Popular Tales from the Norse/Origin

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Popular Tales from the Norse by George Webbe Dasent
Introduction: Origin


INTRODUCTION.

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ORIGIN.

THE most careless reader can hardly fail to see that many of the Tales in this volume have the same ground-work as those with which he has been familiar from his earliest youth. They are Nursery Tales, in fact, of the days when there were tales in nurseries—old wives' fables, which have faded away before the light of gas and the power of steam. It is long, indeed, since English nurses told these tales to English children by force of memory and word of mouth. In a written shape, we have long had some of them at least in English versions of the Contes de ma Mère l'Oye of Perrault, and the Contes de Fées of Madame D'Aulnoy; those tight-laced, high-heeled tales of the "teacup times" of Louis XIV. and his successors, in which the popular tale appears to as much disadvantage as an artless country girl in the stifling atmosphere of a London theatre. From these foreign sources, after the voice of the English reciter was hushed—and it was hushed in England more than a century ago—our great-grandmothers learnt to tell of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, of Little Red Riding-Hood and Blue Beard, mingled together in the Cabinet des Fées with Sindbad the Sailor and Aladdin's wondrous lamp; for that was an uncritical age, and its spirit breathed hot and cold, east and west, from all quarters of the globe at once, confusing the traditions and tales of all times and countries into one incongruous mass of fable, as much tangled and knotted as that famous pound of flax which the lassie in one of these Tales is expected to spin into an even woof within four-and-twenty hours. No poverty of invention or want of power on the part of translators could entirely destroy the innate beauty of those popular traditions; but here, in England at least, they had almost dwindled out, or at any rate had been lost sight of as homegrowths. We had learnt to buy our own children back disguised in foreign garb; and as for their being anything more than the mere pastime of an idle hour—as to their having any history or science of their own—such an absurdity was never once thought of. It had, indeed, been remarked, even in the eighteenth century—that dreary time of indifference and doubt—that some of the popular traditions of the nations north of the Alps contained striking resemblances and parallels to stories in the classical mythology. But those were the days when Greek and Latin lorded it over the other languages of the earth; and when any such resemblance or analogy was observed, it was commonly supposed that that base-born slave, the vulgar tongue, had dared to make a clumsy copy of something peculiarly belonging to the twin tyrants who ruled all the dialects of the world with a pedant's rod.

At last, just at the close of that great war which Western Europe waged against the genius and fortune of the first Napoleon; just as the eagle—Prometheus and the eagle in one shape—was fast fettered by sheer force and strength to his rock in the Atlantic, there arose a man in Central Germany, on the old Thuringian soil, to whom it was given to assert the dignity of vernacular literature, to throw off the yoke of classical tyranny, and to claim for all the dialects of Teutonic speech a right of ancient inheritance and perfect freedom before unsuspected and unknown. It is almost needless to mention this honoured name. For the furtherance of the good work which he began nearly fifty years ago, he still lives[1] and still labours. There is no spot on which an accent of Teutonic speech is uttered where the name of Jacob Grimm is not a "household word." His General Grammar of all the Teutonic Dialects from Iceland to England has proved the equality of these tongues with their ancient classical oppressors. His Antiquities of Teutonic Law have shewn that the codes of the Lombards, Franks, and Goths were not mere savage, brutal customaries, based, as had been supposed, on the absence of all law and right.. His numerous treatises on early German authors have shewn that the German poets of the Middle Age, Godfrey of Strasburg, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Hartmann von der Aue, Walter von der Vogelweide, and the rest, can hold their own against any contemporary writers in other lands. And lastly, what rather concerns us here, his Teutonic Mythology, his Reynard the Fox, and the collection of German Popular Tales, which he and his brother William published, have thrown a flood of light on the early history of all the branches of our race, and have raised what had come to be .looked on as mere nursery fictions and old wives' fables—to a study fit for the energies of grown men, and to all the dignity of a science.

In these pages, where we have to run over a vast tract of space, the reader who wishes to learn and not to cavil—and for such alone this Introduction is intended—must be content with results rather than processes and steps. To use a homely likeness, he must be satisfied with the soup that is set before him, and not desire to see the bones of the ox out of which it has been boiled. When we say, therefore, that in these latter days the philology and mythology of the East and West have met and kissed each other; that they now go hand in hand; that they lend one another mutual support; that one cannot be understood without the other, we look to be believed. We do not expect to be put to the proof, how the labours of Grimm and his disciples on this side were first rendered possible by the linguistic discoveries of Anquetil du Perron and others in India and France, at the end of the last century; then materially assisted and furthered by the researches of Sir William Jones, Colebrooke, and others, in India and England during the early part of this century, and finally have become identical with those of Wilson, Bopp, Lassen, and Max Müller, at the present day. The affinity, which exists in a mythological and philological point of view, between the Aryan or Indo-European languages on the one hand, and the Sanscrit on the other, is now the first article of a literary creed, and the man who denies it puts himself as much beyond the pale of argument as he who, in a religious discussion, should meet a grave divine of the Church of England with the strict contradictory of her first article, and loudly declare his conviction that there was no God. In a general way, then, we may be permitted to dogmatize, and to lay it down as a law which is always in force, that the first authentic history of a nation is the history of its tongue. We can form no notion of the literature of a country apart from its language, and the consideration of its language necessarily involves the consideration of its history. Here is England, for instance, with a language, and therefore a literature, composed of Celtic, Roman, Saxon, Norse, and Romance elements. Is not this simple fact suggestive of—nay, does it not challenge us to—an inquiry into the origin and history of the races who have passed over our island, and left their mark not only on the soil but on our speech? Again, to take a wider view, and to rise from archæology to science, what problem has interested the world in a greater degree than the origin of man, and what toil has not been spent in tracing all races back to their common stock? The science of comparative philology—the inquiry, not into one isolated language—for now-a-days it may fairly be said of a man who knows only one language that he knows none—but into all the languages of one family, and thus to reduce them to one common centre, from which they spread like the rays of the sun,—if it has not solved, is in a fair way of solving, this problem. When we have done for the various members of each family what has been done of late years for the Indo-European tongues, its solution will be complete. In such an inquiry the history of a race is, in fact, the history of its language, and can be nothing else; for we have to deal with times antecedent to all history, properly so called, and the stream which in later ages may be divided into many branches now flows in a single channel.

From the East, then, came our ancestors, in days of immemorial antiquity, in that grey dawn of time of which all early songs and lays can tell, but of which it is as impossible as it is useless to attempt to fix the date. Impossible, because no means exist for ascertaining it; useless, because it is in reality a matter of utter indifference, when, as this tell-tale crust of earth informs us, we have an infinity of ages and periods to fall back on,[2] whether this great movement, this mighty lust to change their seats, seized on the Aryan race one hundred or one thousand years sooner or later. But from the East we came, and from that central plain of Asia, now commonly called Iran. Iran, the habitation of the tillers and

carers[3] of the earth, as opposed to Turan, the abode of restless horse-riding nomads—of Turks, in short; for in their name the root survives, and still distinguishes the great Turanian or Mongolian family from the Aryan, Iranian, or Indo-European race. It is scarce worth while to inquire—even if inquiry could lead to any result—what cause set them in motion from their ancient seats. Whether impelled by famine or internal strife, starved out like other nationalities in recent times, or led on by adventurous chiefs, whose spirit chafed at the narrownessof home, certain it is that they left that home and began a wandering westwards, which only ceased when it reached the Atlantic and the Northern Ocean. Nor was the fate of those they left behind less strange. At some period almost as remote as, but after, that at which the wanderers for Europe started, the remaining portion of the


and expand too; that it really matters nothing at all, as an act of faith, whether the world is six thousand or six million years old; that it must have had a beginning; that there must be one great first cause, God. Surely there is no better way to bring His goodness into question, to throw doubt on His revelation, and to make it the laughing-stock of the irreligious, than thus to clip the wings of faith, to throw her into a dungeon, to keep her from the light of day, to make her read through Hebrew spectacles, and to force her to be a laggard and dullard, instead of a bright and volatile spirit, forward and foremost in the race of life.

stock, or a considerable offshoot from it, turned their faces east, and passing the Indian Caucasus, poured through the defiles of Affghanistan, crossed the plain of the Five Rivers, and descended on the fruitful plains of India. The different destiny of these stocks has been wonderful indeed. Of those who went west, we have only to enumerate the names under which they appear in history—Celts, Greeks, Romans, Teutons, Slavonians—to see and to know at once that the stream of this migration has borne on its waves all that has become most precious to man. To use the words of Max Müller: "They have been the prominent actors in the great drama of history, and have carried to their fullest growth all the elements of active life with which our nature is endowed. They have perfected society and morals, and we learn from their literature and works of art the elements of science, the laws of art, and the principles of philosophy. In continual struggle with each other, and with Semitic and Mongolian races, these Aryan nations have become the rulers of history, and it seems to be their mission to link all parts of the world together by the chains of civilisation, commerce, and religion." We may add, that though by nature tough and enduring, they have not been obstinate and self-willed; they have been distinguished from all other nations, and particularly from their elder brothers whom they left behind, by their common sense, by their power of adapting themselves to all circumstances, and by making the best of their position; above all, they have been teachable, ready to receive impressions from without, and, when received, to develop them. To shew the truth of this, we need only observe, that they adopted Christianity from another race, the most obstinate and stiff-necked the world has ever seen, who, trained under the Old Dispensation to preserve the worship of the one true God, were too proud to accept the further revelation of God under the New, and, rejecting their birthright, suffered their inheritance to pass into other hands.

Such, then, has been the lot of the Western branch, of the younger brother, who, like the younger brother whom we shall meet so often in these Popular Tales, went out into the world, with nothing but his good heart and God's blessing to guide him; and now has come to all honour and fortune, and to be a king, ruling over the world. He went out and did. Let us see now what became of the elder brother, who stayed at home some time after his brother went out, and then only made a short journey. Having driven out the few aboriginal inhabitants of India with little effort, and following the course of the great rivers, the Eastern Aryans gradually established themselves all over the peninsula; and then, in calm possession of a world of their own, undisturbed by conquest from without, and accepting with apathy any change of dynasty among their rulers, ignorant of the past and careless of the future, they sat down once for all and thought—thought not of what they had to do here, that stern lesson of every-day life from which neither men nor nations can escape if they are to live with their fellows, but how they could abstract themselves entirely from their present existence, and immerse themselves wholly in dreamy speculations on the future. Whatever they may have been during their short migration and subsequent settlement, it is certain that they appear in the Vedas—perhaps the earliest collection which the world possesses—as a nation of philosophers. Well may Professor Müller compare the Indian mind to a plant reared in a hot-house, gorgeous in colour, rich in perfume, precocious and abundant in fruit; it may be all this, "but will never be like the oak, growing in wind and weather, striking its roots into real earth, and stretching its branches into real air, beneath the stars and sun of Heaven"; and well does he also remark, that a people of this peculiar stamp was never destined to act a prominent part in the history of the world; nay, the exhausting atmosphere of transcendental ideas could not but exercise a detrimental influence on the active and moral character of the Hindoos.[4]

In this passive, abstract, unprogressive state, they have remained ever since. Stiffened into castes, and tongue-tied and hand-tied by absurd rites and ceremonies, they were heard of in dim legends by Herodotus; they were seen by Alexander when that bold spirit pushed his phalanx beyond the limits of the known world; they trafficked with imperial Rome, and the later empire; they were again almost lost sight of, and became fabulous, in the Middle Age; they were rediscovered by the Portuguese; they have been alternately peaceful subjects and desperate rebels to us English; but they have been still the same immovable and unprogressive philosophers, though akin to Europe all the while; and though the Highlander, who drives his bayonet through the heart of a high-caste Sepoy mutineer, little knows that his pale features and sandy hair, and that dusk face with its raven locks, both come from a common ancestor away in Central Asia, many, many centuries ago.


Pondering, this bond between created things
And uncreated. Comes this spark from earth,
Piercing and all-pervading, or from Heaven?
Then seeds were sown, and mighty powers arose—
Nature below, and power and will above—
Who knows the secret? who proclaimed it here,
Whence, whence this manifold creation sprang?
The Gods themselves came later into being—
Who knows from whence this great creation sprang?
He from whom all this great creation came,
Whether His will created or was mute,
The Most High Seer that is in highest heaven,
He knows it—or perchance even he knows not."

If we reflect that this hymn was composed centuries before the time of Hesiod, we shall be better able to appreciate the speculative character of the Indian mind in its earliest stage.

But here arises the question, What interest can we, the descendants of the practical brother, heirs to so much historical renown, possibly take in the records of a race so historically characterless, and so sunk in reveries and mysticism? The answer is easy. Those records are written in a language closely allied to the primeval common tongue of those two branches before they parted, and descending from a period anterior to their separation. It may, or it may not, be the very tongue itself, but it certainly is not further removed than a few steps. The speech of the emigrants to the west rapidly changed with the changing circumstances and various fortune of each of its waves, and in their intercourse with the aboriginal population they often adopted foreign elements into their language. One of these waves, it is probable, passing by way of Persia and Asia Minor, crossed the Hellespont and, following the coast, threw off a mighty rill, known in after times as Greeks; while the main stream, striking through Macedonia, either crossed the Adriatic, or, still hugging the coast, came down on Italy, to be known as Latins. Another, passing between the Caspian and the Black Sea, filled the steppes round the Crimea, and, passing on over the Balkan and the Carpathians towards the west, became that great Teutonic nationality which, under various names, but all closely akin, rilled, when we first hear of them in historical times, the space between the Black Sea and the Baltic, and was then slowly but surely driving before them the great wave of the Celts which had preceded them in their wandering, and which had probably followed the same line of march as the ancestors of the Greeks and Latins,—a movement which lasted until all that was left of Celtic nationality was either absorbed by the intruders, or forced aside and driven to take refuge in mountain fastnesses and outlying islands. Besides all these, there was still another wave, which is supposed to have passed between the Sea of Aral and the Caspian, and, keeping still further to the north and east, to have passed between its kindred Teutons and the Mongolian tribes, and so to have lain in the background until we find them appearing as Slavonians on the scene of history. Into so many great stocks did the Western Aryans pass, each possessing strongly marked nationalities and languages, and these seemingly so distinct that each often asserted that the other spoke a barbarous tongue. But, for all that, each of those tongues bears about with it still, and in earlier times no doubt bore still more plainly about with it, infallible evidence of common origin, so that each dialect can be traced up to that primeval form of speech still in the main preserved in the Sanscrit by the Southern Aryan branch, who, careless of practical life, and immersed in speculation, have clung to their ancient traditions and tongue with wonderful tenacity. It is this which has given such value to Sanscrit, a tongue of which it may be said that if it had perished the sun would never have risen on the science of comparative philology. Before the discoveries in Sanscrit of Sir William Jones, Wilkins, Wilson, and others, the world had striven to find the common ancestor of European languages, sometimes in the classical, and sometimes in the Semitic tongues. In the one case the result was a tyranny of Greek and Latin over the non-classical tongues, and in the other the most uncritical and unphilosophical waste of learning. No doubt some striking analogies exist between the Indo-European family and the Semitic stock, just as there are remarkable analogies between the Mongolian and Indo-European families; but the ravings of Vallancey, in his effort to connect the Erse with Phœnician, are an awful warning of what unscientific inquiry, based upon casual analogy, may bring itself to believe, and even to fancy it has proved.

These general observations, then, and this rapid bird's-eye view, may suffice to show the common affinity which exists between the Eastern and Western Aryans; between the Hindoo on the one hand, and the nations of Western Europe on the other. That is the fact to keep steadily before our eyes. We all came, Greek, Latin, Celt, Teuton, Slavonian, from the East, as kith and kin, leaving kith and kin behind us; and after thousands of years, the language and traditions of those who went East, and those who went West, bear such an affinity to each other, as to have established, beyond discussion or dispute, the fact of their descent from a common stock.


  1. [He died in 1863. This Introduction was written in 1858.]
  2. How strange is the terror of Natural Science, which seems to possess, with a religious possession, so many good and pious people! How rigidly do they bind themselves hand and foot with the mere letter of the law, forgetting Him who came to teach us that "the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life"! What are we to say of those who, when the old crust which clogs and hampers human knowledge is cracking and breaking all around them, when the shell is too narrow an abode for the life within it, which is preparing to cast it off, still cling to the crust and shell, looking, like the disciples by the sepulchre, at the linen clothes lying, and know not that He has risen in glory? These are they who obstinately refuse to believe in the "Testimony of the Rocks," who deny Geology the thousands, nay millions, of years which she requires to make her deposits in Nature's great saving-bank. These are they for whom the Nile, as he brings down year by year his tribute to the sea from Central Africa, lays down in vain layer after layer of alluvial deposit, which can be measured to an inch for tens of thousands of years. These are they to whom the comparatively younger growth of trees, the dragon tree of Orotava, and the cedars of California, plead in vain when they shew, year after year, ring on ring of wood for thousands of years. "No; the world is only five or six thousands of years old, or thereabouts. The Old Testament"—the dates in which have been confessedly tampered with, and in some cases forged and fabricated by Hebrew scribes—"says so. We believe in it we will believe in nothing else, not even in our senses. We will believe literally in the first chapter of Genesis, in working days and nights of twenty-four hours, even before the sun and moon were made, on the fourth day, 'to divide the day from the night,' and to be 'for signs and for seasons, and for days and years.' We will not hear of ages or periods, but 'days,' because the 'letter' says so." This is what our Western Brahmins say; but if they remembered that He who set sun and moon also planted the eye and ear, that He gave sense, and speech, and mind; if they considered that faith is a lively thing, elastic and expansive; that it embraces a thousand or a million years as easily as a moment of time; that bonds cannot fetter it, nor distance darken and dismay it; that it is given to man to grow with his growth and strengthen with his strength; that it rises at doubts and difficulties, and surmounts them—they would cease to condemn all the world to wear their own strait-waistcoat, cut and sewn by rabbis and doctors some thousand years ago; a garment which the human intellect has altogether outgrown, which it is ridiculous to wear, which careless and impious men laugh at when it is seen in the streets; and might begin to see that spirit is spirit, and flesh is flesh; that while one lives for ever, the other is corruptible and passes away; that there are developments in faith as in everything else; that as man's intellect and human knowledge have grown and expanded, so his faith must grow and expand too; that it really matters nothing at all, as an act of faith, whether the world is six thousand or six million years old; that it must have had a beginning; that there must be one great first cause, God. Surely there is no better way to bring His goodness into question, to throw doubt on His revelation, and to make it the laughing-stock of the irreligious, than thus to clip the wings of faith, to throw her into a dungeon, to keep her from the light of day, to make her read through Hebrew spectacles, and to force her to be a laggard and dullard, instead of a bright and volatile spirit, forward and foremost in the race of life.
  3. "But if the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorry it had so noble a godfather, and never after ear so barren a land, for fear it yield me still so bad a harvest."—Shakspeare, Dedication to Venus and Adonis.
  4. As a specimen of their thoughtful turn of mind, even in the Vedas, at a time before the monstrous avatars of the Hindoo Pantheon were imagined, and when their system of philosophy, properly so called, had no existence, the following metrical translation of the 129th hymn of the 10th book of the Rig-Veda may be quoted, which Professor Müller assures us is of a very early date:—

    "Nor aught nor nought existed; yon bright sky
    Was not, nor Heaven's broad woof outstretched above.
    What covered all? what sheltered? what concealed?
    Was it the water's fathomless abyss?
    There was not death yet was there nought immortal.
    There was no confine betwixt day and night;
    The only One breathed breathless by itself,
    Other than It there nothing since has been.
    Darkness there was, and all at first was veiled
    In gloom profound—an ocean without light—
    The germ that still lay covered in the husk
    Burst forth, one nature, from the fervent heat
    Then first came love upon it, the new spring
    Of mind—yea, poets in their hearts discerned,
    Pondering, this bond between created things
    And uncreated. Comes this spark from earth,
    Piercing and all-pervading, or from Heaven?
    Then seeds were sown, and mighty powers arose—
    Nature below, and power and will above—
    Who knows the secret? who proclaimed it here,
    Whence, whence this manifold creation sprang?
    The Gods themselves came later into being—
    Who knows from whence this great creation sprang?
    He from whom all this great creation came,
    Whether His will created or was mute,
    The Most High Seer that is in highest heaven,
    He knows it—or perchance even he knows not."

    If we reflect that this hymn was composed centuries before the time of Hesiod, we shall be better able to appreciate the speculative character of the Indian mind in its earliest stage.