The Northern Way

Grimm Centenary: Sigfred-Arminivs and Other Papers

Page 2

'Three nines (groups of nine) of maids,' comes the answer, 'but one rode foremost, a white maid enhelmed. When their steeds reared they shook from their manes dew into the deep dales, hail upon the high woods, thence come fair seasons among men.'

The curious 'margollin,' which we cannot explain in the old Northern tongue, recalls the Celtic mur-gelt, a mermaid or sea-being.

Again, in the Cara Lay, there is a Walcyrie flying to meet the hero, and astonishing him by her knowledge. Helgi asks her how she knows him. She answers----


                        Leit-ec þic um sinn fyrr á lang-scipom
                        þá-es þú bygðir ...... blóðga stafna,
                        oc úr-svalar unnir léco.

'I saw thee time ago on the war-ships when thou ...... hadst thy quarters at the bloody bows, and the ice-cold waves played about thee.'

In the Sigrun Lay, after the great gale which is so finely described, 'when the sister of Kolga (the wave) and the long keels came together, it was if the surf were breaking against the rocks,' what time 'the fast following seas kept tryst upon the hulls, and Eager's dreadful daughter strove to whelm the forestays of the helm-horses (ships). But battle-bold Sigrun from on high saved them and their craft. By main strength the king's brine-steed was wrested out of Ran's hands off Cliff-holt, and that night the fair-found fleet rode safe once more in Unisvoe.' Again at the battle at Wolf-rock the Walcyrie comes to comfort her hero. 'And now the Helmed Wight that watched over him came down from heaven.' But she is not all-powerful, for Fate may break her spells. 'Thou canst not give good hap in all things ....... thou being, and I think that some of this is the Fates' doing (not thine).'

Here we have the romantic picture of these beings who were guardians to the Wicking princes, saving them, healing them, devoting themselves to them. There is a difficulty, as has been said, in men taking true views of women. There are women-saints to worship, so there are women to loathe --- hags, and witches, and ogresses. And much depends upon the spectator's point of view whether a given feature looks fair or foul. So we must be prepared in this Wicking-poetry to get the adverse view of such beings; and it is in Hoarbeard's Lay we find it. Here in the comic dialogue between Woden and Thunder, Thunder tells how he 'smote the giant brides in Lear's-ey, (6) for they had wrought wickedness, cheating all people.' 'That was a shameful deed of thine, Thor (replies Hoarbeard), to beat women.' Thor says---


                        Vargynjor þat voro en varla konor,
                        skelldo skip mítt es ec skorðat hafda,
                        œgðo mer iarn-lurki, en ellto Þialfa.


which one might render ---

'Nay, Bargenae they were (7) (for she-wolves does not give complete sense), but hardly women. They battered my boat which I had beached, they threatened me with the iron rod, and hunted my man Delve.' One can see the comic rage of some northern privateer-skipper of the 9th century, who, having paid dearly for a breeze, did not get it, but on the contrary suffered from head-winds and sharp gales, so that his boat was knocked about even in her dock, makes up his mind to give the witches a good thrashing, and pay them out for his losses and their ill-usage of him.

Such superstitions prevailed, as is well known, till very late in Great Britain, in the debased form in which they occur in Macbeth and the Tempest in literature, and in fact in the well-known record of the trials of the Fife witches.

That the doctrine of metempsychosis is mentioned in the Helgi Lays, and furnishes the key to the plot of that trilogy, is certainly not without significance. (8) Pythagoras' theory is not, as far as we can tell, a Teutonic belief. It must have been borrowed from some 'magus' or 'maga' of Gaul or Britain, where, as we know, it was held as a basis for religious ideas.

That such an event as the Conquest of Normandy should have left no trace in tradition would surely be strange; if the theory, here set forth briefly, be accepted, we have in some of the most beautiful and characteristic of the Eddic Songs a romantic record of the great fleets that held their tryst in the Channel Islands, before Sigfred led them to the siege of Paris and Hrodulf to the conquest of Neustria.

The place and circumstances alike recall the well-known lines which one is happy to quote here as worthy peers to those of the old northern Maker.


                La flotte se déploie en bon ordre de marche,
                Et, les vaisseaux gardant les espaces fixés,
                Échiquier de tillacs, de ponts, de mâts dressés,
                Ondule sur les eaux comme une immense claie:
                Ces vaisseaux sont sacrés, les flots leur font la haie,
                Les courants pour aider ces nefs à débarquer
                Ont leur besogne à faire et n'y sauraient manquer;
                Autour d'elles la vague avec amour déferle
                L'écueil se change en port, l'écume tombe en perle.
        .......        .........        ........        .........                ..........
                Sont-ce des cormorans? Sont-ce des citadelles?
                Les voiles font un vaste et sourd battement d'ailes.
                L'eau gronde, et tout ce groupe énorme vogue et fuit
                Et s'enfle et roule avec um prodigieux bruit. (9)

For since the Poet of the Helgi Lays watched that sound, dark with the sails and hulls of the Wicking fleet, a thousand years passed, and on the self-same spot where he must have stood, another Poet took his stand and celebrated in song that will not die the sea-girt rocks where he found a refuge in his self-chosen exile from tyranny at home.

 It is not every group of islands famous in history that has had the good fortune to harbour two such singers as he of the Helgi Lays and Victor Hugo.        
                                                                                        G. V.
June 10, 1885

Notes:

6. The islands in those Lays are all, we suppose, to be looked for off the coast of Brittany, and the Loire and Garonne. Could any of these be identified? Þolley, Brandey, Rád-ey, Hlessey, Heðinsey, &c. [Back]

7. i.e. 'witches they were, not women.' In 'Vargynjor' we discern the old word, given by Mela --- catching (as is the wont of 'folk-etymologies') at the nearest word in sound in the Norse language. The word seems to survive in the modern French baragouin = gibberish, see Ducange. A 14th century Frenchman says, 'No baragouin am I, but as good a Christian as any one of you.' And at the famous and fateful meeting of Pantagruel and Panurge, the former, on hearing the latter's speech in good High Dutch, answers --- 'Mon ami, je n'entends poinct ce baragouin, pourtant si vous voulez qu'on vous entende, parley aultre language.' Baraguena may indeed have been Mela's original form; it suits both French baragouin and Norse Vargynja best. [Back]

8. See Corp. Poet. ii. 528, where this belief is scorned; the Norsemen did not apparently believe in it. [Back]

9. La Rose de l'Infante. Cf. Helgi Lay, ll. 80-122, 198-207. In his very Will the French poet acknowledges his debt to the Sea that sheltered and inspired him. [Back]

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