A Pandemonium of Borges: Introduction

Miguel A. Gomes Gargamala


Atlas (1984) was one of Jorge Luis Borges' last projects, the result of the many journeys on which he embarked towards the end of his life in the company of his collaborator and later wife María Kodama. In the prologue Borges defines each entry in the volume as "a unit made of words and images." The short texts written by Borges alongside a selection of photographs taken by Kodama constitute neither an atlas nor a travel book, but a gateway to the geography and landscape of the Borgesian imagination. The reader is taken on a voyage around the globe, from the author's much loved patrias of Buenos Aires and Geneva to the Cretan labyrinth, from crepuscular Venice to the streets of Istanbul where once "Scandinavians served as the guard of the Byzantine emperor, who were joined by the Saxons who fled England after Hastings." Two stops are of particular significance for those who know of Borges' lifelong fascination with Old English, Old Norse, and all things Germanic: "Un lobo" and "Midgarthormr." The first is a poem to the last wolf in England; the beast is grey, furtive, and Saxon; Odin and Thor know of the fateful day. Borges sees the wolf in a dream, helpless as he observes its extinction. The Midgard sea serpent visits the old poet in a Ragnarök-inspired nightmare: "The open seas have seen it and feared it; it shall return with the cursed boat made with the nails of the dead." Borges offers legendary animals and imaginary beings from the Old North in a publication that combines words and images, an artistic marriage that he had discovered, and enjoyed experimenting with, over half a century earlier.

Revista Multicolor de los sábados was a Saturday literary colour supplement of the Buenos Aires evening newspaper Crítica, of which sixty-one issues were published between August 1933 and October 1934. Borges acted as co-director, produced multiple translations, book reviews, bibliographical notes, as well as original work which, occasionally, he did not sign. There can be little doubt that the unsigned texts published under the section Antiguos mitos germánicos "Old Germanic myths" were penned by Borges, who would return to some of these for inclusion in later works. "The Dragon," "The Witches," "The Gnome," and "The Myth of Elves" are the translated titles of the four short pieces Borges wrote on the imaginary beings of northern myth in 1933. The textual and visual interplay which lay at the heart of La Revista allowed Borges to complement the four texts with the artwork of the great Norwegian artist Theodor S. Kittelsen, famous for his portraits of trolls, and of many other fairy-tale and mythological creatures of the Scandinavian world. Borges writes that in Beowulf the dragon "is always called the treasure guardian, in the same way the battle is the game of swords and the sea the sail's road or the swan's path." This rather evident interest in word-play and metaphors, in poetic language and diction—we must not forget that Borges had brought the Ultraist movement to Argentina in the 1920s—led to the publication of his first contribution to early medieval studies in 1932, perhaps the earliest of its kind in the Spanish language: Noticia de los Kenningar "Note on Kennings."

More than fifty years separate Borges' early observations on the kennings from the two poems in Atlas. Borges would repeat in numerous interviews throughout his life "the myth of origins" he had himself constructed in the lecture and essay La ceguera ("Blindness," 1964): in 1955, upon losing his eyesight for reading and writing, he endeavoured to gain access to a different world, that of his northern European ancestors. Old English and Old Norse, the languages and their literatures, had turned into something intimate and personal: they were passions, and they were gifts. In a 1969 composition, Otro poema de los dones "Another poem on the gifts," the poetic voice is thankful for "the language that centuries ago I spoke in Northumbria." The ghost of the Old English scop and Borges become one, a mirror image that allows Borges to time travel to the imagined world of his ancestors in northern England. However, as this volume will show, Borges' interest in what he called "ancient Germanic literatures" predated his blindness. Antiguas literaturas germánicas (1951), his pioneering study of Old English, Old Norse and Old High and Middle High German texts, in collaboration with Delia Ingenieros, was aimed at a readership in Spanish at a time in which no literary scholar in the Spanish-speaking world cared about or knew much about the vernacular medieval literatures of the Old North. Today, one may criticize the contents of this book by focusing on Borges' lack of specialised knowledge, on his overreliance on nineteenth-century erudition, or on his pseudo-scholarly and romanticised approaches to the texts. And yet, Antiguas literaturas germánicas was ground-breaking, in the same way that Breve antología anglosajona (1978) would be when published a couple of decades later: the first anthology of Old English texts ever to be written in Spanish. An enthusiast rather than an academic, Borges' engagement with early Germanic literatures is better understood when considered alongside who he was as a thinker and as a writer; in them he found "something very close to his own interests, to his personal and peculiar way of observing the world, time, literature and transcendence."1

During an interview with William F. Buckley in February 1977, Borges mentions that he is working on a book on Snorri and makes Buckley chuckle when he refers to the Scandinavian habit of not awarding him the Nobel prize as "an old Norse tradition."2 During the same interview Borges concludes that "one of the gifts of a great writer is to make people read in a different way, to go over the old texts in a different fashion." Here may lie one of Borges' greatest contributions, through his northernism, to medieval studies. Old English and Old Norse references are ubiquitous in his work and very often they appear in unexpected places inviting critical readers to re-examine their understanding of texts and periods. Beowulf and eleventh-century Scandinavian poets are brought into a discussion about tango in 1955, "Historia del tango"; T. S. Eliot's poetry is considered in the context of the Old English Physiologus; the Old English dialogues of Solomon and Saturn allow Borges to follow Paul Grossac and compare Marculf to Sancho Panza in Don Quijote in Antiguas literaturas. The Germanic Middle Ages pervade Borges' thinking and writing.

This special issue opens with Marijane Osborn's translation of "La pesadilla" as "Nightmare." Borges confesses in the prologue to La moneda de hierro (1976) that now, well into his seventies, he is devoting himself "to the cult of the forefathers and to that other cult that is enlightening (his) decline: the study of Germanic England and Iceland." "La pesadilla" is part of a collection that includes a poem to Einar Tambarskelver, a second on Iceland at dawn, "En islandia al alba," and a third medieval-inspired composition entitled "991 A.D.," Borges' prose account of the aftermath of the Battle of Maldon. In "Nightmare," the reader finds one of the many Borgesian oneiric mazes and mirrors; the dreamer is the one who is being dreamed by the mysterious other, in this case the Northumbrian or Norwegian northern king "from bygone ages" who observes and judges the poet. His imposing figure is magnificently drawn in Osborn's translation: "Deep rust the mighty beard that flows across his breast."

A different translation, that of the Gylfaginning (1984), is considered by Ben Garceau in "Borges, Kodama, and Snorri Sturluson: "Gylfi's Hallucination." It is worth noting that the first three renderings of Snorri's text into Spanish appeared within a little over a year.3 Garceau reflects on how Borges and Kodama's focus on Snorri in the introduction to their translation may very well betray a perceived affinity: Snorri, as translator and traitor, is seen as "a kindred spirit." For readers in Spanish, La alucinación de Gylfi is presented as an exciting adventure of discovering an extraordinary man via the medium of a language "undreamed of by him." And yet, in a brief comment regarding Skáldskaparmál, Borges cannot resist the temptation of comparing the meter of the Norse skalds to the love of the baroque in the work of the great seventeenth century Spanish poet, Luís de Góngora. Garceau's introduction and translation into English of the prologue to this translation, and the opening of the translation itself, allows us to reflect on how Borges near the end of his life drew links to this iconic Old Norse text and its concerns, framing it in Borges' own thinking about poetic style.

Further references to Góngora are found in Philip Lavender's "Ludic skalds, Odinic visitors and the Origins of Jorge Luis Borges' Antiguas literaturas germánicas," an exploration of the genesis and the circumstances under which Borges' first extended study of medieval matters was published in 1951. Lavender builds on research by Vladimir Brljak and Jane Toswell, and entertains the possibility that Ímaz Echeverría's Spanish translation (1943) of Johan Huizinga's Homo ludens (1938) could have acted as a catalyst for Borges' Ancient Germanic literatures. Lavender, who rightly places Borges' early interest in the sagas within the context of the translations by William Morris and Eiríkur Magnússon he accessed as a young man, identifies Huizinga's understanding of the potential of playful poetic language to preserve old myths as of clear interest to Borges. The second half of Lavender's contribution examines with insight Borges' idiosyncratic use of his unacknowledged sources in his tale of Odin's visit to the court of Olaf Tryggvason, a favourite since he published his version several times.

Martín Hadis investigates Borges' "Anglo-Argentine ancestry," an excellent starting point for those who wish to delve into the subject of the two opposite forces which illuminate the author's upbringing, his family history and his writer's imagination: the love of books and literary erudition on the one hand, and (military) heroism in the face of tragedy on the other. His fascination with the discovery of "the secret chamber" containing Old English literature is better understood, Hadis shows, if one considers both legacies side by side. Their presence resulted in "clashing mandates" which often troubled Borges. Having provided this necessary context, Hadis attempts to answer the question of how and why a half-line (l. 21b) from "The Battle of Maldon" was chosen to be carved on Borges' tombstone. The parallels between The Battle of La Verde (1874), in which Borges' paternal grandfather was killed, and the Old English battle poem are discussed in detail. In "991 A.D." Hadis perceives the convergence and reconciliation of the two lineages: Borges was fulfilling his destiny, just like the Maldon poet, by preserving the memory of the great heroic deeds of those who fell fighting.

Of the many poems Borges quoted from memory, Longfellow's translation of The Grave is singled out for analysis by M.J. Toswell. Borges and Kodama's own version of the poem in Breve antología (1978), as well as the lengthy footnote about Longfellow's translation and commentary of the Divine Comedy in a note to their rendering of the Solomon and Saturn material, provide clear evidence of Borges' indebtedness to the work of the nineteenth-century American writer. Toswell points out that Borges was well aware of "the negative twentieth-century assessment" of Longfellow, something one can corroborate by listening to the interview with William F. Buckley mentioned above. When asked if "even" Longfellow had written "some fine lines," Borges responds affirmatively and ponders why people look down on him. He suggests: "Maybe he was too much of a literary man," and after comparing him to Ezra Pound, adds "he took mostly from books and not from his own experience." One of those authors and books he most certainly took from, as Toswell demonstrates, was J.J. Conybeare's Illustrations of Anglo-Saxon Poetry (1826). The figure of Conybeare as "a pioneering Anglo-Saxonist" is fully explored by J.R. Hall in his article. Oxford's Rawlinson Professor of Anglo-Saxon between 1808 and 1812, Conybeare's scholarship includes multiple "firsts": the first translation of The Finnsburg Fragment, the first detailed discussion of alliteration and variation in Old English poetry, the first printed copy and translation of The Grave, work which would later influence Longfellow, and subsequently, Borges.

In the next paper, "'Noticia de los Kenningar': Borges, Kennings, and the Spanish Tradition," Edel Porter looks at some of Borges' predecessors in the study of the Medieval North in Iberian and South American literature. In doing so, Porter moves beyond the oft-cited Castalia Barbara (1899) of Ricardo Jaimes Freyre, a pioneer on Scandinavian mythology according to Borges himself, and brings to the attention of the reader such fascinating figures as the eighteenth-century Spanish Jesuit in exile, Juan Andrés y Morell, in whose work Porter locates the first rendering of dróttkvætt verse in Spanish, even if mediated through French and Latin translations. Porter observes shared contexts and concerns in "Noticia de los Kenningar"/ "Las Kenningar" and the writing of other contributors within the Spanish tradition, and discusses the complex relationship between Borges' approach to kennings and the English and German annotated translations of which he made use at a time when his lack of knowledge of Old Norse must have limited his approach to, and his understanding of, the poetical tradition he was sharing with what he, undoubtedly, saw as a fairly narrow audience.

In a similar vein, the final two pieces here consider Borges' interest in early Germanic literature before 1951; both share an interest in Norah Lange. Vanessa Fernandez Greene introduces Lange as an experimental writer of "kaleidoscopic identity"; Argentine but of Norwegian descent, her friendship with Borges undeniably influential to her writing. Both Fernandez Greene and Vladimir Brljak invite us to ask the fundamental question of how instrumental the publication of Lange's "Los cantos de los Eddas" (1931), an essay on Norse literature and myth by his "bright companion of the heroic days" of avant-garde Ultraism, was in bringing medieval Scandinavian literature to Borges' attention. Possibly, this sparked his lifelong interest in the subject. Fernandez Greene's translation of Lange's original article, a most valuable contribution, is introduced by a brief exploration of her engagement with her Norwegian heritage, including discussion of her real and fictional voyages to "her ancestors' homeland," her interview with the sailor Alfon Hansen, and two pieces she published in 1940 on the Nazi occupation of Norway. Brljak also focuses on Borges' early writings on Old Germanic literature, first by looking closely at the influence of Lange in the early 1930s, and later by addressing two often overlooked miniatures Borges published in 1946. In these, for the first time, Borges incorporates Old Germanic motifs into his fiction. Both fragments, "Viking Epitaphs" and "The Generous Enemy," as Brljak convincingly demonstrates, must be understood within their historical and topical context.

In writing about Magnus Barford and Muirchertach, or in elaborating riddles that hide characters of Norse Sagas, Borges is making use of a subject which for him was foreign and remote in the 1920s, but two decades later had become a vehicle to confront those who had appropriated Norse myth: Borges against the (new) Vikings. The final essay in this issue of the Old English Newsletter thus challenges us to continue to search for Borges' northernism in unexpected places, and to continue to investigate his medieval-inspired texts alongside their very Borgesian and very allusive subtexts. The present volume contributes to that search and is witness to a growing scholarly tradition engaging critically with and acknowledging Borges' lifelong encounters with the old literatures of the North.

University of Sunderland

[1] See Enrique Bernárdez, "Jorge Luis Borges y el Mundo Escandinavo," Cuadernos hispanoamericanos 505-507 (1992): 361-70.

[2] The interview is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bNxzQSheCkc&t=1352s.

[3] Those not by Borges are Snorri Sturluson. Textos mitológicos de las Eddas. Trans. E. Bernárdez (Madrid: Editora Nacional, 1983); Snorri Sturluson, Edda Menor. Trans. Luis Lerate de Castro (Madrid: Alianza, 1984).