In addition to studying Old English as a graduate student at U of T's Centre for Medieval Studies, I also studied Old Norse language and literature. The fact is, Old Norse literature is just plain fun! The sagas are a good read and the mythology is highly entertaining. On a more scholarly note, I plan to extend my interests in the structure and syntax of Old English narrative to Norse texts, which I'm sure will be a productive endeavour as there is a vast amount of material to work with. What follows are the (few) entries I've written on Old Norse topics.

July 10, 2007

Scip-gefere: Paddle your own canoe (part II)

(This is a continuation of yesterday’s post.)

But back-tracking to the middle ages for a moment, we can see a similar metaphor, only the characterisation is different in the Christian world view. For instance, in the Old English elegies “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” harsh exile is pictured in terms of a lonely journey in a boat, and the homiletic implication of this exile/pilgrimage is that the Christian soul’s ultimate destination is back to God. God is the only course to steer towards. Similarly, in the later middle ages, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in the Man of Law’s Tale, Custance, who is set adrift at sea by her antagonists to get rid of her, puts her faith in God: “In hym triste I, and in his mooder deere, / That is to me my seyl and eek my steere”. God is her sail and her rudder, her means of propulsion and steering. Again, this is a metaphor of the relationship between the Christian soul and God, and therefore of man’s place in the world. Though as in the ancient world, man does not control his fate, it is not a capricious god to whom he is subject.

Known as great sailors in the earlier part of the middle ages, the Vikings, who really only had the square sail, cheated a bit by lowering one end of the sail to allow for greater manoeuverability. But for the most part they made do with very simple means and no sophisticated navigational equipment. Here’s a picture of a Norse knarr (click to enlarge):


They were often blown off course, and as described in the Vinland Sagas, it was often due to accident that they made discoveries such as Greenland and Vinland. Interestingly, there’s quite the mix of chance, fate, luck both good and bad, pagan, and Christian in the Vinland Sagas.

As for the advance in sailing technology, in the late middle ages or early renaissance, the triangular lateen sail began to be used in Europe. Here’s a picture of a lateen sail:


The triangular sail, of course, works like a wing — high pressure on one side and low pressure on the other — and it allows a ship to sail almost directly into a headwind. And so by tacking in a zigzag pattern ships can sail go in any direction and are no longer at the mercy of the wind, as long as there is wind, as seen here (click to enlarge):


(You can read a good explanation of all this here.) Ships also started using sternpost rudders rather than steering with an oar hanging off the right side (starboard, literally the steering side, as opposed to the left side called port which was the side towards the dock, also known as larboard or loading side). The stern mounted rudder made it possible to steer larger ships, and larger ships could carry more provisions, including most importantly fresh water. These along with the old square sail (to take efficient advantage of favourable winds), as well as improvements to navigational technology allowed for real exploration to begin at the end of the middle ages and throughout the renaissance, kicking off the European age of discovery. Here’s a picture of the complete package:


Note both the square sails and the triangular lateen sail.

These advances too are reflected in the imaginative literature of the period. This is of course the age of humanism, when the cultural focus shifted from the purely religious to the world of man. People began to define their place in the world in terms other than purely spiritual ones. The eighteenth century, for instance, is full of travel literature, perhaps most famously Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver goes out into the world ostensibly to discover things about other people and places, but in fact learns about his own country in the process. Mankind defines itself through its exploration of the outside world, through its own ability to direct its own course in the world. This is a radical shift from the medieval seagoing metaphor as demonstrated most clearly in Chaucer’s Custance, who is really only defined by her relationship to God. The humanist shift in cultural focus goes hand in hand with the seagoing technological shift.

Though Gulliver can sail anywhere in the world, sailing is still a risky business and he is frequently stranded. Both Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the outer frame narrative of Walton’s arctic exploration in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sound a note of danger in unbridled exploration. This is perhaps somewhat comparable to Dante’s perspective of Ulysses. While mankind is more and more able to govern his own destiny, there are some things he shouldn’t meddle with. If the sea voyage is a metaphor for man’s place in the world and man’s relationship with God, then trying to control your own destiny rather than following God’s guidance is a problem.

(Continued tomorrow)

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April 17, 2006

Beowulf & Grendel

I finally managed to see the recent Beowulf & Grendel movie. My first reaction was that it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. Be warned: there may be spoilers here…

First of all, it looked beautiful. Filming in Iceland was a brilliant idea—it substituted well for a pristine medieval Denmark. And the sets and costumes (though one can certainly pick out anachronisms) were effective—not bad compared to most Hollywood-medieval. Certainly they shouldn’t have had stirrups, but they were riding little Icelandic ponies instead of huge stallions. And I enjoyed touches like the Thor’s hammers the Danes were wearing and the Anglo-Saxon glassware (known as claw beakers), though I may be one of the few who notice such things.

The performances were generally good, and they really brought out the sympathy for Grendel that I always thought was there—indeed I always bring up the point when teaching the poem.

As for the plot and the script, naturally some changes had to be made in order for the story to work on the screen. It didn’t really bother me that Grendel’s attacks were drawn out, rather than having Beowulf defeat Grendel on the first night he tries. That’s just the way movies often work in order to build the tension.

As for some of the other changes, although they weren’t necessarily problematic, I have to ask why. I didn’t quite see why it was necessary to give Grendel the motivation of revenge for the killing of his father, rather than the simpler sour grapes for being excluded and the fact that trolls or draugar or whatever he is just act that way. It had the effect of turning the plot into that of an Icelandic saga with a blood feud. I suppose to some extent that’s already implied in the plot with Grendel’s mother seeking revenge. But does Grendel really need to have a father? Still at least this detail is not inconsistent with Germanic legend.

The element that bothered me most was the addition of the character Selma. Besides the fact that I thought she was unnecessary, she kind of stood out like a sore thumb, and was a bit irritating with her moral self-righteousness. She provided insight into Grendel’s character for Beowulf, but he really isn’t supposed to have that insight—Grendel is supposed to be too far removed from the world of man to be understood.

Well, I could go on, but it would soon descend into a lengthy discourse on my reading of Beowulf, so I leave it at that. Any Anglo-Saxonist ought to see it if given the chance, whatever one thinks about it. It might even be interesting to see what students thought about it, comparing it with the original text.

And oh yes—Andy Orchard was given special thanks in the credits…

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January 08, 2006

Geoles bec

Unsurprisingly, I was given several books for Christmas. I love receiving books, as I’m often given books that I probably wouldn’t buy myself, but which I quite enjoy. And now I know what I’ll be reading over the next little while.

Among the books I got are Murder’s Out of Tune by Jeffrey Miller, a mystery involving a crime-solving cat. As is clear from the sidebar list of readings, I’ve read a number of books like this featuring cat protagonists, so this looks like just the book for me. Thanks go to my parents-in-law for this one. I’ll post some comments on it once I’ve read it.

My wife gave me a number of books, including Cassell’s Dictionary of Norse Myth & Legend, by one of my doctoral committee members, Andy Orchard. This is an excellent reference book, and it will be useful to have a copy of this close at hand. She also gave me a copy of Chickering’s edition of Beowulf, which contains a useful commentary, and Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, a book often recommended to me. And finally, she gave me two books by James Burke, The Knowledge Web and Twin Tracks, about which/whom I will post more later.

So quite the bonanza of books. I wish I could spend all my time reading…

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July 08, 2004


Although I’ve been rather busy over the last month or so, I have still been managing to find the time for pleasure reading. The last book I wrote about, Invisible Forms, is making the rounds of a number of my friends, so perhaps I’ll hold off on writing more about it until they’ve read it.

Recently I read (or rather re-read) Myths of the Norsemen by Roger Lancelyn Green, a book my sister gave me years ago. I was in the mood for Norse mythology, but I also wanted something fairly lightweight, so I pulled this one off my shelf instead of going to the original texts. As Green states in his introduction, “This book is an attempt to present the surviving myths of the Norsemen as a single narrative.” Thus Green draws on the various mythological poems and sagas, often following them word for word, and combines them into one continuous narrative. It’s a good way to get a general sense of the Norse myths, and I would certainly recommend the book for anyone who was looking for just that. Of course there is nothing that can replace the original texts (either in Old Icelandic or in translation), but this is a much easier read. It’s quite a moving, fun, and interesting set of stories, but I’ll not say too much about particular details in case anyone is convinced to read Green’s book (it’s only about 200 pages after all).

People generally know quite a bit about Greco-Roman mythology; it’s very often portrayed in popular forms of entertainment, and it’s a popular course in university (and more often than not, it seems, is taught by my wife). However, few seem to know much about Norse mythology (and no, the Thor comic books don’t count). How many Norse gods can you, dear reader, name?1 I’d love to teach the subject one day, and I think it’s time someone made one of these big-budget films with these stories. Of course it would probably be botched in such an endeavour, but the classicists have put up with that for years, so I’m sure we medievalists can too.

1 Post your answers as a comment and win a cookie!

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April 23, 2004


Over at Languagehat there’s a discussion of and link to Saganet. Even if you’re not interested in Old Norse manuscripts, it’s worth just taking a look at some of these images.

On a similar note, there are some nice manuscript images available from the British Library on their Turning the Pages site, including images from the Lindisfarne Gospels. Also quite stunning.

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There is an interesting posting on kennings over at Language Log and a link to a Lexicon of Kennings. Both worth a look.

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February 28, 2004


Last night I attended an interesting lecture given by Roberta Frank, a former professor of mine. The talk was entitled “Not Much is Worse than a Troll”: A Norse Poem from Medieval Orkney and discussed the Old Norse poem Málsháttakvæði (which means ‘proverb poem’). This poem is filled with proverbs such as “Not much is worse than a troll”, “Dragons often rise up on their tail”, “Easily grasped are the crimes of a hog”, “The living man always rejoices in a cow”, and “To love another’s child is to cherish a wolf”. Roberta’s talk stressed the importance of philology and how close attention to language informs our understanding of medieval Northern Germanic literature and culture, and was both interesting and entertaining.

Following the lecture was a reception and then an enjoyable performance of early music from Scandinavia by Ensemble Polaris. Among the many talented musicians in Ensemble Polaris are the multitalented Kirk Elliott, who played violin, harp, bowed psaltery, accordion, and Swedish bagpipes, and Ben Grossmann, who played the hurdy gurdy and jew’s harp. I always enjoy hearing unusual and/or early music instruments being performed. The performance was recorded by CBC Radio 2 for future broadcast on Music Around Us, so give it a listen when it comes up.

All in all, a nice way to spend an evening.

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