Category Archives: Reading

Eystein’s therapy

King Eystein I of Norway, carving in the Bergen Museum. Photo credit: Nina Aldin Thune, Creative Commons LIcense.

I’ve been doing a little translation lately (I’ll tell you more about it later) which reminded me of one of my favorite passages from Snorri Sturlusson’s Heimskringla.

This story involves King Eystein I, far from the most renowned of Norway’s kings, but very possibly the most likeable.

He was part of a set, sharing a joint monarchy with his brother, Sigurd Magnusson. They were both the sons of King Magnus Bareleg, who never got the memo that the Viking Age was over, and died young and outnumbered in Ireland, declaring, “Kings were made for glory, not for long life.”

Eystein and Sigurd were very different men. Eystein, the older, was handsomer and friendlier, as well as more thoughtful. Sigurd was taller and stronger, and mercurial in his temperament. Some historians suspect, based on saga descriptions, that he may have suffered from bipolar disorder.

Sigurd was actually the first European king to go on a crusade, heading out in 1108 and returning in 1111. He fought in various places in the Mediterranean before helping King Baldwin of Jerusalem capture Sidon. He went home by way of Constantinople. Meanwhile, Eystein stayed home and watched the store.

One memorable scene in their saga has them together at one of Eystein’s estates in the Upplands. During the feasting they decide to amuse themselves by “mannjevning,” what we might call “ranking” today. A bragging competition.

Sigurd boasts about his prowess in war. He tells of his battles in the Holy Land, and all the honors he received from great princes.

This is how Eystein answers:

“I have heard that thou hast won many battles in foreign lands, but it might have been more useful for the land what I meantime did at home. North at Vagar I built booths for the fishing folks, so that poor people could get help, and earn their living. There I founded a priest’s garth and endowed the church. Before this the place was almost heathen. These men will remember that Eystein was King of Norway. The road from Trondheim went once over Dovre-fell, where people were lost in bad weather or had to sleep out of doors and suffer hardships. There I built a mountain inn and gave it an income; those people will know that Eystein has been King of Norway. At Agdenes there is a dangerous rocky coast and no harbour; and many ships were lost every year. There is now a harbour and a landing place for wintering ships, also a church. Afterwards I raised beacons on the high fells and this I hope will be useful for the country. I built at Bergen a king’s hall and the church of the Apostles, with an underground passage between the two. The kings that come after me will remember my name for that.

“I built St Michael’s Church and a monastery besides. I have also, my brother, shaped the laws so that the people can now obtain justice, and when the laws are kept the country will be better ruled. I have set a warping pole with iron rings in Sinholm sound. The Jämtland people are again under the Norse king’s rule, and this was brought about by blithe words and wise persuasion and not by force or fighting. Now these matters are of small importance, still I do not know, if the people in the land are not better served by them, than if thou hast killed black men in Serkland and sent them to hell…”

As good a “guns vs. butter” argument as I’ve ever read, I think.

But though that’s a memorable story, it’s not the best Eystein story. That comes earlier {and is not included in some translations). It represents one of those weird moments you occasionally experience in reading old books when time contracts and you encounter a historical character who seems like someone you might know, and would like to know, today.

There was an Icelandic poet in King Eystein’s court whose name was Ivor Ingemundson. Ivor was a witty conversationalist, and the king enjoyed his company. But a time came when Ivor’s mood changed. He grew quiet and sad, and the king noticed it.

The whole passage is quite long (in Monsen’s translation), but the essence of the story is that Eystein spoke to Ivor privately. Ivor was reluctant to talk at first, but the king asked a series of questions, finally working out through deduction that Ivor was lovesick. He had counted on marrying a particular girl back home, one he couldn’t help thinking about, but his father had arranged for his brother to marry the girl.

King Eystein then proposed a series of remedies – he offered to introduce him to suitable young women; he offered give him property; he offered money to enable him to travel. Ivor replied that none of those things appealed to him. So the king says this:

“I have suggested everything that comes to my mind. There is but one thing else that might help thee, although it is little compared to what I have offered thee. Every day when I am not taken up with important matters, thou shalt come to me and we will talk over this matter about the maid, for it often happens that sorrow shared is sorrow lessened, and every time I shall give thee something before thou goest away.”

The saga says that Ivor agreed to that. “He was thereby consoled in his sorrow and became glad again.”

Talk therapy. We Norwegians invented it.

A librarian’s best friend

I’m in haste tonight. Got a translation assignment, and I think I may have promised to deliver faster than I should have. So time’s wingéd chariot is tailgating me like a Ferrari on a blue highway.

In lieu of anything original, I’ll share this nice article from Atlas Obscura about the curses medieval scribes placed in books, so that people wouldn’t steal or mangle them.

“These curses were the only things that protected the books,” says Marc Drogin, author of Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses. “Luckily, it was in a time where people believed in them. If you ripped out a page, you were going to die in agony. You didn’t want to take the chance.”

No Amazon link. I checked and Drogin’s book is very rare and copies are expensive. At those prices, they should have their own curses.

Sigrid Undset, the I.S.I., and I

I wrote an essay on Sigrid Undset for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s web site:

Like one of her own characters, Sigrid Undset followed her heart, confronted the consequences, and learned. Enabled by a government grant to live abroad, she began an affair in Rome with a married Norwegian painter, Anders Castus Svarstad. They married in 1912, after his divorce, and divorced in turn in 1919. By that time, they’d moved back to Norway, where their third child was born. Their second child, a daughter, was mentally handicapped. When Sigrid learned to her horror that Svarstad’s ex-wife had placed her children by him in an orphanage, Sigrid adopted them. One of these was also mentally handicapped. (Years later, when she received her Nobel Prize, she would donate the entire sum to children’s charities.)

Read the whole thing here.

Blogging through ‘The Conservative Mind’: Evangelicalism

Continuing my fairly random commentary on Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind:

Good will is not enough to safeguard freedom and justice: this delusion leads to the triumph of every demagogue and tyrant, and no amount of transplanted Idealism can compensate for the loss of religious sanctions. Men’s passions are held in check only by the punishments of divine wrath and the tender affections of piety.

This passage from Kirk’s chapter on Orestes Brownson is part of one of many discussions where the place of Christianity – or at least religion in general – is considered. Although most of the notable conservatives in the book are heterodox in some sense, and some are even agnostics or atheists, the importance of religion as such looms large. One exception is Roman Catholicism – several of the great conservatives are Catholics, or at least high Anglicans.

Catholics come off pretty well in this book – which annoys me a bit, of course. Still, I can’t deny that the Reformation was a liberalizing force (heck, I’m proud of it. See my post last night). Luther didn’t abolish the hierarchy of the church (check out the organizations of most Lutheran churches worldwide), but he affirmed the principle that there’s a direct line between the believer and Christ, absent the mediation of the priest. In the context of history, this was a step toward individualism and what Kirk calls “atomization” – mankind conceived as a mass of unconnected individuals, all free-floating clients of the state, undistinguished by family, status, or personal qualities.

It’s interesting for an evangelical to observe that evangelicals are newbies to the conservative movement. Again, this is something I already knew – evangelicals were Abolitionists and the Prohibitionists, trying to re-shape the world through legislation, to change mankind through enlightened government force.

But there were dangers in that approach, as we can see now. The reformer who wants to save the world from slavery and Demon Rum, goes on to try to save it from guns and cigarettes and fossil fuels and transphobia.

And yet I don’t believe in a purely libertarian approach either. I think the government has a role to play in legislating morality – all laws, after all, legislate morality to one extent or another.

I’m thinking it over.

Blogging ‘The Conservative Mind’

OK, folks. I’m back on course. I hope you’re all safe, sheltering in place, avoiding hugs, and keeping well.

As I explained a few inches down the page, I’m reading Russell Kirk’s interesting but interminable The Conservative Mind, and blogging as I go. Parts of the book were kind of a shock to me, though a salutary one.

One thing you learn in reading this book this that it’s not a canard to say that conservatives are against Democracy. To the contrary, early conservatives (like Edmund Burke, particular hero of this book), considered Democracy a positive threat to a decent social order. The American Founders generally shared that view. When we say “We are not a democracy, we’re a republic,” it’s true – or was.

Kirk lays that principle down, early in the book, in a list of conservative principles. Here are his words:

[Conservatives hold a ] Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a “classless society.” With reason, conservative often have been called “the party of order.” If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum. Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law, are recognized by conservatives; but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom.

This idea in itself was not a surprise to me – I talk about the same thing in my work with Lutheran Free Church history. But I’ve approached it from the other side. I’ve often told listeners and readers that the Norwegian Lutheran pietists who founded my church body were liberals in their time. That the primary difference between liberals and conservatives in those days was their different ideas about the place of the common people in society. Conservatives wanted hierarchy and ancient privileges preserved. Liberals wanted the common people to participate ever more fully in all public life. Hence universal education, leading to broader voting rights.

To the early conservatives, this was all disastrous. The breakdown of the social classes must inevitably lead to the debasement of moral life. There would be no more great, highly educated men to emulate – everything would be debased to a common level of undistinguished mediocrity.

I don’t think we’re meant to take all the early conservatives’ ideas seriously – they mostly distrusted the abolition of slavery, for instance (wanting it to be delayed and happen naturally). For my own part, I can’t help being proud of the achievements of (limited) democracy in America – Abraham Lincoln, as I’ve often said, was a walking reproach to the class-conscious old conservatives.

On the other hand, the horrors those old conservatives predicted seem to be coming upon us at last.

Possibly the American experiment was a fragile flower, one that bloomed briefly in a specialized environment in a blessed time and place, never to be seen again.

But I hope not.

Kirk on Scott (not Star Trek)

Sir Walter Scott.

The public library has always been a boon to the impecunious reader. The utility that permits me to download e-books from my library is a particular blessing (not least in these days when Pestilence stalks the land). My library’s system is a little cumbersome, but less cumbersome than driving to the physical building, so I’ve got no gripe coming.

My main problem with my library’s e-book collection is selection. Mostly I read mysteries for light reading, and when I pull up “mystery” on the library site I always get the very same list of books. I don’t know if they’re arranged by popularity or date of acquisition, or some other criterion. But I have to page through screens and screens of listings before I find one that a) interests me, and b) isn’t being read by somebody else.

Last week I tried a new approach. Instead of looking for mysteries, I thought, why don’t I try one of those “important” books I’ve always heard I should read, but have never gotten around to? I’ll bet nobody’s waiting in line for those.

So, on a whim, I searched for Russell Kirk. Several books were available, and I selected The Conservative Mind.

Brilliant. Masterfully written. Illuminating.

And long. Dear, sweet jasmine tea, it’s a long book. I started it last week, and I’m not half way through yet. I complained a while back about the length of Walter Scott’s The Pirate, but that was an Amazon review compared to this.

The nice part is that my book-buying expenses have plummeted for the duration.

So… of what shall I blog until I finish this thing?

I think I shall discuss the reading as I go.

The first thing that struck me as potential blogging material was Mr. Kirk’s assessment of Sir Walter Scott, mentioned above.

In the Waverly novels, Scott makes the conservatism of Burke a living and a tender thing—in Edie Ochiltree, showing how the benefits and dignity of hierarchical society extend even to the beggar; in Balfour of Burley, illustrating the destructive spirit of reforming fanaticism; in Montrose among the clans, “the unbought grace of life”; in Monkbarns or the Baron of Bradwardine, the hamely goodness of the old-fashioned laird…. Delighting in variety like all the Romantics, repelled by the coarsening pleasure-and-pain principle of conduct, Scott clearly saw in Utilitarianism a system which would efface nationality, individuality, and all the beauty of the past. Utilitarianism was the surly apology for a hideous and rapacious industrialism.

(More after jump)

“That should be in quotes,” he said

“By her troth,” she said, “she thought it was time to bid Mr. Mertoun gang hame and get bandages, when she had seen, with her ain twa een, Mordaunt ganging down the cliff like a wildcat….”

What you see in the passage above is an example of something I had heard of (from my friend, the scholar Dale Nelson), but had never encountered – or hadn’t noticed before. It has to do with the use of quotation marks. Turns out the rules have changed over time.

For you and me – living today and erudite as we both are – the rules of quotations are fairly simple. You’ve got direct quotations and indirect quotations (there are probably proper names for them I never learned – feel free to enlighten me). A direct quotation is supposed to recount what the character said, word for word. Direct quotations are to be set off with quotations marks:

“Lars Walker’s books,” he said, “are the best Viking novels written in Robbinsdale, Minnesota in our time.”

Then there are indirect quotations, usually indicated by the word “that”:

He said that Lars Walker’s books are the best Viking novels written in Robbinsdale, Minnesota in our time.

The quotation way up at the top of this post comes from Walter Scott’s The Pirate, which I reviewed below. The speaker is a woman named Swertha, and the “she” who thought it was time to bid Mertoun “gang hame” was Swertha herself.

Quotation marks were a relatively new thing in those days, and writers hadn’t yet worked out exactly how they should be used.

Our rules for direct and indirect quotations are, in fact, a fairly recent phenomenon. They should not be applied (in my view) to older literature, such as the Bible.

“Gifts of the sea”

Sumbergh Head, Shetland. (Photo credit: Joe DeSousa.) This is one of the locations in Scott’s The Pirate.

I’m currently reading Sir Walter Scott’s The Pirate. This is a pleasant thing, for several reasons. First, it’s a fairly enjoyable read, for anyone who can handle the old novel style. Second, it’s public domain, hence cheap. Third, it’s very long, reducing my book buying expenses. Fourth, it’s set in Shetland, and thus full of Norse tradition and custom. The main problem is that it forces me to think creatively about what I’ll blog about, until I finish the interminable thing and can review it.

But the book solves that problem too, by dropping topics in my lap, through its many long digressions. Tonight: the curious Shetland taboo against rescuing shipwreck victims.

As Scott tells it, the Shetland Islanders had a strong cultural prohibition against rescuing anyone from a shipwreck. This seems peculiar for Christians, especially in light of Acts 27 and 28, which describe St. Paul’s shipwreck in Malta, and praise the kindly Maltese who took the victims in.

Nevertheless, I can believe this story about the Shetlanders. Not that they’re bad people. But due to reasons I learned when I visited Iceland.

As Scott tells it, it was the firm belief of the Shetlanders that if you rescued anyone from a shipwreck, it would bring disaster on you. And that disaster would come through the very person you rescued. So if the sea took someone, that was their fate – one in which you dared not interfere.

The cause of this was the Shetlanders’ economic situation. These were poor people, dependent on subsistence farming and fishing. When a ship broke up on their shores, they (like the southern islanders with their cargo cults) saw it as a gift from God. But if God had sent the flotsam, what of the previous owners? Their deaths must also be God’s will. If they survived, their property claims would be a major inconvenience.

When I visited Iceland, the guide told us is that for a very long time, the Icelanders refused to build lighthouses on their coast. The reason was the same – loot from shipwrecks formed an important, sometimes a lifesaving, supplement to their economy. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn they had a similar superstition.

This is a caution to all of us. I like to think I have a pretty good grasp on biblical morality, and submit my personal interests to God’s commands. But nothing blinds you like the cares of this world.

The Lighting of the Beacons

I’m sure you recognize this clip from The Two Towers, in which the beacons are lit in Gondor, to call for help from Rohan.

I believe (I could be wrong) that the inspiration for this plot element in The Lord of the Rings was the following passage from Heimskringla (here in Lee Hollander’s translation) and the Saga of King Haakon the Good:

After this battle King Haakon incorporated into the laws for all the land along the seas, and as far inland as the salmon goes upstream, that all districts were divided into “ship-levies”; and these he parcelled out among the districts…. Along with this it was ordered that whenever there was a general levy, beacons were to be lit on high mountains, so that one could be seen from the other. It is said that news of the levy travelled from the southern-most beacon to the northernmost borough in seven nights.

If anyone knows of an earlier example of such a beacon signalling system, which might have inspired Tolkien, let me know.

Pushing Back on a Recommended Reading Selection

A parent who is also a writer (one of the more dangerous kinds) wrote a long letter to his daughter’s teacher about a book on the recommended reading list for ninth-graders to read on their own. This comes from his response to the teacher’s reply.

The idea that Green and his novel Paper Towns is a good example of “the way the world operates” and “is the world we live in today” and that not reading them insinuates “ignorance as a remedy” is not defensible on any level. One of the things every generation does throughout history, especially the last 100 years of American popular culture, is maintain the erroneous belief that they invented sex, cuss words, drugs, and whatever sort of rebellious behavior that angers one’s parents. They always think they are the first to crack open a “modern world” to the stuffy, naive elders around them. We are still of the age that just can’t stop giggling about Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

S.J. Dahlstrom, “Coarsening is not education”

Anti-intellectual thoughts

How shall I put this delicately?

I’m going to start by talking about a very private bodily function… in the vaguest possible terms. Because I’m a sensitive soul. Then I’ll go on to make a vapid point.

I clicked on an article that showed up on the Book Full of Faces a little while back.

It was about the aforementioned Private Bodily Function. This is a function performed frequently by every person, saint or sinner, male, female, or delusional. The headline informed me that I was finishing up this function “THE WRONG WAY!”

Out of curiosity, I read the article. When I was finished, I thought, “It appears that the author of this article has never actually performed this bodily function.”

Which I find somewhat unlikely.

Then I noticed who published it. When I saw that the article was aimed at college students, all became clear. An academic wrote it. And academics, as you’ve probably noticed, literally don’t know… many things.

It takes an academic to analyze a commonplace physical act and declare that all mankind has been doing it wrong from time immemorial. The whole scam of modern higher education is based on taking what is known and understood, deconstructing it, and rendering it mysterious and in need of expert intervention.

There was a time in history when the purpose of education was to learn the higher mysteries, the beauty and wisdom concealed behind the commonplace.

That changed (I think) some time around the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment decided there were no higher mysteries, and turned its energies to deconstruction and demythologizing. Instead of learning what we’d never known, the modern student is meant to unlearn what everybody already knows.

I was reminded of the first line of Alan Bloom’s book, Love and Friendship (quoting from memory because I can’t locate my copy at the moment). Describing Rousseau, he writes, “A Swiss told the French they were bad lovers, and the French believed him.”

That was just the beginning.

The Tale of Erling and Eindridi

A knarr, such as Eindridi would have sailed.

No book to review tonight. No great thoughts bubbling in my mind. What shall I post about?

Well, I’ve been reading the Flatey Book in the Norwegian translation, and I came on a little-known story about Erling Skjalgsson (it wasn’t new to me; I’d seen it before). To the best of my knowledge, it’s the only surviving story about Erling not also told in Heimskringla. I’ll be working it into a novel eventually, but there’s no harm telling it to you now. No doubt I’ll fiddle with it in my version, as is my wont.

It involves a young man named Eindridi, who was the son of Einar Tambarskjelvar (Gut-Shaker). Einar was a great chieftain in the Trondelag. If you’ve read The Elder King, you may recall him as a character in that timeless work. In TEK, he and Erling are good friends. In The Tale of Erling and Eindridi, things get a little touchy.

Erling had a daughter named Sigrid, whom he’d fostered out to the steward at Avaldsnes, the royal farm on Karmøy Island.

When (Saint) Olaf Haraldsson came in and started reorganizing the country, he took that stewardship away from Erling’s friend and gave it to a freedman named Tore the Seal (they also appear in TEK). He demoted Erling’s friend and sent him up to a less important farm further north. Sigrid went along with him, but chafed at being separated so far from her family.

One day a merchant ship docked near their farm, on its way south. Sigrid went to chat with the crew, and found that it was the ship of Eindridi, son of Einar Gut-Shaker. She asked him if she could hitch a ride south to her home at Sola. Eindridi was preoccupied, and let her join them without really registering whose daughter she was. Once they were under way, he realized he’d made a mistake (because she was supposed to be in her foster-father’s care, I think). But they had a fair wind, and there was nothing to do about it.

On the way south a storm blew up, and they had to run into an island, taking shelter in a fishermen’s shack. It was cold and wet, and the girl slept beside Eindridi, though they had no contact beyond a kiss. (At least that was their story.)

When they finally arrived at Sola, Erling was not at home. Eindridi was given a loft room to sleep in, and Sigrid came to join him, but he sent her away. Just then Erling Skjalgsson burst in, accusing Eindridi of dishonoring his daughter.

Eindridi fiercely denied touching the girl (beyond that kiss), and offered to go through the iron ordeal to prove his honor. Erling agreed to this, and Eindridi passed the trial with flying colors, carrying the glowing iron nine steps, and then having his burns examined after three days. Verdict: innocent. Erling then wished to be reconciled and offered him gifts, but Eindridi was deeply offended and prepared to sail home.

Erling’s son Skjalg went to him and told him he needed to make peace with Eindridi, because they couldn’t do without his father Einar’s support in their political struggle with Olaf. “What can I do?” Erling asked. “I’ve offered him gifts.”

“You need to offer a greater gift,” said Skjalg. “You need to offer him Sigrid as a wife.”

Erling hesitated at this. “A man of my rank,” he said, “does not offer his daughter to other men. Other men come and bid for his daughter.”

“And that’s why Eindridi will agree,” Skjalg answered. He did not say that it would be interpreted as an apology, something Erling couldn’t make in so many words. And – perhaps – he’d noticed that the two young people liked each other.

Erling sent Skjalg to make that offer, and Einar – realizing its significance – happily agreed. He was indeed taken with Sigrid, and she with him.

Sailing home, Eindridi met his father, who’d gotten word of events and was prepared to challenge Erling for his son’s honor. But when Eindridi explained the marriage offer, Einar immediately understood, and was pleased.

So Eindridi and Sigrid were married. (Though other sources name a different woman as Eindridi’s wife, so it’s not unlikely she died young.)

Not an exciting Viking story. But it is interesting in that it illustrates the kind of social limitations honor culture placed on even powerful men, and how they were able find ways of working around them.

We Can Read Anything, But Do We Read Well?

Imagine there’re no novels
No books for us to buy
No bargain basement deals
Just notes to apply
Imagine no one reading more than daily tweets

Sings the would-be profound poet in the corner coffeeshop.

Has the virtually infinite access to written resources improved or inhibited our reading? To put it another way, are we wiser as a society for having so much more information? Author Sven Birkerts doesn’t think we are, and he’s written a book that celebrates reading and warns us against forgetting how much fun it is.

We know countless more “bits” of information, both important and trivial, than our ancestors. . . . [But] inundated by perspectives, by lateral vistas of information that stretch endlessly in every direction, we no longer accept the possibility of assembling a complete picture. Instead of carrying on the ancient project of philosophy—attempting to discover the “truth” of things—we direct our energies to managing information. . . .

Access may not be the undiluted blessing we can easily perceive it to be. Rather, we might gain wisdom more readily not simply by owning fewer books, but by focusing on fewer, and knowing those few better.

from The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age

Photo by Perfecto Capucine from Pexels

Do Celebrity Book Clubs Sell Books?

Reese Whitherspoon has taken up the challenge of recommending books to fans and followers. Vox says it is an extension of her personal image. “Witherspoon’s star image is based on the idea of Witherspoon as smart and driven and bookish — in a funny way, a likable way.”

Some of her selections have sold hundreds of thousands, which is very exciting for those select authors; but this article has a remarkable detail about the book industry as a whole. It says that with 300,000+ new titles published in the US every year and 2,200,000+ published worldwide, readers want to get recommendations from celebrities they trust.

But here’s the shocker. Though sales of selected books soared when Oprah picked them, the overall sale of books that year stayed within expectations. “Exactly as many people bought books as were already going to buy books.” More readers are reading certain books, but apparently more people are not reading. Or at least they are not buying books to read.

In 2018, Pew Research reported that three out of four Americans read one book in any format last month, and that rate has been steady since 2012.

List of recommended sagas

From thedockyards.com: A list of “10 Medieval Icelandic Sagas One Should Absolutely Read.”

However, these medieval literary creations innovated in that they revolved around the lives and deeds of real common people and their genealogies, as opposed to the largely moralistic, fairytale-like writings of the time in mainland Europe, where the main characters were knights or princes. The legacy of the sagas continues to live on up to our times, having inspired, among others, the setting and the mythical races of major high fantasy novels such as those from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien.

It’s a pretty good list. I’d suggest reading Eyrbyggja Saga as a companion to Laxdaela. But that would bump one of the others from the list, and I’ll admit Laxdaela is the better of the two.