“Brand” by Henrik Ibsen

[All excerpts below, except where otherwise stated, are taken from the translation by Geoffrey Hill, published by Penguin Classics]

There is a chill wind that blows through Brand. I don’t merely mean the setting: the Norwegian fjords, the isolated villages, the icy mountain heights, culminating in the “Ice Church” – the deep ravine over-vaulted with a sheet of ice – all evoke a sense-chilling cold; I mean also the content, utterly voided of anything resembling human warmth. At the centre of this drama is the priest Brand. Whatever the resonances the name may have in Norwegian, in English, it suggests flame, and there is indeed something very flame-like about him, about his burning intensity. Yet it is a flame that provides no warmth: it merely scalds.

Brand is a man who will brook no compromise. Not for him the kindly, indulgent God,

… your old, pampered God:
white-haired, moist-eyed with age,
his comic turns of rage
send children off to bed
giggling and half-afraid.

Brand’s vision of God is altogether more terrible:

My God is the great God of storm,
absolute arbiter of doom
imperious in His love!

your God can hardly move;
he’s weak of mind and heart,
easy to push about:
but mine is young, a Hercules…

These are no mere words. For Brand, it is literally “all or nothing”: if you do not give your all, you give nothing. For all that truly matters is his vision of divinity, imperious in His love. The quest for the Absolute, the refusal of any compromise, of anything that comes half way, or even that which comes close but stops short, is, to Brand, worthless. And if human concepts of the Absolute fall short, then they must be rejected. And if that means the rejection of all that all that we may recognise as human, then so be it.  The wind that blows through this poetic drama, vast and epic both in length and in scope, is chill indeed.

It is not that Brand is without love: far from it. Even human love he has. But his interpretation of this problematic concept is chilling. He refuses to give last rites even to his dying mother, as she is, even at her last breath, unequal to renouncing every last penny of all the possessions she had accumulated through her cupidity. He seals the death sentence of his infant child when he refuses to leave his vocation, his flock, and go south for the sake of the child’s death. And he destroys also the mental well-being of his wife, Agnes, first by allowing their child to die, and then, with what those of us less lunatic than he can only describe as the most appalling cruelty, refusing to allow her to mourn for her lost child as she would have wished: any mourning that indulges sentiment at the cost of acknowledging the harsh truth and reality of mortality, Brand refuses, both for himself, and for Agnes. Of course, Agnes had entered into union with Brand knowing precisely what he stood for: indeed, it is his very refusal to compromise that had attracted her in the first place. And, by the end, she does indeed see the face of God. But it is a terrible God, the God of Brand’s inflexible vision. She reminds Brand of Exodus 33:20: “Whoever looks on God shall die”. This God, imperious in His love, is seemingly indifferent to any human need other than the spiritual: Brand has forced Agnes to look upon such a God, and she must die.

And Brand does not spare himself either. He is no automaton. The grief of the deaths of those he most loved breaks him, but still he does not compromise. In the final act, among the most astonishing creations in all drama, Brand, reviled and stoned by his very flock, heads out into the mountains, into the icy waste. He had thought to replace the small, decrepit old church with something vaster, something more worthy of the greatness that is God, but he decides that this too is not enough – cannot be enough: no human concept of God, however great, can match the grandeur and terror of the Absolute. And so the tormented Brand, bleeding and reviled, assailed by hallucinations and temptations (including a vision of the dead Agnes), finds his ultimate destination high in the cold mountain peaks – the Ice Church. Never has God, mankind’s highest vision of the Absolute, seemed more remote from mankind.

One could, of course, see Brand merely as a cruel narcissist, merely destroying all that is human. To the objection that Brand himself is tortured by the death of his child and of his wife, one may reasonably answer that he had tortured the dead child and the dead wife somewhat more in the process; that whatever suffering Brand brings on himself, he had no right to impose it on others. Such a verdict is, of course, correct: it is the verdict the villagers, sensibly moderate, would no doubt pass. Yet, we have to go no further than this, for such a view does not come close to accounting for the tremendous power of the drama, a power apparent even when reading. Indeed, one may say especially when reading, as this play was written to be read rather than to be staged; and while it is theatrical enough to be successfully staged in somewhat cut-down versions – the full text is too long to fit comfortably into a single night’s viewing – no performance I have seen, not even the best, quite evokes in me the awe and the terror I experience when I read it.

This is a play, after all, that opens in a blizzard, and ends in an avalanche. And at its centre is a character who is both lunatic and visionary, who seems to carry the Ice Church within his very heart. We may reject this lunatic-visionary, but it would be wrong, I think, to dismiss him summarily. The world has seen these lunatic-visionaries enough whose pursuit of their Visions of the Ideal does not bother to count the merely human bodies wasted in its wake: we may not approve, but we must take them seriously. For what is the alternative? To compromise our morals, our ideals, merely for the sake of our momentary comfort, our convenience? To bend whichever way the wind blows? To live our lives as the villagers do in this play?

It may be objected, of course, that the villagers – the mayor, the provincial doctor, etc. – are all presented as caricatures, people with small minds and small souls, but we must be careful about using “caricature” as a pejorative: a caricature is not a failed attempt at portraiture. The villagers, Brand’s flock (until they reject him, and stone him) are not individualised: they form a sort of chorus of “right-thinking people”. They may not possess the greatness of soul of Brand, or anything like his visionary intensity, but neither would they sacrifice their own child for the sake of something so vague as an “ideal”. They may have a smallness of mind that we tend to think of as “provincial”, but these are people who travail against desperate odds, against drought, famine, hunger: the struggle to keep body and soul together does not leave much time – except for the most driven – for thoughts of the well-being of one’s soul. Brand is cast out at the end because he has to be: a man with no thought of human needs, or, rather, of what most of us would consider to be human needs, can have no place in a human society: the Ice Church is really the only place for him – grand, magnificent, awe-inspiring, but utterly cold and inhuman. To the Brands of this world who tell us that this is the Absolute we should strive towards, we surely have the right to say “no”; we surely have the right to drive them out. Caricatures these villagers may be, but they are not crude caricatures; and if we look closely and honestly, most of us should be able to recognise ourselves.

Once he is cast out, he takes to the mountains, and there he encounters, once again, the mad girl Gerd – like himself, also an outcast. We had learnt previously that it is possible that Gerd and Brand are half-siblings: that Gerd is possibly an alter ego of Brand’s is obvious, but attempts to pin down the significance of this don’t really get us too far. Enough that both are outcasts, and both are mad. Gerd is tormented by an imaginary hawk that she thinks attacks her: once again, it is easy to come up with suggestions of what this hawk symbolises, but none of the suggestions purporting to unlock this symbol can account for the extraordinarily resonant nature of the symbol itself. When Gerd sees Brand rejected and despised, and wounded and bleeding, she mistakes him for Christ. Sadly, Christ imagery is two-a-penny these days, but it is a piece of imagery Brand unambiguously rejects. If we are to see Gerd as an alter ego of Brand, we should really conclude that the proposed parallel to Christ is something that occurs to Brand himself; and, further, it is not something he entertains seriously. The imagery is introduced to be rejected almost immediately.

But then comes the final scene within the Ice Church, within which Brand and Gerd are overwhelmed by an avalanche. To the very last, Brand is tormented: for all his apparent certainty, the certainty to which he had sacrificed all that had been most dear to him, he, like Job, has questions for God. At this point, Geoffrey Hill (in an interview on these translations  printed at the end of the Penguin Classics edition) admits to deviating from Ibsen’s original. In Hill’s version, Brand asks God:

                             Tell
me, O God, even as Your heavens fall
on me; what makes retribution
flesh of our flesh? Why is salvation
rooted so blindly in Your Cross?
Why is man’s proud will his curse?
Answer! What do we die to prove?
Answer!

I must admit I don’t understand these questions. In the more literal translation by James Kirkup and Christopher Fry (from the Oxford Ibsen, edited by James McFarlane) we get this:

Answer me, God, in the jaws of death:
Is there no salvation for the Will of Man?
No small measure of salvation … ?

While Michael Meyer (Methuen) gives us:

Answer me, O God, in the moment of death,
If not by Will, how can Man be redeemed?

Both the versions by Kirkup and Fry, and by Meyer, seem to me to be not merely more direct and dramatic than Hill’s, but also more comprehensible. I find myself unconvinced both by Hill’s alterations, and also by the reasons he gives for it. But puzzling though these lines are in Hill’s version, what seems to me more puzzling is the response – the final line of Ibsen’s play:

A VOICE (calling through the noise of the thunder): He is the God of Love. (Hill)

A VOICE (cries through the thunder): He is the God of Love. (Meyer)

A VOICE (sounding above the thunder): God is Love. (Kirkup and Fry)

No issue here with any of the translations, but puzzlement nonetheless: does this mighty drama end with a piece of mere conventional piety, a trifling piece of sentimental platitude? How are we to take this line?

Of course, given that two people are being killed in an avalanche while this line is spoken, one could view this line as ironic. But if so, the irony is ham-fisted, and is as facile as the sentimentality of a more conventional reading.

But I think we need to look a bit deeper. First of all, although this last line is in response to a question asked directly of God, it is not God who answers. God, when he speaks to Job, or to Moses from the burning bush, refers to Himself directly and unambiguously in the first person (“I am who I am”). Here, the voice that sounds through the thunder speaks in the third person: God, throughout this play, remains silent. This voice could, of course, be an angelic voice, but it could equally well be a demonic one, beguiling mankind with false assurance. I personally think the voice is Brand’s. Just as the speeches of Gerd, his alter ego, or the gently loving but treacherous speeches of Agnes’ ghost, are really expressions of thoughts appearing in secret chambers of Brand’s own mind – thoughts Brand has to reject – so also this final line: this is what goes through Brand’s mind at the very moment of his death, in answer to his own tortured questioning. But if this is so, it provides no resolution. For Brand’s concept of love was harsh, much like that of the God he had created for himself:

My God is the great God of storm,
absolute arbiter of doom,
imperious in His love!

Is this still what Brand understands as “love”? It could be, of course, that at the end, Brand’s vision had softened, but there really is no indication of this in the rest of the text. No – if I read correctly this disturbing last line, then, in answer to Brand’s question, there is no salvation for the Will of Man, for the Will of a silent God, Brand’s God, imperious in His love, may crush it at will. Far from being sentimental, the ending brings no comfort at all: Brand’s death is as cold and as inhuman as his life had been.

If one knows the later plays of Ibsen, it is impossible to read Brand without seeing in it foreshadowings of what was later to come. That is not, of course, to say that Brand cannot stand on its own as a great work of art:  it clearly can, and does. But while Ibsen, in his later plays, descended from the mountain-tops to report in plain, everyday prose on domestic middle-class households, the themes broached in his two vast verse dramas, Brand and Peer Gynt, seem to me to echo through them. The man who brooks no compromise, who demands the Truth and the Absolute Truth only, even from his fellow men who are not strong enough to bear the burden on the Absolute, is a recurring theme: we see this in Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People, in Gregers Werle in The Wild Duck. The Truth, the Absolute, are fine things, but they can destroy us. And soon, Ibsen was questioning the nature of Truth itself, of how we perceive it.

Then there is the question of sacrifice for one’s aims. Brand sacrifices his child and his wife, and, finally, himself, in search of his Ideal; later, in The Master Builder, Solness too sacrifices his own children (for that is what it amounts too), and makes of his wife effectively a living corpse, in pursuit of his worldly ambition; and, just as Brand demands answers from a God who remains silent, so too, Solness, at the top of the church  tower he had himself built, challenges an equally silent God, telling him that no more would he build churches in His name.

We find the motif of destroying others in pursuit of one’s own fulfilment also in Ibsen’s last two plays, John  Gabriel Borkman, and  When We Dead Awaken. The last of these also ends with the principal characters overwhelmed in an avalanche, but this time, these characters go to their deaths willingly: when we dead awaken, they realise, we shall discover that we have never lived. Written over thirty years after Brand, and having taken a most circuitous route, Ibsen, at the very end, seems to return to where he had left it; but the onus is not now on God now to answer any questions.

Which is just as well, perhaps, given His maddening eternal silence.

***

A note on the translation:

In some ways, Geoffrey Hill was an ideal man to translate Brand and Peer Gynt, since, it may well be argued, it takes a poet to translate poetry, and, possibly, a great poet to translate great poetry. But in other ways, he wasn’t so appropriate: he knew no Norwegian. Brand he had translated for a National Theatre production directed by Sir Peter Hall, and had worked on a heavily annotated literal translation by Inga-Stina Ewbank; and, shortly before he died in 2016, he had returned to revise it, and also to work on Peer Gynt, this time working on an annotated literal translation by Janet Garton. I must confess that this does not seem to me the ideal way to translate anything, but it seems to have borne results: as is perhaps only to be  expected from a poet as accomplished as Geoffrey Hill, the dramatic verse throughout is often of quite exceptional quality.

On reading Hill’s translations (both of Brand and of Peer Gynt), I found myself comparing with the more literal translations I had read before – by James Kirkup and Christopher Fry, and by Michael Meyer (and, in the case of Peer Gynt, also the older Penguin  Classics translation by Peter Wattis). And, certainly in  the passages I compared, I cannot say I spotted any great divergence in meaning. (The exceptions to this are the handful of passages where Hill himself admitted to diverging from the original.) I’d guess that with the publication of Hill’s translations, Wattis’ translation will now be withdrawn, but it doesn’t deserve to be: it may not perhaps reach the poetic heights of Hill’s version at its best, but it is nonetheless a remarkable piece of dramatic verse in its own right, and, I’d guess, more literally faithful to Ibsen’s original text.

As for the Oxford Ibsen, the whole set has long been out of print, with only some of the translations appearing as Oxford World Classics paperbacks. I found a volume of Kirkup and Fry’s translations of Brand and of Peer Gynt in a second hand shop, and snapped it up immediately: I would certainly advise anyone else who finds this volume similarly to snap it up, as the translations are magnificent.

Michael Meyer’s translations for Methuen are equally recommendable. (It was through Meyer’s versions that I first got to know Ibsen, and confess to having a sentimental attachment to them.) However, his Brand is a version intended specifically for performance, and, hence, is judiciously trimmed.

But Hill’s version, however it was arrived at, and however he diverges from Ibsen’s original in a small handful of passages, remains a very fine work in its own right. I suppose it is almost de rigeur to go for the Shakespearean iambic pentameter when translating dramatic verse into English, but Hill resists that temptation, preferring shorter lines, and often writing in trimeters. He also rhymes lightly, occasionally using full rhymes, but, more frequently, half rhymes, or words that no more than vaguely echo each other. End-stopped lines are only occasionally used, so the verse has a fine flowing line. The result is verse that is supple, and which moves quickly, and which is sonorous, and also of tremendous dramatic power. As, indeed, any successful translation of Brand should be.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Ibsen once said, “Brand is myself in my best moments.” It seems we see “Brand” very differently, as these instances show:

    Worshiping alone in the “Ice Church” is sister Gerd’s uncompromising response to the duplicity and self-deception of her Norway. Is this madness or sanity? At the play’s end, Brand arrives at the precisely same conclusion. They are siblings in integrity. The “Ice Church” is not much cold as pristine although, even here, a satanic hawk flies. It is scarcely surprising that Brand, “a man of sorrows, despised and rejected of men”, is mistaken for Christ by Gerd.

    Brand refuses to “gives last rites even to his dying mother” out of selfless love. He asks her to renounce “every last penny” of HIS OWN inheritance!

    Brand values his solemn vow to the remote village more than the life of his his infant child. As Abraham said, “God will provide.”

    Agnes says of Brand’s so-called hard love, “Me ? O, no ! Twas light, All that of me you ever sought “. Light to the very end! Brand does not destroy “the mental well-being of his wife” as these last words broadcast:

    Choose; you’re at the road’s division!
    Quench my bosom’s inner lighting,
    stem the welling Christmas vision; —
    give me back my idol’s vesture; —
    she’s still there, just make a gesture, —
    let me go, if I’m so minded,
    back to days quite heaven-blinded,
    thrust me back into the mire
    where till now my sins were dire —
    you are master; you are free;
    stronger, stronger far than me;
    clip my wings, repress soul’s zeal,
    clog with leaden weight my heel,
    bind me, thrust me down once more
    in the depths whence I was saved, —
    let me live the life once craved,
    in the murk where once I squirmed!
    If you will this, are confirmed,
    I’m your wife still, as before; —
    choose; you’re at the road’s division!
    ————

    Why label Brand the “cruel narcissist, merely destroying all that is human” when you have a better fit in the poet-turned-evangelist, Einar?

    The villagers are steeped in the “mediocrity” that Ibsen’s progenitor, Soren Kierkegaard, rails against. And worse, the doctor, schoolmaster, mayor and dean are hypocrites.

    Within the Ice Church, Brand and Gerd are ultimately overwhelmed by an avalanche.

    Tell me, God, in death’s abyss; —
    is no fleck of hoped-for bliss
    earned by man’s will, quantum satis — ?
    (The avalanche buries him; the entire valley fills)
    A Voice (calls out through the thunderous din)
    He is deus caritatis!
    ————

    The last line of the play “is in response to a question asked directly of God, it is not God who answers.” God does not answer because HE ALREADY HAS! God’s wordless answer comes directly and explicitly in the avalanche, just as he answers Moses in the burning bush and Job in the storm. The “deus caritatis” is surely an angelic utterance.

    It is not “there is no salvation for the Will of Man” but, rather, there is “no fleck of hoped-for bliss earned by man’s will”. In accordance with Lutheran doctrine, venerated in Norway, “Man can do nothing: God everything.”

    Is Brand’s death as cold and as inhuman as his life had been? You express a view that Brand, Agnes and Gerd would not share. Brand’s end is every bit as triumphant as that of Agnes, consumed by God’s fire. All three die, freely giving God the glory.

    I think the parallel you draw between Brand and master-builder Solness is unsatisfactory, but that’s for another time.

    I repeat, Ibsen once said, “Brand is myself in my best moments.”

    Reply

    • Like all major works of literature, Brand is a complex work. It is neither a paean of praise to the principled Brand, nor an indictment of the inflexible Brand. Brand is what he is, with qualities both admirable and deplorable. Sometimes, the same quality may be admirable and deplorable at the same time. As ever, my blog post makes no attempt to present an objective appraisal.

      The Ice Church is pristine, absolutely, but it is also cold: I can’t see there’s any way of getting out of that. It is a glorious image. It encapsulates both what is attractive (its pristine quality), and what isn’t (its absence of human warmth).

      And yes, I agree that Brand refuses to give last rites to his mother out of selfless love. But this does not rule out the interpretation that this selfless love is inhuman. It makes us question, as we should, what indeed “love” is, when it can make us act in ways that many of us – most of us, probably – would perceive as cruel.

      Brand does indeed remain true to his solemn vow to serve his community. But the price paid is enormous, and we really need, I think, to question whether, given this price, it was morally justified to honour his vow. There may be no single satisfactory answer to this question, but the questioning itself is important. And if the death of Brand’s child is God’s way of providing, we should also question the nature of God’s providence, when it is so far at variance with most human values.

      Agnes herself, I agree, does not demur; she accepts Brand’s “hard love”. But I see no reason why we, the reader, should accept Agnes’ verdict on this matter.
      I describe Brand as a ““cruel narcissist, merely destroying all that is human” because that is a legitimate way of seeing him. Not the only way, granted, but a legitimate way all the same.

      The villagers are indeed steeped in mediocrity, and the mayor, doctor and dean are indeed hypocrites, but it is nonetheless legitimate to see them as more responsive than the uncompromising Brand to earthly human needs. The Ice Church is not for most of us.

      It is by no means certain who speaks the final words “deus caritatis”. We may conjecture it is an angelic voice, as you do, but since Ibsen does not make this explicit, there is room for other interpretations. My own interpretation is that it is an expression of Brand’s own thoughts at the point, his own answer to his own questioning; and that this answer is far from comforting.

      I agree that my views are not those that Brand, Agnes or Gerd would share, but I, as a reader, am under no compulsion to see the drama from their perspectives.
      And yes, of course Solness is very, very different from Brand, but there are certain parallels that strike me as, at least, interesting. But we’ll come to The Master Builder later.

      And as for Ibsen’s comment (“Brand is myself at my best moments”) I think the text of Brand contains far more ambivalence and far more complexity than a single utterance, and it is the complexity of the text we should grapple with. There is much in Brand that is very admirable indeed: Brand is principled and idealistic. But to see the play simply or even primarily as a paean to Brand’s principled idealism is to rob it of just about everything that makes it so profound and so complex – and so disturbing – a work.

      As for me, I’m not Brand, not even, perhaps, in my finest moments. I am one of the villagers.

      Reply

      • A complexity in “Brand” lies in what Ibsen, himself, makes of Kierkegaard’s knights of faith: Brand, Agnes and Gerd. All act with unimpeachable integrity. Agnes, moreover not just angelic, but sensitive, assertive and courageous beyond belief. By contrast, just about everyone else in the play is dreadful. Even the villagers resort to barbaric stoning.

        The Ice Church is cold and remote because, in this world, the knight of faith is persecuted, reviled and ultimately isolated. “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.”

        Brand refuses to give last rites (a mere ceremony) to his mother solely out of concern for her eternal soul. He refuses for her alone! (Kierkegaard: Purity of Heart is to will one thing.)

        Brand does not flee south to save his only son’s life because, like Abraham with Isaac, God’s demand comes first. God’s demand is, of course, love’s demand. Ibsen sets out the issue clearly but where he, himself, may stand on God is unclear.

        Agnes cannot be said to accept Brand’s “hard love” because, for her, Brand’s love is always light, from beginning to end.

        In describing ‘Brand as a “cruel narcissist, merely destroying all that is human” because that is a legitimate way of seeing him’, you are in good company because that is how everyone sees him but Agnes and Gerd. I don’t see myself as one of the villagers nor, I suspect, does Ibsen,

        The final words “deus caritatis” are merely an angelic commentary on God’s manifestation in the avalanche. In essence, the voice asserts, “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. (Romans 8: 28)”

        The courage to act with selfless love and integrity is a central theme in a play that begins and ends with the sacrifice of self in love. In Act I, Brand strides forward across thin ice to save the peasant’s dying daughter:

        Peasant: I’d sign away
        my house and home, my every penny
        if she [my dying daughter] could pass away in peace!

        Brand: But give your life, too, have that cease?

        Peasant: What! Life! Why, bless me —

        Brand: Well, would you?

        Peasant (scratches behind his ear):
        Well, no there must be limits to — !
        In Jesu’s name, you’ve not forgotten
        my wife, the children I’ve begotten?

        Brand: He whom you named [Jesus] then
        had a mother [Mary mourning at the foot of Calvary’s cross].

        Peasant: Yes, long ago, in times quite other, —
        a miracle was common stuff;
        not like to-day, though, sure enough.

        Brand: Go home. Death’s road is your life’s lot
        You know not God, God knows you not.

        Peasant: Why, you are hard!

      • Yes, I agree fully that Brand, Agnes, and Gerd all act with unimpeachable integrity. I agree also that the villagers are merely self-interested, that the mayor, dean, doctor, etc. are hypocritical. I agree that Brand refuses to give his mother her last rites for the sake of her soul. I agree that Brand is noble and immensely principled, that that Agnes willingly accepts her fate. I have no quarrel with any of this.

        But none of this prevents Brand from being also a cruel narcissist. The man who insists that others must accept his values, no matter what the cost, can hardly be described otherwise. Of course, Brand will insist that his values are God’s values, but he has only his own faith to back that up: God, throughout, is silent, even at the end.

        The villagers indeed turn barbaric, and stone Brand. But is causing the death of one’s child any less barbaric? Yes, the villagers act from self-interest, and Brand acts from principle: agreed. But by their fruits shall ye judge them: Brand’s principled action results in the death of a helpless child, who had no say in the matter.

        I am not saying that Brand is wrong and the villagers are right. But neither am I saying that Brand is right and the villagers are wrong. Either is too simplistic a reading of such a complex work. Ibsen dramatises here the destruction that ensues from high-minded principle. (He was to dramatise this again later in The Wild Duck.) He leaves us with a dilemma: it is certainly better to be principled than otherwise, but high-minded principles are often destructive, and even selfless love and integrity can bring immense suffering. It is this terrible dilemma that, to me, is at the centre of the play.

        And personally, if I am to be honest with myself, I am more one of the villagers than I am Brand. If it were a choice between keeping my vow and saving my child’s life, I wouldn’t think twice.

        Since Ibsen wrote Brand, high-minded ideals have created all kinds of hell. I remain suspicious of them.

      • We agree on much although with angelic, intelligent Agnes there is more. Rather than “willingly accepting her fate”, she wholeheartedly embraces it without the least regret. Heroic!

        Agnes (etymologically the sacrificial lamb) ever celebrates her decision to sail with Brand in the storm and marry him, their decision to abide under the glacier that cost her son’s life, her final sacrifice of the christening cap and, most of all as one pure of heart, her divine annihilation having seen God. As the closest being to an angel imaginable, would you also label her “a cruel narcissist” or one who would likely devote herself to “a cruel narcissist”?

        Is it reasonable to deem Brand, who acts exclusively out of selfless love, “a cruel narcissist” when you consider the exalted origins of his name?

        <>
        1 And he shewed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to resist him.
        2 And the LORD said unto Satan, The LORD rebuke thee, O Satan; even the LORD that hath chosen Jerusalem rebuke thee: is not this A BRAND PLUCKED OUT OF THE FIRE?
        3 Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments, and stood before the angel.
        4 And he answered and spake unto those that stood before him, saying, Take away the filthy garments from him. And unto him he said, Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment.
        5 And I said, Let them set a fair mitre upon his head. So they set a fair mitre upon his head, and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the LORD stood by.

        The poet-turned-evangelist, Einar, is indeed a “man who insists that others must accept his values” but is Brand? He rather insists on NOTHING from others while demanding of himself a pristine integrity that wills only one thing, that wills love (agape). In word and deed he sets forth a pattern for others to follow, if only they freely choose. Agnes alone chooses. God is silent throughout because Agnes (the lamb) and Brand (the high priest) are speaking for him.

        You are appalled at the short life of Brand’s helpless child. For Brand and Agnes, life is measured by quality not length. “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love” (1 John 4: 8)

        You write, “high-minded principles are often destructive, and even selfless love and integrity can bring immense suffering”. Who, in the play, suffers as a consequence of Brand’s actions? Certainly not Agnes! Perhaps, his mother briefly, before she is consigned to hellfire for cupidity despite of her son’s strenuous efforts to save her. Perhaps, Brand’s own son who is sacrificed in the name of love and, so, has riches in heaven.

        If I were to speculate on how Ibsen might see these matters, I would see the play as a faithful portrait of true Christianity as espoused by Kierkegaard a decade or two earlier and well known to Ibsen and his peers. Take Christianity or leave it?

        As the dying Agnes says to Brand:

        Now you stand in choice’s vale;
        on you now the load must fall
        of its All or Nothing call!

      • You say God is silent in this play because Brand and Agnes speak for God. I think this is most certainly open to question.

        I doubt we’ll see eye to eye on this play. You appear to see the drama entirely from Brand’s own perspective. While that is no doubt a legitimate way to see the play, I am arguing there are other perspectives as well, equally valid. And that, further, to see the drama entirely from Brand’s perspective is to diminish its complexity.

        Agnes is indeed, as you say, heroic. I think she is also lunatic. The two are not incompatible.

        There is no reason, from the evidence of the text, to think that the name of Brand is taken from the Biblical passage you quote. And even if it was, it does not follow that Brand is wholly admirable. Nor need we see this drama as an illustration (and implicit approval) of Kierkegaardian values: it could just as well be a critique.

        Of course Brand brings immense suffering in his wake. That Agnes embraces this suffering does not negate the fact of the suffering itself. And Brand’s decision to stay with his flock, a decision that effectively condemns his infant child to death, is only acceptable if one shares Brand’s vision of God. I most certainly don’t.

        Brand is a priest, and is in no position to coerce anyone. But he does insist that if one is to follow God, one has to follow his vision of God, for there is no other way. I’d say that is narcissistic. And in his vision, as he himself says, many times, God is hard and inflexible, accepting no compromise, refusing to make even the slightest allowance for human frailty. I’d say that is cruel. So I stand by my description of Brand as a “cruel narcissist”. It is a legitimate interpretation. Brand is, of course, heroic, and great of soul, and admirable in many ways, but nonetheless, the villagers are, to my mind, entirely justified in casting him out.

        Brand is an immensely rich and complex work, and how one interprets it depends to a great extent on one’s personality, one’s individual perceptions. And mine are such that, while I find much in Brand that is admirable, I also find much that terrifies me; and, on balance, it is the villagers whom I sympathise with most, despite all their faults.

  2. “Brand”, the title of Ibsen’s play and its bold priest, comes from Zechariah 3:1-5 as quoted in my last post.

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  3. I have just reread Zechariah ch. 3 and researched Joshua the High Priest, of whom God says to Satan, “is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?”—the only use of the word “brand” in the King James Bible.

    Joshua is the High Priest consecrated for the reconstruction of the Jewish Temple after the return of the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity: the second temple following the destruction of Solomon’s. (The second temple was destroyed by Emperor Vespasian’s son Titus in 70 AD.)

    Moreover, the name “Joshua” is the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek name “Jesus.” (Incidentally, the name Gerd means “spear thrower”.)

    The priest Brand, of course, built a cathedral in the fiords from his ill-gotten inheritance. Ibsen allusions are so subtle. One wonders whether his Norwegian contemporaries would have appreciated the allusion to Joshua in the title of the play. After all, “brand” is an English word in the King James Bible!

    <>
    1 And he shewed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to resist him.
    2 And the LORD said unto Satan, The LORD rebuke thee, O Satan; even the LORD that hath chosen Jerusalem rebuke thee: is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?
    3 Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments, and stood before the angel.
    4 And he answered and spake unto those that stood before him, saying, Take away the filthy garments from him. And unto him he said, Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment.
    5 And I said, Let them set a fair mitre upon his head. So they set a fair mitre upon his head, and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the LORD stood by.

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