Rodney's Reviews > Sagas and Myths of the Northmen

Sagas and Myths of the Northmen by Anonymous
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Mar 21, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: poetry

I like the idea of these Penguin Epics, cheap ‘n’ dirty excerpts from their longer translations that get you up and running with poems you don’t have time to read in full. The problem with this one though is that it guts the Norse epics of nearly everything that makes them poetry. The alliterative, metrically sophisticated, kenning-heavy locutions of the scalds get prosed into preludes to the stories that flow out of them: Tolkien’s, Wagner’s, Mallory’s, and Marvel’s. The scalds sang for a noble audience, connoisseurs who savored the linguistic flourishes and curlicues that render the sagas tedious, even incomprehensible, to modern ears. Still, without some effort to bring over the rich poetic code that expressed blood as ‘sword sweat’ or warriors as ‘raven food’, the sagas tend to shrink to dull novellas, lacking the narrative verve and rounded characters we’ve learned to expect from our stories.

It’s hard to imagine how any translator could revive the poetic effects of a vanished culture and tradition, and it’s a lot to ask especially of an edition like this. But without the poetry, the sagas are more or less just blocks of information, historically nutritious but otherwise kind of inert. Maybe it’s Tolkien and the Thor comics that are nearer to the spirit of these stories, and volumes like this one help show what a vivid job they did with their source material.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Trane (new)

Trane I used to love reading anything to do with Norse mythology when I was a kid. I used to love a book called Norse Gods and Giants, which has apparently been renamed D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths. In any case, a fantastic book.

I think that early exposure to these myths really inflected my reading of Tolkien, and also my reading of ye Olde English texts like Beowulf. Not to mention the odd issue of The Mighty Thor as well, of course.


Rodney Hi Trane,

Thanks for the recommendation--I'll look for this at Powell's. I see it's a NYRB re-release, and Amazon shows the new edition has a preface by Michael Chabon.

Just noticed it's the same D'Aulaire who did one of my favorite books as a kid--the Greek myths.


message 3: by Sparrow (new)

Sparrow What an intelligent assessment! Thank you. Also, I love Thor comics, which I have a little stack of the moment -- I forget how I got them. Perhaps there IS some connection between pulp and epic. Both push the human mind a little further from the mundane. (And those great terms like "Raven food," have their parallels in detective fiction -- "she looked like a package that had just been opened.")


Rodney Sparrow wrote: "What an intelligent assessment! Thank you. Also, I love Thor comics, which I have a little stack of the moment -- I forget how I got them. Perhaps there IS some connection between pulp and epic...."

Thank you! Paging through the sagas, and reading that D'Aulaire book Trane recommended, I'm even more impressed at what a job Lee & Kirby did in bringing the spirit of those myths over into comics. (Or maybe I'm just surprised at how much I recognized from having read Thor!)

I'm with you that a whole lot of Writing Formerly Known as Sublime lurks in pulp fiction, comics, movies, and other pop cult forms the avant (bless 'em) long abandoned.


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