Monday, June 16, 2014

Runes 102 - Book Reviews - The Saga of the Volsungs

If you type "Saga of the Volsungs" into your search engine (aka - google it), there will be no shortage of links to this famous and important saga.  Not only did the Vikings carve this story into the Ramsund Runestone in Sweden, but it inspired the likes of Richard Wagner, William Morris, and JRR Tolkein.

While all three of these artists were inspired more broadly by Norse mythology and history, this book in particular influenced Wagner's opera Der Ring Des Nibelungen, Morris' epic poem The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs, and Tolkein's narrative poem The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun.

Moreover, this story has been translated into multiple languages over the years and retold in different versions, including edited summaries.

What is it that is so inspiring about this saga?  It could be any number of things from the more obvious dragon slaying to the more subtle influence of women interpreting dreams and carving Runes.  Maybe it's the relationships. Volsunga Saga is a true-to-form saga, detailing multiple generations of Volsungs and explaining the relationships of their allies and enemies alike.  It is loaded with Viking battles and victories and wealthy kings and fair women.  It even has magic potions and shape shifting. So, what's not to love?  The story is quite fascinating.

Of course, as I said, if you do an online search for it, numerous versions of it will come up.  I chose the version I read for one main reason.  It was translated by my former Old Norse Professor from UCLA, Dr. Jesse Byock and I trust him.  That, I'm sure makes me biased, but I enjoyed The Saga of the Volsungs nonetheless.  Naturally, I liked the story.  However,  the introduction was really helpful in laying the foundation, providing context in the larger back drop of Norse/European society at the time, and noting the story's more recent influence on music, literature, and art.  There were also some useful notes and other sections at the end of the book.

As for the translation itself, Byock does an excellent job of painting a clear story while maintaining the historical presentation.  In other words, he didn't turn it into a contemporary interpretation, rather maintained the original voice in a way that makes it easy to read and follow.  This is a tough spot to find.  I have read versions of other historical writings that have stuck so close to the original version that I could not relate to the story and found myself researching ancient words just to make sense of it.  In other instances stories have been so modernized as to lose any sense of their historical significance.  That is not the case here.

It's harder to review the translation of a story that already exists than it is to talk (or write) about original works, but this is one story that has been handled well by the translating author.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the story are the Runes, a topic I will discuss more soon, so stay tuned for that.  For now, if you want an easy and enjoyable book to read while learning about about historical Norse culture, I recommend putting The Saga of the Volsungs (aka - Volsunga Saga) on the list.

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