Popular Tales from the Norse, by George Webbe Dasent, , at sacred-texts.com
We have now only to consider the men and women of these Tales, and then our task is done. It will be sooner
done, because they may be left to speak for themselves, and must stand or fall by their own words and actions. The tales of all races have a character and manner of their own. Among the Hindoos the straight stem of the story is overhung with a network of imagery which reminds one of the parasitic growth of a tropical forest. Among the Arabs the tale is more elegant, pointed with a moral, and adorned with tropes and episodes. Among the Italians it is bright, light, dazzling and swift. Among the French we have passed from the woods, and fields, and bills, to my lady's boudoir,—rose-pink is the prevailing colour, and the air is loaded with patchouli and mille fleurs. We miss the song of birds, the modest odour of wild-flowers, and the balmy fragrance of the pine forest. The Swedes are more stiff, and their style is more like that of a chronicle than a tale. The Germans are simple, hearty, and rather comic than humorous; and M. Moe 1 has well said, that as we read them it is as if we sat and listened to some elderly woman of the middle class, who recites them with a clear, full, deep voice. In Scotland the few that have been collected by Mr. Robert Chambers 2 are as good in tone and keeping as anything of the kind in the whole range of such popular collections. 3 The wonderful
likeness which is shewn between such tales as "The Black Bull of Norroway" in Mr. Chambers's collection, and Katie Woodencloak in these Norse Tales, is to be accounted
for by no theory of the importation of this or that particular tale in later times from Norway, but by the fact that the Lowland Scots, among whom these tales were
told, were lineal descendants of Norsemen, who had either seized the country in the Viking times, or had been driven into it across the Border after the Norman Conquest.
These Norse Tales we may characterise as bold, outspoken, and humorous, in the true sense of humour. In the midst of every difficulty and danger arises that old
[paragraph continues] Norse feeling of making the best of everything, and keeping a good face to the foe. The language and tone are perhaps rather lower than in some other collections,
but it must be remembered that these are the tales of "hempen homespuns," of Norse yeomen, of Norske Bönder, who call a spade a spade, and who burn tallow, not wax; and yet in no collection of tales is the general tone so chaste, are the great principles of morality better worked out, and right and wrong kept so steadily in sight. The general view of human nature is good and kindly. The happiness of married life was never more prettily told than in "Gudbrand on the Hillside," p. 149, where the tenderness of the wife for her husband weighs down all other considerations; and we all agree with M. Moe that it would be well if there were many wives like Gudbrand's. The balance, too, is very evenly kept between the sexes;
for if any wife should point with indignation at such a tale as "Not a Pin to choose between them," p. 173, where wives suffer; she will be amply avenged when she reads "The Husband who was to mind the House," p. 269, where the husband has decidedly the worst of the bargain, and is punished as he deserves.
Of particular characters, one occurs repeatedly. This is that which we have ventured, for want of a better word, to call "Boots," from that widely-spread tradition in English families, that the youngest brother is bound to do all the hard work his brothers set him, and which has also dignified him with the term here used. In Norse he is called "Askefis," or "Espen Askefjis." By M. Moe he
is called "Askepot," 1 a Danish word which the readers of Grimm's Tales will see at once is own brother to Aschenpüttel. The meaning of the word is "one who pokes about the ashes and blows up the fire"; one who does dirty work, in short; and in Norway, according to M. Moe, the term is almost universally applied to the youngest son of the family. He is Cinderella's brother, in fact; and just as she had all the dirty work put upon her by her sisters, he meets with the same fate from his brothers. He is generally the youngest of three, whose names are often Peter and Paul, as in No. XLII. (p. 295), and who despise, cry down, and mock him. But he has in him that deep strength of character and natural power upon which the good powers always smile. He is the man whom Heaven helps, because he can help himself; and so, after his brothers try and fail, he alone can watch in the barn, and tame the steed, and ride up the glass hill, and gain the Princess and half the kingdom. The Norse "Boots" shares these qualities in common with the "Pinkel" of the Swedes, and the Dummling of the
[paragraph continues] 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
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.
clxii:1 M. Moe, Introd. Norsk. Event., Christiania, 1851, 2d ed., to which the writer is largely indebted.
clxii:2 Popular Rhymes of Scotland, ed. 1847.
clxii:3 The following list, which only selects the more prominent collections, will suffice to shew that Popular Tales have a literature of their own:—Sanscrit: The Pantcha-Tantra, "The Five Books," a collection of fables of which only extracts have as yet been published, but of which Professor p. clxiii Wilson has given an analysis in the Transactions of the Asiatic Society, vol. i. sect. 2. The Hitopadesa, or "Wholesome Instruction," a selection of tales and fables from the Pantcha-Tantra, first edited by Carey at Serampore in 1804; again by Hamilton in London in 1810; again in Germany by A. W. von Schlegel in 1829, an edition which was followed in 1831 by a critical commentary by Lassen; and again in 1830 at Calcutta with a Bengali and English translation. The work had been translated into English by Wilkins so early as 1787, when it was published in London, and again by Sir William Jones, whose rendering, which is not so good as that by Wilkins, appeared after his death in the collected edition of his works. Into German it has been translated in a masterly way by Max Müller, Leipzig, Brockhaus, 1844. Versions of these Sanscrit collections, the date of the latter of which is ascribed to the end of the second century of the Christian era, varying in many respects, but all possessing sufficient resemblance to identify them with their Sanscrit originals, are found in almost every Indian dialect, and in Zend, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, Greek, and Turkish. We are happy to be able to state here that the eminent Sanscrit scholar, Professor Benfey of Göttingen, is now publishing a German translation of the Pantcha-Tantra, which will be accompanied by translations of numerous compositions of the same kind, drawn from unpublished Sanscrit works, and from the legends current amongst the Mongolian tribes. The work will be preceded by an introduction embracing the whole question of the origin and diffusion of fables and popular tales. The following will be the title of Prof. Benfey's work: p. clxiv—"Pantcha Tantra. Erster Theil: Fünf Bücher Indischer Fabeln, Märchen, und Erzälungen. Aus dem Sanskrit übersetzt, mit Anmerkungen und Einleitung über das Indische Grundwerk und dessen Ausflüsse, so wie über die Quellen und Verbreitung des Inhalts derselben. Zweiter Theil, Übersetzungen und Anmerkungen." Most interesting of all for our purpose is the collection of Sanscrit Tales, collected in the twelfth century of our era, by Somadeva Bhatta of Cashmere. This has been published in Sanscrit, and translated into German by Hermann Brockhaus, and the nature of its contents has already been sufficiently indicated. We may add, however, that Somadeva's collection exhibits the Hindoo mind in the twelfth century in a condition, as regards popular tales, which that of Europe has not yet reached. How old these stories and fables must have been in the East, we see both from the Pantcha-Tantra and the Hitopadesa, which are strictly didactic works, and only employ tales and fables to illustrate and inculcate a moral lesson. We in the West have got beyond fables and apologues, but we are only now collecting our popular tales. In Somadeva's time the simple tale no longer sufficed; it had to be fitted into and arranged with others, with an art and dexterity which is really marvellous; and so cleverly is this done, that it requires a mind of no little cultivation, and a head of more than ordinary clearness, to carry without confusion all the wheels within wheels, and fables within fables, which spring out of the original story as it proceeds. In other respects the popular tale loses in simplicity what it gains in intricacy by this artificial arrangement; and it is evident that in the twelfth century the Hindoo tales p. clxv had been long since collected out of the mouths of the people, and reduced to writing;—in a word, that the popular element had disappeared, and that they had passed into the written literature of the race. We may take this opportunity, too, to mention that a most curious collection of tales and fables, translated from Sanscrit, has recently boon discovered in Chinese. They are on the eve of publication by M. Stanislas Julien, the first of Chinese scholars; and from the information on the matter which Professor Max Müller has kindly furnished to the translator, it appears that they passed with Buddhism from India into China. The work from which M. Julien has taken these fables—which are all the more precious because the Sanscrit originals have in all probability perished,—is called Yu-lin, or "The Forest of Comparisons." It was the work of Youen-thai, a great Chinese scholar, who was President of the Ministry of Justice at Pekin in the year 1565 of our era. He collected in twenty-four volumes, after the labour of twenty years, during which he read upwards of four hundred works, all the fables and comparisons he could find in ancient books. Of those works, two hundred were translations from the Sanscrit made by Buddhist monks, and it is from eleven of these that M. Julien has translated his Chinese Fables. We need hardly say that this work is most anxiously expected by all who take an interest in such matters. Let it be allowed to add here, that it was through no want of respect towards the memory of M. de Sacy that the translator has given so much prominence to the views and labours of the Brothers Grimm in this Introduction. To M. de Sacy belongs all the merit of exploring what may be called the old written p. clxvi world of fable. He, and Warton, and Dunlop, and Price, too, did the dayswork of giants, in tracing out and classifying those tales and fables which had passed into the literature of the Aryan race. But, besides this old region, there is another new hemisphere of fiction which lies in the mouths and in the minds of the people. This new world of fable the Grimms discovered, and to them belongs the glory of having brought all its fruits and flowers to the light of day. This is why their names must ever be foremost in a work on Popular Tales, shining, as their names must ever shine, a bright double star over that new hemisphere. In more modern times, the earliest collection of popular tales is to be found in the Piacevoli Notte of John Francis Straparola of Caravaggio, near Milan, the first edition of which appeared at Venice in 1550. The book, which is shamefully indecent, even for that age, and which at last, in 1606, was placed in the Index Expurgatorius, contains stories from all sources, and amongst them nineteen genuine popular tales, which are not disfigured by the filth with which the rest of the volume is full. Straparola's work has been twice translated into German,—once at Vienna, 1791, and again by Schmidt in a more complete form, Märchen-Saal, Berlin, 1817. But a much more interesting Italian collection appeared at Naples in the next century. This was the Pentamerone of Giambattista Basile, who wrote in the Neapolitan dialect, and whose book appeared in 1637. This collection contains forty-eight tales, and is in tone, and keeping and diction, one of the best that has ever appeared in any language. It has been repeatedly reprinted at Naples. It has been translated into German, and a portion of it, a year or two back, by p. clxvii Mr. Taylor, into English. In France the first collection of this kind was made by Charles Perrault, who, in 1697, published eight tales, under a title taken from an old Fabliau, Contes de ma Mère l'Oye, whence comes our "Mother Goose." To these eight, three more tales were added in later editions. Perrault was shortly followed by Madame d'Aulnoy (born in 1650, died 1705), whose manner of treating her tales is far less true to nature than Perrault's, and who inserts at will verses, alterations, additions, and moral reflections. Her style is sentimental and over-refined; the courtly airs of the age of Louis XIV. predominate, and nature suffers by the change from the cottage to the palace. Madame d'Aulnoy was followed by a host of imitators: the Countess Murat, who died in 1716; Countess d'Auneuil, who died in 1700; M. de Preschac, born 1676, who composed tales of utter worthlessness, which may be read as examples of what popular tales are not, in the collection called Le Cabinet des Fées, which was published in Paris in 1785. Not much better are the attempts of Count Hamilton, who died in 1720; of M. de Moncrif, who died in 1770; of Mademoiselle de la Force, died 1724; of Mademoiselle l'Héritier, died 1737; of Count Caylus, who wrote his Féeries Nouvelles in the first half of the eighteenth century, for the popular element fails almost entirely in their works. Such as they are, they may also be read in the Cabinet des Fées, a collection which ran to no fewer than forty-one volumes, and with which no lover of popular tradition need trouble himself much. To the playwright and the story-teller it has been a great repository, which has supplied the lack of original invention. In Germany we need trouble ourselves with none p. clxviii of the collections before the time of the Grimms, except to say that they are nearly worthless. In 1812-14 the two brothers, Jacob and William, brought out the first edition of their Kinder- und Haus-Märchen, which was followed by a second and more complete one in 1822, 3 vols., Berlin, Reimer. The two first volumes have been repeatedly republished, but few readers in England are aware of the existence of the third, a third edition of which appeared in 1856 at Göttingen, which contains the literature of these traditions, and is a monument of the care and pains with which the brothers—or rather William, for it is his work—even so far back as 1820, had traced out parallel traditions in other tribes and lands. This work formed an era in popular literature, and has been adopted as a model by all true collectors ever since. It proceeded on the principle of faithfully collecting these traditions from the mouths of the people, without adding one jot or tittle, or in any way interfering with them, except to select this or that variation as most apt or beautiful. To the adoption of this principle we owe the excellent p. clxix Swedish collection of George Stephens and Hylten Cavallins, Svenska Folk-Sagor og Æfventyr, 2 vols., Stockholm 1844, and following years; and also this beautiful Norse one, to which Jacob Grimm awards the palm over all collections, except perhaps the Scottish, of MM. Asbjörnsen and Moe. To it also we owe many most excellent collections in Germany, over nearly the whole of which an active band of the Grimms' pupils have gone gathering up as gleaners the ears which their great masters had let fall or let lie. In Denmark the collection of M. Winther, Danske Folkeeventyr, Copenhagen 1823, is a praiseworthy attempt in the same direction; nor does it at all detract from the merit of H. C. Andersen as an original writer, to observe how often his creative mind has fastened on one of these national stories, and worked out of that piece of native rock a finished work of art. Though last, not least, are to be reckoned the Scottish stories collected by Mr. Robert Chambers, of the merit of which we have already expressed our opinion in the text.
clxx:1 After all, there is, it seems, a Scottish word which answers to Askepot to a hair. See Jamieson's Dictionary where the reader will find Ashiepattle as used in Shetland for "a neglected child"; and not in Shetland alone, but in Ayrshire, Ashypet, an adjective, or rather a substantive degraded to do the dirty work of an adjective, "one employed in the lowest kitchen work." See too the quotation, "when I reached Mrs. Damask's house she was gone to bed, and nobody to let me in, dripping wet as I was, but an ashypet lassie, that helps her for a servant."—Steamboat, page 259. So again Assiepet, substantive, "a dirty little creature, one that is constantly soiled with ass or ashes."
clxxi: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.
clxxi:2 Moe: Introd. Norsk. Event.