Sunday, April 25, 2021

Fortnightly Book, April 25

 This year I'm getting a bit of Scandinavian literature here and there in the Fortnightly Book, and the two so far -- Heimskringla and Kristin Lavransdatter -- have been monster tomes. But not all Scandinavian literature is in the weight class of Russian novels or Victorian three-volume works. So for this fortnight, let's look at some featherweight sagas.

I have two books in the Penguin Classics, Hrafnkel's Saga and Other Stories and The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, that give a selection of these shorter works from Icelandic literature. Hrafnkel's Saga and Other Stories has seven short works:

Hrafnkel's Saga
Thorstein the Staff-Struck
Hreidar the Fool
Halldor Snorrason
Audun's Story
Ivar's Story

All seven date from the thirteenth century. The first three are set in Iceland and the last four in Norway and Denmark, although the introduction by the translator, Hermann Pallson, notes that while the setting is a vivid and important part of the story in the first three, in the latter four it is highly stylized, and thus probably written by people who had never actually been to the places that are mentioned. All of the works are anonymous, although the first is, with some plausibility, usually attributed to Abbot Brand Jonson, and give realistic, although of course somewhat selective, views of the lives of Icelanders in the period. And, of course, there is the Icelandic obsession with law that one finds in most medieval Icelandic literature. But the issues touched on are often recurring ones in human life: legal problems, the difficulties of the poor in getting justice when their enemy is a rich man, an old warrior's problems in trying to re-accustom himself to peaceful community life, love triangles, religious pilgrimage, the importance of good company to the virtuous life.

Very different is The Saga of Hrolf Kraki, which is one of the most famous Icelandic sagas. Set in a semi-legendary time of sorcery and magic, this fourteenth-century work is a cousin to the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf; both works are about Danish kings, particularly focusing on the Skyldings/Skjoldungs, which leads to the same people being mentioned in both, and parts of each story clearly have the same root-legends, although taken in very different directions. The translator, Jesse Bock, in his introduction (parts of which can be read online) notes that it is, like many such sagas, pulled together from different sources, and in a sense has more to do with King Hrolf Kraki's court, in somewhat like the way stories of King Arthur or Charlemagne tend to focus more on their courts.

Jackson Crawford had a series of videos on one of the key characters (and the most Beowulf-like) from the saga, Bodvar Bjarki:

Bodvar Bjarki, Part 1

Bodvar Bjarki, Part 2

Bodvar Bjarki, Part 3