Gods, Demons and Others
Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, the history of the Norse Kings up to the end of the twelfth century, is a unique sort of historical work. It supplies the vital accompaniment to our Saga picture of the heroic age of the Norsemen that the epic worlds of the Iliad, the Irish Cycles, the Niebelungenlied, and so on, have to do without. Those are unequalled and infinitely lively stuff, but they don’t give what we’d also very much like—some touchstone sense of the atmosphere they grew out of, the minute to minute life that the poets looked at, and that men turned back to when the sound of the verse ceased. Everything’s in a slight flush of glorification, which in its special quality may well be what makes those poems so valuable to us. But when we come down to it, still don’t know what a Homeric duel was really like. We don’t know, for instance, whether it was fought within a certain agreement of formal styles—as in the duelling of rattlesnakes, or seventh-century Blades—or whether it exploded straight off into mutual destruction by all means, as between modern infantrymen. We don’t know whether under all that godly coverage the warriors—so much closer to the selective breeding of the Pleistocene—were physically tremendously strong, like orangutans of an equivalent weight, like Sandows, or about like modern heavy construction workers, or comparatively feeble, as Burton said all “primitives” are, and as he found the North American Indians. We lack essential details of that sort.
We lack, I suppose, eye-witness observations recounted in the scientific spirit. Even just eye-witness accounts would do, because it’s one of the mysteries that a couple of words and a gesture, or even just a look, from a veteran, often does more work on our imagination, and our whole nature, and so subsequently on our outlook and actions, than many volumes of history and vivid reconstruction. What comes over, maybe, in any narration, is not so much the facts as the mood that floats them. From Epic poets we get the individual poet’s epic music, from scholarly historians we get scholarly historicality. Only from the veterans do we get the original hot waft of the event. Maybe this is what decides the difference in ultimate value between any literary works. The man behind the education is finally what comes through it, is the only living thing in it, and the only thing that can really affect the man behind our own education. Though education can tangle with education for a lifetime, as is the rule, without the men waking up on either side.
But Snorri Sturluson was wide awake, giving out a strong steady radiation of the events that had befallen. He was a poet, and used poetry—judiciously—as one of his sources for checking details of dramatis personae and geography, and he was a scholarly historian—perhaps the most meticulous of his age, in the North—and used scholarly sources wholesale. But he was so thoroughly a veteran, in the intricate and severe trials of Norse life, that grim convention of selected hard men and aggressors, predators set against each other almost as directly as against others, that he recreated all his material into a veteran style of reminiscence. He speaks—as almost no other historian ever has spoken—with the authority of a man whose masterful skills would have made him one of the formidable foremost in any of the events he records. So he saturates even remotely past happenings with a gripping first-hand quality, which has really nothing to do with the literary art he deploys at every point to make them striking and entertaining. Everything comes floating over on this powerful, tried, penetrating presence, which is Snorri Sturluson himself.
As a historian, he had unusual luck. Born into one of the key peoples of history, at the close of their key period, toward the end of the twelfth century, he was fostered by sheer accident at the highest and most learned court in Iceland. Iceland itself imposed the ideal conditions for intense cultural activity. It was rooted in the main world—the rest of Scandinavia—but independant politically, and so far removed physically, over a bad sea, that for several months of the year it was clean isolated, and at all times isolated enough for the bonds with the mainland to remain principally mental. It was full of energetic, restless personalities, competitive chieftains, who combed the whole northern world throughout the summer for fame and news and extreme situations, then were locked up together inside their houses through the long winter. These intensive, incubatory conditions for a life of memory and imagination were finally destroyed by a combination of large events soon after Sturluson’s death. The Icelanders, with their own rapacity, finally made life intolerable for each other, and at last the mass of the people gave their independance over into Norwegian hands, sick of the feuding of the great families and wanting only peace, just as Norway itself entered on its own collapse. Then the forced peace in Iceland with its attendant loss of initiative, and stagnation, were worsened by a return of the ice, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, starvation, plague and utter economic collapse, where Snorri’s world disappeared for good.
He was one of the great ones of his time, “skillful in all he undertook.” He became one of the leading chieftains, and eventually the richest. By the age of thirty-six he was appointed Lawspeaker, having the final say in all doubtful legal cases, and obliged to recite from memory annually before the assembled Allthing, the whole body of Icelandic law. He embodied, in a rather over-ripe twisted way, everything the Norse had become, and wrote out the history almost as that of his own family. And his audience was not scholars, or even gentle readers, but men as wise and seasoned as himself. “And although we do not know whether these accounts are true,” he says, “yet we do know that old and learned men consider them to be so.” This is high company we’re in, as we read the Heimskringla, and it’s not a trivial experience or a dull or an irrelevant one. To compare this work with what ought to have similar qualities, Churchill’s History of the War, is to realize how diluted the human flavor has become in our information-swamped modern world. Where formerly men spoke to men, nowadays libraries impart to libraries. One wonders how big historians’ heads will have to be after another one thousand years of events and publications.
Hollander’s translation is very good, fresh on every page, and occasionally achieves the luminosity of an original work. He catches the bleak, hard note more convincingly than any other Saga translator that I’ve read. Wherever you open the book, the life grips you and you read on, which is more than can be said for the long undisplaced translation by Laing. The very rawness, and occasional clumsiness, of Hollander’s prose somehow become strengths of a piece with the subject when you compare them with Laing’s urbane midnineteenth century periods, which have kept the dust on the Heimskringla for too long.
Sturluson’s works show an imagination still heathen, but a conscience troubled by Christian obligations. Iceland was converted to Christianity, as another country might be converted to a new coinage, in the year one thousand. Perhaps it is this estrangement from the old life that enabled, or even compelled, Struluson to turn it into a work of such imaginative force. Just as the greatest of all surviving Icelandic creations, Njal’s Saga, didn’t take final form until twenty years after Independance had gone and the chronic rot set in. Though he has plenty to say about saints and the rest, Struluson from beginning to end celebrates the Ancient Norse virtues of hardness and bloody-minded violence. Yet his is, after all, resigned to a changed world, and this shows strongly in his prose Edda. The prose Edda seems to have been intended as a handbook for poets. It contains an ingenious description of the Norse cosmology, the main stories about the gods, and a treatise on the forms, modes, and devices of the traditional poetry. Out of this, Jean I. Young has extracted the cosmology and the tales, and presents them with a learned Introduction and in lucid translation. This is a work not quite of nostalgia, but definitely in a museum mood. It’s evident that Sturluson looks on these gods as the moving spirits of nobler times, but he can no longer take them seriously, much as he’d like to. So he is detached, and a little humorous, and able to give these tales a more entertaining form than they can be found in anywhere else.
The Indian novelist, R.K. Narayan, does a similar thing in Gods, Demons and Others. This collection of fifteen tales derived from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and other sources in the immense Indian reserves, gives a comprehensive scanning of the leading supernaturals and their typical behaviour. The modern retelling of ancient tales generally makes for a spurious kind of literature, even in the hands of as powerful an artist as Hawthorne. It’s no good unless the stories can be made first-hand again, dragged up out of the artist’s own invention again, and that hasn’t often happened outside poetry. But it’s happened here. These are far and away the best retellings of Indian tales that I’ve read, and I’ve read some hundreds.
Mr. Narayan seems to be in dilemma of many sensitive modern Indians—belonging emotionally and in imagination to the old world of India and the fascination of its gods, yet wrenched out of that and forced to make a life in the new India, where the prevailing drift of developments, helped by all kinds of popular crazes for the modern and Western and mechanically technological, the enormous prestige of the god- and custom-debunking spirit, is destroying not just the inertia of the old India, but its unique inner wealth and depth and communal coherence.
Narayan uses the figure of the village story-teller as the spokesman for his sympathies, and retelling of the stories. His account of this dignitary, still common as he is, still stubbornly entrenched in his elaborate traditions, is one of the good things in this book.
Amused by what he sees of the modern world—to which he is pretty attentive—and a little amazed, in the end he is quietly derisive, resigned but derisive, using the news as occasion to bring out some beautifully spacious and sage story, about a king giving his own flesh and finally his whole body to a hawk, as substitute for a dove, or a wife’s efforts to raise her husband to the same degree of spiritual illumination as her own, all told with terrific zest and deftness, and with an affectionate sort of irreverence that sets these previously nebulous and abstract sequences seething with character and humanity. The final effect is complicated. radiant, and wonderfully shapely. It’s a minor artistic feat to have brought that particular supernatural world through into ours, with so much moment-by-moment charm and immediate life.