Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Spirit of the North

At the end of Song of the Vikings, I traced the effect of Snorri’s Edda and other medieval Icelandic literature on fantasy writers William Morris, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis. They were smitten, writes Lewis, by “pure ‘Northernness.’”

One writer I did not include, but should have, was E.R. Eddison.

I read Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, published in 1922, just after reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time. I clearly remember talking to my English teacher about Tolkien—I think I was in seventh or eighth grade—and asking, Are there any more books out there like his? She suggested The Worm Ouroboros.

Tolkien once called Eddison “The greatest and most convincing writer of invented worlds that I have read.” I wouldn’t go that far. But, looking back, Eddison and Tolkien may be the writers most responsible for my love, not of fantasy novels, but of “Northernness.” Rereading The Worm Ouroboros, my favorite part would have to be the introductory scene on page 2 of my tattered paperback:

…He had her hand in his. This was their House.
            “Should we finish that chapter of Njal?” she said.
            She took the heavy volume with its faded green cover and read: “He went out on the night of the Lord’s day, when nine weeks were still to winter; he heard a great crash, so that he thought both heaven and earth shook. Then he looked into the west airt and he thought he saw thereabouts a ring of fiery hue, and within the ring a man on a gray horse. He passed quickly by him, and rode hard. He had a flaming firebrand in his hand, and he rode so close to him that he could see him plainly. He was black as pitch, and he sung this song with a mighty voice—
            Here I ride swift steed,
            His flank flecked with rim,
            Rain from his mane drips,
            Horse mighty for harm;
            Flames flare at each end,
            Gall glows in the midst,
            So fares it with Flosi’s redes
            As this flaming brand flies;
            And so fares it with Flosi’s redes
            As this flaming brand flies.
“Then he thought he hurled the firebrand east towards the fells before him, and such a blaze of fire leapt up to meet it that he could not see the fells for the blaze. It seemed as though that man rode east among the flames and vanished there… So he went and told Hjallti, but he said he had seen ‘the Wolf’s Ride, and that comes ever before great tidings.’”
            They were silent awhile…

Njal’s Saga was the first saga I ever read—over Thanksgiving break in my second year of college, I believe. I don’t now recall if I recognized that passage from The Worm Ouroboros when I saw it in the original, but I do know that the fire-rider or volcano-spirit has long been one of my favorite images from medieval Iceland.

The Tolkien quote appears on the cover of a new edition of Styrbiorn the Strong, published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2011 with an afterword by Paul Edmund Thomas.

 “Styrbiorn’s name has sounded in my memory like a drum ever since, twenty years ago, I first read the passing reference to him in the Eyrbyggja Saga,” Eddison wrote in a letter to his younger brother in 1922. According to Thomas, Eddison bought the William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson translation of the saga in 1900.

Writing to his typist just after The Worm Ouroboros came out, Eddison said, “I am starting on a new book: a historical story this time about people who really lived in this world, in the Viking age in Sweden a thousand years ago, the age of the great classic saga literature of the north, which I have studied these twenty years and which I love more than any other.”

What about the sagas inspired him? In the “Closing Note” to Styrbiorn the Strong, Eddison explained: “The spirit of the North, to the inheritance of which I believe (pace Mr. Hilaire Belloc) our own country largely owes her greatness, is embodied in its purest form in its prose epic, the Icelandic Sagas of the classical age, such as (to name a few) Njal’s Saga, the Laxdale Saga, the Saga of Egil Skallagrimsson, Gisli’s Saga, and the Saga of Hrafnkel the Priest of Frey.

He continued: “There is no ‘Keltic Twilight’ here, no barbaric exaggerations, no embroidery, no weaving of words or fancies, no boggling at truth: there is much shrewd insight into character and the springs of action, a power of direct and vivid narrative rarely matched in any other literature, much deep-seated humour and philosophy of hard and manly life.”

And finally: “But this is not the place to do more than hint at some obvious qualities of that genius which has shed about the lives of a few great families, dwelling in lonely homesteads in distant Iceland, an atmosphere of tragic and epic grandeur like the grandeur that is about windy Ilios; bringing us, in the end, as Homer brings us, not to take sides with Greeks or Trojans, with Njal’s sons or the Burners, but to ponder (somewhat perhaps as the Gods may ponder) on the greatness and the pitifulness of human things.”

It’s interesting to read Styrbiorn the Strong and see how close Eddison came to his models. And then, of course, to reread a saga. Perhaps Eyrbyggja Saga.

For as Eddison said in his letter to his brother, “There is no saga of the Swedish prince after whom this story is named. If there were, I do not think my story would have been written. For it is not my study to emulate a writer for whose other work I have a respect, in treating the sagas as Tate & Cibber treated Shakespeare, tricking out these imperishable prose epics of the north with modern fripperies of sentimental love interest and psychological disquisition. … I am so simple as to believe that those grand stories are so elemental, so beautiful, so firm set in the soil of life, that they are quite able to look after themselves.”

Join me again next Wednesday at for another writing adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.


  1. This makes me go out on this cold wintry day to breathe deeply the air of my ancestors.

  2. I think the Icelanders and to a lesser extent, the other Scandinavians, see the sagas as a kind of ethnic, mythical reality. We see evidence that many of the saga figures actually lived and influence our daily lives today. We realize that they were dealing with many of the same problems we are dealing with today, and some of the saga people handled themselves admirably. The mythology is both positive and negative to the extent that the sagas were never true but always will be. They are relavent because they were written by us about us. Yes, the sagas are also universal but perhaps not as personal for others.

  3. Thank you, Nancy. I need to get a copy of new edition of Styrbiorn the Strong. I love reading the Icelandic Sagas and the stories associated with them.

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