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The Ballad of Hermód in Hell

January 29, 2010
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from Gylfaginning, chapter 49

And so for nine nights Hermód rode
___
The deep and darkening vale;
And nothing saw until he reached
___The river that is Gjöll;
And did not check, but spurred and rode
___
Across the bridge to Hell.

Módgyth is the maiden named
___Who guards the Hell-bridge there;
And far off through the darkness deep
___He saw her shining hair.

She asked his name and lineage
___And told him this beside:
“Over the Hell-bridge yesterday
___Five slain war-bands rode;
And the bridge rang less beneath them
___Than it rang for you alone!
And you have not a dead man’s look;
___Why ride you the Hell-bound road?”

And Hermód said “I must to Hell
___To look for Balder there;
Or tell me, have you seen him pass
___Across the Hell-bridge here?”

And she said “Balder passed this way
___Over the Hell-bridge here;
And further north and further down
___The Hell-road lies from here.”

And Hermód rode the Hell-road down
___As far as the Gates of Hell;
Dismounted and checked his saddle,
___And saw it was fastened well;
And mounted up, and spurred and rode
___Straight at the Gates of Hell.

And Sleipnir leapt the Gates of Hell
___Cleanly and high and clear;
As cleanly over the Gates of Hell
___As there was nothing there.

And Hermód left the horse, and walked
___Into the hall of Hel;
And saw his brother Balder sat
___At the right hand of Hel;
And Hermód stayed there through the night,
___There in the hall of Hel.

And in the morning Hermód rose,
___And begged a boon of Hel:
“The Aesir mourn, the Aesir weep,
___For Balder lost to Hel;
Let Balder homeward ride with me,
___Out of the halls of Hel.”

And Hel said “You have said to me
___That Balder is beloved;
Then he may ride away with you
___When I have seen it proved:

If everything in every world
___Should weep for Balder’s death –
Each and every thing there is,
___The living and the dead –

Then Balder goes to the Aesir back,
___Out of the halls of Hel;
But if one thing refuse to weep,
___To weep him out of Hell,
Or words against him choose to speak,
___He must remain with Hel.”

Then Hermód stood, and Balder gave him
___Draupnir the glittering ring;
And said “To Odin take this back;
___That he should think of me.”
And Nanna gave him gifts for Frigg,
___Fine cloth and other things;
And a gift for Fulla she gave him too,
___A golden finger-ring.

Then Hermód rode away from Hell,
___The way that he had been;
And came to Asgard, and there retold
___All he had heard and seen.

Then sent the Aesir messengers,
___Through all the wide-spread world;
And asked that Balder might be wept
___Out of the nether world.

The earth, its stones and metals wept,
___Trees, animals and men;
As they weep now when out of frost
___They feel the heat begin.

The messengers returning home
___Their duties well complete,
Found on their path a certain cave,
___Wherein a she-troll sat.

Her name was Thökk, or that at least
___Was the name she chose to tell;
And they asked her “Weep for Balder,
___To buy him out of Hell.”

And she said “Thökk will weep dry tears
___On Balder’s bale-fires;
For what was Odin’s son to me,
___Alive or dead or else?
What profit was that man to me?
___Let Hel keep what is hers.”

And that is the tale of Hermód’s ride
___For Balder’s sake to Hell;
And that is the tale of how all things wept
___To buy Balder out of Hell.
But there was one who did not weep
___For Balder’s sake in Hell;
And Thökk’s demur left Hel to keep
___Balder with her in Hell.

But so to harm the Aesir
___Was the mark of only one;
And afterward men guessed that Thökk
___Was Loki Laufeyson.

This chunk of Gylfaginning 49 (readable here; begins at “En þat er at segja frá Hermóði”) was the passage we were set for our first week’s Old Icelandic translation homework, and the cinematic imagery of some of the set-pieces – Hermód riding over the bridge, Sleipnir clearing the gates – struck me as amazingly vivid, and something I would love to see reproduced in film. And then the rhythms, even though it’s prose, got to bouncing around in my head until I had to do something with them.

It ended up in ballad form quite early on: both the episodic nature of the story – Hermód does this, Hermód does this, Hermód does that – and its potential for repetitions and variations seem to suit it very well. Traditional ballad is rather addicted to both: you can read any number of examples here, with “Sir Patrick Spens” being a good (and famous) place to start. I took my cues from the style of the Child ballads, and consequently elected to keep the form looser rather than tighter, with the number of lines to a stanza varying between 4, 6 and 8 and the rhymes not always spot-on. The grammar is also cheerfully archaic, upended to fit the swing of the metre wherever it seemed necessary.

I haven’t tried to reproduce the intricate inner structure of some of the best ballads – look up “Gil Brenton” and keep an eye on how pairs and trios of verses are used to build up a much more complex pattern – which a very clever professor we studied last year christened the ‘architectonic’. (Irrelevant, just wanted to get the word in.) I have kept the story in the right order, tried to get in all the things it gets in and not put in too many more, and otherwise keep it as a reasonably faithful translation as well as a half-decent ballad. Usual disclaimers though: please don’t rely on it; find a professional prose rendering (Anthony Faulkes’, for preference) and if you must feel the need to cite it, leave a comment with an email address and I’ll let you know my name and institution.

Notes:
1) The letter ö in “Gjöll” and “Thökk” replaces the academically standard and impossible to find o-with-a-cedilla. It’s pronounced approximately the same as ö in German.
2) I’ve been relying throughout on “Hermód” being stressed on the first syllable. If it turns out not to be, that’s … a shame.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. wickedday permalink
    February 2, 2010 10:07 pm

    Corrigendum to stanza 2: the original is Hon er þökð lýsigulli. Módguðr er nefnd mær sú er gætir brúarinnar, which translates as “[Feminine object] is roofed with shining gold. Módgyth is the name of the maiden who guards the bridge.”

    I managed to copy down these two sentences in the wrong order, and hence interpreted hon “she” as referring to Módgyth, with þökð lýsigulli being a poeticised way of saying that she has shining hair. This was, as noted, wrong: hon refers to the bridge, a feminine noun in Old Icelandic, and it is meant to literally be roofed in gold.

    I leave the stanza in for reasons of laziness, and also to illustrate the ease with which a transcription error can seriously mess up the meaning of a text.

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