I took with me to my retreat in the Lincolnshire Wolds J.R.R. Tolkien’s alliterative verse interpretation of the material in the Völsunga Saga and the parallel material in the Elder Edda. Tolkien’s recreation of these stories was originally written as an exercise in Old Norse fornyrðislag (‘old lore metre’), but the recent publication of these ‘lays’ for the first time, and the extensive notes and commentary by Christopher Tolkien, makes for absorbing reading. I mention them here because they reminded me, following previous posts about shape-shifting, of the extensive references to this in the Norse tradition.
The preamble to the saga is a story about three of the Norse gods: Ódinn, Loki and Hœnir. Before seeking shelter for the night they look for food and see an otter killing a salmon. Loki kills the otter and they take it, with the fish to Hreidmar’s house where they ask for shelter. But it turns out that the otter was Hreidmar’s son who turns himself into an otter to catch fish. In recompense they agree to give enough gold to cover the otter skin and Loki demands this of a dwarf called Andvari who asks that he be allowed to keep one special ring of all the gold he has. Loki refuses so Andvari curses the ring. The curse begins to work immediately when Hreidmar’s son Fáfnir kills his father for the gold and subsequently turns himself into a dragon in order to guard it. Much later in the saga there is further shape-shifting as the characters Sigmund and Sinfjötli become werewolves while hiding in the forest
Wide they wanderedAs the complex of tales unravel and the fates of later generations are affected by the cursed ring, there is also shape-shifting between human forms. These examples are all willed transformations for purposes of attack or defence. When previously discussing the Mabinogi I noted the example of mice destroying the harvest. In the Norse material the tone is grimmer, the magic darker and the adoption of animal forms more common. But if I try to put my finger on the difference between the Celtic and the Norse material, and what lies behind the ‘faery’ qualities of the Celtic stories and the ‘witchy’ grimness of the Norse tales, it seems to be that distinction between the Other-world and this world is far more interactive in the Celtic stories. Characters seem to move between the worlds and the provenance of individual characters is fluid. In the Norse tales the human characters are manipulated by a dwarf’s curse or by Ódinn’s interventions (he pierces Brynhild with a sleep thorn when she disobeys him and Sigurd reawakens her with a sword that Ódinn had presented to his ancestor). Fate, as an active force, pervades these tales and there is no escaping it. The Norse gods are active presences working on the human world while the distinction between gods and humans is far less clear in the Celtic material.
Men they murdered,
Men they plundered.
Becoming an animal in the Celtic tales is anghyfanhed – removed from human domestic arrangements; or to be opposed, as Manawydan opposes it, is to restore the humanised landscape of Dyfed which – under its enchantment – has become no less productive of wild food and game but devoid of its human inhabitants and their shaped landscape. Manawydan’s attempt to restore this by growing wheat provokes the Other-world attackers in the guise of mice. In the Norse stories that retain some vestiges of a pagan ethos – unlike either the Celtic or the Anglo-Saxon material (consider Grendel’s banished status in Beowulf) – the human and the animal worlds seem less distinct although the gods are more so and shape the destinies of humans more directly.
All of which is to fumble towards distinctions that are hard to grasp. There is an ethos of ‘Northerness’ in much of the Norse (and Norse derived Anglo-Saxon) lore that has come down to us, just as there is an ethos of ‘Westerness’ in much of Welsh and Irish lore. Elements of both may be discerned in some Scottish folklore. But to return this ramble to Tolkien’s lays: the cursed ring is recovered from the hoard of the dragon Fáfnir by Sigurd and Fáfnir asks him
What man begot thee?Sigurd replies
Who forged the flame
For Fáfnir’s heart?
As the wolf I walkSo the man transformed into a dragon is slain by the man who was sired by a werewolf. The story unfolds a very human tragedy, but the non-human world is always chillingly close as events lead on to their fated conclusion.
Wild and lonely