by Bent Lorentzen, ©2006
“This fairy tale… exquisitely engages some very serious problems in our [Danish] society”
Jørgen Poulsen, General-secretary, Denmark’s Red Cross
Not so far away from the Christiansborg parliamentary castle, on the other side of the little canal and past the bronze Bishop Absalon on his mighty horse, sleeps a middle aged man. He lies so quiet under an obscure overhang between two boutiques all lit up for Christmas, and seems unaffected by the cold drizzle so typical to December in Denmark that has soaked his tattered clothes. He is dreaming. But his dreams are not like those walking past him on Strøget, the famous Copenhagen shoppers’ walking-street, who are thinking about how much they’ve overdrawn their VISA card, or that evening’s Christmas dinner, or what awaits them under the tree. The man lying there is definitely not thinking about a new laptop or the latest MP3, which is exactly what many of the well-dressed youngsters towing their parents along the cobblestone street are manipulatively whispering intimations of.
No, he is dreaming of his youth in a far-away land with his beautiful wife and their lively daughter, who walked to the palm-leafed school down the winding dirt trail every morning with her talkative friends from their ancient village. Electricity and television was still a bit of a mystery to their village back then. There was talk of these modern conveniences existing up in Europe or across the huge ocean in America, where this seemed taken for granted. But here on most evenings, the village entertained itself with elders or a great-grandmother, who told endless stories of the distant past, of the Great-One-Who-Needs-Nothing who kept the devil at bay for her Original People as they enjoyed life together without much fuss. This was a time when lion cubs and baby antelope frolicked together with the fearless village young, as a gentle sun always warmed and brought rain when needed.
Then one day, came the war. Why it violently arrived to their little isolated valley between the two huge jungle mountains none of the village elders could explain. Not even the sleeping man’s mother - then the queen to this tiny domain - had an explanation. But it came with explosive and instant destruction. Soldiers in huge rumbling jeeps shot hot lead into the village huts, and blood flowed like nothing anyone had a memory of. The soldiers then jumped out of their noisy machines and began hacking the screaming villagers to pieces with machetes. The last image the sleeping man had of his wife and child was of their bloody bodies falling lifeless to the jungle floor, and then he himself was brutally hit over the head by the butt of a machine gun before being thrown into the back of a jeep like a sac of coconuts. How he eventually made it safely to Denmark after many years, is a story to itself.
And of course now, the man’s dreaming has turned into the nightmare he so well knows… and a little boy with his father on Strøget, is startled by the sleeping man’s fitful trembling.
“Dad,” asks the warmly dressed boy, “what’s wrong with that man? Why is he sleeping there without a coat? And he’s all dirty!”
“Come now, Esben,” scolds the father, “we have to hurry to grandmas for warm cocoa. He’s just a drunk that’s wasted his welfare money.” The father looks up and sees who’s coming.
“Look, son, it’s all right. See the police; they’ll take care of him. Come now, this has nothing to do with us.”
A little north of Copenhagen, in the coastal town of Ellsinore made famous by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, awakens a very ancient man known to all Danes since before the Viking era. His incredibly long and white beard has grown into the oak slab of the table where he’d laid his head to fall asleep in Kronborg castle centuries earlier. Something has disturbed his well-earned dreaming of a strong and beautiful Denmark. He shakes the cobwebs from his head, tossing his long, scraggly hair every which way, and lets out a huge burp from an old beer that still bothered his stomach from when he’d drunk it in another era. Then he stretched out his log-thick arms and yawned very noisily, huge white teeth glistening in the dark. The noise of that burp and yawn could awaken the dead.
“Who has woken me up NOW!” he screams, the wrinkles in his face becoming as deep as canyons because of how upset and worried he is at the same instant.
But no one answers. It is dark and the window that once upon a time could watch over enemy ships coming from Sweden has been bricked over.
“NO!” he screams, now quite mad.
His ancient eyes peer through the dark to the castle room’s door. Taking in a huge breath that almost empties the old room’s air, he slowly and creakily rises from his bench, and totally ignoring how his beard rips free from the table, he yanks out his huge sword from its scabbard and with one mighty heave, cleaves into two the 5-inch thick oak of the nailed-shut door. Then he crashes through the sundered doorway to the familiar staircase. But there, half way up the worn stone steps leading to the castle’s Great Hall, hovers a golden light that nearly blinds him.
Is he dreaming or has he awakened? Good question…
“WHAT!” screamed Holger the Dane, his 50 pound sword playing menacingly in the air as if it were a swan feather, ready to cleave whatever and whoever stood in his way.
“Take it easy, dear Holger. Just take a deep breath now…”
“I’m the one who tells anyone around here what to do,” said Holger. “Put out that confounded light so I can see who you are. Dot it NOW! Or I’ll send you directly to God!”
“Interesting you should say that,” said the golden light, “because I’ve just come from God.”
“What! Don’t try to confuse me with your tongue. Spit it out! Confound you! Thunder’s name, who on earth you are?”
The strong hovering light came closer by a couple of stony steps. Holger raised his sword and pointed it directly at the golden light, as he again demanded, “In God’s name, are you friend or foe to Denmark?”
“My dearest Holger, how much ale did you drink before falling asleep? I just told you. God sent me. Don’t you remember Bishop Absalon, who enlisted your help to keep away pirates while he built Copenhagen?”
Holger blew out a breath from of his huge mouth. “I don’t want to hear about that stupid man. He wasn’t all that good. He still thought it was just fine for a rich murderer to offer his younger and more stupid brother’s head on the executioner’s block.”
The golden light had slowly hovered a few more feet closer to Holger. “Dear Holger, listen to yourself. Even the worst of people can sometimes shine a little light in the dark. Once upon a time, you yourself thought that sort of Viking justice were righteous. And remember how you once believed that the Hero’s Hall of Valhalla was the highest heavenly reward a human could achieve.”
“Yes yes, Absalon was always talking about this son of a carpenter from Bethlehem who taught of a different way to see God, but then the bishop got a bit power and money hungry. Wasn’t that man he talked about nailed to a piece of wood at the end?”
“In a few short days, my dear Holger, the spirit of that legend will be born again in many people’s hearts.”
“I said it once, and I’ll not say it again! Don’t use double talk with me.” But this time, Holger’s sword was pointed down toward Kronborg’s ancient stone foundation rather than raised against a possible foe.
“It’s almost Christmas, and Denmark desperately needs you.”
“You don’t need to tell me. Last time I got woken up, and it was just for a moment…” and Holger clawed his left hand through his unruly white beard. “Oh yes, that was when that irritating fairy tale writer with the odd black hat woke me up. –Well, if God has sent you, then you know very well that I only wake up when Denmark is in great danger.”
“Yes, my dear, Denmark is in danger. Please come upstairs with me. It is late, and the guard up there, well, he’s asleep.”
“He’s asleep!?” shouted Holger. “Kronborg’s guard is ASLEEP!”
“Well, yes and no.”
Holger shook his mighty head. “Did I not tell you to stop speaking in riddles? When you speak to me, say what you mean!”
“Alright, it’s a deal. The guard is asleep because I gave him a little dream. I did this so I can show you Denmark. I do believe that it might be a good idea for you to put your sword back in its scabbard.”
Holger raised his sword slightly again. “I’ll make that decision. So, who are you?”
“I am an angel and a rather strong one if I might say.”
“Who cares! -Alright, just show me what you want to show me, and I’ll be the one determining whether or not you are a strong angel.”
The golden glow retreated up the stone stairs with Holger slowly ambling behind, rather irritated over the whole thing. The huge portal at the top stood open, and the Great Hall came into dim view from strange illumination he had never before seen. There rose no flames from this sort of light. But then, Holger had seen many strange things in his very long life. The golden glow led Holger to a small desk made of thin, shiny wood before a rather flimsy looking chair. Holger was more used to thick oak benches and tables and that sort of thing.
“It’s genuine Danish design,” said the angel. “It will support your size and weight nicely. Come, you need to see into this special window that looks out on Denmark and the world around.”
“I’ll decide what can support my body around here,” said Holger as he hesitantly sat down on the chair while keeping a hand clasped around the hilt of his sword.
A flatscreen on the table was lit, and without anyone touching anything, it began to show Holger what had happened to his beloved Denmark.
After a few hours – and now it was nearly midnight, the 24th - Holger had had enough. He said, “God, this can’t be? I’ll slaughter those responsible with one swing of my sword.” He gripped his sword’s hilt with massive hands that easily could snap off the heads of a whole legion.
“Once upon a time, maybe,” said the angel. “But you know that’s not God’s will. God gives humans free choice for a good reason. You know that, don’t you? Denmark is no longer in its Viking era.”
“What the dragon’s breath do you want me to do, then?”
“Well,” said the angel slowly. “For starters, maybe a good shave and some new clothes.”
And you can well believe that this came to pass with heavenly speed.
KNOCK KNCOK KNOCK KNOCK!!!
The loud knocking on the door of the Church Meeting House could have awakened the Queen, who slept a few miles up the road at Amalienborg Castle. But the angel was kind enough to catch the sound waves before they disturbed her dreaming, and gently awakened Her Majesty in a more ceremonial way.
The Bishop of Copenhagen was just putting on her coat in the house’s foyer, on her way out after a huge meeting with the other bishops of Denmark. She peeked through the door’s peephole for a moment, and saw only the night lights of the little Copenhagen suburb. Frederiksberg is a very quiet neighborhood.
Suddenly, she saw a movement to the left, and there came into view a huge Dane like one she’d never seen since an image from a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. He was very well dressed in a sharp three-piece suit and an overcoat, a well-trimmed bush of short white hair. His deeply wrinkled face framed eyes that seemed to peer into her soul.
She opened the door and tried smiling as she irritably looked to her watch. “Yes? And who are you?”
“That’s interesting,” said the bishop, nodding her head. “Doesn’t ring a bell for me. What’s your last name? ” She looked past him out to the quiet street. “Where’s your car or a taxi. Don’t you know better than coming here in the middle of the night? If you need to see me, you should make an appointment with my office…” She looked at her watch again. “-At a more reasonable hour. You caught me here purely by chance.”
“Nothing in my world comes about by happenstance.” Holger reached into his pants’ back pocket and drew out his wallet, and handed her his Danish ID card. ”This should clear things up.”
She pulled out her reading glasses from her coat pocket and set them over her attractive nose and wise eyes. Her blond eyebrows knitted a little together “This is a joke, right?”
“Search my name on the Kingdom file thing you have access to in that smart machine you must have in this house,” said Holger as kindly as possible.
For a moment she put a hand into a coat pocket to trigger the special little cellular phone the National Police had given her in case of a problem. But the next moment, the previously cold clear air with stars shining brightly from above, blew into a blinding snowstorm.
That is exactly what happened. One moment there were no clouds, and the next, a blinding snowstorm. The native people of Greenland have a special word for this type of snowstorm. Actually, they have a few dozen names for snow.
The snow blew horizontally into the open door of the old house. “Err, maybe you should come in… for a moment,” said the bishop.
“Very kind of you. I think I will. Do you have any beer?”
She was utterly caught in something that simply made no sense no matter how her mind wrapped itself around it, but there was something quite mysteriously ancient about it all that prevented her from rejecting any possibility. “What about a fine wine?”
“No, that’s for Frenchmen. I believe I knew one a long time ago – odd king by the name of Charlemagne. No, a good beer in a huge skull bowl will do fine for me.”
“Skull bowl? A human cranium?”
“Best served if the skull-bowl is inlayed in cold silver.
She tried anchoring her thoughts in what she’d learned long ago as a theology student at the University of Copenhagen, where she’d learned of the ancient Viking roots to this practice that led to saying “Skaal!” when drinking with people. But it just wasn’t enough. She shook a little as she said, “Well, err, there’s probably a few good elephant beer somewhere. Personally I’m not all that familiar with the house.”
He smiled. “Perhaps we should close the door.” Snow had begun to accumulate on the floor.
She timidly backed away from his omnipotent presence now that the door was shut, and nervously walked into an office where she moved a mouse a bit for the screen to come to life. She looked up to Holger for a moment, her eyes shifting from wonder to fear and back again. Then she looked at the screen as she typed in his Danish registration number, whispering to herself: “Over a thousand years old. Holger the Dane. No way… he’s just a legend, right?”
“Err, the beer?”
She looked up, a bit startled. “Oh, hmm, yes. Down the hall, to your left, there is a refrigerator.” She saw his puzzled look. “Big tall white metal box thing on the floor. You’ll probably find a beer in there.”
Holger had learned while searching the world on that screen up in Ellsinore that Danes now drank their beer from glass bottles with a metal top that often wasn’t that easy to get off. The only weapon that angel up in Ellsinore allowed him to take with him to Copenhagen was a short, legal-sized pocketknife, so he used it to knock off the cap of the Elephant beer.
The bishop stood by the office doorway in the hall when Holger came out of the kitchen.
“You are registered. But how? We’ve only had this registration of people since the late 1960’s. More than a thousand years old? I mean, please tell me; this is some sort of a Christmas joke on me from the other bishops, right?”
“I’m afraid not. Denmark has awakened me. Now, we have a lot to do, many others that need to be gathered, and not a whole lot of time to do it all. The Kingdom must be protected.”
“Yes, that’s what the central registry says. You are “The Protector of Denmark’s Heart.” She let out an old breath. “I have to tell you, that all my years of studying religion and philosophy at the University has never prepared me for this. A legend that has come to life. Why?”
“Yea, well, you’ve all awakened me. The whole kingdom. But apparently you are the only one right now that’s not totally asleep to the problem.”
“We really need to get going, ok?”
“To pick up the Queen.”
“Now wait just as second. No way! Absolutely not. You can’t simply go over there to knock on her door and ask her to come along on some mysterious errand. That’s just not done.”
“Well, the angel has told me, that the Queen will be expecting us.” With that, he opened the door, and wind-driven snow again blew into the house.
“Angel?” she asked, pulling her scarf up around her throat and following Holger out. “What angel? Tell me, have you just escaped from Saint Hans?”
“Saint Hans?” he shouted above the din of the storm.
“Just a place for people with problems in their minds. Oh, just forget it.” She shook her head slowly, briefly closing her eyes to the wind-driven snow. “But we simply cannot just drive up to the queen’s castle and pick her up without some very special procedures.”
She could not see more than a few feet in front of her with the snow stinging her eyes, and shouted, “I’m not very good at driving in such weather.”
“Don’t worry,” shouted Holger to her, walking towards the near-unseen street, as he took one last mighty swig from his beer bottle. And then she saw it. “We are being picked up. Come!”
There, on the street, waited one of Copenhagen City’s big yellow busses.
She shook her head and whispered to herself, “These busses just don’t drive through this little neighborhood; certainly not in the middle of the night.”
“Come,” repeated Holger. “We haven’t much time.”
He took the bishop’s small hand in his large callused hand and led her to the bus’ door, which then opened with a whoosh. Just before stepping up, she peeked at the bus’ sign.
“Not in route?” she whispered to herself again. Suddenly, she remembered that perhaps she ought to pray to that God she had studied so hard to understand all those years ago.
Rather than the expected chauffeur, a golden light hovered over the driver’s seat, and it gently said to the bishop, “God thanks you for your little prayer. But God also says, in answer to that prayer, that you have no cause for fear. It is entirely up to you if you wish to continue on this journey. God says that you have the free will to decline.”
“Are we really going to Amalienborg Castle?” she asked, wondering for a moment where the golden light had its ears.
“She is waiting for us,” came the soft reply.
“She’s waiting for us?” whispered the bishop, as she sat next to Holger a few seats behind the chauffeur.
The sweet little streets meandering through Frederiksberg toward the inner city, with all the pretty mansions, were hard to see in the snowstorm. The snow was quickly accumulating but the bus stayed warm and snug, and the driving progressed very safely. Suddenly, the lit statue of King Christian X on his frozen horse came into brief view as the bus turned into the entrance to the royal palace.
“For the King of Denmark, the hearts stand guard,” whispered the bishop to herself.
“What was that?” asked Holger, as he attempted to comb a hand through his absent beard.
“Oh, something from a poem about a terrible war some decades ago. Our King always rode his horse without his royal guard in the middle of Nazi-occupied Copenhagen.” She managed a tiny smile. “But I guess that was just a moment ago for you.”
And there, on the snow-swept cobblestone plaza in front of Her Majesty’s royal palace stood several white police cars, with their blue lights strobing alongside a long black limousine marked with the license plate “1.” Several royal guards stood with stoic stillness around her car as several National Police officers in civilian suits jumped out of the white cars while muttering into their hidden microphones. The rosy-cheeked queen, in all her regalia and her unceasing smile, was helped out of the limousine by her beloved 14-year old son, the Crown Prince. He gently smiled to her, and held her hand tight to his chest to warm it, as he led her to the bus. Her royal guards held a tight in-step circle around the pair but did not enter the bus, out of respect to her wish. A police officer, though, approached Her Majesty, and suggested that at least one of them be allowed to accompany her on the bus.
“No,” she said sweetly and strongly, “that’s quite alright. But please do follow if that makes you feel better.”
As the pair walked up the bus’ steps, the bishop and Holger stood and briefly curtsied. The two waited until the queen and her son were seated on the other side of the aisle before they again sat. Everyone smiled politely to one another. The bishop had often led a Sunday service for Denmark’s mother and her son at the church in Old Copenhagen and had been invited on several occasions to a royal banquet at the Queen’s Summer Palace.
Two police cars led the way in front of the bus, but even with their blue lights, it was difficult to see anything through the blinding snow. The bus passed Konges Nytorv, then over the canal to Christiansborg’s Parliamentary castle near the Danish Supreme Court. There waited several large BMWs, with smoky steam issuing from their huge tailpipes that mixed with the dancing snow.
The Prime Minister suddenly stepped out of the backdoor of one of the large dark cars, and yet more National Police jumped about every which way as they muttered into their private little microphones.
“Quite a different Denmark than the one I once knew,” remarked Holger.
“What was that?” asked the bishop.
“Yes, my dear Holger,” said Her Majesty loudly. “It definitely is a different world.” She smiled sweetly and said, “Thank you for waking up.”
The bishop quickly began to pray again.
The angel then said, “God says, that from now on we are all equal.”
Her Majesty gently smiled to herself.
The Prime Minister had reached the ticket puncher by the driver’s seat, and his face seemed exhausted until suddenly he saw whom the passengers were. His face blanched, as he attempted a curtsy. “Your… err, Your Majesty. And… err, Your Highness, the Crown Prince… err. I didn’t know…”
“Easy does it, Sir,” said Her Majesty with an inner smile. “It’ll be just fine if you calm down.”
He continued being confused as to how to behave. This was an unprecedented situation. He wasn’t even sure where to sit, since the royal family sat in the first pair of seats behind the handicapped bench to the front, and the Bishop of Copenhagen and a huge tall elderly man occupied the seats opposite. He didn’t think he could manage a walk past the royals to a seat behind them. He decided to sit in the handicapped seat; thus he wouldn’t have his back turned to the Queen and her son.
And who or what is this driver? he thought to himself. But he decided not to voice that question for fear that he would look the fool to the other passengers, who apparently thought nothing of a strange glow in the driver’s seat.
With a slight thump and no pomp, the bus began driving again with its escort of police cars.
But it was a very short drive through the deep snow across the canal again. Bishop Absalon on his snow covered bronze horse briefly came to blurry view. The bus drove directly to the walking street, Strøget, and turned left toward Copenhagen City Hall. It stopped after a few hundred feet, right in front of a restaurant still open so late on Christmas Eve, with lovely colored lights strung across its window and a blinking wreath on its door. In the bus’ strong headlights through the blinding snow by a decorated dumpster, lay the crumbled figure of a black girl perhaps no older than fifteen. A pair of young men hovered over her, about to rip her clothes off with an old fat man cheering them on with a greasy grin. The sudden lights of the huge bus shocked them still.
The queen rose out of her seat with one sweeping motion and ran out the bus, with the door opening just in time with a whoosh. Totally uncaring of the cold wind and snow, Her Majesty jumped towards the girl with her son running just as fast behind her. She shouted something very loud, and immediately several police officers grabbed the two young men and the old fat man, and they were handcuffed and led to the backseats of the police cars. The Royal Guards came upon the scene then – their huge black-furred hats snow decked and rifles at the ready – prepared for any eventuality to protect their Queen. National police ran in all directions and into the restaurant to secure the area. The Prime Minister was unable to close his mouth. The bishop, on the other hand, smiled with pride. This was not exactly the Queen everyone saw on television when she gave her talks, which always ended, “God save Denmark.” There was something about all this that was utterly ancient, which she had read about while a little girl in grammar school. Holger simply said, “Well, now, that was just in the nick of time.” The beer he’d had back in Frederiksberg chose that moment to burp loudly out of his mouth.
The bishop looked to her ancient escort, and said, “You’re excused.” But her humor was short-lived. She looked to her Prime Minister and said, “We need to go out and help Her Majesty. She’s rather alone out there.”
That brought him back to reality, and he followed her and Holger out of the bus, through the wind-driven snow to where the queen sat with her son and the still girl.
Her Majesty held the teenager in her lap within her open ermine coat, as she ordered her Royal Guard to call for an ambulance. The young Crown Prince held the girl’s frozen little hands in his, violently rubbing and blowing on them. When she suddenly opened her dark eyes, the young prince fell in love at first sight with the most beautiful princess he had ever seen.
The three - Her Majesty, the Crown Prince and the gorgeous young princess from Africa - began talking about everything. The queen and her son could speak in the French that was a common language to the region around the tiny kingdom where the girl had come from
“She has come to Denmark in search of her father,” said the queen to those nearby. “Her mother is dead due to a civil war near her homeland, and she has been told that her father should be nearby as a beggar, among the many homeless now in Copenhagen. She has sat here in the cold selling cigarette lighters, but could not sell a single one nor did anyone help her with a bite to eat.” Her Majesty swallowed slightly. “What has happened to my Denmark?” she finally asked without looking at anyone in particular. The Prime Minister was the only one to look away from the scene.
Then came one of Her Majesty’s royal guards to say, “Your Highness, I have just learned that this afternoon a police squad took her father into custody and drove him to St. Hans Hospital, where they sent him to a refugee camp.”
“Why is that?” she asked sharply.
“Your Highness, the police thought he was psychotic because he would not stop crying as he tried explaining that he is a royal and that his wife and daughter were murdered. But the hospital sent him to the camp because he could not prove legal entry into Denmark.”
The little dark princess asked the queen to interpret what was being said, after which the girl said in French, “But I did not die.”
“You almost did, my dear,” said the queen in French. And in Danish she said, “But we’ll fix it now.” She looked up to the Prime Minister for a moment. “And not just for her and her father.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” gulped the Prime Minister.
“Are we not all princes and princesses in God’s heart,” whispered the Queen.
Holger felt the Bishop take his hand, and they looked into each other’s eyes. Not even Holger could hold back a tear. They both looked back to the bus, for now the snow had begun to stop falling and the wind had let up. The golden glow by the driver’s seat was gone, and the illuminated sign above the bus’s windshield now read “TO DENMARK.” It was now on the right route again.
Finally, everyone heard Her Majesty, as she strongly said in Danish while her young Crown Prince translated to French, “My dearest, please forgive the world’s oldest kingdom for having fallen asleep. But we are wide awake now. God save Denmark.”
Fotograf: Bent Lorentzen © 1999; Bispebjerg Cathedral, Copenhagen
This story was inspired by a pastoral letter, critical of the government’s treatment of refugees, which the Danish Church published on Christmas Eve, 2005… and by the author’s work with refugees and the homeless in Copenhagen. The last time the bishops of this church criticized a political policy, was just before World War II, when Denmark’s cooperation with Nazi Germany came into question.
Copyright 2006, Bent Lorentzen &