Posts filed under ‘Scandinavia’

The Penguin Book of Norse Myths

All I have to say about this is it’s absolutely awesome. The myths are told lightly, with restraint, but with enough poetic details to keep me interested. In the past I’ve ploughed through the originals in the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, and this was much more fun. I was so impressed that I looked up Kevin Crossley-Holland, who wrote these versions, and it seems he’s an utter legend. I fully intend to get my hands on his children’s books, his collection of English stories, and his poetry.

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April 26, 2008 at 9:06 pm 1 comment

Beowulf

I taught Beowulf this week. It was so much fun reading it again – apart from reveling in the shiny, heavy language, I kept making all sort of new connections. (New for me, anyway.) I thought it was so interesting the way fratricide is emphasised in the narrative, and how Grendel’s descent from Cain (specifically, from Cain’s murder of Abel) is played against this. He is a monster – an enemy of God, and of the people of the story, but the people of the story commit the same sin which made him a monster in the first place. One of my students asked if this was another example of the Christian author of the poem distancing the Christian audience from the pagan practices of the past. An interesting thought…

I also asked them to read Tolkien’s ‘The Monsters and the Critics’, but I told them it was optional – a mistake I will not be making again (none of them read it). I enjoyed rereading that, though, too. When I was an undergraduate, I missed out on the Early Middle Ages module, but I made a point of reading Beowulf and that essay. Beowulf didn’t do a lot for me the first time I read it, but the essay made me shiver with delight. The way he talks about dragons! (I have a fondness for dragons.) This time I couldn’t help noticing how both universalism and nationalism frame his interpretation of the poem. He says it is a poem about man confronting the darkness of impending doom and inevitable death. He says this quite poetically. But – it’s not just that. The poem isn’t just about universal ‘man’. It is about a very specific society, which it goes to great pains to construct. The monsters don’t threaten humanity, but the Scandinavians. Hence my theory about Grendel, which I outlined above…

Anyway. The students weren’t quite as excited about it as I was, but it is a difficult poem and I think they did pretty well. Next week, the sagas….

February 16, 2008 at 10:37 pm Leave a comment

Kristin Lavransdatter III: The Cross

Yep, finished it last year. As I was reading it for escapist purposes, I was seriously annoyed when she killed off some of the best characters. In the end, however, it was quite memoriable. And beautiful. If a little sad, in a perhaps-the-next-world-is-better-than-this-one sort of a way.

January 13, 2008 at 3:14 pm 2 comments

Kristin Lavransdatter II: The Wife


This is the second in the trilogy, set in medieval Norway. Here‘s what I thought of the first book. I’m not sure what I make of this one, really. I found the first half very tedious – Kristin moaning about her sins (getting pregnant before she got married), and generally making her husband very unhappy because of it. Things warmed up in the second half when she stopped complaining about her husband and started trying to get him out of jail.

I love the descriptions of Norway – the light and the lakes and the meadows. When I think about the book, it seems glassy and smooth and slightly two dimensional. Blue, and cool. But I looked forward to creeping into bed with it every night. And it changes pace every now and again and becomes heartbreakingly beautiful. I’ve nearly finished the third one, so I’ll give you more of a run-down then. Not one of my favourite books in the world. But I have a feeling it’s the sort of book that stays with you – a little bit of Kristin’s Norway has a place in my heart.

November 12, 2007 at 9:11 pm 2 comments

Summer Reading

Now that the summer is ending (mercifully slowly – this weather is lovely!), here’s a quick catch up.

Lian Hearn, The Harsh Cry of the Heron

This is the fourth in a series, and they’ve all been wonderful. Set in a fantasy world reminiscent of medieval Japan, it is evocative and gripping and beautiful, and this book is my favourite yet. Don’t want to give too much away, but it’s just lovely. And she’s an Adelaide writer, hurrah!

Knut Hamsun, Hunger

One of my challenge reads, and more fun than I thought it would be, after the front cover glibly declared that it was one of the most disturbing books in existence. A young Nowegian hovers on the brink of starvation in nineteenth century Oslo, to proud to do much about it. It was disturbing, and the main character was difficult to like (I think this was the point), but I did find myself warming to him towards the end. There’s even the odd medieval reference, as he attempts to write a play set in the Middle Ages. It’s been compared with Dosteovsky, but is a little one dimensional in comparison.

Randolph Stow, Tourmaline

Read the previous post. What can I say? Bruce Clunies Ross says he has the linguistic equivalent of perfect pitch. I agree.

Randolph Stow, Visitants

Not good plane reading, because the perspective and voice switches every page and a half. Disturbing and compelling, and better on a second reading, when you know what’s going on. Set in the Trobriant Islands, it documents a gradual disintegration into madness against a backdrop of cargo cults and reports of alien star-ships.

A. J. Hassall, Strange Country: A Study of Randolph Stow

A thorough summary of everything Stow wrote, but rather bland, and ignores some of the most interesting aspects…

Nick Hornby, How to be Good

This one definitely is good plane reading. Deceptively light hearted, this is an essentially bleak appraisal of married life.

Mormonism for Dummies

I’m not about to convert, but I found this fascinating. Not sure about the regulation underwear, or whether God lives near a distant star, but did like the depiction of Eve as the brave, courageous founder of mortal life.

D.M. Cornish, Monster Blood Tattoo

Another Adelaide writer, who has created a world of monsters and sailing ships where things are not quite as they seem. Great fun. Can’t wait for the rest of the series.

And now on with the term! Stay tuned, posts here might become a little more frequent…

September 14, 2007 at 7:47 pm 2 comments

The Wreath

Yet another take on the Middle Ages. Noticing a theme yet? Sigrid Undset won the Noble Prize for her portrayals of the Norwegian Middle Ages in novels such as this one. And it is lovely. It is the first of a trilogy, and I can’t wait to read the other two. I forgot to order them, though, so wait I must.

In some ways this is straightforward historical romance fiction. Young girl grows up on remote farm in medieval Norway, falls in love with a bit of a rogue, and accordingly compromises her chastity, which leads to a number of awkward situations. But the beautiful depictions of the places and seasons, the portrayals of the tensions in the society (between Christianity and Paganism, for example), and most of all, the finely drawn, heartfelt but often pained relationships, make this novel something special.

When I think about novels set in or drawing on the Middle Ages, I start by asking why? Why was the Middle Ages deemed necessary for this story? What does this particular representation of the Middle Ages reveal about the desires and assumptions of the author? I guess a fairly obvious question is how accurately is the Middle Ages represented, but this question is not always the most interesting one. In this case, I think Undset did a lot of careful research, and integrated it into the story sparingly but lovingly, though not being an expert on fourteenth-century Norway, I can’t say for sure. Using a medieval setting can often serve nationalistic purposes (especially for countries which have medieval pasts). Perhaps there is a bit of this here. But my instinct says its main purpose is different.

I think Undset turned to the Middle Ages because it offered a template for a society with rich kinship systems, formal relationships and obligations, especially for women. It is these constraints, together with the threads of nature and religion, that shape the novel. While Kristin’s illicit love affair drives the plot, her relationship with her father and with a wandering monk, and her parents’ relationship, are actually the most interesting elements. Expectation, disappointment, affection, desire and loss are brought into painful relief in brief, intimate moments scattered throughout the narrative. Kristin’s mother, Rangfrid, prays for her family at night: ‘As her body gradually grew stiff with the cold, she set out once more on one of her familiar night journeys, trying to break a path to a peaceful home for her heart.’

Kristin’s childhood vision of purity and brilliance proves difficult to sustain, but her first glimpse of a stained glass window remains one of the most beautiful scenes in the novel:

On the grey stone wall above her, Kristin saw strange, flickering specks of light, red as blood and yellow as ale, blue and brown and green. She wanted to look behind her, but the monk whispered, ‘Don’t turn around.’ When they stood together high up on the planks, he gently turned her around, and Kristin saw a sight so glorious that it almost took her breath away.
Directly opposite her, on the south wall of the nave, stood a picture that glowed as if it had been made from nothing but glittering gemstones. The multicoloured specks of light on the wall came from rays emanating from the picture itself; she and the monk were standing in the midst of its radiance. Her hands were red, as if she had dipped them in wine; the monk’s face seemed to be completely gilded, and from his dark cowl the colours of the picture were dimly reflected. She gave him a questioning glance, but he merely nodded and smiled.
It was like standing at a great distance and looking into heaven.

July 19, 2007 at 9:57 am 1 comment


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