Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen.

Peer Gynt is a play by Henrik Ibsen, first published in 1867 and first performed in 1876 accompanied by the music of Edvard Grieg (which was composed between 1874-75). It is a sort of fairy tale partly inspired by the works of Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Søren Kierkegaard, and mixes realism with surrealism and romance with satire.

It begins with an argument between Peer Gynt, the son of the deceased Jon Gynt, once rich and respectable but dying in poverty having drank and frittered his money away, and Åse, Peer's mother. Peer has claimed he has fought a reindeer but such was its size and strength it got away. Åse is almost taken in by his story but ends by reacting with fury:
Oh, you spin yarns like the devil!
God above, how you can lie!
All this nonsense you've come out with,
I remember it now - I heart it
when I was a lass of twenty!
That's the tale of Gudbrand Glesnë,
not of you...
They argue further and Åse berates him for failing to improve their impoverished state, accusing him of being too busy with his fantasies to do anything useful with his life but vows one day he will make something of himself -
I'll become a king - an emperor!
But of course Åse is frustrated even further. She reminds him of Ingrid, the daughter of a wealthy farmer who he may have married had he only of asked, but he didn't and now she is to be married to another. The impetuous Peer is not deterred however and goes to her wedding feast, carrying Åse most of the way (he ends up leaving her on a roof after she's shouted at him for the majority of the journey), but this too does not go well and he ends up getting drunk and fighting. At the end of Act I we learn that he has run off to the mountains carrying the bride with him, and the beginning of Act II we see him bitterly regretting his decision.

From here the fairy tale begins. He crosses paths with dairymaids, the would-be brides of trolls, dreams of the daughter of the Troll Mountain King, converses The Bøyg (a troll in Scandinavian folklore), and throughout has various discussions on egotism, truth, and the difference between a troll and a man. He continues his travels (banished from his own village for kidnapping the bride), avoids responsibility and lives his life with the goal of furthering his own interests in whatever way is most effective - an egotistical life, in short. We follow him through Morocco and Egypt and encounter Memnon (an Ethiopian king in Greek mythology) and the Sphynx, then return home where he will encounter the devil and be confronted with his failures.

It is a complex play and I've only described but a few elements. Though Peer is an almost total narcissist, somehow he is likeable (how, I don't know - I can't justify it!), but what really makes the play so striking is this exploration of Peer's inner life and the conflicts he feels shown through, for example, the trolls, and the importance of this on his 'outer' life - his choices and deeds, and his ultimate destiny and that of others. For this reason I see why James Joyce was such a fan of Ibsen (Joyce even wrote to him in 1901 - you can read that letter here). I do like the play, more so the first acts, and I enjoyed the philosophical investigation as it were on truth and reality. But I did find it difficult, and even though this is my second read I'm struggling to sum it up satisfactorily!

To finish, then, some illustrations - my favourite illustrator Arthur Rackham illustrated this play in 1936, some black and white, some in colour, so here's a selection:


  1. As a musician I have enjoyed and performed the Peer Gynt Suite but I did not know there was a story by Ibsen. I am going to have to find it and read it. And since one of my favorite illustrators created paintings for the story, I am definitely finding a copy. Thanks for the review and sharing the illustrations.

    1. I didn't know it was originally by Ibsen until recently too. Love the music by Grieg! :)


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