Ole the Tower-Keeper
By Hans Christian Andersen (1859)
In the world it ’s always going up and down and now can’t go up any higher ! ‘ So said Ole the tower-keeper. ‘ Most people have to try both the ups and the downs ; and, rightly considered, we all get to be watchmen at last, and look down upon life from a height.’
Such was the speech of Ole, my friend, the old towerkeeper, an amusing talkative old fellow, who seemed to speak out everything that came into his head, and who for all that had many a serious thought deep in his heart. Yes, he was the child of respectable people, and there were even some who said that he was the son of a privy councillor, or that he might have been ; he had studied too, and had been assistant teacher and deputy clerk ; but of what service was all that to him ? In those days he lived in the dean’s house, and was to have everything in the house, to be at free quarters, as the saying is ; but he was still, so to speak, a fine young gentleman. He wanted to have his boots cleaned with patent blacking, and the dean would only give ordinary grease ; and upon that point they split one spoke of stinginess, the other of vanity, and the blacking became the black cause of enmity between them, and at last they parted.’
But what he demanded from the dean he also demanded from the world namely, patent blacking and he got nothing but grease. Accordingly he at last drew back from all men, and became a hermit ; but the church tower is the only place in a great city where hermitage, office, and bread can be found together. So he betook himself up thither, and smoked his pipe on his solitary rounds. He looked upward and downward, and had his own thoughts, and told in his way of what he saw and did not see, of what he read in books and in himself. I often lent him books, good books ; and you may know a man by the company he keeps. He loved neither the English governessnovels, nor the French ones, which he called a mixture of empty wind and raisin -stalks : he wanted biographies and descriptions of the wonders of the world. I visited him at least once a year, generally directly after New Year’s Day, and then he always spoke of this and that which the change of the year had put into his head.
I will tell the story of two of these visits, and will give his own words if I can do so.
Among the books which I had lately lent Ole, was one about cobble-stones, which had greatly rejoiced and occupied him.
‘ Yes, they ‘re rare old fellows, those cobble-stones ! ‘ he said ; and to think that we should pass them without noticing them ! I have often done that myself in the fields and on the beach, where they lie in great numbers. And over the street pavement, those fragments of the oldest remains of antiquity, one walks without ever thinking about them. I have done the very thing myself. But now I look respectfully at every paving-stone. Many thanks for the book ! It has filled me with thought, has pushed old thoughts and habits aside, and has made me long to read more on the subject. The romance of the earth is, after all, the most wonderful of all romances. It ’s a pity one can’t read the first volumes of it, because they’re written in a language that we don’t understand. One must read in the different strata, in the pebble-stones, for each separate period. And it is only in the sixth volume that the human personages first appear, Adam and Eve ; that is a little too late for some readers, they would like to have them at once, but it is all the same to me. Yes, it is a romance, a very wonderful romance, and we all have our place in it. We grope and ferret about, and yet remain where we are, but the ball keeps turning, without emptying the ocean over us ; the crust we walk upon holds together, and does not let us through. And then it ’s a story that has been acting for millions of years, with constant progress. My best thanks for the book about the cobblestones. Those are fellows indeed ! they could tell us something worth hearing, if they only knew how to talk. It ’s really a pleasure, now and then to become a mere nothing, especially when a man is as highly placed as I am. And then to think that we all, even with patent lacquer, are nothing more than insects of a moment on that anthill the earth, though we may be insects with stars and garters, places and offices ! One feels quite a novice beside these venerable million-year-old cobble-stones. On last New Year’s Eve I was reading the book, and had lost myself in it so completely, that I forgot my usual New Year’s diversion, namely, the wild hunt to Amager. Ah, you don’t know what that is !
‘ The journey of the witches on broomsticks is well enough known that journey is taken on St. John’s Eve, to the Brocken ; but we have a wild journey also, which is national and modern, and that is the journey to Amager on the eve of the New Year. All indifferent poets and poetesses, musicians, newspaper writers, and artistic notabilities, I mean those who are no good, ride in the New Year’s Eve through the air to Amager. They sit astride on their painting brushes or quill pens, for steel pens won’t bear them, they’re too stiff. As I told you, I see it every New Year’s Eve, and could mention most of them by name, but I should not like to draw their enmity upon myself, for they don’t like people to talk about their ride to Amager on quill pens. I’ve a kind of niece, who is a fishwife, and who, as she tells me, supplies three respectable newspapers with the terms of abuse they use, and she has herself been there as an invited guest ; but she was carried out thither, for she does not own a quill pen, nor can she ride. She has told me all about it. Half of what she says is not true, but the half is quite enough. When she was out there, the festivities began with a song : each of the guests had written his own song, and each one sang his own song, for he thought that the best, and it was all one, all the same melody. Then those came marching up, in little bands, who are only busy with their mouths. There were ringing bells that sang alternately ; and then came the little drummers that beat their tattoo in the family circle ; and acquaintance was made with those who write without putting their names, which here means as much as using grease instead of patent blacking ; and then there was the hangman with his boy, and the boy was the smartest, otherwise he would not be noticed ; then too there was the good street-sweeper with his cart, who turns over the dust-bin, and calls it ” good, very good, remarkably good.” And in the midst of the pleasure there shot up out of the great dirt-heap a stem, a tree, an immense flower, a great mushroom, a perfect roof, which formed a sort of storehouse for the worthy company, for in it hung everything they had given to the world during the Old Year. Out of the tree poured sparks like flames of fire ; these were the ideas and thoughts, borrowed from others, which they had used, and which now got free and rushed away like so many fireworks. They played at ” the fuse burns,” and the young poets played at ” heartburns,” and the witlings played off their jests, and the jests rolled away with a thundering sound, as if empty pots were being shattered against doors. ” It was very amusing ! ” my niece said ; in fact, she said many things that were very malicious but very amusing, but I won’t mention them, for a man must be good-natured and not a carping critic. But you will easily perceive that when a man once knows the rights of the festival out there, as I know them, it ’s quite natural that on the New Year’s Eve one should look out to see the wild chase go by. If in the New Year I miss certain persons who used to be there.
I am sure to notice others who are new arrivals ; but this year I omitted taking my look at the guests. I bowled away on the cobble-stones, rolled back through millions of years, and saw the stones break loose high up in the North, saw them drifting about on icebergs, long before Noah’s ark was constructed, saw them sink down to the bottom of the sea, and reappear again on a sand-bank, the one that stuck up out of the water and said, “This shall be Zealand ! ” I saw them become the dwelling-place of birds that are unknown to us, and then became the seat of wild chiefs of whom we know nothing, until with their axes they cut their Runic signs into a few of these stones, which then came into the calendar of time. But as for me, I had quite gone out of it, and had become a nothing. Then three or four beautiful falling stars came down, which cleared the air, and gave my thoughts another direction. You know what a falling star is, do you not ? The learned men are not at all clear about it. I have my own ideas about shooting stars, and my idea is this : How often are silent thanksgivings offered up for one who has done a good and noble action ! the thanks are often speechless, but they are not lost for all that. I think these thanks are caught up, and the sunbeams bring the silent, hidden thankfulness over the head of the benefactor ; and if it be a whole people that has been expressing its gratitude through a long lapse of time, the thankfulness appears as a nosegay of flowers, and falls in the form of a shooting star over the good man’s grave. I am always very much pleased when I see a shooting star, especially in the New Year’s Eve, and then find out for whom the gift of gratitude was intended. Lately a gleaming star fell in the southwest, as a tribute of thanksgiving to many, many ” For whom was that star intended ? ” thought I. It fell, no doubt, on the hill by the Bay of Flensborg, where the Danebrog waves over the graves of Schleppegrell, Laessoe, and their comrades. One star also fell in the midst of the land, fell upon Soro, a flower on the grave of Holberg, the thanks of the year from a great many thanks for his charming plays !
‘ It is a great and pleasant thought to know that a shooting star falls upon our graves : on mine certainly none will fall no sunbeam brings thanks to me, for here there is nothing worthy of thanks. I shall not get the patent lacquer,’ said Ole ; ‘ for my fate on earth is only grease, after all.’
It was New Year’s Day, and I went up the tower. Ole spoke of the toasts that were drunk at the passing of the Old Year into the New. And he told me a story about the glasses, and this story had a very deep meaning. It was this :
‘ When on the New Year’s Eve the clock strikes twelve, the people at the table rise up, with full glasses in their hands, and drink success to the New Year. They begin the year with the glass in their hands ; that is a good beginning for topers. They begin the New Year by going to bed, and that ’s a good beginning for drones. Sleep is sure to play a great part in the course of the year, and the glass likewise. Do you know what dwells in the glass ? ‘ asked Ole. ‘ There dwell in the glass, health, pleasure, and the wildest delight ; and misfortune and the bitterest woe dwell there also. Now suppose we count the glasses of course I count the different degrees in the glasses for different people.
‘ You see, the first glass, that ’s the glass of health, and in that the herb of health is found growing ; put it up on the beam in the ceiling, and at the end of the year you may be sitting in the arbour of health.
‘ If you take the second glass from this a little bird soars upwards, twittering in guileless cheerfulness, so that a man may listen to his song and perhaps join in, ” Fair is life ! no downcast looks ! Take courage and march onward ! ”
‘ Out of the third glass rises a little winged urchin, who cannot certainly be called an angel-child, for there is goblin blood in his veins, and he has the spirit of a goblin ; not wishing to hurt or harm you, indeed, but very ready to play off tricks upon you. He’ll sit at your ear and whisper merry thoughts to you ; he’ll creep into your heart and warm you, so that you grow very merry and become a wit, so far as the wits of the others can judge.
‘ In the fourth glass is neither herb, bird, nor urchin : in that glass is the pause drawn by reason, and one may never go beyond that sign.
‘ Take the fifth glass, and you will weep at yourself, you will feel such a deep emotion ; or it will affect you in a different way. Out of the glass there will spring with a bang Prince Carnival, impertinent and extravagantly merry : he’ll draw you away with him, you’ll forget your dignity, if you have any, and you’ll forget more than you should or ought to forget. All is dance, song, and sound ; the masks will carry you away with them, and the daughters of vanity, clad in silk and satin, will come with loose hair and alluring charms ; tear yourself away if you can !
‘The sixth glass ! Yes, in that glass sits a demon, in the form of a little, well-dressed, attractive and very fascinating man, who thoroughly understands you, agrees with you in everything, and becomes quite a second self to you. He has a lantern with him, to give you light as he accompanies you home. There is an old legend about a saint who was allowed to choose one of the seven deadly sins, and who accordingly chose drunkenness, which appeared to him the least, but which led him to commit all the other six. The man’s blood is mingled with that of the demon it is the sixth glass, and with that the germ of all evil shoots up within us ; and each one grows up with a strength like that of the grains of mustard seed, and shoots up into a tree, and spreads over the whole world ; and most people have no choice but to go into the oven, to be recast in a new form.
‘ That ’s the history of the glasses,’ said the towerkeeper Ole, ‘ and it can be told with lacquer or only with grease ; but I give it you with both ! ‘
That was my second visit to Ole, and if you want to hear about more of them, then the visits must be continued.