The genesis of this entry goes back almost six years, to April 29, 1999 (I can tell you the date because I kept the sales slip to use as a bookmark, as is my wont), when at one of my periodic visits to the sale cart on the third (foreign-language) floor of the Donnell I found a book by Boris Khazanov called Нагльфар в океане времен (Nagl’far v okeane vremen, ‘Naglfar in the ocean of time’). I’d never heard of Khazanov (it turns out his real name is Gennadii Moiseevich Faibusovich, he was born in 1928, did some time in the Gulag, studied medicine, and emigrated to Germany in 1982, where he’s written a bunch of stories and novels), but the book was part of the Альфа – фантастика [Alpha-Fantasy] series and had an attractive Chagall-ripoff cover… and there was that mysterious word “Naglfar.” I flipped through the book but couldn’t find out what it meant or if it was someone’s name (in fact, I couldn’t find any reference to it at all), but it clearly wasn’t Russian and it had a certain consonantal grandeur whose pull I couldn’t deny, sort of like the Georgian words (t’k'bili, gmadlobt) I always enjoy startling people with. I figured the book was easily worth the 25 cents they were asking and added it to my stack.
Fast-forward to this weekend. I was reading Nicholson Baker to assuage the misery of my wife (who’s picked up, alas, the cold I had just put down); halfway through “Clip Art” (an essay about nail clippers and clipped nails that originally appeared in the Nov. 7, 1994 New Yorker) I reached the following paragraph:
But the most troubling feature of Stephen King’s assessment of my alleged “nail paring” of a novel is his apparent belief that a bookish toe- or fingernail scrap can be justifiably brushed off as meaningless. Last September, Allen Ginsberg sold a bag of his beard hair to Stanford. Surely Mr. King ought to be saving for the ages whatever gnarled relics he clips or pares? And the Master Spellbinder, of all people, should be able to detect the secret terrors, the moans of the severed but unquiet soul, that reside in these disjecta. Think of the fearful Norse ship of the apocalypse, Naglfar, made of dead men’s nails, which will break loose from its moorings during the Monstrous Winter, when the Wolf has swallowed the Sun—”a warning,” in Brian Branston’s retelling, “that if a man dies with his nails unshorn he is adding greatly to the materials for Naglfar (a thing both gods and men would be slow to do).” Gertrude Jobes’s mythological dictionary cites a related Finno-Ugric tradition in which the Evil One collects any Sunday nail parings and “with them builds the boat for transporting the dead.” Lithuanian folklore contends (per Stith Thompson) that “from the parings of man’s nails devils make little caps for themselves.”…
Well before I got to Gertrude Jobes and Stith Thompson, I broke off my reading and startled my sleepy wife with the outcry (as mysterious to her as the name had previously been to me) “Naglfar!” I explained to her the background, and after I finished the essay and she drifted off to sleep I dashed to my study, where the chaos of unboxing has subsided to the point that I can actually find many of the books I want, and I dug out the Khazanov novel from behind a volume of Dovlatov. This time I discovered what I had missed in my original hasty ruffling of the pages: at the very start, among the epigraphs (between Tacitus and “Россия – игра природы, а не ума,” attributed to Бесы [Besy, Dostoevsky's The Devils] but slightly misquoted if this text‘s “Россия есть игра природы, но не ума” a third of the way through Chapter II is to be trusted), is a longish quote from the Younger Edda, the very passage summarized by Baker in the above paragraph! And—Урла-лап! Курла-ла!—I’ve found an online bilingual (Old Norse/Russian) version of the Edda! [No longer extant as of July 2012.] It’s a different Russian translation than the one Khazanov uses, so I won’t bother quoting it, but here’s the original (from Chapter 51, “Frá ragnarökum”):
Þá mælti Gangleri: ‘Hver tíðendi eru at segja frá um ragnarökr? Þess hef ek eigi fyrr heyrt getit.’
Hárr segir: ‘Mikil tíðendi eru þaðan at segja ok mörg, þau in fyrstu, at vetr sá kemr, er kallaðr er fimbulvetr. Þá drífr snær ór öllum áttum. Frost eru þá mikil ok vindar hvassir. Ekki nýtr sólar. Þeir vetr fara þrír saman ok ekki sumar milli, en áðr ganga svá aðrir þrír vetr, at þá er um alla veröld orrostur miklar…
Þá verðr þat, er mikil tíðendi þykkja, at úlfrinn gleypir sólina, ok þykkir mönnum þat mikit mein. Þá tekr annarr úlfrinn tunglit, ok gerir sá ok mikit ógagn. Stjörnurnar hverfa af himninum. Þá er ok þat til tíðenda, at svá skelfr jörð öll ok björg, at viðir losna ór jörðu upp, en björgin hrynja, en fjötrar allir ok bönd brotna ok slitna. Þá verðr Fenrisúlfr lauss. Þá geysist hafit á löndin, fyrir því at þá snýst Miðgarðsormr í jötunmóð ok sækir upp á landit. Þá verðr ok þat, at Naglfar losnar, skip þat, er svá heitr. Þat er gert af nöglum dauðra manna, ok er þat fyrir því varnanar vert, ef maðr deyr með óskornum nöglum, at sá maðr eykr mikit efni til skipsins Naglfars, er goðin ok menn vildi seint, at gert yrði. En í þessum sævargang flýtur Naglfar.
[LI. Then said Gangleri: "What tidings are to be told concerning the Weird of the Gods? Never before have I heard aught said of this." Hárr answered: "Great tidings are to be told of it, and much. The first is this, that there shall come that winter which is called the Awful Winter: in that time snow shall drive from all quarters; frosts shall be great then, and winds sharp; there shall be no virtue in the sun. Those winters shall proceed three in succession, and no summer between; but first shall come three other winters, such that over all the world there shall be mighty battles...
Then shall happen what seems great tidings: the Wolf shall swallow the sun; and this shall seem to men a great harm. Then the other wolf shall seize the moon, and he also shall work great ruin; the stars shall vanish from the heavens. Then shall come to pass these tidings also: all the earth shall tremble so, and the crags, that trees shall be torn up from the earth, and the crags fall to ruin; and all fetters and bonds shall be broken and rent. Then shall Fenris-Wolf get loose; then the sea shall gush forth upon the land, because the Midgard Serpent stirs in giant wrath and advances up onto the land. Then that too shall happen, that Naglfar shall be loosened, the ship which is so named. (It is made of dead men's nails; wherefore a warning is desirable, that if a man die with unshorn nails, that man adds much material to the ship Naglfar, which gods and men were fain to have finished late.) Yet in this sea-flood Naglfar shall float...
—A.G. Brodeur's 1916 translation]
The oldest reference to the story, however, is in the Elder Edda’s first section, Völuspá (probably 10th century); here‘s a bilingual (Norse/English this time) version of stanza 50:
Hrymr ekr austan,
hefisk lind fyrir,
Ormr knýr unnir,
en ari hlakkar,
slítr nái Niðfölr,
Hrym travels from the east,
he holds a shield,
in an huge rage.
The serpent beats the waves,
and the eagle shrieks,
pale-beaked it tears the corpses,
and Naglfar breaks loose.
So that’s more than you ever wanted to know about any number of things. And my wife says that if we ever get the dog we’ve been wanting and he turns out to be difficult and bad-tempered, we should name him Naglfar.