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Source of the Legend
of The Flying Dutchman
(German title: Der fliegende Holländer)
An Opera by
Richard Wagner


The legend of the Flying Dutchman is as old as Homer, who showed us Ulysses as an unresting traveler, yearning for home and domestic joys. The Wandering Jew, "accursed and hopeless of all save the end in oblivion," was a later figure of the same type. German mythology embodies the notion in legends widespread and familiar. The Teutonic dead "crossed the water in boats; and northern heroes were sometimes buried on land within their ships, sometimes placed in a ship which was taken out to sea and allowed to drift with the waves." The German Ocean had its own legendary Flying Dutchman in the person of Herr von Falkenberg, who is condemned to beat about the waves until the day of judgment, on board a vessel without helm or steersman, playing at dice with the devil for his soul. Legends with this same central idea are not uncommon. The admitted "mystery chamber" at Glamis castle has never been satisfactorily explained. But, according to one theory, the fourth earl of Crawford is confined, therein, doomed to play dice till the day of judgment as the penalty of a rash vow. Wagner’s Kundry, in "Parsifal," again, as we shall see later, is the representative of one who was condemned to wander through the world because she had laughed at the suffering Christ on the Cross. Thus do the world’s legends synchronise.



Sailors at sea terrified by the sudden appearance of the Flying Dutchman's "ghost ship".
(Illustration source: old German print.)


The Flying Dutchman was already a very old tale when those daring navigators, the Dutchmen of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, made it peculiarly their own. The Dutch were the old masters of the sea -- before Britannia ruled the waves. The sea was their favourite element; and the struggle of the Flying Dutchman against the angry billows "typified their own battles with the powers of old ocean, and their determination to conquer at all hazards." Hence their eager adaptation of the venerable legend, which seems to embody for ever the avenging vision of men who, resolved to win, had so often dared and lost all. Van Straaten was the name of the skipper in the Dutch version of the story. As a penalty for his sins Straaten was condemned to sweep the seas around the Cape of Storms (the Cape of Good Hope) unceasingly, without being able to reach a haven. Seamen were struck with terror they saw his ghostly ship on the horizon, and, to escape his fatal influence, quickly changed their course.

Wagner first met with the legend when he was a young man struggling with misfortune at Riga. He found it in Heine’s fragmentary story, "The Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski," which is in some sense a sort of autobiographic record. "Heine," says Wagner, "takes occasion to relate the story in speaking of the representation of a play founded thereon, which he had witnessed -- as I believe -- at Amsterdam. This subject fascinated me, and made an indelible impression upon my fancy; still, it did not as yet acquire the force needful for its rebirth within me." There has been some discussion about the play to which Heine referred. One of Wagner’s biographers, the late Dr. Franz Hueffer, very plausibly argues that it must have been a play of Fitzball’s which was running at the Adelphi in 1827 when Heine visited London.

He points particularly to the fact that two essential features of Fitzball’s play, both absent from the old legend, are referred to by Heine in connection with the drama he saw: namely, the presence of the inscrutable Dutchman’s portrait in Daland’s house, and the taking of a wife by the unresting seaman. This latter idea -- the idea of the fated captain being saved by a woman -- was not, however, original with Fitzball. We find it much earlier; though Fitzball certainly seems to have been original in his idea -- a grotsque and utterly unpoetical idea -- of the Dutchman offering his self-sacrificing bride to a sea-monster!





Fitzball is said to have founded his play (the play, remember, to which Heine is assumed to refer) on a version of the legend printed in Blackwood’s Magazine for May 1821. That version ran as follows:

She was an Amsterdam vessel and sailed from port seventy years ago. Her master’s name was Van der Decken. He was a staunch seaman, and would have his own way in spite of the devil. For all that, never a sailor under him had reason to complain; though how it is on board with them nobody knows. The story is this: that in doubling the Cape they were a long day trying to weather the Table Bay. However, the wind headed them, and went against them more and more, and Van der Decken walked the deck, swearing at the wind. Just after sunset a vessel spoke him, asking him if he did not mean to go into the bay that night. Van der Decken replied: ‘May I be eternally damned if I do, though I should beat about here till the day of judgment. And to be sure, he never did go into that bay, for it is believed that he continues to beat about in these seas still, and will do so long enough. This vessel is never seen but with foul weather along with her.

Whether this was Fitzball’s original, whether Fitzball’s was the actual play which Heine saw, are points of no great importance. Wagner admittedly obtained the germ of his story from Heine.

It is interesting to know how he himself looked at the legend. "The figure of the Flying Dutchman," he writes, "is a mythical creation of the folk. A primal trait of human nature speaks out from it with a heart-enthralling force. This trait, in its most universal meaning, is the longing after rest from amid the storms of life." He goes on to say how, after the legend had expressed itself in the Ulysses and Wandering Jew forms:

The sea in its turn became the soil of life; yet no longer the land-locked sea of the Grecian world, but the great ocean that engirdles the earth. The fetters of the older world were broken; the longing of Ulysses, back to home and hearth and wedded life, after feeding on the sufferings of the "never-dying Jew" until it became a yearning for death, had mounted to the craving for a new, an unknown home, invisible as yet, but dimly boded. This vast-spread feature fronts us in the mythos of the "Flying Dutchman," that seaman’s poem of the world-historical age of journeys of discovery. Here we light upon a remarkable mixture, a blend, effected by the spirit of the Folk, of the character of Ulysses with that of the Wandering Jew. The Hollandic mariner, in punishment for his temerity, is condemned by the devil (here obviously the element of Flood and Storm) to do battle with the unresting waves to all eternity. Like Ahasuerus, he yearns for his sufferings to be ended by death; the Dutchman however, may gain this redemption, denied to the undying Jew, at the hands of -- a Woman who, of very love, shall sacrifice herself for him. The yearning for death thus spurs him on to seek this Woman; but she is no longer the home-tending Penelope of Ulysses, as courted in the days of old, nut the quintessence of Womankind; and yet the still unmanifest, the longed-for, the dreamt-of, the infinitely womanly Woman -- let me out with it in one word: the Woman of the Future.

Several writers besides Wagner tried to "improve" upon the original legend. Some made an attempt to bring about the conventional happy ending of the average novel. They wanted to release the Dutchman from his fate. Marryat, in his "Phantom Ship," shows one way of doing it when he introduces an amulet or religious charm. Sir Walter Scott (see "Rokeby," Canto ii, stanza xi.) has another idea -- rather a poor one for him. The vessel, in Scott’s version of the legend, was laden with precious metal. A murder was committed on board, and a plague broke out among the crew by way of punishment. Perpetual quarantine was the result. Every port was barred against the fateful ship, which was thus doomed to float about aimlessly for ever. As an American critic has pointed out, there is no poetry and there is a total absence of the personal tragedy in this version. Heine’s version, which Wagner followed, is in truth the only "happy ending." Let us see how it is reached.





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