I like folk tales and have never really out-grown fairy tales. I’ll admit I’m a sucker for a good grown-up retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. (Ever seen Angela Carter’s bizarre 1980 film A Company of Wolves where the wolf was actually a werewolf and the main metaphor was first sexual awakening in a young girl? Good stuff, weird stuff. No, really, very, very weird. Also, if you’re jonesing for a good adult retelling of the old tales check out Tanith Lee’s Red as Blood, very good stuff!)
But the old tales were more than just a fun, little diversion for young children. We’ve turned them into that in the same way that Jazz when it was first introduced was scandalous and infuriated moral outrage in the Moral Majority and now it’s considered quaint. The tales were sacred, but were a connection to Ethnic identity and also a source of common knowledge. They had a deeper meaning to the ancient world.
I started reading the Norse tales when I was a kid out of a sense of curiosity. Many of the books I read referenced them and I wanted to know what the source said. (Turned out not much because most of the original tales are actually lost to time. What we have now are really copies of copies.) They were engaging enough and I found them as fun as any folk tales, but when I returned to them as an adult I saw them in a new light.
I already knew, as I’d learned in school, that these stories worked on many levels and provided many services to ancient listeners. Yes, they were entertainment, but they were also morality tales, stories of how not to be (what not to value), or how to be (what you should value). I like to think of the Raven tales and the other tales of tricksters doing things that society sees as wrong and getting hurt doing it. Or the opposite, tales of Thor, being, well, Thor and showing great strength and bravery – the perfect Viking – someone that everyone admires and wants to emulate. The modern version of Thor (other than the comic book hero) could be Captain America or Superman. A trickster could be comic characters from sitcoms like Al Bundy from Married with Children, or Homer Simpson from the Simpsons.
And I also knew that these tales were also instructions on how to live life and do basic daily tasks. The Iliad gives a detailed account of soldiers polishing shields, sharpening swords and putting on armor. This extreme detail was the ancient world’s instruction manual on how to do these things. Useful, given that they didn’t have writing and therefore needed some useful way of transmitting these essential instructions to the next generation. (I can’t imagine what the ancient world’s Ikea manuals would be like.)
What I started to figure out on my latest re-read was that the value of the tale was in the prestige that the tale granted the listener. Each tale basically said, “this is the story of our people.” (And, yes, in certain way the Old Testament can also be seen as folk tale.) This is our heritage and our sacred link to the past and to the gods or the heavens or whatever they defined as divine. The tales gave them a definition of who they were as a people, their culture, and what values they were to hold dear, so basically a picture of identity. They spoke of where the people who told them came from, why the world is the way it is and how they fit into it.
The Song of Rig, one of the tales of the Edda (basically the tale of Odin, Thor, Freya and the gang) starts with one of the lesser known gods, Heimdall, and follows him through his journey of Middle Earth, the place between the world of the gods and the world of the giants (heaven and hell, basically). It shows how he started all of the races of humans: the serfs, peasants and the warriors, and the line of kings, in other words, how he created the peoples of Scandinavia. It also follows one of his sons who becomes the first in the line of kings and how this son embodies all of the best attributes of not only his father but also of humankind. How like a king to claim this, but okay, this guy was somehow perfect.
This is from the book The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland who claims in the index that there are better sources of myths (there are several books on that translate and tell the myths), but his seems pretty well researched. I’ve been reading the author’s notes in the back that serve as a companion to the various Norse tales. He talks about how they were collected, that he draws from Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic poet who was born many centuries after the poems were created, who drew from two sources: the Prose Edda and Voluspa. He also mentions several other sources but sided with Sturluson for most of his accounts. But it’s obvious from the author’s notes that much of the tales that are being re-told are pieced together from sources that are second hand. The Song of Rig isn’t even complete. It just trails off and Crossley-Holland left a footnote stating that this is all the manuscript they could find (though it does feel pretty much finished).
It reminded me of how difficult it is to preserve the past and also how malleable the stories are, because they were oral tales, but told in different ways over the many years. Each village had their own version of the same age old tale. So there were several versions of the Story of Rig all throughout Norway and perhaps other parts of the world. Tales crossed over from region to region. The god Tyr, mentioned in the Tale of Loki’s Children (where we learn about the inception of his scary son Fenir the wolf) was actually a Germanic god of war who wandered into Norse tales and there is a version of him in Irish tales and East Indian tales. That guy really got around.
But they never made up any new tales, because in the ancient world originality wasn’t a thing instead they depended on new and more original ways of telling the same old story over and over again – that was the beauty of the thing. Oh, and one more thing, they weren’t stories.
Well, I mean stories as you and I define them. Remember this is the ancient world and they did things very differently from us. Like for instance they didn’t write anything down. That didn’t happen until long after the tales were old. None were written around the time they originated (with the exception of the ancient Chinese tales, but they were way ahead of everybody writing-wise).
But if they weren’t stories, what were they? They were poems.
“Wait, what? Poems?” Yep!
Yes, they have a narrative structure and characters, but they’re all poems. Really long poems and most of the poems are grouped together. For instance, La Morte D’Arthur, the Arthurian tales are really a bunch of vignettes, or short stories, about the different people and events that surrounded Arthur and the Arthurian Court, the Tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one. They all come together to form a bigger picture of the legend of Arthur, his rise and his fall. But, yeah, every single story you can possibly think of as a tale, myth or folk tale was written as a poem. In fact, the prose version of storytelling (any kind of writing that isn’t a poem) is actually a really recent invention. The Iliad and the Odyssey? Yes. The Arthurian tales? Yup. The Arabian Nights? Those too. Grimm’s Fairy Tales? Probably (difficult to tell – they were only oral tales and the Grimms only collected from one source, but it’s very likely they were). But the story of Robin Hood, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, even everything Shakespeare (and his contemporaries) wrote all poetry.
The Song of Rig is also an example of one smaller tale fitted within the larger epic. It is a story within the Eddas which basically the story of Odin, Thor, Freya and the gang. We often read them as prose pieces, but that’s not how the reader (or rather back then, the listener) would hear them. They would be in verse. But the other thing that the tale would have is Form, because a poem requires structure that most prose stories do not (though I think that it is the best way to elevate one’s writing).
But what is Form and what is it about form that elevates a tale?
Let’s start with the first part of that question. According to X.J. Kennedy’s An Introduction to Poetry, 7th Edition, Form “as a general idea, is the design of a thing as a whole, the configuration of all its parts. No poem can escape having some kind of form, whether its lines area as various in length as broomstraws, or all in hexameter.” So, Form is the design of the thing, or rather, the physical structure of it. You could even call form the architecture or the structure of the poem, patterns within a story, repetitions and reflections of images and bookends – some type of action is started and then ended in a similar way.
In the Song of Rig we have those patterns on a couple levels, plot and language. Plot-wise Rig, or Heimdall, his actual name, repeats the same action over and over. He wanders the countryside, finds a couple in a hall, eats and sleeps with them (particularly the wife) and leaves after three days. Each time this creates a new society of people and this happens three times. The Norse really dug the number three. If this sounds a bit like a fairy tale, well, same continent different section.
Language-wise the repetitions happen when the teller makes the same pronouncements again and again. “Who can hear the sound of grass growing? The sound of wool on a sheep’s back? Who needs less sleep than a bird?” Lots of “who” questions, then the answer “Heimdall, Heimdall, Heimdall.” Then at the end of the story another character, Heimdall’s son who is given the title Rig by Heimdall is asked a series of “who” questions and the answer is “Dan the Danp, Dan the Danp, Dan the Danp.” Hmm, seems like the chorus to a song. Yes, songs repeat certain phrases.
In fact, between Heimdall’s departure and the birth of his children are the same exact interludes: “Every day the two stallions dragged the sun across the sky, and Day himself rode at ease round the world. But then Night tightened the reins of her mount, and each morning the face of the earth was dewy with foam from his bit.” Time passes with the exact same interlude. And then we get a list of the god’s children’s children.
Sure, they’re not sophisticated patterns, but it was kind of beautiful to see the repetitions build a story, and a story eventually build a legend, and legend build a culture.
And when I see a modern story find a way to artfully manipulate its images, metaphors, plot actions and language to create beautiful patterns and an entertaining story – not easy to do – it creates a feeling of the sublime in the reader, the same feeling the ancient audiences must have felt when listening to their favorite tales being handled deftly by an expert storyteller. No, wonder the Norse called storytelling a sublime gift of the gods.