20 February 2017

Review: Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review covers both Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology and Carolyne Larrington's The Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes.


Unlike their Greek counterparts with whom most readers are far more familiar, the Norse gods impose little order upon the world. The best they seem able to do is withstand a greater chaos, for a time. Of course, they are rather chaotic themselves, as well as violent, willful, lusty, sometimes ridiculous and quite often treacherous. Only Odin seems to spend much time thinking about the future or the role of humans in this world, but that concern for humans is self-serving, as he seeks, favors, and betrays warriors in order to swell the ranks of his forces for the final battle at the world’s ending.


Now both Carolyne Larrington, the eminent and accomplished scholar of Old Norse, and Neil Gaiman, who surely needs no introduction, have published volumes on Norse Mythology within days of each other. It’s all so convenient the Norns might have had a hand in it. Each of these books is interesting and entertaining, but in quite different ways.


Gaiman, as one might expect, opts for a more dramatic treatment of his subject, retelling a selection of important myths at varying lengths, all building towards the climax of ragnarök. His tales are at times touching, at times quite funny. There’s a moment near the end, for example, where Kvasir, the wisest of the gods, guides Thor, not the wisest of the gods, to understanding the importance of a net Loki had created and destroyed, a moment which strongly reminds me of the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which Sir Bedivere explains to the peasants how one determines who is and who is not a witch. Yet the fine and frequent humor of Gaiman’s treatment obscured for me, as it also did in his earlier American Gods, the overwhelming sense of loss now and disaster to come that haunts the world of gods and men in Norse mythology. In the end it seems reduced to a joke and a game, as a dying Heimdall gleefully informs a dying Loki that the last laugh is on him. The book’s last words 'And the game begins anew' only reinforce this impression.


Larrington, like Kvasir with his recreation of Loki’s clever net, captures more of what she seeks. By not focusing narrowly on the drama of the tales she captures more of their tragedy, and suggests more of their meaning for Norse and more broadly for Teutonic culture in general, since these tales were told from Vinland to the Volga and across the centuries before and after the North became Christian. Her inclusion of the part humans play in Norse Mythology -- of Sigmund and Sigurd and all their bloody-minded, bloody-handed kin, more accursed than the House of Atreus, more trapped by the needs of the gods but without the least final justice, doomed in every sense – gives the world of gods and men a fuller, rounder shape. For the tales involve us. The twilight of the gods is also our own. By including humans, the unwilling and often unwitting players in the doom of the gods, Larrington allows us to understand better the world which told these tales, because through them, as Lewis put it in Surprised By Joy, ‘pure “Northernness” engulf[s us]: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity….’


I did not laugh as often reading Larrington’s book as I did Gaiman's, but I nodded more and learned more. I would suggest, however, that they are most profitably enjoyed together.



Review: The Norse Myths: A Guide to Viking and Scandinavian Gods and Heroes

The Norse Myths: A Guide to Viking and Scandinavian Gods and Heroes The Norse Myths: A Guide to Viking and Scandinavian Gods and Heroes by Carolyne Larrington
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This review covers both Carolyn Larrington's The Norse Myths: A Guide to Viking and Scandinavian Gods and Heroes and Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology


Unlike their Greek counterparts with whom most readers are far more familiar, the Norse gods impose little order upon the world. The best they seem able to do is withstand a greater chaos, for a time. Of course, they are rather chaotic themselves, as well as violent, willful, lusty, sometimes ridiculous and quite often treacherous. Only Odin seems to spend much time thinking about the future or the role of humans in this world, but that concern for humans is self-serving, as he seeks, favors, and betrays warriors in order to swell the ranks of his forces for the final battle at the world’s ending.


Now both Carolyne Larrington, the eminent and accomplished scholar of Old Norse, and Neil Gaiman, who surely needs no introduction, have published volumes on Norse Mythology within days of each other. It’s all so convenient the Norns might have had a hand in it. Each of these books is interesting and entertaining, but in quite different ways.


Gaiman, as one might expect, opts for a more dramatic treatment of his subject, retelling a selection of important myths at varying lengths, all building towards the climax of ragnarök. His tales are at times touching, at times quite funny. There’s a moment near the end, for example, where Kvasir, the wisest of the gods, guides Thor, not the wisest of the gods, to understanding the importance of a net Loki had created and destroyed, a moment which strongly reminds me of the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which Sir Bedivere explains to the peasants how one determines who is and who is not a witch. Yet the fine and frequent humor of Gaiman’s treatment obscured for me, as it also did in his earlier American Gods, the overwhelming sense of loss now and disaster to come that haunts the world of gods and men in Norse mythology. In the end it seems reduced to a joke and a game, as a dying Heimdall gleefully informs a dying Loki that the last laugh is on him. The book’s last words 'And the game begins anew' only reinforce this impression.


Larrington, like Kvasir with his recreation of Loki’s clever net, captures more of what she seeks. By not focusing narrowly on the drama of the tales she captures more of their tragedy, and suggests more of their meaning for Norse and more broadly for Teutonic culture in general, since these tales were told from Vinland to the Volga and across the centuries before and after the North became Christian. Her inclusion of the part humans play in Norse Mythology -- of Sigmund and Sigurd and all their bloody-minded, bloody-handed kin, more accursed than the House of Atreus, more trapped by the needs of the gods but without the least final justice, doomed in every sense – gives the world of gods and men a fuller, rounder shape. For the tales involve us. The twilight of the gods is also our own. By including humans, the unwilling and often unwitting players in the doom of the gods, Larrington allows us to understand better the world which told these tales, because through them, as Lewis put it in Surprised By Joy, ‘pure “Northernness” engulf[s us]: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity….’


I did not laugh as often reading Larrington’s book as I did Gaiman's, but I nodded more and learned more. I would suggest, however, that they are most profitably enjoyed together.



Review: James I of Scotland: The Kingis Quair: A Modern English prose translation

James I of Scotland: The Kingis Quair: A Modern English prose translation James I of Scotland: The Kingis Quair: A Modern English prose translation by Jenni Nuttall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting example of medieval dream and prison poetry, with a fine sense of humor, as befits a work that declares itself in the tradition of Chaucer and Gower. The translation is clear and sharp, while preserving the flavor and often eye-crossing sentence structure of the original. Jenni Nuttall, whose Stylisticienne blog contributes so much to our understanding of the meter used in the poetry of this age, has done a good service for all those fascinated by the literature of these times.


18 February 2017

Review: Stories about Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth

Stories about Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth Stories about Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth by Brian Attebery
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a good book, not a great one, and there is the measure of my disappointment. Attebery is at his very best -- which is exceptionally good -- when actively analyzing and commenting on individual texts and authors. He is usually quite skilled in integrating such analysis with the opinions of other scholars. Attebery makes many fascinating observations on Charles Williams, Hope Mirlees, George MacDonald, and Ursula K. Le Guin, among others, as well as on various species of fantasy, angels, and post-colonial fantasy. This book is an excellent education in the history of the genre.

Yet it is not without fault. At times Attebery slips into that self-renewing world in which scholars reference only each other and make pronouncements for which they neither adduce evidence nor produce an argument. Some call this engagement, but elopement might be the better term. True enough, this turning away from evidence is a common enough failing in academic writing over the last couple of generations, but it is the flight of the deserter rather than the escape of the prisoner (and so not to be commended). Mercifully, Attebery never stumbles into the Mirkwood of Jargon, where every utterance is impressive, but only as clear as the lyrics to Close to the Edge.

He seems a bit harder on C.S. Lewis than is necessary, however, and is at times dismissive: the entry of Joy Davidman into Lewis' life is apparently the sole reason that Till We Have Faces is less open to the charge of misogyny than Narnia is. While Joy Davidman surely had a profound effect on him, perhaps Till We Have Faces should suggest the need for a re-examination of the case again Lewis rather than the facile conclusion that he was swept off his feet and into enlightenment.

He also makes the occasional bald assertion, such as claiming that 'in order to avoid direct representation of religious iconography' Shakespeare substituted 'fairies for angels.' Did he? How so? But no proof is offered, no argument made. Since Shakespeare's fairies could not be mistaken for angels, and since Shakespeare's audience knew well that fairies and angels were not the same. this is an odd claim.

In discussing the attempt, specifically of G. P. Taylor, to write fantasy acceptable to literalist Christians, a failed attempt as it turned out, Attebery comments: 'Even the most faithful transcription of faith language into a work of fantasy has the effect of setting religion adrift.' But this one unsuccessful attempt by Taylor doesn't establish this. Perhaps Taylor just did it badly. Moreover, while it only takes one example to prove that something can be done, one example cannot prove that it cannot be done.

So I do recommend this book, but not without reservation. I found much to profit by here, but also some moments that could mislead the unwary.



15 February 2017

Théoden King, or, Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's



Out of doubt, out of dark, to the day's rising
he rode singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
Hope he rekindled, and in hope ended;
over death, over dread, over doom lifted
out of loss, out of life, unto long glory. 
But Merry stood at the foot of the green mound, and he wept, and when the song was ended he arose and cried: 
'Théoden King, Théoden King! Farewell! As a father you were to me, for a little while. Farewell!' 
(RK 6.vi.976-77)
As many fans of Tolkien are perfectly well aware, the personal names of the kings of Rohan are all Old English words for king or ruler, or for an attribute that would be valued in a king in a more violent time. 

Eorl  -- a nobleman of high rank
Brego -- a leader, governor, prince
Aldor -- a chief or prince
Fréa -- a lord or master
Fréawine -- from Fréa plus wine, a 'dear or beloved lord.'
Goldwine -- a generous and kindly prince.
Déor -- 'brave, bold, as a wild beast.' Cf. Lionheart
Gram -- 'furious, fierce.'
Helm -- a helm, poetically used of a king who protects his people like a helmet.


Fréaláf -- Fréa, 'lord', 'master', plus láf, 'what is left, remnant.' Since both of Helm's sons had perished, he was succeeded by Fréaláf, his sister's son.
Brytta -- 'bestower, distributor, prince.'
Walda --  'ruler'. See also here.
Folca -- from folc, 'people, folk;' in the form 'folca,' meaning 'of the people.'
Folcwine -- from folc plus wine, meaning 'friend of the people.'
Fengel -- 'prince.'
Thengel -- 'prince.'
Théoden -- 'prince, king.'

That's rather a lot of words for king or prince, no? Tolkien is obviously having a bit of philological fun, but a couple of points are worth making. First, although nearly every one of the words for ruler listed above appears in Beowulf, one of the most common in this -- for Tolkien -- poem of poems is entirely absent, drihten, which is also an important term, even in Beowulf, for God, i,e, 'the Lord.' This suggests that Tolkien was not just haphazardly converting words into names. (As if that would ever happen.) Which brings me to my second point. Given this, was Tolkien perhaps taking a cue from the history of another name that became a title? Caesar, as we know, became both kaiser and czar. Did the names of the kings of his beloved Rohirrim become titles in the same way? Was it part of Théoden King's 'long glory' that his name outlived his memory and became synonymous with king?

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