Defense against the Dark Arts

I spent Friday evening with good friends Ryan, Zubin, and Max as we prepared ourselves for a new role-playing campaign that Ryan’s going to be running for us.  New dice were handed out; character ideas were kicked around, revised, and scrapped; gaping holes in the party’s capabilities were discovered and papered over — who’s going to shoot arrows at us, anyway?

It’s been quite a while since we played in a serious, sustained fashion, although it was the way we spent most of our home-from-college summers.  Our two DMs could be pretty unforgiving, and while for the most part, we tried to avoid having our characters be standard hack’n’slash sociopaths, we would be presented with a real dilemma when we captured an enemy spellcaster.

I — usually playing a paladin or something — generally objected to killing prisoners, and we recognized the value of getting information out of them to make the rest of the adventure easier.  But we also knew that they could probably cast spells while tied up, maybe just with a word or a flick of the wrist.  So it became SOP to smash fingers and yank tongues out by the root.  Not a pleasant business, but we didn’t feel like we had a choice.

We did, of course, and as usual, the sagas teach us exactly what it was.  In this particular instance, we’re considering the Saga of the People of Vatnsdal.  It’s a multi-generational family story about some good people who move to Iceland to settle.  A lot of the early chapters (I’m not done with it yet, so maybe all of it’s this way) deal with unsavory elements moving into the neighborhood and the appropriate way to deal with them (frequently violence, but as a last resort). Many of these bad seeds have magic at their disposal; it’s something of a running theme.

This particular badfellow, Thorgrim Skin-hood, is a shepherd who convinced his boss, Mar, to encroach upon some prime grazing land belonging to the protagonists Thorstein and Jokul.  They find out literally a sentence later.  They slow-play their hand, passing on the opportunity to wreck Thorgrim’s house, waiting to act until they have an airtight case.  Thorstein’s very level-headed and good at these sorts of things; Jokul’s much more impetuous.  Eventually, like a year later, they decide to confront Thorgrim and Mar.  Both have a number of followers, so it’s going to be a proper skirmish.  Thorgrim hides near the edge of the battle, promising to be useful; once the battle starts, Jokul finds his sword Aettartangi is just turning folks black and blue, but won’t cut anyone.

Suspicious, they start looking around:

Jokul said, “I see where the monster shows his face above ground.”

Thorstein said, “There lies the fox in his lair,” and Thorgrim eyed them from where he lay — this was near the river.

Jokul and both brothers rushed towards him; Thorgrim raced towards the river.  Jokul got near enough for his sword to catch him, and it cut off whatever it made contact with, that is both his buttocks right to the backbone.  The place where he ran into the water has since been known as Hufuhyl ([Skin-]hood’s pool).

Jokul said, “Now Aettartangi has bitten.”

Thorstein said, “I fancy that it will do so from now on.”

The battle goes mostly their way from here on out.  I rather assumed that Thorgrim had died in the river.  Certainly if my butt were a gaping wound and I jumped into the water, I wouldn’t really expect to come out again, but that’s why I’m not an Icelander.  He’s not all that much better off though, as the settlement states:

“Thorgrim Skin-hood will receive no compensation for his injury, and he deserves something worse.”

Men then went home and were reconciled in this affair.  Thorgrim Skin-hood left the region and settled in the north at Melrakkasletta, and remained there until he died.

So it works!  Thorgrim learns, surely to his chagrin, that his ass is well and truly worthless, and our heroes can breathe easy for half a chapter until some other jerk down the river starts human sacrifices in his little compound.



When I was wee, around this time of year, I used to go to the YMCA with my dad a few times a week, frequently to play some basketball in their big gym.  There were two full-sized courts, divided by what I recall as a big vinyl curtain.  My dad was in an adult league, so he’d be playing a full-court game on one side, and the other side was mostly kids like me noodling around.

I was never a big proponent of playing with other kids when I was six.  I far, far preferred playing my own games.  On the basketball court, I usually acted out nightly highlight reels that unspooled spontaneously as I went along, portraying multiple players (not that I knew a ton of basketball players) from both teams, announcing under my breath the whole way.

So, picture small me, mumbling and dribbling in my school hoodie, with half the court to myself.  From the far side, a ball comes rolling my way.  Idly thinking I will be helpful to someone, I kick the ball back in the general direction whence it came and get back to the exciting conclusion of Hawks-Warriors or whatever.  Suddenly…

A yank!  A gasp!  I’m being garroted by my own sweatshirt!  Apparently some other shrimp of a kid’s been chasing after that ball for far too long to enjoy seeing me boot it all the way back where it came from, and he demands revenge.

We tussle and howl and bawl out of sheer upsetness.  The grown-ups hear what’s going on and pry us apart pretty quickly.  Now, I wasn’t a slugger by any means; my style was definitely more slappin’ and clawin’ (I was reproached about this by my dad on a couple of occasions, including this one, for not fighting more like a boy).  And I’ve never been really great at keeping my nails trimmed.  And I still remember very clearly seeing, as the other kid’s dad dragged him away, the livid streaks of blood on his neck and thinking, “I win.”

I guess that’s one way to do it.  Or there’s this:

A ball game was arranged early in winter on the plains by the river Hvita, and crowds of people came to it from all over the district…Egil [who is seven] was paired against a boy called Grim, the son of Hegg from Heggsstadir.  Grim was ten or eleven years old, and strong for his age.  When they started playing the game, Egil proved to be weaker than Grim, who showed off his strength as much as he could.  Egil lost his temper, wielded the bat and struck Grim, who seized him and dashed him to the ground roughly, warning him that he would suffer for it if he did not learn how to behave.  When Egil got back on his feet he left the game, and the boys jeered at him.

Egil went to see Thord Granason [a 15-year-old friend] and told him what had happened.  Thord said, “I’ll go with you and we’ll take our revenge.”

Thord handed Egil an axe he had been holding, a common type of weapon in those days.  They walked over to where the boys were playing their game.  Grim had caught the ball and was running with the other boys chasing him.  Egil ran up to Grim and drove the axe into his head, right through to the brain.  Then Egil and Thord walked away to their people.

This incident leads to a feud which kills seven men, including the aforementioned Hegg and his brother.  After all this mess, what’s the reaction from Egil’s folks?

Skallagrim [his dad] seemed indifferent to what had happened, but Bera [his mom] said he had the makings of a true Viking when he was old enough to be put in command of warships.



Do not attend backwoods Norwegian house parties!!!

Phew.  I imagine I’ve only just gotten word to you in time.

I have been away for awhile.  You may trust that I have been personally investigating these very same hootenannies at great length and expense. We won’t talk about that, though.  Rather, let’s talk about Egil’s Saga, a tale which will conveniently support my conviction that you’re best off staying away.

Egil’s Saga is the sort of story that will keep you awake on the 6:49 am train, despite detailed lineages (including dudes like Eyvind the Plagiarist, Ozur Snout, & Ketil Snooze), because the action scenes are not only themselves off the hook, they actually remove the hook from the wall and replace it with Velcro, which is significantly more extreme.

Egil himself is a hulking, ugly, cold-blooded fighter who also happens to be one of the best poets in Scandinavia, a skill which actually saves his life at one point.  When I first read Macbeth in high school, I was told to keep track pictorially of how many buckets of blood were spilled in each scene (no joke).  Unsurprisingly, I’d spill far more ink keeping track of the same in this saga.  What I didn’t expect is that I’d have to have an appendix to keep track of the copious vomiting.

You expect a certain amount of decorum!  I was prepared for lopped limbs and split skulls.  I was psyched for stoic last words and racy insults.  The puking, however, really took my breath away.  Just as it did a farmer named Armod Beard who had the misfortune of being involved in the King of Norway’s plot against Egil.  Egil’s been tricked into spending the night snowbound at Armod’s place.   I admit I don’t fully understand Armod’s plan, but it seems to involve getting Egil and his crew as drunk as possible.  Perhaps they’ll conk out and wake up with their throats cut?

In any case, he brings in a vast quantity of very strong ale and keeps toasting, so they have to keep drinking.  Egil’s men all keel over eventually, so E. just drinks their hornfuls as well as his own, despite being warned by Armod’s daughter that something’s fishy.  Obviously, this is unsustainable to say the least, and we’re on track for a major Fiesta Foul:

He stood up and walked across the floor to where Armod was sitting, seized him by the shoulders and thrust him up against a wall-post.  Then Egil spewed a torrent of vomit that gushed all over Armod’s face, filling his eyes and nostrils and mouth and pouring down his beard and chest.  Armod was close to choking, and when he managed to let out his breath, a jet of vomit gushed out with it.  All Armod’s men who were there said that Egil had done a base and despicable deed by not going outside when he needed to vomit, but had made a spectacle of himself in the drinking-room instead.

Egil said, “Don’t blame me for following the master of the house’s example.  He’s spewing his guts up just as much as I am.”

Then Egil went over to his place, sat down, and asked for a drink.

Our hero goes on to recite a perfect verse mocking Armod for getting his namesake beard puked on, then continue to pound ale all night.  He sleeps it off in the barn, then decides he’s not done with his host.  He busts into Armod’s bedroom, cuts off the famous beard, and for good measure, jams his finger into A’s eye and gouges it out, “leaving it hanging on his cheek.”

This is far from the only example of Egil’s, er, antisocial behavior, and as I keep reading, I’ll share some more.  For example, would it surprise you to know that you probably do not want to join Egil (or his family) for a nice game of ball?

dwarf dwarf dwarf

All right, ladies and gents.  It’s time to talk about dwarves.

We tend to know our dwarves from their modern interpretations.  They like malt beer and red meat off the bone.  They have impressive facial hair and axes.  They mine (in a mine, where a million diamonds shine).  When it comes to gold, they don’t mind if they do.  They are stout little men in little clothes.

Somehow the handsomest dwarf in this post!

The Witch’s Prophecy offers a description of the creation of the Norse dwarves, whom we’ll find don’t necessarily have all that much in common with the charmers we know/love.  Indeed, one might say the ink spilt over dwarves in the poem is disproportionate to their importance, and one probably wouldn’t be wrong.

In a poem of some sixty-two stanzas spanning the ENTIRE HISTORY OF THE WORLD, eight are devoted to dwarves.  Mainly, the stanzas just list their names, which leads scholars to think they’ve just been added later by some homunculus-happy interpolator to what is otherwise a well-crafted, streamlined account.

A little too abstract...and pixelated.

Here’s a sidenote which you probably already know: this litany of dwarf-names include a bunch that may sound awful familiar.  Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Nori, Thorin, Oakenshield, Fili, Kili, Dwalin.  It’s not the full set, but all these names (including two smooshed together as “Thorin Oakenshield”) appear as names of dwarves in The Hobbit.  And the real kicker is a name that shows up right in the middle of all this crew: Gandalf, that is, “wand-elf.”  It’s speculated that this linguistic mystery of what a staff-elf (read: wizard) is doing amongst all these dwarves planted the seed for The Hobbit in the mind of Tolkien, a lover of Old English and Old Norse, as well as philology in general.  I shared that detail with my middle school Mythology class today, and a few of them saw where I was going as soon as I started name-dropping, which warmed my heart!

But, as I mentioned, the image Tolkien gives us of armored axe-men isn’t necessarily straight from his source material.  There are a couple of different origin stories regarding the Norse dwarves.  Would you like to hear about them?


A little closer, I guess?

You may remember that the Norse creation myth involves Odin and his bros tearing apart the body of the primordial frost giant and leaving them all over the place as rocks and sky and ocean and clouds.  I…I don’t know if you’ve ever smeared brains and arm meat and toes and eyeballs and butts around your living room and hoped for the best, but I’ll tell you this much for free: you will get SO MANY of MAGGOTS.  Moving wallpaper, basically.  Nice!


Well, that’s what happens.  You can’t have maggots all over your brand new world; that is failure.  If you had maggots all over your living room, you’d buy a pet bird.  If you were Odin, though, you’d do something better (a statement that is broadly true and applicable):

“They remembered the maggots that had squirmed and swarmed in Ymir’s flesh and crawled out over the earth.  Then they gave them wits and the shape of men, but they live under the hills and mountains in rocky chambers and grottoes and caverns.  These man-like maggots are called dwarves.  Modsognir is their leader and their deputy is Durin.”  (The Norse Myths, Kevin Crossley-Holland [highly recommended!])

Crossley-Holland includes in the later stories a couple more pleasant moments with these guys:

“Freyja’s distaste for the dwarves –their ugly faces, their pale noses, their misshapen bodies and their small greedy eyes – was great, but her desire for the necklace was greater.”  (from the story of how Freyja got the necklace of the Brisings)

“In the gloom the dwarves’ eyes glowed like glow-worms; they whispered and schemed and set to work.”  (from the story of the binding of Fenrir)

For more evocative descriptions of these pleasant little chaps, be sure to check out the terrific Myths Retold, as I’m sure you already have.

So there’s this one tradition, in which they’re made from maggots.  But there’s also another that we get from The Witch’s Prophecy.  We often think of dwarves as having a particularly organic connection with the earth. According to this poem, it’s because that’s what they’re made of: the same giantflesh that composes almost everything else.  In Dronke’s translation:

Then the powers all strode      to the thrones of fate

Sacrosanct gods,         and gave thought to this:

Whether they should create    companies of dwarfs

From Brimir’s blood   and Blainn’s limbs.  [both alternate names for Ymir]

They fashioned many              figurines,

These dwarfs,  out of earth…

So, strictly speaking, we really have three different ways we can imagine the gods building the dwarves: (1) from the maggots that spontaneously generated in Ymir’s corpse, (2) from the literal flesh of Ymir, or (3) from the figurative flesh of Ymir, that is, earth, stone, water, and so forth.  Any contemporary listener would have known all these stories.  Not only will my readers not be familiar, but if they have any image of dwarves at all, it will likely be the rather unhelpful one of tiny, bearded, armored axemen.  Is there a way to encompass all these stories in a couple of verses?

I think there is.  Tune in next time to find out what it is!

a game of chess (?)

I promised, quite some time ago, to talk a bit more about War Music, Christopher Logue’s “account” of the Iliad.  Fortunately, I’ve also had the chance to do a bit more translating, in between creating lesson plans for my summer school mythology course for advanced middle-schoolers.  Conveniently, there’s a bit of a dovetail there, so I’ll mention both.

Garry Wills’s preface to War Music rather knocked me on my ass.  He comes out swinging, but hard:

Translators come and go, but it is given to few poets to bring Homer crashing into their time, like a giant trampling forests.  In English, only three have done it — George Chapman, Alexander Pope, and Christopher Logue.

All three, as they say, “take liberties,” but not to get away from Homer.  Theirs are tremendous efforts toward him.  Poets who cannot or will not take such risks never get near their man.  They assemble dictionary equivalents, like that unoffending prosateur Richmond Lattimore, and call the result an epic.

Strong words!  But indeed, while Logue’s version may be a rover, it is rich and evocative.  For example, in the early confrontation between Agamemnon and Achilles, he captures both elegant poetry (honor is “like silence, like the gods,/ the movement of the stars! Beyond the stars!/ Dividing man from beast, hero from host,/ that proves best, best, that only death can reach,/ Yet cannot die because it will be said, be sung,/ Now, and in time to be, for evermore.”) and gruff soldiertalk (Paris is a “platinum maggot”; Achilles’s sobriquet for Agamemnon is not one to be repeated in polite, or even fairly rude, company).

His descriptions of action are far from word-from-word, but allow one to picture the scene in vivid detail, even be drawn into it.  He describes Achilles, pushed too far by Agamemnon’s grasping: “But those still dying see:/ Achilles leap the 15 yards between/ Himself and Agamemnon;/ Achilles land, and straighten up, in one;/ Achilles’s fingertips — such elegance! –/ Push push-push push, push Agamemnon’s chest;/ The King lean back; Achilles grab/ And twist the mace out of his royal hand/ And lift it…Oh…flash! flash!”

I mention this scene in particular because Logue’s effort toward specificity, that schoolyard shove that is as much for the benefit of the crowd as for the violence itself, was in my mind as I approached a difficult crux in The Witch’s Spell.  After the gods establish their homes, they make artifacts of gold and gad about playing board games on the grass until this golden age abruptly and mysteriously comes to its close.  Here’s Ursula Dronke’s literal translation:

They played chequers in the meadow, they were merry —

for them there was no want of gold —

until there came three ogres’ daughters,

of redoubtable strength, from Giant Realms.

Well, okay.  But what just happened?  In the next verse, the gods go rushing off and decide to create the dwarves, in a seeming non sequitur.  If we trust that there is some structure to the poem what does the board game have to do with the riches have to do with the ogresses have to do with the dwarves?  Dronke, in her commentary, proposes an idea.  Taking as an analogue a mill that produces endless gold — you’ve heard of this sort of thing in fairy tales — that is eventually destroyed by giantesses forced to work it, she posits that the game itself produces gold for the winner.  And since the gods are just playing themselves, there are no real stakes; they win no matter what.  But, when the giantesses appear, there is a threat in paradise.  Dronke posits that the giantesses challenge the gods and are on the verge of winning when the gods overturn the board in a fit of petulance or rage.  The pieces are scattered in the tall grass and forgotten, not to be recovered until the next age.   And the gods must find a new way to produce gold — hence the dwarves.

I like this idea quite a bit, and as I don’t have a better explanation, my goal’s become to depict that story while keeping it somewhat compact.  While I think it’s fine for Logue to take his digressions and invent dialogue, that also fits Homer’s style.  My poet is far more concise, and I’d like to maintain that concision wherever possible.  In this case, however, perhaps emboldened by Logue and Mills, I decided to give myself a little more room to maneuver, as I simply couldn’t find a way to make that very complex scene comprehensible without including a footnote of my own (I am no David Foster Wallace, nor was meant to be!)

At the same time, Logue’s Achilles was leaping about the room and jabbing my chest.  I had to have the scene fully pictured in my own head to be able to convey those slight hints and details and breathe some life into the confusing, awkward scene. I had to be willing to fill in some blanks and take those chances.

So first of all, at the risk of making things more foreign than need be, I decided that the gods were playing neither checkers nor chess, but rather hnefatafl, a Scandinavian variation on the theme. It’s most notable for its asymmetrical play; the King and his men begin outnumbered and surrounded by enemies and must escape to the board’s edge.  I thought the image would be a nice precursor to Ragnarok, where they would again find themselves beset on all sides, doomed to be overwhelmed.  With that said, I retained the word “chessmen” over “Kingsmen” under advisement, to help make the fact that they’re playing a board game a little more apparent.  I hope that doesn’t just cancel out this whole paragraph…

Indeed, another visual hint might be making the pieces themselves in the gods’ own images as they appear at Ragnarok, as yet unrecognizable to themselves.  Odin has not yet lost his eye, the Aesir have not yet allied with the Vanir, and so forth.  Because of this, Odin himself should be the god challenged to a game, so that he literally overthrows himself unknowingly at game’s end.  The fact that, before the giantesses arrive, they are playfully attacking their own king is made less perverse by the fact that they do not recognize him.  Perhaps he always escapes.  And it also reminds how low the stakes are; after all, the world has never really known war.  Why not laugh?  

No fine young fellow wants to imagine he'll one day be wedged in a bitty chair, wedded to a woman who's either in a state of permanent dismay or concerned about a massive zit.

The idea of Odin showing bad faith, of reneging on terms in a petty way, is an important one, as it presages other, more serious, broken oaths.  Soon the gods will betray the giant builder of the walls of Asgard, a turning point in the poem as events hasten toward catastrophe.  I wanted to fold all that history yet to unfold into a simple, thoughtless, frustrated flick of his wrist.

The giantesses’ very arrival in the gods’ enclave heralds that doom; one way or another, things will not remain the same on the swirling plane of Idavöll.  I liked very much the image of their shadow being the first sign they give Odin, enraptured with his game, of their ominous presence, like a bully stepping over a dusty recess game of marbles behind the gym.  The downside was that, for the shadow line, I really wanted to use the term “athwart” to describe the shadow falling across the board.  Alliteration dictated that the giantesses ought to be called “thurse” in that case, which is a little more archaic than I normally prefer to be.  Ryan got all up in arms about that one, saying no one would know what on earth I was talking about.   The compromise was to use some repetition — classic Anglo-Saxon poetic trick.  Call them “thurse-girls,” then “monstrous maidens,” then “ogresses,” and folks’ll figure it out from context.

I think the gold production can probably be glossed over, although Dronke may well be right about it, so I’ve moved the line about “no want of gold” to the previous stanza, where it has settled in comfortably.

Enough.  Here’s what I produced, turning Dronke’s one stanza into two of my own:

As breeze-sweep licks the lovely lushness,

they loll on the lawn; one, laughing, traps

the brawny chessmen on the bright-buffed board.

Athwart falls the shadow of thurse-girls three,

Those monstrous maidens who mean to play,

ogresses keen-eyed to outfox Odin.

They hound the champions.  Chase and checkmate.

A whine and a whisk; King’s in the weeds.

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