A curious tale about the Norse god, Thor, can be found in a poem called Alvissmal, or All-Wise’s Sayings, which was preserved along with other old anonymously-written Icelandic poems in a 13th-century collection, called the Poetic Edda. Alvissmal begins with an encounter between Thor and a jolly dwarf named All-Wise, the namesake of the poem. As the name suggests, All-Wise was a dwarf with encyclopedic knowledge, but he unfortunately and ironically lacked the comprehension to apply his learning in any self-preserving way.
Thor and All-Wise meet on the road one night under very strange circumstances. The dwarf was giddy with happiness, telling everyone he met on his journey that he was soon to be married to a goddess. This marriage contract—formed under vague terms by a mysterious trickster of a figure—seemed perfectly fine to All-Wise, and he continued to portray an aura of happiness and calm as he traveled closer and closer to the abode of his would-be wife. Yet, there was a glaring problem with All-Wise’s hopes; his supposed fiancé and her father both did not know that any such marriage negotiations existed. Unfortunately for the dwarf, it seems that someone played a trick on him, or wanted him dead. As it was, he was marching joyfully to take Thor’s daughter as his wife, on the authority of a marriage contract that did not exist.
All-Wise was musing out loud about his future wife, his wedding, and his predicted happy future when he had the misfortune of bumping into his prospective father-in-law on the road during the night. Thor, the mighty giant-slaying god, was not known for kindness or patience, but the deity decided to play it slow with the curious dwarf. Thor could not hold himself back, however, from commenting that he did not think that the dwarf was the marriageable sort. This verbal jab did not perturb All-Wise, but instead caused the dwarf to strike up a conversation with his fellow traveler. Not knowing to whom he was talking, the dwarf said:
“All-Wise is my name, I live below the earth,
my dwelling is under a rock;
to the lord of the wagons I’ve come on a visit,
let no man break people’s sworn pledges!”
(Alvissmal, stanza 3)
As the conversation between the dwarf and the god continued, Thor became more and more aware that it was his own daughter that All-Wise intended to marry. Now that he knew of the dwarf’s mistaken assumptions, Thor revealed his identity. Referencing All-Wise’s aforementioned insistence that pledges should not be broken, Thor retorted:
“I shall break them, since I’ve most authority
over the bride as her father;
I wasn’t at home when she was promised to you,
the only one among the gods who can give this gift.”
(Alvissmal, stanza 4)
Thor was acting with restraint at this point, but All-Wise, unfortunately, did not desist in his insistence that the marriage should go forward, causing Thor to become angry. The dwarf, who literally and figuratively lived under a rock, did not know how much danger he was in by testing Thor’s patience. Instead of dropping the subject and promptly leaving, All-Wise boldly opted for the route of pressing Thor to approve the marriage. Still maintaining his cheerful and calm demeanor, All-Wise begged:
“Your consent I’d quickly like to gain
and to get a bridal agreement;
I had rather have her than go without
the snow-white girl.”
(Alvissmal, stanza 7)
By this point in the conversation, Thor’s patience had been completely depleted and replaced by anger and annoyance. Earlier, the god might have let the dwarf go home to find a new bride, but now Thor had lost all good-will toward the unwanted suitor. In fact, the god was by now quite murderous in his intentions.
During their long discourse, Thor had quickly learned that All-Wise had a wide breadth of knowledge, and the god now decided to use this against the dwarf. For this purpose, Thor began to ask All-Wise about random trivia regarding the lands of gods, giants, elves, dwarves, and humans. All-Wise eagerly answered every question asked, thinking that if he impressed the god with his knowledge, then he might indeed be allowed to marry his promised bride. This bout of questions and answers continued long into the night, and Thor had no shortage of questions to ask. All-Wise’s encyclopedic knowledge, however, was inexhaustible, and he answered truthfully the random subjects he was told to explain, such as the different ways that giants, elves, humans, and gods referred to basic things like clouds, fire, wood and water. Yet, with all this knowledge, one important piece of information escaped the dwarf, and by the time the sun began to rise over Thor and All-Wise, it was already too late. Norse dwarves, so myth and legend claimed, were sometimes known to turn to stone when exposed to sunlight. Unfortunately, All-Wise, who had been intentionally travelling at night, was susceptible to this odd condition. Declaring victory, Thor exclaimed:
“In one breast I’ve never seen
more ancient knowledge;
with much guile I declare I’ve beguiled you;
day dawns on you now, dwarf,
now sun shines into the hall.”
(Alvissmal, stanza 35)
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration inspired by Alvissmal (All-Wise’s Sayings), created by W.G. Collingwood (1854 – 1932), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Alvissmal, an old poem which was preserved in the 13th-century Poetic Edda which was produced anonymously in Iceland. Translation by Carolyne Larrington (Oxford University Press, 2014).
- The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.