Popular Tales From the Norse

By GEOKGE WEBBE DASENT, D. C. L. With an Introductory Essay on the Origin and Diffusion of Popular Tales. New York: D. Appleton & Co. 12mo. pp. lxix., 379.

THE tales of which this volume presents the first English translation — though, as regards some of them, hardly the first English version — appear to have been collected about twenty or twenty-five years ago. Two gentlemen, Messrs. Asbjõrnsen and Moe, (the name of the first of whom begets much confidence in his ability for the task,) went out among the most unlettered and rudest of the common folk of Norway and Sweden, and there, from the lips of old women and little children, gathered these stories of the antique time. Of what age the stories are, nobody knows,— those who listened to them in their childhood, to relate them in turn in their declining years, least perhaps of all. For they are a part of the inheritance common to all the races that have sprung from the Asiatic ancestor, who, at periods the nearest of which is far beyond the ken of history, and at intervals'of'centuries, sent off descendants to find a resting-place in Europe; and it is one great object, if not the principal object, of the original collectors and the translator of these talcs to exhibit in them a bond of union among all European peoples.

Indeed, the tales in their present form may he regarded as examples in point appended to the translator’s Essay which opens the volume. For they will add little to our stock of available stories, for either youthful or adult reading. The best of them already are a part of our nursery lore, and are known to the English race under forms better adapted to English taste and sympathies than those under which they are here presented ; and nearly all of those that are exceptions to this remark are unfitted for “home consumption," either by the objectionable nature of their subjects, by the still more objectionable tendency of their teaching, or by a yet more fatal demerit,— their lack of interest. They are in some respects notably tame and puerile,—with a puerility which is not childish simplicity, but a lack of inventive fancy, and which exhibits itself in bald repetition. The giant, for instance, always complains of a smell of Christian blood, and is always answered by the formula, that a crow flew over the chimney and must have dropped a bone down it; the hero almost always meets three old women, or three Trolls, or three enchanted beasts or birds, of whom he in that case always asks the same questions, receiving the same replies, VERBATIM. There is a reason for this sameness, which is indicative of the rude condition of the people among whom the tales have been perpetuated ; but the sameness palls none the less upon more cultivated minds. Mr. Dasent characterizes these people as “ an honest and manly race,— not the race of the towns and cities, but of the dales and fells, free and unsubdued, holding its own in a country where there are neither lords nor ladies, but simple men and women. Brave men and fair women,” etc. (p. Ixviii.) And he says of the tales, that in no other collection is “ the general tone so chaste, are the great principles of morality better worked out, and right and wrong kept so steadily in sight.” (p. lxii.) We cannot agree with him in this appreciation of the moral tone of the stories, many of which certainly speak ill for the honesty and manliness of the race among which they have been for centuries cherished household-treasures. For in a large proportion of those that have a successful hero, he obtains his success either by lying or some kind of deceit or treachery, by stealing, or by imposing upon the credulity or feebleness of age; and of those in which the hero is himself victorious over oppression, we are not able to recollect one which exhibits the beauty of moderation and magnanimity, not to say of Christian charity and forgiveness. Mr. Dasent mentions it as an admirable trait of the tales, that, “ in the midst of every difficulty and danger, arises that old Norse feeling of making the best of everything and keeping a good face to the foe.” Certainly the heroes of these tales do make the best of everything, but they are not at all scrupulous as to their way of making it; and they do also keep a good face to the foe, when (often by craft, theft, or violence) they have obtained some implement or other gift of supernatural power which places their opponents entirely at their mercy ami with no risk to themselves. But of a manful contest on equal terms, or of a victory obtained over tyraunous power by a union of patience, boldness, and honest skill, or even by undegrading stratagem, the collection affords no instance that we remember.

The story of Shortshanks may be taken as a fair, and even a favorable example of the tone of these Norse tales. Shortshanks and King Sturdy are twin brothers, who set out to seek their fortunes within a few minutes of their birth, driven thereto by a precocious perception of the res unyustœ domi. They part at two roads almost immediately, and the story follows the fortunes of .Shortshanks, the younger; for in these miniature romances the elder is, as usual, continually snubbed, and the younger is always the great man. Shortshanks hits not gone far before he meets “an old crook-backed hag,” who has only one eye; and he commences his career by gouging out or “ snapping up” the single comfort of this helpless creature. To get her eye back again, she gives Shortshanks a sword that wiil put a whole army to flight; and he, charmed with the result of his first manœuvre, puts it in practice successively upon two other decrepit, half-blind women, who, to get their eyes again, give him, one, a ship that can sail over fresh water and salt water and over high hills and deep dales, the other, the art how to brew a hundred lasts of malt at one strike. The ship takes him to the king’s palace, on arriving at which he puts his vessel in his pocket, when he summons his craft to his aid, and gets a place in the king’s kiteiien to carry wood and water for the maid. The king’s daughter has for some inscrutable reason been promised to three ogres, who come successively to fetch her ; and a certain Ritter Red professes to be man enough to rescue her, but on the approach of the first ogre proves to be a coward and climbs a tree. But Shortshanks slips off from his scullery; and having a weapon which can put a whole army to flight by a single stroke, he is very brave, and keeps a remarkably good face to the foe, giving him with his tongue as good as he sends, and, laughing the ogres’ clubs to scorn, cuts off the ogrous heads, (there are five on the first individual, ten on the second, and fifteen on the third,) and carries off much treasure from the ships in which his foes came to fetch their victim, Ritter Red descends. and takes the lungs and the tongues of the ogres, (though, as the latter were thirty in number and of gigantic size, he must have had trouble in carrying them,) and wishes to pass them off as evidence that he is the deliverer of the princess, of which they would seem to have been very satisfactory proof: but the gold, silver, and diamonds carry the day ; Shortshanks has the princess and half the kingdom, and Ritter Red is thrown into a pit full of snakes,—on the French general’s principle, we suppose, who hung his cowards “ pour encourager les autres.” But the king has another daughter, whom an ogre has carried off to the bottom of the sea. Shortshanks discovers her while the ogre is out looking for a man who can brew a hundred lasts of malt at one strike. He finds the man at home, of course, and puts him to his task. Shortshanks gets the ogre and all his kith and kin to help the brew, and brews the wort so strong, that, on tasting it, they ail fall down dead, except one, an old woman, “ who lay bedridden in the chimney-corner,” and to her our hero carries his wort and kills her too. He then carries off the treasure of the ogres, and gives this princess and the other half of the kingdom to his brother Sturdy.

Now we have no particular fault to find with such stories as these, when they are produced as characteristic specimens of the folk-lore of a people; as such, they have a value beside their intrinsic interest;— but when we are asked to receive them as part of the evidence that that people is an honest and manly race, and as an acceptable addition to our stock of household tales, we demur. The truth is, that the very worth of these tales is to be found not only in the fact that they form a part of the stock from which our own are derived, but in the other fact that they represent that stock as it existed at an earlier and ruder stage of humanitarian development. They were told by savage mothers to savage children; and although some of them teach the few virtues common to barbarism and civilization, they are filled with the glorification of savage vice and crime; — deceit, theft, violence, even ruthless vengeance upon a cruel parent, are constantly practised by the characters which they hold up to favor. Such humor as they have, too, is of the coarsest kind, and is expressed chiefly in rude practical jokes, or the bloody overreaching of the poor thick-headed Trolls, who are the butts of the stories and the victims of their heroes. There is good ethnological and mythological reason why the Trolls should be butts and victims, it is true; but that is not to die present purpose.

But although this judgment must be passed upon the collection, considered merely as tales to be told and read at this stage of the world’s progress, there are several notable exceptions to it,—-tales which are based upon healthy instincts, and which appeal to sympathies that are never entirely undeveloped in the breasts of human beings above the grade of Bushmen, or in which the fun does not depend upon the exhibition of unexpected modes of inflicting death, pain, or discomfort. It is not, however, in these that we are to look for the chief attraction and compensating value of the collection. Those are to be found, as we have already hinted, in the relative aspects of the tales, which the general reader might consider for a long time fruitlessly, save for the help of Mr. Dasent’s Introductory Essay. Thisis at once an acute and learned commentary upon the tales themselves, and a thoroughly elaborated monograph upon mythology in its ethnological relations. We know no other essay upon this subject that is so comprehensive, so compact, so clear, and so well adapted to interest intelligent readers who have little previous knowledge on the subject, as Mr. Dasent’s, although, of necessity, it presents us with results, not processes. A perusal of this Essay will give the intelligent and attentive reader so just a general notion of the last results of philological and ethnological investigation into the history of the origin and progress of the Indo-European races, that he can listen with understanding to the conversation of men who have made that subject their special study, and appreciate, in a measure at least, the value of the many references to it which he meets in the course of his miscellaneous reading. And should he be led by the contagion of Mr. Dasent’s intelligent enthusiasm to desire a more intimate acquaintance with a topic which rarely fails to fascinate those whose tastes lead them to enter at all upon it, he may start from this Essay with hints as to the plan and purpose of his reading which will save him much otherwise blind and fruitless labor.

This, however, is not all. It is but right also to say that the readers whose religion is one of extreme orthodoxy, that is, who deem it their bounden duty to believe exactly and literally as somebody else believed before them,— such readers will find their orthodoxy often shocked by the tales which Mr. Dasent has translated, and yet oftener and more violently by conclusions which Mr. Dasent draws from a comparison of these stories with others that bear the same relation to other races which these do to the Norsemen. The man who believes that Hell is a particular part of the universe, filled with flames and melted brimstone, into which actual devils, with horns, hoofs, and tails, dip, or are to dip, wicked people, whom, for greater convenience, they have previously perforated with three-tined pitchforks,— such a man will be puzzled by the story, “ Why the Sea is Salt,” and horrified with this comment in Mr. Dasent's Essay: —

“ The North had its own notion on this point. Its mythology was not without its own dark powers; but though they, too, were ejected and dispossessed, they, according to that mythology, had rights of their own. To them belonged all the universe that had not been seized and reclaimed by the younger race of Odin and Æsir; and though this upstart dynasty, as the Frost-Giants in Æschylean phrase would have called it, well knew that Hel, one of this giant progeny, was fated to do them all mischief, and to outlive them, they took her and made her queen of Niflheim, and mistress over nine worlds. There, in a bitterly cold place, she received the souls of all who died of sickness or old age; care was her bed, hunger her dish, starvation her knife. Her walls were high and strong, and her boits and bars huge. * Half blue was her skin, and half the color of human flesh. A goddess easy to know, and in all things very stern and grim.’ But though severe, she was not an evil spirit. She only received those who died as no Norseman wished to die. For those who fell on the gory battle-field, or sank beneath the waves, Valhalla was prepared, and endless mirth and bliss with Odin. Those went to Hel who were rather unfortunate than wicked, who died before they could be killed. But when Christianity came in and ejected Odin and his crew of false divinities, declaring them to be lying gods and demons, then Hel fell with the rest,—but, fulfilling her fate, outlived them. From a person she became a place; and all the Northern nations, from the Goth to the Norseman, agreed in believing Hell to be the abode of the Devil and his wicked spirits, the place prepared from the beginning for the everlasting torments of the damned. One curious fact connected with this explanation of Hell’s origin will not escape the reader’s attention. The Christian notion of Hell is that of a place of heat; for in the East, whence Christianity came, heat is often an intolerable torment,— and cold, on the other hand, everything that is pleasant and delightful. But to the dweller in the North heat brings with it sensations of joy and comfort, and life without fire has a dreary outlook; so their Hel ruled in a cold region, over those who were cowards by implication, — while the mead-cup went round, and huge logs blazed and crackled, for the brave and beautiful who had dared to die on the field of battle. But under Christianity the extremes of heat and cold have met, and Hel, the cold, uncomfortable goddess, is now our Hell, where flames and fires abound, and where the devils abide in everlasting flame.”

Still more will orthodoxy be shocked by Mr. Dasent’s neglect to except Christianity from the conclusion, (no new one, it need hardly be said, to those who know anything of the subject,) that the mythologies or personal histories of all religions have been evolved tlie one from the other, or grafted the one upon the other,—and by his intimation, that Christianity, keeping pure in its spirit and undiverted from its purpose, has yet not hesitated to adapt its outward forms to the tough popular traditions which it found deeply rooted in the soil where it sought to grow, thus making itself “ all things to all men, that it might by ail means save some.”

It will be seen that this book is not milk for babes, but meat for strong men. Among the tales are some — and those, perhaps, the most interesting—which Mr. Dasent justly characterizes as “intensely heathen,” and yet in which the Saviour of the world or his apostles appear as interlocutors or actors, which alone unfits the volume for the book-table of the household room. We are led to insist upon this trait of the collection the more, because the translator’s choice of language often seems to be the result of a desire to adapt himself to very youthful readers,— though why should even they be led to believe that such phrases as the following are correct by seeing them in print?— “Tore it up like nothing” ; “ran away like anything ”; “it was no good ” [i.e. of no use]; “ in all my born days ” ; “after a bit ’’ [i.e. a little while]; “ she had to let him in, and when he was, he lay,” etc.; “the Giant got up cruelly early.” These, and others like them, are profusely scattered through the tales, apparently from the mistaken notion that they have some idiomatic force. They jar upon the ear of the reader who comes to them from Mr. Dasent’s admirably written Introductory Essay.

The book is one which we can heartily recommend to all who are interested in popular traditions for their own sake, or in their ethnological relations.