Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

20 Apr 2011

(Short Story) The Outlaws by: Selma Lagerlof

(Reaction) Justice is Neither Mortal nor Divine by: Antonio Conejos

The Outlaws reads like something out of the Old Testament, complete with the references to punishment and hellfire which are trademarks of the Old Testament God. The same attitude of damnation and deliverance which informs the Old Testament also informs this short story by Selma Lagerlof. As Tord raves towards the end, All of us are sinners. Nothing is pure in the eyes of God. Ye have already been shrivelled up in the flame of His wrath.

The short story describes the life (and death) of 2 brothers, Tord and Berg. They are not brothers born of blood. Rather, their kinship is born out of both being rejected by man. Tord was a thief and Berg, a murderer. It is in both being outcasts of society that Tord and Berg share a bond. I trusted you - I loved you is Berg's mournful exhortation when he realizes that Tord has betrayed him.

A story of fraternal betrayal is also a famed component of the Old Testament - the story of Cain and Able. As scripture has it, Cain offered sacrifices but was unable to please the Lord. In a fit of jealousy Cain slays his brother Abel, whose sacrifices the Lord had praised. It is the demands of the Lord which compels Cain to murder his brother.

Similarly, it is the demands of the Lord which drive Tord to kill Berg. Tord looked down at his hands, as if he saw there the fetters that had drawn him on to kill the man he loved... And he said aloud: 'God is great.' It is the Lord who demands that Berg must die, It was God Himself pursuing him, demanding that he should give up the murderer.

As Berg is Tord's friend, his brother, he attempts to resist the command of the Lord. Tord protests that he is ineloquent, he could not find the words; embarrassment tied his tongue... I could not speak to him; I could not find the words because of my love for him, that he is incapable of doing what the Lord requires.

Tord's plea that he is not suited to the Lord's task echoes similar pleas made by Old Testament prophets when first approached by the Lord. Biblical scholars of the Old Testament refer to the initial reluctance (with the excuse that they are not eloquent) and then subsequent acquiescence of the prophets as the call narrative. This pattern of initial refusal and then acceptance can be found in most, if not all, of the major figures called by God in the Old Testament. Moses, for example, initially tells the Lord that he (Moses) has a stammer and is unworthy to be His (the Lord's) spokesperson. Moses in the Old Testament even goes so far as to suggest his brother Aaron as a better candidate! Just as Moses eventually bows to the will of the Lord, so too does Berg follow the call narrative and agree to the will of the Lord.

One last parallel of the short story to the Old Testament is in both texts insistence that it is woman who leads man astray. Genesis recounts how evil (in the guise of a snake) tempts Eve to eat of the fruit of knowledge. Eve in turn has Adam eat the fruit and with that, their eyes were opened and sin entered the world. Similarly, the perdition of both Berg and Tord is laid at the foot of women.

Tord is actually innocent of the crime (the theft of a fish net) he is accused of. Yet his admission of guilt, and subsequent flight to the mountains to escape punishment, were all at the request of his mother. Berg is obedient to his mother, even to the point where he damns himself to a life in the wasteland of the mountains. Yet he cannot recount the truth without some bitterness that this sacrifice was asked of him, But when one has a mother - and that mother comes and cries, and begs one to take upon one's self the father's crime - and then one can laugh at the hangman and run away into the woods. A man may be outlawed for the sake of a fish net he has never seen.

In contrast, Berg is guilty of his crime, the murder of a monk. Yet just as Berg is anointed with guilt by his mother, so too does another woman anoint Tord with similar guilt. The monk gravely insults Unn and Tord, who loves her beyond all reason and family, asks what he must do. Her eyes glowed as she answered that he himself should know best what he must do. Then Berg went into the hall again and slew the monk.

Faced with the violence of Berg's act, Unn does not turn away. She even praises him for it, But Unn stood there so quiet and so beautiful that the men who saw her trembled. She thanked me for the deed and prayed me to flee to the woods at once. The murder of the monk satisfies Unn; so much so that Tord notes, Your [Berg's] deed had ennobled her.

Just as Adam in the Old Testament is brought sin by Eve, both outlaws find themselves damned by the requests of women they cannot refuse.

Ultimately sin ends in violence and Tord kills Berg to satisfy the law of the Lord that vengeance must be extracted, You have lifted your hand against God himself. What crime is like unto yours?

Interestingly though the story ends on an ambiguous note, Tord slew Borg because Berg had taught him that justice is the corner-stone of the world. On one hand this last sentence can imply that Tord agreed that justice was the natural state of the world and that his killing of Berg simply in keeping with this fundamental nature of things.

On the other hand, there is a hint of rebellion in Tord's last statement, of accusation. The word because takes on a hint of blame, that Tord does not agree that justice is the natural order of things and that his killing of Berg is ultimately a rejection of the notion that right can be found in this world. In this light, the statement can be read as, simply put, since Borg taught me something so crucially false, I (Tord) killed him, as a rejection of that falsehood.

For indeed, as found in the short story, justice is not the natural order of the world. Both men are innocent of their crimes yet both are forced to live as outcasts, ostracized by society. (Tord is certainly innocent. As for Berg, while he does have the monk's blood on his hands, he is surely not wholly guilty and at least entitled to mitigating circumstances in his defense.)

Moreover, the story goes out of its way to praise the character of both men. Berg is described as, magnificent and so mighty... high as the forest, strong as the raging surf. Tord too is exemplary, strong and brave... brave in action but shy in speech. Is it just then that these men wander the forest, the sordid care for food and clothing was all that remained to him in life, for crimes they are not entirely guilty of? Perhaps Tord's killing of Berg is a refutation of justice rather than an affirmation of it.

Review:

It was sort of a chore to get through this short story as its tone is ponderous, leaving the reader musing if it may be a bit overwrought. The weight surrounding this short story can be felt in such lines as And below them the flames of the underworld fluttered up to the outer curve of the earth and licked greedily at this last refuge of a race crushed by sin and woe. Such passages are paradoxically emotional yet leaden at the same time.

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