Storm Tina
The Dykemaster (Der Schimmelreiter, 1888 )
'this tremendous tale, with which Storm made his conception of the Novelle the epic sister of drama . . '

Der Schimmelreiter (1888), here translated as The Dykemaster, is one of the most celebrated works of classic German fiction. Denis Jackson's new translation, the first for many years, sets out to recreate the full impact of Theodor Storm's masterpiece - a task in which no previous English version has succeeded.

The Dykemaster is the tale of a visionary young north Frisian Deichgraf of the 18th century, creator of a new form of dyke. The short-sighted and self-seeking community with which he is at odds turns him into a phantom, seen riding his grey along the dyke whenever the sea threatens to break through. The rationalistic storyteller, in a highly sophisticated narrative structure, belongs to a later age, and what he relates is a veiled critique of the dyke officials of his own day.

Cover Illustration

COVER ILLUSTRATION: Schimmelreiter im Sturm auf dem Aussendeich by Alexander Eckener (oil painting, 1941)

The eerie west Schleswig-Holstein coast, with its vast, hallucinatory tided flats, hushed polders and terrifying North Sea, is the setting for a tale which grips from first page to last with its dynamic tensions and shifts of focus, mood and pace. Storm's dense narrative further invites the reader to ask whether progress is possible, how the historical record is established, what parts are played by the rational and the irrational in human existence.


The Dykemaster Selected text:

Schimmelreiter and his Horse
Schimmelreiter illustration
© Siri Pasina and Tobias Saabel

It was in the third decade of the present century, on an October afternoon - so began the narrator of that time - when I rode along a North Frisian dyke in fierce weather. For more than an hour the desolate marsh, now cleared of all cattle, had been on my left, and on my right, uncomfortably close, the North Sea tidal flats. The Halligen and the other islands were normally to be seen from the dyke; but I now saw nothing but the yellow-grey waves beating continuously against the dyke as though bellowing with rage, from time to time spraying dirty spume over my horse and me, and further out, a bleak half-light in which it was impossible to tell earth from sky, for even the half-moon, now at its height, was more often than not hidden behind swirling dark clouds. It was icy cold; my frozen hands could hardly hold the reins, and I had every sympathy with the crows and gulls which, constantly cawing and cackling, were being driven inland by the storm. Dusk had begun to fall, and I could no longer make out my horse's hooves with certainty; I had not met a living soul, and heard nothing but the shrieking of birds as they almost brushed me and my trusty mare with their long wings, and the wild raging of the wind and the water. I do not deny that from time to time I longed for a safe haven.
           The storm was now into its third day, and a particularly well-loved relative of mine had already kept me back too long on his farm in one of the northern parishes. Today I could delay no longer; I had business to attend to in town, which even now was still a good few hours to the south, and so, despite all the persuasive arts of my cousin and his kind wife, despite the farm's fine home-grown Perinette and Grand Richard apples waiting to be tasted, I had set off that afternoon. 'Just wait till you get to the sea,' my cousin had called after me from the door of his house, 'you'll be sure to turn back; we'll keep your room ready for you!'
           And indeed, at the moment when a swathe of black cloud cast everything around me into pitch-darkness and howling squalls threatened to drive me and my mare off the dyke, the thought did cross my mind: 'Don't be a fool! Turn round and go back to the warmth and comfort of your relatives' home.' Then it occurred to me that the way back was probably further than the way forward to my destination; and so I trotted on, pulling my cloak collar up around my ears.

Illustration © Jens Rusch. 1987.
                                                Something now came towards me along the dyke; I heard nothing; but when the half-moon cast its thin light I thought I made out a dark figure, and soon, as it came nearer, I saw it, it was riding a horse, a long-legged, lean grey; a dark cloak fluttered about the figure's shoulders, and as it sped past, a pair of burning eyes looked at me from a pallid face.
           Who was he? What did he want? - It then occurred to me, I had heard no hoof beats, no horse's panting; and horse and rider had passed close by!
           Lost in thought I rode on, but I had little time for further reflection before it passed me again; this time from behind. I seemed to feel the streaming cloak brush against me and as on the first occasion the apparition flew by without a sound. Then I saw it further and further away from me; and then I thought I could see its shadow suddenly plunge down the landward side of the dyke.
           With some hesitation I rode after it. When I had reached the spot, I saw in the polder below me, close by the side of the dyke, the gleaming water of a Wehle - the name they give here to craters that are gouged into the ground by the rush of water through a breach in a dyke and then mostly remain as small but very deep pools.
           The surface of the water, even allowing for the protection of the dyke, was noticeably unruffled; the rider could not have disturbed it; I saw nothing more of him. . . .

Translation © Denis Jackson 1996. isbn 0 946162 54 9


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