Thursday, September 12, 2013


My brother recently posted this word on Facebook - he encountered it in his class on Old Norse.

(Pause for the customary moment of University Envy. *I wish I was studying Old Norse.  Latin, Old English, and Sanskrit are not enough.  Being a grown-up is stupid!*)

Anyway, that reminded me that Norse Sagas are pretty awesome.  My other brother and I used to sit around sometimes reading out loud from the Prose Edda.  One of us would read the English and the other would follow along with the original language, stopping at interesting words.  The sagas aren't just of linguistic interest, though; they are legitimately great stories and often drily and beautifully hilarious.

Right now I'm reading a marvelous book recommended recently by Jen Fulwiler: The Long Ships, by twentieth century Swedish author Frans Bengtsson. It's set in northern Europe during the period when most of the sagas were being recorded and is itself a contemporary saga of sorts, following the life of a Viking chieftain named Red Orm.

It's very much in the spirit of the sagas stylistically, though smoother and more cohesive narratively.  It has the same slight long-windedness, flawed but lovable characters and unbelievably dry but gut-busting moments of humor.

The role Christianity plays in the story is interesting as well, and I would imagine pretty accurate historically.  A lot of the Vikings have converted to Christianity, but with vastly different levels of sincerity.  Some notice that this new god seems to be gaining influence and figure they might as well jump on the bandwagon; others are baptized at swordpoint or to improve their "weather-luck."  Christian beliefs and rituals are sort of mashed in with the traditional pantheistic ones: at one point, a Catholic priest interrupts a pagan ceremony and accidentally causes the priest conducting it to fall to his death.  The participants barely bat an eye, and just swap out the old priest for the new one, forcing him to step into the ceremonial role.

Mostly, The Long Ships is a great adventure story: lots of fighting and feuds and love-making and travel.  It's simply fun to read and a great break from my usual navel-gazing and morose reading fare.

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