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Friday, January 15, 2016

Poet, thief and “Breakout King” – the peculiar tale of Gjest Baardsen

Some people have the ability to fascinate and intrigue, their myths kept very much alive, long after their passing. Figures such as Robin Hood, Merlin, Beowolf and the Queen of Sheba have become household names due to the legends about them, continuing to act as lead characters in the long, lasting stories of their lives.

Perhaps more fascinating, though, are the people who themselves have been eager participants in the creation of their own myth. A captivating example, is the tale of Gjest Baardsen (1791- 1849). Officially known as a master thief and the king of breakaways, Baardsen became infamous for his many escapes from jail, as well as a poet and a songwriter.

Illustration of Gjest Baardsen, 1877
Born in Sogndal in the Western part of Norway, Gjest Baardsen early came to lead a quite restless existence. As 12- or 13-year-old, he became an apprentice for a craftsman in Bergen, only to go to sea before his apprenticeship was over. This was the start of a wandering life, where he made a living, mainly, as a thief. He was occasionally arrested and sentenced, but for many years he managed to avoid long lasting imprisonment, due to daring escape maneuvers. Emerging as a man of the people, in constant conflict with the authorities, Baardsen became a symbol of the common people's struggle against unfair taxation during the Danish-Norwegian union. Through the pending myths and stories about his deeds and misdeeds, Baardsen won a reputation as a Norwegian Robin Hood, tricking and cheating greedy tax collectors and sheriffs who were burdening the ordinary folk with heavy taxes.

Nevertheless - after much ado and many years on the run, even Baardsen had to finally succumb to the long, willful arm of the law. In 1827, he was sentenced to a lifetime of hard labour, to be served at  Akershus fortress in the city of Christiania (today known as Oslo). Here he had no social network, either on the inside or outside of the prison walls, which would also make it more difficult to escape. At last, Baardsen seemed to come to terms with this fate, for he did not flee from Akershus. Instead he concentrated on reading and writing.

As it turned out, Baardsen actually had a talent for this occupation and writing, in many ways, became his redemption. Although he gave his mother the credit for this pursuit, he also he attached importance to the practical facilitation conducted by people within the judicial and prison authorities, particularly at Akershus. There may have been several reasons for this aid; perhaps it was for therapeutic purposes, or maybe they saw the opportunity to greater knowledge of a criminal mind. Or, it may simply been an act of kindness and compassion. While still imprisoned, he released the first parts of his autobiography.

Due to good behavior (as well as a claim to start a new life as a pious Christian), Gjest Baardsen was finally pardoned by the majority of the Supreme Court, and on October 3rd 1845 he could leave the prison walls behind him, as a free man. During the time after his release, he made a living by selling songs and small writings. Along with book sales and donations, he was able to finance the long journey back to the West Coast, where he died in 1849, without a penny to his name.

To what extent Gjest Baardsen embellished his own life story, remains unclear. It is no doubt he was aware of the opportunity to influence his legacy, and in his own writings he appears as a sympathetic and loyal felon. Moreover, movies, books, and even comics have subsequently helped to maintain the myth of the gentleman thief who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. In other words, Baardsen has managed to maintain the myth of his own persona, until this very day. New research however, suggests he was probably not as law-abiding, nor as well thought of, as he claimed to be.

Nevertheless, it is no doubt that Baardsen wrote well. His language was vivid and clear, appealing to both the mind and the heart. One of his most famous songs, Grusomme skjebne (eng. “Oh, Gruesome fate!"), was most probably written in 1826. According to his autobiography, it was the rather troubled relationship between himself and his then-girlfriend, Gjertine Carlsdatter, which inspired the conception of the song. During the spring of 1826, the police tried to get Gjertine to reveal Baardsens whereabouts by claiming that he had been unfaithful, and allegedly had made another woman pregnant. As a result, Baardsen presented his hearts’ distress through this song, strongly suggesting that it was Gjertines testimony that became his downfall:

Dreary is the fate you have bestowed upon me;
grim is the future I now have to meet,
thanks to you, I have lost all hope
my heart throbs excruciatingly sore.
What do you think about that, you who reward my fidelity so poorly,
my heart bleeds, beaten to death,
even still, perhaps you think you acted right.
By letting the first letter of the in total 19 verses together constitute Gjertine Carlsdatters name, a deep impression (according to his own writings) was made on the bewildered girl.

This song is actually one of the few I can recall my first encounter with; it was the 30th of December 2005, and one of the last shows ever performed by the Norwegian cross-over band Gåte. One can't help but ponder what Baardsen might have thought about the following version;
by choosing to use merely the first verse of the song, the band transformed an originally embittered lovesong, into a distressed expression of lost hope. Personally, I believed he would have loved it, finding his own words being kept very much alive, almost 200 years after their birth.
Oh, Gruesome fate, what have I done?
for you to persecute me so,
shall I ever be grieved
shall I forever be denied any joy in life?

I belong to the weary world, and all its wretchedness,
I belong to the weary world, and all its wretchedness,
I belong to the weary world, and all its wretchedness,
I belong to the weary world, and all its wretchedness,

Discouraged I wander, wistful thoughts
disturb my mind, and disrupts my peace.


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