Book Review: “The Saga of the Volsungs: With the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok” translated by Jackson Crawford

volsungsThis isn’t one of my normal book reviews, because this is not a work of fiction per se, but rather a translation of Old Norse myths and legends. So, it cannot be subjected to the same standards of literary criticism I would normally use.

But then, to paraphrase Bernie Kopell’s character from Get Smart: “Zis is Ruined Chapel by Moonlight! Ve don’t ‘normal’ here!”

There are two distinct sagas, but they both tell similar tales of bold warriors and beautiful women. In fact, the majority of women were described as “the most beautiful of all women.” I guess ancient Scandinavia was like Lake Woebegon.

There is, of course, lots of back-stabbing and sex and murder and revenge and incest and never-ending wars of conquest. I never actually read or watched the Game of Thrones series, but based on these tales, it seems to just be following in a long mythological tradition.

Oh, and of course there are familiar mythological elements such as dragon-slaying and a rather interesting story early on in which Odin sticks a sword into a tree trunk and says only the most powerful of men shall be able to remove it; which seems like an obvious relative of Excalibur from Arthurian legend. 

At times, the whole thing can get a bit confusing, and I sometimes get the sense that the bards who recounted these legends didn’t pay attention to things like time and continuity. For instance, there is one story in which a woman keeps having children, only to discover, one by one, around the age of 10 or so, that they are unworthy for the quest that fate has ordained for them. I mean… was there really time to wait around and go through that process repeatedly?

The story feels as though it’s being told rather than written—which is very much a credit to Dr. Crawford’s translation, as I would assume most of these kinds of tales were initially passed down as an oral tradition, and only subsequently written down. Reading it, I felt like I was sitting around a camp-fire in a dense forest of snow-covered evergreens, listening to a mysterious one-eyed old man spinning off-the-cuff yarns: “Now there was one time when it is told that Svanhild…”

As I said, you can’t subject an ancient work like this to the standards of modern criticism. It’s a convoluted intergenerational epic, full of confusing family bloodlines, prophecies that people ignore or misinterpret at great cost to themselves, and bizarre and inexplicable plot developments.

Wait, hold on… sorry, I was just reading Twitter, which at the moment is full of people talking about the latest Star Wars movie…

You know, now that I think about it, you can see how people would have been fascinated by these myths. So many of the common tropes of ancient mythology still persist in storytelling to this day. Perhaps these ancient tales of great wars, betrayals, and revenges, are more than just interesting pieces of history. They speak to some deeply-rooted impulse in human nature—a desire to imagine the exploits of larger-than-life characters and their impossible deeds. Thanks to these very accessible translations, modern readers such as myself, even with almost zero prior knowledge of Norse mythology, can do just that.

(Post-script: I came across Dr. Crawford’s works via my friend and fellow author, Noah Goats. Thank you, Noah!)

6 Comments

  1. Norse sagas are a little difficult to read in a literal translation, this sounds like he went for authors intent, which is a simpler read. I read a number of sagas a few years ago and stumbled upon almost every name of hobbit, wizards and dwarves in LOTR. History channel has a series on Viking with 6th season just starting. The first four were about Ragnar Lothbrok. Last year was his sons. I gave up on the series last year it just wasn’t the same without Ragnar.

    1. Oh, yes–there are tons of things that clearly influenced LOTR in here. The translator discusses some in the introduction.

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