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Ian M. Slater "aylchanan" (Los Angeles, CA United States)

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Njal's Saga (Classics)
Njal's Saga (Classics)
by M. Magnusson
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ian Myles Slater on: A Reliable, Readable, Option, 14 Feb. 2005
This is a highly readable translation of a work of literature that has several names. In full, it is "Brennu-Njals Saga," or "The Story of Burned Njal," but just plain "Njals-Saga" is equally correct. And, like several other sagas, it has a nickname in its native Iceland, "Njala." For those who know it, with its unforgettable portraits of men and women presented through their responses to the events that entangle them, it has a place alongside the great novels of modern Europe. Although it starts off with a couple of resounding scandals, including a Queen-Mother's affair with a handsome Icelander, it soon deals with property in a divorce, and who stole the hay. There are resemblances to Westerns, including subsistence in an unforgiving environment, and the critical importance of a reputation.

The plain-language version by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson, first published in 1960, has, I think, stood up well. On my first reading I found the Introduction, Genealogical Tables, Glossary of Proper Names, Note on Chronology, and maps very useful. It has been supplanted in the Penguin Classics list by a new translation by Robert Cook, but I hope that this older version will continue to remain available. (Penguin sometimes has two, or even three, translations of a given work in circulation.)

"Njal's Saga" is, like several others, a long account of cascading disputes between farmers, and the resulting fights and lawsuits, broken up with voyages and adventures in Viking-Age Europe. (There are a great many shorter ones on the same basic pattern, generally less complex and diverse.) "Njala" includes a famous account of the official conversion of Iceland to Christianity, and a description of the Battle of Clontarf in Ireland, just over a decade later -- both apparently drawn from pre-existing accounts, and both inserted into the sequence of events quite naturally, although possibly with some violence to chronology.

The co-translators relegated most genealogical descriptions of characters to footnotes. Many chapters begin something like "There was a man named A who lived at B. He was the son of C, son of D, son of E, who was the first who came to B, and he was the son of F, son of G, the kinsman of ..." Those of us who persist in reading the major sagas will soon learn to decipher such passages to mean either, "A came from a famous family, and would have many allies in a dispute," or "A was a complete nobody, whose most notable ancestors were violent and unreasonable." Until then, these paragraph-long descriptions are just a jumble of names -- there is a "Monty Python" routine based on that impression, which is very, very funny if you know the sagas; and, I am told, amusing anyway if you don't.

"Njala" has had a long series of translations from its original Old Icelandic into other languages -- there is a whole book on its "reception" into other literatures, "The Rewriting of Njals Saga: Translation, Ideology, and Icelandic Sagas," by Jon Karl Helgason; and it bulks large in Andrew Wawn's "The Vikings and the Victorians," because it received a magnificent first translation into English, by George Webbe Dasent, "The Story of Burnt Njal, or, Life in Iceland at the End of the Tenth Century," started in 1843, and published in 1861. Dasent, probably wisely, spent a good part of the two-volume first edition just explaining medieval Iceland to his readers. This material was dumped in later, one-volume, editions of Dasent's translation, including the Everyman's Library reprint of 1911, which got a new introduction and select bibliography by E.O.G. Turville-Petre in 1957, and in the 1970s competed with the Penguin Classics translation.

Dasent's "Burnt Njal" has many merits, even today. Unfortunately, between Dasent's imitation of Icelandic vocabulary and sentences, and changes in English since the 1850s, many will find his prose indigestible; and the text of the saga he was using is now very obsolete. For those who want a look, there is an HTML edition on-line; the translator's name is there given as DaSent. Modern readers can turn to Jesse Byock's "Viking Age Iceland" for an equivalent of Dasent's introduction and appendices, with their maps and diagrams, but more readable, as well as much more reliable. And I would certainly make the suggestion of Magnusson and Palsson as a better place to start with Njal and his associates.

Another alternative is the American-Scandinavian Foundation's 1955 "Njal's Saga," translated by Carl F. Bayerschmidt and Lee M. Hollander. For American readers it had the slight advantage of not being quite so British in tone as the Penguin and mid-Victorian Dasent translations, but it seems to have been available in recent years only in a 1998 paperback from a British publisher, in the "Wordsworth Classics of World Literature" series, with a new introduction by Thorsteinn Gylfason. It too has maps, family trees, and notes.

There is a substantial critical literature on "Njal's Saga," some of it in English. Richard F. Allen's old "Fire and Iron: Critical Approaches to Njals Saga" is very literary in approach. Jesse Byock's "Feud in the Icelandic Saga," which argues that behavior in the sagas reflects real social patterns, has thirty pages on this saga (Chapter 9, "Two Sets of Feud Chains"), which I think are brilliant; but probably most helpful to those who already know the story, and can appreciate how he makes connections between scattered-looking events.

For those who find "Njala" a bit too long to start with, there are other sagas in excellent (and some not-so-good) translations. "Laxdaela Saga" shares some important characters, scenes and events with "Njala." Closer to the popular image are "Grettir's Saga" ("Grettla," the story of an outlaw who battles both supernatural and human enemies), and "Egil's Saga" ("Egils Saga Skallagrimssonar," or "Egla,") Egil is a warrior-poet, brilliant, bad-tempered, and remarkably ugly, who takes after his grandfather "Evening-Wolf," who was suspected of being a shape-shifter. Egil spends much of his time on Viking adventures abroad, instead of tending the flocks ... .
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The Age of Fighting Sail : the Story of the Naval War of 1812
The Age of Fighting Sail : the Story of the Naval War of 1812
by C. S. Forester
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.66

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ian Myles Slater on: A Wide-Ranging Narrative, 3 Feb. 2005
Forester's sober, but generally fast-moving, account of the Anglo-American naval war of 1812 has had a mixed reception from historians over the nearly fifty years since its first publication. Looking at bibliographies and suggested readings in several volumes, I noted that one ignores it, while another grants that, "as to be expected from the creator of Hornblower," it is enjoyable reading.
(Actually, it is rather far from the Hornblower narratives, which are in surprisingly large part about the inner life of the shy, sensitive, Gibbon-reading hero, who happens to be, to his own constant surprise, a resourceful and highly-effective naval warrior. Forester does describe Hornblower's naval engagements at a level of detail not found in the history, which is not much longer than one of the novels.)
It has also been described as "potted Mahan," which under-emphasizes every subsequent historian's debt to the Admiral to suggest that Forester was especially susceptible. Another writer -- with whom I am in agreement -- points out that "The Age of Fighting Sail" is one of the few accounts of the naval war to emphasize that it was closely related to the war on land, and not some set of uniquely nautical events. (Which is what Mahan argued about naval wars in general; why complain that Forester had learned it better than others?).
At least a few have noted that Forester made some points, not by laborious argument with elaborate documentation, but, even more effectively, by quoting relevant passages from the Duke of Wellington's correspondence -- a contemporary authority of some considerable weight, but not often mentioned in this context. Whether or not his advice to get out of the war had a decisive influence in London, it is a telling example of the impression the conflict made on a hard-headed strategist. Especially when American privateers had complicated life for British diplomats, with embarrassing illustrations that Britain did not exactly rule the waves unchallenged, even after Napoleon was gone.
Forester gives a good idea of the shock value of a series of American victories in single-ship encounters, which the Royal Navy had long counted on winning as a matter of course. The accounts of some of the individual engagements are actually quite clear -- if you have read other, properly illustrated versions. Which brings us to a problem which is probably not Forester's fault.
A series of publishers have not, I fear, ever given the book the proper treatment. In 1956 it needed, and it still needs, a good bibliography, a very detailed index, usable maps, and diagrams of the naval engagements. In effect, it has fallen somewhere between, on one side, the academic history or text-book, either of which would have its load of "apparatus," and, on the other, the purely popular book, with lots of illustrations (good or bad). And it has received neither.
So I have to agree to some extent with those who refer to Theodore Roosevelt's 1882 account of "The Naval War of 1812," which has the kind of documentation and diagrams Forester's account doesn't. Of course, it also has Roosevelt's personal war with nineteenth-century historiography, both British (competent, but heavy with bias) and American (often not even competent). And it is interesting to see the workings of the mind of a future Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and President of the United States. For those seriously interested, it had a very nice paperback edition from Da Capo Press, in 1999, and there is also a recent Modern Library edition. Just keep in mind that it now over a century out of date. Forester seems to me to have read Roosevelt with care; so much for just re-writing Mahan.
Another Da Capo reprint, from 1995, John R. Elting's "Amateurs, To Arms! A Military History of the War of 1812" (originally 1991) attempts to integrate naval and land strategy, primarily from the Army's viewpoint. It has a much more up-to-date bibliography than Roosevelt, obviously. Elting too has to spend time clearing away patriotic myths; this time Canadian as well.
One thing that Forester does not deal with is the causes of the war. A long tradition of American historiography has looked to domestic reasons, including land-hungry westerners with designs on Canada. Bradford Perkins' "Prologue to War: England and the United States, 1805-1812," detailing the animosities and frictions, gives the impression that the real question is not why a war took place, but why it happened then, after being avoided for so long.

Imagining Robin Hood: The Late Medieval Stories in Historical Context
Imagining Robin Hood: The Late Medieval Stories in Historical Context
by A.J. Pollard
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £65.00

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ian Myles Slater on: Recovering Outlaw Contexts, 1 Feb. 2005
Alongside the various mass-media versions of Robin Hood in the last couple of decades, renewed debates on the "historical Robin Hood," if any, and the literary history of the character have been going on in academic circles. Some of these arguments have surfaced in news reports, often garbled, or just without their proper intellectual contexts, and offered as much for shock value as for the information they provide.
A.J. Pollard's new book (he has previously published several learned papers on the subject) is going to be harder to sensationalize, but I found it quite exciting anyway.
A "live issue" in Robin Hood studies has been the social basis of the original Robin Hood literature -- or at least of the earliest surviving pieces, which date from the Fifteenth Century. This is not the Robin Hood of most modern popular literature, the rightful Earl of Huntingdon, or the Anglo-Saxon champion resisting the Normans (these emerged from Elizabethan and Romantic reworkings), but the Yeoman and his companions. Little John and Will Scarlock (or Scarlet), Guy of Gisborne, and some others, are present, but no Maid Marian or Friar Tuck.
There are other differences; the Sheriff's wife is a character with her own part to play, and Little John is himself a clever trickster. The setting is not the age of King Richard Lion-Heart and Prince John, but an indefinable High Middle Ages, under one of the many Kings named Edward. The scene ranges from Sherwood in Nottinghamshire north to Barnesdale in Yorkshire.
The argument has ranged back and forth. Robin was created by and for the gentry. No, Robin represents the English peasant. No, England didn't *have* peasants, in the strict sense, so he couldn't represent them. Well then, he represents the rising Yeoman class. No, Yeoman was an occupational term. Wait a minute, by Parliamentary statute it designated a social status! He is religious, but anti-clerical; what does that mean, set between the Lollards and Henry VIII? And so on.
Pollard has taken a close look at the arguments, and the evidence of external documents. The argument presented here is that the surviving texts reveal stories directed at a whole range of classes and interests, and that their use of "yeoman" reflects genuine changes and ambiguities current in the period. Pollard traces the development of the term, and shows how inconsistent uses were inherent in its history, and involved everything from the Royal Household to the London Guilds to the village community. The rise and fall of the "Forest Law" is traced, and with it attitudes toward Foresters, Poachers, and the limits of authority and socially acceptable resistance.
The "Adam Bell" ballad and the pseudo-Chaucerian "Gamelyn" are both brought into the picture, where they certainly belong, making it clear that the plots and characters of the "Robin Hood" stories (in ballads and plays, and probably other forms which have left less evidence) were not memories of a unique hero, but a familiar set of formulas, with "Robin" as the best-known name. He also acknowledges that the comparatively late "Earl of Huntingdon" version has good medieval parallels in tales of outlawed nobles and rebel barons, like Fulk Fitz-Warin, and "Ranulf Erle of Chester" (who, as should be well known, is actually mentioned alongside Robin as a typical subject of idle stories in one of the early references).
It is not Errol Flynn, or Richard Greene, or even Howard Pyle (although Pyle's prose retelling is often very close to the source texts). But the society of pre-Reformation England is brought to life with telling details, from both official documents and the literature of heroic outlaws. Robin Hood fanciers of various sorts will want to take a close look at Pollard's argument. As for me, I'm planning to re-read it with my copy of Child's "English and Scottish Popular Ballads" open in front of me. (Not the most up-to-date text edition, but I won't have to return it to the library.)

Feud in the Icelandic Saga
Feud in the Icelandic Saga
by Jesse L. Byock
Edition: Paperback
Price: £21.95

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ian Myles Slater on: A New Path in Familiar Places, 31 Jan. 2005
It has been nearly a quarter-century century since Professor Jesse Byock of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) completed this book (the copyright date is 1982; Amazon's date of 1993 for the paperback edition is for that format only). It marks an attempt to reverse a long-prevailing view of a whole body of literature, the Sagas of the Icelanders. It is not easy reading; but it repays the effort it takes. It has been well received; there is even a Japanese translation of the book, along with Byock's later "Medieval Iceland."

I had been reading sagas in translation since the late 1960s, and on reading this book I had the distinct feeling that I had never quite understood them properly. Almost as if, say, I hadn't grasped the function of a jury in stylized accounts of trials, like the old television show "Perry Mason." Or, more exactly, like missing the functions of lawyers! Byock is credited with a major breakthrough in making clear the essential role of the "advocate" in feud and resolution narratives; something fundamental to the system, not just a recurring plot device.

"Sagas of the Icelanders" is a category which is not identical to the larger group of Icelandic Sagas. They were all written in Old Icelandic / Old Norse, in a similar style, but the latter, more comprehensive, designation includes a wide range of topics, including the Kings of Norway, and a variety of heroes from the Migration Age, like Sigurd the Volsung, and Hrolf Kraki and the Skjoldung Dynasty of Denmark. (The Siegfried of the "Nibelungenlied" and Hrothulf the Scylding in "Beowulf," respectively; Byock has, in fact, translated "The Saga of the Volsungs," for the University of California Press and Penguin Classics, and "The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki," for Penguin Classics.)

When I was taking Icelandic Literature (in translation) at UCLA a decade before this book appeared, the reigning orthodoxy was to take the medieval sagas written in Iceland *about* Icelanders as primarily literary creations. They were fictions about events centuries before they were composed, to be enjoyed, certainly, but to be treated as sophisticated fictions. These works, written in a remarkably lean prose studded with poems of great complexity, give an immediate impression of gritty realism; farmers worry about hay supplies for the winter, large landowners maneuver to acquire more property, and minute details of legal procedure form turning points in lives.

There is nothing like them in the rest of medieval European literature; whereas the Legendary sagas, and various obviously foreign materials (the *Riddara,* or chivalric, Sagas), are built up of stories of kings and warriors, or even knights on horseback (not a natural part of the Icelandic imagination). But from short works like "Hrafnkels Saga," to the massive "Brennu-Njals Saga" ("The Story of Burnt Njal"), the Sagas of the Icelanders were to be approached as books of fiction, albeit fiction set in real landscapes, and with some historical personages in the cast of characters.

This was a marked reaction to the one-time view of them as something more like naïve reportage of actual events; and it acknowledged their sophistication as narratives, and the highly artistic nature of their seemingly artless prose. But it tended to block their use as evidence of Icelandic life in the Middle Ages; and to forestall attempts to interpret the sagas as self-representations of Icelandic experiences, aimed at ordinary people, instead of the product of elite literary culture, and reflecting foreign influences, albeit in a subtle manner. Never mind evidence that the expensive medieval manuscripts were regarded as treasures to be read aloud to ordinary, isolated, farming households, to entertain guests, or during the long winters. (Actually, the idea of a serialized reading of "Njal's Saga," as a kind of radio soap opera, suggests that the periodic scandals and adventures were a good part of its original appeal.)

Jesse Byock has taken a leading position in the rehabilitation of the sagas as historical evidence; not that he regards them as literally true -- although he has produced evidence for a startling level of accuracy in some overlooked or misunderstood details in some of them. Instead, he has tried to take them seriously as reflections of the stresses and social patterns of life on the island between the time of settlement (after 870 to around 930) and the late Middle Ages (before, say, the mid-fourteenth century, when some non-saga historical texts may have been redacted.

"Feud in the Icelandic Saga" is an enormously impressive analysis of the recurring patterns of dispute, arbitration, and resolution or non-resolution, in the saga-literature. He does not take individual sagas as true-to-life accounts of specific events. Instead, he shows that the recurring patterns correspond to the expected stresses of life in a subsistence economy, unable to support a fully-developed state, and that the "purely literary" patterns are the sort of thing that medieval Icelanders would have recognized as both probable and instructive.

Byock has returned to these issues, in articles and books. "Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power" (University of California Press, 1988) was more recently joined by "Viking Age Iceland" (2001), from Penguin. The two books return to some of the saga narratives analyzed in "Feud," this time from broader perspectives that include the degradation of the Icelandic ecosystem in the centuries following the Settlement. (Unlike "Feud," either could probably serve as an introduction to the saga literature; but "Viking Age Iceland" is probably by far the more approachable, and deals with issues, like the role of women, for which much evidence is from outside the saga literature.)

"Feud," however, still remains an impressive accomplishment. To my mind, it makes a convincing case for treating the saga-literature as "true" representations of medieval Iceland, albeit in a sociological, rather than a naively historical 'just-as-it-happened," sense. And even for those who may want to reject the argument, the analyses of specific sagas are exceptionally clear and compelling -- at least to those of us who have puzzled over some of the stories.

The Poetic Edda (Oxford World's Classics)
The Poetic Edda (Oxford World's Classics)
by Carolyne Larrington
Edition: Paperback

55 of 62 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ian Myles Slater on: An Up-to-Date Version, 11 Jan. 2005
The "Elder" or "Poetic" "Edda" is the modern name for a set of Old Norse mythological (mainly about gods) and heroic (mainly about humans) poems, found in a limited number of Icelandic manuscripts, the most important of which is damaged, and missing pages, and does not agree with other copies, and quotations in other medieval texts. The exact list of poems included in "The Poetic Edda" varies slightly, with editors and translators having a little leeway.
The exact meaning of the name is uncertain -â€" it may indicate "Poetics," it may just mean "(the book written) at Oddi" in Iceland. In either case, the name originally designated a mainly prose work by Snorri Sturluson, the "Younger" or "Prose" "Edda" describing the mythology of his ancestors, and how to compose or understand poems in the traditional style based on references to it. The present group of poems in a simpler style, some of which were cited by Snorri, was for a time attributed to another Icelander, Saemund the Wise, who was vaguely described as having also written an "Edda," and it was sometimes called "Edda Saemundar" ("Saemund's Edda"), as against "Snorri's Edda." Under these various titles, the collections has been translated into English many times, in prose and verse, beginning in the nineteenth century; with some portions appearing in English as early as the eighteenth century.
The "World's Classics" series from Oxford University Press finally included a translation of this famous collection in its list in 1997; it has since been reprinted in the slightly refurbished and renamed series of "Oxford World's Classics."
In it, Carolyne Larrington followed the 1983 revision of the Neckel-Kuhn text edition, without giving specific notice of all of its decisions on how to resolve contradictions in the manuscript evidence. (A reader who consults the notes at the end will find some of them, particularly regarding the ordering of stanzas.) Most previous translators produced eclectic versions, based on a variety of older editions, and often noting their own departures from the then-standard text editions. This may have given rise to complaints about the translation's accuracy, as in the Amazon US reviews. For those without access to the latest revised version of Kuhn's revision of Neckel's turn-of-the-century critical edition, or even aware that such changes are possible, Larrington's departures from the familiar are likely to seem arbitrary.
She also seems to be making full use of the latest in linguistic scholarship -- another reason for departing from familiar readings.
Of course, some of her translations may well be wrong -- translators have to make decisions among various options, and the format of this book does not allow for full discussions of such problems. Some problems have no easy answer; for example, there are lists of names, most of which, but not all, were chosen for their obvious meanings; should any of them be translated in the main text? I found many points on which I would differ, preferring the arguments advanced by other scholars, but any other amateur, but enthusiastic, reader could probably come up with an entirely different list. I appreciate having her version available.
What I find a more serious problem is that the translation is not really all that pleasant to read, and, although valuable to the serious student, is not likely to attract the merely curious. Despite being set up in stanzas, it is extremely prosy. This was probably the result of a decision to prefer precision to literary form, but, after comparing translations of sample passages going back to William Morris in the nineteenth century, I can't say that I am completely convinced. I could be wrong; I would not be astonished to find that someone fell in love with Old Norse literature through this version. But I do think that some older versions would serve this purpose better, despite many shortcomings, due in part to age.
I offer, as examples, two other complete versions in English. Henry Adams Bellows' translation (from the American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1923) was at least interesting to read aloud, despite numerous shortcomings, both as a translation and as poetry. (It was out of print, except in a very expensive limited edition, but is available in digital form, and is being reprinted in its original two-volume format, at a much more reasonable price, by Dover; as of summer 2004, "Mythological Poems" had appeared.) Lee M. Hollander's attempt at an alliterative verse rendering (University of Texas, also 1923, second edition, 1962, and still in print in paperback) is sometimes a little hard to follow, but at least the reader is kept aware that the original is a metrical composition. (I once worked through a good part of Hollander's text-edition-for-students of "Seven Eddic Lays," so his translation seems to me comparatively clear -- and very accurate, since it matches his editing and glossary!) Larrington's stanza divisions, by comparison, seem to be there strictly as points of reference.
Curiously, neither of these translations is mentioned, so far as I can see, anywhere in the present volume; nor is another, more recent, American translation, by Patricia Terry, which has undergone several revised printings, under at least two titles. Larrington discusses in detail older translations published in Britain, which is fair enough; but she somehow omits from this survey the expanded edition of Auden and Taylor's "The Elder Edda: A Selection" as "Norse Poems" (1981), which does contain the whole standard Eddic "canon".
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