Footprints of the Plague-Folk

This is liable to be a long post, filled with the type of minutiae that makes most normal folks’ eyes twitch and glaze over. But, what follows is crucial to the understanding of the roots of the Orc in fantasy literature; it is the equivalent of discovering the Brass Plate of Sir Francis Drake or the AVM Stone. So, bear with me and you will see for yourself where Tolkien likely found his inspiration for the Orc . . .

To begin, we must go back to 1870. In that year, Robert E. (“Rusty”) Burke, a self-made millionaire from an Irish-Catholic family in New York City, traveled to North Africa for health reasons. There, through fortune and happy chance, he fell in with the Berber tribe in the Atlas Mountains that dwelt in the ruins of a place they called “Madinat al-Kuffar”, the town of the infidels. Burke, an aspiring artist, fell in love with the unique style and spent the next decade sketching and describing the ruins in his journals; he devoted pages to the eerie “serpent and eye” motifs scratched into the walls. Burke died in Marrakesh of tuberculosis in 1890. He left instructions for his journals to be delivered to an old friend in Paris, M. Louinet. But Louinet, too, had died the year before, and so the journals came to his protege, M. Chalet. The younger Chalet worked as an antiquarian at the Bibliothèque Nationale, and while interested in the sketches he nevertheless put the Burke papers aside to continue his own research.

nalut1

Orcadii ruins near Nalut, Libya; photo courtesy M. Pailing.

It wasn’t until 1898 and the landmark publication of the first translation of the Stone of Skaane – discovered by Professor Thomas Doolan of Trinity College, Dublin, in 1892, while on holiday near Orkelljunga, Sweden – that Chalet returned to the journals and began to study them with a critical eye. He found similarities in the style of decoration adorning the stone and the sketches in Burke’s journals. Enough so that in 1901 he felt compelled to write Prof. Doolan and share his information. Together, Doolan and Chalet embarked on ten year-long canvass of the historical community, seeking anything else that might shine light on the culture that produced a rune stone in Sweden and a rock-cut city in the Atlas Mountains. In doing so, they struck gold.

Doolan’s work on the Stone of Skaane led the pair to the recent discovery of a similar stone at Trollhättan, in Sweden. Found at the mouth of a shallow cave near Trollhättan Falls, on the Göta älv, in Sweden, by archaeologists S. Wagenaar and B. Reagan, the stone’s face was decorated with the lower parts of an animal, likely a wolf, wrapped in the coils of a serpent, in style Pr1 (Ringerike). Below this were three deeply incised runes: k-a-r. That rune sequence was the key to unlocking the mystery of this forgotten people.

The symbols represented the runes Kaun, Ansuz, and Reið, which Doolan took to be a metaphor, a kenning in Norse poetry, for a mythological species of beast that was part wolf and part serpent. But, in his groundbreaking monograph The People of the Plague (Harvard University Press, 1902), Harvard philologist S. Hall theorized that the k-a-r sequence represented the name of the so-called “plague-folk”, the kaunar. While most scholars agreed with Doolan’s kenning theory, some were also quick to point out that Hall’s mysterious plague-folk likely existed – but as lepers and not mythical beasts.

face

Early researchers believed k-a-r was a designation for a leper in Nordic society . . . 

Hall’s philological bread crumbs led Doolan and Chalet to a Mr. Rose, an arthritic and garrulous old Boer who had served an Oxford family named Rathmore for a number of years. Mr. Rose directed the pair to the library at Exeter College, where he had deposited an unpublished manuscript called “The Lesser Gylfaginning”, together with notes on its translation from the Old Norse by John Christopher Rathmore. The manuscript, Mr. Rose had told them, was discovered in 1643 in Iceland, part of the same cache that contained the Codex Regius. The Bishop of Skalholt misidentified it as an aborted version of Snorri Sturluson’s epic Gylfaginning and it languished in obscurity until 1888, when Rose’s charge, young Rathmore – who suffered from an ailment of the lungs and often sought mental diversions – translated it from his sick-bed while still a student at Exeter College.

While on the surface it seems an exact copy of the traditional Gylfaginning, Chapter 34 differs significantly:

[Begin Fragment] . . . more children had Loki. Angrboða was the name of a certain giantess in Jotunheimr, with whom Loki begat three children: one was Fenrir, the Great Wolf, the second Jormungandr – that is the Miðgarðr Serpent – and the third is Hel. But Loki foresaw Allfather’s rage that this kindred was nourished in Jotunheimr, and so he stole amongst the sons of Dáinn, who dwelt in Svartalfheimr, and seized nine of their number, their wives and offspring, as well, so they might serve him. He bade them feast upon the afterbirth of Fenrir, so they might share the Wolf’s savagery. And their bodies grew twisted. Then he bade them feast upon the afterbirth of Jormungandr, so they might share the Serpent’s cunning. And their minds grew twisted. Then he fed to them the reeking afterbirth of Hel, wracked with disease, so they might cheat Death. And their souls grew twisted. Thus fortified, Loki set this race, the kaunar, to guard his offspring.

When the Æsir perceived by prophecy that from Loki’s kindred great misfortune should befall them; and since it seemed to all that there was great prospect of ill – first from the mother’s blood, and yet worse from the father’s – then Allfather sent gods thither to take the children and bring them to him.

With great savagery and cunning did the kaunar defend the issue of Loki, but to no avail. The hammers and swords of the gods did drive them from Jotunheimr; to Miðgarðr the kaunar fled, led by one-eyed Bálegyr, and they hid themselves in the deeps of the earth. Thus the gods brought the children of Loki unto Odin. Straightway he cast the serpent into the deep sea, where he lies about the land . . . [End Fragment]

World War I brought an end to Doolan and Chalet’s inquiry. In its aftermath, the kaunar were largely forgotten, again. Two academics from the University of Chicago, the eccentric Professor Apple and his protege, R.Z. Szeles, tried to renew interest in this lost race in the 1930s – Szeles by publishing St. Ansgar’s The Dialogues in Translation, which included part of a letter to the Bishop of Corbie wherein Ansgar describes an encounter with a live kaunar (which he called a skraelingr), and Prof. Apple by leading the first archaeological expedition to the Orcadii ruins in the Atlas Mountains (using Burke’s journals as a guide). Apple’s team could not find much of the decoration Burke sketched, owing to desecration by the locals, but they did recover the ivory plaque done in peculiar proto-Urnes style, which is housed in the Field Museum in Chicago, though not on display.

proto-urnes-serpent

“Jormungandr”, proto-Urnes style, 10th century CE.

Oddly, we owe the modern resurgence in interest in the kaunar to a man who would become one of the world’s most beloved authors.  J.R.R. Tolkien was one of the few people at Exeter known to have read “The Lesser Gylfaginning” in Old Norse; its influence can be seen in his creation of the Orcs. Unfortunately, the manuscript fell victim to Nazi aggression: it remained in the library at Exeter until 1942, when it was destroyed by a fire during the Baedeker Blitz. Only the above fragment and notes remain, all held in a private collection in Somerset, UK.

Next time, we’ll survey the last – and most complete – piece of evidence for the existence of Grimnir’s folk: The Kaunmál of St. Étaín, held in the British Library under the scholarly title “Cotton MS Vespasian D.vi”.

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