‘Styrbiorn the Strong,’ by E. R. Eddison

Styrbiorn the Strong

The hood of her cloak was fallen backward, baring the flame-like splendour of her hair above the smooth brow and stately and lovely face of her. There was in her face, as she gazed south with haughty lip and level chin, so much beauty as the Gods might throw up hands and strive no more to better it were they to frame the world anew; and so much gentleness and womanish pity and softness as a man shall find in the rain-cold rock of the sea.

I’d heard of E. R. Eddison’s novel Styrbiorn the Strong for years, but never actually saw a copy. And I was a little reluctant to read it because I’m not a big fan of the author’s most famous work, The Worm Ouroboros. Although that book has its virtues (Lewis and Tolkien both admired it), I disliked its amorality, along with its ending, which in my view rendered the whole tale pointless.

But Styrbiorn (I prefer to spell it Styrbjorn, but this is a review) himself gets an interesting scene in The Long Ships, which I reviewed a few inches down. And that whetted my curiosity. So I got the Kindle version.

Having finished it, I find myself floundering to make a judgment on it. There are elements I dislike – that same amorality, some Nietzchean concept that the truly great are above mere kindness to their “inferiors.” And I generally don’t care for affected antique diction. But Eddison was a master of affected antique diction, and when he’s got the wind in his sails he soars to the level of real poetry, and can carry you along with him. This book is very effective and even moving, in its way.

Styrbiorn the Strong is a character whose own saga has not survived, but he gets mentions in various sagas and historical sources. Some scholars nevertheless dispute whether he ever existed in the real world. As portrayed by Eddison, he’s a character beyond realism, the mightiest of warriors, almost a demigod. The son of a joint king of Sweden, his loving uncle promises, in all sincerity, to give Styrbiorn his father’s half of the domain as soon as he reaches 16 years. Styrbiorn, with the madness of a man doomed before birth, manages to throw these prospects away through impetuosity and passion.

Another saga character whose existence has been questioned is Sigrid the Haughty, who also plays a major role in the book. She appears (to me) to be inspired by Gudrun Osvifsdatter of Laxdaela Saga, who famously says in her old age that, of all the men she knew in her life, “I treated him worst whom I loved best.” Eddison pictures Sigrid as a kind of Gudrun on stilts, a woman apparently void of tender feelings, motivated wholly by pride and vengeance. I almost said that she’s at fault for Styrbiorn’s tragedy, but that’s not fair. He brings his defeat and death on himself.

Styrbiorn the Strong is not an easy book, but it’s highly effective of its kind (which it’s pretty much the only one of) and difficult to forget. Recommended, if you’re up for this sort of thing.

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