Sunday, January 27, 2013

“Finn the Squinter, who was the father of Eyvind the Plagiarist,” or Who would you be in an Icelandic saga?

King Eirik Blood-axe should have the most delicious name in any story in which he appears, but that tenth-century Scandinavian king barely makes the top five in Egil’s Saga, and I still have a good bit of the saga left to read.

The rest of the top five? Thorvald the Overbearing is pretty good, but nowhere near Audun the Uninspired. But the two characters with the best names come from the same family: “Finn the Squinter, who was the father of Eyvind the Plagiarist.”

Epithets are more important in Egil’s Saga than in other Icelandic sagas I’d read previously. The title character, for example, is Egil Skallagrimsson. Egil is his given name, and the –son indicates that the surname is a patronymic. Egil’s father, that is, was Skallagrim. But skalla is yet another epithet; it means bald. The character’s name, then, means Bald Grim. (Skallagrim’s father, by the way, is Kveldulf, which means night wolf.)

The fun with names extends beyond what the author and translator could have intended. This bit:
“Harald Gormsson has ascended to the throne of Denmark on the death of his father, Gorm.”
allows readers to conclude that with Harald’s elevation, the Danish throne was now Gormless.

What would your name be if you were a character in an Icelandic saga?
***
My version of the saga was translated by the late Bernard Scudder, who also translated crime novels by Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. I can’t judge how accurate Scudder’s renderings are, but the poems sprinkled throughout the saga, usually improvised by Egil, are a good deal more readable than similar interludes in other sagas I’ve read.

Scudder was much missed in the crime-writing community when he died. I can see why. Like Don Bartlett, who translates Jo Nesbø’s novels from Norwegian in to English, Scudder knew how to produce, fluent, readable versions in English.
***
Read Egil's Saga in English (in an older translation) and Icelandic at the Icelandic Sagas Database.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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30 Comments:

Blogger seana graham said...

Here's a random name generator that includes an Icelandic option, for those who want to participate.

January 27, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I came up with Jónas Hjörtur. But an Icelandic name+plus epithet generator is what is called for here. Some of the names in the saga are not complimentary to their bearers, which makes them even funnier than good Italian mobster nicknames.






January 27, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

You're right. Someone needs to get on that.

January 28, 2013  
Blogger Dave Whish-Wilson said...

Schlepp Drunkastenmenssonn

January 28, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

I recall a recent news story in which a young woman in Iceland was hoping to change her name, but the courts were resisting because only certain names are authorized in Iceland. That sounds a bit like some sort of xenophobic purification in the name of nationalism and cultural heritage.

I also recall from my year-and-a-half in Iceland that sorting out names of two or three generations of a family could be a huge headache for an outsider. And hoping to relocate someone you met by searching the phone-book could be a dead-end exercise, especially if that person were still living with parents.

And what of Arnaldur Indridasson? His output of novels seems to have slowed down. Do you know what has happened?

January 28, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Cancel my Indridasson question. I have found the answer.

January 28, 2013  
Blogger Fred said...

I have a soft spot for Harald the Shaggy--perhaps an early hippy?

I have the Penguin edition with two translators: Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards.

The following is the first poem in the edition: Chapter 24, on the death of Thorolf.

Now come word from the northern isle,
Norns are cruel, too soon
Odin chose to throw down
Thorolf and end his day.
Weary am I and age-worn,
War-wrestling is not for me.
Slow is revenge, though sharp the killer's mind,
Stay my arm, cradling my vengeance.

January 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, some colleagues and I had fun a few years ago with a mob-names generator. It would not shock me if a saga-names generator has existed for years without any of us knowing it.

January 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dave, you'd be right at home in the world of the sagas, particularly this one. Egil's Saga is full of prodigious drinking bouts described in loving detail, including the after-effects.

I might suggest a slightly clipped version of the name, in keeping with the sagas' laconic prose (as well as Nordic orthography): Sklap Ironstomach.

January 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...


R.T., I have read that Icelandic has a long tradition of using old words for new concepts. That's one reason an Icelander today can read the sagas a lot more easily than an English or American reader can read "Beowulf." Restriction on names (which I think existed relatively recently in history in France, though "relatively recently" could be the eighteenth century) could well be a part of a larger tendency to preserve tradition. In any case, I seem to recall from a conversation with Yrsa that restrictions on names have eased somewhat.

Yes, the impenetrability of the Reykjavik to outsiders has long been a proverbial byword. I don't know what's up with Arnaldur. I think he's brought out two Erlendur novels since I last read one, plus a standalone, so he may not have slowed down all that much. In any case, I got the impression that he was a somewhat solitary, retiring type, so maybe he did decide to lower his profile for a while.

January 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

OK, what has happened with Arnaldur? Nothing serious, I hope.

January 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I find out via Wikipedia, by the way, that today is Arnaldur's birthday. If he's not celebrating like a saga hero, perhaps he can enjoy a small, quiet gathering, far from the tumult of the city.

January 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, Scudder's rendering of that poem follows:

The spinner of fate is grim to me:
I hear that Thorolf has met his end on a northern isle;
too early the Thunderer chose the swinger of swords.

The hag of old age who once wrestled with Thor
has left me unprepared to join the Valkyries' clash of steel.
Urge as my spirit may, my revenge will not be swift.


And Harald the Shaggy is, in my edition, Harald Tangle-Hair, which conjures a picture less of a hippy than of someone roused from bed earlier than he would have liked.

January 28, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

He should not stray too far from the city. Late January is too brutal for words in Iceland. At least Rekjavik offers plenty of distractions (including sources of adult beverages--i.e., anti-freeze in its best form).

January 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I got the impression--and an impression is all it was--the first time I heard Arnaldur speak that he had misgivings over the post World War II gravitation of Icelanders from the country to Reykjavik. That's not to say that he's full of nostalgia for the pure, old Iceland. He deals with immigration, near universal in European crime writing these days, a good deal more sensitively than most crime writers do.

January 28, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

When I was there (early 80s), immigration was not, I think, a noteworthy issue for Icelanders. Xenophobia was, however, not uncommon. For various reasons, Americans were either embraced, tolerated, or despised; the anti-NATO protests had not yet gotten into full swing. One notable example (somewhat humorous then as now) was the presence of the African-American on the Icelandic national basketball team. There was a man who had to feel more than a little isolated. Related to that is this experience: I was digging through old files--hoping to purge file cabinets of excess paperwork--and I discovered a document from the 50s (classified in the 50s but with classification expired by the time I found it); the document made it clear that "Negroes" in the U.S. armed forces should not be assigned to Iceland. I rather imagine the demographics have changed now in Iceland in 2013, especially because of the great migrations by non-Europeans into Europe in the last 20 years. As for the countryside v. the city in Iceland, when I was there, travel to and from the countryside pretty much evaporated during the winter (for obvious reasons). Perhaps it is different now. Still, having been to some of those outlying areas, I can not imagine leaving either Rekjavik or Keflavik during the winter. It is just too damned cold and too damned dark. And the storms can be horrible!

January 28, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Not even Thorvald the Overbearing would brave these conditions:

http://www.icelandreview.com/icelandreview/daily_news/Travel_Warning_Roads_Impassable_in_West_and_North_Iceland_0_397293.news.aspx

January 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yet in the sagas, the Icelanders and Norsemen always seemed to go on Viking raids in the spring, which implies that they stayed home in the winter--getting quietly plastered, I supposed.

What I like about Arnaldur's handling of immigration is that while it's clear his sympathies lie with victims of xenophobia, he avoids easy condescension toward native Icelanders worried about the immigrants' presence. He's no thoughtless liberal on such questions, in other words.

January 28, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Be careful! A rabid conservative reading your blog might say that "thoughtless liberal" is a redundant phrase.

When I was in Iceland--so long ago--there were interest tensions between conservatives and liberals in that country. I suspect the recent financial woes may have exacerbated those tensions. Of course, by now, those who were most vocal when I was there (i.e., the young liberals) have probably now matured into more mellow conservatives, which often seems to be the trajectory of a person's life. Was it Churchill or someone else who claimed that a person who is young but is not a liberal has no heart, and a person who is older but is not a conservative has no brain?

January 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Just as redundant as "rabid conservative," some might say.

Churchill is like Mark Twain, Yogi Berra, and Shakespeare: He is a magnet for attribution of clever remarks. But yes, he is supposed to have said that a man who is a conservative at twenty has no heart, etc.

January 28, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

To have paired Yogi Berra and Shakespeare in the same sentence is a wonderful bit of rhetorical flourish! Bravo!

On that note, I return to my re-reading of A Midsummer Night's Dream (for one class tomorrow) and Macbeth (for another class tomorrow). I hope I do not get them mixed up. Bottom murders Duncan, and Lady Macbeth chaises Lysander through the forest!

January 28, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

To use a question from my students: Does spelling count? (chaises?)

January 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

How about a sketch called "A Mid-Semester Night's Dream," about an exhausted Engilsh prefessor who falls into a reverie populated by an indiscriminate mix of Shakespearian characters?

I have written several times about Macbeth as a noir story, and the British crime writer David Hewson turned the play into a novel.

I will accept chaises as long as none of your characters relaxes on a chaise LOUNGE.

January 28, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

The boundary between dream and nightmare is so thin in AMND that your proposed sketch might be a perfect teaching tool. Perhaps the tool will be on display tomorrow in the classroom. (Yikes! That sounded rather like a cheap imitation of Shakespearean double-meaning.)

The robo-word, believed it or not, is oldream.

January 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder that the best way is to convince students that Shakespeare is our contemporary and our friend. Movie versions in contemporary settings? Pointing out similarities between his plays and crime stories? The double entendres might be risky; someone could accuse you of sexism if you talked about country matters.

January 28, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

I do not hesitate to emphasize cuntry matters when teaching Hamlet. If they fire me, they fire me! At my age, I can always settle into an overdue retirement. And if theater students cannot appreciate Shakespeare in all of his ribald glory, they should transfer to the local ultra-conservative Christian college. (Note: Usually, the students find a way of embarrassing me rather than me finding ways of embarrassing them. It is a brave new world on campuses these days.)

January 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brave new world that has such people in't!

You can't stay away from Shakespeare, can you?

January 28, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Is this a blogger I see before me? Out, out damned comment! Sometimes you know, blog comments are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

What do you mean by insinuating I cannot escape Shakespeare?

January 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I once proposed opening a laundry called Out, Damned Spot!

January 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, you can well imagine what I say when I see someone holding a page proof and I want to know whether it is of the second page of the B section.

Back when we marked the pages with the letter of the section followed by the number of the page, I asked a colleague whether I could call him Brute. He agreed, whereupin I pointed to the page he was holding and asked. "A2, Brute?"

January 28, 2013  

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