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Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 8.1 (2006) 9-23
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The Scribe in the Woods
Would you know more, or what?
This is a refrain that surfaces, at intervals I'm not schooled to recognize in the Old Icelandic meters, throughout an early thirteenth-century poem called, a little mysteriously, The Prose Edda. I say mysteriously, for no one seems to know the derivation of the title; it may refer to Oddi, an estate where the poet, Snorri Sturluson, studied as a young man. In some contexts, the word means "great-grandmother," a translation that scholars find irrelevant to this admittedly very masculine composition. Or "Edda" may be derived from a word containing the eth symbol, óðr. This thick little word means soul, mind, or perhaps poetic gift. Should we choose among these meanings? In any event, after a Christianized disclaimer, The Prose Edda recounts Old Norse mythology, tales of the world's formation and the early doings of the gods and giants and other beings that shared the world with humans. Gylfi, a Swedish king, wishes to understand the power of the gods, and he journeys to their stronghold, Asgarðr. Disguised as Gangleri (Weary of Wandering, or Wayworn), he asks his questions, and from three great personages (High, Equally High, and Third), he receives answers.
The gods hold court, he learns, by the ash Yggdrasil. "The ash is the best and greatest of all trees," Equally High tells him, and promptly launches into a mythic geography lesson. "Its branches spread out over the whole world and reach up over heaven. The tree is held in position by three roots that spread far out." These roots reach toward different realms of existence—one extends to the gods, the Æsir; one to the frost ogres who dwell in a dangerous territory containing a spring, called Mímir, "in which is hidden wisdom and understanding." The third root, continues Equally High, "is in the sky, and under that root is the very sacred spring called the Spring of [End Page 9] Destiny. There the gods hold their court of justice. The Æsir ride up to that place every day over the bridge Bifröst (Rainbow)."
This Yggdrasil is the Cosmic Tree, both the habitat and the regenerative force of the world. "There is a great deal to tell about it," says High One, mildly. "In the branches of the ash sits an eagle, and it is very knowledgeable, and between its eyes sits a hawk called Veðrfölner. A squirrel called Ratatosk springs up and down the ash tree and conveys words of abuse exchanged between the eagle and Niðhögg." Niðhögg is Striker-that-Destroys, who lives below the well of Hvergelmir and gnaws continually at the third root. Other destructive forces abrade Yggdrasil too: four harts eat the shoots and leap through the branches; along with Niðhögg dwell "so many serpents no tongue can count them." Despite affliction, the tree persists. In his telling, High One quotes poetry:
I know an ash-tree
known as Yggdrasil,
tall and sacred
besprent with white clay,
thence come the dews
that fall in the dales;
it stands ever green
over Urð's spring.
In my study, a wall of books at my back and before me a picture window facing north, I smile to learn that a poetic kenning Snorri uses to name and honor the world-tree is aldrnara, life-sustainer.
Would you know more, or what?
Flood damage marks the landscape throughout the Mt. Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest this year, from fresh scars along the highway, where car-sized boulders closed the road and brought trees sliding from the slope, to the bridges in the backcountry that, until last October, spanned creeks and streams for trail and road alike. When my brother, Hudson, and I arrive at the trailhead, we find that the bridge across the Nooksack is also gone, but a new log, smelling of freshly peeled bark, has been laid across the water several hundred yards downstream. It...