Sunday, 16 December 2018

Victor Sjöström's ''The Phantom Carriage'': A Nightmarish Journey with the Ankou, Charles Dickens's Ghosts, and Selma Lagerlöf's Theosophical Beliefs

On New Year’s Day 1921 Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen) was released in Sweden. Based on the novel Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! (1912) by Swedish Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf, the masterpiece influenced filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman, who also introduced the figure of Death in his groundbreaking The Seventh Seal (1957), and who casted Sjöström for Wild Strawberries (1957). A significant scene in the film, which will be analysed in this essay, is clearly echoed in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).

Nevertheless, the aim of this text is not to study the effect of the silent film on other powerful motion pictures, but to focus on its connection to Lagerlöf’s original text. As Ulla-Britta Lagerroth claims, ‘‘for many years Selma Lagerlöf corresponded with the Swedish actor and film-director Victor Sjöström. For the most part they discussed his film scripts based on her works’’ (51). Sjöström filmed several stories by the novelist such as Sons of Ingmar (1919), Karin, Daughter of Ingmar (1920), and the abovementioned The Phantom Carriage (1921). To study the last one, three different concepts will be scrutinised: how the folkloric Ankou is represented, how Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) is echoed in the plot, and how Lagerlöf’s theosophical ideas emerge in her narrative as well as in the film.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, the story begins on New Year’s Eve with Salvation Army Sister Edit dying of consumption. Her last wish is to see the drunkard David Holm before she perishes. The man is found in a graveyard telling other men the legend of the Death’s carriage, which collects the souls of the deceased. When asked to visit Sister Edit, Holm refuses to go. He fights with the chaps who have listened to his folktale, and just before the stroke of midnight, one of them hits Holm with a bottle. Once the drinkers abandon him, Holm’s encounter with the Death’s carriage occurs. As the plot continues, the audience learns of Holm’s life and wickedness.

Lagerlöf wrote her novel about redemption for a Swedish association to educate about tuberculosis, one of the main themes in her storyline. Sjöström’s film can be seen online with soundtrack by KTL here:

The Ankou: The Assistant of Death

Lagerlöf is known for her spreading of the Scandinavian folklore in narratives such as ‘‘The Changeling’’ (1908), in which she introduces the troll motif, or her portrayal of Swedish geography in children literature as in The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (1906) and Further Adventures of Nils (1907).[i] Nevertheless, As Tom Ruffles claims, Lagerlöf’s ‘‘story is based on the Breton folk-tale of the Ankou, the ‘‘King of the Dead,’’ in which the ghost of the last person to die on New Year’s Eve is obliged to drive the phantom carriage for the next year’’ (50). In the second part of the film, the driver collects the souls of a suicide and a drowning victim. As it can be read in the novel, the appearance of the cart suggests a dream-like atmosphere in which the boundaries between reality and visions are blurred: ‘‘But, half-conscious as he (Holm) was, lying there, he dismissed from his mind the idea that it could be the death-cart. It was simply because, but a little time back, he had had it in his thoughts that he fancied he was hearing it now’’ (Lagerlöf 39). The silent film continues this oneiric mood as it can be observed in the following scene:


French folklorist Anatole Le Braz wrote the book La Légende de la Mort en Basse-Bretagne (1893), in which he described the ghostly charioteer:
The Ankou is the henchman of Death (oberour ar maro). The last dead person of the year in 
each parish becomes the Ankou of this parish for the following year. The Ankou is depicted 
sometimes as a very tall and very thin man, with long, white hair, and  a shaded figure with a 
long hat; sometimes in the form of a skeleton covered with a shroud, and whose head 
constantly veers to the top of the spine, as well as a wind vane around its iron rod, so that it
can embrace at a glance the whole region he has to travel’’. 
An illustration of
Les Merveilles de la Nuit de Noël showing the Ankou riding his chariot, 1844.

This figure, therefore, appears in 
tales of the region, and it can be 
found in different churches
and chapels. In fact, it is said that 
there is one ankou in every parish 
of Brittany. Moreover, 
‘‘in Welsh mythology, Gwynn ab 
Nudd, king of the world of the dead, 
is represented as playing a role 
parallel to that of the Breton Ankou
when he goes forth with his fierce 
hades-hounds hunting the souls of 
the dying’’(Evans Wentz 218). 
The Oxford online dictionary adds that ‘‘although roughly parallel to the driver of the death coach in Irish folklore, the ankou appears to draw more from the Grim Reaper in medieval Christian folklore. The 19th-century writer Anatole le Braz suggested that the ankou is a survival of the prehistoric dolmen-builders of Brittany’’.

Nonetheless, besides this link to dolmen-builders, le Braz relates the Death personification to three main concepts: the plague, famine and the gabelle, a tax on salt established in France during the mid-14th century, and which lasted until 1946. This may be relevant in Lagerlöf’s story since the dying sister of the Salvation Army is called Edit or Edith, as in the Jewish tradition of the Bible. In other versions, she has no name, she is mentioned as Lot’s Wife, who, as she looked back when leaving Sodom ‘‘she thereupon turned into a pillar salt’’ (Gen. 19:26). There are several theories regarding this event: the first one states that Edith turned to see whether her daughters, who were married to men of Sodom, were also leaving the city even though the angels had warned them not to do so. She then saw God, ‘‘who had descended in order to rain brimstone and fire upon Sodom and Gomorrah’’ (Schwartz 467). 

The second hypothesis considers her transformation as a punishment. Lot wanted to be a genteel host to the angels and, as they did not have any salt to offer their guests, Edith asked for it to their neighbours; ‘‘in this way she alerted them to the presence of  the guests, and precipitated the mob who demanded that Lot turn the angels over to them’’ (Schwartz 467). Therefore, she was punished with becoming a column of salt.

Lot and his daughters escape; from a depiction in the Monreale Cathedral mosaics

In Lagerlöf’s narrative Edith turns back to sin as she once and again is interested in David Holm. She confesses her true interest in him to the driver of the death cart:
‘‘But the bitterest humiliation does not lie, after all, in my loving a married man. My lowest degradation is that he whom I love is a wicked man. I don’t know why I should have thrown myself away on a scoundrel. I hoped and trusted that some good might be found in him, but I have been deceived again and again’’ (Lagerlöf 110).
Consequently, even though she feels guided by God in her willingness to help others, her attraction to Holm is her curse. She dies as she contracts his disease. Her death reminds of Lot’s wife’s castigation for being allured by sin. Besides, it is Death’s driver who facilitates her beholding Holm before she expires, not God. This is foreseen as David answers her, ‘‘Oh, I’ll be here. I’ll come to show you God didn’t give a fig for you or your twaddle’’ (Minute 58:46) when she explains that she has wished him the best for the new year and would love to see him again on the following New Year’s Eve.

The Ankou is also a former friend of Holm in both the novel and the film. He is a rascal who drags David into misdeeds while they are both alive, yet when the driver George is dead, he illustrates Holm’s transgressions in order to make the latter reflect upon his actions. This echoes Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol as the following section will examine. 

Dickens’s Ghosts in Lagerlöf’s Narrative:

Tom Ruffles states that ‘‘the novel upon which The Phantom Carriage was based is called My Christmas Carol. Like Scrooge, Holm, by being allowed to eavesdrop on a scene that works on his conscience, is allowed a second chance’’ (50). Lagerlöf’s novel and, consequently Sjöström’s film, depict a ruffian who could have led a blissful life along with his wife, children and brother, but chooses to follow Georges’ steps. Both Holm and Scrooge are guided by their late friends, since Marley introduces the coming of the three Christmas ghosts to Scrooge. Nevertheless, while Lagerlöf’s main character dwells in alcoholism and disease, Dickens’s miser only aims to work to save more money. Scrooge lives alone whereas Holm is accompanied by other devils, yet both are lonely.

The ghosts in the aforementioned novels are ‘‘emphatically didactic figures… As Marley’s description of spectral law suggests, spirits exist both within and without the individual, before death as well as after’’ (Miller 326). In Holm’s case, the audience doubts whether he is dead or simply unconscious, yet he can witness scenes from this past as Scrooge can with his Ghost of Christmas Past. As the spirit says to Scrooge, ‘‘These (the scenes they observe) are but shadows of the things that have been…They have no consciousness of us’’ (Dickens 48). It is no coincidence that Dickens chooses as his preface, ‘‘I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea’’, for the main concept of the novel is redemption after erring. Like Dickens’s characters, Georges and Holm can visit living people without being noticed. However, while Dickens portrays Scrooge’s childhood and youth, Georges focuses on Holm’s wickedness towards his family and Sister Edith. One legendary flashback, which even influenced Stanley Kubrick, is Holm’s destruction of a door with an axe in order to avoid his family abandoning him.

Nevertheless, Sjöström’s film does not develop Holm’s brother personal story as the original novel does. The audience learn of his brother’s incarceration for murdering a man while inebriated. Holm is blamed for his relative’s addiction and behaviour, and he attempts to change his lifestyle after being in prison himself for a summary offence. Lagerlöf’s tale depicts how George (in the novel his name has no ‘‘s’’) and David visit the latter’s brother who is also dying of consumption. George recalls with the convict how the latter escaped from prison and a family hid him from the police and the rest of the citizens. The family had a sick child, Bernard, who the doctors said could only recover with sea-bathing, which entailed a long journey, plus expenses for the bed and board. In the end, David changes his attitude towards his family, whom he saves, Edith and his brother: 

‘‘He had fulfilled the first duty imposed on him by the events of the night; it now remained to him to succour the boy whom his brother had loved. He must show such people as Sister Mary that Edith was not wrong in bestowing on him her love; he had to raise his own home from his ruins, he must carry to mankind the driver’s greeting’’ (Lagerlöf 189). 

While David beholds his past and studies the consequences his actions can have in the present, Georges’ appearance echoes Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come: ‘‘It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one stretched hand’’ (Dickens 121). 
Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Original illustration by John Leech(1843)

The ghosts guide the protagonists to see themselves in another moment of their lives. These creates the Freudian concept of ‘‘the uncanny’’, that is, ‘‘that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar’’ (Freud 1-2). Therefore, both Scrooge and Holm are puzzled as they observe their past beings, since they recognise themselves in those ‘‘shadows’’, yet they are different. 

Interestingly, Freud and Dickens employ German Romantic author E.T.A Hoffmann in their texts; Freud explains ‘‘The Sandman’’ (1816) to illustrate his definition of ‘‘the uncanny’’, while Dickens introduces the fantasy of his tale with Marley’s face on Scrooge’s door knocker. This echoes Hoffmann’s ‘‘The Golden Pot’’(1814), in which the protagonist Anselmus distinguishes the face of the apple-monger/witch before him at the Archivist’s doorknob at the beginning of the narrative.

''The Door Knocker: Marley's Face'' by John Leech

In fact, doors are vital in the pieces of fiction here considered. Paul K. Saint-Amour explains how Dickens’s tale is ‘‘obsessed with thresholds, be they doors or doornails or doorknockers or doorsteps, invitations or arrivals or entrances or visitations. If the Carol is a friendly ghost, it also claims to be friendly to guests, setting itself up as a textual house whose walls, no less than its doors, were made for walking through’’ (94). 

Similarly, doors are significant in Lagerlöf and Sjöström’s pieces. In their excellent audiovisual essay, John Gibbs and Douglas Pye emphasise the employment of doors in The Phantom Carriage: they study the significance of ‘‘the thresholds and the liminal spaces’’ which represent doors that ‘‘physically, psychologically and spiritually block the characters’’ (Minute 6:55-7:03 of the second video). They give examples of different scenes in which doors isolate the characters, such as in the already seen moment of the axe, or the opposite, moments when doors are open as new life chances begin. The role of Sister Edith as a host when she opens the door to David is highlighted. In Lagerlöf’s novel, she is able to describe Georges when he is in her room before she dies: ‘‘She opened her eyes and examined the room with the closest scrutiny. Then, by dint of great pains, she discovered that ‘‘something’’ was standing by the door-not so visible as a shadow, but what she called the shadow of a shadow’’ (Lagerlöf 106). The blurring of dimensions is present here, since Edith employs the term ‘‘shadow’’ to define the ghost, resembling Dickens’s spirits utilisation of the word to refer to moments of the living characters. 

Lagerlöf’s use of thresholds is additionally linked to the author’s theosophical ideas, since the plot of her novel illustrates several concepts the occultist movement mainly established by the Russian Helena Blavatsky employed. The last section of the blog post will scrutinise how some ideas of this tradition emerge in the narrative and the film.

Theosophy in The Phantom Carriage:

Erland Lagerroth explains how ‘‘the concept of evolution becomes extended to the metaphysical when David Holm’s journeying is extended to the world beyond’’ (23). He states that ‘‘Selma Lagerlöf’s dependency upon occult doctrines in the depiction of the world beyond is put in the foreground by means of a panorama of the Theosophical spiritistic literature that she had studied and through a demonstration of what she adopted from it’’ (23). Lagerlöf underlined her interests in a letter to a friend:

‘‘I am sure I would have become a theosophist or spiritualist a long time ago, if I had had any experiences or acquaintanceship with Higher Worlds, but the only thing I have experienced with complete certainty is the poetic intuition which has fallen upon me with such power and strength that I simply dare not believe that it came from within myself’’ (Fehrman 133).
Lagerlöf was aware of the ideas of the unconscious and subconscious, and she perceived the creative process of her writing as a source of inspiration. For her narratives, she included the abovementioned erudition of folklore, besides her spiritual beliefs.

In Theosophy, ‘‘elements have been drawn from all sorts of sources: magic, gnosticism, masonry, mystery, religions, philosophical schools, scientific works, and various historical religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism’’ (Woodburne 637). One of the main ideas Lagerlöf depicts is the division between body and soul. Sjöström illustrates that detachment when David Holm is hit on his head and collapses:

David is able to see the Death’s driver once he faints. This fact emphasises the importance of the soul over the body in the theosophical doctrine. While Christianity accentuates the flesh, and that is why Christ’s followers eat His flesh during the Eucharist, ‘‘Gnosticism is quite different; it rejects the flesh and considers the material plane to be realm of the unreal, not unlike Plato’s view of the world as expressed in his ‘‘Allegory of the Caves’’(380)’’ ( Guffey 174).  In this myth, human beings and their material interests are equalled to shadows on the cave’s wall. The real world is outside the cavern. Therefore, the term ‘‘shadow’’ is repeated in this legend, and the body is but a cage to the true knowledge the individual has to learn. When George shouts to David  ‘‘Prisoner, return to your prison!’’ (Lagerlöf 181) at the end of the novel, he is demanding the latter to go back to his body. The body is a confinement, as David suspects: ‘‘David shuddered with fright. Human life seemed to him something suffocating and deadly. Would not the soul’s fresh development stop, if he became a mortal once more? All his happiness was awaiting him in another world!’’(Lagerlöf 180). When David accepts his wickedness and is ready to change, he feels lost: ‘‘I do not know where to turn. I do not even know whether to pray to God or to Christ. I am a newcomer in this world. Who is it that has the power?’’ (Lagerlöf 179). Consequently, when David does not receive and answer, the reader accepts that there is no Christian God which leads the fates of men, but that Death’s driver is the one to teach him how to correct his attitude.

Plato's Allegory of the Cave by Jan Saenredam, according to Cornelis van Haarlem,1604, Albertina, Vienna

The soul must be ready for this knowledge once it abandons its flesh though, as, for example, David is seen as having an infant soul, and he expects to achieve the Driver’s prayer: ‘‘O God! Vouchsafe that my soul may come to maturity ere it be reaped!’’(Lagerlöf 190). 

Robert Guffey clarifies how for the Theosophists, ‘‘Charles Darwin’s theory of the origin of the species- though hardly Theosophical in intent- offers sound advice to the unenlightened: evolve or die’’ (176). The transformation Holm undergoes until he redeems echoes this statement. The supernatural help he receives allows him a second opportunity. When a bottle of alcohol is slammed into his head, he must face his actions. It is no accident that he is hit by alcohol, for Theosophists, intoxicants damage the astral body. The influential member of the Theosophical Society Charles Webster Leadbeater expounds:

‘‘The malpractices which may more gradually injure this protective web are of two classes- use of alcohol or narcotic drugs, and the deliberate endeavour to throw open the doors which nature has kept closed… Certain drugs and drinks-notably alcohol and all the narcotics, including tobacco- contain matter which on breaking up volatizes, and some of it passes from the physical plane to the astral…’’ (Guffey 178).  

George Cruikshank, Alcohol, Death and the Devil, circa 1830.
Besides alcohol, tuberculosis is another key element in the development of Holm’s story. As mentioned before, Lagerlöf wrote her novel in order to educate readers about the disease. Gibbs and Pye explicate how ‘‘like doorways, David’s disease and accompanying cough have both naturalistic and metaphorical significances’’. As in the novel, coughing represents the ‘‘harm the characters do one to another’’. It is seen how out of seven scenes in which Holm coughs, six depict his psychological struggle between being a family man and his drunkard condition. Therefore, alcohol is related to disease. When David rejects the ‘‘social, spiritual and respectable’’, his illness emerges (Minutes 10:30-12:49 of the second video). His malice is most present as he coughs over his sleeping children trying to sicken them. In the novel, his wife protests: ‘‘That murderer! He won’t let me send them away; he means to stay at home for him to give them consumption, that they may die. In this way he has calculated to be revenged on me’’ (Lagerlöf 117-118). Even though in the silent film it can also be seen how David wants his vengeance after his wife escapes with their offspring, in Lagerlöf’s text he does not allow his children to be looked after in a hospital.

In conclusion, this blog post has analysed Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage, and it has compared it to the novel it is based on, Selma Lagerlöf’s Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! To do so, it has taken into account their folkloric sources, their similarities to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and, finally, their employment of Theosophical ideas. With its huge influence on other significant filmmakers, the film is frequently studied by scholars from different approaches. Whether one’s intention is to investigate its effect on other pieces of fiction or not, it is a magnificent motion picture to be watched at Christmas, especially on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day.

[i] For further reading, check out Larry W. Danielson’ ‘‘The Uses of Demonic Traditions in Selma Lagerlöf’s Gösta Berlings Saga’’


Guffey, Robert, ‘‘Here Among the Dead: The Phantom Carriage (1921) and the Cinema of the Occulted Taboo’’, chapter in Expressionism in the Cinema (ed. by Brill, Olaf) (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016)-via Google Books.

Danielson, Larry W. ‘‘The Uses of Demonic Folk Tradition in Selma Lagerlöf’s Gösta Berlings saga’’ , Western Folklore ,Vol. 34, No. 3 (Jul., 1975), pp. 187-199 (Accessed 10th December 2018)
Dickens, Charles, A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, ( First published in 1843) (Accessed 15th November 2018)
Evans Wentz, W.Y., The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1911)-via Google Books.
Fehrman, Carl Abraham Daniel, Poetic Creation: Inspiration or Craft (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980)- via Google Books
Freud, Sigmund, ‘‘The ‘‘Uncanny’’’’, (Accessed 10th December 2018)
Gibbs, John, and Pye, Douglas, ‘‘The Phantom Carriage: A Revaluation’’, (Accessed 20th November 2018)
Lagerlöf, Selma, Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!, (First Published in 1912) (Accessed 10th November 2018)
Lagerroth, Erland, ‘‘Selma Lagerlöf Research 1900-1964: A Survey and an Orientation’’, Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 37, No.1 (February 1965), pp. 1-30. (Accessed 20th November 2018)
Lagerroth, Ulla-Britta, ‘‘The Troll in Man- A Lagerlöf Motif’’, Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 40, No. 1 (February 1968), pp. 51-60 (Accessed 25th November 2018)
Le Braz, Anatole, La Légende de la Mort en Basse-Bretagne (Honoré Champion, Paris, 1893) (Accessed 1st December 2018), The translation is mine.
Miller, Andrew H., ‘‘The Spectres of Dicken’s Study’’, Narrative, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Oct. 1997), pp. 322-341. (Accessed 1st December 2018)
Oxford Reference, ‘‘Ankou’’, (Accessed 1st December 2018)
Ruffles, Tom, Ghosts Images: Cinema of the Afterlife (Jefferson: McFarland, 2004), page 50-via Google Books
Saint-Amour, Paul K., ‘‘‘‘Christmas Yet to Come’’: Hospitality , Futurity, the Carol, and ‘‘The Dead’’’’, Representations, Vol. 98, No. 1, (Spring 2007), pp. 93-117. (Accessed 1st December 2018)
Schwartz, Howard, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), page 467-via Google Books.
Sjöström, Victor, The Phantom Carriage, Svensk Filmindustri, 1921, (Accessed 10th November 2018)
Woodburne, A.S., ‘‘Review: A Study in Theosophy’’, The Journal of Religion, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Oct. 1931), pp. 637-640 (Accessed 9th December 2018)


The Door Knocker: Marley’s Face by John Leech:
Alcohol, Death and the Devil by George Cruikshank, c.1830

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