Affecting the ornate cadences of King James English, which was the common usage of 19th century saga translations, E.R. Eddison here recreates the saga that might have been (had one survived) of Styrbiorn Olafsson, heir to one-half of the Swedish throne in the tenth century. Styrbiorn, surnamed "the Strong" for his remarkable size and physical accomplishments, is mentioned only briefly in Snorri Sturlasson's Heimskringla (the Norse Book of Kings) and elsewhere, and does not seem to have merited a saga of his own to chronicle his rather brief and tumultuous life. At the least, no such saga has survived. Early on Styrbiorn establishes his viking credentials when he goes into a voluntary three-year exile at the urging of King Eirik, his uncle, who will not consent to share the throne with him until he has demonstrated a certain amount of Norse maturity. Although a youth of prodigious strength, who amuses himself by wrestling with his pet ox in his spare time, and of unusual fairness, Styrbiorn is also somewhat of a dullard by modern standards -- unable to fathom the deeper matters of policy and human interaction. Still he is an honorable fellow and not unintelligent in his own way as he demonstrates in his dealings with the Jomsburg vikings, who accept him as one of their leaders after a dramatic shipboard duel, and later in his encounter with the legendary Danish King Harold Gormsson (surnamed "Blue-Tooth" for his rather prominent dental problems). Still, Styrbiorn is ultimately undone by his own impetuousness and susceptibililty to the allure of the young and beautiful wife of his uncle, the legendary Sigrid the Haughty. Having returned to Sweden earlier than promised and discovering himself drunk in Sigrid's bed after a dream-like carousal of the night before, Styrbiorn is unable to suppress his shame and despair at having cuckholded Eirik, his uncle and benefactor. Enraged by his apparently brutish rejection of her after their steamy nighttime tryst, Sigrid now plays Potiphar's wife to Styrbiorn's Joseph and cries out that she has been raped and violated by him. Eirik, knowing Styrbiorn's past arrogance only too well, is more than willing to believe the worst of him, and swiftly chases Styrbiorn from the palace and kingdom, leaving his nephew with no other means to reclaim his patrimony but the sword. Styrbiorn does not scruple at this, though it galls him to do it, and, in a final confrontation with his uncle, casts his hopes in a final toss for all or nothing on Fyrisfield. But Styrbiorn is undone and falls in the conflict while those of his followers who survive must flee into the woods to save their lives. Despite the power of the language of this tale, which is both beautifully wrought and heroically evocative, the book ultimately leaves one unsatisfied. The last great battle occurs almost as an afterthought, off-stage, while the final scene is like a deus ex machina in reverse with Odin, the chief god of the Nordic pantheon, seated like some old testament vision on his throne above the earth, prononuncing his verdict -- that he has taken Styrbiorn for his own. We are transported abruptly and without fair warning from the domain of the saga to another place, which is somehow discordant with all that has gone before. It is as though Eddison, who had labored so mightily and with such skill to render this epic tale, had suddenly grown tired of his own words and ended it as best he could, for want of anything more to say. The book, though finely crafted and with characters who come brilliantly to life in the high-toned speeches placed in their mouths by the author, ultimately totters and stumbles to an awkward and unsatisfying end. Still, for some of the finest prose in English literature (old or modern) or one of the purest evocations of the old Norse sagas and tales, few books have done it better. By Stuart W. Mirsky The King of Vinland's Saga
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About the reviewer
Stuart W. Mirsky (swmirsky)
I'm a retired bureaucrat (having served, most recently, as an Assistant Commissioner in amunicipal agency in a major Northeastern American city). In 2002 I took an early retirement to pursue a lifelong … more
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