Young Ibsen’s footsteps

Next to Shakespeare, he is the world’s most performed playwright. But let’s turn back the clock and see what ignited the spark in him.

November 22, 1797

It is dark and cold, and a violent storm is raging from the southeast. The 32-year-old shipowner and captain Henrik Ibsen is on his way home from London when he and his crew discover the danger. The sound of waves crashing against shallows and reefs. They understand that they must turn around, but it is not easy to defy the onshore wind and the strong current.

They fight in despair onboard the «Charitas» as the ship hits land with a crash. Wooden planks splinter against hard granite. The mezzanine masts fall overboard. Parts of the upper decks also go along as the beams break apart. A few minutes later, the crushed wreck of «Charitas» finally settles down at a depth of 30 meters.

This night, Henrik Ibsen and his entire crew of 15 men drown in the ice-cold water off Hesnesøya by Grimstad, Norway. And the tragedy is a fact.

Time goes by, but the memory remains.

November 29, 1843

Forty-six years after the shipwreck, the boat «Lykkens Prøve» docks at the pier in Grimstad, a town in the southern part of Norway. Now, 15-year-old Henrik Ibsen goes ashore, ready to stand on his own two feet, a few kilometres from where his grandfather disappeared into the sea.

Part of a painting by Lauritz Hansen

In 1843, Grimstad was a small town of about 800 inhabitants, where most families lived in their own houses with a small garden. Otherwise, the city has a customs station, post office, savings bank, registrar, district doctor, midwife, and pharmacy. No church other than Fjære church, a few kilometres inland. Neither newspaper nor library. Only a private reading society where members can borrow books.

Pharmacist Jens Arup Reimann has started a business in Storgaten. There, the young Henrik Ibsen begins as a pharmacist’s apprentice, and the pharmacist lets him into the family home and treats him almost like his own son.

On the ground floor, there are two rooms, consisting of the pharmacy room and the Reimann family’s living room.

The pharmacy room also functions as a post office.

Reimanngården. Photo: Wikipedia

On the second floor, there are three bedrooms. Henrik shares the room in the middle with the three oldest boys. Mr and Mrs Reimann sleep with the youngest children in the outer, the two maids in the inner.

Due to his upper-class family, back in his hometown of Skien, Henrik was initially used to having plenty of space for servants and guests. But in recent years, the size of their family homes had shrunk along with their shrinking wealth. In 1843, all his parent’s properties were almost gone, and the father’s law firm had no assignments. Moreover, many in the upper class were struggling with the economy. Thus, prospects did not look promising.

Henrik and his friend had seen that the «Svaneapoteket» (Swan Pharmacy) in Skien had survived most of the troubled times. So, studying pharmacy seemed to be a safe choice.

With the Reimann family, Henrik learns everything from the basics of plants’ medicinal properties to the art of preparing adhesive plasters, as well as some doctor’s Latin. But it is not easy to study with a bunch of kids around. Hence Henrik often stays up late at night to read without any disturbance.

Still, it was not easy when the maids’ room door was open. Finally, after three years, Henrik received a letter from the mayor of Grimstad. The maid Else Sophie mentioned him as the father of her newborn boychild. The bailiff wanted to know if this was true.

Henrik admits paternity but at the same time casts doubt: In the relevant period, the maid has also had contact with other men, he claims. Nevertheless, he does not dare to renounce the reported paternity because he has, unfortunately, had physical intercourse with her. Her tempting behaviour and their service in the pharmacy gave them the opportunity.

But here, we turn the clock to the 21st century.

Street art, Grimstad. Photo: Tom Thowsen 2021

May 2021

When flowers were in full bloom, I went to Grimstad to follow young Ibsen’s footsteps. In connection with my new novel, I felt a strong need to get closer to this great poet and his sources of inspiration.

But I soon discovered that Ibsen’s legacy in Grimstad, even to this day, is marked by the paternity case where the maid Else Sophie Birkedalen in 1846 gave birth to a child whom she named Hans Jacob Henriksen.

As previously mentioned, Henrik, who was ten years younger than Else Sophie, acknowledged paternity. Still, he would not have anything to do with his son, except that he paid statutory contributions until the boy was 14 years old and could support himself.

At the same time, it is a fact that Henrik Ibsen, early in his career, was repeatedly threatened with forced labour for unpaid child support. Thus, it is reasonable to believe that these difficulties left traces in later writing.

All in all, the teenager Ibsen must have experienced enough family dramas in life to get inspiration to write his plays. Not least from home with forced auctions and financial ruin, which probably led to quarrels and worries for all involved.

But also, the pharmacy family Reimanns had something to struggle with, and it cannot have been unproblematic to live as close to them as Henrik did.

After three years, the pharmacy was sold to Henrik’s four-year-older colleague Lars Nielsen and moved to a larger building. There he was allowed to keep his position and could breathe a sigh of relief. Oh, more than that, now he had graduated as a pharmacist’s assistant. Plus, he got a private sleeping room, greater freedom, and a higher salary.

Else Sophie then lived with her parents, and her child out of wedlock completely ruined her life. She never saw Henrik again and died many years later, aged 74 and poor.

Ibsen Museum. Photo: Tom Thowsen 2021

Visiting the Ibsen Museum is a must when you are in Grimstad, and here my family and I got a fantastic tour of the museum’s guide. And it was great to see that so much of the interior in Lars Nielsen’s pharmacy was well preserved. At this pharmacy, Henrik grew up as an artist, where he joined the reading society and became more extroverted and made intellectual friends who encouraged him to write.

Catiline Table. Photo: Tom Thowsen 2021

At this table, Henrik wrote his first play, «Catiline». This play is about a Noble Roman, Lucius Catilina, who wanted to restore Rome’s greatness but failed because of erotic mistakes he had made. Perhaps not surprisingly, Henrik felt a certain sympathy with this Roman and managed to live into his role.

In addition, Henrik was affected by the revolutionary activities in 1848. They first broke out in Sicily and spread rapidly to France and Europe. A violent reaction to the significant changes the continent had undergone in recent decades. The rapidly growing bourgeoisie wanted to increase their representation in the governance of their nations.

Henrik probably heard that the unrest had reached Copenhagen, Stockholm and Christiania. Some referred to this as a mob riot without any ideological content of significance or any political leadership. But Henrik’s Catiline is a hero, a strong leader who fights corruption.

Catiline had a particular interest for him because «there are a few given examples of historical persons, whose memory has been more entirely in possession of their conquerors, than Catiline», Henrik said.

Henrik’s close friends Ole Schuleruds, Gunder Holst, Jacob Holst and Christopher Due also got excited about Catiline while they drank punch and discussed politics with him.

Two years later, he released Catiline under the pseudonym Brynjolf Bjarme. Since no publisher wanted to publish the book, the publication was paid for by Ole Schulerud. He used a small inheritance for the purpose. Nevertheless, sales were poor.

Much ended up as waste.

The customers influenced Henrik.

The Pharmacy. Photo: Tom Thowsen 2021

At this counter, Henrik often talked to the customers, which set the creative joy of the young artist in motion. Both in the form of poems and drawings. Here he had exhibited an oil painting, a portrait he painted on cardboard of «the old sailor». Everyone thought it looked much alike. It depicts pilot Svend Hanssen Haaø from an island named Håhøya.

Part of Henrik Ibsen’s painting: «Pilot with the cairn»

People said that Henrik had a great interest in the pilots and the fishermen. However, it was clear when it came to Svend Hansen Haaø. The clever and bold pilot, with his weather-beaten appearance, thrilled him with his tales of war events and the navy.

It must be from him that Henrik got the idea to write his incomparable poem «Terje Vigen», which has made the city of Grimstad and the surrounding area famous.

There lived a remarkably grizzled man

on the uttermost, barren isle

«Terje Vigen» illustrated by Christian Krogh

Terje Vigen is a poem written by Henrik Ibsen, published in 1862. It describes the dramatic saga of Terje, who, in 1809, tried to run the British blockade of Norway’s southern coast in a small rowboat in a desperate attempt to smuggle food from Denmark back to his starving wife and daughter.

The publication of the poem Terje Vigen enjoyed solid popularity in Norway. Almost the only instance in Ibsen’s works of what the Northern critics call «epic.» Very delicate formed. Practically impossible to reproduce with felicity in English.

This poem has become an icon of Norwegian coastal culture and national identity. Read at festivals and included in dance and music performances every year. In addition, NRK, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, broadcasts Terje Vigen on New Year’s Eve at midnight.

The poem consists of 43 verses.

Here is the opening verse:

The archipelago of Grimstad. Photo: Tom Thowsen 2021

Visiting Håøya island was high on my wish list, along with Hesnesøya, the island where Henrik’s grandfather drowned. Booth Hesnesøya and the neighbour island Kvaløya could have been «the uttermost, barren isle» where Terje lived. That question generates an endless debate among the locals.

Hence we wanted to see them all. Consequently, we stopped by Grimstad Tourist Office and rented a 15-foot Pioneer dinghy with an eight hp outboard motor and life jackets. Very convenient and well arranged.
Then we set the course for where the pilot Svend Hanssen Haaø lived. And Terje Vigen, if he ever was a genuine living person.

A cosy cove on Håøya. Photo: Tom Thowsen 2021

The crossing went entirely without drama, and we found a sheltered cove where we did a beach break at the old pilot community.

Our boat at the pier. Photo: Tom Thowsen 2021

Luckily there was no sign with a private pier to see where we moored the boat. The island was primarily open and pleasant to travel, except for nature’s fences, in the form of dense wilderness and gorges in the rock with pebbles at the bottom.

Pilot Svend Hanssen Haaø`s farm. Photo: Tom Thowsen 2021

Henrik also came out here to hear the pilot’s stories from the old days. Many of these were self-experienced. For example, during the Napoleonic Wars, with the British blockade of the country, Svend Hanssen Haaø had taken over to Denmark several times to buy grain and other food.


But nowadays, this may seem incomprehensible. The ocean should be full of fish and oysters.

Terje Vigen vers 10:

In the spring of 1808, Denmark-Norway also came to war with Sweden. The summer became wet and cold, and there was misgrowth in the country. In addition, the herring fishery failed. As early as October, military food stocks ran out. People became ill from putrefactive fever, and many died from it. From the beginning of January 1809 to the middle of February, there was thick ice in all ports east of Lindesnes.

So yes, Henrik Ibsen did not exaggerate.

But now Håøya was dressed in summer clothes, and everything was just bright and pleasant.

But why did people row to Denmark when they could sail?

Terje Vigen verse 12:

The answer lies in the text. It was important to make oneself as small and insignificant as possible. A sailboat is easy to spot than a boat without a sail. The English navy’s ships had personnel at the top of the mast who followed closely and could thus detect a small sail at a long distance.

A wooden boat in Grimstad. Photo: Tom Thowsen 2021

In addition, «Terje Vigen» and the pilot Svend Hanssen Haaø went out to sea in bad weather. To row over to Denmark. Preferably in the winter when most were in winter storage. Often in open boats, as shown in the picture.


We did not dare to go far out from land in the Pioneer dinghy that we rented. The waves went so rough that we had to give up our plan to visit the other islands; Hesnesøya and Kvaløya. We had to turn back to the safe harbour of Grimstad. Our dinghy was 15 feet. «Terje Vigen’s» boat was possibly 12. That is what I call daredevils.


I firmly believe that Henrik Ibsen’s poems about Terje Vigen deserve to live on for future generations. And to walk in young Ibsen’s footsteps was so inspiring that I wrote «Three Barrels of Barley»; my novel about Terje Vigen.

PS. Look at the strange cloud behind me. It almost felt like Ibsen was present. But then you have to believe in «Ghosts», an entirely different story …
Thank you.

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