"There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium."
- C.S. Lewis, "On Reading Old Books"
Monday, December 10, 2012
In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis recalls a turning point in his youthful imaginative life:
…I had become fond of Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf: fond of it in a casual, shallow way for its story and its vigorous rhythms. But then, and quite different from such pleasures, and like a voice from far more distant regions, there came a moment when I idly turned the pages of the book and found the unrhymed translation of Tegner’s Drapa and read
I heard a voice that cried,
Balder the beautiful
Is dead, is dead ---
I knew nothing about Balder, but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) ….
This would seem to be the passage that Saga Bok Publishers (the discerning Norwegian firm which has hired me to translate one of its books) references on the back cover notes of Angrvađil when it says (my translation), “Artists, politicians, and others have been inspired by the stories in this book – from C.S. Lewis who was ‘uplifted’ by the magical atmosphere of the stories – to our own Roald Amundson….” I’m not sure that statement is strictly accurate, since Tegner’s Drapa as such doesn’t appear in the book, but there’s some association if only in that the Swedish poet Esaias Tegner’s translation would have been the basis for the English version Lewis read (assuming he read Fridtjof’s Saga and not just Longfellow).
The good people at Saga Bok sent me a copy of their new translation of Fridjtof’s Saga, along with preliminary material, entitled Angrvađil: Sagaene om Torstein Vikingsson & Fridtjov den Frøkne (Angrvađil: The Sagas of Torstein Vikingsson and Fridtjov the Bold).
These sagas are part of what are known as the Fornalder Sagas. The Fornalder Sagas are very old stories, preserved in Iceland not as reports of actual events, but purely for their legendary interest. Prof. Titlestad, whose book I’m translating, makes serious claims for the value of the sagas as historical sources, saying that useful information can be preserved in folk memory for about 300 years. The Fornalder sagas were much more than 300 years old at the time of writing, though. One reads them for the pleasures of the stories in themselves.
Esaias Tegner’s translation of the Saga of Fridtjof (sic) the Bold was translated into English and other languages several times in the 19th Century, and became something of a sensation. It’s remarkable among the Fornalder sagas because it has an almost romantic quality. It would be misleading to say it centers on the love story between the hero Fridtjov and Ingebjørg the king’s daughter – she’s more of a prize which he first loses, then achieves – but the manner in which he wins her hand is charming to the modern reader. (Here’s a Kindle version for free – you can read it for yourself). Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany was so taken by the story that he paid for the erection of a huge statue of Fridtjov on a mountain above the Sognefjord, which I’ve seen.
But Saga Bok’s Angrvađil adds the earlier set-up material that explains Fridtjov’s family history, telling how his ancestors moved from Sweden to Sogn in Norway, and how they related, sometimes as friends and supporters, sometimes as enemies, to the kings of Sogn. The bulk of the material is taken up with the story of Fridtjov’s father Torstein Vikingsson, who bears the magical sword Angrvađil against witches and giants and magicians.
It’s a good, rousing story, well translated into Norwegian and nicely illustrated in something like an anime style for young readers. Maybe I’ll get the chance to do the English version someday, though it would probably be more appropriate to get it translated directly from the original Icelandic, which is outside my wheelhouse.