No Stone Unturned; An Investigation of Steinn from Grettis Saga
Updated: May 23
Rock eaters, controllers, destroyers and shapers: Left to right and top to bottom: The Rockbiter from The Neverending Story; Ludo from Labyrinth; an Ent from The Two Towers; and an earth-delving dwarf in Erebor from The Hobbit.
The giant looked mournfully at his hands, capable of breaking down mountains, but not strong enough to save his friends. “They look like big, good strong hands. Don't they? I always thought that's what they were.”
Michael Ende’s Rockbiter is only one beloved creature from the modern legendarium with a proclivity to stone and the strength or power to manipulate it. Add to him Ludo, from Jim Henson’s Labyrinth who can howl and call rocks up from the earth to help him. These are modern creatures, but nothing is truly new. There is an image in D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths of the stones moving closer to hear Orpheus’s song--and weeping! And of course J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ents pulverize stone at a touch and his dwarves, as the dwarves of Norse Mythology, live inside mountains and are great shapers of earth, stone and metal. My point is that peoples who lived surrounded by stone had stories of beings who had power over it, and with the global spread of ancient tales today one needn’t even have descended from mountain folk to have encountered such beings. But to some extent this was always true, tales breaching the boundaries of their culture’s bubble and passed on for generations, sometimes staying remarkably intact, sometimes changing, particularly when a writer sought to build them into something new.
This brings me to the second of a series of pieces investigating the Georgian tale “Asphurtzela” in which I will discuss the possibility that a somewhat cowardly and ineffectual character with no special talent to speak of may have been based on a being with the power to control stone. This character’s name is appropriately Steinn, which means stone, and we find him in the Icelandic Grettis saga. In part of this multi-chapter saga, the hero Grettir must hunt down a she-troll he has grievously wounded and must descend a sheer cliff with a waterfall to an otherwise inaccessible pool of water whence this creature escaped. Steinn’s very small role in the story is to doubt Grettir’s story about the she-troll without proof, suggest that they give up when they see the difficulties of reaching the troll’s cave, and then to fail in his duty to man a rope that will help Grettir escape from the pool once he has completed his task of finishing off the creature. When Grettir kills a troll in the cave, Steinn sees blood in the water below and, assuming that Grettir is dead, abandons his post. Beowulf readers may recognize Beowulf’s adventure in this, when he faces Grendel’s mother and Hrothgar and the Danes interpret her blood as Beowulf’s and leave the mere. This is one of several correspondences to be found between Beowulf and Grettis saga, which scholars pointed out by the end of the nineteenth century. Likewise have compelling similarities been identified between Beowulf, Grettis saga and more than two hundred folk tales which were first described as Bear’s Son Tales by the Germanist Friedrich Panzer. These tales are also described as Aarne-Thompson type 301, “The Three Stolen Princesses,” and as AT type 650A, “Strong John”. My purpose in this piece is to investigate the likelihood that the nebbishy Steinn character was based on the superpowered earth-eating companion of the hero Asphurtzela, and the rock-smashers of similar folk tales.
In my last “Asphurtzela” piece, I compared two characters with power over stone or earth, one who swallows earth (the Clod-swallower) and another who breaks stone with his hands (the Rock-splitter from the Grimms’ “Strong Hans”). Beowulf scholar R.W. Chambers suggested a relationship between the Rock-Splitter and the Grettis saga character Steinn, because both Steinn and the Rock-splitter betray or let down the hero when he has descended the waterfall cliff or into the earth, and because both share the element of Stein in their names. The Rock-splitter and the Clod-swallower are figures with power over the earth and their names are grammatically compound words that follow the formula of MATERIAL + ROLE OF ACTION. This naming convention is also true of the other characters in the respective tales (the Fir-twister and the Hare-catcher,) but the Rock-Splitter and the Clod-Swallower are related by the nature of the material each affects. I have not yet read the entire corpus of Bear’s Son Tales, but would be interested in seeing if the other tales invariably have a figure with powers over earth or stone, and, considering that smashing rock and eating dirt are different abilities, if analogous characters in other Bear’s Son Tales tend toward the one ability or the other, or if they are even more divergent. “Strong Hans’s” Fir-twister, for instance, is a being associated with transforming wood into a useful material (twine to bind firewood), as the Rock-splitter smashes rocks to build himself a place to sleep where animals will not disturb him. Could the Clod-swallower and Rock-splitter, for instance have descended from a being with both of their powers, or are there beings with powers over other elements?
In searching for evidence that Steinn was based on a figure with power over rocks, I have collected details from Grettis saga, other than his name, that not only connect Steinn to rock, but also associates stone with the supernatural realm. To begin with references to stone or rock in the episode, Steinn is one of three characters to have the word stone in their names in the she-troll episode of Grettis saga. Thorstein the White and Thorstein’s wife Steinvor are likewise introduced in the episode. Grettis saga annotator R.C. Boer noted in his edition of the saga that the lack of information about these characters makes it likely that they were not based on real people. Furthermore, Thorstein and Steinvor live in a place called Sandhaugar, which means sand mounds or sand piles, a name that relates to earth. Reference to rocks in the episode abound. Grettir’s adventure with the she-troll brings him to a cliff where he is always near stone. The she-troll drags Grettir “to the rocks;” after Grettir cuts her arm off to escape her, she springs, “among the rocks;” and he lays exhausted “by the rock” (82). When Grettir brings Steinn to the waterfall they see “a cave under the rock” (82). It is clear that this part of the story takes place in a setting dominated by stone, but “the rocks” are repeatedly associated with the she-troll, not the humans. Grettir tries during his fight to avoid the rocks and Steinn wants to leave the rocks as soon as he sees the cave. In contrast, the she-troll yearns to get back to the rock-bound protection of her cave and tries to drag Grettir with her until he cuts off her arm at the shoulder. In all of these details, the rocks, and cave, are associated with the supernatural and are clearly inimical to the human beings. We are familiar with monumental stone tombs like the neolithic Newgrange funeral mound of Ireland and similar stone structures, which were meant to act as or represent gateways to another world. It is entirely reasonable that Grettir and Steinn are simply concerned for their safety in light of a clear physical threat, but the monstrous threats of Grettis saga, such as Glam, as well as Grendel of Beowulf are magical threats as well. Glam, for instance, is a corpse haunting the vicinity of his death. Glam is a giant capable of breaking all of the bones in the body of a horse or snapping a man's neck, but he also curses Grettir to gain no more strength. Grendel devours men, but has also charmed the edges of blades not to harm him. The physical dangers in these stories are backed by insidious magical threats as well. (I took all quotes and page numbers from the following online version of Grettis saga.)
If these repeated references to rock and stone in names and in the physical setting are not convincing in themselves, Steinn’s extremely limited role in the tale requires him and Grettir to use stones to accomplish a task. It is Grettir who ties a stone in the rope and drops it down the waterfall, but a more active Steinn may have done this in an earlier version of the story. The purpose of tying the rope to the stone is not explained. It seems reasonable to conjecture that the stone could weight the rope, making it easier to access from the pool at the bottom of the falls, but Grettir also says he does not want to be tied to the rope, which signals that anything tied to the end of the rope could be attacked. This doesn’t outright suggest that the stone tied to the rope is meant as a decoy, or a test to see if there is a troll waiting to strike anything lowered down the falls, but neither does that seem an unreasonable conclusion for the reader to draw. After lowering the stone, Steinn uses rocks to secure the rope: “He drove a stake into the ground and laid stones against it” (83). If Steinn were based on a figure with the power to smash rock with his fists, this would be an appropriate place for a tale teller to showcase the ability. This would be further than the Rock-splitter or the Clod-swallower go in using their abilities to solve a problem in their respective stories. It also seems worthwhile to point out, as I conjecture possible elements no longer in the text, that this rope now has stones on both sides. Most of the moments in Beowulf that have been identified as having traces of earlier tales are those times when there are lingering questions about why characters act as they do. Every detail then, of the Steinn episode should be scanned, no stone left -- ahem -- unturned.
In my attempts to offer an ancient archetype to explain the nature of the powers of a folkloric version Steinn, I again return to Tolkien, who so often rooted his creations in historical linguistic details he found mysterious and therefore compelling. This was true for the Ents of Middle Earth, tree-like giants who can smash stone and move earth. Old English scholars are at something of a loss to understand references to the description “the work of ents,” which is used to describe the ruins of stone structures in several Old English poems. Anglo-Saxonists conjecture that the Angles, Saxons and Jutes had never seen Roman buildings, buildings made of stone, and that these rude tribesmen believed that they were the works of giants from a time when such beings roamed England. Entish artifacts needn’t have been stone walls (in Beowulf, the word is used to describe at least one helmet), but generally carry the sense of being from an earlier time, from “the time of ents.” The word looks somewhat like eoten, another word Old English uses to describe giants, but it is not clear if these words are synonyms. Beowulf lists both eotens and gigantes as the creatures spawned by Cain, which suggests that they did not mean exactly the same thing. But while Tolkien’s Ents are only responsible for destroying stone structures, the general understanding among students of Old English is that ents were builders, perhaps like the disguised jotun Odin and friends employ to build the wall around Asgard. Tolkien delighted in leading his readers up to the edge of a problem without articulating it directly though, which makes me wonder (by way of a tangent) if Tolkien was suggesting that perhaps Old English ents came upon fully built structures and their “work” was to smash them apart. If the Anglo-Saxons were so amazed by stone buildings, I think they must have been just as concerned about what tore them down as what built them! My argument though is that certainly the people who told the tale of Grettir believed in dwarves and giants and trolls and other creatures that dealt in earth and stone. A creature that ate dirt and got into all sorts of trouble or adventures doesn’t seem hard to believe.
In bringing to a close this second piece in a series I am writing to investigate similarities between “Asphurtzela” and Beowulf, I must say that I will not feel that I have a complete understanding of of the Clod-swallower or his earth-breaking brother, the Rock-splitter, until I’ve more fully investigated Panzer’s Bear’s Son Tales. I do feel that a better understanding of Steinn’s relationship with these figures could be discovered in such an undertaking, perhaps with the conclusion that there is no meaningful relationship. Steinn though is a curious figure made more curious by his many associations, and his episode’s many associations, with stone. I would close by saying that “Asphurtzela” is less like the Beowulf-analogue Gretiss saga than it is like its fellow Bear’s Son Tale “Strong Hans.” In my last piece I addressed Asphurtzela’s fights with troll-like Devis, his braving a haunted house and his finding his way to a cave, which of course are similar to Grettir's adventures. In the next installment of this series, I will analyze the correspondences I see between “Asphurtzela” and Beowulf directly.