baleanoptera: (Norge Stavechurch)
[personal profile] baleanoptera

A carved dragons head found in the Oseberg burial

I'm currently reading a very interesting book called The Idea of North, which deals with all manner of folklore and legends in the Polar region. One passage reminded me why I LOVE the old Norse Sagas:

"The verse narrative of The Waking of Angatyr, interprolated in the Saga of King Heindrik the Wise, takes place on a burning offshore island which is simultaneously the place where the noble dead are buried and an otherworld to which the living can travel at their peril. Hervor travels there to demand of her father Angantyr the supernatural sword that has been buried with him. As with almost all ghost narratives of the north, the early waning of the winter daylight is crucial. In the zone between the living and the dead in which the poem opens, there is a terse dialogue between the heroine and a herdsman, on the dangers of being benighted in such a place:

To have come hither, all alone
To this land of shadows was sheer folly,
Over fen and fold fires are soaring,
Graves are opening: let us go quickly.

But she is fearless: she curses and threatens the waking dead until they yield to her the sword that has been buried as part of Angantyr’s grave goods, but not without the prophecy from its dead owner that it will "Destroy your kindred, kill them all" To which she replies:


Churlish cowards! May my curse fall
On all of you: may you ever lie
Wretched shades, in the rot of the pit.
Give back the wonderous work of smiths:
Son of Vikings, it is vain to hide it.


No mortal maiden to me you seem,
Who walk in the dark where the dead lie,
Uncowed by flames, with a carved spear
And mailed corselet on Munarvag.


[...]I will touch the weapon, take hold of
The sharp edge. In order to get it
I will walk through fire with unflinching step:
The flames are sinking before my eyes.

But once she has the sword she seems to care little for past or future: the interactions of the living and the dead are conducted through a brutal show of force on both sides, in a way that barely makes a distinction between the two conditions. Hervor departs in triumph:

With glad heart I will go now
To ride the horses of the roaring sea:
Little care I what may come after...

And throws only a half-blessing behind her as she goes, that her father and his big berserkers may be at peace in their graves."

- From The Idea of North by Peter Davidson

The poem is the translation by W.H. Auden and A.R. Taylor. It is online here complete with cheesy imagery.

The Monument Swords in Stone that commemorates the Battle of Hafrsfjord in 872 AD that the legend says united Norway. (Historically? Um, not so much)

Date: 2007-11-27 09:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
WOW! I can see where Tolkien got a lot of his inspiration for the Rohirrim (and Eowyn in particular!!) Shieldmaiden indeed!

Date: 2007-11-27 09:39 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
My thoughts exactly! I just love how she goes " I will walk through the fire with unflinching step". Not a lady to mess with. ;)
And the Auden translation really conveys the fierce, yet melodic tone of the poem.

Date: 2007-11-27 09:48 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Norse sagas as translated by Auden? Why did I not know this existed? It looks wonderful. And I must add that book to my frighteningly long to-read list.

Date: 2007-11-27 09:51 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yes! Auden! It is one of those translations that actually sounds like poetry - and not some dry, staccato prose. Sadly I think Auden only translated parts of the Eddas. And "The Idea of North" is very interesting, though bear in mind that the writer is British so he gets a bit hyperbolic about Northern Lights.

Date: 2007-11-28 06:11 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Eeeee! Vikings always make me happy. :D And more seriously, I really love the sagas... at one point I even entertained going to grad school for that before I realized that I wanted a minimal job chance rather than none at all

Date: 2007-11-28 10:07 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Vikings always make me happy.

I suspected they would. ;) (see how I take potential readers into consideration? Am I not kind? ;P)

I wanted a minimal job chance rather than none at all

Yes, also know as the reason why my field of choice is not the early European middle ages (back when they where all Goths, Longobards and Franks), but the 19th Century. (Now granted they are just as mad, so it was a good trade)
Edited Date: 2007-11-28 11:08 am (UTC)

Date: 2007-11-30 06:19 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
how I take potential readers into consideration? Am I not kind? ;P)

You are the BEST! :D

Man, the exigencies of the job market are depressing.

Date: 2007-11-28 06:12 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Wow. Amazing stuff. * bookmarks the site * I too, had no idea that Auden translated Norse poetry. And he seems to have done a great job of it. Thank you for this lovely post.

Date: 2007-11-28 11:06 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
My only regret is that Auden didn't translate more Norse poetry. But seeing how he translated this wonderful, kick ass piece I should be content. ;)

Date: 2007-11-28 08:35 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Oh, that's fascinating. I do not know much sagas that actually have female heroines... Have to read that book myself.... *memorizes your post*

Date: 2007-11-28 11:07 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thank you! There are not many female heroines it is true - but thankfully there are a couple. And both the book and Auden's translations are highly recommended.


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