The University of Minnesota Press is to be congratulated for printing the Eddison version of the classic Swedish Saga, Styrbiorn the Strong. Perhaps the most important justification for the new edition and publication of a translation of a work written down a thousand years ago is the historiographical implication of the exercise. Paul Edmund Thomas writing in Minneapolis in October 2011 in his short Afterword has brilliantly put his finger on the reason why this work has lasted so long, and why it deserves such long running success.
Thomas recalled the role of Eric Eddison, who died in 1945, and his day job spent his working life between 10 am and 7 pm as an employee of the UK Board of Trade. This he did so well he was knighted by King George V. When he put away the files of the Companies Department in his section of the Public Service and travelled home through the smog, he moonlighted with an equally productive life time’s worthwhile obsession with Old Norse Sagas. This he was in a position to undertake with some authority as an Oxford man (Trinity College) who had studied classics.
It’s an unusual good news story in the world of publishing. His contemporary, Beatrix Potter, had to marry her publisher to get Peter Rabbit published, but Eddison never faced the trauma of serial rejection which so deflates potential authors. Potter’s perseverance with Peter Rabbit paid off and sold better than Styrbiorn the Strong; children’s books proved more popular than Vikings, although whether Beatrix Potter will be remembered in a 1,000 years is doubtful. Jonathan Cape read the Saga Ms within a month of receiving it, and in less than six weeks the contract was signed and it was off you go for Eddison – all this at a time Jonathan Cape was bringing out the first public edition of T. E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
Styrbiorn the Strong is gripping. The Swedish Saga, like its cousin The Orkneyinga Saga, (my favorite in the genre) has a poetic impact which is hard to surpass Look at the passage, where, in the Afterword Thomas points out Styrbiorn, newly banished, staring at the rolling surges of surf sweeping and pausing and falling and rising again. Styrbiorn listens to swelling roar of the breaker as it rode on, the thud and thunder of its fall, and the grinding hiss of the shingle in the backwash, as if wrath, which is older than the world and older than the Gods, drew in its breath again, pondering some greater mischief.
The sound bite system of Skald tale- telling has natural punctuation stops as the outcome unfolds. The casual cruelty of the sagas and the inventiveness of the devilish matter of fact manner in which friends turned to enemies in an instant to be killed forthwith are hard to describe in twenty- first century English. The reader has to willingly suspend disbelief, and watch the character development as fortune changes on a rhythm as regular as such seemingly never –ending modern television series as The Bold and the Beautiful.
When you read the words of the sagas you can visualize the facial transitions as character moods change. A Bishop becomes a monster, a skull splitting Viking a Saint – in a flash. An irritable teenager turns into a murderer after Styrbiorn the Strong is introduced to the readers as a bad tempered and obsessive fifteen year old Viking. In this he not much different from any bad tempered fifteen year old teenager anywhere. But in this story Styrbion’s fight to claim what he takes to be stolen inheritance is full of blood and gore, revenge and the workings of the ancient Gods.
The story begins in the Hall of King Eric. Eric’s nephew, Styrbiorn, decided because King Eric had no live children born in wedlock to put in a bid to be heir to a Swedish Kingdom. King Eric responded that the proposal should be put on ice for twelve months, at which time he would consider it seriously. King Eric was an old man, 60 years old, but fresh looking and stark and stalwart as any man in his prime age. The King responded kindly, although put out, when Styrbiorn came up to him, stood between the warmth of the fire and the food and drink on the dining table and demanded of the King “Render up to me my father’s heritage: that share of the lordship of the Swedes which belonged to the King my father”.
The last years of the first millennium were over supplied with Kings, live, dead or dying, and Earls and Bishops in a similar position, and brawls over succession were interminable and violent. This Saga begins with a typical one. Styrbiorn explained that he was not going to wait 12 months to claim his inheritance. As the Saga ran
The Cup had by then gone many a time about the tables, and men’s bellies were well baulked with ale and their wise discretion and judgment something befogged withal. And as in such a season a man will oft say that which tumblest quickliest to his tongue, so Aki of the King’s bodyguard (bethinking him not all that he should tickle a wolf under the chin as fret Styrbiorn) plucked him by the kirtle as he came walking by the lower bench, and asked when he should have amends for the scurvy words that day Styrbiorn had given him.
Naturally Styrbiorn responded “Hold thy tongue, King’s thrall” and tried to smother Aki by flinging his cloak over the Viking’s head. But all he did was to cover Aki with beer. Aki punched Styrbion’s nose with his drinking horn – an early open and shut case of glassing- and then when Aki drew his knife; Stybion took it from him “and drove it into Aki’s neck… clean up to the heft’.
What happened next is the story of the Saga. I won’t spoil it by telling
you the ending.
But I will digress to assure the readers of this review that – according to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary – one can still pluck people by the kirtle in Scotland. It’s now an unwelcome grope around the kilt area and would get an offender off for murder now if it occurred in some Australian public lavatories. The word kirtle is Old Norse at which in its era described the skirt reaching from waist to knee. In the middle ages ladies and gentlewomen were forbidden to go abroad in a wide hooped kirtle. By 1730 you could not miss the kilt in the Highlands of Scotland, although now alas the hairy knees of the Ladies from Hades are most commonly photographed at society weddings and in dude hotels.
J.R.R. Tokien described E.R. Eddison’s version of the Swedish Saga as “The greatest and most convincing writer of invented worlds that I have read.” Tolkien, who pinched the saga style to turn Styrbiorn in Bilbo Baggins, was not the only savant to applaud Eddison. C.S. Lewis said that “In a word, Eddison’s books are works, first and foremost, of art. And they are irreplaceable”. Ursula Le Guin put her finger on a writing style she called “The archaic manner”, noting “: one slip spoils all. The man who did it perfectly was, of course, Eddison. If you love language for its own sake, he is irresistible.
Paul Edmund Thomas is an expert on both Tolkien and Eddison and when you are an expert on these scholars and writers you are very expert indeed. Thomas also has worked outwhat made Eddison tick. With the evidence of a letter to Edith Brinton, who worked for him as a typist, Eddison set out the basis of his historiographical approach,
On a new book: a historical story about people who really lived in this world, in the Viking age in Sweden a thousand years ago, the age of the great classic saga literature of the north, which I have studied these twenty years and love more than any other.
Eddison’s admiration for the nonpartisan, non judgmental narrative voices of the best of the Old Norse sagas cannot be overemphasized. He loved the saga writers’ technique of relating actions baldly, without commentary, without didacticism, without an overt attempt to shape readers’ interpretations or predispose their opinions, regardless of the nature of the actions. Thus shocking scenes, like the slaying of the lovely Swanhild in the Volsunga Saga, are related merely factually, without explanation, and without any condemnation of the Iago-like counselor Bikki, who contrives her brtutal death …
It is still difficult a thousand years later for an author not to take sides describing characters, even if an historian is writing history. As Voltaire wrote, writing contemporary history is particularly fraught and unrewarding, as an historian can expect to be attacked both for what he wrote and for what he did not. Styrbiorn the Strong was contemporary history in the tenth century. When it resurfaced in the twentieth, published as it was in September 1926, among its most enthusiastic supporters was Arthur Ransom, famous for Swallows and Amazons, and himself a controversial participant in contemporary history, familiar as he was with Soviet Revolution, and writing brilliant novels and journalism about contrasting worlds of Moscow and the chi chi world of Beatrix Potter’s Lake District, both of which he loved.
I can understand all this, speaking as I do as an author with neither popularity nor potential publishing longevity counted in millennia. The God of Wrath pondered mischief for me on one or two occasions. I am going to treat myself to an Afterword which might stir parallel emotions in Minnesota, one of the many wide open American spaces which welcolmed Scandinavian emigrants to a New World. My Scottish family immigrated to Australia fro Howmore five generations ago. The daughter of the King of Norway was the first woman buried at Howmore, in South Uist, where the Norwegian Vikings spent their leisure building submerged stepping stones to the islands in the lochs. I am an inshore skipper and have seen rock strewn waters for (in days spent) about a year of my life, sailing in the Southern Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, and the Aegean. The Gods have let me off the hook many times. As time went by I was pleased to find that my interest in the history of a region 10,000 miles from my birthplace may have had a genetic basis insofar as I am a carrier of Viking DNA, common in South Uist, but I nearly fell overboard when I learned that my wife’s mother’s great grandfather sailed from Stromness in the early nineteenth century, so thus my children have Viking DNA on both sides of the family, Uist and Orkney. Reading up on tenth century Saga literature I was amused to find that as in Oceania now the Earls of Orkney were the top dogs; they controlled, as the Lords of the Western Isles, their Norwegian-Scottish Viking underlings in the Outer Hebrides.. I was slightly cheered up by the Anglo-Norse Review who assured their readers of my books that The reader may set off for Scandinavia safe in the knowledge that whether conversation turns to Moomin Trolls or Gro Harlem Brundtland , he or she will not be in the dark - an assurance I have found only taken seriously in Warsaw by the possessors of Wojna z trollami.