“The Wish,” by Johann Sigurjonsson

While I was at Dale Nelson’s house on Sunday, he lent me an English translation of an Icelandic play, “The Wish,” by Jóhann Sigurjónsson, and asked for my reaction. Here’s a link to the text, in the same Einar Haugen translation I’ve got.

It’s a strange play, with considerable numinous power, even in this somewhat clumsy translation (Haugen wrote the textbook from which I learned Norwegian, but he’s no English stylist). It’s a sort of Icelandic Faust story, about a young man obsessed with obtaining knowledge—not for the sake of wisdom, but for the sake of power. He believes that if he obtains access to a certain “Red Book,” which a long-dead bishop took with him to his grave, he’ll obtain total power, not only on earth but in the spiritual realm.

There are echoes of Nietzsche here, whom Sigurjónsson had studied, but he doesn’t seem to have taken Nietzsche’s side. The play is essentially, I think, a Christian one (though I’m not entirely certain I understand it, even after two readings).

One thing I struggled with in reading the play was, I think, that I was looking for the wrong things. I wanted a clearer lesson than the playwright intended. This isn’t a morality play. It’s a tragedy in the classical sense. Loftur, the main character, is already doomed at the beginning. He has shaped his own downfall. He has been having an affair with a lowborn girl of whom his father disapproves. In the course of the play, he meets another girl, Disa, the bishop’s daughter, with whom he finds (apparently) true love. But nothing can come of this. His past sins make his happiness impossible, whatever choice he makes. He still has the option of saving his soul and his life, but he’ll never be happy.

It all ends in a gloomy and evocative scene in the cathedral which would certainly be a stage designer’s and a lighting engineer’s dream. It must have immense power when staged.

I’m still not sure what to make of the last line, though.

Worth reading.

7 thoughts on ““The Wish,” by Johann Sigurjonsson”

  1. Indeed it has. I think I’ve mentioned here before that the idea of the priest or pastor being a magician was a common superstition when the common people were illiterate. They saw something unnatural in the act of reading. It is, after all, a form of communicating with the dead.

  2. Benedikt Benedikz, now retired and living in Birmingham, England, staged a production of the play at Durham University around 1960. I gather it was quite a success. They also staged Charles Williams’s The House of the Octopus, which must have been a rare event, and one of Sayers’ plays, also Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.

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