The Northern Way

Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer


An evening spent by the central hearth in the aptly-named 'smoke-room,' or parlour, of a Faroëse farmstead is an evening spent in the Hall of the Viking Age. The Faroëse mind, naturally strong, nurtured on traditional culture, is still almost unspoilt by the modem deluge of reading-material. The Faroëse language lends itself to vivid poetic expression. When for weeks, or even months together, the furious winter gales, added to winter darkness, make outdoor occupation impossible, the Islanders would fare badly did not their vigorous minds and hardy bodies find exercise in the threefold activity provided by the national pastime.

Ballad-dancing is, then, in no sense an artificial survival; it is a satisfying form of artistic expression, for wliich modern times have provided no adequate substitute; nor is it, by any manner of means, a mere child- like, irreflective activity. (1) The Islanders, till the nineteenth century, were practically unacquainted with musical instruments; dance, air, and narrative form an inseparable whole, susceptible of varied and intelligent dramatic modulation. Since the work is divided in the old way between leader and chorus, the performance of such a work as the Sigurd-cycIe forms no mean test of the narrator's ability-and where audience and performers alike are all critics and connoisseurs, there is stimulus and to spare for artistic ambition. Certain ballads are the monopoly of certain hamlets, or certain families; and their performance is an event, since they are seldom brought á gólvi (on the

1. V. U. Hammershaimb, op. cit., Intro., pp. xlii ff. J. Patursson, 'Kvoeðabók' (Bind III, Tórshavn, 1923), pp. 97 ff.


floor) twice in one season. (1) (Modern enterprise in producing popular ballad-anthologies causes some heart-burning amongst those who see their jealously-guarded treasures become common property.) There are subtle differences in technique, and different schools of interpretation; and the fame of a gifted singer does not end with his lifetime.

Travellers in search, presumably, of the spectacular, have called it monotonous, even dismal; but I can testify from personal experience to the extreme fascination of the Faroëse ballad-dance. Its monotony is that of the winds and the waves, its sadness that inherent in the unending folk-tune, (2) in 'old, unhappy, far-off things,' in the waste-mark and the wild cliffs, and the white nights of a Far Northern summer. The setting of the dance I had the privilege of joining was the fairy-tale town of Tórshavn, with its wooden houses, its 'staircase lanes,' and its turf roofs bearing crops of hay and wild-flowers-a Hans Andersen town, placed among reefs and fells which belong to the Saga. The circle 'broke' to admit new dancers, and curved into strange forms as it wound in and out, shifting and adapting itself to the groups of spectators. Ships' lanterns glimmered in the haven; sea-gulls skirted round the walls of the dancing-room. In the intervals we heard the roar of the sea which brought us our ballad, of Roland's last fight at Roncesvalles,

1. The regular season lasts from December 26th till Shrove Tuesday; but there is a good deal of outdoor dancing during the summer, on St John's Eve, St Olaf's Wake (July 29th), and various local anniversaries; not to mention such occasions as wedding-feasts and other social gatherings.

2. On the musical question see H. Thurèn, 'Dans og Kvaddigtning paa Færöerne' (Copenhagen, 1901), and 'Folkesangen paa Færöerne' (Copenhagen, 1902). The latter contains a full collection of tunes.


an echo of Southern chivalry under the Northern moon. 'Time?' said an Icelander to me-an Icelander who wished to get home-'there's no time in the Faroës!' He was not referring to the dance, but he spoke more truly than he knew. To yield to its cumulative spell is to wake the spell of the past still living at the roots of the nerves, and muttering like a water- kelpie in the tides of the blood.

These special conditions in the Islands naturally gave rise to a specialized product. Brevity in a ballad is no recommendation. (1) A true Faroëse ballad is as long as a winter night, revels in perilous sea-faring and prolonged battles, and piles up the numbers of the slain. Inspiration has always been at hand in that legendary past, so soon worked out in Denmark, so tenaciously alive in Iceland and the Faroës. Add to this the influence of the clergy and other 'lettered' men, who, unlike their kind elsewhere, shared the common enthusiasm, and a fruitful soil is prepared for works of a larger scope and deeper content than the majority of ballads. Though the ballad, like the epic, is a narrative poem; though it may have origi- nated among the knightly circles with whose doings it is chiefly concerned; (2) its outlook in matters worldly and other-worldly, is usually that of the plain man; and this distinction between ballad and epic is inherent in the very metre of ballads. Loftiness of utterance belongs to the hexameter, and the battle-axe swing of the Fornyrðislag (3) -but the great truths of the world cannot be uttered in 'eight and six,' nor even in 'eight and eight.' A reflection like that of Robin Hood:

1. F. Patersson, 'Kvoeðabók,' III Bind (Tórshavn, 1923), pp. 99 ff.

2. E. von der Recke, op. cit., Vol. I, Intro., p. viii.

3. Ancient (Norse) narrative metre.


" I think it was never man's destinie
To die before his day, "

represents the average ballad's highest flight of philosophy. Character is expressed only through action. Motives, if not obvious, are left in obscurity. The towering peaks of the Spirit are veiled; we have descended to the flowery foot-hills, the many-coloured world of the Soul. The power of the great Volsung story, as of the Faroëse genius, appears, in that the three principal Sigurd ballads retain a profound sense of the terrific clash of human wills, of human personalities, at root of the drama; while such a verse as:

" Long hath it lain in my bosom,
The thread that the Norns entwine;
Sigurd, son of Sigmund,
I have loved through winters nine, "

points back to the cosmic vision, the majesty of the Heroic Age, when men still walked with the gods, and saw their hands at work on the interweavings of destiny. The Sigurd ballads, besides, are no mere reflection, no cunning patchwork, from other sources. They abound in original touches, due either to the poet's own imagination, or to age-old local tradition. When the legends reached the Faroes, and in what precise form, cannot be determined. Long memories belong to secluded communities, and variants forgotten else- where may well have been preserved ill the Islands. (1)

1. V. U. Hammershaimb, 'Færöiske Kvoeðer' (Nordisk Lit. Samfund, Copenhagen, 1851), Intro., pp. ii ff. J. Patersson, op. cit., pp. 124 ff.


Though we say for the sake of convenience that here the poet follows Volsunga Saga, and there follows Vilkina, we have not the slightest evidence that he was acquainted either with the one or the other; he is as likely to have followed an independent stream of tradition.

In any case, we have in the Sigurd ballad-cycle not. the least beautiful version of a story which ranks among the great stories of all time. Best-beloved in its own land, it is chief among ballads most frequendy brought á gólvi, and quotations from its verses are continually on the lips of the people. But for the ballads of Regin, Brynhild, and Högni, containing the story proper, we should be ignorant of the heights the ballad-form can attain in sustained dramatic narration; (1) while the lesser and later ballads illustrate the dissolution of all greatlegend into folk-song and fairy-tale. They too, their ancestry considered, have their worth and their interest; they are embers of the Waver-Lowe not yet to be extinguished; " for Sigurd's fame is spoken in all tongues northward of Greekland's Sea; and thus must it be so long as the world endures. "


A copy of five Faroëse Ballads, now forgotten, was possessed by Ole Worm in 1639; but the first Dane to pay them serious attention was Jens Kristian

1. The best that Denmark could do in that line is the Long Ballad of Marsk Stig, which weaves together a series of short ballads on the King-slaying in Finderup. There is nothing analagous in English, except-at a vast distance-the Lyttel Geste of Robin Hood.


Svabo who visited the Isles in 1781-82, and collected 52 examples. His MS.,purchased by the Crown Prince, lies in the Royal Library, Copenhagen. Like Bishop Percy of the 'Reliques,' Svabo made apologies for his singular tastes; but he had a finer critical sense than Percy, and a more genuine appreciation of his 'rude remains of Antiquity.' Disappointed with his career in the Danish Civil Service, he retired eventually to the Faroës, and went on collecting Ballads till his death in 1829. This collection has never been published.

Svabo passed on his enthusiasm to others, such as J. Klementsen (Sandoyjar Bók), Hans Hansen (Fugloyjar Bók), N. Nölso, and J. H. Schröter. Above all, he infected Pastor H. C. Lyngby, who spent two months in the Isles collecting sea-weed for scientific purposes, and made Svabo's personal acquaintance. Since Lyngby knew neither Icelandic nor Faroëse, his transcriptions were necessarily faulty to a degree; nevertheless his 'Færoiske Qvæðer om Sjurð Fovnisbane og hans Æt,' published at Randers, 1822, brought the Ballads at last before the notice of the world.

Then came V. U. Hammershaimb, himself a Faroëse, who republished the Sigurd-cycle with necessary corrections in 1851; 'Faroiske Kvæði' in 1855, and 'Færoiske Antologi, with Glossary' in 1891.

Finally S. Grundtvig did for the Isles what he had done for Denmark. His Collection (finished after his death by J. Bloch) contains 234 Ballads, with every known variant, fills sixteen large MS. volumes, and still reposes, awaiting a publisher, in the Royal Library, Copenhagen. The recension used in this present translation belongs to an admirable modern popular series, pub-


lished at Tórshavn under the auspices of the Föroya Lögting, and ably edited by Jóannes Patursson.

The principal printed anthologies of Danish Ballads are those of Anders Sorensen Vedel, 'Queen Sofie's Ballad Book,' and 'One Hundred Danish Ballads' (1591); 'Tragica or Love Ballads' (1657); Peder Syv's Collection, mainly from Broadsheets (1695); 'Danish Ballads from the Middle Ages,' Abrahamson, Nyerup, and Rahbek (1812); and S. Grundtvig's 'Denmark's Ancient Ballads' (Danmarks Gamle Folkeviser, alluded to as Dg F) published in 1853.

Axel Olrik's 'Selected Danish Folk -Ballads' (Danske Folkeviser i Udvalg) is the most useful anthology for general reading. My translation (1) of the first volume was published by the Cambridge University Press, 1920.


The Stigingarstev, used for serious Ballads:

1. Left foot onward.

2. Right foot up to left.

3. Repeat both steps.

4. Right to side or back.

5. Left back to right.

The Trokingarstev (Tripping Step) for livelier work, is confined to the Southern islands. The dancers sometimes stand in two rows, men facing women, sometimes dance the round, moving one way during the narrative verse (örindi), and reversing the movement during the Burden. The peasants of Little Russia have


a similar dance, which first moves withershins (west to east), then averts the ill omen by reversing. There are also Bandadansur, with ribbons, and a variety of singing games.

For the music, which I am unqualified to discuss, consult the exhaustive studies by Hjalmar Thuren. The airs are mostly genuine folk-tunes, with those endings on leading note or super-tonic which facilitate endless repetition. Traces are found of the pentatonic scale, though to a lesser degree than in Hebridean folk-music. The Faroëse has been largely influenced by the Gregorian mode, and ecclesiastical plain-song in general.


GRANE bore the golden hoard,
Wroth did Sigurd swing his sword,
There he slew the Dragon grim,
Wroth did Sigurd swing his sword.

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