Monday, July 2, 2012

How to Read in the Dark (Ages)

During the time period covered by Saga (and just after) there was a flourishing tradition of literature in northern vernacular languages. The pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxons left a hefty corpus of prose and poetry.  The later Icelanders, particularly in the 13th and 14th centuries, recorded an enormous corpus of material about their legendary Viking ancestors.  Much of this literature is in fact quite readable and exciting by modern standards, and far less turgid than the contemporary writings in Latin or French.  (Maybe I'm biased though.)

Here's my top five:

1) The Prose Edda
The Poetic Edda (18th c. ms.)

The Prose Edda is a compilation of several essays by the 13th century Icelandic chieftain, Snorri Sturlasson.  Snorri was a Christian (conversion took place ca. 1000), but he was heavily invested in the Skaldic tradition of courtly praise poetry, which required a knowledge of Norse Mythology to understand.  He wrote in order to preserve that mythology, (and the list of poetic metaphors that accompanied it.)  The result is the first systematic telling of the Norse myths, and one that provides the best and easiest introduction to them today.

2) The Poetic Edda

Image of (maybe) Odin,
Tjängvide runestone

The Poetic or Elder Edda  is a collection of mythological and legendary poetry.  It was written in medieval Iceland, probably after the conversion, but with an unknown amount of material reaching back into the pagan period.  It's a more difficult, and more uneven read than the Prose Edda, and requires a knowledge of Norse mythology to understand.  Many of the poemsare world classics and exceptionally moving.  The Voluspa tells the story of the world from creation to its destruction and rebirth.  The Havamal provides a list of Viking proverbs (some especially pithy and grim) and Odin's magical lore.

3) Beowulf

The Sutton Hoo helmet
Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon (Old English) poem of unknown date.  It tells the story of the hero Beowulf's struggles with various monsters.  In the first part, Beowulf fights and kills the monster Grendel.  In the second, he fights a dragon. Beowulf will naturally appeal to fantasy fans -- and was, indeed, the basis of portions of Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.  (Do you remember Rohan? -- that's Beowulf with horsies.)  Aside from Beowulf pulling off monsters' arms and cutting off heads, the poem's outstanding features are probably its rich alliteration and its magnificent poetical kennings -- combinations of nouns used to express a single concept.

4) Njal's Saga

Gunnar's Spear is at Home

Njal's Saga is one of the Icelandic "Family" Sagas about the founding families of early Iceland, just before and after the conversion.  A Saga is a long prose work, like a modern novel.  All Icelandic Sagas are terse and tense, radiating a grim sense of irony -- like Hemingway with an axe.  Njal's Saga tells of an escalating feud that neither the saintly and shrewd protagonist protagonist, nor his heroic friend Gunnar, can prevent, and which eventually destroys them both.  Often seen as a commentary on the failings of the feud system itself, Njal's Saga is the most often read and admired Saga.

5) Egil's Saga

Egil Skallagrimsson
After the obligatory Njal's Saga, which Saga to read next is mostly a matter of taste.  I like Egil's Saga, whose violent, temperamental hero feuds with the king of Norway, and demonstrates an indomitable will, great fighting prowess, and command of poetry and magic. Unlike the saintly Njal, Egil is a "dark hero," and one of the great bad asses of Northern literature.  Don't mess with Egil.  His grandpa was a werewolf, his pa was a berserker, and HE is the famous one.

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