This post documents my original story “The Wolf’s Story”
Iceland’s medieval works comprise one of the greatest bodies of national literature. Written between the 12th and 13th centuries, the sagas and stories contain history, romance, and the supernatural – often all at once.
One of the best known and skilful authors was Snorri Sturluson, who lived between 1179 and 1241.Arguably his most famous work is the collection of lessons on poetics that we call The Prose Edda. But he is also well known for his Heimskringla, a Chronicle of the kings of Norway. The Chronicle is made up of multiple entries, including the Ynglinga Saga. This saga begins with the story of Odin and recounts the line of Norse kings descended from Odin’s son Njord.
The Icelandic sagas in particular are characterized by a rather prosaic prose style. There is little commentary on character development or the details of events, but rather an emphasis on the straightforward action of the tale. This holds true even during the most dramatic battles and hair-raising events, including the frequent appearance of the supernatural.
In contrast to this terse style is the inclusion of short stanzas of poetry. These sophisticated skaldic verses are in sharp contrast to the straightforward prose that they accompany. The verses might serve the purpose of illustrating the writer’s skaldic skills, and also allow the writer to comment on the meaning of the simply told story. This is the style followed by the Ynglinga Saga, my model for developing my own stories.
Below is an example of this melded style from the Ynglinga. Note that although the translated poem has end rhymes, this is not the case in the original. The original obeys obeyed the alliteration, half-line, and stressed syllable schemes of classic Norse poetry. I have set a middle ground with my own skaldic poems, choosing to maintain a similar metrical structure without end rhymes, and providing colorful commentary on the story.
15. OF SWEGDE.
Swegde took the kingdom after his father, and he made a solemn vow to seek Godheim and Odin… He was five years on this journey; and when he returned home to Sweden he remained there for some time. He had got a wife in Vanheim, who was called Vana, and their son was Vanlande. Swegde went out afterwards to seek again for Godheim, and came to a mansion on the east side of Swithiod called Stein, where there was a stone as big as a large house. In the evening after sunset, as Swegde was going from the drinking-table to his sleeping-room, he cast his eye upon the stone, and saw that a dwarf was sitting under it. Swegde and his man were very drunk, and they ran towards the stone. The dwarf stood in the door, and called to Swegde, and told him to come in, and he should see Odin. Swegde ran into the stone, which instantly closed behind him, and Swegde never came back. Thiodolf of Kvine tells of this: –
“By Diurnir’s elfin race,
Who haunt the cliffs and shun day’s face,
The valiant Swegde was deceived,
The elf’s false words the king believed.
The dauntless hero rushing on,
Passed through the yawning mouth of stone:
It yawned — it shut — the hero fell,
In Saekmime’s hall, where giants dwell.”
Norse medieval literature commonly sports supernatural and fantastic plot elements and themes, but the Icelandic literature is rife with it. Having said that, it is true that the historical sagas sport less of the fantastic than the Icelandic folktale works, called riddarasögur (fornaldarsögur denotes the Norse written folktales). Where they differ is not only in terms of how many times the supernatural elements appear, but how causally they are linked with the action.
“One such factor may be that the causal connections are more emphasized in the sagas of Icelanders than in the more chronicle-related saga genres, and the supernatural is in many cases used to explain what happens. Another factor may be that the sagas of Icelanders are more concerned about entertainment than are sagas of kings and contemporary sagas. The supernatural – and the fantastic – have no doubt a great potential for entertaining; and the supernatural, which is of most relevance for the sagas of Icelanders, brings a kind of mystery and excitement into the story. ”
– Else Mundal
My stories contain some common supernatural motifs including the mysterious völva (Voluspa), supernatural beings such as giants and shape shifters (Egils), the undead (Grettis, Grœnlendinga), and magical weapons or clothing (Hervor). The saga that inspired my entry has supernatural elements as well, even though it purports to be a history of the kings of Norway. I find that one of the most fascinating elements of the historical sagas, which go along describing a king’s life – and then mention that the king chased after a dwarf and was never seen again!
A History of Icelandic Literature. Ed. by Neijmann, Daisy. (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln & London.) 2006.
Craigie, W.A. The Icelandic Sagas. (University Press, Cambridge.) 1913.
Faulkes, Anthony. “The sources of Skáldskaparmál: Snorri’s intellectual background.” (University of Birmingham)
Iceland – The Republic. Edited by Nordal, Jóhannes and Kristinsson, Valdimar. (Central Bank of Iceland, Reykjavik.) 1996.
Mundal, Else. “The Treatment of the Supernatural and the Fantastic in Different Saga Genres.” (University of Bergen)
Snorri Sturluson. Heimskringla (The Chronicles of the Kings of Norway). 13th century. Tr. by Samuel Laing (London, 1844).