Old Norse heroism seems to be in vogue these days, given the popularity of Thor and the film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which is steeped in Norse mythology. Furthermore, the classic literature of the North has been gaining academic readerships ever since the publication of the Penguin collection The Sagas of Icelanders in 2001. Add to this Jeramy Dodds’s recent translation of the Poetic Edda, a cultural treasure of classic tales about Odin, Loki, Freyr, and the rest of the Asgard gang, and the cultural milieu in which Ian Cumpstey’s Warrior Lore (Skadi Press, 2014) enters can be said to be densely populated indeed. The question is, can such a collection of Scandinavian folk ballads stand out?
While certainly Warrior Lore will encounter a much smaller audience than The Hobbit movies, it is a book to which a reader such as Tolkien himself might have been drawn. Written down around 1600 AD, these folk ballads collected and translated by Cumpstey from the original Swedish are part of the heroic tradition of poetry. This means contests of arms, kidnapped lovers, trolls, riddles, and, yes, even skiing.
Told in four-line, rhyming stanzas that are followed by a chorus line, these poems tell the warlike exploits of some of Scandinavia’s forgotten heroes. Most character names will be unfamiliar to readers, although there is one story, “The Hammer Hunt,” in which Thor and Loki make an appearance. Also, those familiar with the Norman Conquest of 1066 will appreciate the appearance of King Harald Hardrada in “Heming and King Harald.” They will also learn, when Harald dies at Heming’s hand instead of at the Battle of Stanford Bridge, just how loosely the poets regarded historical fact.
Warrior Lore varies from Cumpstey’s earlier collection Lord Peter and Little Kerstin in its reduced emphasis on magic and fantastic beings–all except the trolls. In compensation, there is plenty of axe-swinging violence of the kind to expect from medieval Scandinavians. Although the ballads become slightly monotonous–the competition between warriors and the rhyming stanza form rarely present surprises–it is a short collection and I was impressed by the scholarship. Cumpstey traces the manuscript transmission of each story and speculates on the oral tradition behind them. For each tale that has survived down to our own time, many other tales have been forgotten. Although the ballads are not exhaustively collected, they are a window into a new world of literature, and form an accessible supplementary resource.
Lovers of Scandinavian and old Norse myths and legends will likely be the first to read Warrior Lore. Academics interested in alternative narrative traditions in the medieval European milieu–stories uninfluenced, as far as I know, by the all-pervading Greek traditions of the Mediterranean–should be interested as well. As a student of English, I am keenly aware of just how different these ballads are from anything springing from the influence of the Graeco-Roman epics of Virgil and Homer. They also greatly differ from the tradition of tale-telling represented in The Arabian Nights and The Decameron. Yet they are not completely different. Plot is considered primary instead of character, and the relatively straightforward narratives value the human virtues of cleverness and competition. The contest of arms between Hector and Achilles is made of the same stuff as the fight between Heming and King Harald.
Given the academic significance of Warrior Lore, I, for one, hope that it earns its place in the constellation of similar English translations of Scandinavian poetry–and earns the attention of many more readers.
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