The Faraway North translated and introduced by Ian Cumpstey
Genre: Norse Myths, Folk Ballads, Classics, Epic Tales
Summary from Goodreads: These ballads convey a fantastic vision of the world as it was imagined in medieval Scandinavia, with monsters and magic intermingled with very human concerns of heroism, tragedy, love, and revenge.
The great hero Sigurd is joined in this collection by troll-battling warriors including Holger Dane, Orm the Strong, and others. There are dramatic scenes of romance, betrayal, and loss. Some of the ballads translated here are attested by paintings or maps that date from earlier than when the first full ballad texts were first written down in the 1500s. An adventure ballad relevant to the history of an Eddic poem is also included.
The ballads are storytelling songs that were passed down as part of an oral folk music tradition in Scandinavia. This collection brings many new ballads to the English-speaking reader. The readable verse translations succeed in conveying the rhythm, spirit, and imagery of the originals. The translations are mainly based on Swedish and Norwegian ballads, with some from Danish tradition.
For each ballad, there is also a short introduction with commentary and background information.
The ballads included are:
Åsmund Frægdegjeva; Steinfinn Fefinnson; Esbjörn Proud and Orm the Strong; Sunfair and the Dragon King; Bendik and Årolilja; Sigurd Sven; Sivard Snare Sven; Little Lisa; Sven Norman and Miss Gullborg; Peter Pallebosson; Sir Svedendal; King Speleman; Holger Dane and Burman; Sven Felding; St Olaf’s Sailing Race.
Book review: I was very excited to be asked to review this book. Since both I and my husband share a Scandinavian heritage, it was personally a delight to read tales of the men and women who lived (or might’ve lived) on those northern shores. Before this, I had only the most cursory understanding of Norse myths, though I have read Tolkien’s edition of Beowulf, and this proved to be a great book for broadening one’s knowledge of the folk tales that could’ve been shared and told by my ancestors.
Here’s a closer look at the Narration, Content, Characters, Artwork, Worldview, and my Overall Response.
Narration: 4 out of 5. Since this is a translation, there’s not a lot of leeway in the narration, but I would’ve liked a little more information about the original ballads. Were they meant to be sung or chanted, and was there some kind of rhyming structure in the native languages? The introductory notes were very helpful, as was the content at the end about ballads in general, but I felt like there could’ve been a great deal more (of course, coming off Tolkien’s Beowulf, I was probably expecting more scholarly and technical information than most readers).
Content: 5 out of 5. I’m not sure what other selections could’ve been included, as this was my first introduction to Norse ballads, but I liked the range of tales. The collection includes pseudo-historical stories, tragedy, revenge and conquering love, an almost paranormal/mystical ghost story, and even a rather feminist tale where the maiden defeats her would-be seducer and murderer.
Characters: 4 out of 5. Even though there’s very little characterization in stories this short and tales from this time, in general, the different people in the stories seem unique. There are strong and weak women, foolish and sensible men, wicked and somewhat neutral trolls, kings and lovers and mothers and daughters, none of whom felt identical to each other (save for some of the weak women whose only role was to be rescued, but there weren’t that many of those).
Artwork: Subjective. I liked the cover, as some aspects of the two-dimensional drawing reminded me of the Bayeux tapestry or some kind of cave drawing. It wasn’t as “Viking” as it might’ve been, but I thought it reflected the overall feel of the anthology, which features a great many people going places, seeking or running from something.
World-Building: 3 out of 5. This is the area where ballads, in general, fail. The Robin Hood ones I have read share this shortcoming, though I wonder that the editor could’ve bolstered this by using the introduction to explain the historical context of what happens rather than just summarize the story for us. (Again, this is something that I feel Beowulf did, pulling us into the world of the story which the original audience would’ve had and known without explanation.)
Overall Response: 16 out of 20, or an average of 4. Anyone who has studied Norse ballads will probably find the introductions unnecessary, but as a beginner’s place to start, I felt this book does a good job of giving us a taste of the stories of the north without being particularly scholastic or technical. I’d recommend it to those who like folk tales or historical ballads, and especially to anyone with a Scandinavian heritage.
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Note: I received a copy of this work in exchange for a free review.
Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren
Photo used by permission from the author