Archive | January, 2012

Out-take #1

10 Jan

Some parts of the book got cut in the final editing process purely because they were part of the longness which was not that important. You may still wonder why you would be interested in reading about Icelandic skalds – but pause to reflect on the bitterness of the person who actually read the Icelandic skalds, and wrote about the Icelandic skalds, and then discovered that he was not going to be paid.

Note: The “he” in that sentence is not so much a figure of speech as it is my long-time confederate, Howard Mittelmark, who did most of the work on these Icelanders. This was absolutely not the reason it was cut from the final book. In no way was that the reason. Also, there were so many reasons that it’s hard to remember which reason I finally settled on,  and also I was drunk at the time.

A cynic might ask whether, given the economics of book publishing – and the fact that Howard’s name wasn’t on the book jacket, but only appears in a modest acknowledgement – Howard in fact got paid at all. Shame on you, cynic! Howard is a artist, and cares not for worldly matters. He is as the lilies of the field, and what looks like exploitation to you – why, to him, it is fertilizer. Also, he still owes me money.

So here’s our first out-take:

Norse and Icelandic literature (yes, this one’s Howard’s)

The descendants of the Scandinavians that inhabit Beowulf would go on to colonize Iceland in the 10th century.  Why they called it Iceland, we may never know. Once there, the settlers soon abandoned their seafaring ways, and then also discovered that  volcanic glacier-covered islands just below the Arctic circle are not ideal for farming. Like many others throughout history who found themselves with no employable skills, the Icelanders became writers. Before long, an Icelandic poet, or skald, was de rigueur in the court of any Norse king. In those days, poets were from Iceland,  in much the same way we expect a doctor to be Jewish, or a bond-trader to be an asshole.

Icelandic literature includes both poetry and prose.

The Poetic Edda are a collection of the oldest poems, all anonymous, a repository of ancient Norse mythology, filled with gods and heroes and giants, and tales of Yggdrasil, the world tree, and Ragnarok, the end of the world.

Skaldic poetry is a later body of work by named skalds, who were mostly attached to royal courts. The poems are mostly about how wonderful and mighty the king was. There are no known tales of Asskssr, god of the skalds, but one might still turn up.

Despite the skalds whose names have come down to us, the only medieval Icelandic writer whose name anyone needs to know, in the frankly inconceivable circumstance that anyone might, is Snori Sturluson. In addition to being a writer, Snori was a wealthy, powerful political figure (a violation of all reason, as well as international law since WWI). Snori’s best known work is called the Prose Edda, which collected all the mythology and explained all the poetic techniques necessary to carry on the skaldic tradition.

Among those techniques are kennings, obscure, often elaborate, metaphors requiring intimate knowledge of ancient Norse mythology. Kennings gave skalds an opportunity to show off their skills, and now serve the function of making skaldic poetry completely unintelligible. Fortunately, nobody other than Icelandic schoolchildren has to read any medieval Icelandic poetry. (If you are an Icelandic schoolchild, you have our sympathy, but someday you’ll go abroad and realize it was a small price to pay to live in a forward-looking social democracy with great health insurance.)

The prose sagas are much more widely read, and only in part because they have the advantage of not being poetry. The prose sagas variously relate tales of ancient mythology, Viking conquest, Scandinavian kings, even stories of Charlemagne. The most popular and important are the family sagas, multi-generational stories about the founding families of Iceland. They can be very novelly and quite entertaining, and they offer fascinating glimpses of life in medieval times.

The best known of these is Njal’s Saga, which features complex and believably human characters involved in an escalating blood feud, in the middle of which everyone in Iceland converts to Christianity.

As with much found in the family sagas, this recounts real events. In the year 1000,  Iceland voted and everyone officially converted. However, we learn from Njal’s saga, the consensus was reached with the understanding that you could continue now-illegal  pagan activities like eating horseflesh and sacrificing babies in the privacy of your own home, if you really wanted to.

 

 

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