The Northern Way

Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer


ion, (1) though Snorri's Edda (1222) and Volsunga Saga swept their subject-matter into the current of the splendid Icelandic prose-development. Iceland, during the thirteenth century, produced more than 100 translations of popular romance-stories of Troy, of Karlamagnus and his Champions, of Tristram and Iseult, of the Breton legend-cycles. No narrow intellect presided over the making of Hauksbók, an omnibus volume assembled by Hauk Erlandsson during the fourteenth century. Together with three of the shorter sagas, it contains Volúspá; Christni Saga; the History of the Cross and the Destruction of Jerusalem; Extracts from Augustine; the Spaeings of Merlin; Lucidarium, a handbook of science; and Algorismus, an arithmetical treatise of Hauk's own composition. What applies to Iceland, applies, in its degree, to the Faroës. (2) As they had had their Vikings, so they had their commerce, their foreign settlers, and family ties. The Hanseatic League had an outpost in Suðeroy. Danish ships bound to Greenland called, not only there, but at Vaag in the Northern isles. Thirteenth-century marriage-contracts between Faroëse and Norwegians are preserved among the archives at Oslo. The names of certain 'booths' and 'tofts' testify to the existence of at least one early Icelandic settlement; and, as is to be expected, frequent mention of Iceland occurs in Faroëse ballads: (3)

1. Vigfússon and Powell, C.P.B., Vol. I, Intro., p. xviii.

2. Knut Siestol, 'Norske Trollvisor' (Oslo, 1915), pp. 226 ff.

3. In Siestol's opinion, these words are usually a mere formula. He considers the main influence in Faroëse ballad-work to be Norwegian.


" Here is a tale from Iceland come,
Written in book so broad " -

or, even more minutely:

" A tale is come from Iceland,
That tale your minstrel took;
Have ye heard tell of that mighty king
Is written of in a book? " -

'book,' of course, meaning skinnbók or parchment. An elusive tradition tells of one particularly splendid skinnbók, brought to Suðeroy by an Icelandic vessel, a parchment so bulky that it formed a sufficient load for one side of a pack-horse; but neither this nor any other exists at the present day.

Despite this natural relation with Iceland, however, the cosmopolitan nature of these early sea-borne influences is attested by the fact that the Faroëse Sigurd ballad-cycle smacks less, on the whole, of the Eddic tradition 'than of the German, (1) though its tone and atmosphere remain unmistakably Norse. The extraordinary vigour of Faroëse ballad-development owes, in any case, nothing to the example of the neighbouring island, whose genius passed on from the Lay to the Saga, and, comparatively speaking, barely con- cerned itself with the ballad. The Rímur, versifications of prose Chronicles, with elaborate metrical effects, belong to a different category. They are feeble in

1In the opinion of W. C. Grimm, the Nibelungenlied and German Dietrich-ballads may have reached Denmark via Jutland, whence they could easily pass on to the Faroes. 'Alt-dänische Heldenlieder, Balladen, und Romanzen'(Heidelberg, 1811), pp. 429 ff.


narrative, where the ballad is strong, and abound in a rhetoric of which the latter knows nothing.

The ballad, that hardy wild-flower of Parnassus, burst out in the medieval spring-time of practically every country in Europe. Wedded to the dance as its name implies, it sprang from the same root as the ancient Germanic sword-dances, and the world-wide myth-dancing of religious solemnity. To medieval , Iceland the word 'dance' was synonymous with 'song' -though, oddly enough, no mention of the ballad-dance occurs in the Sagas. The original form of dance-song, a simple lyrical stanza, united itself with the newly-fashioned narrative-poem about the beginning of the thirteenth century; (1) which lyrical stanza, in many instances, was retained as an opening verse introducing the story, and was broken up to serve as Burden. A leader, male or female, sang the narrative proper; the Burden was 'borne up' by the rest of the dancers. The leader might dance singly, with silver goblet or rose in hand, before a procession or chain of couples; or, which was more usual, he might form part of the circle, holding hands and 'dancing the round.' Details of the various procedures are thrown, up in vivid pictures by the ballads themselves.

This pastime, in the inexplicable manner of all new fashions, took Europe by storm. All Scandinavia danced wherever it was gathered together, indoors and outdoors, in season and out of season. The knight danced in the castle-garth, the peasant under the greenwood-tree; while the village churchyard formed an al fresco ballroom, not only common to all, but protected by hallowed association against the Elves, who

1. A. Olrik, 'Danske Folkeviser i Udvalg' (Copenhagen, 4th ed., 1918), Vol. I, pp. 9 ff.


also were addicted to dancing, only too alluringly. For this reason, amongst others, the dance was denounced by contemporary kill-joys, from Saxo Grammaticus, contemptuous of such undignified 'mountebank antics,' to the priesthood who bore in mind the magic rituals of none-too-distant heathen times. (1) Ballad-dancing in the churchyard during the Vigil was considered no fit preparation for the early Mass of the greater Festivals. The first record, indeed, of the Danish ballad occurs (1170) in the reprimand addressed by the Warrior-Bishop Absalon, to the merry monks i of Eskilsö (Soelland), whose inordinate dancing was rendered still more scandalous by the presence of feminine partners. On the Feast of St John, 1425, an Interdict was pronounced by the Copenhagen clergy against all who took part in this 'heathen diversion.' It is assuredly a pretty touch of historical irony that the only contemporary picture of a Danish ballad-dance should be preserved in a church-that of Orslev, Soelland, where a fresco of six knights and three ladies dancing the round flaunts its frivolity on the very walls of the chancel. (2)

No definite date can be assigned to the Faroëse Sigurd-ballads; but, judged by the whole style of their workmanship, as by the safe critical rule that the more trivial the contents, the later the ballad, it is obvious

1. Even as late as the end of the eleventh century, travellers; in Denmark were amazed at its pagan atmosphere, and the prevalence of Viking customs. A. Olrik, 'Nordisk Aandsliv' (Copenhagen, 1927), p. 131; also G. Schütte, 'Hendenskab i Danmark' (Copenhagen, 1885).

2. For similar frescoes in Austria see J. C. H. R. Steenstrup, 'Vore Folkeviser i Middelalderen' (Copenhagen, 1891), p. 13. These pictures give some indication of the action which added a dramatic element to the dance.


that the three principal ballads, Regin, Brynhild, and Högni, belong to the finest period; though the fact that this lasted in Denmark approximately from 1250-1350, (1) can hardly be taken as a rule for the Faroës. That there, as elsewhere, the medieval ballad, properly so-called, had its culminating period, its decline, and its fall, can be seen by comparison between the three principal Sigurd-ballads, and those which follow; but the dates of those periods, the circumstances considered, need not have synchronized with those obtaining in Denmark. The Faroës were exempt from the changing conditions which caused the Danish ballad-dance to flourish and decline with the Middle Ages themselves. Times changed in Denmark, and manners with them. The democratic assemblage in the Great Hall was broken up by the introduction of separate sitting-rooms. New dances, (2) new literary fashions, such as the French pastoral, absorbed the attention of the gentry; and though the Danish peasant, notably in Jutland, long remained faithful to the ballad, it became a mere song or recitation divorced from the dance. Only in the Faroës, still wild, still hard of access, have the ballad-dance as a national pastime, and the ballad as the main channel of literary expression, survived from their birth till the present day.

The influences tending to produce this conservatism have not been entirely of a geographical nature.

1. Steenstrup, op. cit., pp. 315 ff. As Steenstrup was the first to point out, Svend Grundtvig greatly exaggerated the antiquity of the Danish ballads, especially of those he classed as Magical and Legendary. See E. von der Recke, 'Danmarks Fornviser' (Copenhagen, 1927), Vol. I, Intro., pp. xi ff.

2. Johann Adolphi (Nocorus), in 'Chronik des Landes Dittmarschen' (1598), mentions the new dances, which that remote district adopted more slowly than the rest of the world.


Exploited during the sixteenth century (as they bitterly complained) by a series of adventurers, to whom they were 'loaned,' or pledged, the Islands were subjected in 1709 to the Danish trading monopoly. (1) Till its abolition in 1856, they were more completely iso- lated from the world than during the Viking Period. The Danes, nevertheless, are Scandinavians; a Faroëse looks on a Dane much as an old-fashioned Lowland Scot looks on a Londoner, and the rivalry between the two languages bears no resemblance to that, say, between English and Gaelic-it is rather, roughly speaking, that between standard English and the language of Robert Burns. Although Danish words and locutions crept into the native ballads; though the dancing of Danish ballads became popular among the Northern isles, the result of such adulteration is, to a foreign observer, not readily perceptible. Despite Danish influence, the Faroëse remain proudly and consciously Norse; Faroëse life, Faroëse character, have changed little since the beginning. Fishermen, fowlers, and crofters wring out their living amid conditions as hard and perilous as any on the face of the earth. Everyday existence-even apart from such outstanding events as shipwrecks and whale-hunts-is of the; stuff whence ballads can be made, and are made continually. Feats of special daring find fame through the ballad; the fishermen have their Trawleravísa; while unpopular persons are still satirized by means of the Taatter (Smoedevise) or 'Shame-ballad,' complete with dance, in which the victim is forced to take part, if his neighbours can manage it.

1. V. U. Hammershaimb, 'Faeröiske Antologi' (Copenhagen, 1886), Intro., pp. xiv ff.

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