Friday, January 17, 2014

The Saga Of The Volsungs

Penguin's decision to package a series of epics and sagas to tie in with the interest in all things
Just looks better

Tolkien as well as the general trend to look North for inspiration has been most welcome from my point of view. I'm not that interested in Tolkien but I'm an easy sell for anything in the myth, legend, or epic line and the new jackets make these books look so much more accessible (well they do to me at any rate).

In terms or readability it's just as well 'The Saga of the Volsungs' is short - as seems to be usual there's a lot of listing of hard to pronounce (or remember) names with some intense action inbetween and occasional prophecies which would make the reader think some of the messy murders could have been avoided if only people had listened. Clearly it's true that you can't escape your fate. That it's often confusing is one reason not to read a book like this, but there are plenty more reasons why they should be read.

I had somehow assumed that these editions would strip out all the academic notes that go with a traditional 'classics' edition, they don't so there's an excellent introduction, notes, and glossary inside all of which help make sense of what's going on in the actual saga. Reading a translation of something that was written in 13th century Iceland and based on far earlier source material from probable but lost written version through to ancient oral traditions probably ought to involve a little bit of effort but it does give a much deeper understanding of a shared European culture, and especially of shared stories and traditions which I find really exciting. 'The Saga of the Volsungs' has a lot in common with 'The Nibelungenlied' (|I think it's basically the same) but there are also elements that are very similar to Celtic stories - when Sigurd gains wisdom from eating the dragons heart I was reminded of (Irish) Finn MacCool and the salmon of knowledge which in turn apparently has a mirror in a Welsh myth.

Principally though my enjoyment comes from isolated images and ideas - the difference between manslaughter and murder is intriguing - if you admitted it, it was manslaughter and by paying compensation to the victims next of kin (wergild) the crime would be atoned for. If you hid the crime it was murder and the killer (literally translated as killer wolf) became an outlaw who could be hunted like a wolf. 'wolf in hallowed places' is a phrase I particularly like in that context. The image of Gunner playing a harp with his toes to subdue adders when he's thrown bound into a snake pit is another one I'll cherish - I can understand why it was a popular subject with medieval artists. It's also good homework for the Vikings exhibition as it's done a lot to increase my understanding of the complicated and seemingly uneasy family alliances in the Viking world.    


  1. I love that cover. Glad they've kept all the supporting info with it in the new edition. I must read some Norse mythology - an area in which I'm lacking. I wonder if Douglas Adams used the Salmon of Knowledge for his Salmon of Doubt?

  2. The covers for this series are beautiful, I think the old ones make the books look far to much like they're only for academic consumption where as the new ones make them look a bit more approachable. I bet Adams did, as a child I thought the idea of the Salmon of knowledge was hilarious, now I really want to re read those stories.