12 August 2009

'When All Our Ancestors Worshipped Stocks & Stones'—The Heimskringla, Tolkien, & Milton


In my post on St Olaf yesterday, I quoted the following lines from chapter 119 (in the Icelandic text, here, it is chapter 113) of the ‘Saga of King Olaf’ in Snorri Sturluson’s 13th-c. Heimskringla (in Samuel Laing’s 1844 translation, here), when St Olaf is speaking to a crowd of Thor-worshippers:

Ye see yourselves what your god can do,—the idol ye adorned with gold and silver, and brought meat and provisions to. Ye see now that the protecting powers who used it were the mice and adders, reptiles and paddocks; and they do ill who trust to such, and will not abandon this folly. Take now your gold and ornaments that are lying strewed about on the grass, and give them to your wives and daughters; but never hang them hereafter upon stock or stone.

This last phrase, ‘upon stock or stone’, recalled immediately to my mind some observations of T.A. Shippey in his fascinating The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology (London: Grafton, 1992). On p. 160, Shippey quotes from Chapter 6 (‘Many Partings’) of Book Five of The Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), where Treebeard is bidding farewell to Celeborn and Galadriel: ‘It is long, long since we met by stock or by stone, A vanimar, vanimálion nostari!’ (p. 259). He first notes that the phrase ‘is certainly a deliberate echo of the fourteenth century poem Pearl, written by the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ (p. 161). The poem, according to Shippey, ‘describes a father lamenting his dead infant daughter in the graveyard where she is buried’. He dreams that ‘he sees his lost child facing him, on the other side of a river’, and in his excitement says to her, ‘We meten so selden by stok other ston’—a line which Shippey translates as ‘we meet so seldom by stock or by stone’ (p. 162). Shippey points out how moving this line is in its context:

The pathos lies in the characteristic early English understatement—‘so seldom’ means ‘never’ or worse still ‘just this once’—and also in the last phrase’s suspense between precision and vagueness. ‘Stok other ston’ coule mean nothing, be just a line-filler, like ‘erly and late’ a few liness afterwards. On the other hand it implies very strongly ‘on earth’, ‘in reality’, ‘in flesh and blood’. Where is the dreamer-father? At the end of the poem he will realise that the water was Death, his daughter in Heaven, the strange land a premonition of Paradise. If at the moment he speaks he thinks he is meeting his child in in a land of real stones and tree-stumps, he is sadly mistaken; if he realises he is not, then already a touch of grief is creeping back into consolation. (pp. 162-3)

But there is another, more famous use of these words, ‘stock’ and ‘stone’. In his sonnet ‘On the late Massacher in Piemont’, about the massacre of a group of Protestants in Italy, Milton writes (The Complete English Poems of John Milton, ed. John D. Jump [NY: Washington Square, 1964], p. 82):

Avenge O Lord thy slaughter’d Saints, whose bones
Lie scatter’d on the Alpine mountains cold,
Ev’n them who kept thy truth so pure of old
When all our Fathers worship’t Stocks and Stones . . .

The connection of the phrase with idolatry suggests to me that Samuel Laing must surely have thought of this line when he translated St Olaf’s speech to the idolaters. But he need not have done. In Snorri Sturluson’s 13th-c. Icelandic, the command ‘but never hang them hereafter upon stock or stone’ is ‘og berið aldrei síðan á stokka eða á steina’ (Ólafs Saga Helga 113, here). Laing was merely using the cognate equivalents of the Icelandic terms in the original text.

More interesting then to me, neither a linguist nor even a philologist, is the question of the parallel between the 14th-c. Middle English Pearl and the 13th-c. Icelandic Saga. Was ‘stock and stone’ a happy alliteration that just occurred to both poets independently, something the Pearl poet was perhaps familiar with in Icelandic poetry, or a traditional pair going all the way back to an earlier Proto-Germanic poetic tradition?

Incidentally, on the subject of the line in Milton, Shippey points out that while Tolkien would have approved of Milton’s diction, in his view—

everything else in the poem would be wrong: its ferocity, its equation of God’s truth with Protestantism, most especially its contempt for ‘our fathers’ before they were converted, for the Anglo-Saxons indeed. Milton knew very little about them, and his contempt was based on ignorance. Yet poetry which uses old phrases is not always bound down to its creator’s intention. Reading that line, and adding to it his memories of Finn and Fróda, of Beowulf and Hróthgár and the other pagan heroes from the darkness before the English dawn, Tolkien may have felt that Milton was more accurate than he knew. Perhaps ‘our fathers’ did worship ‘stocks and stones’. But perhaps they were not so very bad in doing so. After all if they had not Christ to worship, there were worse things, many worse things for them to reverence than ‘stocks and stones’, rocks and trees, ‘merry Middle-earth’ itself. (p. 200)

Although the basic goodness—not to mention the ultimate suitability as objects of worship—of ‘stocks and stones’ is apparently contradicted by the passage from the Heimskringla, it is an idea of which Chesterton, for one, would certainly have approved, and probably most of the Inklings as well! And who can deny that stocks and stones per se are much preferable to such cults as that of Moloch, to take one of GKC’s examples, or Cybele and Atys, to take Lovecraft’s?

19 comments:

orrologion said...

Someone once told me about a wedding in a Serbian church. The girl was Serbian and the man of at least Scottish extraction. He and his groomsmen were wearing traditional Scottish formal attire: kilt et al with jacket and tie. Well, the very traditional Serbian priest, when he saw this, said the wedding could not go on as the men were all wearing dresses and such cross-dressing is not allowed in the Orthodox Church. I can't remember what happened, but I do remember the line, "My people were Christian wearing the kilt while your people were still worshiping trees and stones", or something to that effect.

Of course, I'm not sure how ancient the modern form of the kilt and its accoutrement are, but the Scots were Christian in the main before the Serbs ever got to the Balkans from Asia, it would seem.

On a related note, the church I go to in the city is near a famous drag bar/restaurant popular for bachelorette parties. For quite awhile we had a African-American transsexual (was a man, now a woman) attending Sunday morning Liturgy regularly. The guidance given by the bishop was that we receive people as they are, not as they were or would like them to be. That's a tough one to figure out, post-op.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

That guy's history is bunk. As much of Serbian background is Slavic as it is Roman (Illyricum, Pannonia, and Dacia were major Roman territories), and Christianity made it there long, long before the Irish who became the Scots moved into Scotland.

Need we mention that the Scots have not been Orthodox for a long, long, long, long time? How dare he insult an Orthodox priest that way with his pseudo-ethnic ahistorical superiority. I hope he's ashamed of himself.

The kilt is a development related to the invention of the tartan in the nineteenth century. The garb of the Scots and Irish before that was a yellow tunic.

aaronandbrighid said...

I was pretty sure I'd seen pictures of Serbs wearing foustanellas. I wonder what he would say the difference was.

That IS a pretty terrible thing to say to a priest though!

aaronandbrighid said...

Ah, yes, here: http://www.gracanica-boston.org/choreographies.html

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

No bare legs in church is what he would say.

aaronandbrighid said...

And I think that would be a valid point, but not quite the same as cross-dressing, as in Christopher's version of the story. Do you think it would have turned out differently if his legs had been covered? The Wikipedia article has an old depiction of highlanders in kilts with their legs apparently covered in some kind of leggings.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Well, who knows? I don't blame the priest, though, even if the ridiculous "cross-dressing" statement is correct.

It's an unusual form of dress and should have been brought up. But some people (like the groom) are far too self-involved to think that their own ways are not acceptable to everyone and everywhere. It's simple selfish pride.

On a cheerier note, though, I'm sending you the OED entry for "stock". That's much more fun.

Jason Fisher said...

I really enjoyed reading this post! One specific comment:

More interesting then to me, neither a linguist nor even a philologist, is the question of the parallel between the 14th-c. Middle English Pearl and the 13th-c. Icelandic Saga. Was ‘stock and stone’ a happy alliteration that just occurred to both poets independently, something the Pearl poet was perhaps familiar with in Icelandic poetry, or a traditional pair going all the way back to an earlier Proto-Germanic poetic tradition?

This is a good question. From what (relatively) little I know, the trope goes back much further. The earliest example I know (so cited in the OED) dates from c. 1000, predating both the Old Norse and Middle English you’ve discussed here by more than two centuries. It’s the Old English phrase, fremdum godum, stoccum and stanum [foreign gods, trees and stones], in Ælfric’s Deuteronomy (xxviii. 36). This naturally points to a far earlier source for the same trope in that biblical reference. The King James translates it “other gods, wood and stone”. My interlinear Hebrew Bible gives this part of Deuteronomy 28:36 as Elohim achrim otz u•abn [Elohim other-ones wood and•stone] (transliterated from the Hebrew alphabet, which I won’t reproduce here).

So, there’s clearly a long precedent for the phrase, though it may certainly have become more common and secularized during the Middle Ages. But it seems to have come to northwest Europe through the Christianization of England in the 7th century or thereabouts.

Again, a very interesting post! By the way, Tolkien also used Stock for the name of a village in the Shire, if you recall.

The Ochlophobist said...

This book will help rid Scottish fantasies:

http://www.amazon.com/Invention-Scotland-Myth-History/dp/0300136862

aaronandbrighid said...

Mr Fisher> Thank you for the helpful comment. Kevin sent me the OED article last night, but I've not yet had time to read it! I may wind up posting a follow-up to this one!

Owen> Thanks for the tip--it sounds like a good book. In the meantime, I for one do not presume to comment on the Scots' fantasies, and will instead defer to your and Kevin's greater learning in this area. I am sure Christopher must stand chastened! ;-)

aaronandbrighid said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
orrologion said...

I only wish I were chastened. Too much practice to the contrary as a young man.

aaronandbrighid said...

Excellent punning, my friend!

aaronandbrighid said...

Okay, I'm working on that follow-up. Perhaps one of you can tell me whether otz u•abn is the same phrase used in Jer. 3:9? I don't have an interlinear, and when I look at the verse in Hebrew, my Hebrew's so poor that it's hard to tell for these eyes, but it looks the same.

On the subject of the secular vs. religious use of the pair, it seems to me that the 971 Blickling Homily under 'def. a' in the OED constitutes a secular usage. Even though there's no real connection in meaning between the noun stocc and what looks like an adjective, staenenan, to describe the street, I'm guessing that the author chose these words because of their alliteration. If this is true, the expression may have been used in a secular sense alongside the religious one all along, rather than developing later.

aaronandbrighid said...

Sorry, that should have been 'def. 1.a in the OED'!

Benjamin Ekman said...

Today I visited the shrine to St Olof, located in the village St Olof, here in southern Sweden (http://bit.ly/a9tMZl). It's a beautiful place, with a lovely big church and a holy well. People continued to make pilgrimages there long after the Reformation. I picked up a little book about the place, and was intrigued to find a story of when the (danish) lutheran bishop of Lund visited the place in 1627. He removed the image of St Olof, which the people had decorated with costly fabrics. What made me think of you and this post, was the hymn by Hans Thomisson that he quoted in describing the event: "De klæde Stocke oc Stene / oc holde besynnerlige dage / Der met ville de Gud tiene / Oc derfor Himmerig haffue. I can't provide a definite translation but it means something like: "They clothed Stock and Stone / and observed strange days / they wanted to serve God [?]/ and therefore have the kingdom of Heaven".

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you, Benjamin--very interesting! Was Thomisson's hymn written specifically about the visit of the Bishop of Lund, or was it merely quoted in reference to it? I wonder if the hymnographer or the quoter was aware of the irony.

Benjamin Ekman said...

the bishop quoted Thomisson's hymn (which was a century or so old already..) in describing the event. Yes, I wonder if the bishop was aware of the stories about the Saint's activities with stocks and stones...

Aaron Taylor said...

I just noticed that GKC in 'The Mourner of Marne' writes: 'Why did the general leave behind him on the sand a dead man, whose friend stood yards away from him like a stock or a stone?'