A week or so ago a reporter on a radio show mentioned that in Homer’s Odyssey Penelope agreed to marry whoever could string Odysseus’ bow and shoot it through a dozen iron axe heads. In Homer’s epic, Odysseus leaves his kingdom in Ithaca to fight in the Trojan War. His people wait for him to return, but as years pass with no word from their king, many of his subjects become gluttons. They spend their time and energy consuming royal resources and having incessant orgies. As the reserves of royal wine start to run dry, they bicker among themselves and plot not only to take the throne from their king Odysseus, but his wife Penelope as well.

Odysseus hears of the rampant corruption in his court and returns to Ithaca disguised as an old man. He watches and waits for the right time to reclaim his rightful seat on the throne. Finally, a perfect time to reveal his identity and crush his opposition arises: Penelope announces that whoever can string Odysseus’ bow and shoot through 12 iron axe heads may have her hand in marriage.

archer

Detail of Archer from 22v of Manuscript Codex Schürstab (Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, Ms. C 54) (Nürnberg, about 1472) image: e-codices

There is initial suspense when Telenachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope, tries to win the competition. Though he has a hereditary claim to the throne and is worthy in a way, his winning the competition would create a tragically Oedipal scene. After Telenachus’ unsuccessful attempt, one of the lusty suitors, Leiodes son of Oinops, tries his hand at stringing Odysseus’ bow but “his hands were weak and unused to hard work, they therefore soon grew tired.”[1] Antinoos suggests warming the bow and greasing it up with lard to make is easier to bend. The audience holds their breath with squinted eyes, wrestling to find a comfortable spot on their seat as they worry that the villains may win by cheating.

At last, as the story goes, no one could do it except Odysseus. He strings the bow like an old bard automatically replaces a broken string on his lyre without skipping a beat. Odysseus then loads an arrow, draws back the string, and releases his missile like a bored teenager would pull and release the plunger of a pinball machine. Our hero shoots through all twelve axe heads with his first shot and boy does the king make heads roll after that!

kevin shoots up his school

Kevin (played by Ezra Miller) shoots up his school in Lynne Ramsay’s film We Need to Talk About Kevin (image copyright: 2011 BBC Films)

The next day, as I continued my way through Das Nibelungenlied on the bus, I ran across a passage that made me recall Odysseus’ bow and how he was the only one who could string it. Just before the scene where the hero Sifried is murdered in Das Nibelungenlied, the poet takes the time to describe the exceptional quality of Sifried’s hunting gear. The poet mentions that no man could bend Sifried’s bow but him:

“… And the huge bow he used
could not be bent by hand, except by him. Winding it
slowly back with a winch   was all that anyone else could do.”
[2]

Homer and the Nibelungenlied poet use the motif of the bow that could not be bent by anyone but the hero for different effect in their epic tales. Homer uses it to show the audience that his hero has no peer in strength and strategy and that his sovereignty should have never been a contest. Everyone in the audience knows that Odysseus is still awesome and that he is the rightful ruler of Ithaca. The Nibelungenlied poet uses the bow in the opposite way. He uses it to take his hero, who is already at the at the pinnacle of greatness, to an even higher point to make his fall all the more tragic. It’s like he rubs salt in a wound before it is even cut. Despite the fact that Sifried is so uniquely powerful that no one in the world but him is strong enough to use his bow, his greatest friends and allies will still betray him.

The bow in Homer’s Odyssey gives us a reason to cheer for his hero Odysseus, but Sifried’s bow gives us a reason to cry for the fallen hero of Das Nibelungenlied – just as a skald wants us to cry for Baldur when he tells us Norse Myth. While Odysseus’ bow allows the hero to bring justice back to Ithaca, Sifried’s bow reminds us that justice must be served. With Sifried gone and an audience hungry for justice, Sifried’s widow Krimhild seeks revenge…


[2] Das Nibelungenlied, Trans. Burton Raffel (New Haven, 2006), verse 953, p.133

Westvleteren XII

Westvleteren XII – a Trappist beer that scored a perfect 100 on Beer Advocate last year. Six-packs sold for as much as $85 US (image: www.beercrank.ca)

Cardinal André Vingt-Trois has been making headlines during the last few months for sharing his predictable stance on the issue of gay marriage. He has an interesting surname. I was hoping that Vingt-Trois (twenty-three in English) was descended from a long line of Trappist monks, his ancestor named after a famous batch of beer that fetched such a nice price at market that they were able to buy back their monastery from the bank – but it’s actually a little more interesting than that: One of the Cardinal’s ancestors was, as the story goes, left on a doorstep on the 23rd day of the month.

A baby being named after how, where, or when it is found is a Christian tradition dating back to a story from the Old Testament when the children of Israel lived in Egypt as Pharaoh’s slaves:

Slaves
Hebrews born to serve, to the pharaoh
Heed
To his every word, live in fear[1]

Each time some invaders showed up to conquer Egypt, the children of Israel fought against Pharaoh. So, in an attempt to assimilate them, he offered them the hardest and most important jobs in the service of the Sun God: farming and brick and mortar. They helped Egypt exceed its luxurious food security goals and even solved Pharaoh’s treasure storage problems. The children of Israel planned and dug an irrigation system so that when the Nile flooded according to the stars, they made efficient use of its water and grew healthy crops in great abundance. Pharaoh used the ingenuity of the children of Israel to devise ways to haul massive, good quality stones from remote quarries. They built structures so large and sturdy that they can still be seen today from space. In fact, there are still some people around who believe the work was done by aliens!

When the treasure cities of Pithom and Ramsees were finally built for Pharaoh, he was very pleased, but the children of Israel did not take pride and glory in their work or embrace the Egyptian way of life. They wouldn’t walk like an Egyptian, talk like an Egyptian, or even wear Egyptian clothing. They wouldn’t pray to cats and jackals or even people with crocodile heads. They didn’t even eat Egyptian food even though they helped grow it. Well, since they weren’t interested in becoming Egyptian, Pharaoh tried oppressing them in hopes that they would leave, but the more he oppressed them, the more their numbers grew. In a final attempt to rid Egypt of the children of Israel once and for all, Pharaoh made a new law for the Hebrews:  “Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive.”[2]

Shortly after this unusually cruel and utterly uncivilized law came into effect, a Hebrew woman from the house of Levi gave birth to a son. Now, it doesn’t take an alchemist to know that if a baby is thrown into a river it will drown. This woman didn’t want her neighbors to think she was stupid – or worse, a bad mother – so, to avoid bringing shame to the house of Levi, she cast him into the river her own way: “she got a rush basket for him, made it watertight with pitch and tar, laid him in it, and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. The child’s sister stood some distance away to see what would happen to him.”[3]

Moses Breviary of Chertsey Abbey

14th century illustration in an illuminated ‘S’ from Breviary of Chertsey Abbey (Bodlein MS. Lat. Liturgy. d. 42, fol. 006r) (image: LUNA)

Well, as it turned out, Pharaoh’s daughter was taking a walk with her maids that day and she noticed the basket by the riverbank. She ordered one of her maids to go down and get the baby and bring it back to her. When it was opened, Pharaoh’s daughter saw the baby crying and “she was moved with pity for it.”[4] She realized it was a Hebrew baby. At this moment, the baby’s sister stepped up and asked Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and fetch you one of the Hebrew women to act as a wet-nurse for the child?”[5] Pharaoh’s daughter told her to do so and she brought the baby’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter agreed to pay the woman to nurse the baby for her as long as she brought the child to her when the nursing was done. Now, it was against the law to let a Hebrew baby boy live, but we all know that a father (even if he is Pharaoh) can never tell his daughter no. When the baby was brought to Pharaoh’s daughter, she decided to raise the child as her own. Pharaoh’s daughter called the baby Moses[6] because she “drew him out of the river.”[7]

In Marie de France’s Breton lay Le Fraisne (Le Frêne), the heroine received her name in a very similar way as Moses. She was called Fraisne because she was found as a baby in an ash tree outside an abbey.

Though Marie de France’s Lays were written in the 12th century, they may have been quite popular for a couple hundred years, because a 14th century version in Middle English survives in the Aunchinleck Manuscript.[8]  Here is the scene from this Middle English telling where Le Fraisne is named:

And for it was in an asche yfounde,
Sche cleped it Frain in that stounde.
(The Freyns of the “asche” is a freyn   
After the language of Breteyn;
Forthe Le Frein men clepeth this lay   
More than Asche in ich cuntray). (v.229-234)[9]

The reasons why these babies were left out and found are a little different in these two stories but also strikingly similar. In Le Fraisne’s case, it all starts with two rich, noble, and courteous knights who were neighbors. They married around the same time and when the first knight’s wife gave birth to twins, he sent a messenger to tell his friend the good news. Now, the knight who received the message had a wife who was envious, arrogant, and prone to lying. When she heard the news she laughed out loud in a mocking tone and said, “I can’t believe your friend would announce embarrassing news in such a proud way! You know what they say about twins, right? It means two men were involved! Your friend is announcing to the entire land that he is a cuckold!”

Needless to say, the knight was embarrassed and instantly rebuked his wife, “I can’t believe you would say such a thing about my fellow knight and his wife. They are the most respectable people we know!”

The messenger and the servants heard what the knight’s wife said and told everyone they knew what happened. The story spread like wildfire through the entire Breton countryside and before a week had even passed, she was the most hated and despised noble in Brittany.

Well, the same year, the knight’s wife got pregnant and wouldn’t you know it, she gave birth to twins. Now the knight’s neighbor gets his revenge! As you can imagine, the knight’s wife is devastated. She resolves to kill one of the babies. She would prefer to ask for God’s forgiveness than to suffer the humiliation of everyone hearing that poetic justice had been served. The lady’s maid begs not to kill the baby. She promises her lady that she will take the baby to a monastery, leave it anonymously, and never speak of it again to anyone for as long as she lives. The lady agrees and wraps the baby in fine linen and drapes a fine piece of brocaded fabric her husband brought back from Constantinople over the baby. She also ties a golden ring that held a large precious stone to the baby’s arm with a piece of ribbon:

Le Fraisne v121-134 from Harley 978

Detail of Le Fraisne lines 121-134 (transcribed below) from Harley 978 (13th century) f. 128v (image: British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts)

En un chief de mult bon cheinsilenvolupent l’enfant gentil

e desus un paile roe

sis sire li ot aporté

de Constentinoble u il fu

unques si bon n’orent veü

a une piece d’un suen laz

un gros anel li lie al braz

de fin or I aveit une unce

el chasten out une jagunce

la verge en tur esteit letree

la u la meschine iert trovee

bien sacent tuit veraiement

qu’ele est nee de bone gent. (v.121-134)[10]

Elles enveloppent l’enfant de noble naissance dans une fine toile de linet la recouvrent d’une soierie ornée de rosacesque le seigneur avait rapportée à sa femme d’un séjour de Constantinople:on n’avait jamais vu si belle étoffe!La mere attaché au bras de l’enfant,avec un de ses lacets, un gros anneaud’or pur d’une once:Le chaton portrait une hyacintheet une inscription courait autour de l’anneau.Ainsi quand on trouvera la petite fille,Tout le monde pourra être sure

qu’elle est de bonne famille.[11] (v.121-134)

They wrapped the noble child in a cloth of fine linen and then placed over her the finest piece of striped brocade which her husband brought from Constantinople, where he had been. With a piece of her ribbon, the lady attached to the child’s arm a large ring made from an ounce of pure gold, with a ruby set in it and lettering on the band. Wherever she was found, people would then truly know that she was of noble birth.[12]

I love that, a minute ago she was prepared to kill the baby but now she wants whoever finds the baby to know that she comes from a rich and noble family and should be treated with the respect and given the resources rich and noble people are accustomed to receiving.

Anyway, the maid rides out into the night, finds a monastery and places the baby in the branches of an ash tree. When the porter wakes up early the next morning, he sees the brocaded fabric dangling from the tree and when he goes to investigate it, he finds the baby. It’s a baby girl. He brings it to his wife and she nurses the baby. When the baby is done nursing, the porter brings her to the Prioress and tells her all about how he came to find the baby. The Prioress decides to adopt the girl as her niece and she names her Le Fraisne (the ash tree).

Moses and Fraisne are similar in that their births were kept secret, they were found by someone, nursed, adopted by a strong woman (in Moses’ case, Pharaoh’s daughter and in Fraisne’s case, the Prioress), and named based on how they were found.

Moses was in danger of being killed because of Pharaoh’s law and Fraisne was in danger of being killed because her mother was afraid of being humiliated – which is ironic because she’d probably already endured the worst of the public’s ridicule by insulting the knight whose wife had twins.

Elora Danan's birthmark

Elora Danan’s mark from Willow (copyright 1988 Lucasfilm, Imagine Entertainment, MGM. image: rottentomatoes.com)

In George Lucas’ Willow, the evil queen Bavmorda imprisons all of the pregnant women in her realm so she can find and kill a baby girl who is prophesied to end her rule. When the newborn is found with the mark (curiously on the arm which is the same place the ring was fastened to Fraisne), a woman escapes with the baby before the evil queen can kill the her. The woman sends the baby down a river in an ark of rushes. The baby is found by an unlikely hero and the evil queen’s dominion falls. Lucas uses the famous ark of rushes from the Moses story for his tale of a female savior. Now, Fraisne didn’t turn out to be a savior or a great prophetess in Marie de France’s lay, but she does get the chance to be reunited with her mother and she marries the best knight in the land. Marie, though, may have been the first poet to give a girl the chance to play the part of the foundling.


[1] Metallica, “Creeping Death,” Ride the Lightning (Elektra, 1984).

[2] Exodus 1:22, KJV

[3] The Oxford Study Bible Revised English Bible with the Apocrypha, Ed. M. Jack Suggs. Katharine Doob Sakenfield, James R. Mueller (New York, 1992), Exodus 2:3-4.

[4] Exodus 2:6

[5] Exodus 2:7

[6] Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of The Bible, James Strong, Hebrew word 4872   מֹשֶׁה Môsheh drawing out (of the water), i.e. rescued. (KJV Exodus 2:10, “And she called his name Moses: and she said, Because I drew him out of the water.”)

[7] Exodus 2:10

[8] “Lay Le Freine: Introduction”, The Middle English Breton Lays, ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo, 1995). Available online: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/freiint.htm

[9] “Lay Le Freine”, The Middle English Breton Lays, ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo, 1995). Available online: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/freine.htm

[10] References to Marie de France in Old French are taken from Lais de Marie de France, Ed. Karl Warnke (Paris, 1990).

[11] References to Marie de France in Modern French translation are taken from Lais de Marie de France, trans. Laurence Harf-Lancner (Paris, 1990).

[12] References to Marie de France in Modern English translation are taken from The Lais of Marie de France, trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (London, 1999), p.62.

Medieval Tour Guides and The Stations of Jerusalem

reblog medieval pilgrimage

Psalter Mappa Mundi

reblog medieval pilgrimage2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edel Mulcahy is on a quest to popularize the idea of family in the medieval pilgrimage. Lately, she’s been leafing through dusty old guide books of medieval pilgrimage sites and in her latest dispatch, she introduces us to The Stations of Jerusalem from Ashmole 61 – a saddle-book of late medieval miscellany. If seeing one of your favorite saint’s teeth and a holy kneecap is your idea of a vacation, well then, this post is right up your alley!

Siegfried and Kriemhild in Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen (1924)

Siegfried meets Kriemhild in Fritz Lang’s 1924 film Die Nibelungen (image: cineoutsider)

What is it about family visits that make them unnecessarily complicated? Is it the distance that we need to travel? The hassle of taking time off from work? Or is it the meal planning and that special trip to the grocery store? How about the housework?

Somehow family visits require more preparation than any other type of visit. There’s more stress, situations have the tendency to become more emotional than usual, and there is often at least one elephant in every room.

It isn’t always like that – but it happens often enough in our minds that we brace ourselves to deal with it. When family visits go well, there are tremendous sighs of relief. Everyone is overjoyed and we promise in all sincerity to stay in better touch as we say our good-byes.

So, since the drama of the gods mirrors our own drama – and vice versa – it should be of no surprise to us that family visits have the tendency to turn the lives of epic heroes upside down as well. This happens to Sifried in Das Nibelungenlied, a 13th century epic poem in Middle High German.

In the story, Sifried (Sigurd from Norse Myth) marries Krimhild and brings her back with him to his castle in the Netherlands.[1]

Though Krimhild misses her homeland of Burgundy on the Rhine, she is very happy to be Sifried’s queen in the Netherlands. After several months pass, Sifried and Krimhild receive a message from Krimhild’s parents: they want the newlyweds to come home for the holidays this year.

Sifried initially reacts to this perfectly reasonable and normal request in the exact same way we might find ourselves reacting – albeit in epic proportions:

Sifried summoned his friends     to help him decide what he ought to do.

He asked for their advice:        should he go to the Rhine?
“My good friend Gunter, and all    his family too, would like me
to attend a celebration.    And I would be eager to go
if only Burgundy     were closer, and not so long a ride.

“And if they ask that Krimhild also     come as their welcome guest.
Counsel me, my dearest      friends. How will she get there?
If they asked me to fight a war,     battling in thirty lands,
they’d find Sifried ready    and willing to help them with eager hands.”[2]

In Sifried’s mind, it would be logistically easier to wage war in thirty lands! He’s a seasoned warrior who can win any dispute on the battlefield, so it’s only natural that preparations for a family visit begin with a strategic planning session. Sifried’s friends suggest a way for him to visit his Burgundian in-laws in style:

The bold warriors answered:    “we think you ought to attend.
Take this journey. That        is our best advice. Ride
with a thousand knights and let them     escort you down the Rhine.
That will ensure your honor    from the very moment you arrive.”[3]

There are many complicated things at play here: awkwardness in dealing with family, Sifried’s need to keep up his regal appearance, uncertainty in customs – but what I find the most amusing is his initial reaction.

He moans about the distance to travel as we might do when we know full well that we’d gladly take a 20-hour flight to a destination for a vacation on our own – or in Sifried’s case, wage a war across thirty lands. What is it about family – the people we love more and share more memories with than anyone else – that complicates visits?

I wonder if the 13th century audience laughed during this part of the poem, “Even Sifried the dragon slayer freaks out at the thought of a family visit!” But, fortunately for us, this is where our similarities with Sifried end. The visit is an especially bad one for poor Sifried: it ruins his marriage and he tragically dies.

We’re lucky that we don’t have too many things in common with this epic hero…


[1] We last saw Sifried in an earlier post courting Krimhild in Burgundy. There, he earned the respect of Krimhild’s father with his talent for winning wars.

[2] Das Nibelungenlied, Trans. Burton Raffel (New Haven, 2006), verses 757-759, p.106

[3] Das Nibelungenlied, verse 760, p.107

osewold_the_reve_satisfaction_uk

Though all of the pilgrims from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales agreed that the Knight’s Tale (the first tale told in the tale-telling game) was of good moral substance – “In al the route nas ther yong ne oold / That he ne seyde it was a noble storie” (MiP l. 3110)[1] and they thought it was worth the while hearing it, “And worthy for to drawen to memorie” (MiP l. 3112)– we have to admit that it was a quite a long tale for one sitting. It had three intermissions! 

So, to spice things up a bit and get the blood flowing in everyone’s limbs again, the Miller tells a dirty joke.

The party enjoyed his dirty little fabliau for the most part, “for the moore part they loughe and pleyde.” (ReP l. 3858) While everyone deserves to have a bit of fun on vacation, the fun on this vacation really should be of a wholesome nature – they were on a religious pilgrimage, after all. So it’s no surprise that a member of this party was offended. 

There is plenty in the Miller’s tale for a devout Christian on religious pilgrimage to find offensive between making fun of a carpenter who is too easily convinced by a poor scholar to prepare for the end the world by “Second Flooding”, and, of course, the famously vulgar scene with a guy kissing a woman’s “nether yë.”

Surprisingly, Oswald the Reeve was the only member of the party offended by the Miller’s Tale, “Ne at this tale I saugh no man hym greve / But it were oonly Osewold the Reve.” (ReP ll. 3859-60) But, contrary to what we’d expect, it wasn’t satire on “rapture-fever” or even the lewd act in the story that offended the Reeve – no, it was all because John, the character who was duped in the tale, was a carpenter. And since Oswald the Reeve was a carpenter by trade, he saw the insult directed at someone of his profession to be an insult directed at him.

In retaliation, the Reeve tells a tale about a shifty Miller who is beat by two young scholars at his own game –stealing grain. That’s not all – the students cuckold the Miller and further humiliate him by deflowering his daughter.

This insult is just as revealing of Oswald the Reeve’s own personality as it is indicative of guild (or union) rivalries in 14th century England. 

The Reeve taking insult and impulsively choosing to use his first tale in the tale telling competition to settle a score, as petty and counterproductive as it is, provides us a window into behavior that contributed to economic and social problems in Chaucer’s day.

It was also just some lighthearted competition between two tricksters for the amusement of everyone.

In the Miller’s Tale, Nicholas the clerk convinces John the carpenter that a great flood of Biblical proportions is coming. John imagines himself Noah and prepares for the deluge. 

Chaucer references the tale of Noah’s Flood from the Biblical book of Exodus in his own comedy by way of its comedic Mystery Play. One of the most well-known Mystery (or Miracle) Plays is Noah’s Flood from the Chester cycle. 

The Mystery Plays, just like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, were meant to entertain as well as morally instruct. 

Chaucer introduces this method of storytelling when the host, Harry Bailey, announces the rules of the tale-telling game in The Canterbury Tales. In order to win a free supper paid at the expense of all of the other pilgrims, the pilgrim must tell the best tale that entertains as well as morally instructs:

And which of yow that bereth hym best of alle,
That is to seyn, that telleth in this caas
Tales of the best sentence and moost solaas,
Shal have a soper at oure aller cost. ” (GP ll. 795-99)

Though Noah’s Flood carries a comedic tone throughout the entire play, the most familiar moments of comedy are the interactions between Noah and his wife. 

Though Noah’s wife is more than willing to help her husband with the massive project of building the ark, even gathering an impressive group of animals:

And here are beares, wolves sett,
Apes, owles, maremussett,
Wesills, squerrells, and fyrrett…” (ll. 173-72)[2]

…when it comes time to actually board the vessel, she takes the opportunity to remind Noah that he’s not the boss and that this is the last thing she wants to do:

Yea, syr, sett up your seale
And rowe for the with eve!! hayle;
For withowten any fayle
I will not owt of this towne.” (ll. 197-200)[3]

 Gleason_honeymooners_1965

This isn’t the first time the two have had a scuffle. Earlier in the play, we have a scene that could fit comfortably in The Honeymooners:

In faith, Noe, I had as leeve thou slepte.
For all thy Frenyshe fare,
I will not doe after thy reade.” (ll. 99-101)[4]

Noah (Noe) responds to his wife’s disobedience by coolly asserting his authority:

Good wiffe, do nowe as I thee bydd.” (ll. 102)[5]

Noah’s wife, isn’t having that:

By Christe, not or I see more neede,
Though thou stand all daye and stare.” (ll. 103-4)

So Noah explodes into a rant about shrewish women:

Lord, that weomen bine crabbed aye,
and non are meeke, I dare well saye.
That is well seene by mee todaye
in witness of you eychone.
Good wiffe, lett be all this beare
that thou makest in this place here,
for all the weene that thou arte mastere-
and soe thou arte, by sayncte John.” (ll. 105-12)[6]

Back in Chaucer’s day, guilds would produce and perform Mystery Plays for the amusement and spiritual enlightenment of the public during festivals. There was also an element of competition in the productions as well – each guild wanted to be recognized for putting on the best performance. It was a popular venue for competition between rival guilds. 

So, by incorporating the Mystery Play, Chaucer is adding another layer to the rivalry between the Miller and Reeve pilgrims for the audience.

And, of course, since the Miller’s Tale is a tale within The Canterbury Tales – putting the carpenter in the tale of Noah’s Flood makes it a tale within a tale within a tale.

Beavis and Butt-head at the Grand Canyon

Beavis and Butt-head are amused to see poop coming from an ass of an ass in Beavis and Butt-head Do America. (image copyright 1996 MTV Productions/Paramount Pictures)

But let’s return to the Reeve’s comeback… 

Symkyn, the main character in the Reeve’s Tale is a Miller. But he’s not just any miller – the Reeve adds a detail to his description of Symkyn to personalize his jab on the Miller pilgrim, Robyn. 

The Reeve starts the description of the Miller character in his tale by pointing out that he can play the bagpipes, “Pipen he koude.” (ReT l. 3927) The Reeve’s “comeback” to the Miller pilgrim’s insult on carpenters is not only pointed at the Miller’s guild – but also directed personally at the Miller pilgrim because in the General Prologue, Chaucer mentions that the Miller pilgrim could blow and sound the bagpipes well, “A baggepipe wel koude he blowe and sowne.” (GP. l. 565)

Though the Reeve crafts his tale to get back at the Miller by repaying his insult to someone of his profession by mocking someone of the Miller’s profession – and points the jab at the Miller pilgrim himself, before he even starts telling the tale, he rambles on about what a drag it is getting old.

The Miller pilgrim is younger than the Reeve pilgrim because the Reeve pilgrim starts his comeback with something along the lines of, If I were a younger man, I’d teach you a real lesson:

“…ful wel koude I thee quite
with blerying of a proud milleres yë,
If that me liste speke of ribaudye.
But ik am oold, me list not pley for age…” (ReP ll. 3864-67)

But his rant isn’t exactly about that – he’s actually jealous of the Miller’s youth. The Reeve wants to be young again. He says that his body is old and that his grass time is done. The fresh, green grass of his youth is now dried forage and that the white hair on the top of his head shows everyone how old he is:

Gras tyme is doon, my fodder is now forage;
This white top writeth myne olde yeris;
Myn herte is also mowled as myne heris (RevP. ll.3868-70)

But he’s matured. He compares himself to “the medlar (tree), the fruit of which cannot be eaten until it has become mushy.”[7]

But if I fare as dooth an open-ers:
That ilke fruyt is ever lenger the wers,
Til it be roten in mullok or in stree.” (RevP. ll. 3868-73)

Now that he’s properly rotten, what is he ready for now? Has his wisdom ripened? 

No, he continues by telling us that the four vices of old age are, boasting, lying, anger, and covetousness: “Avauntyng, liyng, anger, coveitise.” (RevP. l. 3884) 

His talk isn’t about old and wise old men, but cranky old men who are sexually frustrated by being stuck in old bodies yet still having the desires of young men, or, as the Reeve puts it, a colt’s tooth, “yet ik have alwey a coltes tooth.” (RevP l. 3888) 

The Reeve can’t get no satisfaction! It’s a good thing the Host stopped our Reeve’s rant on the sexual frustrations of old men and made him get on with telling his tale because it was getting creepy.

 

 


[1] References to Chaucer in Middle English are taken from Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963).

[2] NeCastro, Gerard,“The Chester Cycle PLAY III (3) – Noah’s Flood,” From Stage to Page – Medieval and Renaissance Drama. Available online: http://machias.edu/faculty/necastro/drama/chester/play_03.html Accessed 01/20/2013.

[3] “Noah’s Flood”

[4] “Noah’s Flood”

[5] “Noah’s Flood.”

[6] “Noah’s Flood.”

[7] Editor’s comment. Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963), 302.

robin hood and little john disney

Robin Hood and Little John in Disney’s Robin Hood (image: copyright 1973 Walt Disney Company)

Between the publication of Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version and Maria Tartar’s The Annotated Brothers Grimm, there is some new discussion on the darker materials (sorry, couldn’t resist that one!) found in these classic tales, so I thought I’d take a look at some Child Ballads from England to hear some of the stories English kids were being told and compare them to their German counterparts and wouldn’t you know it – I found an especially violent scene from a Robin Hood story. Well, December escaped an installment of Today’s Medieval Bloodfest – I only wish I could say the same for Guy of Gisborne…

This installment of Today’s Medieval Bloodfest comes from a child ballad about Robin Hood called, “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne.” It survives as a mid 17th century manuscript (Thomas Percy Collection, British Library, Additional Manuscript 27879) but a similar plot survives from a play dated 1475.[1] Since we can’t say for certain how long this particular version of the song has been around, let’s just say the scene is 15th century…

The language looks almost like it’s deliberately trying to look old fashioned and still be clearly understood. Twinn for twain, for example – and the extra e’s on so, go, and he to make them soe, goe, and hee give it a “Jolly Ole English” look and sound. I could be wrong – anyone out there with experience in 15-17th century colloquial English can tell if this poem is trying to emulate Middle English?

In any case, let’s get on with the gore!

So, Robin Hood and Little John are hanging around drinking Thunderbird and shooting craps when, would you know it, Guy of Gisborne comes along. This tasty fellow’s looking for none other than Robin Hood, that famous outlaw the peasants and guttersnipes “phone up” whenever they need some “wealth distribution.”[2] The irony of it is Guy’s found the guy he was looking for. The boys all have a short archery competition which Guy loses terribly. To save face with these expert woodsmen, he pokes fun at his uselessness with the bow by saying things like, “Whoa, I’ll bet you’re a better shot than Robin Hood!”

This corrupt cop, Guy of Gisborne, probably thinks he can make friends with these woodsmen and have some new marksmen – or at least forest informants – on Prince John’s payroll. He’s wrong. Dead wrong.

earl of huntington defeats guy of gisbourne in jousting

Earl of Huntington (Robin Hood – played by Douglas Fairbanks) helps Guy of Gisbourne up after defeating him in a joust in Robin Hood (1922) – this courtesy is a far cry from the Robin Hood of Child Ballad 118 “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne”

So he asks Robin and Little John to tell him about themselves – you know, who they are. Robin tells Guy that they’ll tell him who they are after they learn who he is. Since Guy’s sort of on their turf, he obliges them and introduces himself first – and boy was he sorry he did, because, with a sadistic smile:

Robin pulled forth an Irish kniffe,
And nicked Sir Guy in the face,
That hee was never on a woman borne
Cold tell who Sir Guye was. (verse 42)[3]

Robin chopped Guy’s face up so bad that no one – not even his own mother – would recognize him. The language downplays the violence by using the word “nicked” like it was a slight slip of the razor during a shave. The English are masters of understatement.

Poor Guy basically begs Robin to accept a ransom – any amount – in return for his release, but that’s not Robin’s style. Guy doesn’t understand why Robin wouldn’t want to become rich. In addition to not being able to understand Robin’s motive, imagine his horror while he tries to reason with his captor:

“Thou art a madman,” said the shiriffe,
“Thou sholdest have had a knights fee;
Seeing thy asking [hath] beene soe bad,
Well granted it shall be.” (verse 51)[4]

They turn their captive loose and as he’s running for his life, if only just to prove that Guy’s bow isn’t defective, Robin hands it to Little John so he won’t miss out on a little target practice with their new acquaintance:

But he cold neither soe fast goe,
Nor away soe fast runn,
But Litle John, with an arrow broade,
Did cleave his heart in twinn. (verse 58)[5]

Little John’s swift shot is so precise and powerful that it slices Guy of Gisborne’s heart in two!

I wonder how Robin Hood and Little John spent the rest of their day…

For another installment of Today’s Medieval Bloodfest, click here.

 

 


[1] “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne: Introduction”, Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren (Kalamazoo, 1997). Available online: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/guyint.htm

[2] The Clash, “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” (CBS, 1978).

[3] “Robin Hood and the Guy of Gisborne”, Tradtional British Ballads, ed. Bartlett Jere Whiting (New York, 1955), 98.

[4] Traditional British Ballads, 99.

[5] Traditional British Ballads, 100.

Every blockbuster needs some sort of a restaurant tie-in to tempt us to buy something heavily sugared and loaded with enough artificial ingredients to turn our insides neon green. It’s the American way.

dennys hobbit menu

However you feel about Denny’s special Hobbit-inspired menu, I find it amusing to think that people might be saying, “Radagast” at Denny’s – and not just Radagast, but – Radagast’s Red Velvet Pancake Puppies®.

Radagast's Red Velvet Pancake Puppies®

As you’ve probably guessed from the title of this post, I’m not planning on heading to Denny’s to try Radagast’s Red Velvet Pancake Puppies® – but I ended up crossing paths with a “Radagast” the other day in a place where I wasn’t expecting to find him – in the very first paragraph of Alfred the Great’s Anglo-Saxon translation of the The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius:

At the time when the Goths of the country of Scythia made war against the empire of the Romans, and, with their kings, who were called Rhadagast and Alaric, sacked the Roman city, and reduced to subjection all the kingdom of Italy, which is between the mountains and the island of Sicily…[1]

Alfred the Great's Boethius De Consolatione Philosophiæ

Detail from King Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon Version of Boethius De Consolatione Philosophiæ, ed. J.S. Cardale (London, 1829) image: Google books

I think the first time I ever saw a name from a Tolkien story in a northern medieval text was in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda in a section called “The Deludings of Gylfi.”

Gylfi was a wise king who governed what we now call Sweden. After hearing many wondrous things about the Aesir and, wishing to learn more about them, he went out on a secret journey to find Asgard – the home of the Aesir. He even went disguised as an old man – just like Odin would do when he went wandering in the land of mortals.

So, Gylfi arrived at this hall whose roof was shingled with golden shields just like Valhalla – Odin’s hall in Asgard. The first person he saw in this curious hall was a man juggling seven knives. Is this a dream vision?

Further inside, “[Gylfi] saw three high-seats one above the other, and a man seated in each of them… the one sitting on the lowest seat was a king called High One, the next was Just-as-high, and the topmost one was called Third.”[2]

Fortunately for us, Gylfi asked these three kings many good questions like, “Who is the foremost or oldest of all the gods”, “What is there to relate about Ragnarök?”, and all sorts of follow-up questions about the many other things in between.

Anyway, within Snorri Sturluson’s transcript of the oral history Gylfi obtained from his interview with the three kings in that mysterious hall are a few names you’ll find familiar from The Hobbit:

Dvalin
Nori
Bifur
Báfur
Bömbör
Nori
Ori
Óin
Thorin
Fili
Kili
Glóin
Dóri

and, of course, Ganodálf.

a warm welcome

“I hope I never smell the smell of apples again!” said Fili. “My tub was full of it.” An illustration from a 1947 Swedish edition of The Hobbit. image: The Annotated Hobbit, ann. Douglas A Anderson (Houghton Mifflin/Boston, 1988).

Coming across a name or a word from a Tolkien story in a northern medieval text always brings me a little joy. It’s fun to find them for the first time – and better yet – to forget about them and then find them again – which is what I normally do…

Though his inclusion of these words – or at least the general sound of them – was probably primarily to evoke the atmosphere and worldview of these old poems that inspired him to write, I like to think that it was Tolkien’s way of saying, “I was here” – or “This is one of my favorite books.”

 

 


[1] King Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon Version of Boethius De Consolatione Philosophiæ, trans. J.S. Cardale (London, 1829), 3. Available online: http://books.google.com/books?id=WBwGAAAAQAAJ

[2] Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, trans. Jean I. Young (Berkeley, 1954), 30,31.

My wife read me a passage from Jeanette Winterson’s memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? the other day that reminded me of language bridges:

“In the 1960s many men – and they were men not women – attended evening classes at the Working Men’s Institutes or the Mechanics’ Institute – another progressive initiative coming out of Manchester. The idea of ‘bettering’ yourself was not seen as elitist then, neither was it assumed that all values are relative, nor that all culture is more or less identical – whether Hammer Horror or Shakespeare.

 Those evening classes were big on Shakespeare – and none of the men ever complained that the language was difficult. Why not? It wasn’t difficult – it was the language of the 1611 Bible; the King James Version appeared in the same year as the first advertised performance of The Tempest. Shakespeare wrote The Winter’s Tale that year.

 It was a useful continuity, destroyed by the well-meaning, well-educated types who didn’t think of the consequences for the wider culture to have modern Bibles with the language stripped out. The consequence was that uneducated men and women, men like my father, and kids like me in ordinary schools, had no more easy everyday connection to four hundred years of the English language.

 A lot of older people I knew, my parents’ generation, quoted Shakespeare and the Bible and sometimes the metaphysical poets like John Donne, without knowing the source, or misquoting and mixing.”[1]

The King James Version of The Bible is still read in America today, but it’s not as popular among Protestant Christians as it was fifty years ago. 

Liberal and moderate Protestant Christians often distance themselves from the King James Version, associating the text with fundamentalist and conservative Christians. 

And many of those conservative Christians even agree that the language of the KJV is archaic and have replaced their copies with NRSV’s, NIV’s, NKJV’s, Living Bibles, and a myriad of others. 

Since the KJV was assembled and translated according to the theology of the Church of England, it omits certain scriptures found in the Catholic Bible. [edit: The original 1611 Edition King James Version contained the Apocrypha intertestamentally (between Old Testament and New Testament) but was later removed by the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) brought to a head by the British Puritan Revolution and the British Civil wars…]

Modern Catholics prefer other English translations like the New American Bible, New Jerusalem Bible, and the Catholic edition of the NRSV.  

For whatever reasons we choose to read and study an English language translation of the Bible other than the King James Version, as long as the KJV is left to collect dust on the bookshelf, the gulf between our English language of the past and the one we speak today widens, becoming more foreign with each generation.

Or does it? I look at the decrease in popularity of the KJV not so much in the interest of the future of Christianity and its various denominations, but from the perspective of how to bridge our modern language with older versions of it – and, more specifically, (I’m finally here!) how it affects popular appreciation of Middle English texts.

sunday school

“Any of you guys ever go to Sunday school?” Dr. Jones assumes CIA agents know their Bibles in Raiders of the Lost Ark (image copyright 1981 Paramount Pictures/Lucasfilm Ltd./Walt Disney Company)

So if you don’t read the King James Version to help bridge the gap between Modern English and Middle English…

 Will texting improve your ability to read Middle English?

There was some chatting on Chaucernet a couple of months ago about whether or not experience texting and Instant Messaging can surprisingly put someone at sort of an advantage when trying to learn to read Middle English. 

In text messaging and Instant Messaging, words can often be abbreviated in unconventional ways. And when words are abbreviated, the vowels are often the first to go. 

So, someone who is accustomed to quickly cycling through possible vowels combinations to identify the right word in a particular context for a text message may apply that skill to crack a puzzle in a Middle English text and have no problem trying out an eo even though puple is printed to get people – or see that schewyng is showing

Also, the speed of IM communication lends itself to spelling errors, so – like it or not – those who IM regularly practice reading varied spellings of even the most common words. Varied spellings often occur in Middle English texts. Take, for example, the spelling of the word way (when meaning road, way, or route) in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Sometimes it appears as weye, but other times it’s spelled way – even wey as well. 

Though weye and wey are totally incorrect spellings in Modern English, they might just be understood in an Instant Message.

Meanwhile, a spelling bee champion struggles to accept that the written works of the father of English literature are chock-full of spelling errors

How about joining the Peace Corps?

Imagine you’re posted in a West African country where the borrowed English words are pronounced in a pidgin accent somewhere between French and their local languages. Together becomes tugeyda, for example. You notice that these English words in these local languages are written on signs and documents, the spelling is not all that standardized – especially in rural towns and villages – it’s phonetic.

It’s the same thing for the words in their own local languages. Take, for example, the Hausa word wanzame (traditional barber). It is sometimes written as wanzamé, wanzamey, wanzami – and probably ten other ways too. 

Plus it’s written phonetically in both Arabic and Twareg Tifinagh scripts with just as much variety…

a022niger

A traditional Hausa barber (wanzame) creates suction for bloodletting using a cow horn (kaho) in rural Niger (image: Jon Weaver)

Say you’re trying to learn these local languages so you can actually get stuff at market for a fair price and not accidentally say vulgar things when commenting on the flavor of fermented millet porridge. 

[True story! I was once visiting a nearby village with a local volunteer and, noticing ginger was added to the porridge we were kindly served upon our arrival, I wanted to acknowledge the kind gesture because in poorer villages the millet porridge was usually prepared plain. But I didn’t say the word ginger – I said another word that sounded a lot like ginger – a woman’s… oh never mind!] 

Though it isn’t exactly the phonetic system one would find in a dictionary (when in Rome), you make quick notes of new words you hear using the roman alphabet and applying some loose mixture of French and English pronunciation rules.

These scribbles that you will study, especially the ones written very hastily, might remind you of Middle English words like togider (together), seide (said), pees (peace), and knoulechide (confessed/acknowledged).

Anyway, there was a time that I lived (and sort of worked) in rural Niger and while I was there – for better or worse – Middle English became a little easier for me to read.

Just read Middle English out loud in a French accent

My Chaucer professor suggested once that I try this. It initially helped me “fake” it but it also helped me find many English words that didn’t resemble English words until they were read using French pronunciation rules. [I’m finding now a little German helps too.]

Reading Middle English out loud – or at least phonetically out loud in my head – helps me recognize certain words that I may have otherwise missed. 

I remember there was this guy in my Chaucer class who always ended up dropping into this sort of Irish accent when he read Chaucer aloud. He was American, but I guess he was tapping into the way he talked several hundred years ago or so… in any case, it worked – or as Chaucer would say, “But algates therby was [he] understonde.” (MLT l. 520)[2]

What has helped you bridge the gap between Modern English and Middle English?

bush


[1] Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (New York: Grove Press, Grove/Atlantic, 2011), 28.

[2] Chaucer in Middle English from Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963).

christmas in camelot

Ever since our matchless maiden mother Mary delivered our Christ in the most modest of accommodations in Bethlehem, wondrous things have always occurred during Christmastide. That was the selling point that won the Saxons to Christianity during the 6th century – or at least it should have been – and it’s the same thing that mesmerizes us today when we are in presence of life-size inflatable snow globes and the like.

So, as we gather with our neighbors on Christmas Day, we will almost certainly find ourselves surrounded by poor souls who do not share our same ideas of The Holiday. These heathens do not know, for example, the importance of Christmas to King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Wondrous things occurred in Camelot during Yuletide, yet somehow we tell stories of other things said to have occurred on this special day.

Let us not forget the miracle of the sword of the stone – for it was during Christmas that Merlin advised the Archbishop of Canterbury to summon all of the barons in the realm to London for a very special Christmas celebration:

Thenne Merlyn wente to the archebisshop of Caunterbury / and counceilled hym for to sende for
alle the lordes of the reame /
and alle the gentilmen of armes that they shold to london come by Cristmas vpon payne of cursynge[1]

Let’s let the King of mankind show us, on this auspicious day, who should be the king of our realm:

And for this cause that Jesus that was borne on that nyghte
that he wold of his grete mercy shewe some myracle
as he was come to the kynge of mankynde for to shewe somme myracle who be
rightwys kynge of this reame[2]

The barons and their knights arrived to a miraculous sight – and it wasn’t what was inside the church either. The visitors were so marveled by the sword in the stone exhibit that Merlin installed, that the Archbishop nearly lost his audience to it:

Thenne the peple merueilled & told it to the Archebisshop I commande said tharchebisshop
that ye kepe yow within your chirche /
and pray vnto god still that no man touche the swerd tyll the hyghe masse be all done[3]

It’s amusing to picture the Archbishop getting ready for his big appearance at mass, only to realize that everyone was outside looking at something else – on one of the biggest church days of the year no less!

Today many men spend mass with their eyes glossed over in a fantasy football game. Not much has changed because in the medieval world, these same men passed their mass thinking about the jousting tournament that would take place after the service. For, it was really the promise of feasting and swordplay that brought these men to London and not the Archbishop’s wise words. After mass, the men gathered around the sword:

So whan all masses were done all the lordes wente to beholde the stone and the swerd /
And whan they sawe the scripture / som assayed suche as wold haue ben kyng /
But none myght stere the swerd nor meue hit He is not here said the Archebisshop that shall
encheue the swerd but doubte not god will make hym knowen[4]

The knights stuck around London for a few more days of revelry. In medieval Britain, Christmas, or “Christmastide” was a festival that typically lasted twelve days and New Year’s Day was part of the Christmas celebration. There was a great tournament in London that year on New Year’s Day and it was on that same day that Kay was in such a hurry to get to church on time for morning mass that he left his sword back at the house. He asked his foster brother Arthur to fetch it for him – and we all know what happened next…

arthur draws the sword from the stone

Arthur (played by Nigel Terry) draws the sword from the stone in John Boorman’s Excalibur (image: copyright 1981 Orion Pictures/Warner Brothers)

In medieval Britain, presents were typically exchanged on New Year’s Day and not Christmas Day as is done in America today. Though “Christmastide” typically lasted twelve days, we see in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that King Arthur didn’t follow the status quo – Camelot partied for a full fifteen days!

This kyng lay at Camylot upon KrystmasseWith mony luflych lorde, ledez of the best,Rekenly on the Rounde Table alle tho rich brether,With rich revel oryght and rechles merthes.Ther tournayed tulkes by tymez ful mony,

Justed ful joilé thise gentyle knightes,

Sythen kayred to the court caroles to make.

For ther the fest watz ilyche ful fiften dayes,

With alle the mete and the mirthe that men couthe avyse… (Fitt 1, v. 37-45)[5]

The king spent that Christmas at CamelotWith many gracious lords, men of great worth,Noble brothers-in-arms worthy of the Round Table,With rich revelry and carefree amusement, as was right.There knights fought in tournament again and again,

Jousting most gallantly, these valiant men,

Then rode to the court for dancing and song.

For there the festival lasted the whole fifteen days

With all the feasting and merry-making that could be devised… (Part 1, v. 37-45)[6]

Well, since Arthur pulled the sword from the stone on New Year’s Day and everything, he expected no less of his subjects on that holiday. He was notorious for refusing to eat at holiday dinners until he had either heard some wondrous tale or had at least seen someone jump “over men and horses hoops and garters lastly through a hog’s head of real fire”[7]:

…he wolde never eatUpon such a dere day er hym devised wereOf sum aventurus thing an couthe tale,Of sum mayn mervayle, that he might trawe,Of alders, of armes, of other aventurus,Other sum segg hym bisoght of sum siker knyght

To joyne with hym in justyng, in jopardé to lay

Lede, lif for lyf, leve uchon other,

As fortune wolde fulsun hom, the fayrer to have. (Part 1, v. 91-99)[8]

…he would never eatOn such a special day until he had been toldA curious tale about some perilous thing,Of some great wonder that he could believe,Of princes, of battles, or other marvels;Or some knight begged him for a trusty foe

To oppose him in jousting, in hazard to set

His life against his opponent’s, each letting the other,

As luck would assist him, gain the upper hand. (Part 1, v. 91-99)[9]

So, be sure to tell a tale of wonder during your Christmas holiday and challenge a mate to a sword fight or a wrestling match or something – it will make our trewe kinge happy.


[1] Caxton’s Malory in Middle English from Middle English Compendium (leaf 20v) available online: http://name.umdl.umich.edu/MaloryWks2

[2] Caxton’s Malory in Middle English (leaf 20v)

[3] Caxton’s Malory in Middle English (leaf 20v)

[4] Caxton’s Malory in Middle English (leaf 20v)

[5] Sir Gawain and The Green Knight: Middle English Text with facing Translation, Ed., Trans. James Winny (Peterborough, 1992), 4.

[6] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 5.

[7] The Beatles, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Parlophone, 1967).

[8] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 6.

[9] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 7.

In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, we get a glimpse of Smaug the dragon. Dragons love gold above anything else and Smaug is no exception – he coils himself around the treasure horde of the dwarf king under the mountain.

Smaug7

Don’t worry Tolkien Estate, it was only a bit of fun for a batch of homebrew!

In a tale from Norse Mythology, a dragon plays the role of a man corrupted by the greed of gold. This corruption manifests itself physically. It changes the person, sort of like how symptoms of a physical or mental illness can change a person’s appearance and personality.

Though dragons are creatures in Norse Mythology – we shouldn’t confine ourselves to always thinking of them in that literal sense. They do not always hatch from eggs as do chickens or snakes. Men can become dragons.

In the tale of Otter’s ransom, we have Fafnir the dragon. He, like Smaug, hordes a trove of treasures mined and crafted by dwarves. But unlike Smaug, Fafnir was not born a dragon. He becomes a dragon from the greed of gold – greed of a particularly cursèd horde of gold: Otter’s ransom.

One day Odin, Loki and Hoenir were traveling in Midgard, the land of men. They followed a river which brought them to some falls. There, they noticed an otter eating a salmon. Only it wasn’t actually an otter – it was Hreidmar’s son Otr in the form of an otter:

There hunted hungry

Hreidmar’s offspring:

the silver salmon

sweet he thought them.

Otr in otter’s form

there ate blinking,

on the bank brooding

of black waters.[1]

Fischotter (Lutra lutra) image: copyright 2012 hellboy2503/Jörg David (original URL)

Loki, never one to miss an opportunity for mischief and games, picked up a stone by the riverbank and threw it at the unwitting creature who sat there feasting on its catch:

Then Loki boasted of his catch – with one throw he had bagged an otter and a salmon. They took the salmon and the otter away with them and came to a farm which they entered.[2]

They called at the gate of the farm. When the owner, Hreidmar, asked who it was at the gate, Odin called out to him, “We are three travelers looking for a night’s lodging. We bring a salmon and an otter fur, both of which you are welcome to it in exchange for your kind hospitality!”

Hreidmar quickly called his two sons, Fafnir and Reginn, to his side and told them that their brother Otter had been killed and that his murderers were waiting at the gate wanting supper and a bed for the night.[3]

Fafnir and Reginn came at Odin, Loki, and Hoenir with fore-hammers of the smithies to kill them, accusing them of killing their brother Otr, who often shape-shifts as an otter when he fishes by the falls. As there was a blood price in those days for killing kin, Odin asked Hreidmar what Otr’s blood price would be:

“Peace,” said Odin. “We have slain thy son, it would seem, but it was unwittingly that we did the deed. We will give a recompense for the death of thy son.”[4]

Hreidmar named a blood price for Otr. They would bring a piece of treasure for every hair on the otter skin as Otr’s ransom:

Redgolden rings.

Ransom costly,

This fell must fill,

This fur cover![5]

Since Loki got them into this mess, Odin and Hoenir made Loki go to Svartalfheim, the world of dwarves, and bring back the dwarf Andvari’s horde.[6]

There he searched until he found a silent black lake, and in that lake he wriggled his fingers… until they closed upon the gills of a large pike, which Loki jerked up onto the shore.[7]

“What fish have I found

in the flood leaping,

rashly roaming?

Ransom pay me!”[8]

It was Andvari in fish form. Loki told him that he would let him go only if he paid Otter’s ransom. Andvari reluctantly agreed and turned back into his dwarf form. Andvari gave Loki all of his gold, but kept from him one single ring. Loki noticed this, and demanded that Andvari give up the ring:

“What hides thy hand

Thus hollow bending?”[9]

To which Andvari replied:

 “The ring is little –

Let it rest with me!”[10]

But Loki would not let Andvari short Otter’s ransom:

“All, Andvari,

All shalt render,

Light rings and heavy,

Or life itself!”[11]

If Andvari gave up this perfect ring to Loki, he would lose his ability to make treasures. This ring, like the Philosopher’s stone, was free of any impurity. He who has this ring, possesses the secret power of making gold. Andvari cursed Loki for taking the ring from him:

“The ring with the rune

Of power upon it:

May it weigh down your fortune,

And load you with evil,

You, Loki, and all

Who lust to possess

The ring I have cherished.”[12]

This wasn’t the first time anyone had cursed Loki. So why should he put any stock in this angry old dwarf’s threats? After all, Loki won the gold fair and square – it’s not like Andvari saw him coming.

So Loki brought Andvari’s horde, and the ring, back to Odin. Since Odin quite liked the ring, he kept it for himself. Hreidmar flayed the otter, filled the inside of the skin with gold and then covered every little hair. After the very last piece of gold was placed on the otter’s skin, a single whisker remained. Realizing the ransom was one treasure short, Odin surrendered the ring to Hreidmar. It covered the whisker and Otter’s ransom was paid. With their debt paid, Hreidmar let Odin, Loki, and Hreidmar go.

After their guests from Asgard left, Reginn and Fafnir asked Hreidmar for shares of the gold. Hreidmar refused their request – he would not even part with the smallest bit of copper. Reginn and Fafnir turned against their father and murdered him for his horde. After this was done, Reginn realized that Fafnir had no intention of sharing the gold either. Fafnir told his brother Reginn that if he ever tried to take some of the gold for himself, he would kill him. Reginn left the farm and:

…Fafnir went up on to Gnita Heath and, making a lair there, turned himself into a dragon and lay down on the gold.[13]

The cursèd ring from Otter’s ransom – the piece of treasure that covered the very last whisker on the otter’s dead body, which had the power to pit father against sons and brother against brother, turned Fafnir into a dragon. It also played a part in causing the tragic deaths of Sigurd and the Valkyrie Brynhild – and, depending on your interpretation, even played an important role in bringing about Ragnarök – The Twilight of the Gods – “THE END OF THE WORLD!!!!…or the beginning,” as Aughra from The Dark Crystal would say…

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Aughra tells Jen about the Great Conjunction in The Dark Crystal. image copyright: 1982 Universal Pictures/Sony Pictures/The Jim Henson Company

 

 


[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, “The New Lay of the Völsungs” The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún Ed. Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York, 2009), 67.

[2] Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, trans. Jean I. Young (Berkeley, 1954), 110. (Italicized emphasis: mine)

[3] Douglas “Dag” Rossman, The Northern Path (Seven Paws: Chapel Hill, 2005), 72.

[4] Padraic Colum, Nordic Gods and Heroes (Dover: Mineola, 1996), 144.

[5] Tolkien, 68.

[6] Some say Loki went to Queen Aegir who gave him a magic net with which to catch Andvari and that Loki returned to the same falls – Andvari Falls. As deeds are always returned in Norse Mythology, a magic net was also used to catch Loki when he tried to hide in fish form from the Gods when they brought him to justice for killing Baldur.

[7] Rossman, 73.

[8] Tolkien, 68.

[9] Tolkien, 69.

[10] Tolkien, 69.

[11] Tolkien, 69.

[12] Colum, 149.

[13] Snorri Sturluson, 112.

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