LEGENDS OF ICELAND.*
ALTHOUGH schoolboy days, like most other days, may seem all the pleasanter the further they are removed from us, yet they really did contain some recurring periods which we are sure we used heartily to enjoy. One of these was the first half-hour in bed, after the lights had been put out. Then story-telling began. Before we had been at school for one half (we never talked of .terms in our boyhood) we knew all our bedroom stories by heart, but that made them all the better. A fresh chum was welcome, no doubt, partly because he brought us a new stock of stories, but chiefly because we had a new listener for the old ones. We shall never forget how we used to call for our favourites. They always wound up with the " Three Irishmen on a Bridge." We used to make ready for the climax, and laugh out half our laughter, and then hug the rest down under the bedclothes. Of course it was not all laughing matter. We took a fearful delight in robbers and spectres, and we knew enough of Ireland to thrill at the name of the Banshee. French fairies were at a discount ; we all knew them, and trifled with them ; but they did not stir us like our own homebred giants and little hobgoblins. A version of Grimm's Hausmarchen (with plates by Cruikshank) was more to our taste, and Puck himself grew less familiar to us than Rum- pebtiltskin. We wonder what our old playmates think of demono- logy now. Many have gone into Orders, and are bound to speak respectfully of ghosts. A few of them are spiritualists, and Cock Lane must be a Holy Land to them. But most have grown hardheaded,—we wonder if they have grown hardhearted also. If not, we are sure that now and then they will be pleased to remem- ber poor old Bogie. He is not yet so much respected here as in Germany. His pedigree, however, is beginning to be studied.
+ Icelandic Legends. Collected by Jon Arneson. Translated by George E. J. Eorroll and Eirikr Magnusson. Second Series: with Notes and so Introductory Essay. London: Longman'', Green, and Co. ISM
In short, even in England there is some taste for " comparative mythology."
The fairy folk still linger in Iceland, in spite of " the church- going bell ;" indeed, they have become Christianized enough to have church bells of their own ; and they have no reason as yet to fear a still more serious tocsin, the railway whistle. But other causes may kill them. They cannot bear exposure. They may house the benighted shepherd, or court the fair moss-picker, or even take field service under the farmer, but on the whole they are shy, and deserve their old name of Hid-Folk. Must they not be shocked at being so completely shown up by Jon Arneson? Seriously, we suspect that his big book may have fallen heavily upon these popular whimsies. Philosophy will call it a good riddance, but it is at least unfortunate that the harmless spirits should always be the first to suffer. The baser demons are made of sterner stuff, and mix their filthy witch-broths in the very centres of newspaper enlightenment. Bastards of the brain, no doubt, one and all of them, but we make no pretence to scientific prudery, and we feel a personal liking for the fairies and loathing for the witches. A few of the latter, too, may chance to be attractive, but not many of us are so fortu- nate as Tam O'Shanter, and the hags and imps of modern superstition are nearly always enough to " turn our stomach." What charmed us in &in Arnason's collection was his fairyland. His details of elfin life renewed our boyhood, when we used to pore over the notes to the Lady of the Lake, all about the Daoine Shi' (Man of Peace), the merman, and the water-kelpie. Mr. Magnusson, in his preface to the present volume of translations, points out that many of the earlier settlers of Iceland came from Britain, and he appears to think that this may have given a Celtic tinge to some of the myths of his country. Not but what the colonists from our shores were themselves almost exclusively Northmen, and their few Celtic thralls soon spoke and thought like the rest; but their residence in Scotland and the Isles, and their constant intercourse with them throughout the heroic ages, must have familiarized the Icelanders with many Celtic traditions. There are some similarities that are strikingly close. For instance, our countryman, Gervase of Tilbury (circa 1210,) relates how a woman of Provence was borne down to the bottom of the Rhone by a Drac (or water-fairy), and set to nurse a child ; how she rubbed one of her eyes with a salve that gave it the power of seeing spirits ; how one day (after returning home) she met the Drac at the fair of Beaucake, and asked him after the child, and how the Drac struck the power out of her eye. The same particu- lars are still current in the Highlands and in Iceland, and they are equally characteristic of the Daoine Shi' and of the liuldu-Folk (Hid-Folk).*
The foregoing remarks would be more in place, perhaps, were we noticing the first series of Legends translated by Messrs. Powell and Magntisson. The present series treats of Outlaws and Princes of fairy romance. But we confess that they are interesting to us only so far as they are connected with the mythic beings of anti- quity. The mountain spirits may disguise themselves in hats and jerkins, and build huts, and even try a little rude cookery, and call themselves outlaws ; yet they often show themselves to be nothing else than trolls, half-cunning, half-stupid man-eaters, with all the lusts and some of the powers of the Giants of Chaos. Other outlaws are quite human in their habits, living in farm- houses and villages, under the rule of a priesthood, but there is something mysterious in the border line that encircles them. A shepherd in search of his flock is blinded by fog or Snowstorm, ho knows the whole countryside, yet he suddenly finds himself in a strange valley, with strange faces around him, till he is welcomed by a fair girl whose face is half familiar to him, and her mother proves to be his own long-lost sweetheart. He may still believe himself in a nest of outlaws, but when he regains his entire flock, and turns homeward with tidings of the stray village beauty, and learns at parting that the storm had been sent him for that purpose, he must be dull indeed if he has no suspicion of their being elves. Thus the supernatural atmosphere gives a certain poetic tinge to these pastoral stories ; their purely human interest is very limited. Nor is this to be wondered at. The Icelanders are few in number, and almost equal in station. They hardly know anything of town life or political struggles, and a peasant girl's highest ambition is to marry the parson. Their hopes and fears are monotonously rural, their friends and foes are the elements ; in a bad year the witches and trolls are abroad, in a good year the gentler spirits. And even these beings, though more lively in Iceland than elsewhere, suffer from their isolation ; their cleverest feats • The drat Fairy tale In Robert Hum's Drolly of Cornwall is precisely the same story.
are copied from those of their forefathers. Hence, when the farm household is sitting " in the dusk," the story-teller often varies his stock with a version of some foreign fairy romance. To ourselves the specimens here given appear somewhat tedious. But then we must confess that we have thought the same of nearly all new stories of any kind, since the great days of Vanity Fair. We must also confess that we have taken counsel with a younger reader, and that he pronounces these Legends to be famous. So we suspect that we are past the age for regular romances, or at least that our " boy's heart " can only be stirred by those of our boyhood. Moreover, we are still more prejudiced in favour of the scraps of verse in the old story-books, even if they are nothing more than " Fee, low, luta ;" and so now, when the magic mirror sings to Vale, about " Vilfride, Fairer-than-Vala," we can only remark that the words are very like what it used to sing about Snowflake (Grimm's Sneewittchen), only not so good. In point of fact, they may be better ; and we will not assert that the mirror did not sing Icelandic before it sang German ; but there is nothing peculiarly Scandinavian in this, or in most of the tales. One exception must be mentioned, that of Mwrtholl, the bird-princess, whose doom was forecast by the three weird Blue- Capes. For a comparison between her and Freya (sometimes called Mardall), with her tears of gold, we refer the reader to K. Maurer's Islandische Volkssagen (p. 287). We find that he has also anticipated our mention of the magic mirror ; and that, after Mzrtholl, he has proceeded to the tale of Brjam, which we had already marked out for fuller notice. It is a mere coincidence, for, long as we have known four-fifths of his excellent volume (pub- lished in 1860), we have never opened this part of it (Altirchen) till now. It is not enough generally known to make us despair of being the first to present Brjam to our readers.
One of the favourite figures in Northern story is that of a lubberly youth, who lolls about the kitchen hearth whilst the others are sporting and feasting. His kinsfolk call him an idiot, and take his goods to themselves, till some day he suddenly turns round upon them, dumbfounders them with bitter words, attacks them alternately with club and lawsuit, and makes them repay him tenfold. This type represents a strong character, the growth of which has been so slow as to be unnoticed, but which was really sluggish at the outset. The counter-type to this is the youth who shams idiocy, like the elder Brutus. Both types are oddly combined in Brjam. His story is childish enough in itself, but there is a peculiar interest attached to it. There was a King (it says) who had a great herd of cattle ; at the King's gate dwelt a churl, who had one fair cow. The King sent men to barter for this cow, but the churl refused. A quarrel arose, and the King's men slew the churl. They saw the seven sons of the churl cry- ing round their father's body, and asked them where they felt the smart. The children clapped their hands upon their breasts, all except Brjam, the eldest, who clapped his hands behind him and gibbered. He was spared as a harmless idiot, but the others were slain. Brjam grew up at the King's gate, and went in and out as he pleased. His words were always wild, yet a strange fate seemed to follow them ; but nobody thought much of this till afterwards. One day, when the King gave a feast, Brjam was seen in the smithy, cutting wooden pegs. They asked what he meant to do with these, and he answered, " Avenge father I not avenge father! " "Thou art a likely sort of fellow," said they, and left him. Then he took steel, and pointed the pegs with it. And he stole into the hall, and crept round the table where the King and his men sat drinking hard ; and he nailed their leggings to the benches, and stole out again. But now, when the feast broke up, they were all fast ; and each accused the other, and they fought together until none were left alive. And the upshot of it all was that Brjam took service with the Queen, and pleased her well, and married her daughter; and he left off playing the gaby (lagdi of allan gapandlt). The readers of Saxo Grammaticus will readily perceive that Brjam is a rustic avatar of Amlethus, (Shakespeare's Hamlet), and much might be written for and against- the idiocy of Brjam, after the style of the essays on the real or feigned madness of Hamlet. The magic power of Brkim's random sayings reminds one of superstitions elsewhere connected with idiocy, especially in Mohammedan countries. At some future time we may consider the question whether the legend made any impression on the mind of Shakespeare, similar to that which it made upon the popular mind of Scandinavia. At present we will only mention that Anaodi is still used for a fool or lubber. Its etymology is uncertain. N. M. Petersen suggests a Cymric origin, and adduces the Welsh amdlawd (poor wretch) as possibly a cognate word. It is curious that the humbler Hamlet really does bear a Celtic name, Brjam being the usual Icelandic form of Brien.
To turn popular tales from one language into another requires a rare knowledge of both. Archaisms are often indispensable, but it is also indispensable to know exactly how far they are suitable to the modern ear and palate. It has a very odd effect, for instance, to find our translators continually using rede instead of counsel, in the middle of an ordinary sentence. One of their pet phrases, too, "as wont as he was," is not only ungraceful, but un-English. Again, the pretty opening scene of Geirlaug and Grcedari is half spoilt by such uncouth patchwork as " cradle- dweller" and "swaddle-belt." These and many similar faults of style are merely vexatious, but to call the trees which marked the two innocent graves " sorb-trees " (p. 662) is a positive blunder-. The service (here hideously misnamed sorb) is a Southern tree, rare even in England, unknown so far North as Iceland, and quite distinct from the real legendary tree, the mountain ash. The two- trees belong to the same genus, but the fruit of the former is. greenish brown, whereas the latter (as every one knows) is decked with clusters of bright scarlet berries. If the name of mountain ash is too formal for our authors, half England and all Scotland will supply them with another name, Rowan or Roun- Tree, which has the merit of resembling the Icelandic (reynir). The Rowan is a holy scaredevil all over Europe ; and none can say whether it derived its virtues from the Indian Mimosa, which struck Bishop Heber as so exactly like it in form and in attributes (Journey in Upper India, Vol. I., p. 524), or whether they are twin offshoots from the roots of some Aryan Yggdrasill. By the ghost of our common grandmother, then, let not its identity be disturbed ! In spite of minor blemishes, how- ever, this volume will be deemed a lucky windfall by the English devotees of " folk-lore." We fancy that we may credit Mr. Mag- nusson with the whole of the long and interesting introduction. It abounds too much, to our own taste, with things that are "horrible and awful ;" but even Vampires, perhaps, deserve to. have their historian. There are also several striking touches in the descriptions of wild scenery and natural phenomena, and their effect upon the imagination of the peasants. We cannot con- clude better than with a single example of the latter : the great- sea waves (said to be three in succession) that answer to what we term " the tenth wave," are called diag, and the comparative lull that follows them is called lag. "When a boat [in attempting to land] has taken the lag' either too late or too early, and is over- taken by the dlag, it is in most cases irretrievably lost. When such a wreck happens, it is said that a great calm steals over the deep, and this desolation of stillness is called Daudalag, Death's calm. While this prevails, and the sea seems content with its prey, other boats can land safely ; and it is said of them, ' they land in the death-calm of those who are drowned..'" (p. cxxxiv.) Surely there must be legends among the Icelandic fishermen which correspond to the solemn grandeur of this superstition. Let Mr. Magntisson's next volume be "Legends of the Sea Coast of Iceland."