Popular Tales From the Norse
Germans, as well as with our "Jack the Giant Killer," but he starts lower than these--he starts from the dust-bin and the coal-hole. There he sits idle whilst all work; there he lies with that deep irony of conscious power, which knows its time must one day come, and meantime can afford to wait. When that time comes, he girds himself to the feat, amidst the scoffs and scorn of his flesh and blood; but even then, after he has done some great deed, he conceals it, returns to his ashes, and again sits idly by the kitchen-fire, dirty, lazy, and despised, until the time for final recognition comes, and then his dirt and rags fall off,--he stands out in all the majesty of his royal robes, and is acknowledged once for all a king. In this way does the consciousness of a nation, and the mirror of its thought, reflect the image and personification of a great moral truth, that modesty, endurance, and ability will sooner or later reap their reward, however much they may be degraded, scoffed at, and despised by the proud, the worthless, and the overbearing. 1
As a general rule, the women are less strongly marked than the men; for these
Tales, as is well said, are uttered "with a manly mouth;" 2 and none of the female characters, except perhaps "The Mastermaid,"
and "Tatterhood," can compare in strength with "The Master-Smith,"
"The Master-Thief," "Shortshanks," or "Boots."
Still the true womanly type comes out in full play in such tales as "The
Two Step-sisters." p. 113; East o' the Sun and West
1. The Sagas contain many instances of Norsemen who sat thus idly over the fire, and were thence called Kolbitr, coalbiters, but who afterwards became mighty men.
2. Moe: Introd. Norsk. Event.
o' the Moon," p. 22; "Bushy Bride," p. 322, and "The Twelve Wild Ducks," p. 51. In all these the lassie is bright, and good, and helpful; she forgets herself in her eagerness to help others. When she goes down the well after the unequal match against her step-sister in spinning bristles against flax; she steps tenderly over the hedge, milks the cow, shears the sheep, relieves the boughs of the apple-tree,--all out of the natural goodness of her heart. When she is sent to fetch water from the well, she washes and brushes, and even kisses, the loathsome head; she believes what her enemies say, even to her own wrong and injury; she sacrifices all that she holds most dear, and at last even herself, because she is made to believe that it is her brother's wish. And so on her, too, the good powers smile. She can understand and profit by what the little birds say; she knows how to choose the right casket. And at last, after many trials, all at once the scene changes, and she receives a glorious reward, while the wicked stepmother and her ugly daughter meet with a just fate. Nor is another female character less tenderly drawn in "Hacon Grizzlebeard," p. 39, where we see the proud, haughty princess subdued and tamed by natural affection into a faithful, loving wife. We sympathise with her more than with the "Patient Grizzel" of the poets, who is in reality too good, for her story has no relief; while in Hacon Grizzlebeard we begin by being angry at the princess's pride; we are glad at the retribution which overtakes her, but we are gradually melted at her sufferings and hardships when she gives up all for the Beggar and follows him; we burst into tears with her when she exclaims, "Oh the Beggar, and the babe, and the cabin!" and we rejoice
with her when the Prince says, "Here is the Beggar, and there is the babe, and so let the cabin burn away."
Nor is it unprofitable here to remark how the professions fare when they appear in these tales. The Church cannot be said to be treated with respect, for "Father Lawrence" is ludicrously deceived and scurvily treated by the Master Thief, p. 232; nor does the priest come off any better in "Goosey Grizzel," p. 221, where he is thrown by the Farmer into the wet moss. Indeed it seems as if the popular mind were determined to revenge itself when left to itself, for the superstition of Rome on the one hand, and the severity of strict Lutheranism on the other. It has little to say of either of them, but when it does speak, its accents are not those of reverence and love. The Law, too, as represented by those awful personages, the Constable, the Attorney, and the Sheriff in "The Mastermaid," p. 71, is held up to ridicule, and treated with anything but tenderness. But there is one profession for which a good word is said, a single word, but enough to shew the feeling of the people. In "The Twelve Wild Ducks," p. 51, the king is "as soft and kind" to Snow-white and Rosey-red "as a doctor,"--a doctor, alas! not of laws, but of medicine; and thus this profession, so often despised, but in reality the noblest, has homage paid to it in that single sentence, which neither the Church with all its dignity, nor the Law with all its cunning, have been able to extort from the popular mind. Yet even this profession has a hard word uttered against it in "Katie Woodencloak," p. 357, where the doctor takes a great fee from the wicked queen to say she will never be well unless she has some of the Dun Bull's flesh to eat.
And now it is time to bring this Introduction to an end, lest it should play the Wolf's part to Odin, and swallow up the Tales themselves. Enough has been said, at least, to prove that even nursery tales may have a science of their own, and to shew how the old Nornir and divine spinners can revenge themselves if their old wives' tales are insulted and attacked. The inquiry itself might be almost indefinitely prolonged, for this is a journey where each turn of the road brings out a new point of view, and the longer we linger on our path, the longer we find something fresh to see. Popular mythology is a virgin mine, and its ore, so far from being exhausted or worked out, has here, in England at least, been scarcely touched. It may, indeed, be dreaded lest the time for collecting such English traditions is not past and gone; whether the steam-engine and printing-press have not played their great work of enlightenment too well; and whether the popular tales, of which, no doubt, the land was once full, have not faded away before those great inventions, as the race. of Giants waned before the might of Odin and the Æsir. Still the example of this very Norway, which at one time was thought, even by her own sons, to have few tales of her own, and now has been found to have them so fresh and full, may serve as a warning not to abandon a search, which, indeed, can scarcely be said to have been ever begun; and to suggest a doubt whether the ill success which may have attended this or that particular attempt, may not have been from the fault rather of the seekers after traditions, than from the want of the traditions themselves. In point of fact, it is a matter of the utmost difficulty to gather such tales
in any country, as those who have collected them most successfully will be the first to confess. It is hard to make old and feeble women, who generally are the depositaries of these national treasures, believe that the inquirer can have any real interest in the matter. They fear that the question is only put to turn them into ridicule; for the popular mind is a sensitive plant; it becomes coy, and closes its leaves at the first rude touch; and when once shut, it is hard to make these aged lips reveal the secrets of the memory. There they remain, however, forming part of an under-current of tradition, of which the educated classes, through whose mind flows the bright upper-current of faith, are apt to forget the very existence: things out of sight, and therefore out of mind. Now and then a wave of chance tosses them to the surface from those hidden depths, and all Her Majesty's inspectors of schools are shocked at the wild shapes which still haunt the minds of the great mass of the community. It cannot be said that the English are not a superstitious people. Here we have gone on for more than a hundred years proclaiming our opinion that the belief in witches, and wizards, and ghosts, and fetches, was extinct throughout the land. Ministers of all denominations have preached them down, and philosophers convinced all the world of the absurdity of such vain superstitions; and yet it has been reserved for another learned profession, the Law, to produce in one trial at the Staffordshire assizes, a year or two ago, such a host of witnesses, who firmly believed in witchcraft, and swore to their belief in spectre dogs and wizards, as to shew that, in the Midland counties at least, such traditions are anything but extinct. If so much of
the bad has been spared by steam, by natural philosophy, and by the Church, let us hope that some of the good may still linger along with it, and that an English Grimm may yet arise who may carry out what Mr. Chambers has so well begun in Scotland, and discover in the mouth of an Anglo-Saxon Gammer Grethel, some, at least, of those popular tales which England once had in common with all the Aryan race.
For these Norse Tales one may say that nothing can equal the tenderness and skill with which MM. Asbjörnsen and Moe have collected them. Some of that tenderness and beauty may, it is hoped, be found in this English translation; but to those who have never been in the country where they are current, and who are not familiar with that hearty simple people, no words can tell the freshness and truth of the originals. It is not that the idioms of the two languages are different, for they are more nearly allied, both in vocabulary and construction, than any other two tongues, but it is the face of nature herself, and the character of the race that looks up to her, that fail to the mind's eye. The West Coast of Scotland is something like that nature in a general way, except that it is infinitely smaller and less grand; but that constant, bright blue sky, those deeply-indented, sinuous, gleaming friths, those headstrong rivers and headlong falls, those steep hill-sides, those long ridges of fells, those peaks and needles rising sharp above them, those hanging glaciers and wreaths of everlasting snow, those towering endless pine forests, relieved by slender stems of silver birch, those green spots in the midst of the forest, those winding dales and upland lakes, those various shapes of
birds and beasts, the mighty crashing elk, the fleet reindeer, the fearless bear, the nimble lynx, the shy wolf, those eagles, and swans, and seabirds, those many tones and notes of Nature's voice making distant music through the twilight summer night, those brilliant, flashing northern lights when days grow short, those dazzling, blinding storms of autumn snow, that cheerful winter frost and cold, that joy of sledging over the smooth ice, when the sharp-shod horse careers at full speed with the light sledge, or rushes down the steep pitches over the crackling snow through the green spruce wood--all these form a Nature of their own. These particular features belong in their fatness and combination to no other land. When in the midst of all this natural scenery we find an honest, manly race, not the race of the towns and cities, but of the dales and fells, free and unsubdued, holding its own in a country where there are neither lords nor ladies, but simple men and women, brave men and fair women, who cling to the traditions of their forefathers, and whose memory reflects as from. the faithful mirror of their native steel the whole history and progress of their race--when all these natural features, and such a manly race meet; then we have the stuff out of which these tales are made, the living rock out of which these sharp-cut national forms are hewn. Then, too, our task of introducing them is over, we may lay aside our pen, and leave the reader and the tales to themselves.