Rating: 3 out of 5
The old Norse or Icelandic sagas have a certain charm about them: not only can the reader picture the wide and untamed forests in which these events take place, but it is also, generally, a simpler world, one with poetic retribution for the worst things a character does and great praise for the high and mighty. This is a translation of two sagas, the Saga of the Volsungs and the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, along with a comprehensive commentary.
In a way the commentary was actually too comprehensive, because it is inevitable that in the sagas what was important was a different quality to that what is presently valued in literary stories. It would be easier just to appreciate the story if we left the inconsistencies in characters aside and focussed on the rhythm and enjoyment of the verse, but of course that is a simplistic approach. It was, in fact, helpful to understand more about the background of the stories, including when they were put to paper, rather than jumping in without any information at all. Mr Crawford may have leaned a little bit too heavily into focussing on modern mores in his descriptions of what would happen, but I suspect these warnings were a good thing for many readers.
Of the two sagas, I prefer the story of Ragnar Lothbrok. Starting with numerous bad choices (be careful when sleeping in other’s barns…), some of which aren’t properly explained (welcome to the sagas!), we get the story of Ragnar and his wife Aslaug. This, in general, is much more moving than the list of great Volsung deeds, along with Ragnar’s fall and the subsequent revenge. Ragnar’s ending in a pit of snakes is rather unfortunate (and a very awful thing to image), but the revenge brings us into the lore of the Anglo-Saxons and these events—these people—are often familiar to readers of history from the other side, i.e., leaders of heathen hordes of the Norse.
I liked it overall, but not sure I will be reaching back to the two sagas any time soon—unless it is to find a more fleshed out version of the stories.