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 gen-

­eration, 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.




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