Bannlyst is one of Selma Lagerlöf’s most thought-provoking works, and the latest addition to our Lagerlöf in English series, translated by Linda Schenk as Banished.
Lagerlöf was a hugely popular writer in her time, but the publication of Bannlyst in 1918 cost her a great deal of anxiety for two reasons. First of all, she had been suffering from a writer’s block that made it harder for her than usual to be creative and finish her project; and secondly, the theme of her new novel was highly controversial. Because of the time in which this novel was written, namely during World War 1, and the fact that Lagerlöf was a committed pacifist, she wanted to write something to raise the public’s morale. Her aim was to make people aware of the double standard existing in war times that allows killing to be viewed as permissible and let death trump the value of life. War is terrible and should not be glorified. So to make her point, Lagerlöf wrote a story about a polar expedition gone awry and about cannibalism. Is eating a dead man in order to preserve life the worst thing you can do?
Banished is split into three parts, each of which concerns matters of life and death. The first part is about the hero of the story, the explorer Sven Elvesson, and his dilemma as to whether to consume the corpse of his companion or become a corpse himself. His past follows him back to his home village on Grimsön, where he faces judgement and aversion when the truth about what happened during the polar expedition is revealed. The second part of the novel concerns the abusive marriage of the beautiful Sigrun and the local minister Edvard Rhånge. Edvard’s poisonous jealousy is harmful, and Sigrun needs to be cunning and wilful in her struggle for survival and freedom. In the third and final part, the people of Grimsö are forced to open their eyes to reality as they encounter a myriad of dead sailors in the sea after the Battle of Jutland. It is one of the book’s most memorable passages and can be counted among the most powerful literary responses to war in the twentieth century. Read an extract here.
Banished is a thematic heavyweight that unfortunately never seems to lose its relevance. We do not have to look far nowadays to find the glorification of war. Lagerlöf encourages us to take a stand against heinous acts of violence and killing and teaches us that human life is sacrosanct.