Friday, October 14, 2011

Penguins on Parade: King Harald's Saga!



Some Penguin Classics, however great, are mere facets of larger gems, and so it is with the slim 1966 volume titled King Harald's Saga.

The Saga in question is here wonderfully translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson, and in its actual setting, it forms part of that vast and endlessly fascinating work, the Heimskringla of the Icelandic historian and mythologist Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). Snorri was a towering figure in his country's literary history, and he gets generous and detailed attention in this volume's superb Introduction:
Snorri Sturluson was essentially an explorer of the past. He did not allow himself to be deterred by the fact that the landmarks in the remotest area of history were so few and far between; where his information failed, he rationalized and deduced. When he emerged into the more familiar landscape of the late ninth century, he could build on the work of earlier historians, he could accept and reject, and add from sources of his own. But his primary purpose was not so much to correct earlier works of history as to cultivate history for its own sake, to improve the writing of history; he wanted to illuminate the past, not merely to record it.

The story he tells in this saga is so remarkable it could only have been based in reality: it's the story of Harald Sigurdsson, who fled his native Norway at age 15 to escape the rampaging enemies of his half-brother King Olaf. Like a real-life Conan the Barbarian, Harald wandered the world, a reaver and freebooter, selling his prodigious physical might and keen tactical mind to the highest bidder everywhere from Kiev to Sicily to the heart of Byzantium. Eventually Harald returned to Norway and reclaimed his half-brother's crown, and in September of 1066 he took a fleet of 300 warships - 9000 fighting men - across the North Sea to attempt an armed conquest of England. At first, his fierce forces swept aside all armed resistance, but at the Battle of Stamford Bridge he lost the initiative, the battle, and his life, the last of the great and terrible Vikings.

Snorri's account of this incredible life makes it even more incredible - timelines are brushed up, gaps in the record are filled with prodigies, and virtually every character is given at least one or two great lines (probably the most delightful hallmark of this author), as when Harald raids his hapless neighbor Denmark:
They burned down the farm of a great chieftain called Thorkel Geysa, and carried off his daughters in chains to the ships because they had made derisory remarks the previous winter about King Harald's plan to invade Denmark; they had carved anchors out of cheese, and said that these could easily hold all the king of Norway's ships. This was what was composed about it:

The mocking Danish maidens

Carved useless anchors

Out of their crumbling cheeses;

Norway's king was angry.

Today these very maidens

Can see the iron anchors

Holding his eager warships;

And none is laughing now.

It is reported that he watchman who first caught sight of King Harald's fleet said to Thorkel Geysa's daughters, 'I thought you said that Harald would never come to Denmark.'

'That was yesterday,' replied Dotta.


Forty years ago, Penguin Classics produced a small shelf's-worth of slivers from Snorri's gigantic masterpiece, each with family trees and glossaries and maps, each tending to its own garden, and that's wonderful: reading all those composite volumes is endlessly entertaining and challenging, like communing with a snowy Homer. King Harald's Saga is one of the best of those volumes, but they're all worth finding and reading in the middle of a winter's week.

1 comment:

Quid plura? | “Everybody’s coming, leave your body at the door…” said...

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