The Elder Edda and Ancient Scandinavian Drama
The Eddic Problem
“I did the worst to him I loved the most,” says Gudrun in Laxdale Saga, when her son presses her to tell him which of her lovers in long past days had been nearest to her heart.
Of all the generations of story-tellers who breathed life into the character of the Laxdale Gudrun, there was probably not one who could wholly dismiss from his mind the personality of a heroine more famous still, the Brynhild of the Edda poems. This must be our justification for using the tragic figure of Gudrun merely to point a contrast. Brynhild compasses Sigurd’s death, as Gudrun compasses Kjartan’s, and both are driven to the deed by like motives.
Jealousy works on them both, and fierce resentment, but, if we read the old stories aright, they are both swayed by a deeper motive. Neither Brynhild nor Gudrun can endure the consciousness of loving another man better than her own husband, and each breaks the tangled web of Fate in the same way. Lest they shouldst succumb to dishonour, the man who threatens their inmost peace must die. It is a situation of great dramatic interest, and both Edda-poet and Saga-man do justice to its psychological subtleties. But in how different a way they handle the subject! Although those who told the story of Gudrun have been so obviously stirred by the Brynhild poets, yet the conventions of their art have restrained them from all but the faintest approximation to the poets’ manner of presentment. Laxdale Saga adheres to the Saga tradition in spite of all temptation, and deals out speech to its characters with a sparing hand. And their brief utterances are used as much to veil their thoughts as to reveal. “Notable doings to-day” says Gudrun to her husband: “I have spun twelve ells of yarn, and thou hast killed Kjartan.” A pallor, which Bolli comments on, and those half-dozen words whispered to her son in her old age – that is all the self-revelation that the stern Saga tradition allows her, and we may well doubt whether she would have been granted even so much but for her epic prototype.
How different is the tradition of the Edda! Brynhild may express her very soul in words, if the poet’s skill can but reach so far. When the news of Sigurd’s death has been brought to her, she answers the reproaches of Gunnarr by a long account of the past, and openly dwells on her intention to die with Sigurd. But she has not done yet: she bids Gunnarr sit down while she tells him, at some length, of all the woes yet to befall his doomed house. Then for six more strophes she issues directions as to the double funeral. Nor does her tongue weary even after death: as she drives to Hel the objurgations of a giantess rouse her to another exposition of the events which drove her to act as she did. And she is not peculiar in this readiness to give expression to her thoughts. Her rival, the Eddic Gudrun, the Kriemhild of the Nibelungenlied, is even more eloquent, and other characters are well dowered with the gift of self-expression. It is evident that there is a great gulf fixed between the conventions of Edda and Saga.
In the literature of the North any diversity of form is all the more worthy of attention, since the early literature of other Teutonic countries shows such faint variations from a common type. The latter knows only one way of telling a story, as distinguished form the mere record of fact. It is a fine way, and has given us poems like Beowulf and the fragments of the Hildebrandslied. But in Northern literature we have the unique opportunity of seeing what is essentially the same story shaped by master hands into forms which are poles asunder in spirit and style. And the distinction is as clearly marked between the two types of literature, Edda-poem and Saga, as in the definite case we have been discussing. So all-important to the poet’s mind is the direct speech of his characters that many of the Eddic poems consist of nothing but speech; most of the mythological poems are in this pure speech-form, and so are the two older lays recounting the fates of the two Helgis, Helgi Hjörvarðsson and the Helgi Hundingsbane. The speech-poem is also found among the poems on the Volsung or Nibelungen cycle, though here it is not so prominent. The Prophecy of Grípir is a dialogue between Sigurd and his mother’s brother; Reginsmál is a series of speeches by various personages; Fáfnismál depicts, in dialogue form, Sigurd’s slaying of the dragon and his detection of Reginn’s treachery; Sigrdrífumál, the third part of this Sigurd trilogy, is a conversation between Sigurd and a valkyrie. The Hel-Ride of Brynhild is a dialogue, the Second Lay of Gudrun a monologue. In other poems of this cycle the narrative verses are usually few in number, and confine themselves to the briefest indication of the circumstances. Yet the poems are not mere lyrical outbursts: rather it seems as if the poet were unable or unwilling to depict events as they happen, and could only weave them into his verse through the mouth of one of his characters, as retrospective narrative or prophetic vision.
It is one of the more baffling literary phenomena of the North that a story received from the South in epic or ballad form* should thus lose its outline under the hands of Northern poets. For the wholly native Northern literature, the prose Saga, shows all the architectonic sense, all the restraint, all the spaciousness, all the due marshalling of subordinate matter, which distinguish the epic. Why then do the Northern poets shatter the mould in which they must have received the Nibelungen story? For there is no trace of a German or English treatment of the subject in speech-form. Both German and English poets use plenty of direct speech, but they show no tendency to shirk narrative, and they evince a real delight in describing battle-scenes and other moving incidents. This delight is shared by Northern skald (2) and Northern Saga-man, but it is most strangely absent in the Edda. The Lay of Helgi Hjörvarðsson leaves it to a scrap of prose to say: “There was a great fight and Helgi received a mortal wound there.” So in Fáfnismál only a prose “aside” tells us that “Sigurd hewed the head off Reginn.”
This exclusion of narrative verse in poems which are so full of incident is a very strange feature (3), and has been explained in various ways. Müllenhoff put forward a suggestion connecting the older dialogue poems (those on mythological subjects) with festival games, but his suggestion has so far proved sterile, and has recently been criticized as affording no explanation of the chief peculiarity of these poems, the presentment of action in direct speech.
Certain scholars have maintained that the dialogue form interspersed with explanatory fragments of prose is an early form not only of Teutonic but even of Aryan literature, and instance as a cognate example verse dialogues among the hymns of the Rig-Veda, in which the connecting links of narrative, it is supposed, were supplied in prose, now lost. But it has been objected (4) with great force that even granting the original existence of prose narratives in the hymns, these would still be constructed on a totally different principle from that adopted in the poems of the Edda. In the latter the narrative is not given in the prose “asides,” but is mirrored in the speeches of the protagonists (5); and the prose only serves to make plain what is not sufficiently clearly indicated in the diaglogue, as for instance in Fáfnismál: “Reginn had gone away while Sigurd was slaying Fáfnir, and came back as Sigurd was wiping the blood from his sword. Reginn said - ” and then follows the verse. Or in the mythological poem Skírnismál: “Then Skírnir rode home. Frey was standing without and greeted him and asked tidings.” In other places the prose only serves to link up two fragments, or to add some fact known to the collector; and in some cases it stands for forgotten verses. Thus it cannot always be considered an integral part of the poem, and the view which would trace a historical connection between these speech-poems and the Samvada hymns has been vigorously attacked by such scholars as Heusler and Sijmons.
The controversy, however, has not been without unfortunate results, for these scholars have contented themselves with demonstrating the non-essential character of the prose statements, and have accepted or merely amplified the current explanations put forward to account for the dialogue verse itself. Moreover they have tended to regard the secondary nature of the pure speech-poem, so that those who take the pure speech-poem seriously are thrown into the arms of what we may call the Rig-Veda school. Yet there is nothing impossible in the assumption that though the prose statements may be late, yet the speech-poems themselves may represent a primative form.
In the eyes of Heusler and Sijmons, however, and of a large majority of scholars, the speech-form is only a secondary phenomenon, due to a variety of causes of more or less accidental character. So far as the heroic poems are concerned, the tendency to omit narrative is apparently ascribed to what Professor Ker calls “the Norse intolerance of tame expression, and of everything unimpassioned and unemphatic (6).” The passion, the emphasis, are clear enough in many of the heroic poems. Even so there is something bewildering in learning that the poet so eagerly shuns tame expression that he depicts his fights and his slaying either in conversation or in singularly matter-of-fact prose. We can fancy an unregenerate critic objecting that if emphasis and compression were so dear to the authors of these poems, they would surely cut a good deal of the talk and come to the business. But even if we grant that their desire for passionate lyrical expression might explain their preference for direct speech in the heroic poems, we have not accounted for the mythological poems. We must beware of explaining the earlier by the later, and there is not doubt that the mythological poems are, as a whole, earlier than the heroic poems in their present form. It is not lyricism which has forced these mythological poems into the mould of direct speech, for hardly one is lyrical. As a whole they are neither lyrical, nor emphatic, nor passionate in their language; and so far as these qualities appear, they are more noticeable in the semi-narrative poems than in the dialogues and monologues. It may be said that some of them fall naturally into speech-form, because their intention is didactic, and that others take the same form because they belong to a type – that of the “flyting” or interchange of abuse – in which dialogue must necessarily play the main part. We may be allowed to observe in passing that didactic poems do not invariably assume a purely monologic or dialogic character, and that some trouble has been taken by the Edda poets to put into pure speech-form the framework of incident which is present in all of them. In other literatures even the “flyting” type of verse usually has at least a narrative opening: in the Edda the preliminaries and the sequel of the dispute are usually given at some length in dialogue. Be this as it may, we must note that we are now furnished with three explanations of the Eddic tendency towards the pure speech-poem. (I) In the heroic poems it is because of the Norse intolerance of everything tame and unimpassioned. In the mythological poems it is (II) because didactic verse is apt to fall into that form, and (III) because dialogue must necessarily form the main part of a “flyting”. We still need a fourth explanation for the pure speech-form of Skírnismál. So far as this fourth explanation is vouchsafed to us, it takes the form that as so many poems were (for more or less accidental reasons) already in dialogue, it was natural to choose that form even for an incident-poem such as Skírnismál, and presumably for the three or four other mythological incident-poems represented by the fragments (7). Our guides insist on the greater age of the semi-narrative incident-poem (there are three of them in the mythological part) but for some reason these models did not deter the authors of at least four more incident-poems from adapting the dialogue-form to their uses. We cannot judge of the fragments, but Skírnismál is composed with a skill which shows that the poem cannot possibly be the first to use dialogue to depict incident.
This fourth explanation must presumably also serve for at least two of the older poems in the second part of the Edda: Reginsmál and Fáfnismál. Both cumber their path with mythological irelevances, and neither can be said to show a tendency towards lyricism or passion or an over-emphatic style. Yet both use dialogue to mirror a series of events which would be more easily told in narrative form.
It is certainly difficult to accept the antiquity of the speech-poem-plus-prose merely or mainly on the ground of its supposed resemblance to a type of literature postulated but not proved for a remote period in India. On the other hand, if we accept the doctrine that the speech-poem is late and secondary, we are hard put to it to account for its prevalence in the Edda, unless we frankly declare what many scholars imply, that its use for unsuitable purposes was simply due to the wrongheadedness, or the original sin, of the Edda poets.
But this wrongheadedness influences the Edda poets even further than most scholars are willing to admit. We have not only to account for the obstinate use of the pure speech-poem, but for a much more disconcerting feature – the persistent tendency to represent events indirectly, through the speech of the characters, in poems which do contain narrative verses; and this although the events would be very much more telling if narrated directly by the poet. This characteristic is quite peculiar to the Eddic poems, and it deserves our consideration.
Firstly we must note the fact that there is a marked difference between the older and later speech-poems as regards presentation of the action. The older, mainly mythological speech-poems, the greater part of the two older Helgi lays (8), and the Sigurd trilogy (9) reflect the action as it occurs. They hardly ever allow a character to narrate past events, to say “I did this,” but always show him in the act of performance. Still less do they permit their characters to say “You did, or will do, this.” The action takes place as the characters speak. In the later speech-poems there is no present action to represent, for the poets depict a situation, not as an incident, or a series of incidents. Yet not only in the later speech-poems, but also in the narrative lays, the characters acquaint us with the course of events by means of retrospective monologues or prophetic utterances. It cannot be said that the poets take this means of telling the story solely for the opportunity it gives for psychological insight into the character of the hero or heroine, for their mouthpiece is quite free to tell the story by saying “You did this,” (10) (as in Hamðir’s speech to his mother) or “You will do this,” as in the Prophecy of Grípir, the Fragmentary Sigurd Lay, and the Short Sigurd Lay (11). Moreover the character of the mouthpiece is sometimes of no importance, and the story is told by making the mouthpiece say “They did this,” as in the Lament of Oddrún.
If this device for acquainting us with the story were confined to the pure speech-poem, it would be legitimate, if wearisome. But it is not confined to the pure speech-poem. None of the extant Nibelung lays tells the whole story with due proportion of narrative and speech, though it might have been done in a poem no longer than the Greenlandic Atli poem. Of these Nibelung lays only the Atli lays and the Lay of Hamðir transfer their scene, and then only once (12), so that the attempt to tell the whole story in the ordinary way would be manifestly impossible to them. But they are nearly all determined to tell us the whole story, and the means they adopt is to select a single situation of such a nature that it will justify one or more of their characters in telling the story, usually as a retrospective lament or as a prophecy. As the heroes cannot fitly indulge in lamentation this role falls to the women. The three Lays of Gudrun, the Lament of Oddrún, the Egging of Gudrun are all of this type. Of the Short Lay of Sigurd Heusler observes that it is strange how Brynhild’s retrospect teaches us more of occurences which are yet within the framework of the poem than the narrative itself in str. 3. He regards this as characteristic of late poems, but we may note that in the early Fragmentary Lay of Sigurd we learn more of the manner of Sigurd’s death from Högni´s speech than from the narrative in str. 5:
Sigurd fell south of the Rhine.
It is important to consider this charcteristic structure of the Eddic Nibelungen lays in connnection with the stylistic peculiarities of the earlier speech-poems – that is to say the bulk of the mythological poems and the Sigurd trilogy, which are certainly earlier than the Nibelungen lays as a whole.