Conquering Hero and Fool by August Strindberg
It was on the evening of a spring day in 1880 (a day which will
never be forgotten in Sweden, because it is the day of commemoration of
a national event), when an old couple, simple country people, were
standing on the headland at the entrance to the harbour of Stockholm,
looking at the dark watercourse under the dim stars, and watching a man
who was busy with a dark, undefinable object on the landing bridge.
They stood there for a long, long time, now gazing at the dark
watercourse, now looking at the brilliant lights of the town.
At last a light appeared on the fjord, then another, then many
lights. The old man seized the woman's hand and pressed it, and in
silence, under the stars, they thanked God for having safely brought
home their son whom they had mourned as dead for a whole year.
It is true, he had not been the leader of the expedition, but he had
been one of the crew. And now he was to dine with the long, receive an
order, and, in addition to a sum of money from the nation, which
Parliament had voted for the purpose, an appointment which would mean
bread and butter for the rest of his life.
The lights grew in size as they approached; a small steamer was
towing a big dark craft, which, seen close by, looked as plain and
simple as most great things do.
And now the man on the bridge, who had been very busy about the dark
object, struck a match.
“Whatever is it?” said the old man, much puzzled. “It looks like
huge wax candles.”
They went nearer to examine it more closely.
“It looks like a frame for drying fishes,” said the old woman, who
had been born on the coast.
Ratsh! It-sh! Si-si-si-si! it said, and the old people were
instantly surrounded by fire and flames.
Great fiery globes rose up to the skies and, bursting, lit up the
night with a shower of stars; an astronomer, observing the heavens with
a telescope, might have come to the conclusion that new stars had been
born. And he would not have been altogether wrong, for in the year 1880
new thoughts were kindled in new hearts, and new light and new
discoveries vouchsafed to mankind. Doubtless, there were weeds, too,
growing up together with the splendid wheat; but weeds have their uses,
also; shade and moisture depend on their presence, and they will be
separated from the wheat at harvest time. But there must be weeds, they
are as inseparable from wheat as chaff is from corn.
What had puzzled the old couple, however, was a rocket frame, and
when all the smoke had cleared away—for there is no fire without
smoke—not a trace of all the magnificence was left.
“It would have been jolly to have been in town with them to-night,”
said the old woman.
“Oh, no!” replied the man. “We should have been in the way, poor
people like we ought never to push themselves to the front. And there's
plenty of time to-morrow for seeing the boy, after he has left his
sweetheart, who is dearer to him than we are.”
It was a very sensible speech for the old man to make; but who in
the world is to have sense, if old people have not?
And then they continued their way to the town.
Now, let us see what happened to the son.
He was the leadsman, that is to say, it was his business to sound
the depths of the sea; he had plumbed the profound abysses of the
ocean, calculated the elevation of the land and the apparent motion of
the sky; he knew the exact time by looking at the sun, and he could
tell from the stars how far they had travelled. He was a man of
importance; he believed that he held heaven and earth in his hand,
measured time and regulated the clock of eternity. And after he had
been the king's guest and received an order to wear on his breast, he
fancied that he was made of finer stuff than most men; he was not
exactly haughty when he met his poor parents and his sweetheart, but,
although they said nothing, they felt that he thought himself their
superior. Possibly he was a little stiff, he was built that way.
Well, the official ceremonies were over, but the students also had
decided to pay homage to the heroes, who had returned home after a
prolonged absence. And they went to the capital in full force.
Students are queer people, who read books and study under Dr.
Know-all; consequently they imagine that they know more than other
people. They are also young, and therefore they are thoughtless and
The respectful and sensible speeches which the old professors had
been making all the afternoon in honour of the explorers had come to an
end, and the procession of the students had started.
The leadsman and his sweetheart were sitting on a balcony in the
company of the other great men. The ringing of the church bells and the
booming of the guns mingled with the sound of the bugles and the
rolling of the drums; flags were waving and fluttering in the breeze.
And then the procession marched by.
It was headed by a ship, with sailors and everything else belonging
to it; next walruses came and polar bears, and all the rest of it; then
students in disguise, representing the heroes; the Great Man himself
was represented in his fur coat and goggles. It wasn't quite
respectful, of course; it wasn't a very great honour to be impersonated
in this way; but there it was! It was well meant, no doubt. And
gradually every member of the expedition passed by, one after the
other, all represented by the students.
Last of all came the leadsman. It was true, nobody could ever have
dreamt of calling him handsome, but there is no need for a man to be
handsome, as long as he is an able leadsman, or anything else able. The
students had chosen a hideous old grumbler to impersonate him. That
alone would not have mattered; but nature had made one of his arms
shorter than the other, and his representative had made a feature of
this defect. And that was too bad; for a defect is something for which
one ought not to be blamed.
But when the fool who played the leadsman approached the balcony, he
said a few words with a provincial accent, intended to cast ridicule on
the leadsman, who was born in one of the provinces. It was a silly
thing to do, for every man speaks the dialect which his mother has
taught him; and it is nothing at all to be ashamed of.
Everybody laughed, more from politeness than anything else, for the
entertainment was gratuitous, but the girl was hurt, for she hated to
see her future husband laughed at. The leadsman frowned and grew
silent. He no longer enjoyed the festivities. But he carefully hid his
real feelings, for otherwise he would have been laughed at for a fool
unable to appreciate a joke. But still worse things happened, for his
impersonator danced and cut all sorts of ridiculous antics, in the
endeavour to act the leadsman's name in dumb charade; first his
surname, which he had inherited from his father, and then his Christian
name, which his mother had chosen for him at his baptism. These names
were sacred to him, and although there may have been a little boastful
sound about them, he had always scorned to change them.
He wanted to rise from his chair and leave, but his sweetheart
caught hold of his hand, and he stayed where he was.
When, the procession was over and everybody who had been sitting on
the balcony had risen, the great man laid a friendly hand on the girl's
shoulder, and said, with his kindly smile:—
“They have a strange way here of celebrating their heroes, one
mustn't mind it!”
In the evening there was a garden party and the leadsman was
present, but his pleasure was gone; he had been laughed at, and he had
grown small in his own estimation, smaller than the fool, who had made
quite a hit as a jester. Therefore he was despondent, felt uneasy at
the thought of the future and doubtful of his own capability. And
wherever he went he met the fool who was caricaturing him. He saw his
faults enlarged, especially his pride and his boastfulness; all his
secret thoughts and weaknesses were made public.
For three painful hours he examined the account book of his
conscience; what no man had dared to tell him before, the fool had told
him. Perfect knowledge of oneself is a splendid thing, Socrates calls
it the highest of all goods. Towards the end of the evening the
leadsman had conquered himself, admitted his faults, and resolved to
turn over a new leaf.
As he was passing a group of people he heard a voice behind a hedge
“It's extraordinary, how the leadsman has improved. He's really
quite a delightful fellow!”
These words did him good; but what pleased him more than anything
else were a few whispered words from his sweetheart.
“You are so nice to-night,” she said, “that you look quite
He handsome? It must have been a miracle then, and miracles don't
happen nowadays. Yet he had to believe in a miracle, for he knew
himself to be a very plain man.
Finally the Great Man touched his glass with his knife, and
immediately there was silence, for every body wanted to hear what he
had to say.
“When a Roman conqueror was granted a triumphal procession,” he
began, “a slave always stood behind him in the chariot and incessantly
called out, 'Remember that you are but a man!' while senate and people
paid him homage. And at the side of the triumphal car, which was drawn
by four horses, walked a fool, whose business it was to dim the
splendour of his triumph by shouting insults, and casting suspicion on
the hero's character by singing libellous songs. This was a good old
custom, for there is nothing so fatal to a man than to believe that he
is a god, and there is nothing the gods dislike so much as the pride of
men. My dear young friends! The success which we, who have just
returned home, have achieved, has perhaps been overrated, our triumph
went to our heads, and therefore it was good for us to watch your
antics to-day! I don't envy the jester his part—far from it; but I
thank you for the somewhat strange homage which you have done us. It
has taught me that I have still a good deal to learn, and whenever my
head is in danger of being turned by flattery, it will remind me that I
am nothing but an ordinary man!”
“Hear! Hear!” exclaimed the leadsman, and the festivities continued,
undisturbed even by the fool, who had felt a little ashamed of himself
and had quietly withdrawn from the scene.
So much for the Great Man and the leadsman. Now let us see what
happened to the fool.
As he was standing close to the table during the Great Man's speech,
he received a glance from the leadsman, which, like a small fiery
arrow, was capable of setting a fortress aflame. And as he went out
into the night, he felt beside himself, like a man who is clothed in
sheets of fire. He was not a nice man. True, fools and jailers are
human beings, like the rest of us, but they are not the very nicest
specimen. Like everybody else he had many faults and weaknesses, but he
knew how to cloak them. Now something extraordinary happened. Through
having mimicked the leadsman all day long, and also, perhaps, owing to
all the drink he had consumed, he had become so much the part which he
had played that he was unable to shake it off; and since he had brought
into prominence the faults and weaknesses of the leadsman, he had, as
it were, acquired them, and that flash from the leadsman's eye had
rammed them down to the very bottom of his soul, just as a ramrod
pushes the powder into the barrel of a gun. He was charged with the
leadsman, so to speak, and therefore, as he stepped out into the street
he at once began to shout and boast. But this time luck was against
him. A policeman ordered him to be quiet. The fool said something
funny, imitating the leadsman's provincial accent. But the policeman,
who happened to be a native of the same province, was annoyed and
wanted to arrest the fool. Now it is just as difficult for a fool to
take a thing seriously as it is for a policeman to understand a joke;
therefore the fool resisted and created such a disturbance that the
policeman struck him with his truncheon.
He received a sound beating, and then the policeman let him go.
You would think that he had had enough trouble now—far from it!
The chastisement which he had received had only embittered him, and
he went on the warpath, like a red Indian, to see on whom he might
avenge his wrongs.
Accident, or some other power, guided his footsteps to a locality
mainly frequented by peasants and labourers. He entered a brewery and
found a number of millers and farmer's labourers sitting round a table,
drinking the health of the explorers. When they saw the fool they took
him for the leadsman, and were highly delighted when he condescended to
take a glass in their company.
Now the demon of pride entered into the soul of the fool. He boasted
of his great achievements; he told them that it was he who had led the
expedition, for would they not have foundered if he had not sounded the
depth of the sea? Would they ever have returned home if he had not read
Smack! an egg hit him between the eyebrows.
“Leadsman, you're a braggart!” said the miller. “We've known that
for a long time; we knew it when you wrote to the paper saying the
Great Man was another Humboldt!”
Now another of the leadsman's weaknesses gained the upper hand.
“The Great Man is a humbug!” he exclaimed, which was not true.
This was too much for the assembly. They rose from their seats like
one man, seized the fool, and with a leather strap bound him to a sack
of flour. They covered him with flour until he was white from top to
toe, and blackened his face with the wick from one of the lanterns. The
millers' apprentice sewed him to the sack; they lifted him, sack and
lantern, on to the cart, and amid shouting and laughter proceeded to
There he was exhibited to the passers-by, and everybody laughed at
When they let him go at last, he went and sat on some stone stairs
and cried. The big fellow sobbed like a little child; one might almost
have felt sorry for him.