There are circumstances in which you may find yourself standing in a field alongside a Scandinavian peasant, staring at the sky. The peasant may turn to you and say:
Morgenrode gir dage blode,
Kveldsrode gir dage sode.
What is an appropriate response? You could, of course, remain silent, while moulding your countenance into an expression of sagacity. A slight furrowing of the brow, a pursing of the lips, an intense look in the eyes, perhaps an almost imperceptible nod of the head. You could even rub your chin thoughtfully, as Mr Carter does in the Jennings & Darbyshire books by Anthony Buckeridge. The Scandinavian peasant will almost certainly take this as due acknowledgement. This is the safest course of action if you have no idea what he is babbling on about.
But it may be that you have a smattering of some Scandinavian languages, or are wearing a hidden earpiece which provides you with a simultaneous translation. Both are possibilities if you are, for example, a diplomat, or a special rapporteur of the United Nations. There may be other reasons why one or both is the case, such as family background or the habit of international jet-setting for either business or leisure purposes. Your knowledge, or earpiece, will thus apprise you of the meaning of the peasant’s utterance, which can be given as:
Morning red gives wet days,
Evening red gives sweet days.
Armed, then, with the knowledge that the peasant is spouting rustic wisdom, or weather lore, you may wish to consider a verbal response. You can still do the whole business with the brow and the lips and the eyes and the head and the chin, but this time as a preliminary gambit. Then you might counter with a countryside adage of your own, for example:
Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight,
Red sky in morning, fisherman’s warning.
or, if the field in which you are standing alongside the Scandinavian peasant is within the vicinity of the sea, or of a fjord, you might say:
Red sky at night, sailor’s delight,
Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.
The problem with this approach is that the Scandinavian peasant may be prompted to bat back a further piece of his own rustic wisdom, to which you will feel compelled to supply a rejoinder. You will swiftly find yourself embroiled in an escalating exchange of countryside proverbs which you cannot win. He is a peasant, and you are not. He will always be able to top your saw with something more abstruse, born of generations of experience tilling the Scandinavian fields. You should therefore deploy a different tactic. Instead of following the brow and the lips and the eyes and the head and the chin business with a couplet of weather lore, you should allow a significant pause, and then say:
And in the morning, It will be foul weather to-day: for the sky is red and lowring. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?
This is a Biblical quotation, from the Gospel of Matthew, 16:3. Assuming for one moment that the Scandinavian peasant does not take it personally, it is likely that he will be stunned into silence, like a dumb ox. You then have the advantage. But bear in mind the possibility that he does take it personally, and thinks you are accusing him, wildly, of hypocrisy. He may be a violent peasant, and lift up his spade to bash you about the head. If you are wearing a hidden earpiece, a bash will dislodge it, and you will no longer have the simultaneous translation to let you know what he is saying. To prevent this happening, you should have in your pocket some kind of treat with which to placate him. A piece of smoked and dried herring will usually suffice. You should keep it wrapped in greaseproof paper to avoid sullying the lining of your pocket.
There is, however, the possibility that he may be a Bible-thumping Scandinavian peasant, as familiar with the Old and New Testaments as he is with weather lore. If this is the case, he may respond to your Matthew 16:3 with, say, his Isaiah 36:16-17:
Drick var och en vatten i sin brunn, tills jag kommer och tar dig bort.
This will put you in something of a pickle. Unless you have the measure of his Bible-learning, and how could you?, you have no guarantee that you will be able to match him quote for quote. Remember he may well be a Lutheran. You will need to be pretty damn confident of your own store of memorised Biblical verses to embark upon a tit-for-tat. Weighing things in the balance, your best option is to reply:
Drink ye every one the waters of his own cistern, until I come and take you away.
By merely echoing back at him the Authorised Version version of his own sally, you may well succeed in bringing the exchange to a close. Neither of you has outwitted the other, neither of you has lost face. He can take up his spade and go off to till his fields in a peasanty way, and you can wander off in the opposite direction, to your holiday chalet, or special rapporteur’s concrete pillbox, or wherever it is you are staying. When both of you have walked about twenty paces, you might turn and wave to each other, in amicable farewell. The next morning, or evening, when you encounter each other again in the field, you will both be better prepared, and companionable silence will almost certainly be appropriate.
Next week, in our series on conversational gambits with Scandinavian peasants, we will look at the best approach should you find yourself talking of the varying merits of agricultural implements. For your homework, make a list of farm implements mentioned in the Bible, using as your sources both the Authorised Version and a Scandinavian-language Lutheran edition.