True at Any Time: Grundtvig's Subjective Interpretation of Nordic Myth

Article excerpt

ALTHOUGH N.F.S. Grundtvig is best known for his works on church, society, and education, his writings on myth form a significant part of his oeuvre. The most important of these are five published works: Lidet om sangene i Edda, Om Asaloren, Nordens Mytologi (1808), Nordens Mythologi (1832), and Grosk og Nordisk Mythologi for Ungdommen. The half-century between Grundtvig's first published work on myth and Grosk og Nordisk Mythologi for Ungdommen was a time of tremendous development and transformation, both in Grundtvig's personal life and in Danish culture and society, and the perspectives of the books reflect these changes. But while Grundtvig interpreted the myths variously at various times, his fundamental theory of myth, which underlies all the interpretations, remained constant. This consistency is not surprising, because Grundtvig believed that the key to understanding and interpreting myth is the relationship between the universal and the subjective. Grundtvig's theory of myth is remarkably like the theories developed by the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung a century later. It is unlikely that Jung knew any of Grundtvig's writings--Grundtvig is surprisingly little-known outside of Denmark--but their approaches to myth are so similar that Jung's more developed insights help to make Grundtvig's books easier to understand, while Grundtvig's work illustrates and validates Jung's theories. This article will examine the ways in which Grundtvig and Jung approached myth, with specific reference to the apocalyptic myth of Ragnarqk.

Grundtvig's understanding of myth was not entirely original. It had roots in the romantic movement and especially in the philosophy of Friedrich Schelling, which later also had a significant influence on both Kierkegaard and Jung. Grundtvig's debt to Schelling is well documented. The year 1806 marked the first of many turning points in Grundtvig's life. His first published work, Lidet om sangene i Edda, appeared in the September issue of the journal Ny Minerva, and at the same time he stopped writing in his journal--from then on everything he wrote was meant for publication. In the final entry he noted:

   Nu kom jeg hid, hvor mit ny Liv begyndte, hvor mit Oje aabnedes for
   Korlighedens Helligdomme, hvorved det skorpedes til at beskue Poesiens
   Undervorker og Oldtiden, disses Urtype i Tiden ... Jeg loste Fichtes skonne
   Bog om Menneskets Bestemmelse, Schillers de herlige Dramer, og dybe
   Spekulasjoner. Jeg forlod Livet med Schelling i hans Bruno.--Nu stod Jeg
   paa en [sic] Punkt, hvor kun eet Stod behovedes til at drive Mig frem til
   Nordens Oldtid, lade Mig omfatte den med samme Korlighed, som Jeg stedse
   folte for den, og med et lysere Blik. (US 1:112)

   (Now I came to the beginning of my new life, where my eyes were opened to
   the temple of love and focused on the masterpieces of poetry and on
   antiquity, their archetype in time.... I read Fichte's wonderful book on
   the vocation of man, Schiller's magnificent dramas and deep speculations.
   With Schelling and his Bruno, I left the world behind. I now stood at a
   point, where all I needed was a nudge to send me into Northern antiquity,
   so I could embrace it with the same love I had always felt for it, and look
   upon it with a lighter gaze.)

In addition to Schelling's Bruno, Grundtvig also read at this time his Vorlesungen uber die Methode des akademischen Studiums and Philosophie und Religion. Grundtvig found in these works an affirmation of his contempt for the allegorical, naturalistic, and euhemeristic interpretations of myth that had long been in vogue as well as of his own intuitive belief that myths are true. Grundtvig first encountered Schelling's ideas when he attended a series of lectures given by Henrik Steffens at Elers' Kollegium in Copenhagen in 1802-03. Steffens, a student of Schelling at Jena, had returned to Denmark filled with enthusiasm for the new romantic movement. …