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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

I Read It!: Volsungasaga

Today is I Read It! day at 5 Minutes for Books. The idea is to share about a book that you read because of someone else's recommendation. I do that all the time here on my blog but I thought it would be fun to share about this particular book.

author unknown
65 typed pages
/approx. 120 book pages
translated from ancient Danish (I think)

What is it? The Volsungasaga is an ancient Norse epic that tells the tale of the warrior Volsung, who was the grandson of the god Odin, and of Volsung's descendants. Learn more about it at Wikipedia.

Where did I hear about it?
At the Bookworms Carnival on Mythology hosted by Things Mean A Lot of course! 5-Squared posted a fabulous review of this epic that really caught my attention. In fact, it is much better than my review so I suggest you go check it out.

Why did I read it? After 5-Squared's review, I knew I had to check this out at some point. And since I still needed to read a few more books for the Really Old Classics Challenge I decided to search out a copy of the Volsungasaga and dive right in.

So, what did I think about it? That is a tricky question. Part of me enjoyed reading this epic but the rest of me alternated between irritated, confused, and horrified.
  • ENJOYED - I love the "Saxon Chronicles" series by Bernard Cornwell. One of the main features of that series is the Danish characters, mostly warriors, who invade Britain. This epic reminded me of many of my favorite characters from that series and filled in some of their mythological history, further fleshing out their stories.
  • IRRITATED - When I was in the middle of the story Kiddo asked me about the book and I told him it was basically a story about a bunch of people who are constantly out to get revenge on each other for some murder or another. I told him that I was surprised there were any people left at all, what with all the slaying that was going on. Apparently I spoke to soon; the story ends when all of Volsung's descendants have finally been killed off.
  • CONFUSED - I read the translation provided online by the Online Medieval and Classical Library. I don't know if there is another version out there but this was the only one I could find and it really didn't work for me. Imagine reading something like the King James version of the Bible but with tons of outdated words and others with unique spelling or definitions that don't match up to modern language. I did eventually get used to it but I'm sure there are parts of the story I missed out on because I didn't understand all the language.
  • HORRIFIED - I know that times were different back then and that the mortality rate among children was very high, but did these women seriously have NO maternal instincts?! I can't recall how many times in the story a mother had her own children killed for some ridiculous reason. In a way it reminded me of the play MEDEA which I read last month. In other ways it reminded me of the books I've read about Sparta, about how mothers expected their sons to be extremely tough and were ashamed of them if they were not. But seriously, NO maternal protectiveness or anything?! I am so glad I didn't live back then ...
I expected this story to be like THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY, a story that lends itself to the art of storytelling. With those two epics, I feel like I can hear the storyteller spinning his tales to an attentive crowd gathered around a fire. The VOLSUNGASAGA was very different. The parts of the story are very disjointed, nothing flows together. And I can't imagine listening to this around a fire ... it was more like a history lesson to be learned while sitting at a desk.

In the end ... Looking back over this review you'd think I hated this book. Actually, I didn't. I didn't love it, but I do think it was worth reading. Plus I made some interesting (sometimes amusing) connections while reading it. For example:
  • The references to Norse gods Odin and Loki kept reminding me of Stargate SG1. They explained the Norse theology by saying a race of aliens actually started it. Here's an image of Loki from SG1 - I LOVED those little grey guys, especially Thor! And here's a video of Thor if you want to check him out.
  • Brynhild was a warrior woman who slept for a very long time before being awoken by the warrior Sigurd. This reminded me of the story of Sleeping Beauty. The two stories end quite differently though ...
  • Ragnarok is the name for the end of time in Norse mythology. It was also a theme in the most recent Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes book, THE LANGUAGE OF BEES, by Laurie R. King (reviewed here).
  • The descriptions of the dragon Fafnir and his treasure hoard reminded me of Tolkien's dragon Smaug from THE HOBBIT. And don't you just love Justin Gerard's Smaug? I kept imagining this image as I read about Fafnir.

So I can cross off another book for the ROC Challenge - yay!

I'm curious though ... have any of you actually read this or studied in back in your college days? I'd never even heard of it until 5-Squared's review - what about you?


Bluestocking said...

I saw this one during that carnival too! Might have to pick it up. Here is mine

Anna van Gelderen said...

I attended a "dramatic recitation" of this epic poem a few years back and loved it. It is of course the same story (only in the Icelandic version) as the Nibelungen Saga that Wagner based his ring cyclus on and which I read as a young teenager. Even then I loved it.
I don't think you should see it as realistic story peopled with real characters with every day motivations. This belongs to the realm of myth and saga; there is no relation with the novel or even the Greek myths. This is an entirely different world, the realm of the fairy tales - the more cruel ones, that is. The Migration Period, during which these stories came into being, was of course a harsh, insecure and violent era. So it's not entirely to be wondered at that these stories often grate on our modern sensibilities. They do on mine, too, but I am also fascinated by them!

Heather J. said...

Bluestocking - Thanks for dropping by!

Anna - You make some great points. I honestly didn't view it as "realistic" but I did tend to see it as "representative" ... of cultural values, traditions, etc. in the same way that ancient stories from other cultures reflect their core ideas. But I did find myself comparing it often to Homer's works, and that really isn't quite fair. The idea of a "dramatic presentation" really appeals to me though - I think I'd have enjoyed that.

Anna van Gelderen said...

I realize that you didn't view it as 'realistic', but it is what we modern readers tend to automatically and subconsciously, being conditioned as we are. At least it's what I do and keep having to remind myself that this is something entirely different.

By the way, I forgot to mention that I think you read a wonderful selection of books. So many US bloggers read nothing but contemporaty American fiction. Nothing wrong with that, but it's great to see different choices as well.

Heather J. said...

Anna - Thanks, I appreciate that! Do you also follow Rebecca Reads blog? She focuses on older classics most of the time (she's also my co-host for the Really Old Classics challenge).

Carrie said...

Definitely not a book you see around much! =D I LOVED reading this out-of-the-ordinary classic. THanks for sharing and for linking up!

Anna van Gelderen said...

Yes, I follow Rebecca Reads blog as well. I have only discovered it recently, but it seems interesting.

Serena said...

Just wanted to let you know that we have added you to the official Vietnam War Reading Challenge participants list. The new buttons are here as well:

Rebecca Reid said...

It did sound at first that you didn't like it -- but by the end it seemed better.

I enjoyed Medea, so maybe the no maternal extincts thing won't bother me as much. I need to read more myths and sagas myself. Lots to read and learn.

Thanks for this review!

softdrink said...

Oh sure, I just happen to have this one on my shelf.

Hah. This is the first I've ever heard of this one, too. You find the most interesting things to read.

Heather J. said...

Carrie - Yeah, I figured this might be something out of the ordinary for the I READ IT linky. :)

Anna - Great - I love Rebecca!

Serena - Thanks, my post w/ my book list will go up this week.

Rebecca - I do think you'd like this one - it's right up your alley. :)

softdrink - Aw, come on, you KNOW this is already on your TBR! ~LOL~

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

This sounds shallow compared to the insightful comments you've received: I read the post title, and all I can think of is LASAGNA .. it must be that darn #gameondiet!

Heather J. said...

Dawn - You are so right! ~LOL~

Jenny Girl said...

I never heard of this one either but I think I'll pass. Love the Thor reference though. Those were my favorite SG-1 aliens.

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