the peacefulness of Ebbesen seems strange to the priest: is it not the blessed Niels? “But does Father Lorenz have the right to talk to me like that?” Ebbesen exclaims. “Probably,” he replies. Not so long ago, in the church, where the count himself was among the parishioners, Father Lorenz delivered a sermon in which he denounced the powers that be, violating divine and human rights. After the sermon, he expected death. But the count came to him and praised him: he preached well, it is comforting for the count to know that the truth in these places has again spoken at the top of its voice. The count is so self-confident that he allows himself indulgence. It is useless to speak to him in human language, he only understands the language of the sword.

After listening to Lorenz, Nils comes to an unexpected decision: he is going to Randers, he will meet the count there! He can no longer remain aloof. Literally at these words, his peasant tenants, who came to say goodbye, enter the house. He announces to them about the decision: let them stay at home, he will go to Randers and agree with the count! The peasants do not dissuade Ebbesen, but swear to protect him, if there were weapons. And the weapon is located: it is hidden behind barrels of beer in a warehouse in the church of the drunkard priest Lorenz. Ebbesen sets out with the peasants. Withinghoff, who is following him, arrests the priest and tries to find out from him where and for what purpose Niels left. Lorenz laughs it off, and then Witinghoff resorts to torture: from the most pleasant guest and friend of the house, he instantly turns into an occupier and executioner. Ruth, who caught the scene of torture, calls her lover a flayer. He leaves Lorenz and leaves for Randers - to be with the count.

In Randers. Deep night. Count Gerhard is breathing heavily. He is awakened for midnight mass. The count is unhappy: he was prevented from sleeping - someone was shouting in the street. He orders the screaming man to be found and hanged. The count strictly monitors the departure of mass: there would be no passes. God cannot be deceived. Others can. But not just God. They are interested to know if moving out of the country did him any good? Yes, he feels good. And now he can finish the job. He will create a strong state. On the foundations of mercy, justice and peace. The Count is merciful, because he destroys only what has become obsolete. He is just because he recognizes the strongest as the winner. He brings peace with him, for peace is possible only when one rules and the rest obey him.

Niels Bugge is introduced. The count orders him to be hanged. Did young Bugge come to Randers on the basis of a safe-conduct issued by him, the Count? Well, Bugge was stupid.

A messenger enters the count's bedroom. He loudly announces: Gerhard's Holstein troops have taken the city of Ribe and burned Kolding. Great news! Who is this runner? Did Nils Ebbesen come to the count? Perhaps he wants the count to let the peasants go? No, the count will send them to the most dangerous places, from which they usually do not return. And he will send Niels there too - only for this reason he does not order him to be hanged immediately. The Danes are generally worthless people. They do not want to interfere in anything, they always strive to stay on the sidelines. They refuse to fight for a great goal, but willingly get involved in petty quarrels. They have neither a sense of unity nor responsibility, they are gluttonous and complacent. The count does not know a single Dane who would have a strong will and be capable of a bold act.

"By what right does the count judge the Danes?" Ebbesen asks him a question. “By the right of the winner,” the count answers. Niels Ebbesen draws a sword hidden on his chest. Peasants rush from the hallway to help him. The count's guards have been pushed back. Only Niels Ebbesen's brother-in-law Ove Jose protects him, and Nils kills him without hesitation. The count's retinue flees, while he himself, trying to escape, appeals to the rules of civilized behavior: you can’t attack like a robber, as Niels Ebbesen does, they can still agree, let the young Bugge be an intermediary between them. Among other things, he, Count Gerhard, is in a foreign country, he is a foreigner, sick and defenseless. "By what right does Ebbesen want to kill me?" “By the right of the winner,” he replies. Right there in the bedroom, the faithful adviser and spy of Count Wietinghoff was also killed.

Battlefield. It has a thick fog. The sound of weapons and the clatter of horses are heard. Cries that the Holsteiners are fleeing. In the foreground - Ruth and Fru Gertrud, they are looking for Nils. Frau Gertrude is almost certain that her husband is dead. It cannot be otherwise, because he went with a handful of peasants against Count Gerhard himself and his entire army! How she regrets that she pushed him to it! “No,” Father Lorenz, who accompanies the women, repeats, “we should not feel sorry for Niels, but be proud of him.” If he died, then with honor. However, the priest is sure that Ebbesen is alive. Travelers come across a lonely hut in the fog and enter it. Appears on horseback Niels Ebbesen. Deadly tired, he dismounts from his horse and hastily wipes his sword on the grass. Father Lorenz notices him. “Is the Count’s blood really as red as the others?” he asks. Ebbesen confesses: he killed the count and stained his sword with blood, he stained his shield and the honor of Denmark: after all, he killed an unarmed one! But Lorenz justifies him: there is a war going on, Count Gerhard started it himself, and there is one less devil on earth.

The mistress of the hut, a middle-aged woman, comes out to the men. Lorenz asks if she has anything in the house, they are very hungry. The woman had only two small loaves left, which she had saved for the children. But she will give one of them if it is true that Niels Ebbesen killed the hated bald count.

The people are gathering. Young Bugge addresses people with a speech. The Jutlanders have a long and thorny path ahead of them. But now they have the courage to walk on it. Niels Ebbesen not only defeated their enemy - he returned the faith to his fellow tribesmen. And from now on, whenever the Danes happen to lose courage, the mere mention of his name will lift their spirits.

To the speech of the young Bugge, Ebbesen answers briefly. He would always like to live in peace with his neighbors. But in order to live, one must be free.