Popular Tales From the Norse
In addition to all his other work, Dasent wrote constantly for the Quarterly and the Edinburgh, and the principal literary periodicals, including the now defunct Fraser's Magazine, of which he was at one time offered the editorship.
Having been approached by the representatives of Richard Cleasby, who had been for years engaged in collecting materials for an Icelandic-English Dictionary, Dasent warmly interested himself in the task of completing the work. He brought Gúdbrandr Vígfússon, an Icelandic scholar of great industry and intelligence, already well-known for his labours in the field of his native literature, over to England to complete the final revision and arrangement of the manuscripts, and was successful, through the instrumentality of Liddell, in inducing the University of Oxford to bring out the work at the Clarendon Press. For this great undertaking Dasent wrote the introduction and also the life of Richard Cleasby--his only experiment in contemporary biography which has come down to us in book form.
The first edition of Burnt Njal, a work of which we gladly repeat the deliberate judgment of a distinguished American writer that "it is unsurpassed by any existing monument in the narrative department of any literature ancient or modern," 1 appeared in 1861.
He had conceived the notion of giving an English dress to the Njal's Saga
so early as in 1843, but, as the preface informs us, it was destined to rank
among those things which, begun in youth, must wait for their completion
1. See The Saturday Review, vol. xi. p. 429.
in middle age. But the delay need not be regretted since it enables us to enjoy this great epic tale in as perfect a form as patient erudition and a genuine love of the most untrodden paths of antiquity could present it.
The interest of this tragic story revolves around the duties and the rights of the blood-feud, and shows us how a man, gentle, generous, and forgiving, like Njal, was, in spite of all his virtues, gradually involved in a network of bloody retaliation; how in spite of all his wise and pacific counsel massacre replied to massacre around him, until he and his whole household perished in blood and fire, leaving, however, a fearful heritage of vengeance to be exacted by Kari, his son-in-law.
In 1861, and again in the following year, Dasent visited Iceland in person, in company with the late Mr. John Campbell of Islay (himself an earnest student of the folklore and popular tales of the Western Highlands) and other friends.
He was received with great cordiality at Reykjavik and entertained at a public banquet by the authorities, who acclaimed him as the foremost Icelandic scholar in Europe. He rode across the gigantic snowfield of the Vatna Jokull, and visited many of the places of interest in the country, whose physical features were already well known to him through its literature.
The adventures of the party on the occasion of Dasent's second visit to Iceland were so humorously described by the late Sir Charles Clifford in his Travels by Umbra, and the disposition and personal appearance of each of the five members of this merry group so admirably
burlesqued, that we make no apology for reproducing their portraits:--
'First--he who by tacit consent was reckoned the head of our party--was surnamed Archibald M'Diarmid. 1
'I believe the addition of esquire is considered a sort of insult in the Highlands, whence he came, so I omit it. M'Diarmid, like Crichton, did all things well, being a first-rate sportsman, a good draughtsman; was a follower of science, and an author to boot.
'He possessed qualities of coolness, deliberation and courage, that would have fitted him to be the leader of a party bound on an expedition far more adventurous than our own.
'He was, moreover, a pleasant companion, but lest it should be thought that I am describing a too perfect character, I will admit that he cherished two superstitions. First, he believed in Ossian; secondly, he held it as an article of faith, not to be doubted, that his tent was completely waterproof.
'Next to him I will introduce Mr. Darwin, 2 a really celebrated
personage. He had written a learned book on northern antiquities, in recompense
of which a Scandinavian potentate created him a Knight of the second class of
the Order of the Walrus, the ribbon of which illustrious Order was suspended
across his brawny shoulders. Of Herculean height and strength, with his long
black beard descending to his waist, he resembled a Viking of old, and such
I conceive he at times supposed himself to be. In fact, so deeply was he imbued
1. John Campbell of Islay.
2. George Webbe Dasent.
the spirit of antiquity, that a continual antagonism between the past and the present, or rather, I should say, between the imaginary and the real, existed in his breast.
'He was two gentlemen at once. Though a sincerely religious man, still I cannot help suspecting that in his heart of hearts he looked on Christianity as a somewhat parvenu creed, and deemed that Thor, Odin, Freya, etc., were the proper objects of worship. In dull fact he was an excellent citizen, a householder, paying rates and taxes, an affectionate husband, and the good father of a family; but in the dream, the fancy--"the spirit, Master Shallow"--he was a Berserker, a Norse pirate, ploughing the seas in his dragon-shaped barque, making his trusty falchion ring on the casques of his enemies, slaying, pillaging, burning, ravishing, and thus gratifying a laudable taste for adventure. I fear he preferred the glorious dream to the sober reality. I think he inwardly pined at his own respectability, that he considered himself misplaced in the narrow sphere of duties. But he was a most agreeable comrade.
'Third was Ragner, Lord Lodbrog, an Irish peer, 1 and then a student at the University. He derived his descent from a chieftain of that name, who had slain a dragon after encasing himself in impenetrable hairy breeches; and it was still a custom in his family, out of respect to this ancestor, to wear hirsute nether garments.
'How gay was Lodbrog! the life and soul of our company: his cheerfulness never
failed. As he cantered
1. Then Lord Newry, and now Earl of Kilmorey.
on ahead of all, Cum spumantis equi foderet calcaribus armos, a crimson sash round his waist, the plumage of the wild swan in his cap, and round his shoulders slung a horn, which had erst, to the great disgust of the Dons, awoke the echoes of Peckwater Quad, he was hailed by us as decidedly the "Skarzmadur" or Dandy of the party.
'Fourth was Mr. X, a member of Parliament, 1 who had come out late in the session. I am not aware that he ever enlightened the senate by his eloquence. He was rather a silent, reserved person, and his chief talent seemed to consist in smoking tobacco. However, to do him justice, he was always good-tempered, lent a willing hand at the packing in the morning, and never bored any of us by quoting bluebooks, which is much to his credit. When he did speak, it was generally to make some citation from the classics or Shakespeare, which was tedious, but happily brief.
'Fifth was Mr. Digwell, 2 a relative of Mr. Darwin, Fellow of
a College at Cambridge, and, unfortunately for him, smitten with a taste for
Geology, which had impelled him to come to Iceland. He was a tall, thin man,
and always carried a hammer to aid him in his favourite pursuit. He also brought
an ancient military saddle, which an ancestor of his had used in the Duke of
Marlborough's campaigns. On an Iceland pony it seemed somewhat misplaced. Besides
his zeal for science, Digwell was passionately fond of poetry, and for hours
together would repeat verses, embodying the mysterious
1. Charles Cavendish Clifford.
2. John Roche Dakyns.
longings of the soul. Unluckily nature had endowed him with another craving entirely opposed to romance; namely a most inordinate appetite.'
Later on in this delightful book, the key to the characters in which is now for the first time made public, is introduced Grimur Thomsen of Copenhagen, under the disguise of 'Mr. Jonson.'
The great success of Burnt Njal led to the publication, in 1866, of Gisli the Outlaw, in which will be found a beautiful map of Iceland, and a second series of popular stories, entitled Tales from the Fjeld, appeared in 1874.
At the beginning of 1870, Mr. Gladstone, to whom he had been made known by
Lowe, wrote to offer him the important appointment of one of Her Majesty's Civil
Commissioners, and though it was a great wrench to him to sever his long connection
with Delane at the Times Office, and an immediate loss of income, after
some hesitation he accepted the post on the advice of his family. No longer
constrained to work every night into the small hours of the morning, he was
now free to go more into London society; and bringing to it, as he did, a well-stored
mind, a fund of native humour, 1 great capacity for enjoyment,
and rare conversational powers, he became one of its recognised favourites,
and a welcome guest, like Delane himself, at its dinner-tables. One of his most
1. His innate love of a joke occasionally illumined the cold print of the Times columns. On one occasion, when he was acting for Delane, a letter came to the office from a Mr. Wieass for publication. The signature was an indistinct scrawl which defied all efforts to decipher, and the name of the writer was printed 'Wiseass.' The writer of the letter p. xxxiv was exceedingly wroth and wrote to complain. To cool the inflamed mind of the correspondent there appeared next morning an editorial excuse. It stated that 'after a careful study of the writer's caligraphy, we came to the conclusion that a difficulty existed as to deciphering the first part of the signature, but there was no mistake as to the latter part.'
valued friends throughout his lifetime, and they had been up at Oxford together, was William Bromley Davenport, 1 an English sportsman of the best type, and as clever a letter writer as the Victorian Age has produced, though not strikingly successful as a public speaker.
Scarce a ear passed without Dasent's visiting him at his Cheshire home, and the last country visit he ever paid was to his widow at Capesthorne.
Intimate, too, with Arthur Penrhyn Stanley (after whom his youngest son was christened), he was frequently at the Deanery, Westminster, and, like Stanley himself, took the greatest interest in all that concerned the history and archæology of the Abbey, which he had known and loved from boyhood. He was present with the Dean when some of the Royal tombs were opened with a view to the more complete identification of their contents.
At Lord Granville's, both in town and at Walmer Castle, he increased his already extensive knowledge of the political world, and he was a welcome guest at Highclere, at Raby, at Althorp, and at Chatsworth.
He enjoyed the close friendship of Sir Thomas Erskine May (Lord Farnborough),
of Matthew Arnold, and the late Sir Charles Bowen--all, like himself, habitués of the
1. Late M.P. for North Warwickshire.
Athenæum Club, where his unfailing spirits and cultivated talk were long appreciated. 1
Another very dear friend was the late Sir Robert Meade, the permanent Under-Secretary of the Colonial Office, who was also a neighbour in Berkshire, at Englemere, Mowbray Morris's former home near Ascot Heath.
A member also of the Cosmopolitan Club in Charles Street, Berkeley Square, the favourite resort of such wits as Lord Houghton, and the better-known figures in the political and social world of London, Dasent became as prominent socially as he was already amongst men of letters.
A constant visitor to Baron Meyer de Rothschild at Mentmore in the early seventies, he warmly interested himself with the Baroness in support of the movement for the Oral Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, a scheme generously forwarded by the Rothschild family by every means in their power. In 1872 the Prince of Wales presided at a public dinner in furtherance of the scheme, at which Dasent explained the advantages of the system over any other method of educating deaf mutes and lightening the burden of their lives. For many years he attended the meetings of the Committee of the Association, and strove to influence public opinion on. its behalf.
While continuing to write reviews for the Times, so
1. Elected to the Athenæum under the rule which provides for the admission of men "of distinguished eminence in literature, science, or the arts," without the ordeal of the ballot, his name remained on the list of members for forty years.