Iceland's Sagas: Volsungs, Grettir, Njal, Laxdaela, Gisli, Hrolf Kraki, Vinland, more

Extollager

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2010
Messages
5,554
#1
When you're in the mood to read an Icelandic saga, nothing else will do. Probably William Morris, Rider Haggard, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien would agree to that, and, more recently, Poul Anderson.

Penguin Classics especially, and Oxford World's Classics, have found that there's a market for inexpensive editions of these medieval narratives.


I'm going to kick off this subforum on sagas with some thoughts on the Saga of the Volsungs, as translated by Jesse Byock -- a fresh rendering that's readily available and that contains elements likely to interest Tolkien enthusiasts. It is a story of gods, blood, revenge, and a dragon.
 

Ray McCarthy

Sentient Marmite: The Truth may make you fret.
Joined
Jul 16, 2014
Messages
8,089
Location
The Mid West (of Ireland)
#3
The William Morris version looks like heavy going for me, I find reading verse hard.


[May need to read it on the 9.7" Kindle DX, on the 6.8" HD Kobo Aura H2O the text is a bit small when formatted to minimise line breaks... Mysteriously too the Header and Footer (Title and page X of Total) is gone!

Edit: seems to be a Gutenberg format Issue. I'll rebuild the eBook.]
 
Last edited:

Extollager

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2010
Messages
5,554
#4
It would be interesting to know if Morris found a way to put some of the saga's more appalling incidents in soft-focus, not that I see Morris as a bowdlerizer.
 

Extollager

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2010
Messages
5,554
#7
Here are a few paragraphs from a podcast script that I wrote a while ago.

I suppose that the word “saga” is used today to mean any very long story with numerous characters. But here, I’m referring to the prose stories written in the Middle Ages in the Old Norse language, and written mostly by people living in Iceland. We know the name of one of these writers, Snorri Sturluson, who lived 1179-1241. Snorri was a lawyer – more precisely, Snorri was a lawspeaker. He was responsible for orally reciting Icelandic law at annual meetings of influential landowners. Not all of the medieval Icelandic prose narratives have a strong emphasis on legal matters, but I suppose the greatest ones generally do.

These sagas, the greatest ones, belong to the category called the sagas of Icelanders or family sagas. They are set in the period in which Iceland is settled by Scandinavians, and in which the cults of Thor and Odin are giving way to faith in Christ, to Baptism, to the Christian Church. These include the stories of Njal, Egil, Grettir, Gisli, and the people of the Lax River Valley. These five stories belong to the group of sagas known collectively as the “sagas of Icelanders.”

In their time, people also referred to the “lying sagas,” adventurous tales understood to be fictional. These are the sagas of old times. These sagas aren’t thought of as having the factuality of the great sagas. The Saga of the Volsungs is one of these sagas of the long-ago, that is, long ago even from the perspective of medieval Icelanders. The sagas of old times deal with mythic and legendary material from before the Norse people became Christian.

Other types of sagas, which I won’t go into here, include the sagas of kings, that is, the kings of Norway, mostly; the contemporary sagas that deal with prominent families and events from no more than, say, a hundred years ago; these may also deal with bishops. The sagas of knights deal with chivalric heroes in retellings of the stories of people such as King Arthur. In these sagas, the writer may be retelling stories written in other language that he puts into Old Norse.
 

Extollager

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2010
Messages
5,554
#8
Tried Njal's Saga some time ago. For some reason, it just didn't engage me.
From the podcast script that I excerpted in #7 above --

If you’ve already read a saga such as the great Laxdaela Saga, Grettir’s Saga, or Njal’s Saga, you’ll remember the genealogies. The author identifies a major character by telling you about his family origins and where his property is. I think we must infer that people experienced themselves differently than we do. They didn’t just carry around this information about their ancestry, I suspect, but actually felt it. I suspect they felt their blood differently than we do. I’m not just saying they had different notions about it than we do – about that, there can be no question – of course they did. But I wonder if they “knew” blood differently than we do. Blood for us is a substance pumped by a large muscle in our chests through our bodies, bearing nutrients derived from digested food, fat deposits, and oxygen. For us it is a substance that can be extracted by people with minimal training, stored and refrigerated, introduced into other people’s bloodstreams if the blood types match, and so on. Blood for them is a physical link with their parents and farther-back ancestors. We know a lot more about blood than they did, but I am not sure that we know ourselves in the blood. Perhaps such a thing is possible and they did thus know themselves.
 

Extollager

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2010
Messages
5,554
#9
From my reading, I'd say that the Saga of the Volsungs is uncharacteristic of the great sagas in at least a couple of ways. They are often concerned with matters of law -- and that's something to discuss here eventually -- but the Volsungasaga isn't. Second, though the other sagas have their share of violence, this one seems unusually preoccupied with bloodshed and cruelty.

The Saga of the Volsungs features copious references to such matters as the following:

  • spilled blood

  • mothers arranging the deaths of their own children

  • verbal cruelty in the form of insults
Although it celebrates heroism, this saga has a more pervasive ghastliness than others.

In a related topic, here's Elizabeth Hand on Tolkien's poetic version of Sigurd material:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/04/AR2009050403462.html
 

Extollager

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2010
Messages
5,554
#11
"Pervasive ghastliness" -- I was thinking of things such as these (page references to the California edition of Byock's translation -- might be the same in the Penguin):


62 warrior's arms bloody up to the shoulders from fighting

63 Fafnir's blood

65 Regin drinks Fafnir's blood (and Fafnir was his brother!)

90 Gudrun drenched in Sigurd's blood when he is stabbed in bed

91 reference to blood-brotherhood

93 Brynhild's hissing wound

94 Gudrun unwittingly drinks a potion of forgetfulness that includes the blood of her son; there are bloody runes in the cup (which I don't quite understand)

96 Atli's dream of bloody reeds he is given to eat

98 Kostbera’s dream of being splashed by blood as an eagle flies

99 Glaumvor’s dream of a bloody sword

102 hearts cut out of living warriors

104 Atli given his sons’ blood to drink

107 taunt of blood from sons to their mother


Mothers killing or arranging the deaths of their children:


Signy 42, 45

Borghild (stepmother) poisons Sinfjotli 51

Gudrun and her children by Atli 104


Brynhild orders the death of the three-year-old son of Sigurd (his son by Gudrun, presumably) though Brynhild has considered Sigurd her “husband”


Insults are prominent – pp. 49, 82, 105 – another aspect of the emphasis on hatred in this saga; and pitilessness


Emphasis on distraught emotions – Signy confesses (rightly!) that she isn’t fit to live, so does Regin (p. 65); Brynhild’s passionate grief that is making the household unbearable, and the way she hates and loves Sigurd at the same time (P. 87). I tend to think of hatred in the sagas as usually being manifested as a sudden fury, often connected with insults when people have been drinking, or else cold, calculated scheming, but not this sick love-hate


Reluctant marriages and sexual irregularity – the incest between Signy and Sigmund (43), mothers arranging the deaths of their children


A lot of witchcraft –shape-changing, etc.
 

Extollager

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2010
Messages
5,554
#14
Anyone interested in this thread will be interested in Tom Shippey's new book Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings (Reaktion Books 2018). I intend to start posting notes on Shippey's book this week. Hope to see a few Chronsfolk here (Svalbard?). In the meantime, here's Michael Dirda's rave review:

- The Washington Post
 

Extollager

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2010
Messages
5,554
#15
Shippey writes arrestingly, "I think the greatest collection of poetry inthe whole world is contained in the manuscript known as the Codex Regius, the 'king's Book'. It was a king's book only temporarily and accidentally. It's really a farmer's book, and wer don't even know who the farmer was, who the poets were, who deserves the credit for copying and preserving the whole set of 29 poems" (p. 24). This includes the Havamal and the Voluspa -- the Words of the High One (Odin) and the Prophecy of the Seeress.

Shippey argues that the Old Norse view was that a hero's real greatness was shown not in his victories but in his final defeat, in the courage he showed when he'd come to the inescapable end. And these heroes "just did not seem able to take death and defeat seriously. Unlike the ponderous heroes of the classical world, with whom every reader was then familiar, they kept on making jokes, coming out with wisecracks." The hero never gives up (p. 26). "Only in defeat can you show what you're really made of. Only in final defeat can you show that you will never give in. That's why the gods have to die as well. If they did not die, how could they show true courage? If they were really immortal and invulnerable, who could respect them?" (p. 37).
 

Extollager

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2010
Messages
5,554
#16
As I continue with Shippey's book, I'm thinking that it would be intelligible to someone who hasn't read sagas, but probably wouldn't engage their interest. I'm enjoying reading about the Saga of the Volsungs, which I was able to include in a class, etc. And maybe I ought to reread the Saga of Hrolf Kraki before too long. (I mean by that the translation of the Icelandic work; but that reminds me that I have Poul Anderson's free retelling, too, read about 45 years ago -- I wonder how that would stand up.) Shippey reminds me of Tolkien's "Sellic Spell," which connected with that saga and with Beowulf -- another item to reread.
 

svalbard

Well-Known Member
Joined
Jun 28, 2007
Messages
2,001
#17
As I continue with Shippey's book, I'm thinking that it would be intelligible to someone who hasn't read sagas, but probably wouldn't engage their interest. I'm enjoying reading about the Saga of the Volsungs, which I was able to include in a class, etc. And maybe I ought to reread the Saga of Hrolf Kraki before too long. (I mean by that the translation of the Icelandic work; but that reminds me that I have Poul Anderson's free retelling, too, read about 45 years ago -- I wonder how that would stand up.) Shippey reminds me of Tolkien's "Sellic Spell," which connected with that saga and with Beowulf -- another item to reread.

My favourite Nordic poem is but a brief passage. What is notable about it is that the events in the poem are related in Beowulf. Which lead Tolkien to believe in the historicity of the events and characters. The backstory to this is is one of love and treachery.

The Fight at Finnsburgh

‘the gables are not burning.’
Then the king, a novice in battle, said:
‘This is no dawn from the east, no dragon
flies here, the gables of the hall are not burning,
but men are making an attack. Birds of battle screech,
the grey wolf howls, spears rattle,
shield answers shaft. The wandering moon gleams
under the clouds; evil deeds will now
be done, bringing grief to this people.
But rouse yourself now, my warriors!
Grasp your shields, steel yourselves,
fight at the front and be brave!’
Then many a thegn, laden in gold, buckled his sword-belt.
Then the stout warriors, Sigeferth and Eaha,
went to one door and unsheathed their swords;
Ordlaf and Guthlaf went to guard the other,
and Hengest himself followed in their footsteps.
When he saw this, Guthere said to Garulf
that he would be unwise to go to the hall doors
in the first rush, risking his precious life,
for fearless Sigeferth was set upon his death.
But that daring man drowned the other voices
and demanded openly who held the door.
‘I am Sigeferth, a prince of the Secgan
and a well-known warrior; I’ve braved many trials,
tough combats. Even now it is decreed
for you what you can expect of me here.’
Then the din of battle broke out in the hall;
the hollow shield called for men’s hands,
helmets burst; the hall floor boomed.
Then Garulf, son of Guthlaf, gave his life
in the fight, first of all the warriors
living in that land, and many heroes fell around him,
the corpses of brave men. The raven wheeled,
dusky, dark brown. The gleaming swords so shone
it seemed as if all Finnesburh were in flames.
I have never heard of sixty warriors
who bore themselves more bravely in the fight
and never did retainers better repay
glowing mead than those men repaid Hnæf.
They fought for five days and not one of the followers
fell, but they held the doors firmly.
Then Guthere withdrew, a wounded man;
he said that his armour was almost useless,
his corselet broken, his helmet burst open.
The guardian of those people asked him at once
how well the warriors had survived their wounds
or which of the young men
 

Extollager

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2010
Messages
5,554
#20
1534453637202.jpeg
Shippey likes to take major incidents from the sagas, summarize them, and consider historical questions and matters of literary artistry that they raise. He's interested in the way historical persons and events, legends, myth, and "fairy tale" work together to give us these imaginative works. He discusses the possibility, which I remember reading about some years ago, that the historical Egil Skallagrimsson -- represented as having a troll in his ancestry in the saga -- suffered from an hereditary disease affecting the bone of his skull; onthe other hand, he mulls the quyestion of why one Ivar was called "the Boneless." He's interested in texts, not only Scandinavian ones but ones in Latin from England, etc., and in archaeology.

Mostly he's discussing sagas, by the way, that are easily obtainable in good translations, in Penguin Classics.

 
Thread starter Similar threads Forum Replies Date
Walker Book Discussion 9

Similar threads

Top