Dwarfmess.

My wife just scolded me.  It doesn’t happen very often, as I am generally quite docile and well-behaved, so I figure I ought to pay attention.  “When are you gonna write another blog post?!” she says.  “I said on my blog that yours was smart and funny, but people are just gonna think it’s hella old!”

Well, that’s no good.  Domestic tranquillity is my watchword, and it looks like making tasty egg scrambles (kale, mushrooms, zucchini, scallions, shallots, false bacon) isn’t going to be sufficient today.

You’ll (hopefully) be glad to know that while I haven’t been attending to the ol’ blog very carefully, it’s not that I haven’t been translating.  In fact, part of the reason that the W-SG has been on the back burner is that I’ve wanted to make sure that my energy, which has been somewhat limited of late, was going toward the actual translation, rather than the documentation of said translation.  And while I’ve been doing a good amount of outside reading, it mostly hasn’t been Norse-related (with the possible exception of two novels by Halldor Laxness), so I haven’t had any fun stories to send your way.  I’m between books right now (mostly just re-reading graphic novels while waiting for the shower to heat up), so I’ll try to adjust that too.

But this week is a school break, so there’s plenty of energy to go around!

I have not forgotten that I owe you a follow-up post to the dwarves post of many months ago.  It has hung heavy o’er my head, you had better believe.  So it’s only right, I think, to return there before proceeding on to talk about more recent translation struggles and successes.  You may want to go back a few posts and read it before I continue.

(…doo doo doo…)

OK, great.  Let’s forge ahead.

So, as you’ll remember, I’m trying to tell a single unified, evocative, readily-understandable story of dwarf creation at the hands of the Aesir that alludes to three separate stories (dwarves as maggots, dwarves from Ymir’s flesh, dwarves from earth & stone).  At the same time, the original text is telling two different stories that don’t match up perfectly.

Original Text Story #1 (stanza 9) has the gods in council deciding that they should create some dwarves (perhaps to help them figure out what to do with ALL THIS GOLD) out of Ymir’s body parts, or, metaphorically, earth.

Original Text Story #2 (stanza 10) has the first two dwarves, Durinn and Motsognir, go on to create the rest of the race by molding them out of clay.

I may have screwed myself over by bringing in this little chump. I...I don't think I'm capable of creating a more disgusting dwarf than him!

[PRONOUN ALERT! I think there is probably ambiguity about whether it's the gods or D&M who do the molding, as it just says "They."  Since D&M appear in the previous line, though, it's a fair guess that it's them.]

[TEXTUAL SIDE NOTE! There's a very strong case to be made (specifically by Ursula Dronke in her edition of the poem) that not only that long list of dwarf-names is a later addition to the lost original manuscript by a dwarf-mad scribe, but that so too is stanza 10.]

You’ll notice that there’s no specific mention of the maggotgenesis, so maybe I shouldn’t even be trying to introduce it here.  However….Snorri’s interpretation of this whole affair in Prose Edda equates OTS#1 with the maggots, while also incorporating OTS#2, which had been shoehorned into the textual tradition prior to, say, 1225:

[The gods] issued their judgments and remembered where the dwarves had come to life in the soil under the earth, like maggots in flesh.  The dwarves emerged first, finding life in Ymir’s flesh.  They were maggots at that time, but by a decision of the gods they acquired human understanding and assumed the likeness of men, living in the earth and the rocks.  Modsognir was a dwarf and Durin another.  So it says in The Sibyl’s Prophecy…

So Snorri sees the reference to Ymir’s flesh as a clear reference to the maggotness of dwarves, and I’m willing to trust his judgment.  Plus, I also just really like that story, and I do want to make sure that a modern reader is thinking of non-Tolkien dwarves by making them as nasty as possible.

I’ve already told Ymir’s story in a previous stanza, so my readers should know his name and his resting place(s), making him available for a callback here.

1 To their doom-stools draw the doughty gods
2 to moot, to mete, to mull their thoughts:
3 Words finish.  Fistfuls of fleshy Ymir:
4 his mealy marrow they muddle with blood –
5 Silt and saltwater, stones and clay –
6 From that muck and mortar manikins shape.
7 Thumb dull sockets in the sallow ooze:
8 palely flickering  pinpricks of eyeshine.
9 After master Motsognir and minion Durinn,
10 through the wounds of the world worm dwarvenkind.

The first two lines are a refrain repeated word for word a few times; in fact, it’s actually common enough to be abbreviated in one of the manuscripts.  I’m hoping that having line 4 as an appositive to line 3 successfully juxtaposes the blood ‘n’ guts element with the earthiness.  I’m also hoping that words like “fistfuls of fleshy Ymir,” “mealy,” “muck and mortar,” and “dull sockets in the sallow ooze” get across the overall unpleasantness of these dwarves, which so upset Freyja in the previous dwarfpost.  Finally, I’m hoping that line 10 successfully alludes to the maggot, or “worm,” backstory.  If we think of the landscape as being made of Ymir’s broken body, then it seems legitimate to think of caverns and crevasses as “the wounds of the world,” those places where it doesn’t quite knit together anymore.  I’ve also delayed naming this creation explicitly as “dwarvenkind” until the final line in hopes of preventing readers from reverting to those preconceived notions of dwarves.  Instead, readers see the step-by-step creation process before the revolting end result.

My illustrator/best palbro Ryan has put together a sketch of what these little dudes might look like.  I think it’s the first time I’ve had his art on the blog.  I’m pleased with how it turned out, and I wanted to show it to you too!

I assume he's just singing a pleasant mining shanty and not moaning with despair...

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6 Comments

  1. mordicai said,

    February 25, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    I think a lot about the division between dwarf & goblin. It really bothers me, actually. I think about it…well, I think about it a lot.

  2. February 25, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    OK, so (a) this comment tickled me immensely so thanks for that; and (b) that’s a good point, especially because there’s no clear group of goblins or orcs or whatevs in Norse myth. I am curious, when you think of goblins, do you think of Tolkien goblins like from the Hobbit, or more nasty orc-y things, or Labyrinth-style goblins of a sort of impudent muppety style, or GURPS goblins with top hats and mischief?

    Damn, that reminds me that I always wanted to play GURPS Goblins. I feel like I really missed out.

  3. mordicai said,

    February 26, 2011 at 9:22 am

    Well– lately I think a lot about how dwarf & goblin are kind of synonyms until Prof Tolkien shows up, right? I have a very personal interpretation of Goblins, I admit. Not dumb mindless minions– I like the crazy industry, the faerie tale logic. If Orcs in LotR were the horrors of WWI, I like my goblins to be the horrors of WWII. They are extremes, exaggerations. Caricatures of the human condition.

    • February 28, 2011 at 9:39 pm

      I wonder if an interesting middle ground between the two would be the German kobold? Has some mine associations, has some mischief and malevolence too…

      Do you think of LOTR orcs as WWI? I got that much more out of the Hobbit goblins, whereas the Uruk-hai seemed more WWII in that it was evil with a purpose. Rather than, y’know, just an obsession with explosions. The goblins were just little Italian futurists circa 1910 or so.

      • mordicai said,

        April 25, 2011 at 7:31 am

        I think LotR was very heavily influenced by WWI. Not as, like the Prof says, an allegory or anything, but I don’t think you get out of the trenches without them getting into you, knameen? I think the Uruk-Hai are a different animal entirely; they are a very WWII creation, that is true. I mean, more to the point I think they are Industrialists, right? They are consumption unchecked.

  4. April 25, 2011 at 9:33 am

    Yeah, as much hay is made of LOTR as premonition of WWII, there’s a boatload of ghosts of the Great War in there. The Uruk-Hai, though, are not one of them.


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