To sleep, perchance to dream ...

I’ve been working backstage for Les Miserables in the Orkney Theatre, which means that each night I got to hear the beautiful songs, including Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream”, so powerfully rendered by Kim Hamilton. This led me to remember another theatre production I was involved in, some fifteen years ago, over in Norway. It was based on a Norwegian medieval ballad known as “Draumkvedet” – the Dream Ballad. As it is a momentous dream vision, it was deemed suitable for a production to celebrate the Millennium. A large number of singers, musicians and actors, me among them, performed a dramatic version of the ballad in the majestic Nidaros Cathedral. It also led me to think about what it means to dream.


For the Vikings, unlike for Fantine, a dream was not something you dreamed. Fantine’s dream is a product of her own hopes for the future, and like “The American Dream” it is not even a sleeping dream. In contrast, Viking dreams came from outside and entered into you while you were asleep or in a trance. Instead of saying “I dreamed a dream”, they would say that a dream “dreamed me”. The dream was understood as something that was sent, by a friend or enemy or by the supernatural. It was therefore crucial to be able to interpret dream visions, as they could give vital clues about future happenings. A scenic example is from Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue’s Saga, where a man called Thorstein dreams that he sees “a fine, beautiful swan up on the roof-ridge. I thought that I owned her, and I was very pleased with her. Then I saw a huge eagle fly down from the mountains. He flew towards Borg and perched next to the swan and chattered to her happily. She seemed to be well pleased with that. Then I noticed that the eagle had black eyes and claws of iron; he looked like a gallant fellow.” Next, another eagle arrives, and starts fighting with the first eagle, leading to the death of them both. Lastly, a hawk arrives, and the hawk and the swan fly off together. This is interpreted to mean that Thorstein will have a daughter, and the eagles and hawk represent her various suitors. The remainder of the saga proves this interpretation to be true.

Draumkvedet, or the “dream ballad”, on the other hand, belongs in the genre of Christian dream visions, along with medieval dream visions in English such as the Dream of the Rood, Piers Plowman, and Pearl. The folklorist Sophus Bugge suggested that it might have been based on an Irish dream vision from 1149. The ballad was collected in the county of Telemark in the 1840s by the song collector Magnus Landstad, who collated what we now know as the full version from shorter fragments sung by various local people. (The UHI has a whole module on dream visions, by the way! Not taught by me, though, sadly.)

In the “dream ballad”, we meet a man called Olav Åsteson, who turns up in church announcing to everyone that he fell asleep on Christmas Eve and only woke up after Twelfth Night. While sleeping, he travels along the paths of the dead. In a beautiful combination of heathen and Christian imagery, he crosses the Gjallarbru, the bridge which separates the worlds of the living and dead, before travelling through Purgatory, Hell, and Paradise. “Saint Soul-Michael” battles with “Grutte Grey-Beard” who is the Devil. Finally, he sees Judgment Day when St Michael’s great scales come out to weigh people’s souls.

My favourite part of the poem was the part where we get to hear about the grotesque punishments for various sins committed in life. For example: “There I met two serpents/They bit each other in the tails:/They were sinful cousins/Who married each other on earth” (translation by Christian Carlsen).Transformed into a snake forevermore, for marrying your cousin! For being a witch, the punishment is to stand in a pool of blood. For moving stones which mark the extent of land ownership, the punishment is to carry scorching hot soil.

Thankfully, there are also some rewards for good behaviour: For example if you in life give shoes to the poor, you shall not have to walk bare-footed over thorns after your death.

I think it’s lovely to observe the apparent connection between Britain, Ireland, and Norway here, where the inspiration for the “dream ballad” seems to have crossed the sea. If it is correct that the ballad’s roots go as far back as the second half of the twelfth century, it comes from a time when there was a great deal of cultural contact between the British Isles and Norway.

At some point in the late Middle Ages, the meaning of the verb “dream” starts to shift, and people started thinking of dreams as something that originates within the sleeper, rather than coming into the sleeper from outside. In Old Norse, we first see this new sense of the word in translations of European literature. But it was not just in Old Norse that this shift happened. Also in English, we can see the old way of thinking – “(something) dreamed me” rather than “I dreamed (something)” – in sources older than about the 15th century, for example in the afore mentioned Piers Plowman. After a period of overlap, however, the modern way of thinking about dreams takes over, which then leads to the idea that a “dream” can also be one of Fantine’s sort: a waking fantasy.

Ragnhild Ljosland

Originally published in The Orcadian, 19th February 2015, page 9.