chapter
16 Pages

Agnes and the Merman: Abraham as Monster

ByNathaniel Kramer

The brief summary above is actually a composite of several variants of the story, yet one can see the tensions that structure the narrative and why it would have

1 The Hong translation has the title as “Agnes and the Merman.” The ballad is also known as “Deceived Merman,” “Agnes and the Hill-King,” “Agnes and the Hill-Man,” “Agnes and the Merman,” and “Agnes.” Agnete and the Anglicized name Agnes are derived from the Greek word meaning chaste or holy. 2 Contemporary Danish uses the word ballade derived from the middle Latin ballare meaning to dance, as well as vise, folkevise, and less commonly dansevise to designate this particular form. The etymological basis emphasizes the connection of the ballad form to both

The erotic entanglement between Agnes and the merman and Agnes’ motivation for accompanying the merman below the surface beg for some psychological development and analysis. One no doubt wonders (even with the explanations she gives to her mother in some variants) if Agnes is a willing or unwilling captive, a victim of a ferocious monster or a rebellious soul who succumbs to an erotic and eventually tragic adventure. (Johannes de silentio will make some comments in this regard in his own adaptation of the ballad.) One might also read a narrative of return and redemption, even if the ballad ends in Agnes’ death. And what of the merman? Generally speaking, one does not ask what motivates monsters. They want what they want, and there is no sense in asking for reasons. Still, the ballad humanizes the monstrous to such an extent that one might well ask about the purposes of the merman. This exploration of the merman’s psyche, in fact, will be Kierkegaard’s contribution to the multiple adaptations and appropriations of “Agnes and the Merman.” Johannes de silentio will write in Fear and Trembling that “The Merman is a seducer who emerges from the concealment of the deep. In his ferocious desire he grasps and shatters the innocent flower that had stood by the shore in all its loveliness, thoughtfully bowing its head toward the sighing of the sea. This has been the view of poets in the past. Let us transform it.”3