Friday, June 26, 2009

Hrolf Kraki: Impressions

I mentioned awhile back reading Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Critical Guide and made some comments on its contents and usefulness. I read somewhere in the long ago, in the before time, either by or about C. S. Lewis that for every modern book one reads, one should read an old work. Especially in my reading for my chosen profession, I try to keep this as a rule of thumb: for every scholarly tome I read, I also read a text in primary literature and a journal issue of some journal to which I subscribe or would like to subscribe. So, after reading ONIL mentioned above, I picked up a saga I've read bits in, even translated some from the selection in Gordon's Old Norse I've mentioned previously: The Saga of Hrolf Kraki. I had on hand, on the altar to Penguin, a copy of Penguin Classics' translation and introduction by Jesse Byock, whose web site I only discovered just now while creating this post. I'll have to have a close look at that and I'll enter comments about it then. But anyway, to the saga.....

Written in the 14th century, like so much else in Old Norse, the saga is one of the "tales of ancient times" or fornaldar . The scene is largely the Danish kingdom of the Scyldinga (Skjoldung in ON), and relates the rise of Rolf, the gathering of his heroes, and their final fall.

Its a great story full of all sorts of goodies: heroes, incest, evil lords and husbands, witches and dangerous Finns, a dragon, shape-shifting, magic, revenge, trickery.....all the stuff of a corker! Spoiler alert! If you haven't read it and don't want to know what happens, stop reading here.

There are connections to England: some of the early part of the story takes place in Northumbria. And of course there are connections to Old English literature, specifically Widsith and Beowulf.

Rather than review the story or stories or even the scholarship, I thought I'd just jot down some of my impressions and points that I'd like to teach someday. The thing that I think struck me most was the finale. Seriously, the last battle scene in which all the heroes die is poignant. It brought a brief choke to my throat.

I also liked the beginning which is much different in character, but that is the section that explicitly mentions England and has the story well connected in Northumbria, which since I like studying Northumbria, and am fascinated with the Adventus period, suits me just fine!

There is plenty to entertain the folklorist and keep him busy. Totemism, magic of various kinds and from various sources, men given mammalian forms and abilities, magical objects etc.

The role of women is interesting here as well: nefarious magic all stems from a female person. The little "good" magic comes from men.

There's a dragon!

Beware men who throw bones at you at dinner! Gives whole new meaning to the barbecues of summer!

There is much to keep the Anglo-Saxonist busy: connections galore to Beowulf and Widsith including same setting, same characters or names in some cases, similar difficulties facing the heros, similar name meanings, and so on. There's even a burning hall!

There is also plenty to keep the Tolkienista busy: incestuous relationships originally unknown to the partners and later revealed, rings, dragons, burning halls, unlikely heroes, a final battle scene complete with a bear, of sorts. Most of all though there is a sublime beauty to some of the tragic scenes that I can only imagine is what Tolkien and Lewis meant when they referred to the beauty of northern myth. There were several places where I was honestly moved.

As mentioned above, I translated a short portion in Gordon, but I think someday I'd like to return to this saga and read the whole in Old Norse. I know even with just going through the English translation, there is much to think on and consider and this will be a text that I return to again and again.

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