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21.01.14 Straubhaar/Green (eds.), Ballads of the North, Medieval to Modern

The Medieval Review

21.01.14 Straubhaar/Green (eds.), Ballads of the North, Medieval to Modern


This volume was published as a memorial book in honor of the late Larry Syndergaard (1936-2015). Specifically, in their introduction, the editors Sandra Ballif Straubhaar and Richard Firth Green recognize Syndergaard's commitment to the organization of annual sessions on balladry at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University. They also point out that Syndergaard's best-known work, English Translations of the Scandinavian Medieval Ballads (1995), remains a valuable resource for those working in fields that connect to northern balladry, and, as the wide-ranging scholarship in the volume attests, Syndergaard was a scholar and individual who valued bringing people together. The Ballads of the North, Medieval to Modern is a lasting and esteemed memorial to Larry Syndergaard himself, and it is a valuable contribution to scholarship on balladry.

The book is divided into three main parts. The first, "Part I: The Ballad Genre," begins with a chapter by James Massengale, titled "Swedish Ballad Authenticity and Its Gatekeepers." Massengale outlines the formation of the ballad genre in Sweden over the past two centuries, a process which culminates in the five-volume edition Sveriges Medeltida Ballader [Sweden's Medieval Ballads] by Bengt R. Jonsson, published from 1983-2001. Just as important as what has been included in the genre, Massengale argues, is what has been excluded, and over time the criteria for inclusion and exclusion have fluctuated. It is therefore high time for a reassessment of the genre, and Massengale's contribution to this reconsideration is an enlightening study of the so-called "shadow-corpus" of Swedish ballads, sources that have traditionally been excluded from editions.

Shaun F. D. Hughes' chapter, "The Relationship of the Anomalous Ballad Þorgeirs rímur [Stjakarhöfða] to Áns rímur bogveigis," comes next, and it provides a narrative analysis of both Þorgeirs rímur, which Hughes classifies as a ballad, and Áns rímur, which is much longer and not a ballad but a rímnaflokkur (set of rímur [Icleandic rhyming verses]). The two sources in fact share the same narrative structure, and this demonstrates that the rímur and the ballad developed parallel to one another, with the rímur possibly influencing the ballad. The ballad, 63 stanzas in length, with some prose interlude in between stanzas, presents a condensed version of the same plot found in the 545 stanza rímur.

Part I concludes with Sandra Ballif Straubhaar's chapter, "Hervör, Hervard, Hervik: The Metamorphosis of a Shieldmaiden," which follows the heroine Hervör (who appears as Hervarðr and Hervík in some sources) as she (or he) appears in different genres. Hervör is a saga heroine in Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks and in Örvar-Odds saga; she materializes in the Old Norse poems "Hjálmars Death Song" and Hyndluljóð; and she plays a prominent role in three Scandinavian ballads, two of which are Faroese and one of which is Danish. The author argues that it is the Faroese ballad tradition that presents the most workable narrative, a story which, unrestrained by the saga tradition, can tie up loose ends and allow Hervör (or Hervík) to avenge her father. Interestingly, Hervör's narrative adapts from genre to genre, as it must relate to each unique audience, but in all versions the story provides a portrait of a sword-wielding heroine. The Icelandic saga tradition filled the story with genealogy and narrative aftermath to connect the medieval Icelandic context to the world of the narrative, whereas the Faroese ballad tradition provided a good story that served as enteratinment, could be placed to music, and was lengthy but could still be told on a single occassion.

The second part of the book is divided into two sub-sections. The first division, "Part IIa: Traditional Ballads in Context: Motifs and Themes," begins with a chapter by Sarah Harlan-Haughey, titled "Uncanny Cetology in the Sagas and Later West-Scandinavian Balladry." Harlan-Haughey surveys the whale as a textual ingredient in the Icelandic sagas, as well as in a couple of ballads and a folktale. As the author notes, the beached whale is often a stimulus for feuds in the sagas, but it is an important supernatural aspect of saga narratives, as well, most notably in Eiríks saga rauða and Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar. In light of the collection's focus on balladry, Harlan-Haughey traces the transmission of the whale motif to an Icelandic ballad Kvæði um sankti Hallvarð, wherein a log is turned into a whale; then to a folktale collected by Jón Árnason in the 19th century, titled "The Red-Headed Whale," wherein a man is turned into a whale; and the chapter finishes with the contemporary example of the Grindadráp tradition in the Faroe Islands, an event that culminates in the performance of ballads.

The next chapter, by Tom Pettit, "If You Go Down to the Woods Today... : Fateful Locations in the Ballad Landscapes of Three Kingdoms," analyzes the appearance of the rosenlund (lit. "rose" "grove") across three ballad traditions--the Danish, the English, and the Scottish--though the author for the most part deals with the Danish tradition and what he refers to as the "Anglo-Scottish" tradition. In the Danish sources, the narrative space of the rosenlund is often the focal point for significant moments in a ballad's plot, whether it be an erotic encounter, a fatal birth (for the mother, child, or father, or some combination thereof), or a combat scene. A comparison of the Danish and Anglo-Scottish ballads reveals that when there are analogous ballads across traditions, and the rosenlund features in the Danish source, the parallel eventsare situated elsewhere in the Anglo-Scottish ballads. This curious variation leads the author to conclude that English and Scottish balladry retained a wider variety of localizations, whereas the Danish tradition consolidated around the rosenlund.

James Moreira's chapter, "'His Hawk, His Hound, and Lady Fair': Social Symbols and Ballad Metaphors," centers on the role of hawk and hound symbolism in hunting ballads collected by Francis James Child in the seminal The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-1898) anthology. Specifically, Moreira looks at how the deployment of a hawk or a hound in a given ballad sheds light on character. These hunt motifs, it turns out, often provide insight into the domestic circumstances of the character, tension between lovers or family members, or on other occasions bad behavior by male characters.

The final chapter of this sub-section, "Balladry and Social Mores: An Exploration of Attitudes to Sexual Relations in Songsters, Broadsides, and Oral Tradition" by David Gregory, provides an overview of references to sexual activity in a selection of English ballads, including a wide survey of sexuality in the F. J. Child ballads. Prior to the survey of sex in the Child ballads, Gregory looks at sex in collections of popular song from the sixteenth through early-nineteenth century. Attempting to use ballads to reconstruct late-medieval, renaissance, and later popular attitudes to sex, including rape, voyeurism, promiscuity, adultery, incest, and extramarital sex in general, the author concludes that attitudes toward sex were widely diverse through the centuries.

The following sub-section, "Part IIb: The Traditional Ballad in Context: Individual Ballads," opens with a chapter by Lynda Taylor, "The Agnete Ballad of Denmark: Cultural Tool or Protest Song?" Taylor analyzes one particular ballad type, "Agnete og havmanden" ("Agnete and the Merman"). It is made clear, through exploration of the various versions of the ballad, that even one main narrative can be presented in many different ways. The ballad appears to have been an instrument by which women could critique the patriarchy, but subversively so, and that the critique is encoded in the versions of the ballad. Ultimately, as the ballad versions end, the heroine Agnete must return to the protection of the patriarchy she has defied. Taylor concludes by arguing that in some cases it is likely that the Agnete ballad was performed as a type of feminist protest song.

Richard Firth Green's chapter, "From Sir Eglamour to 'Old Bangum': The Travels of a Ballad Hero," carries the reader across the Atlantic Ocean to North America. The ballad under study is "Sir Lionel" (Child 18), which itself likely derives from the 14th-century medieval romance Sir Eglamour of Artois. Firth Green is specifically focused on the American transmission of the "Sir Lionel" narrative in the form of the "Old Bangum" ballads of Appalachia, which have survived in three forms. "Old Bangum" is still a living ballad tradition, with the author describing a contemporary version of the ballad narrative performed in East Texas in the 1980s, a performance that was conveyed to him by a correspondent, which solidifies the story's living history from the medieval period to the modern age.

The final section of the book, "Part III: The Afterlife of the Traditional Ballad" opens with Hans Kuhn's "Writing Romances for Amateur Singers: A Nineteenth-Century Danish Example," a chapter that takes the reader back across the Atlantic Ocean, to 19th-century Denmark. In the second half of that century, ballad collections were published with musical accompaniment, volumes that were intended for the general public. Contemporaneous to this ballad collection and publication, there was the production of "art songs," intended on the one hand for the theater, but on the other, like the published ballad collections, for the general public to use to entertain themselves. Kuhn's chapter, which is for the most part descriptive of the collections, includes four figures, each one a sample of sheet music with lyrics from this period.

Sally Ann Schutz's chapter, "The Secret Lives of Ballads: Fan Fiction as Folk Space," compares traditional balladry with contemporary fan fiction. The exciting juxtaposition illuminates the interactive relationship between creator and audience for both balladry and fan fiction, but takes it one step further, focusing on the fan fiction genre of "traditional ballad fandom," specifically fan fiction for the "Tam Lin" ballad (Child 39). Fan fiction writers advance the ballad's storyline, pursuing possibilities that are not realized in the ballad's extant versions. Ballad fan fiction is, Schutz argues, similar to traditional balladry with its focus on communal authorship and "creative cultural reproduction" (219).

The final chapter of the book is Jennifer Goodman Wollock's "A Game of Crows: Poe, Plagiarism, and the Ballad Tradition." Goodman Wollock connects Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" with the English and Scottish ballad traditions, specifically the English "The Three Ravens" (Child 26) and the Scots "The Twa Corbies." Poe never acknowledged how his raven might have stemmed from balladry, but Goodman Wollock convincingly outlines how Poe was almost certainly engaged in balladry through his interest in the German Romanticism of the Jena Circle, among other literary influences. This chapter portrays yet another afterlife of the ballad tradition, this time within the works of one of America's most celebrated writers.

While the collection of essays here reviewed is varied, and some entries focus more on Icelandic sagas than ballads, as a whole the collection works exceedingly well. The reviewer questions the need to create three parts to the book, with a divided "Part IIa" and a "Part IIb," instead of just organizing the chapters into four sections, but that is a minor issue with apparatus. What draws the reader into the volume just as much as its contents is the profound respect the editors and authors directly and indirectly display to the late Larry Syndergaard. All those involved in the project seem to have benefited from Syndergaard's scholarship and generosity, and now generations of readers will benefit from the work of those who honor him.