The Sleeping Hero of Kronborg Castle

Hans Christian Andersen wrote a short story about Holger Danske, the sleeping hero that passes the centuries in the dark cellars underneath Kronborg Slot (or castle) in the town of Helsingor, Denmark. In the story Andersen relates the legend that Holger Danske sleeps there until Denmark has need of him as a warrior of great might and reputation.  “and he. [the hero Holger Danske]… nodded in his dream, saying, “Ah, yes, remember me, you Danish people, keep me in your memory, I will come to you in the hour of need.”

Kronborg Castle is a lovely and powerful sight, sitting in kingly fashion on the extreme northeastern tip of the island of Zealand at the narrowest point of the Øresund, the sound between Denmark and Sweden. Cannons are ranged all about it, illustrating its defensive status and history, (although today they are used primarily to salute the Queen and such decorative practices). But it is also a castle of story, and was an inspiration for Shakespeare, becoming Elsinore in his immortal play “Hamlet”.

As I wandered the upper stories of Kronborg, soaking up the sights of rich tapestries, storied paintings, and other incredible treasures from past centuries, I was spellbound. A troupe of actors performed scenes from Hamlet throughout the day in different areas of the castle and its grounds, and interacted with the guests as if they were indeed residents of the castle when they were in-between acts. I could almost imagine myself in another time, which is one of the most wonderful experiences travel can bring. But I had yet to meet the sleeping giant, and that has come to be the defining moment for me during my Kronborg visit.

Below the castle, a guest can take many musty steps downwards and explore the rough, dark hallways and chambers that were once the haunt of soldiers, kitchen workers and wait staff. The stony walls are damp and the floor is so uneven that a visitor must take care during their exploration; more than once I pitied the thought of those who must have rushed through these passages downstairs to bring food and drink to those upstairs, trying to maintain balance and not break anything while using only torchlight to do so. Many corners were blacker than night, and there were few single visitors – many of them opted out of this experience, apparently. I did connect with a tour at one point, but the guide was giving a small lecture of the abuse of soldiers throughout the castle’s history – I moved on. One could easily get lost under Kronborg if care is not taken (or so it feels), and I stayed alert to the sounds of other people so I could orient myself.

And then I entered a silent chamber and encountered Holger Danske, the sleeping hero of the Danish people. He is a massive stone sculpture, and has been here in this spot under Kronborg Slot since 1907. The air surrounding him is so heavy and still it’s almost as though you can feel him breathing, slowly and surely, in no hurry, biding his time until he is needed. I imagined for a minute what it would feel like were those eyes to open, to glare about and were he to draw a giant cleansing breath and stand, stretching and readying himself to go to into battle, called from his slumber by the need of his people…but for now, he is quiet.

I  stepped lightly as I left his chamber. Sleep well, Holger Danske.




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