Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Popular Tales from Norse Mythology (Paperback) by George Webbe Dasent

This work takes some of George Webbe Dasent's translation of P. C. Asbjoernsen and J. Moe's 1842 publication of Norse folk tales and presents it to modern readers. I am glad that I read Jack Zipes, "The Complete First Edition: The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm," because the introduction does a better job explaining the times. The introduction in this book is only part of Dasent's and it doesn't put it in its historical context. I think an update or a comment from a scholar from today would have made it stronger for the modern reader.

Dasent was a professor and philologist who admired the Brothers Grimm, as well as, Asbjoernsen, and Moe's works, as they reflected the idea of shaping a corpus of folk tales as a way to prove literature as a part of a vast Indo-European tradition. He retains the flavor of the folk tales as told by middle class or peasants. Unlike Zipes book there are only a few footnotes that explain where the tales came from historically. Dasent wanted the stories to be read as popular not scholarly tales. I found Zipes book quite fascinating as to where the Grimms got their tales either from medieval manuscripts or different people representing different classes. I can't help but think Asbjoernsen and Moe's work had that but have never read their work.

Philologists like Dasent, Grimm, Asbjoernsen and Moe, try to show how many folk tales descend from eastern tales before being absorbed by the culture and transformed into unique stories representing local legends and more. Through isolation, the Norwegians absorbed and developed their own flavor for telling stories mixing Christianity, Norse myth, socioeconomic status and landscape. I would have liked to have seen this footnoted like the Grimms collection as it shows more clearly the literary roots of the tale. Cinderella is found in the folk tale, "Katie Woodencloak," who has to battle trolls with the help of a Bull. And who would have come up with a wood cloak? Only a culture that values the tall pine forests and woods that were critical to shipbuilding and more. There are magical snowshoes, reindeer, and wool, to name a few.  Odin is now a mysterious figure in a broad-brimmed hat and cloak that brings fortune to any character he helps. He is never named but it is obvious who he is as well as Valkyries and Loki-like tricksters. The tales are about marginalized, poor men that succeed through some magical help and gain wealth or a kingdom, harsh stepmothers, dads, or mothers, sibling rivalry, the underdog that triumphs, and strong people that abuse power.

While the narration is male-oriented, like Grimm's, there are a few stories with strong, intelligent females. Katie Woodencloak is one such character. However, it is the triumph of the youngest boy out of three sons that comes through the most. He is the wanderer who triumphs over injustice and evil in the end. What I find odd with these pieces is that Dasent like Grimm is male; yet many of the oral stories were recited by women. I can't help but wonder if the slant of these stories would have been different if a scholarly female in the 1800's wrote them with a philological bent.

Dasent's introductory essay was 160 pages when first published and a collection that covered 60 folk tales. That is not the case here. The introduction is about 20 pages and there are 42 stories in the collection. I'm not sure why the editors put mythology in the title. This is very misleading. They are really just popular tales with only implied mythology.

Dasent writes with a consistent, colloquial style that is easy to read. Some of the stories are violent and many remind me of ones I read in the Jack Zipes book, except the violence is more toned down than Grimms. Two sisters get their heads cut off and the third sister uses a troll's magic potion to put their heads back on. Or the queen's babies are thrown into a pit full of snakes (which reminded me of Ragnar Lothbrak's fate in that Viking legend) only the babies are fished out after the queen's treachery is exposed. The "Nasty Flax Spinning" and "The Three Aunts" are quite similar. One story that repeats often and that I don't recall reading as much is the Samson-like character who gets strength from drinking water from a flask and killing three trolls or the character has a girtle or ribbon that gives him strength. But don't quote me on that... I have a wickedly poor memory when it comes to details. Dasent wanted his stories to be a window into oral traditions, peasant life and cultures. This does just that.

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