80 for 80, No.3: The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue

It may surprise you somewhat, but the idea of doing something out of a perceived order scares me. A palpable, nervous fear rocks my body and my hands flap and I get sweaty, and eventually give in and accept that I can’t go against numerology.

This, my friends, is why a *year* exactly on from beginning my 80 for 80 challenge, I have yet to get past book three. A combination of ill-health, quitting my job, and taking up a new one as a bookseller has meant that this little blog has been neglected in general (and is in dire need of a rebrand), but add that on top of Icelandic sagas and you can see a predicament.

I don’t generally have trouble with more archaic or classical versions of English, but something about the Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue was something I picked up so many times, started, and failed to continue. In all likelihoods, this is partly because the times when I’d think HEY I have time to carry on my blog were usually times when I was sick – like that month when I was concussed or my recent bout of hallucinatory fever flu – and an addled brain does not make good friends with sagas of warrior-poets from the 12th century.

However, I have finally found some time, one year on from beginning this endeavour and one year on from being a very stressed person trying to conform to a job that just really didn’t suit her. SO, let’s talk Iceland.

This book is composed of extracts from Sagas of Warrior-Poets, published by Penguin in the early 00’s. We have this book at work and it is a huge thing that I have struggled repeatedly to place somewhere that shows it off. Perhaps my discomfort at reading it translated to displaying it in the shop, where I’d move it between cool gift books to anthologies at the beginning of fiction repeatedly, not really feeling it sat right in either place.

Anyway, we move on. The sagas themselves take place between the 9-11th century in Iceland, though were documented a couple of hundred years later by unknown authors (however, the opening of the book does mention that the priest Ari Thorgilsson the Learned was the teller of this particular story).

I really enjoyed a minor contribution of a Norwegian, who interprets the dreams of Thorstein to foresee Gunnlaug vs Hrafn, and is told he is wicked and unfriendly, with the following closing that section: “He is now out of the saga”.

Gunnlaug is noted as being a “gifted… somewhat abusive” poet, which is possibly my favourite description of someone’s occupation to date. Essentially, the book tells of Gunnlaug who decides he is going to marry beautiful Helga, but first decides to go on a minor quest and visit northern European kings, whereupon he delivers impromptu poetry slams. At one such, he chastises opponent warrior poet Hrafn, who decides the best revenge is to steal his betrothed, which seems to happen without Gunnlaug really doing much about for quite a while. He and Hrafn duel in Norway so that no one can intervene – this time with swords and words, leaving Hrafn de-legged and Gunnlaug with a split head and they both die. Helga meanwhile feels pretty annoyed but has a fancy cloak Gunnlaug gave her so that’s nice.

I genuinely love tales rooted in cultural history – many of my friends having heard my retelling of the Welsh story of the Afanc, a river dwelling beast who is lulled to sleep by singing maidens and dragged up Snowdon by oxen. It’s not often you get to read Icelandic stories of itinerant poets, but I feel the better for having done so. Maybe I’ll pick up that big book from work.

Running Tally

Okay so the problem here is that we can’t be completely assured that the narrator is male, buuuuut given our patriarchal society that prevented women from being educated and still does I’m going to hedge a bet that this is also a male authored book. Feel free to take umbridge with this in the comments.

Authors: Male 3 Female 0

Media type: Short stories 2, Poetry 1

80 for 80, No.2: As kingfishers catch fire – Gerard Manley Hopkins

GerardManleyHopkinsHooray look I made it to book two. Only been ALMOST TWO MONTHS since I blogged about the last one. Oh dear me pals, looks like I’ll be doing this over the next 30 years at this rate.

No.2 brings us into the world of experimental poetry with all of nature’s glorious being as the focus. Father Reverend Gerard Manley Hopkins, to give him his full title, was a British Roman Catholic convert and a Jesuit Priest who lived between 1844 and 1889, dividing his time between priesting and poeting.

GMH is a big fan of sprung rhythm, which is something I’m admittedly not familiar with, and alliteration which I’m a big fan of. This gives his poems a bouncy structure that feels very alive to me.

Here’s one of my favourite poems from the collection, Windhover (to Christ our Lord).

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-

dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn

Falcon, in his riding

Of the rolling level underneath him steady air and striding

High there, wo he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstacy! then off, off forth on swing,

As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding

Rebuffed in the big wind. My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here

Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from these then, a billion

Times told lovelier, more dangerous. O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah  my dear,

Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

The “windhover”, in this case, appears to be a kestrel, with their amazing ability to hover in one space in midair while hunting for prey – a bird that lined the roads around the area of Wales I grew up in which, it turns out, GMH also used to grace. His love of nature and proclamations for conservation of wildness ring close to home for me as well. I think my favourite stanza in the whole collection is the following, from his poem Inversnaid. Given my career in conservation and ecology, it seems rather appropriate.

What would the world be, once bereft

Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,

O let them be left, wildness and wet;

Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

I’ve never found much connection to Christian theology, I must admit, so the stanzas with greater emphasis on the glory of cold left me relatively cold compared to his sensuous descriptions of his love of nature.

The book ends with an excerpt of his diary – stargazing, and admiring flora and noting all the birds he sees. It’s really quite charming and reminds me of Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. There’s something really quite lovely about reading someone’s enjoyment of wild places and wild things. I promise to take myself into the wild more often this year.

Running Tally

Authors: Male 2

Type of literature: Short stories 1, Poetry 1

80 for 80, No.1: Rosie and the Priest – Giovanni Boccaccio

When the men were off somewhere, he would come visiting their wives more solicitously than any priest they’d ever had before…

dirty stories are a-brewing
dirty stories are a-brewing

Penguin’s Little Black Classics collections starts off with a collection of four short stories, or “bawdy tales” as the black cover blurb suggests. The stories are taken from Boccaccio’s The Decameron, translated by Peter Hainsworth.

These four tales are the first piece of writing by Boccaccio I’ve ever read. Our new pal Gio was an important fourteenth century Renaissance humanist Italian, whose poetry served as inspiration for a number of Chaucer’s work. So, a pretty good place to start!

As for the stories themselves, I genuinely enjoyed the first three. I read these tucked up in bed, drinking a cup of Pukka’s equivalent of Sleepy Time tea, winding down for the evening and looking forward to a bit of literary mischief.

Ricciardo da Chinzica loses his wife is about a judge who doesn’t bang his wife enough, Rosie and the Priest features a character called WILLY WELCOME and the first one Andreuccio da Perugia’s Neopolitan Adventures is about Andreuccio being incredibly unlucky.

Some mild spoilers ahead. The last one Patient Griselda is this weird story where a husband tests his wife’s patience by subjecting her to loads of cruelty which she just takes like “OKAYYY”, ending with him after about TWENTY YEARS going “a-hey I was joking all along, surprise here’s your child we took from you, now they’re an adult!”. My partner Tim, who actually read this book before me, got to the end of this story and went “well that was bullshit”. I think he summed our feelings up very succinctly. I think it’s more because we both instantly thought “bin all men, especially this one” rather than thought it wasn’t a good piece of writing.

So, I think 75% enjoyable is a pretty strong start for the first book. It’s made me want to read more Boccaccio, despite poor old Griselda’s glum fate.

Running Tally

I’m going to keep track of diversity in authors and literature throughout this. There may be a graph. Sorry.

Authors: Male

Type of literature: Short stories

80 for 80: a reading adventure in Little Black Classics

Sometimes, when you are stuck in a really good novel, you just want to dip into something else quickly. My usual go-to is a graphic novel as I tend to whizz through them relatively quickly. But I wanted to mix this up a little bit.

And that’s when I noticed Penguin had launched their 80 Little Black Classics in celebration of 80 years of Penguin. Upsettingly pleasing to the eye, each book is a taster of work from authors less known or rarer works by classic favourites. Each book has around 60 pages, and comes in at a very affordable 80p. All the books have no introduction, no background information, just the words alone. The books themselves are heavily weighted towards the 19th century and less than a quarter of them are written by women – I’m going to keep a running tally on the diversity as we go.

So I’m going to try and read every single one, and write about it here. Let me know which ones you’ve read and loved. Screen Shot 2015-03-21 at 15.28.13