Hamlet’s Mill: Part 2

The Chronicler’s Tale

. . . you of changeful counsel, undefiled Titan of exceeding strength, you who consume all and increase it again you who hold the indestructible bond by the unlimited order of the Aeon, wily-minded, originator of generation, you of crooked counsel . . .

—From the Orphic Hymns

THE PROPER GATE through which to enter the realm of pre­Shakespearean Hamlet is the artless account given by Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1150 – c. 1216) in books III and IV of his Gesta Danorum. What follows is the relevant part of book III, in Elton’s translation, only slightly shortened.

The story begins with the feats of Orvendel, Amlethus’ father, especially his victory over King Koll of Norway, which drove Orvendel’s brother Fengo, “stung with jealousy,” to murder him (appendix #2).

“Then he took the wife of the brother he had butchered, capping unnatural murder with incest.”! (So Saxo qualifies it.)

Amleth beheld all this, but feared lest too shrewd a behaviour might make his uncle suspect him. So he chose to feign dullness, and pretend an utter lack of wits. This cunning course not only concealed his intelligence, but ensured his safety. Every day he remained in his mother’s house utterly listless and unclean, flinging: himself on the ground and bespattering his person with foul and filthy dirt. His discoloured face and visage smutched with slime denoted foolish and grotesque madness. All he said was of a piece with these follies; all he did savoured of utter lethargy. . .

He used at times to sit over the fire, and, raking up the embers with his hands, to fashion wooden crooks, and harden them in the fire, shaping at their tips certain barbs, to make them hold more tightly to their fastenings. When asked what he was about, he said that he was preparing sharp javelins to avenge his father. This answer was not a little scoffed at, all men deriding his idle and ridiculous pursuit; but the thing helped his purpose afterwards. Now, it was his craft in this matter that first awakened in the deeper observers a suspicion of his cunning. For his skill in a trifling art betokened the hidden talent of a craftsman. . . Lastly, he always watched with the most punctual care over his pile of stakes that he had pointed in the fire. Some people, therefore, declared that his mind was quick enough, and fancied that he only played the simpleton. . . His wiliness (said these) would be most readily detected, if a fair woman were put in his way in some secluded place, who should provoke his mind to the temptations of love. . . , if his lethargy were feigned, he would seize the opportunity, and yield straightway to violent delights. So men were commissioned to draw the young man in his rides into a remote part of the forest, and there assail him with all temptation of this nature. Among these chanced to be a foster-brother of Amleth, who had not ceased to have regard to their common nurture . . . He attended Amleth among his appointed train. . . finally he was persuaded that he would suffer the worst if he showed the slightest glimpse of sound reason, and above all if he did the act of love only. This was also plain enough to Amleth himself. For when he was bidden mount his horse, he deliberately set himself in such a fashion that he turned his back to the neck and faced about, fronting the tail which he proceeded to encompass with the reins, just as if on that side he would check the horse in its furious pace. . . The reinless steed galloping on, with the rider directing its tail, was ludicrous enough to behold.

Amleth went on, and a wolf crossed his path amid the thicket; when his companions told him that a young colt had met him, he retorted that in Fengo’s stud there were too few of that kind fighting. This was a gentle but witty fashion of invoking a curse upon his uncle’s riches. When they averred that he had given a cunning answer, he answered that he had spoken deliberately: for he was loth to be thought prone to lying about any matter, and wished to be held a stranger to falsehood; and accordingly he mingled craft and candour in such wise that, though his words did lack truth, yet there was nothing to betoken the truth and betray how far his keenness went.

Again, as he passed along the beach, his companions found the rudder of a ship which had been wrecked, and said they had discovered a huge knife. “This,” said he, “was the right thing to carve such a huge ham”; by which he really meant the sea, to whose infinitude, he thought, this enormous rudder matched. [n1 Saxo, however, wrote gubernaculum, i.e., steering oar (3.6.10; Gesta Danorum, C. Knabe and P. Herrmann, eds. [1931], p. 79).]

Also, as they passed the sandhills, and bade him look a: the meal, meaning the sand, he replied that it had been ground small by the hoary tempests of the ocean. His companions praising his answer, he said that he had spoken wittingly. Then they purposely left him, that he might pluck up more courage to practice wantonness.

The woman whom his uncle had dispatched met him in a dark spot, as though she had crossed him by chance; and he took her and would have ravished her, had not his foster-brother, by a secret device, given him an inkling of the trap. . . Alarmed, and fain to posses: his desire in greater safety, he caught up the woman in his arms and dragged her off to a distant and impenetrable fen. Moreover, when they had lain together, he conjured her earnestly to disclose the matter to none, and the promise of silence was accorded as heartily as it was asked. For both of them had been under the same fostering in their childhood; and this early rearing in common had brought Amleth and the girl into great intimacy.

So, when he had returned home, they all jeeringly asked him whether he had given way to love, and he avowed that he had ravished the maid. Then he was next asked where he did it, and what had been his pillow, he said that he had rested upon the hoof of a beast of burden, upon a cockscomb, and also upon a ceiling. For when he was starting into temptation, he had gathered fragments of all these things, in order to avoid lying. . . The maiden, too, when questioned on the matter, declared that he had done no such thing; and her denial was the more readily credited when it was found that the escort had not witnessed the deed. But a friend of Fengo, gifted more with assurance than judgment, declared that the unfathomable cunning of such a mind could not be detected by a vulgar plot, for the man’s obstinacy was so great that it ought not to be assailed with any mild measures. . . Accordingly, said he, his own profounder acuteness had hit on a more delicate way, which was well fitted to be put in practice, and would effectually discover what they desired to know. Fengo was purposely to absent himself, pretending affairs of great import. Amleth should, be closeted alone with his mother in her chamber; but a man should first be commissioned to place himself in a concealed part of the room and listen heedfully to what they talked about. . . The speaker, loth to seem readier to devise than to carry out the plot, zealously proffered himself as the agent of the eavesdropping. Fengo rejoiced of the scheme, and departed on pretence of a long journey. Now he who had given this counsel repaired privily to the room where Amleth was shut up with his mother, and lay down skulking in the straw. But Amleth had his antidote for the treachery.

Afraid of being overheard by some eavesdropper, he at first resorted to his usual imbecile ways, and crowed like a noisy cock, beating his arms together to mimic the flapping of wings. Then he mounted the straw and began to swing his body and jump again and again, wishing to try if aught lurked there in hiding. Feeling a lump beneath his feet, he drove his sword into the spot, and impaled him who lay hid. Then he dragged him from his concealment and slew him. Then, cutting his body into morsels, he seethed it in boiling water, and flung it through the mouth of an open sewer for the swine to eat, bestrewing the stinking mire with his hapless limbs. Having in this wise eluded the snare, he went back to the room. Then his mother set up a great wailing and began to lament her son’s folly to his face but he said: “Most infamous of women! dost thou seek with such lying lamentations to hide thy most heavy guilt? Wantoning like a harlot, thou hast entered a wicked and abominable state of wedlock, embracing with incestuous bosom thy husband’s slayer. . .” With such reproaches he rent the heart of his mother and redeemed her to walk in the ways of virtue.

When Fengo returned, nowhere could he find the man who had suggested the treacherous espial. . . Amleth, among others, was asked in jest if he had come on any trace of him, and replied that the man had gone to the sewer, but had fallen through its bottom and been stifled by the floods of filth, and that he had then been devoured by the swine that came up all about that place. This speech was flouted by those who heard; for it seemed senseless, though really it expressly avowed the truth.

Fengo now suspected that his stepson was certainly full of guile, and desired to make away with him, but durst not do the deed for fear of the displeasure, not only of Amleth’s grandsire Rorik, but also of his own wife. So he thought that the King of Britain should be employed to slay him, so that another could do the deed, and he be able to feign Innocence. . .

Amleth, on departing, gave secret orders to his mother to hang the hall with knotted tapestry, and to perform pretended obsequies for him a year from thence; promising that he would then return. Two retainers of Fengo then accompanied him, bearing a letter graven in wood. . . ; this letter enjoined the King of the Britons to put to death the youth who was sent over to him. While they were reposing, Amleth searched their coffers, found the letter and read the instructions therein. Whereupon he erased all the writing on the surface, substituted fresh characters, and so, changing the purport of the instructions, shifted his own doom upon his companions. Nor was he satisfied with removing from himself the sentence of death and passing the peril on to others, but added an entreaty that the King of Britain would grant his daughter in marriage to a youth of great judgment whom he was sending to him. Under this was falsely marked the signature of Fengo.

Now when they had reached. Britain, the envoys went the king and proffered him the letter which they supposed was an implement of destruction to another, but which really betokened death to themselves. The king dissembled the truth, and entreated them hospitably and kindly. Then Amleth scouted all the splendour of the royal banquet like vulgar viands, and abstaining very strangely, rejected that plenteous feast, refraining from the drink even as from the banquet. All marveled that a youth and a foreigner should disdain the carefully cooked dainties of the royal board and the luxurious banquet provided, as if it were some peasant’s relish. So, when the revel broke up, and the king was dismissing his friends to rest, he had a man sent into the sleeping room to listen secretly, in order that he might hear the midnight conversation of his guests. Now, when Amleth’s companions asked him why he had refrained from the feast of yestereve, as if it were poison, he answered that the bread was flecked with blood and tainted; that there was a tang of iron in the liquor; while the meats of the feast reeked the stench of a human carcass and were infected by a kind of smack of the odour of the charnel. He further said that the king had the eyes of a slave, and that the queen had in three ways shown the behaviour of a bondmaid. Thus he reviled with insulting invective not so much the feast as its givers. And presently his companions, taunting him with his old defect of wit, began to flout him with many saucy jeers. . .

All this the king heard from his retainer; and declared that he who could say such things had either more than mortal wisdom or more than mortal folly. . .Then he summoned his steward and asked him whence he had procured the bread. . . The king asked; where the corn had grown of which it was made, and whether any ‘sign was to be found there of human carnage? The other answered that not far off was a field, covered with the ancient bones of slaughtered men, and still bearing plainly all the signs of ancient carnage . . . The king. . . took the pains to learn also what had been the source of the lard. The other declared that his hogs had, through negligence, strayed from keeping, and battened on the rotten carcass of a robber, and that perchance their pork had thus come to have something of a corrupt smack. The king, finding that Amleth’s judgment was right in this thing also, asked of what liquor the steward had mixed the drink? Hearing that it had been brewed of water and meal, he had the spot of the spring pointed out to him, and set to digging deep down; and there he found rusted away, several swords, the tang whereof it was thought had tainted the waters. Others relate that Amleth blamed the drink because, while quaffing it, he had detected some bees that had fed in the paunch of a dead man; and that the taint, which had formerly been imparted to the combs, had reappeared in the taste. The king. . . had a secret interview with his mother, and asked her who his father had really been. She said she had submitted to no man but the king. But when he threatened that he would have the truth out of her by a trial, he was told that he was the offspring of a slave. . . Abashed as he was with shame for his low estate, he was so ravished with the young man’s cleverness that he asked him why he had aspersed the queen with the reproach that she had demeaned herself like a slave? But while resenting that the courtliness of his wife had been accused in the midnight gossip of a guest, he found that her mother had been a bondmaid . . .

Then the king adored the wisdom of Amleth as though it were inspired, and gave him his daughter to wife; accepting his bare word as though it were a witness from the skies.

Moreover, in order to fulfill the bidding of his friend, he hanged Amleth’s companions on the morrow. Amleth, feigning offence, treated this piece of kindness as a grievance, and received from the king, as compensation, some gold which he afterwards melted in the fire, and secretly caused to be poured into some hollowed sticks.

When he had passed a whole year with the king he obtained leave to make a journey, and returned to his own land, carrying away of all his princely wealth and state only the sticks which held the gold. On reaching Jutland, he exchanged his present attire for his ancient demeanour, which he had adopted for righteous ends. . .

Covered with filth, he entered the banquet-room where his own obsequies were being held, and struck all men utterly aghast, rumour having falsely noised abroad his death. At last terror melted into mirth, and the guests jeered and taunted one another, that he, whose last rites they were celebrating as though he were dead, should appear in the flesh. When he was asked concerning his comrades, he pointed to the sticks he was carrying, and said, “Here is both the one and the other.” This he observed with equal truth and pleasantry. . . for it pointed at the weregild of the slain as though it were themselves.

Thereon, wishing to bring the company into a gayer mood, he joined the cupbearers, and diligently did the office of plying the drink. Then, to prevent his loose dress hampering his walk, girded his sword upon his side, and purposely drawing it several times, pricked his fingers with its point. The bystanders accordingly had both sword and scabbard riveted across with an iron nail. Then, to smooth the way the more safely to his plot, he went to the lords and plied them heavily with draught upon draught, and drenched them all so deep in wine, that their feet were made feeble with drunkenness, and they turned to rest within the palace, making their bed where they had reveled . . .

So he took out of his bosom the stakes he had long ago prepared, and went into the building, where the ground lay covered with the bodies of the nobles wheezing off their sleep and their debauch. Then, cutting away its supports, he brought down the hanging his: mother had knitted, which covered the inner as well as the outer walls of the hall. This he flung upon the snorers, and then applying the crooked stakes, he knotted and bound them in such insoluble intricacy, that not one of the men beneath, however hard he might struggle, could contrive to rise. After this he set fire to the palace. The flames spread, scattering the conflagration far and wide. It enveloped the whole dwelling, destroyed the palace, and burnt them all while they were either buried in deep sleep or vainly striving to arise.

Then he went to the chamber of Fengo, who had before this been conducted by his train into his pavilion; plucked up a sword that chanced to be hanging to the bed, and planted his own in its place. Then, awakening his uncle, he told him that his nobles were perishing in the flames, and that Amleth was here, armed with his old crooks to help him, and thirsting to exact the vengeance, now long overdue, for his father’s murder. Fengo, on hearing this, leapt from his couch, but was cut down while, deprived of his own sword, he strove in vain to draw the strange one. . . O valiant Amleth, and worthy of immortal fame, who being shrewdly armed with a feint of folly, covered a wisdom too high for human wit under a marvellous disguise of silliness and not only found in his subtlety means to protect his own safety, but also by its guidance found opportunity to avenge his father. By this skillful defence of himself, and strenuous revenge for his parent, “he has left it doubtful whether we are to think more of his wit or his bravery.

It is a far cry from Saxo’s tale and its uncouth setting to the Renaissance refinements of Shakespeare. This is nowhere more obvious than in the scene in the Queen’s hall, with its heaped straw on the floor, its simmering caldrons, its open sewer, and the crude manner of disposing of “Polonius,” all befitting the rude Middle Ages. The whole sad, somber story of the lonely orphan prince is turned by Saxo into a Narrenspiel, yet a strong tradition permeates the artless narrative. Hamlet is the avenging power whose superior intellect confounds evildoers, but his intellect also brings light and strength to the helpless and ill-begotten who are made to recognize their misery. There is nothing pleasant in the revelation brought home to the English king, yet he humbles himself before the ruthless insight and “adores” Hamlet’s wisdom as “though it were inspired.” More clearly than in Shakespeare, Hamlet is the ambivalent power dispensing good and evil. It is clear also that certain episodes, like the exchange of swords with Fengo, are crude and pointless devices going counter to the heroic theme. These are set dramatically right only when handled by Shakespeare, but they seem to indicate an original rigid pattern based on the Ruse of Reason, as Hegel would say. Evil is never attacked frontally, even when convention would require it. It is made to defeat itself. Hamlet must not be conceived as a heroic misfit, but as a distributor of justice. Shakespeare has focused exactly right. He has avoided restoring the brutal, heroic element required by the saga, and made the drama instead wholly one of the mind. In the light of a higher clarity, who can ‘scape whipping?

It would be pointless to compare all over again the several versions of the Hamlet scheme in the north and west of Europe, and in ancient Rome. This has been done very effectually. [n2 2 Besides F. Y. Powell’s introduction and appendix to Elton’s translation of Saxo Grammaticus’ The First Nine Books of the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus (1894), already cited at the opening of the chapter, see the following: P. Herrmann, Die Heldensagen des Saxo Grammaticus (1921); I. Gollancz, Hamlet in Iceland (1898); R. Zenker, Boeve-Amlethus (1905); E. N. Setala, “Kullervo-Hamlet,” FUF (1903, 1907, 1910).]. Thus, it is possible to rely on the “identity” of the shadowy Icelandic Amlodhi (in a so-called fairy tale his name is Brjam), who is first mentioned in the 10th century, and appears anew in Iceland as a Danish reimport in the “Ambales Saga,” written in the 16th or 17th century. Parallels to Amlethus’ behavior and career have been found in the Sagas of Hrolf Kraki, of Havelok the Dane, as well as in several Celtic myths. [n3 See, for Hrolfssaga Kraki, scil., the youth of Helgi and Hroar, and the related story of Harald and Haldan (told in Saxo’s seventh book): Zenker: Boeve-Amlethus, pp. 12 1-26; Herrmann, Die Heldensagen, pp. 27 ff.; Setala, “Kullervo-Hamlet,” FUF 3 (1903), pp. 74ff.]. In the version reported by Saxo, Hamlet goes on to reign successfully. The sequel of his adventures is taken up in book IV of the Chronicle, but this narrative shows a very different hand. It is an inept job, made of several commonplaces from the repertory of ruse and fable, badly stitched together. When Hamlet, in addition to the English King’s daughter, is made to marry the Queen of Scotland, and bring his two wives home to live together in harmony, we can suspect an incompetent attempt to establish a dynastic claim of the House of Denmark to the realm of Britain. Hamlet eventually falls in battle, but there is not much in the feats recounted to justify Saxo’s dithyrambic conclusion that if he had lived longer he might have been another Hercules. The true personage has been overlaid beyond recognition, although there still clings to him a numinous aura. Curiously enough, the misconstruing of Hamler’s story in the direction of success continues today. In the recent Russian film version of Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet is shown as a purposeful, devious and ruthless character, bent only on carrying off a coup d’etat. Yet, in Saxo’s first part, the tragic meaning is clearly adumbrated when Hamlet’s return is timed to coincide with his own obsequies. The logic requires that he perish together with the tyrant.

The name Amleth, Amlodhi, Middle English Amlaghe, Irish Amlaidhe, stands always for “simpleton,” “stupid,” ”like unto a dumb animal.” It also remained in use as an adjective. Gollancz has pointed out that in “The Wars of Alexander,” an alliterative poem from the north of England largely translated from the Historia de Preliis, Alexander is twice thus mentioned contemptuously by his enemies:

Thou Alexander, thou ape, thou amlaghe out of Greece,
Thou little thefe, thou losangere (1), thou lurkare in cities . . .

Darius, inquiring about Alexander’s appearance, is shown by his courtiers a caricature graphically described:

And thai in parchment him payntid, his person him shewid,
Ane amlaghe, ane asaleny (2), ane ape of all othire,
A wirling (3), a wayryngle (4), a waril-eghid (5) shrewe,
The caitifeste creatour, that cried (6) was evire

[n4 (1) liar; (2) little ass; (3) dwarf; (4) little villain; (5) wall-eyed; (6) created]

This image of the “caitiffest creature” goes insistently with certain great figures of myth. With the figure of Hamlet there goes, too, the “dog” simile. This is true in Saxo’s Amlethus, in Ambales, in the Hrolfssaga Kraki, where the endangered ones, the two princes Helgi and Hroar (and in Saxo’s seventh book Harald and Haldan), are labeled dogs, and are called by the dog-names “Hopp and Ho.”

Next comes what looks at first like the prototype of them all, the famous Roman story of Lucius Junius Brutus, the slayer of King Tarquin, as told first by Titus Livius. (The nickname Brutus again connotes the likeness to dumb brutes.) Gollancz says of it:

The merest outline of the plot cannot fail to show the striking likeness between the tales of Hamlet and Lucius Iunius Brutus. Apart from general resemblance (the usurping uncle; the persecuted nephew, who escapes by feigning madness; the journey; the oracular utterances; the outwitting of the comrades; the well-matured plans for vengeance), there are certain points in the former story which must have been borrowed directly from the latter. This is especially true of Hamlet’s device of hiding the gold inside the sticks. This could not be due to mere coincidence; and moreover, the evidence seems to show that Saxo himself borrowed this incident from the account of Brutus in Valerius Maximus; one phrase at least from the passage in the Memorabilia was transferred from Brutus to Hamlet (Saxo says of Hamlet “obtusi cordis esse,” Valerius “obtusi se cordis esse simulavit”). Saxo must have also read the Brutus story as told by Livy, and by later historians, whose versions were ultimately based on Dionysius of Halicarnassus. [n5 5 Gollancz, pp. xxi-xxiv.]

To juxtapose the twin brothers Hamlet and Brutus, here is the earlier portion’ of the tale of Brutus as told by Livy (I.56). The subsequent events connected with the rape of Lucrece are too well known to need repeating.

While Tarquin was thus employed (on certain defensive measures), a dreadful prodigy appeared to him; a snake sliding out of a wooden pillar, terrified the beholders, and made them fly into the palace; and not only struck the king himself with sudden terror, but filled his breast with anxious apprehensions: so that, whereas in the case of public prodigies the Etrurian soothsayers only were applied to, being thoroughly frightened at this domestic apparition, as it were, he resolved to send to Delphi, the most celebrated oracle in the world; and judging it unsafe to entrust the answers of the oracle to any other person, he sent his two sons into Greece, through lands unknown at that time, and seas still more unknown. Titus and Aruns set out, and, as a companion, there was sent with them Junius Brutus, son to Tarquinia, the king’s sister, a young man of a capacity widely different from the assumed appearance he had put on. Having heard that the principal men in the state, and among the rest his brother, had been put to death by his uncle, he resolved that the king should find nothing in his capacity which he need dread, nor in his fortune which he need covet; and he determined to find security in contempt since in justice there was no protection. He took care therefore, to fashion his behaviour to the resemblance of foolishness, and submitted himself and his portion to the king’s rapacity. Nor did he show any dislike of the surname Brutus, content that, under the cover of that appellation, the genius which was to be the deliverer of the Roman people should lie concealed, and wait the proper season for exertion. . . He was, at this time, carried to Delphi by the Tarquinii, rather as a subject of sport than as a companion; and is said to have brought, as an offering to Apollo, a golden wand inclosed in a staff of cornel wood, hollowed for the purpose, an emblem figurative of the state of his own capacity. When they were there, and had executed their father’s commission, the young men felt a wish to enquire to which of them the kingdom of Rome was to come; and we are told that these words were uttered from the bottom of the cave–“Young men, whichever of you shall first kiss your mother, he shall possess the sovereign power at Rome” . . . Brutus judged that the expression of Apollo had another meaning, and as if he had accidentally stumbled and fallen, he touched the earth with his lips, considering that she was the common mother of all mankind.

For most conventional-minded philologists, Brutus was the answer to a, prayer, even to the gold enclosed in a stick. they had the sound classical source, from which it is reassuring to derive developments in the outlying provinces. They felt their task to be at an end.

With a few trimmings of seasonal cults and fertility rites, the whole Amlethus package was wrapped, sealed and delivered, to join the growing pile of settled issues.

Yet even the Roman version was not without its disturbing peculiarities. Livy reports only the answer to the private question of the two princes. But if Tarquin had sent them to Delphi, it was to get an answer to his own fears. And the answer is to be found in Zonaras’ compendium of the early section of Dio Cassius’ lost Roman history. Delphic Apollo said that the king would lose his reign “when a dog would speak with human voice.” [n6 Zenker, pp. 149 f.]. There is no evidence that Saxo read Zonaras.

There is also a strange variant to Tarquin’s prophetic nightmare reported by Livy. It does not lack authority, for it is mentioned in Cicero’s De divinatione (1.22) and taken from a lost tragedy on Brutus by Accius, an early Roman poet. Says Tarquin: “My dream was that shepherds drove up a herd and offered me two beautiful rams issued of the same mother. I sacrificed the best of the two, but the other charged me with its horns. As I was lying on the ground, gravely wounded, and looked up at heaven, I saw a great portent: the flaming orb of the sun coming from the right, took a new course and melted.” Well may the Etruscan soothsayers have been exercised about the rams and the changed course of the sun in the same image, for they were concerned with astronomy. This problem will be dealt with later. An interesting variant of this dream is found in the Ambales Saga, and it can hardly have come from Cicero. [n7 Gollancz, p. 105.]

However all that may be, there is more than enough to suspect that the story goes back even farther than the Roman kings. Accordingly scholars undertook to investigate the link with the Persian legend of Kyros, which turned out not to be rewarding. But Saxo himself, even if he read Valerius Maximus, contains features which are certainly outside the classical tradition, and he shows another way.

From the Narrenspiel the account of Hamlet’s ride along the shore is worth a second look: He notices an old steering oar (gubernaculum) left over from a shipwreck, and he asks what it might be. “Why,” they say, “it is a big knife.” Then he remarks “This is the right thing to carve such a huge ham” “by which he really means the sea. Then, Saxo goes on, “as they passed the sand hills and bade him look at the meal, meaning the sand, he replied that it had been ground small by the hoary tempests of the ocean. His companions praising his answer, he said he had spoken fittingly.”

It is clear that Saxo at this point does not know what, to do with the remarks, for he has always pointed out that Amleths’ answers were meaningful. “For he was loth to be thought prone to lying about any matter, and wished to be held a stranger to falsehood, although he would never betray how far his keenness went.” This being the systematic theme of Hamlet’s adventure, a theme worked out and contrived to show him as a Sherlock Holmes in disguise, the two remarks quoted are the only ones left to look pointlessly silly. They do not fit.

In fact, they come from a vastly different story. Snorri Sturluson, the learned poet of Iceland (1178- 1241), in his Skaldskaparmal
(“The Language of the Bards”) explains many kenningar of famous bards of the past. He quotes a verse from Snaebjorn, an Icelandic skald who had lived long before. This kenning has been the despair of translators, as is the case in any very ancient, partly lost poetic language. There are no less than three terms in the nine lines that can be considered hapax legomena, i.e., terms which occur only once. The most authoritative translation is that of Gollancz and here it is:

‘Tis said, sang Snaebjorn, that far out, off yonder ness, the Nine Maids of the Island Mill stir amain the host-cruel skerry-quern–they who in ages past ground Hamlet’s meal. The good chieftain furrows the hull’s lair with his ship’s beaked prow. Here the sea is called Amlodhi’s mill. [n8 Gollancz p. xi.]

That is enough. Whatever the obscurities and ambiguities, one thing is clear: goodbye to Junius Brutus and the safe playgrounds of classical derivations.

This deals with the gray, stormy ocean of the North, its huge breakers grinding forever the granite skerries, and Amlodhi is its king. The quern has not vanished from our language. It is still the surf mill. Even the British Island Pilot, in its factual prose, conveys something of the power of the Nine Maids, whose very name is echoed in the Merry Men of Mey on Pentland Firth:

When an ordinary gale has been blowing for many days, the whole force of the Atlantic is beating against the shores of the Orkneys; rocks of many tons in weight are lifted from their beds, and the roar of the surge may be heard for twenty miles; the breakers rise to the height of 60 feet. . .

As the storm heightens, “all distinction between air and water is lost, everything seems enveloped in a thick smoke.” Pytheas, the first explorer of the North, called it the “sea lung,” and concluded this must be the end of the earth, where sky and water rejoin each other in the original chaos.

This introduces a much more ancient and certainly independent tradition, whose sources are in early Norse myth–or at least run through it from a still more ancient lineage.

The Figure in Finland

NOW THE DISCUSSION leaps, without apologies, over the impassable fence erected by modern philologists to protect the linguistic family of Indo-European languages from any improper dealings with strange outsiders. It is known that Finland, Esthonia and Lapland are a cultural island, ethnically related to the Hungarians and to other faraway Asian peoples: Siryenians, Votyaks, Cheremissians, Mordvinians, Voguls, Ostyaks. They speak languges which belong to the Ugro-Finnish family, as totally unrelated to Germanic as Basque would be. These languages are described as “agglutinative” and often characterized by vowel harmoniztion, such as is found in Turkish. These cultural traditions until quite recently were segregated from the Scandinavian environment. Even if Western culture–and Christianity with it–seeped through among the literati from the Middle Ages on, their great epic, the Kalevala, remained intact, entrusted as it was to oral transmission going back in unchanged form to very early times. It shows arrestingly primitive features, so primitive that they discourage any attempt at a classical derivation. It was collected in writing only in the 19th century by Dr. Elias Lonnrot. But even in this segregated tradition, startling parallels were found with Norse and Celtic myth, which must go back to times before their respective recorded histories. The main line of the poem will be dealt with later. Here, it is important to look at the story of Kullervo Kalevanpoika (“the son of Kaleva”), which has been carefully analyzed by E. N. Setala in his masterly inquiry “Kullervo-Hamlet.” [n1 1 FUF 3 (1903), pp. 61-97, 188-255; 7 (1907), pp. 188-224; 10 (191), pp. 44-127.]

His material is necessary, as well as that collected by Kaarle Krohn [n2 Kalevalastudien 6. Kullervo (1928).], in order to take into account many variants (which Lonnrot has not incorporated into the runes 31-36 of the official Kalevala) dealing with Kullervo.

The first event is the birth of Kullervo’s father and uncle, who are, according to rune 31, swans (or chickens), driven from one another by a hawk. Usually it is told that a poor man, a plowman, made furrows around a tree trunk (or on a small hill) which split open, and out of it were born two boys. One of them, Kalervo, grew up in Carelia, the other, Untamo, in Suomi-Finland. The hate between the brothers arises usually in the following manner:

Kalervo sows oats before the door of Untamo, Untamo’s sheep eat them, Kalervo’s dog kills the sheep; or there is a quarrel about the fishing grounds (rune 31. I 9ff. ). Untamo then produces the war. In fact, he makes the war out of his fingers, the array out of his toes, soldiers of the sinews of his heel. But there are versions where Untamo arms trees and uses them as his army. He kills Kalervo and all his family, except Kalervo’s wife, who is brought to Untamo’s home and there gives birth to our hero, Kullervo. The little one is rocked in the cradle for three days,

when the boy began his kicking,
and he kicked and pushed about him,
tore his swaddling clothes to pieces,
freed himself from all his clothing,
then he broke the lime-wood cradle.

[n3 Translated by W. F. Kirby (Everyman’s Library). The original rough meter has been made to sound like a poor man’s Hiawatha, but it was the original metric model for Longfellow.]

At the age of three months,
when a boy no more than knee-high,
he began to speak in this wise:
“Presently when I am bigger,
And my body shall be stronger,
I’ll avenge my father’s slaughter,
And my mother’s tears atone for.”

This was heard by Untamoinen,
And be spoke the words which follow:
“He will bring my race to ruin,
Kalervo reborn is in him.”

And the old crones all considered,
how to bring the boy to ruin,
so that death might come upon him.

Untamo tries hard to kill the child, with fire, with water by hanging. A large pyre is built, Kullervo is thrown into it. When the servants of Untamo come after three days to look,

knee-deep sat the boy in ashes,
in the embers to his elbows,
in his hands he held a coal-rake,
and was stirring up the fire.

Setala reports a version where the child, sitting in the midst of the fire, the (golden) hook in his hand, and stirring the fire, says to Untamo’s servants that he is going to avenge the death of his father. [n4 “Kullervo-Hamlet,” FUF 7, p. 192.]

Kullervo is thrown into the sea; after three days they find him sitting in a golden boat, with a golden oar, or, according to another version, he is sitting in the sea, on the back of a wave, measuring the waters

Which perchance might fill two ladles,
Or if more exactly measured,
Partly was a third filled also.

Next, they hang the child on a tree, or a gallows is erected-again with frustrating results:

Kullervo not yet has perished,
Nor has he died on the gallows.
Pictures on the tree he’s carving,
In his hands he holds a graver.
All the tree is filled with pictures,
All the oak-tree filled with carvings.

One tradition says that he is carving the names of his parents with a golden stylus. After this the sequence of events is difficult to establish. There are variants, where Kullervo performs his revenge very soon–he merely goes to a smithy and procures the arms. Or he is at once sent out of the country to the smith to serve as cowherd and shepherd. But in rune 31, he is first given smaller commissions: to guard and rock a child–he blinds and kills it. Then he is sent to clear a forest, and to fell the slender birch trees.

Five large trees at length had fallen,
Eight in all he felled before him.

[n5 There is a strange Dindsencha (this word applies to the explanations of place­names which occur repeatedly in Irish tradition; see W. Stokes, “The Prose Tales in the Rennes Dindsenchas,” RC 16, pp. 278f.) about the felling of five giant trees–three ash trees, one oak, one yew. “The oak fell to the south, over Mag n-Ailte, as far as the Pillar of the Living Tree. 900 bushels was its crop of acorns, and three crops it bore every year. . . apples, nuts, and acorns. The ash of Tortu fell to the South-east, that from Usnach to the North. The yew north-east, as far as Druinn Bairr it fell. The ash of Belach Dahli fell upwards as far as Carn Uachtair Bile.”]

He sits down afterwards and speaks (31.273 ff.).

“Lempo [the Devil] may the work accomplish,
Hiisi now may shape the timber!”
In a stump he struck his axe-blade,
And began to shout full loudly,
And he piped, and then he whistled,
And he said the words which follow:
“Let the woods be felled around me,
Overthrown the slender birch-trees,
Far as sounds my voice resounding,
Far as I can send my whistle.
Let no sapling here be growing,
Let no blade of grass be standing,
Never while the earth endureth,
Or the golden moon is shining,
Here in Kalervo’s son’s forest,
Here upon the good man’s clearing.”

[n6 The Esthonian Kalevipoeg (= son of Kaleva, the same as Finnish Kalevanpoika) makes the soil barren wherever he has plowed with his wooden plow (Setala, FUF 7, p. 215), but he, too, fells trees with noise–as far as the stroke of his axe is heard, the trees fall down (p. 103). As for Celtic tradition, one of the Rennes Dindsenchas tells that arable land is changed into woodland because brother had killed brother, “so that a wood and stunted bushes overspread Guaire’s country, because of the parricide which he committed” (Stokes, C 16, p. 35). Whereas J. Loth (Les Mabinogion du Livre Rouge de Hergest, vol. I, p. 171, n. 6) gives the names of three heroes who make a country sterile: Morgan Mwynvawr, Run, son of Beli, and Llew Llaw Gyffes, who turn the ground red. Nothing grew for a year, herb or plant, where they passed: Arthur was more ‘rudvawr’ than they. Where Arthur had passed, for seven years nothing would grow.” Rudvawr means “red ravager,” as we learn from Rachel Bromwich (Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads [J961J, p. 35). Seven years was the cycle of the German Wild Hunter; Arthur was a Wild Hunter, too. The “Waste Land” is, moreover, a standard motif of the legends spun around the Grail and the Fisher King. All this will make sense eventually.]

In the Kalevala, Untamo next orders Kullervo to build a fence, and so he does, out of whole pines, firs, ash trees. But he made no gateway into it, and announced:

He who cannot raise him birdlike,
Nor upon two wings can hover,
Never may he pass across it,
Over Kalervo’s son’s fencing!

Untamo is taken aback:

Here’s a fence without an opening. . .
Up to heaven the fence is builded,
To the very clouds uprising.

[n7 This might originally have been the same story as the one about Romulus drawing a furrow around the new city and killing Remus for jumping over it. In the Roman tradition, the murder makes no sense. Without following up this key phenomenon here, we would like to say that in Finland the stone labyrinth (the English “Troy town”) is called Giant’s Fence, and also St. Peter’s Game, Ruins of Jerusalem, Giant’s Street, and Stone Fence (see W. H. Matthews, Mazes and Labyrinths, p. 150). Whereas Al Biruni (India I, p. 306) when dealing with Lanka {Ceylon)–i.e., Ravana’s labyrinth that was conquered by Rama and Hanuman–remarks that in Muslim countries this “labyrinthic fortress is called Yavana-Koti, which has been frequently explained as Rome.”]

Kullervo does some more mischief, threshing the grain to mere chaff, ripping a boat asunder, feeding the cow and breaking its horn, heating the bath hut and burning it down–these are the usual feats of the “Strong Boy” (the “Starke Hans” of German tales, who with us became Paul Bunyan). So, finally, he is sent out of the country, to the house of Ilmarinen the divine smith, as a cowherd. There is, however, a remarkable variant where it is said that he was “sent to Esthonia to bark under the fence; he barked one year, another one, a little from the third; three years he barked at the smith as his uncle, at the wife [or servant] of the smith as his daughter-in-law.” This sounds strange indeed, and the translator himself added question marks. There is a still stranger parallel in the great Irish hero Cuchulainn, a central figure of Celtic myth, whose name means “Dog of the Smith Culan.” This persistent doggishness will bear investigation at another point and so will Smith Ilmarinen himself.

The wife of Ilmarinen (often called Elina, Helena) makes Kullervo her herdsman, and maliciously bakes a stone into his lunch bread so that he breaks his knife, the only heirloom left from his father. A crow then advises Kullervo to drive the cattle into the marshes and to assemble all the wolves and bears and change them into cattle. Kullervo said:

“Wait thou, wait thou, whore of Hiisi,
For my father’s knife I’m weeping,
Soon wilt thou thyself be weeping.” (33.125 ff.)

He acts on the crow’s advice, takes a whip of juniper, drives the cattle into the marshes, and the oxen into the thicket.

Half of these the wolves devoured,
To the bears he gave the others,
And he sang the wolves to cattle,
And he changed the bears to oxen.

Kullervo carefully instructs the wolves and the bears on what they are expected to do, and (33.153ff.)

Then he made a pipe of cow-bone,
And a whistle made of ox-horn,
From Tuomikki’s leg a cow-horn,
And a flute from heel of Kirjo,
Then upon the horn blew loudly,
And upon his pipe made music.
Thrice upon the hill he blew it,
Six times at the pathway’s opening.

He drives the “cattle” home, Helena goes to the stable, to milk, and is torn by wolf and bear.

This fierce retaliation gives point to an event that is only a feeble joke in Saxo’s version. A wolf crosses Hamlet’s path, and he is told it is a horse. “Why,” he remarks, “in Fengo’s stud there are too few of that kind fighting.” Saxo tries to explain: “This was a gentle but witty fashion of invoking a curse upon his uncle’s riches.” It makes little sense. One suspects here instead an echo of the theme revealed by Kullervo, who drives home wolves and bears in place of cattle. The hero’s mastery of wild beasts evokes memories of classical myth. This has not escaped Karl Kerenyi, [n8 K. Kerenyi, “Zum Urkind-Mythologen,” Paideuma I (1940), p. 255] whose comment is useful, although not his line of psychological speculation: “It is impossible to try to derive Finnish mythology from the Greek, or conversely. Yet it is also impossible not to notice that Kullervo, who is the Miraculous Child and the Strong Servant in one, shows himself at last to be Hermes and Dionysos. He appears as Hermes in the making of musical instruments tied up with the destruction of cattle. . . He shows himself as Dionysos in what he does with wild beasts and with his enemy. It is Dionysos-like behavior–if we see it through the categories of Greek myth–to make wolves and bears appear by magic as tame animals, and it is again Dionysos-like to use them for revenge against his enemy. We recognize with awe the tragic-ironic tone of Euripides’ Bacchae, when we read the dramatic scene of the milking of wild beasts. An even closer analogy is given by the fate of the Etruscan pirates, Dionysos’ enemies, who are chastised by the intervention of wild animals. . .” .

In rune 35, Lonnrot makes Kullervo return to his parents and brothers and sisters. This is unexpected inasmuch as they have been killed a number of runes earlier, although the crux of the many rune songs is that the names of the heroes are far from stable and, as has already been said, the original order of things is impossible to reconstruct. But one event stands out. A sister is not at home. On one occasion the hero meets a maiden in the woods, gathering berries. They lie together and realize later in conversing that they are brother and sister. The maiden drowns herself, but Kullervo’s mother dissuades him from suicide. So he goes to war, and in so doing he fulfills his revenge. First he asks the great god Ukko for the gift of a sword (36.242ff.).

Then the sword he asked was granted,
And a sword of all most splendid,
And he slaughtered all the people,
Untamo’s whole tribe was slaughtered,
Burned the houses all to ashes,
And with flame completely burned them,
Leaving nothing but the hearthstones,
Nought but in each yard the rowan.

Returning home, Kullervo finds no living soul; all have died. When he weeps over his mother’s grave, she awakes,

And beneath the mould made answer:

“Still there lives the black dog, Musti,
Go with him into the forest,
At thy side let him attend thee.”

There in the thicket reside the blue forest-maidens, and the mother advises him to try to win their favor. Kullervo takes the black dog and goes into the forest, but when he comes upon the spot where he had dishonored his sister, despair overcomes him, and he throws himself upon his own sword.

Here at last a point is made explicitly which in other stories remains a dark hint. There is a sin that Hamlet has to atone for. The knowledge that Kullervo and his sister killed themselves for unwitting incest calls to mind the fact that in Saxo the adolescent Prince is initiated to love by a girl who does not betray him “because she happened to be his foster-sister and playmate since childood.” This seems contrived, as if Saxo had found there a theme he does not grasp. The theme becomes manifest in King Arthur. It is ambiguous and elusive, but all the more inexorable in Shakespeare. Hamlet must renounce his true love, as he has to renounce himself in his predicament:

“Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? What should such fellows as I do Crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves all; believe none of us., Go thy ways to a nunnery.”

In the play-within-a-play, the Prince feels free to step out of character:

Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
No, my lord.
I mean, my head upon your lap?
Ay, my lord.
Do you think I meant country matters?
I think nothing, my lord.
That is a fair thought to lie between maid’s legs.
What is, my lord?

But the die is cast. Ophelia’s suicide by drowning, like Kullervo’s sister’s, brings about the death of her lover-and of her brother too. The two aspects join in the final silence. At least Hamlet, ever conscious, has had a chance to describe in despair the insoluble knot of his guilt:

“I loved Ophelia; forty thousand brothers
could not with all their quantity of love
make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?”

And now Kullervo. Setala’s analysis of the whole parallel goes as follows:

As concerns generalities: brother kills brother; one son survives, who sets his mind on revenge from earliest childhood; the uncle tries to kill him, but he succeeds in achieving his revenge. As concerns details: Setala wants to identify the stakes and hooks, which the hero in all northern versions shapes or carves, sitting at the hearth–Brjam does it in a smithy–with the golden hook or rake that little Kullervo, sitting in the middle of the fire, holds in his hands, stirring the flames. Each hero (including Kullervo in one of the versions found by Setala) makes it clear that he means to avenge his father.

With some puzzlement Setala brings out one other point which will turn out to be crucial later on. In every northern version there is some dark utterance about the sea. The words are weird. Hamlet wants to “cut the big ham” with the steering oar; the child Kullervo is found measuring the depth of the sea with an oar or with a ladle. Kalevipoeg, the Esthonian counterpart of Kullervo Kalevanpoika, measures the depth of lakes with his height. Amlodhi-Ambales, sitting by a bottomless mountain lake, says only: “Into water wind has come, into water wind will go.”

Continue to Hamlet’s Mill: Part 3

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