Lethal White: Every Ibsen ‘White Horse’

I received a note from Odd Sverre Hove the day after Lethal White‘s publication and my first post on the subject had gone up. Mr Hove is a correspondent of many years, a theologian living in Norway, and a serious reader of Rowling/Galbraith. He wrote me to say he was as interested in the Ibsen epigraphs from his play Rosmersholm quotations from which Galbraith uses as chapter headings throughout Lethal White. I responded with a beg-letter asking him, my only friend who could read Ibsen in the original language rather than English translation, not to mention with knowledge of Ibsen’s theological and political concerns, to share the ‘White Horse’ references in Rosmersholm and his thoughts as annotations. He did so promptly and I alluded to his notes in my first piece post-publication about the meaning of the white horses but I only received his permission to share these notes late last week. Please find below the Ibsen ‘White Horse’ notes with Odd Sverre Hove’s commentary at last! 

Three notes as preface:

(1) If you haven’t read the play and want some context, the Wikipedia summary of what some feel is Ibsen’s best can be found here and the online text that Rowling cites as the translation she used can be downloaded here.

(2) Strike is familiar with the play and Robin notes the Biblical link in their conversation on the drive back to London after the group interview at Chiswell House (chapter 44, p 378): “Isn’t there a play where white horses appear as a death omen?” “I don’t know said Robin, changing gear. “Death rides a white horse in Revelations (sic), though.”

(3) The Rosmersholm epigraph at the murder scene, chapter 35, just before the end of Part 1 and the beginning of Part 2, is “… the White Horse! In broad daylight!”

Enjoy Odd’s excerpts and commentary on the “White Horses of Rosmersholm” after the jump, the white horses that didn’t make my seemingly exhaustive list of white horse possibilities pre-publication or anyone else’s that I know of!

Dear John,

I started reading «Lethal White» yesterday, and the prominence of Henrik Ibsen and Rosmersholm at the start of every chapter struck me at once. 

Today I read your first posts with very great interest and I noticed that you also tend to consider the Ibsen/Rosmersholm-connection as important.

When I went to High School (in the 1960-ies) in Bergen, Norway, I never intended to study Norwegian Literature. I wanted to study theology (to become a Lutheran church pastor). So I studied Greek and Latin much more eagerly than Norwegian literature. But during High School the whole class read Ibsen’s «Peer Gynt» and «Villanden» (= «The Wild Duck»), but never «Rosmersholm».

So I have never read that book, not in Norwegian and not in English. (I may now find it necessary to read it, though).

In «Peer Gynt» Ibsen created a weak and pragmatic person, bending every ethical rule on his way through life. Peer was obviously intended to symbolize Ibsen’s criticism of the weak and lacking Norwegian solidarity with (and response to) Denmark’s needs during the German-Danish war. 

(The opposite type of person is portrayed in Ibsen’s «Brand», a book which came a few years later. Brand is at church minister with totally unbending morality, so unbending that charity suffers.)

As far as I understand it (without having read «Rosmersholm») – Ibsen also in «Rosmersholm» investigates questions connected to moral strength and guilt – and even more: the question whether ethics and morality can survive when Christianity in Norway seems to be on its way to dying . (The secularization process in Norway started in Ibsen’s flowering years, and shot increasing speed every year until today).

Now, the saying here in Norway is that Ibsen (approximately mid 1880s?) lived at the estate «Moldegård» in the fjord city of Molde while he wrote «Rosmersholm». Thus Moldegård estate and farm-house may be seen as the model of the estate «Rosmersholm» in Ibsen’s book. If the saying is correct.

I add a modern picture of Moldegård, taken from some Norwegian internet presentation of the place (left) – connected with their yearly literary festival in Molde, in remembrance of the two leading Norwegian authors from that period, Henrik Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. 

(Bjørnson always thought that he was the greater one of the two, but my High School teachers tended to teach us that Ibsen was the greater!).

[After my beg letter:]

I bought <<Rosmersholm>> this morning and rushed through it this afternoon. I read it in Norwegian, but I have also an English translation on my i-Book. My first impression is somewhat confusing, so I will write a few observations to try to clear my thoughts. I made notes whenever I met the White Horse-imagery. And I shall here be summing it up (mostly from the English translation):

Act 1 page 2 (page numbers are from the Norwegian version, sorry):

Rebecca: They cling to their dead a long time here at Rosmersholm.

Mrs Helseth: … it’s the dead that cling to Rosmersholm for a long time.

R: The dead?

Mrs H: … they don’t seem to be able to tear themselves away from those they have left behind.

R: What puts that idea into your head?

Mrs H: Well otherwise I know the White horses would not be seen here.

R: Tell me, Mrs H, what is this superstition about the White Horses?

Mrs H: Oh it is not worth talking about ….

My first observations: 

  • The White Horses seem here to symbolize the memory of dead Mrs Beate Rosmer (and possiblely the other dead forefathers on the Wall Portraits of the Living Room Walls, according to the Scene Instructions at the start of Act i). 
  • As such the White Horses may also somehow possibly carry with them on their back the inherited Christian faith and ethics of Norwegian «before-modernism»  (pre-modernism) … or something like that.

Act 1, final page (pg 29 in the Norw. version):

Mrs H: Mr Kroll gone home? What was wrong with him?

R: He prophesied a heavy storm brewing …

Mrs H: That is very strange, miss, because there isn’t a scap of cloud in the sky.

R: Let us hope he doesn’t meet the White Horse. Because I am afraid it will not be long before we hear something of the famliy ghost.

Mrs H: God forgive you, miss don’t talk of such a dreadful thing!

R: Oh come, come, come (in Norwegian similar to: calm down).

Mrs H: Do you really thing, miss, that someone here is to go soon?

R: Not a bit of it. But there are so many sorts of White Horses in this world, Mrs Helseth ……

My observations: 

  • Miss Rebecca here first seems to interpret the White Horse as a symbol of the memory of Mrs Beate Rosmer, while Mrs Helseth here seems to interpret them as warnings of coming deaths. 
  • After that Miss Rebecca re-interprets (?) the White Horse imagery into a plurality of old memories (possibly carrying with them «old time religion» and «old time moral values» – ?).

Act 2, page 49 (a few pages before the end of the act, shortly after Mr R’s proposal of marrige):

Mr Rosmer: Calm and happy innocence (Norwegian original: Calm and happy freedom from guilt).

Rebecca: Yes, freedom from guilt.

Mr R: (pause) The wild fancies I am haunted with! I shall never get quit of them. I am certain of that – certain. They will always be chasing forwards to remind me of the dead.

Rebecca: Just like the White Horse of Rosmersholm.

Mr R: Yes, just like that. Rushing at me out of the dark – out of the silence.

Rebecca: And because of this morbid fantasy of yours, you are going til give up the hold you had just gained upon real life?

Mr R: You are right. It seems hard. Hard, Rebecca. But I have no power of choice in the matter. How do you think I could ever get the mastery over it?

My observations: 

  • The White Horses here seem to carry with them the heavy burden of guilt. 
  • Or more specifically: The guilt vis-a-vis the inherited values of Mrs Beate Rosmer and the forefathers at the Rosmersholm wall pictures.
  •  Rebecca seems to advise Mr Rosmer to consider this guilt as a mere fantasy, compared to what she considers «real life» (= the «free thinking» values of modernity anno 1880s). 
  • But Mr R states that guilt is unavoidable and unbearable -?

Act 3 pg 60 (somewhere towards the middle of the act, just before Kroll enters):

Rebecca: Oh, do not think of anything else but the great, splendid task that you are going to devote your life to!

Mr Rosmer: (shaking his head) ….

Rebecca: Why not?

Mr R: Because no cause can triumph which has its beginning in guilt.

Rebecca: Oh, these are nothing but prejudices you have inherited (Norwegian original: “Oh, this is forefather-doubt, forefather-angst, forefather-scruples.”) This is just a legend that your dead will return to haunt you, just like the chasing white horses. This seems to me to be something of this sort.

Mr Rosmer: Be that as it may. What difference does it make if I can’t shake it off? Believe me, Rebecca, it is as I say – any cause which is to win a victory must be championed by a man who is joyous and innocent (Norwegian original: joyous and free of guilt).

My observations: 

  • The White Horses are here by Rebecca interpreted as prejudice, such as forefather-doubt, forefather-angst, forefather-scruples. 
  • But Mr Rosmer states that they are – not only real to him, but also real to anyone who wishes to win a victory in a cultural war (kulturkampf). 
  • The following statement may even be Henrik Ibsen’s basic message in the book: «No cause can triumph which has its beginning in guilt» -? If that is correct, then the message of the play is anti-modernism.

Act 3, last page (page 71):

Rebecca: I am never coming back again.

Mrs Helseth: Never?! But my goodness, what is to become of us at Rosmersholm if Miss West is not here any longer? Just now as poor Reverend Rosmer had been made so happy and comfortable again!

Rebecca: Yes, but today I have had a fright, Mrs Helseth.

Mrs H: A fright. Good heavens. How?

Rebecca: I fancy I have had a glimpse of White Horses.

Mrs Helseth: Of the White Horses? In broad daylight?!

Rebecca: Ah, they are out both early and late, the White Horses of Rosmersholm.

My observations: 

  • Here Miss Rebecca West is somehow starting to convert into some sort of glimpsing the guilt-bearing White Horses herself. 
  • And she is for that reason intending to leave for ever. Or something worse.
  • My attempted interpretation of Ibsen’s message: «Modernity religion» is not able to deal with the heavy burden of guilt, which is unbearable to anyone.

Act 4, page 85 (second to last page of the play, Mr Rosmer’s and Miss Rebecca’s «modernity marrige» and subsequent suicide):

Mr Rosmer: Rebecca – now I lay my hand on your head. And I take you for my true and lawful wife.

Rebecca: Thank you, John. And now I am going gladly.

Mr R: Man and wife should go together.

R: Only as far as the bridge, John.

Mr R: And out on it, too. As far as you go, so far I go with you. I dare do it now.

R: Are you absolutely certain that way is the best for you?

Mr R: I know it is the only way.

R: But suppose you are only decieving yourself? Suppose it were only a delusion, one of these White Horses of Rosmersholm?

Mr R: It may be so. We can never eascape from them, we of this farm. (not «race» as in the English translation).

R: Then stay, John.

Mr R: The man shall cleave* to his wife, as the wife to her husband.  

* Gen 2:24: «shall glue himself unto his wife», hebr «davaq» = cleave to, glue himself unto

My observations: 

  • The White Horses (= the burden of guilt) may (according to Mr R) be a delusion, but is still unavoidable.
  • The Gen 2:24-allusion may be a last remnant of Mr Rosmer’s lost faith – ?
  • Henrik Ibsen’s basic message according to my interpretation: «Christianity and Christian morality may be a delusion, but modernity’s end station is worse: suicide.»

Well, I hope I found all instanses of White Horse imagery in «Rosmersholm», John!

Now it is late at night here at the Norwegian fjord (just north of Bergen, where Henrik Ibsen was the Theater Director for a few of his younger years). Sleep well!

Thank you, Odd, for this great introduction to the white horses of Rosmersholm! I think the novel’s many references to the supernatural and fantastic — Charlotte’s “succubus,” the “demonic” eyes, the “spectral” appearance, the “fairy tale (Grimm’s!) resonance of the mock Gothic “digging in the dell” et cetera — make Ibsen’s themes you point out here critically important to getting the ‘Donegality’ or atmosphere of Lethal White. Galbraith/Rowling points to this in the appearance of the Nabokoian ‘Black Vanessa’ and this same kind of backdrop in Pale Fire

The Beast Within, right?

All that not to mention the suicide backdrop and conclusion, the haunting guilt of the principals (incest!), and the artwork on the walls of the family mansion… Did you hear the “Those we love never truly leave us, Harry” echoes? More Rosmersholm to come!




  1. Beatrice Groves says

    Thank you very much for these thoughts, Odd. I was particularly interested by the Norwegian insights you give us – that ‘farm’ works much better than ‘race’ I think! I just wanted to ask about that bit you translate ‘forefather-doubt, forefather-angst, forefather-scruples.’ Does Ibsen give all three words here (an emphasis the translation really lacks) or are you giving us various options for the way in which one word should/could be translated?

  2. Odd Sverre Hove says

    Once more it’s late night here at this side of the Atlantic. But thank you, Beatrice Groves, for this comment. And yes: Henrik Ibsen uses the Norwegian equivalent to all these three words: forefather-doubt, forefather-angst, forefather-scruples. I guess they are not sounding very English when you translate them word by word, and that may be the reason why the translator chose to re-frase them in a more idiomatic way -?
    As I mentioned to John in an e-mail, Sigmund Freud wrote an 8 pages commentary to Rosmersholm. To him the play confirmed his theory on Super-Ego and Oedipus-complex.

  3. Beatrice Groves says

    Many thanks for your reply, Odd. And thanks for the Freud connection – I’ve read it and I think it both really interesting, and relevant for Lethal White!

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