Sword and potato soup

There’s an interesting little detail in one of the early stanzas of The Witch’s Spell, just after the world’s been created:

þá var grund gróin grœnom lauki

Dronke translates it as “then the ground was covered with the green leek’s growth.”

I found the mention of the leek goofy and charming, so it always stuck in my head and I wanted to retain it.  But it wasn’t at all clear to me why it must needs be a leek. I like leeks as much as the average fellow, and more than some.  Farfetch’d was always one of my preferred Pokemon.  And while I don’t wear one in my hat, I do like Fluellen enough that I’ll often say “pridge” for esoteric funsies when talking about the Golden Gate or the Huey P.  But when it comes to landscaping, I was raised with a nice grassy lawn, and that should be good enough for anyone.

The Wild Duck Pokemon, subject of an Ibsen play.

As it turns out, though, the leek is a big deal, and has a particular resonance in Norse poetry.  It shows up more than you’d expect in the Poetic Edda (and on a side note, it may even have a rune named for it).  A couple of examples, found while flipping through my copy in the cramped back of a 21-year-Camry (both from Larrington’s translation):

So was Sigurd beside the sons of Giuki

like a green leek grown up out of the grass  (Second Lay of Gudrun)

The noble lord himself came from the tumult of battle

to bring a shining leek [a sword] to the young nobleman.   (1st Helgi Hundingsbani)

So, in the first case, the purpose is to point out how much bigger and nobler Sigurd is compared to Gunnar, the grass to Sigurd’s leek.  And in the latter, the leek stands in as a kenning for a sword.

So the whole point, as Dronke goes on to elaborate in her commentary, is that everything’s better in this original Golden Age world.  The previous stanza, describing the pre-creation waste, mentions that “grass was nowhere”; Dronke argues that this progression from nothing to super-grass, i.e. leeks, is intentionally meant to emphasize how much and how quickly the growth has occurred.

And if we extend that thought to the end of the poem, in the reborn world, the gods find their lost gamepieces not among leeks, but merely in the grass, suggesting that perhaps this new world is not quite the equal of the original.    So, I’ve been playing around with a couple of ways to emphasize that element for readers who probably aren’t used to considering the leek in such a noble light; perhaps I’ll use something like “sturdy leeks” or “strongstalk leeks” to give it that extra oomph.

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2 Comments

  1. mordicai said,

    December 20, 2009 at 8:16 am

    GMO leek.

    • December 20, 2009 at 6:00 pm

      Well, between eating Fafnir’s heart and bathing in his blood, if anyone’s using unfair performance enhancers in Norse mythology, it’s Sigurd.


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