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Index by Period

Early Scandinavian Literature
(850 1350)

The Scandinavian Nation held, during the Middle Ages, the first and strongest influence over the poetry and thought of Western Europe. The oldest and purest remains of the poets of German Nations are contained in the Scandinavian Edda. Its mythology is founded on Polytheism; but through it, as through the religion of all nations of the world, there is a faint gleam of the one Supreme God, of infinite power, knowledge and wisdom, whose greatness and justice could not be represented in the form of ordinary man. Such was the God of the Pagan Germans, and such was the earliest belief of mankind.

Perhaps the poet priests of primitive times, who shaped the imaginative mythology of the North, were conscious of the one true God; but considered Him above the comprehension of the rude men of the times, so they invented the deities who were more nearly akin to the material forces that these people alone understood. The second part of the first Edda contains the great Icelandic poems, the first of which is the song of Voland, the famous northern smith.

Voland, or Wayland, the Vulcan of the North, is of unknown antiquity; and his fame, which spread all over Europe, still lives in the traditions of all the nations of the North. These poems, although fragmentary, still far surpass the Nibelungen-lied, and in their powerful pathos and tragic passion they surpass any ancient poetry except that of Greece.

The Scandinavians in general, and Icelanders in particular, traveled over every part of the West, and penetrated into hitherto unexplored seas, collecting in every quarter the facts and fancies of the age. In the character of wandering Normans they exerted a strong influence in shaping poetry, and in developing the Crusades. They brought back with them to their Northern homes the Christian and chivalrous poems of the South. In many of these the likeness to the Icelanders own Northern Sagas was remarkable, suggesting some still more remote age when one heroic conception must have dominated all peoples.

After bringing home these poems of Southern Europe, the Scandinavians proceeded to adapt them to their own use, giving them a new force and beauty. The marvellous in Southern poetry became with them something fraught with deeper meaning; and the Northern version of the Nibelungen-lied acquired an ascendency in its strength and poetical beauty, over the German heroic. Hence, during the Middle Ages, the Scandinavians in general, and Icelanders in particular, came to possess a peculiar chivalrous poetry of their own. It was, however, destined to share the same fate as the great poems of the rest of Europe; first to be reduced to prose romance, and then broken up into ballads. The chief cause of this breaking up of the old order of poetry was due to the Reformation. The national poetry was left to be carried on by the common people alone, and of course in their hands was corrupted and mutilated. Scott speaks of this in his Lay of the Last Minstrel, where he describes the old bard, who

" 'Tuned to please a peasant's ear The harp a King had loved to hear."

These Bards, or Scalds, meaning Smoothers of Language, were welcome guests in the early ages, at the Courts of Kings and Princes. Up to the twelfth century, when the Monks and the art of writing, put an end to their profession, these poets continued to come from Iceland and travel all over the world. In return for their songs they received rings and jewels of more or less value; but never money. We have a list of 230 Scalds who made a name for themselves from the time of Dagnar Lodbrok to that of Vladimir II, or from the end of the eighth to the beginning of the thirteenth century. When Christianity entered Scandinavia the spirit of the old tradition still remained with the people, and became their literature under the name of "Folk Sagas," or as we would call them, fairy tales. These legends are found not only in modern Scandinavia, but they have made their way into all the literature of Europe. Jack the Giant Killer, Cinderella, Blue Beard, the Little Old Woman Cut Shorter, and the Giant who smelled the blood of an Englishman (the Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum of our nursery days), were all heroes and heroines of Scandinavian songs, later adapted in various ways to the use of different countries. After awhile this lost art revived in the Romances of chivalry, and in popular ballads. They describe all the changes in life and society, and are akin to the ballads of the British Isles. In them we find the common expression of the life and feelings of a common race. The same stories often influenced the bards of all countries at different periods. These ballads are all written in the same form and express a certain poetic feeling which is not found in the Epic Age. In all countries they had a refrain, or chorus, which marks the migration of poetry from the Epic to the Lyric form.

"This simple voice of song," to quote a modern author, "travelled onward from mouth to mouth, from heart to heart, the language of the general sorrows, hopes and memories; strange, and yet near to every one, centuries old, yet never growing older, since the human heart, whose history it relates in so many changing images and notes, remains forever the same."


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