"The Rider on the White Horse" begins as a ghost story. A traveler along the coast of the North Sea is caught in dangerously rough weather. Offshore he glimpses a spectral rider rising and plunging in the wind and rain. Taking shelter at an inn, the traveler mentions the apparition, and the local schoolmaster volunteers a story.
The story is both simple and subtle, and its peculiar power is to surprise us slowly. It is a story of determination, of a young man, Hauke Haien, living in a remote community (Storm depicts the village with the luminous precision of a Vermeer), who is out to make a name for himself and to remake his world. It is a story of devotion and disappointment, of pettiness and superstition, of spiritual pride and ultimate desolation, and of the beauty and indifference of the natural world. It is a story that opens up in the end to uncover the foundation of savagery on which human society rests.
Theodor Storm's great novella, which will remind readers of the work of Thomas Hardy, is one of the supreme masterpieces of German literature. It is here limpidly translated by the American poet James Wright, along with seven other shorter works, including the lyrical love story "Immensee."