On Working From What You Know, and a New Poem

I’m a huge fan of Amon Amarth – a Viking-themed death metal band from Sweden. Never heard of them? Check this out.

That song is “Tock’s Taunt – Loke’s Treachery Pt. II” from the album Surtr Rising. It’s an expanded recounting of the interaction between the Aesir and the giantess Tock (or Thokk or Thock or Tokk, depending on how you translate – the word means “thanks” in Norwegian) during their attempt to revive Baldr. Tock is the only creature in all of existence to refuse to cry, thus dooming Baldr to an eternity of suffering. It is later discovered that Tock is Loki, who engineered Baldr’s death in the first place.

The story appears in the Prose Edda, in Gylfaginning (page 74 – 75 of that translation), and is rather brief. The song uses imagined dialogue based on the single stanza spoken by Tock. It’s really quite good.

Being an advocate of metal, and thinking the lyrics for the song were pretty damn cool and the whole concept quite interesting, I tried to turn the lyrics as-written (with slight modifications) into a performance poetry piece in the SCA.

It totally didn’t work. I was hesitant to perform alterations to the lyrics (they’re not mine), so it wound up sounding a bit odd. A friend of mine – Zsof – watched the performance, heard my explanation, and said, “Why not change it? It’s your piece now.”

That hit something with me – it was my piece and I could change it. I’m essentially trying to create performance poetry from a death metal song that I know. Trying to stay true to the letter of the material was causing problems with the performance – so why not change the format to something period-appropriate? I set out to re-cast the lyrics as Norse poetry.

Here’s the poem that I came up with – I’ll talk a bit about how I decided to do what, in an attempt to describe the creative process one might use when trying such a thing. Every poem is a “work in progress,” so I doubt this will be its final form – but it’s the complete project.

—————————

Ill the Aesir
and the Elves fared -
their games yielded
a grim result:
The brother of Thor
by thrown sprig was
pierced in the breast -
bane of Oðin’s
son sticking in
his stone of life.

Then hied to Hel
Hermoðr the Bold,
to craft a deal
with the cairn-god:
return to life
the light-bringer;
the world would bleed
the water of eyes.

All of the world
wept for Baldr.
the men and beasts,
burning fires,
trees and stones and
the track of men -
wept as if brought
to warmth from frost.

All but for one
wept as the rest.
The Aesir found
a frost giant -
lone – in a cave;
she was called “Tokk.”
Spoke Tyr of
the spear Gungnir:

“You! Weep for Baldr,
as the world now does!
You are the last one;
jotun-tears we need.”

The giant sang -
joy in her voice:

“You come to me
carrying grief in
your eyes – a sorrowful sight -
asking a torrent
of tears to restore
to life the light of Asgarðr.

You come to me
carrying grief in
your hearts – bitter the blood
but cold is mine -
I mean to sleep
as long as the world weeps.

You come to me
carrying grief on
your tongues – words of woe;
no joy or pleasure
was poured for me
from the horn of Baldr’s bounty.

Tokk will water
no weeds with sorrow.
Go! Leave me alone!
Go! Leave him to lie!

Is blame my burden
to bear? Shame
makes no mark on my heart!
I was made glad -
gleeful the tale
of Loki’s clever craft!

Foolish Hoðr
felled his twin
with a hurled errant arrow.
The truth was hidden -
his hand the willing
tool of the Aesir’s enemy!

Leave me alone!
I long to be rid
of moaning, mewling gods.
Never have I wished
well for Baldr -
no sorrow I hold in my heart!

Tokk will water
the world with hate.
Let Hel hold her hoard.
Let Surtr sear his soul.

You come to me
but cannot behold
the truth of Loki’s lies.
Hoðr is blind,
but the high ones
see the same as he!

You come to me
but cannot believe
the words I speak and spin.
Beloved of Aesir
loved no giants;
giants loved him less.

You come to me
but cannot remain -
my speech I’ve spent on you.
All these tears
to Tokk are nothing!
Go! and leave me alone!”

Then Aesir knew
the name of Tokk;
Loki’s final
falsehood was plain.
None but he could
know of malice
or spite enough
to spurn Baldr.

When tired of
tricks and deceit,
the high hunted
the harm of truth.
Bound by his sons,
burned by venom,
Loki awaits
to lead the dead,
to damn the world -
the doom of gods.

—————————————–

This is obviously markedly different than the original lyrics – yet it’s the same concept, the same story, and much of the specific wording is preserved. The “feel” is very different, and in many places, the re-done lyrics convey some additional layers of meaning and subtlety.

How the hell does a person start something like this? As a scientist, I tend to take an intensely analytical approach to virtually everything – so I started with a systematic analysis of the existing lyrics. I won’t give you the blow-by-blow breakdown – you’ll probably get it from everything else. If you’re really curious, here’s the Google doc I wrote to develop the piece.

Once I figured out what the lyrics were about and how the message was conveyed – I made mental and physical notes about particularly meaningful lines and passages, and made notes about particular lyrical patterns – I started the conversion process.

One of the wonderful things about poetry is that all poems have rules and form. Forcing your thoughts and feelings into a particular metrical structure – or even designing your own – guides your creative process in ways you may not even realize at the outset. We need boundaries and guidelines to help fire our creative engines; they give us direction and purpose.

Norse poetry has many different forms and styles, but very broadly speaking, there are two main “types:” eddic and skaldic. Eddic poetry is usually older, more story-oriented, and often concerns itself with mythological or super-heroic subjects. Skaldic poetry tends to be more personal (in that it is about actual people or actual events), ornate, and non-linear. There are many specific metrical forms seen in each type, and each type tends to be more highly associated with certain forms.

To start, I decided that I would write the poem using eddic forms. The lyrics concern themselves with a mythological tale, so I reasoned that would be the more “appropriate” type to write. I also decided that I wanted to sort of “hook” this poem into the existing eddic poetry – so I gave it an intro bit explaining the setup of Tokk’s reply, and an outro bit hooking it back to the mythology. That couches it in the proper context, and makes it a sort of “detour” in the eddic stories.

In analyzing the original lyrics, a few things stuck out. First and foremost, I noticed a repeated motif – “You come to me” – that formed a sort of internal refrain. Repetition is good stuff, because it helps drive a point home, and can help something sound “musical.”  I decided to keep the repetition in place, because it was such a noticeable pattern in the lyrics; repeating it helps establish continuity between the original and the re-work. It’s also a feature of the lyrics – something that sticks out and helps define it, giving it character.

The decision to keep “you come to me” as a motif in the new poem gives an additional layer of effect to the poem – one of magic and mysticism. Extreme repetition in Norse poetry is associated with magic, witchcraft, and other forms of great power. The poetry of the Lapps is intensely repetitive, and may be related to the Norse concept of “Lapp-women” – their phrase for witches. By keeping aspects of the poem repeated, I am presenting a different take on Tokk – not only is she denying the Aesir what they want, but she is also demonstrating her great and terrible sorcerous power. She is forcing the issue, showing her might to be at least equal to that of the gods. She’s saying, “Look at me! I can take away the people you love, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” It takes her from defiant trickster to dangerous adversary – and because Tokk == Loki, it re-casts him in the same light as well.

Now we can see how a seemingly simple decision – “Oh yeah, I’ll just keep that in” – coupled with the right context can have a subtle but dramatic effect on a piece. I have no idea if it’s right - that is, I don’t know if that’s how the Norse thought of Loki or Tokk. It is, however, a valid take on the material, and it is an interesting and unfortunately relevant take.

The next thing I noticed was the division of the story into three distinct “phases.” Tokk introduces the rebuff, elaborates on the tragedy (“rubbing it in”), and then finishes with an aggressive dismissal/revelation. The retelling of the story in the song seems to follow a somewhat different pattern than the first verse, to the point where the second verse almost seems to break in the middle – switching from the rebuff to the taunt. That means the first and third parts are anchored by repetition, and the second part follows its own path.

Because of that flow, I decided to alter the refrains a bit. In the original, they bookend the third verse. Given that the piece was already going to be repetitive, I decided to redo the refrain as a bit of galdralag (“meter of magic spells”), and use them to separate the piece into Phase I, Phase II, and Phase III. I decided to take the entire text of the refrain and break it into two smaller chunks with internal repetition – that way, the refrains stand out a bit more, and more clearly deliniate the different phases of the reply.

You can see how this kind of analysis results in a “roadmap” of sorts for the actual transition. The decision to repeat motifs, break the reply into 3 pieces separated by two refrain stanzas, and to “bookend” the entire reply in an eddic context creates an outline for me. Deciding which meter to use is almost obvious, dictated largely by convention in the eddic poems. Even without well-defined metrical forms like those in Old Norse, one could still see the need to write all the parts a bit differently, to help emphasize the distinct parts of the poem.

After that, it’s a matter of fitting words into metrical rules, rather like a puzzle. I’ve defined the outline – now I color it in. Conforming to the metrical rules will force you to make particular word choices, which can lead to additional meaning placement. For example, take this stanza:

Foolish Hoðr
felled his twin
with a hurled errant arrow.
The truth was hidden -
his hand the willing
tool of the Aesir’s enemy!

This was inspired by “Hodr the fool/Lopt’s willing tool/he held the twig/that cut Baldr’s skin/Lopt aimed the shot/that killed Hodr’s twin.” The form requires that the first two lines be linked with alliteration, and I decided to lead off with “Hodr the fool.” I liked the sound of “Foolish Hodr” more, so I changed it to that. The second line has to alliterate on the first stressed syllable – “felled” alliterates readily with “Foolish.” That first half-stanza was written almost automatically by alliterative rules.

The second half of the stanza contains an interesting reference in the last line. Since I had to convey the entire thought of the lyrics, and I’d spent the first half talking about slaying Baldr, I knew the second half had to revolve around Loki being responsible for it. After all, that’s the lyrical progression – first we say that Hodr did it, then we reveal that Loki made Hodr do it.

I wanted to use “Lopt’s willing tool,” because it’s a great insult to throw in there. That chunk is too many syllables on its own for lines 4 and 5, and doesn’t alliterate enough for line 6. However, Norse poetry makes use of kennings – substitution metaphors. So, instead of saying “Lopt,” I could come up with a kenning that refers to him indirectly.

That’s where “Aesir’s enemy” comes into play – it’s a kenning for Loki. Norse poetics say that all vowels alliterate with each other, so that took care of my need to alliterate. Because of syllable rules, I merely had to break “Aesir’s enemy’s willing tool” into two lines. Some rearranging of word order fills out my counting rules, and line 4 is easy enough to write to fill out the rest of the stanza.

However, “Aesir’s enemy” can also be used to mean “frost giants” – after all, they were enemies of the Aesir. This gives that segment a bit of extra meaning – it’s not just a recounting of events, it’s an admission of guilt. Loki, by way of Tokk, is weaving his taunting admission of his power and treachery into the reply – a puzzle for the Aesir to unravel. He’s being arrogant and haughty, reveling in his treachery and the inability of the gods to figure out what’s going on.

And all of this extra meaning came about because I needed to find an alliteration.

So the point of all of this? To point out the importance of a systematic and analytical approach when tackling complex problems or projects. I could have written this poem organically, but it wouldn’t have had as many surprises and neat things pop up. Letting your creativity wander can be a good thing, but constraints help give it form and substance.

Breaking down a complex setup into fundamental components lets you pick those pieces back up and plug them together into a new shape.

So exercise that analytical brain, and break down some complex material!

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