An Old Norse Punster
— There is scarce a class of humorists whose fortunes have been so fluctuating as those of the punster. We read that in the reign of the wise King James a happy play upon words often insured its author a rich living or even an episcopal see, whereas in our own times the perpetrator of a pun, however apt, is more in danger of being sent to Coventry. In the golden age of punsters referred to, the pun found its way into the very pulpit itsell, the gravest divines introducing this popular form of wit into their sermons. Nowadays, puns are occasionally allowed to pass unchallenged in a humorous story or poem, but their position is by no means fixed, and the tide of popular favor may in the next decade sweep away their last prop. We can well understand Dr. Johnson’s characterizing punning as “the lowest form of wit;” but all punsters, that is, the majority of mankind, must derive great comfort from the saying that “ none despise puns but those that cannot make them.” Every one with the least sense of humor must at times be struck by the resemblance between certain words, and, if he yield to the natural impulse to express it, the result is a pun, — in the vast majority of cases a poor pun.
But I am wandering from my purpose, which has to do not with punsters of our own day, but with a humorist of over nine hundred years ago. This worthy was named Egil the son of Skallagrim, and he lived in Norway and Iceland. He is famous in the history of the North for his powers as skald and warrior, and it is in the former capacity that he may be regarded also as a humorist. It is by no means paradoxical to state that extreme cruelty is often accompanied with a sense of humor ; grim, to be sure, and not provocative to laughter, but none the less genuine. While committing the most dreadful deed of violence, the Old Norse warrior often pauses to utter some savage jest, and in the midst of death and torture the sufferer’s lip curls with a scornful mot. Readers of Dasent’s Burnt Njal will recall Skarphedin’s fierce jest as he sees his father and mother and brother burning in the homestead, and similar instances might be culled in vast numbers from the sagas and poems of Iceland.
The quality of Old Norse poetry encouraged the use of puns. To the modern reader this poetry of the skalds seems characterized mainly by its extreme difficulty, caused by the employment of involved and often obscure circumlocutions. An Icelandic skald would have scorned to call a spade a spade. He would probably have delicately referred to it as the mighty sword that pierces the breast of Erda ; and so with every word whose meaning could in any way be distorted by the ingenuity of the poet. The resulting obscurity ought perhaps to recommend this ancient poetry to the disciples of some of our modern English poets. Since so much attention was paid to the use of figures, what more natural than that the pun, perhaps the simplest and most obvious of all figures, should also have been not infrequently employed ?
The examples that present themselves to our notice occur in the skaldic verses of the Egil’s Saga, a work which, though second only to the Njála, has not yet been translated into English. The first that we shall consider is strongly tinged with pathos. Let us try to picture the scene. Egil is now an old man. After enduring the hardships of war and freebooting, the excitement of the duel and the chase, he finds himself in his old age, blind and feeble, constrained to seek rest and comfort in the eld-hus by the hearth. Some one of the company warns him that if he is not careful he will burn himself, whereat the old skald breaks out into verse, — the saddest I think, in the poetry of the North ; not even the despair of The Loss of the Son touches a tenderer chord of human sympathy. The poet says : —
I lie alone;
A feeble earl
Away from the king.
Widows own I
But those wenches
Crave the warmth.”
It is in the fifth and sixth lines that the pun occurs. By the “two cold widows ” Egil means his heels. The Icelandic word for heel is hœll, which is also a poetical word for “widow.” The poet substitutes for this rare poetical word the ordinary one ekkjur, and carries out the pun in the following lines, “ But those wenches crave the warmth.” Taken all in all, it may be regarded as one of the most remarkable puns that have ever been made.
Egil did not, however, confine himself to puns upon words. He did not hesitate to tamper with personal names, an offense which at the present day is universally regarded as almost criminal, but was perhaps less heinous in Old Norse times. Names were then still in the process of change and formation. Egil’s own father was named Skallagrim, but he was “ sprinkled ” Grim. The first part of the name means “ bald,” and the epithet could not have been applied before he had reached manhood. Skallagrim’s father, again, was named Koeldulf (Evening Ulf), from his habit of sleeping in the evening. Being subject at any time to change, personal names could not have had the same sacredness that we attach to them. Immutability is essential to sacredness ; a tendency to change is apt to bring with it a lack of reverence. Since a man’s name could be changed or added to at will, what claim had it to any respect? If an insulting epithet were applied, the holm-gang1 could always wipe out the offense in blood. Otherwise, no offense was intended, none felt. The poet had added one more figure to his poem, — that was all.
The first pun of this kind that we shall consider is made on no less a personage than Athelstan, king of England, whose name is mentioned in several of the Icelandic sagas. Egil had spent part of his youth in England, and had met Athelstan there and lived with him for some time. In the last verse but one that Egil composed, the poet refers to his old patron as “ the lordly spear of Hamdir, the king.” To one ignorant of Old Norse legendary lore, the connection seems very vague indeed, but by a little research we find that Hamdir was one of the sons of Gudrun, and that he was furnished by his mother with an armor invulnerable against steel. Learning this, his opponent, Jormanrek, orders his men to hurl stones at Hamdir, who is thus slain. The idea contained in the myth is of course similar to that of Achilles’ heel. From this incident of mythology, a stone came to be called by poets “the spear of Hamdir,” and as the latter part of Athelstan’s name in Old Norse is steiññ, or " stone,” the appropriateness of the pun in this case becomes quite obvious. For athal, the first part of the compound, which means “ noble,” a synonymous adjective is employed, and the pun is complete.
In an earlier verse of the same poet we find another example, which shows that the habit was not the result of senility. The victim, who was a dear friend of Egil, by the way, is named Arinbjörn. The first part of the word, arin, means literally “ hearth,” for the poet substitutes " the resting-place of the eagle.” This is a poetical circumlocution for crag, rock, stone in general: here, a hearth-stone in particular. The latter part of the word means " bear,” but strangely enough the poet does not avail himself of this tempting opportunity to extend his pun. We are not told what Arinbjörn said on hearing this mutilation of his name, but if he found its elucidation as difficult as modern scholars do, his anger had time to cool.
In chapter eighty-two of the same saga we find the following. There was a man in the saga named Einar Tinkling-Scale, in whose honor Egil composed a verse, in which Einar is referred to, not as Tinkling-Scale, but as the trusty joy of scales. Here the offense is perhaps not so great, since it is merely the nickname that is changed. As the greatest freedom prevailed with regard to the giving of nicknames, the same freedom must have been allowed in their mutilation.
In this short article I have of necessity regarded Egil from only one side of his character. But that this old Northern skald was a true poet must be acknowledged by every one who has read The Loss of the Son, referred to above. This poem was composed by Egil on the death of his favorite son, who was drowned before reaching manhood. Those ignorant of Old Norse can enjoy its spirit and pathos in Professor Boyesen’s admirable translation, published four years ago in the Christian Union. We must not, however, judge Egil by our own standards of taste, and in considering his involved figures we must remember that they were in perfect keeping with the taste of the time and country in which the poet wrote. It is sincerely to be hoped that the pun will never regain the power it held among our great-grand parents’ grandparents ; but in measuring this sin among their others, we may credit the account, as historians are always bidding us, with “the age in which they lived.” When cracking skulls was an ordinary occupation, cracking such jokes as the above was more harmless and less reprehensible than it is now.
- The duel, or “island-going;” so called from the custom of holding such meetings on an island, or holm.↩