Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Saga of the Volsungs

After reading Egil's Saga, a desire to read additional Icelandic sagas was sparked. Although quite different in that The Saga of the Volsungs is set in a more distant past that is far removed from the Iceland of Egil's lifetime (not to mention the 13th century author of both sagas), both demonstrate some of the social values of the "Viking World" and Germanic cultures of northern Europe (particularly the emphasis on kinship and warriors). In the case of the Volsungs, the prose narrative mixed some verse while documenting the rise and fall of the Volsung clan during the tumultuous 5th century in Europe. 

The fall of the Roman Empire, Burgundian and Gothic expansion, Hun invasions and conquests, and the varied migrations of Germanic peoples are the historical background for this account. A time when centralized authorities were weak and esteem was attached to male warriors or champions help explain why the story of Sigurd (and his forebears) appealed to the Scandinavians centuries later, who remembered Sigurd in oral traditions, poems, and art before Volsung was composed in the 1200s. 

Although this story and that of the Nibelungenlied share a similar source in legends and epics shared by many Germanic-speaking societies in northern Europe, the saga, written in straightforward prose translated by Byock, seems to revel in its supernatural events and characters. Odin makes a number of appearances throughout the saga, and a dragon, an unbelievably powerful sword (via Odin), fate, a ring, dreams, magic, shape-shifting, and seers appear throughout the text. 

The saga is thoroughly immersed in this magical world, even if the central hero of the Volsung family, Sigurd, remains a mortal. Despite his great strength, and of the fame and fortune Sigur enjoys as a slayer of Fafnir, he cannot escape destiny. Loss of favor with Odin and the cursed golden treasure of the greedy Fafnir ensure the fall of the Volsungs. Human beings, even great warriors, will meet their end like the lowly (and cowardly) thrall. With regards to divine intervention and fatalism, this saga resembles the ancient Greek romances, but with a more blunt sense of humor and violent society.

While not the most interesting prose, this saga's unique interpretation of Scandinavian retention of the Sigfried epic is valuable and worthwhile reading. The dialogue can be quite snappy and humorous, too, with exchanges of insults or ironic lines uttered by characters who continue to drink poison. The multi-generational family saga aspect displays the importance of kinship, family, and mythology in the Norse world. Moreover, all the great archetypes of the hero in fantasy is established in the story: the quest of the hero, the mission for avenging one's kin, the slaying of the dragon, and a rise and fall through curses or loss of favor of the gods. There are even very strong, compelling women in the saga. Gudun and Brynhild, for instance, engage in battle against men while also moving the plot forward through their actions and visions of the future. 

Indeed, the great Attila the Hun is brought down by Gudrun, while women often express agency in determining their own affairs (Brynhild choosing her own husband). Indeed, women are central to the survival of the Volsung lineage, and prove to be quite heroic (or villainous, in some cases). The spectacular and unrealistic epic battles and clever method used by Sigurd to defeat Fafnir are also entertaining episodes which reveal the degree to which Tolkien was indebted to Norse mythology. Without sagas and narratives such as his the entire genre of fantasy would be be difficult to imagine. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Kater Street Rag


An enjoyable little romp from the early Bennie Moten Orchestra. Still rooted somewhat heavily in ragtime styles, the Kansas City band still had that irrepressibly powerful rhythmic sense within its ragtime structure. What did James Scott think of jazz bands retention of rags in 1920s Kansas City? There's an undeniable elegance to Scott's Don't Jazz Me Rag, but Moten's piece is invigorating.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Rhodanthe and Dosikles

Theodore Prodromos wrote a far more thrilling romance than the author of Drosilla and Charikles. Heavily indebted to Helidorus, Prodromos begins the narrative in media res while borrowing all of the typical plot conventions of the ancient romances of his predecessors. So, we have the assumed death of the heroine, miracles, oracles, shipwrecks, piracy, close friendships with fellow unfortunate slaves of high status, lustful and envious obstacles, constant invocations of the gods (especially Hermes, in this case), and some ekphrasis. As a performance piece, the narrative's often lengthy speeches and rhetorical exercises must have worked better when performed at the Komnenian court. 

Nevertheless, this romance manages to be more entertaining than that of Drosilla while featuring a fuller plot and interesting escapades. There's even more awesome battle scenes, such as the naval scene pitting the troops of the bandit/emperor Mistylos against Bryaxes. I had no idea divers armed with hammers were used to sink enemy ships. The novel's attempts at placing the two lovers at the heart of an imperial conflict does add some dramatic stature to their adventures, although lacking in the historical grandeur of some of the conflicts in the ancient romances (Egyptians, Meroe, the mighty Persian Empire). Indeed, is Pissa supposed to be Pisa, Italy? The epic scope given to the military scene and the lengthy speech of Bryaxes before the battle does lend a serious political air to the romance, but Rhodanthe and Dosikles play no role in the battle. 

Unfortunately, Prodromos, perhaps in the interest of simplifying the story and condensing characters, cannot tell a tale as long or as engaging as Heliodoros. Moreover, our heroes, Rhodante and Dosikles, play no role in the epic aforementioned battle. Dosikles has a few moments where his logic and eloquence impress, but he is not as heroic or compelling a character as Theagenes. However, as a Byzantine 12th century revival of the ancient novels,  adds some interesting Biblical references and themes from a Christian writer admonishing human sacrifice and other customs of the pagan past. Luckily, the prose translation of Elizabeth Jeffrey makes it even easier to see how Prodromos modeled this work on Heliodorus, Chariton, and Achilles Tatius.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Egil's Saga

Decided to finally read an Icelandic saga after reading about them in an unorthodox history of the novel. Although clearly based on historical figures with precise genealogies and specific events in the history of Norway and Iceland, Egil's Saga is undoubtedly a fictionalized account of Egil Skallagrim's adventures and exploits as a poet, warrior, Viking raider, farmer, and respected figure across the Viking world of the 10th century. It is clearly fictionalized because of the constant references to magic arts, giants, trolls, and other fantastic or supernatural phenomena which occur in the text, not to mention the imprecise dates and superhuman accomplishments of Egil himself. Translated by Scudder, the saga itself is very readable and engaging, consisting of short chapters that progress the plot from Egil's ancestors to his descendants in Iceland after a feud. 

Along the way, we see how events in previous generations reverberate for their descendants as Egil's family feuds with the King of Norway (first Harald, then Eirik and his wife, Gunnhild). Egil and his brother Thorolf also make a name for themselves (and increase their wealth and position) through Viking raids across the Viking world. Thus, this saga is richly detailed for those interested in pre-Christian Norway and Iceland, particularly in understanding how status, rank, honor, kinship ties, and political structures functioned. Its use of verse by Egil further enhances the story by giving full expression to the protagonist for expressing himself and his inner, often contradictory thoughts or moods. This adds a breath of fresh air to a narrative which, otherwise, often tells rather than shows. 

For prose narratives from medieval Europe, this is certainly much more interesting and exciting than hagiographies of the saints. However, does it really qualify as a novel? We have a general plot, of sorts, with conflict, resolution, and it is written largely in prose. Structurally, it seems to fit the bill, even if stylistically it falls short of most of the kinds of characterization one would like. Indeed, besides Egil and a few of his kinsman, most of the characters are flat and serve as obstacles or opponents in the incessant feuding, raiding, battling, and killings that take our hero on various journeys across Scandinavia, England, Iceland, the Baltic, and Frisia. One will have to read more Icelandic sagas to see how the genre changed over time and possible stylistic differences that enrich the history of prose writing of the medieval era. 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Martian Successor Nadesico

Although mecha anime are usually not my cup of tea (after childhood, I think Gundam ruined the genre for me), Martian Successor Nadesico became one of my favorites of 2020. It has the great 1990s anime aesthetic (despite the overly large eyes of some of its characters, even by anime standards) with all of the quirks of a show intended as parody and homage to the genre. Inspired by and poking fun at mecha genre, Nadesico's entertaining tale of Earth at war with the alien Jovians (are they really aliens?) pits a young crew in command of a warship in a struggle for humanity's survival. Of course, as a parody, its full of laughable scenes and humor as several of the young women on the ship are in love with Tenkawa. There's even a hilarious show-within-the show based on older mecha anime that eventually turns out to be very important for the plot. As such, it follows all the standard format of 1990s anime but without taking itself too seriously. One can enjoy it without much familiarity with mecha anime. Indeed, with the exception of this, Macross, Gundam, Gunbuster and Evangelion, I am unfamiliar with most examples of the genre. It's even more of a pity this show never received a proper conclusion...

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

City of a Thousand Suns

The final book in The Fall of the Towers concludes our trilogy and the fate of our protagonists. As to be expected, Delany's novel eschews easy outs and explanations, while engaging in some more experimental prose. The Lord of the Flames, unsurprisingly, is defeated, but at great cost (the fall of Toron). Jon, Petra, Arkor, Alter, and company are joined by Clea Koshar, Vol Nonick (a poet), and a historian (Rolth). These last three represent three ideal forms humanity can pursue: science, arts, philosophy. Like the enigmatic triple being which aids the human protagonists against the Lord of the Flames, they are still individuals but come together to find their strength. The rest of the novel is a series of obstacles, fast-paced action scenes, exploration of the City of a Thousand Suns (a new city on the hill for those malcontent with the malcontent, hopeful for a new, more egalitarian world) and the utter meaningless of war. While these three novels are certainly not my favorite of Samuel Delany's work, they seem to be important in his 1960s oeuvre as transitional works that develop a more complex prose with some of the typical themes and characters of American science fiction of this time. An "interesting" read for what it suggests about the pointlessness of war at a time where US entanglement in Vietnam was only intensifying...

Monday, September 14, 2020

The Towers of Toron

The second installment in the The Fall of the Towers follows developments in Toromon three years after the conclusion of the first novel. Short and sweet like its predecessor, the novel includes our protagonists combating the Lord of the Flames one more time. Meanwhile, the "war" is ongoing against an unclear enemy, so Jon, Petra, Arkor, et al endeavor to end it as quickly as they can. As was the case in the first novel, each chapter shifts in focus to each of the central characters while gradually unveiling the "truth" about the war. As a novel from the mid-1960s, one can see how it reflects the America of its era. 

Like Toromon, the US, facing a number of social and economic contradictions of its own, sought a war to channel its problems toward an external "foe." In a sense, the novel also brings to mind the catastrophic war in Iraq, as well as the role of technology as propaganda and mind control to sell the idea of war. Unsurprisingly, the novel's deliberately ambiguous about the role of the Lord of the Flames in truly orchestrating the "war," suggesting something intrinsic to humanity and the state of Empires or civilizations hat begin to decay. Indeed, Caltham, a historian, is introduced early on to highlight exactly what happens to a civilization that cannot grow or becomes too isolated over time. All we can do is hope for superior leadership during the transition to something new. 

Unfortunately, this novel is less engaging than the first installment, but offers so much food for thought on leadership, human nature, and the rise and fall of civilizations. Was the greatest foe always internal rather than external? To what use was the mathematical genius of Clea if it was to be misused for projects such as the "war" in The Towers of Toron? And what is reality when everything that seems so real turns out to be built on lies? Last but certainly not least, Jon Koshar's drive for freedom is never sated by events in the first two novels. Can and will humans be truly free, or is it a constant struggle against authoritarianism, ignorance, and weakness? We'll see in the final novel in the trilogy.