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Seven Viking Romances (Penguin Classics) Paperback – January 7, 1986
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Text: English, Icelandic (translation)
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At the same time, there are a great many important tales here. Gautrek's Saga, for example, is included here. On the basis of comparisons between the deaths of Vikar in this saga and Baldr in Snorri's Edda, de Vries drew important conclusions about the nature of initiation rites among the Norse.
The one thing I think the translator could have done to make this better would have been to add footnotes explaining some of the elements of the translation (particularly the names). Some of the humor of the writers fo the sagas has thus been lost in translation. For example, in Arrow-Odd, it is helpful to know that 'Odd' means 'point' and thus there is a pun on his nickname that is not evident from the translation.
Having said this, these are all quite enjoyable to read and important for serious Norse studies. Highly recommended.
But there are also "Fornaldarsogur," the "tales of olden times," retelling ancient Germanic and Scandinavian legends (notably "Volsunga Saga," "Heidrek's" or "Hervarar Saga," and "Hrolf Kraki's Saga"). Only a few of them are as well-known as they deserve, and then often because of associations with other works (the Sigurd / Siegfried legend, "Beowulf"). And there are accounts of bishops and saints, translations and imitations of Arthurian romances and Carolingian chansons de geste ("riddarasogur," "knightly tales,"), and fantastic stories ("lying sagas") of adventure and romance among supernatural beings or in distant lands. "Sturlunga Saga" is a compilation of partisan reports of contemporary events, somewhat cloaked in the objectivity of the saga style. These are largely under-represented in English translation, or at best such translations usually are available only in large or specialized libraries.
The great period of saga-writing was the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but stories in the native style continued to be written in later times. There has been tendency to date "good" sagas early, and "inferior" sagas late, and reject the "late" works. But most of the genres (if not specific surviving examples) seem to have been around from the beginning, at least as oral tales. There are close parallels to some of the more extravagant attested before 1220, in the "Gesta Danorum" of Saxo Grammaticus. The present volume was an interesting attempt to make examples of some of the more neglected kinds of saga more familiar to ordinary readers, without worrying overmuch about their relative age or degree of literary sophistication.
The contents will be less surprising to those not directly familiar with great sagas, however. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the distinctions were not at all clear, and the thin antiquarian veneer of (the now obviously fictional) "Frithjof's Saga" was treated with immense seriousness, and even accorded great political importance. Boosted by a retelling by the poet Tegner, it achieved European celebrity when a masterpiece like "Njal's Saga" was just a name (at best). Quotations from its late medieval and hyperbolic version of Viking life are still found in circulation in popular accounts, treated as serious evidence. (For this, and much else, Andrew Wawn's "The Vikings and the Victorians: Inventing the Old North in 19th-Century Britain" is illuminating.)
The confusion is understandable. After all, among the realistic tales, "Eyrbyggja Saga" includes a dramatic haunting -- although the exorcism takes the form of a properly executed legal eviction notice! Visions of the dead, prophetic apparitions, witches, marauding reanimated corpses, trolls, and (in foreign parts) more vaguely conceived monsters may play small roles -- or large ones in "Grettir's Saga," and some other accounts of famous outlaws. But these were, for the most part, matters of contemporary belief, and in any case the "Sagas of the Icelanders" were set mainly between about 850 and 1050, when, it was held, Christianity had yet to drive out the pagan powers, and odd things might be likely to have happened on familiar ground. (Not that the supernatural ceased to be a menacing presence in Icelandic life -- accounts through the nineteenth-century make that clear enough.)
The "Seven Viking Romances" in this volume fall somewhere between the mainly realistic "Sagas of the Icelanders" and the most extravagant of the "lying sagas." Some at first seem to come close to being "Sagas of the Icelanders," and some may properly be considered "legendary sagas," albeit with more than a little extra-traditional elaboration. And they are particularly interesting because they don't quite fit expectations. They are examples both of literary invention and of the preservation of archaic beliefs. Sorting these out has been a problem for scholars, but not the sort of problem that should prevent a reader from enjoying the stories.
How does this work? Some of these seven involve notable Icelandic families, or rather their ancestors in the "Old Country" (Norway), and they all rely to some extent on the standard stylistic devices of the saga literature. Characters are often formally introduced to the reader with genealogical particulars, and geographic settings. Everyday activities and plain household furnishings are mentioned instead of being avoided (as in the dignified forms of contemporary European literature).
But the pretense of being a history of a family, its eventual settlement in a new land, marriages, inheritances, and lawsuits, or an account of famous feuds in a district, and how they were resolved, falls away in favor of a rollicking good time. There is not a lot of worrying if there is enough hay to last the winter, and who has the legal rights to the stranded whale. Instead we have slaying of monsters, rescuing of princesses, or slaughtering of hordes of enemies (or at least an evil giant or two). It is rather as if what started like an historical novel rather quickly turned into one of Robert E. Howard's stories of "Conan the Cimmerian."
"Seven Viking Romances" starts with the relatively long "Arrow-Odd" ("Orvar-Odds Saga" -- the Orvar nickname and name Oddr taken together mean "Arrow-Point" and the pun could have been made clearer, or just left for a note). The hero seems at first to be intended as a typical saga-age early Icelander, with not-too-untypical named heroic ancestors (like the "I was delayed by that big fish" dragon-slayer, Ketil Trout) known from other stories. But we soon learn that he is destined to live many human lifetimes, and the pagan gods show up to take a (small) part in his adventures abroad, all far from Iceland. The actual trade through Arctic waters with Permia figures in the tale, in a suitably fantasticated form; there does seem to be a lot of authentically old, if not very accurate, background. The extant saga reworks older tales of heroes. There is a substantial overlap with the Heidreks/Hervarar Saga tradition in chapter fourteen, featuring the burial of the hero Angantyr with the (cursed) sword Tyrfing -- and of his eleven brothers, one of whom, confusingly, is also named Tyrfing. The Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus mentions Arvarodd in connection with the fatal battle. In addition, the story of Odd's predicted death shows up in the Russian "Primary Chronicle," although there it is told of Oleg the Seer, one of the Scandinavian-descended Princes of Kiev.
This translation of "Orvar-Odd" was originally published separately, as "Arrow-Odd: A Medieval Novel" (1970), where I originally sought it out after studying some of the related works (such as Saxo). It appears here in slightly revised form, along with the appendix on "Sources and Parallels" (perhaps a little too condensed to be entirely clear to the uninitiated). Most of the rest had already been published as "Gautrek's Saga and other medieval tales" (1968), and are also offered with revisions.
The following story of "King Gautrek" ("Gautreks Saga") is one of a short series of sagas (see "Bosi and Herraud," below), and is set in western Gautland (West Gotaland in modern Sweden) -- slightly foreign to Icelandic experience, and apparently a good setting for odd events. (As Geatland, it was Beowulf's home, and his Icelandic counterpart Bodhvar Bjarki was the brother of another King of Gautland; Odd visits it during his travels.) Frithjof's descendants show up in the story, and so does the more certainly venerable figure of Starkad, well-known from Saxo Grammaticus (and some other sources) -- like Arrow-Odd, he was one of those heroic-age figures blessed or cursed to outlive his times. Like "Arrow-Odd," "King Gautrek" clearly belongs among the legendary sagas ("Fornaldarsogur"), but some of it seems invented, or at least "improved."
"Halfdan Eysteinsson" takes us to the Odin-descended kings of Trondheim, and another complex of apparently traditional tales of adventures in legendary versions of real places (Permia) and less likely ones (the Land of the Undying, discovered off-stage by one of Halfdan's relatives). It was newly translated for this collection.
"Bosi and Herraud" begins among King Gautrek's relatives in East Gotaland, and includes a visit to the quasi-mythical King Godmund of Glasir Plains (Gudhmundr of Glaesisvellir), a sort of friendly giant, who recurs in other tales, some included here.
"Egil and Asmund ("Egils saga einhenda og Asmundar saga berserkjabana," "The Story of Egil One-Hand and Asmund Berserkers-Slayer") is set in the possibly even more exotic land of Russia. Knowledge of a long-lasting Eastern Scandinavian (Swedish) presence there, and adventures of Norwegians and Icelanders at the court of Kiev, and on the way to Byzantium, presumably inspired the setting. (Compare the extra-textual Russian connections of "Arrow-Odd.") There are excursions into Tartary, and the Aegean, but also to Halogaland (Norway), and Jotunheim, the realm of the Giants; a not untypical mixture of the known, the exotic, and the mythical.
The volume is rounded off with two short tales, "Thorstein Mansion-Might" ("Thorsteins thattr baejarmagns"), which opens with a visit to the Underworld and an encounter with a dwarf, and continues with exploits among giants, and the very brief "Helgi Thorisson" ("Helga thattr Thorissonar"), set in the reign of King Olaf Trygvasson (995-1000). Both of these return us to King Godmund and his legendary realm of marvels and adventures, which are also attested in Saxo Grammaticus and the "Hervarar Saga."
Not great works -- although "Arrow-Odd" has some claims to be an especially well-told story, and the shortest works have their own compressed charm. But definitely worth having available alongside the "crowned masterpiece" examples of medieval Icelandic literature. Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards were not wasting their time, and readers interested in giants, dwarves, and trolls, magic weapons, and the like, probably won't feel that they are wasting their time, either.
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I read Arrow-Odd once and will never forget it.Read more