Monday, January 30, 2012

Death and the Hero

One of the funnier moments in Njal's Saga was when Thorgrim went up to Gunnar's house to see if he was home and Gunnar ran him through with his halberk. Thorgrim staggered back to Gizur, who asked him if Gunnar was home. Thorgrim replied that, he did not know if Gunnar was home (he didn't actually see him) but his thrusting spear was and then died.
It is rather like a part of of Grettir's Saga when Thorbjorn attacked Atli and ran him through with his spear. As he died, Atli looked down and said that he could see that broad spears are the fashion these days. While I am not certain I could be so nonchalant in facing my own death, the epic hero was.
In The Iliad, Lycaon, a Trojan prince, grabbed his captor Achilles about the knees and begged for his life. Achilles said to him,
"Die, die, my friend. What tears are these? What sad looks spoil thy face? Patroclus died, that far pass'd thee: nay seest thou not beside, myself, ev'n I, a fair young man, and rarely magnified, and (to my father being a king) a mother have, that sits in rank with goddesses; and yet, ..., death , and as violent a fate, must overtake ev'n me."
One has to wonder. Were such men ever real or perhaps seeing the inevitability of death frees one from caring about it. Charles I of England died on this day 1649 on the scaffold, executed by Cromwell with Milton's support. He said that he was going from a corruptible crown to an incorruptible one, where no disturbance can be. Nice last words. I like the ones Joan Crawford is said to have uttered to her maid who started praying, "Dammit don't you dare ask God to help me." See, women can be brave too.

Friday, January 27, 2012

From Njal's Saga

Here is a small excerpt from the Robert Cook translation (available through Penguin Books) to give you a taste of how modern the story sounds. It is a conversation between Unn and her father about Hrut, her husband.
"Then Mord spoke to his daughter: 'Now tell me everything that's going on between you, however big it may seem in your eyes.'
'Alright then,' she said. 'I want to divorce Hrut, and I can tell you what my main charge against him is - he is not able to have sexual intercourse in a way that gives me pleasure, though otherwise his nature is that of the manliest of men.'
'How can that be?' said Mord. 'Give me more details.'
She answered, ' When he comes close to me his penis is so large that he can't have any satisfaction from me, and yet we've both tried every possible way to enjoy each other, but nothing works. By the time we part however, he shows he's just like other men.'
Mord spoke, 'You've done well to tell me this.' "

This is the curse the old queen of Norway laid on Hrut when he left. :-)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Review: Njal's Saga, Penguin Edition

The translator of this saga, Robert Cook, was an American professor of English in Iceland so his command of the language should be excellent. The sagas were written in plain language so they translate well into English. This edition includes footnotes at the back and a plot summary so you may remember the entire plot. There are a lot of actors in this tale.
The story, written in the 13th century, takes place over several decades on either side of the conversion of the Icelanders to Christianity (1000 C.E.) and concerns a feud. The Njal of the saga was a lawman, who along with his family was burned in his home. This is part of the historical record. The death of his friend Gunnar is also part of the historical record. So is the conversion story and the Battle of Clontarf. However, we cannot take the entire saga as fact.
The story also reads as a novel but we cannot say that the Icelanders invented the novel either but we should. Once the Icelanders adopted Latin script, they wrote and wrote and some of the sagas and poetry they wrote is the best there is but it is little known outside Iceland or academic circles. There is nothing in Njal's Saga that would make it read like a museum relic. It is fast paced, full of action and it could have been written today. Having read some sections in the Old Icelandic, this translation is good.
The story begins with a woman. In fact, women play a huge part in advancing the feud, from the old queen who lays a curse down on Gunnar, to the beautiful but proud Hallgerd who begins the blood feud that will consume her family and Njal's, to the good Bergthora who chooses to die with her husband Njal out of loyalty, to the odd groups of travelling women who show up whenever the good guys need to know which way the bad guys went.
One can see, reading the story, that Tolkien was inspired by this saga as well as by the Volsungsaga. It also includes the phrase "Cold are the counsels of women" which has been oft repeated and is much discussed in scholarly essays. Not only does it contain scenes which would not be out of place in 'The Matrix', such as when Skarphedin crosses a river over an ice bridge and, skidding out of control, is heading towards the group of men he meant to attack, swinging his ax but it is also a court room drama not unlike 'Twelve Angry Men' or 'Inherit the Wind'. Before there was Grisham, there was the anonymous writer of Njal. Yes, the Vikings of Iceland were really into the law and had a large number of lawyers. Who knew.
Once you have read the story, if you cannot get enough, there are tours in Iceland that take you through all the locations in the saga and there are festivals with re-enactments of the burning.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Blue Edged Sword

In chapter 129 of Njal's Saga, while the house of Njal is burned with everyone in it, Kari Solmundarson escaped from the blaze and leaves so that he can avenge the deaths of Njal and his household but the edge of his sword has turned blue. It is suggested that the fire has turned the edge soft but, in true heroic fashion, he proposes to harden it with the blood of his enemies.
One can recognize some ideas that Tolkien borrowed from Njal's Saga. Such as Sam, the loyal dog of Gunnar, who dies with Gunnar. The Old Norse 'Sam' and the English 'Samwise' are not related but, who is to say if the Old Norse was what Tolkien had in mind when he created Sam Gamgee. It appeared that way to me and to a fellow student in that class.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Audun and the White Bear

The Icelandic sagas are interesting for anyone to read. I am particularly enjoying Njal's Saga right now but I want to mention a shorter story from the Morkinsinna, a history of the Norwegian kings. (There is another slightly different version of the story in the Flateyjarbok.) It is likely to be a true story and the events date around 1050.
Audun was a poor man from the Westfjords, who took service with Thori on his ship. Before he left, he made sure his mother was provided for for three years. Along their travels they went to Greenland and spent the winter there where Audun met a man, who had caught a particularly magnificent white bear, and he paid the man everything he had for the bear. He decided that he was going to go to the court of King Svein of Denmark and present the bear to him as a gift. So in the spring when Thori left, Audun went with him and crossed the North Atlantic in a little wooden ship with a live polar bear.
They got to Norway, where King Harald heard of the bear and summoned Audun so he could buy the bear off him. Audun would not budge. Harald said he had a lot of nerve bringing the bear for King Svein through his land since they were at war. Audun said he could not do anything about that but he would appreciate if Harald would let him go on his way. Harald did that but only if Audun promised to come back and tell him what Svein gave him for the bear.
Audun proceeded and ran out of money and had to beg for food and lodging for him and this bear but eventually he got to Svein's court. Svein loved the bear and invited Audun to stay with him. After a while Audun left to go on a pilgrimage and Svein gave him money for the trip. He took ill while he was aways and lost all his hair and grew very thin. Svein almost didn't recognize him when he got back. He stayed with Svein a little longer and then said he had to go home now to take care of his mother. Svein gave him a ship with all its cargo, a bag of silver and a golden arm ring that he was never to take off unless he met someone honorable to whom he owed a debt.
Audun went back to Norway to fulfill his promise to Harald and gave the ring to Harald, then he sold his cargo and went home to his mother.
I cannot help but think of how the heck he travelled with a live polar bear, in a boat, on the North Atlantic. The professor, teaching the class, said that the sagas never mention details about the sea voyage, although in some cases one burns to know. He thought perhaps the bear was periodically clubbed to keep it quiet.
Iceland had laws about how to keep your polar bear, it had to be tied up outside like a dog. You were not allowed to let them roam. Thus it may be that there were no details because people did this all the time. A polar bear! For a pet! The mind boggles.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Say It Ain't So, Flavio!

>>I was sitting in on a lecture on Boethius and the professor said that Cassiodorus, who was instrumental in preserving Boethius's writing, may have also been part of the conspiracy that condemned him to death by torture. I thought Cassiodorus was one of the good guys with an unblemished record but a quick search of scholarly articles show that there is indeed debate over if he, through his own ambitions to rise, helped indict Boethius. I wish I had some free time to investigate this further, it will go on my to read list for beachside reading.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Swans and Valkyries

I just finished a paper. It is a huge, huge subject. To do it justice , one could probably write a book. Valkyries are a Northern concept; they belong to the Viking Age. No other culture has the armoured, beautiful battle maidens in their mythology. At least no conclusive evidence for them has been found. The three valkyries in Volundarkvida are also swan maidens. There is a lot of philological evidence that Latin for white 'albus', elf 'alp', and swan 'alpt' have a common Indo-European root.
The only named elf in Old Norse is Volund. In the few other stories, where he is mentioned, he is not called an elf but he is clearly and Otherworldy being even in the other stories. His extra-ordinary skill as a smith sets him apart and his ability to fly. The Wayland/Volund story is so old but scholars can't agree if he had a wife before he was taken captive by Nidud. I think he did. I think the swan maidens were valkyries because the daughters of elves could be valkyries and she was so very white as were all the other valkyries in Norse myth. You don't get that sense reading them in translation because hvitr is often translated as fair or radiant. It fires the imagination to think of what people made of swans so that they are related etymologically to elves.