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22.02.22 Crawford, Two Sagas of Mythical Heroes

22.02.22 Crawford, Two Sagas of Mythical Heroes

It is perhaps fair to say that scholarship on the fornaldarsögur (sagas of old times, legendary sagas) has never been more vibrant than it is now. New approaches to their narrative artistry and worldbuilding, genre, depictions of gender and the paranormal have abounded in recent years, spurred on not least by the successful Stories for all time project that was based at The Arnamagnæan Institute in Copenhagen from 2011-2015. In the context of this renewed interest in these sagas, new translations have appeared as well, with extensive editions containing most or all fornaldarsögur being published in Danish between 2016 and 2019 (ed. Annette Lassen) and German in 2020 (eds. Rudolf Simek, Valerie Broustin and Jonas Zeit-Altpeter). In the absence of a similar English edition, individual sagas have appeared in recent years (e.g., Illuga saga Gríðarfóstra, ed. and trans. Philip Lavender). Jackson Crawford now offers his second foray into this genre, after the publication of a similar volume containing translations of Völsunga saga and Ragnars saga loðbrókar in 2017. He has again chosen two popular and well-known sagas that have been translated multiple times: Hrólfs saga kraka (most recently and prominently translated into English by Jesse Byock for Penguin) and Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (the most recent English translation by Peter Tunstall was published online, although Christopher Tolkien’s 1960 version is perhaps more well known).

These two sagas seem to have been selected since, as Crawford notes, they “are based on ancient, pre-Christian Norse tales that survived in oral tradition for centuries before they were written down in medieval Iceland” (ix). As is stressed throughout the introduction, however, this is where many similarities end, with Hervarar saga apparently presenting a clearer view of the heroic tradition than the more obviously romance-influenced Hrólfs saga kraka. The differences between the two sagas are stressed throughout, but most notably in the section on “Men and Women in the Sagas” (xxv–xxviii). In addition to discussing the depiction of gender in the two narratives, the introduction situates the sagas in their linguistic, literary, prosimetric, and manuscript context, and draws out parallels elsewhere in Norse literature and beyond (most notably the analogues to the monster fights in Hrólfs saga kraka found in the Old English Beowulf). Some obvious parallels, like the appearance of Hrólfr’s sword Sköfnungr in Þórðar saga hreðu or the monster fights in Grettis saga, are left out--presumably for brevity’s sake--while the parallel accounts in Saxo’s Gesta Danorum are given much room. A section on language, spelling, and pronunciation concludes the introduction. Here, the choices made regarding spelling conventions confound me as much as they did Adam Oberlin, who reviewed Crawford’s earlier translation of Völsunga saga and Ragnars saga for TMR. I am especially confused by the choice of using đ in the anglicised versions of Icelandic names (such as Hervarđ, Guđmund), while the more common ð is used in those instances in the introduction and glossary in which names are spelled according to Norse conventions (with the exception of the original title of Hervarar saga ok Heiđreks[sic] on p. 1). This seems to add an unnecessary level of complexity that, as Oberlin also notes, might affect the accessibility of the translation. Why, for instance, would “Óđin” (e.g., 52) be more easily understood than “Óðinn”? The edition is completed by an appendix, containing the variant first chapter of Hervarar saga from Hauksbók, and glossaries for both sagas.

The translations themselves are very readable and flow well. Occasionally, some word choices, especially in the poetry, are a bit jarring in their contemporariness (e.g., “hollered” for emjandi, 4; “young lady” for mær, 15; “brunettes” and “blondes” for inar jarpari and inar fegri, 34, “spread his suffering around” for léti sér misþokknast, 78), but overall, Crawford’s rendition reads well, and this is particularly true of the riddles of Gestumblindi in Hervarar saga. There are a few inaccuracies and peculiarities, however. One of these occurs in chapter four of Hervarar saga, where for a paragraph, the protagonist is consistently called Hervarðr in the original text. Like Tolkien before him, Crawford (11) only uses the male name once and then proceeds to refer to the protagonist as “Hervor,” which undercuts the original’s play with and exploration of gender and its performance. This tendency is repeated in a verse spoken by Hervör, Maðr þóttumsk | mennskr til þessa, which Crawford translates, “I seemed to be | a human woman” (16), even though Hervör explicitly calls herself maðr, “man.”

There is also a small number of mistakes, such as “Sifka, daughter of Humla” (26), which should be “daughter of Humli,” “Queen Ólaf” (73), which should be “Queen Ólof,” or the translation of the phrase þá þyngist hún fyrir honum as “Now she leaned forward into him” (28), which should read “then she became too heavy for him.” Similarly, “celery plants” (34) is odd for hvannir, a word more commonly translated as “angelica.” The byname of Sigríðr stórráða is also more frequently rendered as “the proud” or “the haughty” rather than “Great-advisor” (56). Similar issues appear throughout both sagas, e.g., in Signý’s verse in Hrólfs saga (limum, which Crawford renders as “firewood,” 63; instead, the word seems to relate to the branches of a tree), or when En þat heilræði kenndi völvan þeim, at þeir skyldi forða sér, þá hún hljóp útar eptir höllinni is translated as “But the seeress had given them sound advice, when she said they ought to hide themselves, and then she ran out along the hall” (66), although it should perhaps rather read, “[...] as she was running out along the hall.”

Occasionally, Crawford inserts words and their literal translations as well as explanations in square brackets (e.g. blótspánn on 23, or a long explanation for a hnefatafl pun on 36). This interrupts the flow of the translation, and these comments could perhaps have been put in footnotes instead. This is a rather minor issue, and these insertions appear rarely and mostly in Hervarar saga. It is unclear, however, why these particular words were chosen and not others that might just has well have warranted an explanation, such as “hall of the Dísir” (24) or “high scaffold for dark magic [seiđhjallr]” (64)--and in this latter instance, one might also ask why seiðr is translated as “dark magic” specifically. Such additions are also inconsistently marked; on 64, for instance, round brackets are used to add information that is not in the original text, while elsewhere such brackets denote asides that the original also contains (e.g., 110). Similarly, “seeress” is explained by giving the Norse vǫlva in square brackets on 64, but not when it first appears on 60.

Despite, or perhaps even because of, these various issues, the translations of these two sagas will be a valuable resource for teachers of Old Norse language and literature. When read alongside (excerpts from) the original texts or other translations, they can be a useful tool to teach students how to approach translations critically and reflect on how each translation is an interpretation--and one in which mistakes can be made. For casual readers, this accessible and affordable edition with its useful front and back matter offers a great introduction to the world of the fornaldarsögur. It is my hope that other, similarly accessible publications will follow--both by the present translator and others--to offer new readers and students the whole breadth of material presented in the sagas commonly grouped into this genre.