Book: Prose Edda

The book: The Younger Edda, by Snorre Sturleson,

The edition: free e-book by Dodo Press of the 1879 edition edited by Rasmus B. Anderson, 216 pages. It includes an English translation of the Foreword, the Fooling of Gylfe, the Afterword, Brage’s Talk, the Afterword to Brage’s Talk and passages from the Skaldskaparmal, plus and introduction, notes and vocabulary by the editor.

About the book: this is one of the main original sources for Nordic mythology, and includes a telling of cosmogony and gods’ feats.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: back in my university days, I had to study the Edda from a linguistic point of view, and was fascinated, but never read the whole of it (which I regretted deeply while reading American Gods). Now that I finally got around to it I cannot say I’m satisfied.
Of course I wasn’t completely ready. The Edda was written in the XII century and storytelling was completely different. I did expect some of it, but it was harder than I thought. It reminded me of the Catholic Catechism of old, with its questions and answers.
I guess this is one of those books that you (or at least I) don’t read for the sake of it, but more because of all the other works that refer back to it. And I’m glad I’ve read it, and I surely do know more about Norse mythology now than I ever wanted to, but I cannot say that the details will stay with me.
Also, I was very sad to discover that the part I studied was not included in this edition, although I do agree that when the editor had all the reasons to do so:

We have not translated any of the Hattatal, and only the narrative part of Skaldskaparmal. The parts omitted cannot possibly be of any interest to any one who cannot read them in the original. All the paraphrases of the asas and asynjes, of the world, the earth, the sea, the sun, the wind, fire, summer, man, woman, gold, of war, arms, of a ship, emperor, king, ruler, etc., are of interest only as they help to explain passages of Old Norse poems.

Still, that was the part that fascinated me and I was sad that it was not included.

What I liked: in the middle of a description of the end of the world, they would stop and insert rules for good living. It cracked me up, every time, such as here:

[During the Ragnarok] the ship that is called Naglfar also becomes loose. It is made of the nails of dead men; wherefore it is worth warning that, when a man dies with unpared nails, he supplies a large amount of materials for the building of this ship, which both gods and men wish may be finished as late as possible.

… so be good and take care that your nails are short at all times! LOL

Also, I loved deciphering the details Tolkien took directly from here to draw his world. For example, did you know that Gandalf was the name of a dwarf, originally, part of a list that included Bifur, Bofur, Bombur and Thorin?

What I didn’t like: this is a 19th century edition, and it shows. There is a lot of praising the “Teutonic race” and it grated on me. Things like:

Such marriages [i.e. incestuous marriages] were not allowed among our Odinic ancestors. Our ancestors were never savages!

Language & writing: I loved that these people had a myth about the origin of poetry (see the mead of poetry on Wikipedia, as it’s longish to tell here) and that their “catechism” included definitions for poetry itself:

Then said Æger: In how many ways do you vary the poetical expressions, or how many kinds of poetry are there? Answered Brage: There are two kinds, and all poetry falls into one or the other of these classes. Æger asks: Which two? Brage answers: Diction and meter. What diction is used in poetry? There are three sorts of poetic diction. Which? One is to name everything by its own name; another is to name it with a pronoun, but the third sort of diction is called kenning (a poetical periphrasis or descriptive name); and this sort is so managed that when we name Odin, or Thor or Tyr, or any other of the asas or elves, we add to their name a reference to some other asa, or we make mention of some of his works.

In the author’s own words: just let me share this passage about the name of Norway. This is from the notes, but I find that the characters’ names are interesting, because they give a good insight on the kind of world the authors of the Edda were used to in terms of weather:

The third son, Kare, had a numerous offspring. He had one son by name Jokul (iceberg), another Froste (frost), and Froste’s son was named Sna (snow). He had a third son, by name Thorri (bare frost), after whom the mid-winter month, Thorra-month, was called; and his daughters hight Fonn (packed snow), Drifa (snow-drift), and Mjoll (meal, fine snow). All these correspond well to Kare’s name, which, as stated, means wind. Thorri had two sons, Nor and Gor, and a daughter, Goe. The story goes on to tell how Goe, the sister, was lost, and how the brothers went to search for her, until they finally found him who had robbed her. He was Hrolf, from the mountain, a son of the giant Svade, and a grandson of Asa-Thor. They settled their trouble, and thereupon Hrolf married Goe, and Nor married Hrolf’s sister, settled in the land and called it after his own name, Norvegr, that is, Norway.

Links to better understand this book:

Counts as: I wanted to read this for so long, but I had to make it count for a whole host of things before I actually got to it. So it counts for the Medieval Challenge (my first read!), Classic Double challenge, Semi-charmed Summer Challenge (a book I was supposed to read in school, in a way), my personal goal of reading mythology, and the Travel with books project for Norway. Weeee!

Book: Odd and the Frost Giants

The book: Odd and the Frost Giants, by Neil Gaiman

The edition: Bloomsbury World Book Day edition, 99 pages, illustrated by Mark Buckingham

The story: Odd is “a boy with one good leg, one very bad leg, and a wooden crutch” who runs away from a Viking village after his father’s death. But in the woods he meets a fox, a bear and an eagle, three speaking animals that are not what they seem to be. They tell him a strange story and have a mission for him — one involving Gods and Giants and the Sun and the Moon.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: Neil Gaiman is always an absolute guarantee. This is a tiny book but it’s crammed with good things: a good story, an engaging and simple narration, a sense of humor, and also nice illustrations. When I saw this available on BookCrossing, I joined in the ring immediately, without even checking out what it was about — and lo and behold, it fits perfectly in my current Norwegian-themed reads, which added to my experience. Perfect read for a wintery night!

Language & writing: what made me wonder is that the book is written in a fairy tale (or children story) style, but it offers much more than that.

Links to better understand this book:

Random thought: I loved the elements that I could connect with the Lord of the Rings (the well of wisdom is like the mirror of Galadriel, and drinking its water has the same effect as drinking Ent-draught), but I guess both tap on older Nordic sources. Which makes me think: the Edda is on my TBR, need to get to that soon.

Read this if: if you like fantasy, fairy tales, anything Gaiman…

Counts as: Travel with books – Norway; What’s in a Name – purse

Book: Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow

The book: Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow, by Jessica Day George

The edition: Bloomsbury paperback, 330 pages, with Norwegian/Old Norse glossary, bibliography and author’s note.

The story: a retelling of an old Norse fairy tale, East of the Sun and West of the Moon, where a young peasant girl is asked to go and live with a polar bear in an enchanted palace for one year.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: I found this book completely by chance. In late 2011 I was looking for books set in Norway and I was looking for fairy tales retellings, and I decided to buy this one even if it was not one of the best recommended options for either group.
And I’m so glad I did, because it may be the best book I read in 2012 so far.
I read it having only a vague notion of the original tale, and it is beautifully built and written. Now that I have read the original story as well, I can see that it’s much more than that, because the author developed all those parts that were hidden or not explained in the original, and she did a great job of it.
Bottom line: definitely recommended!

The part with spoilers: if there is one thing I didn’t appreciate, is a lacking growth of the protagonist. She is always described as a little girl, and despite the man sleeping in her bed she seems to develop only a strong feeling of friendship towards the inhabitants of the castle — and then all of a sudden she’s in love and of an age to get married. But I get that’s quite the rule with fairy tales.

Links to better understand this book:

In the author’s own words: this comes from the acknowledgments, but I absolutely loved it:

This book was made possible by the letter “ø.”
Also the letter “æ.”
The first time I saw them, I fell in love and just had to learn the language they belonged to. That language turned out to be Norwegian, with its rich history of folk tales about trolls and polar bears and clever young lads and lasses out to make their fortune. I only hope that I didn’t offend my Danish blacksmith forbears by choosing to study Norwegian instead of Danish in college.

Read this if: if you are in any way interested in fairy tale retellings and/or Norse folklore, do try this one

Counts as: Travel with Books project – Norway; What’s in a Name Challenge – calendar; Antonym Challenge – “ice” vs. “fire”; fairy tale retellings personal project (Oh how I love when the same book counts for so many things! 🙂 )

Book: Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name

The book: Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, by Vendela Vida

The edition: Atlantic Books paperback, 228 pages

The story: after her father’s sudden death, Clarissa discovers that he wasn’t her biological father after all — and embarks on a trip to Finnmark to search for her roots among the Sami people.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: I tend to have high expectations from books. This one here came with high praise, and going back to check on several reviews now I’m afraid I cannot agree with one word of them.
Clarissa is the typical character that grates on my nerves. OK, so you’ve been abandoned by your mother, your father has died and you feel betrayed by your fiancé — fine, go on and cry your eyes out, but then it’s time to grow up and take your own responsibilities. But no, apparently the fact of her mother having abandoned her is the perfect excuse to make right whatever mistake she makes, and it means that she can avoid to take responsibility for her action, even though she’s not 14 any longer. (More on her in the part with spoilers, #1)
The second thing that I disliked is the way the issue of Sami people is treated. I admit I knew nothing about them before traveling to Norway, and still I know very little, but the whole book felt like the author telling the world “look how good I am, I care about native people, I am their champion against stereotypes” when in reality the whole book said basically nothing about them. (More on this side of the story in the part with spoilers, #2)
Finally, I may be too sensitive, but there were several details here that were extremely US-centric. Among other thing, there is an assumption that Clarissa gets to drive a rental car with automatic transmission — which is not the norm in Europe. Even if the author only visited Finland once, she should have noticed. (And one more example in the part with spoilers, #3)

The part with spoilers: (1) So because she feels betrayed by her fiancé, she is excused in going away and having the worst sex scene ever with the first man she meets, right? So because her mother has abandoned her she cannot avoid the experience of rape, right? Come on! It’s not like she’s weak, because she isn’t, it’s more like she likes to feel sorry for herself!
(2) Sami may not be too many, but still, how on earth is it possible that she tracks her supposed father so easily, and how is it possible that she ends up in her grandmother’s house, and how is it possible that the woman who gives her a lift knows to say precisely what she needs to know to put the puzzle together? Is this some kind of 19th-century novel?
(3) When Clarissa lands in Finland, she meets her shuttle driver and he hits on her immediately, and of course they end the night with the scene I mentioned in #1 — as if people living in Europe were only here to wait for an American to drop into our lives! I’m offended by the whole premise. I’m happy that the Northern Lights never actually appear in such a book!

Read this if: if you liked The Mermaid Chair — I found the same faults in both (even US-centrism, although that one is set in the US). Otherwise, just don’t bother.

Counts as: Travel with books project – Norway; What’s in a Name Challenge – Something in the sky

Book: Wayfarers


The book: Wayfarers, by Knut Hamsun

The edition: English translation by James McFarlane, Condor Books paperback (British edition), 460 pages

The story: how Norwegian traditional society changed around the turn of the century (19th to 20th, that is), as seen through the eyes of Edevart, a young man in search of fortune (and love) and a perpetual wanderer. Also, Edevart’s own coming of age, from innocent child to a man “who knows the ways of the world”.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: I had never heard of Hamsun before I went to Norway and found his works on the “local fiction” shelves of a bookshop. I cannot really tell why I chose this one over other books, they all seemed to be dealing somehow with the same subject of modern life coming to the Norwegian countryside. It was good to read about the way of life that I had learned about in the local museums.

Unfortunately, I cannot say I liked it. Basically, this is the story of Edevart, but even more basically, this is no story at all, and this is the thing that bothers me most. Things happen, yes, people get rich and poor and rich again… but there is no story arch and no plot. I get this is often the case with Realism works, just photographing a reality, not focusing on the story. But to me, a good book needs a storyline, a reason why you choose to tell the story of that period, starting with a given fact and ending at a given point in time. A unity of some kind. This is completely lacking here. There is a kind of starting point, but there is no ending, and any other point in the story could have been chosen to be the finishing point. So what’s the point in telling this story at all?

Now, I know, the study of society, the photography of a moment in time that would mean a lot to the country’s development. OK. Fine. That’s not enough for me. (Apparently that’s enough for the Nobel prize commission, though. Of course there is something valuable in this book. It’s just not for me.)

Language & translation: I would be a fool to try and judge a translation in a language that is not my own, but there were a few points that made me wonder. For instance, the word dram. Why use a Scottish word? *puzzled* But then again, a translation always bears the mark of the translator, and I have to say that this one worked fine!

In the author’s own words: I liked finding this scene, because when I was in Norway, I was told that children in coastal towns would do this thing as a coming-of-age rite of passage:

One dinnertime, when work had stopped and they were all sitting, eating, there was a commotion on the drying grounds. People shouted and pointed! In heaven’s name — look! It was Ezra up aloft aboard the ship. He was already perilously high. He had let go the final rope and was holding on to the bare mast at the top. He clambered higher, shinning up with his hands and feet. The people ashore kept silent. One or two small girls threw themselves face down on the rocks. Then Ezra pretended to be turning the weathervane. He was climbing higher, the fool! Oh, what he needs is a good thrashing! He passes the weathervane, is above it, and now he’s high enough to reach up with one hand to the masthead and hold on there and take a rest. […] Ezra hauled himself up inch by inch, hanging like a monkey on that slender mast and making it bend. Then he stood there in the air, his body from the waist up above the top of the mast. Several people moaned. “Be quiet! Be quiet!” others hissed between clenched teeth. Ezra had reached his goal. Slowly he bent his body forward and balanced on his belly on the masthead. There he stayed.

Read this if: if you are into literary fiction and care nothing for plot.

Counts as: Travel with books – Norway