Scandinavian myths underrepresented in early European literature

2021-02-24 @Literature

Insofar as my choice of reading over the last couple of years, I find the Scandinavian/Nordic myths heavily underrepresented. Rather, I mostly encounter allusions to the Greco-Roman and Biblical sources; once in a blue moon to the Semitic body of work (though lacking the prowess to assert most).

The classic British and American authors (ie Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser, Poe) appear to draw mainly on the Greco-Roman/Biblical works. The French Montaigne does the same. As does Dante. And though less familiar with Boccaccio, I perceive a similar story.

With the Russian authors and poets up to the early 20th-century period, I’ve observed a similar situation: occasional appeal to the Asian and the Semitic, but hardly anything Scandinavia-bound.

In the works of my second-favourite Russian poet, N. S. Gumilev/Н. С. Гумилев (1886-1921, known for much erudition and the exotic particularly pleasant to my palate) I’ve still asserted mere hints to the Scandinavian, yet innumerable allusions to the Greco-Roman, the Asian and, in the case of this well-travelled poet, the African.

Now, Goethe, per Faust, for the closeness to the Germanic (and hence the Scandinavian) culture, does make wider use of the said materials, yet still giving heavy preference to the Greco-Roman (from my recollection).

Having recently reacquainted myself with many of the Nordic myths (alas, through sterile secondary sources), I found the stories of not only equal footing, but often richer in certain respects, though this be subject to heavy subjectivity and something I’ll address separately.

J.R.R. Tolkien, certes, made abundant use of them. But such was his specialty, akin to the 19th-century poet William Morris. In any case, I exclude the more contemporary trends from consideration.

I prefer the older epic works anyway. And not strictly of fiction but the all-encompassing subject matter.

In fact, the further we travel back in time, the more I’ve found the reading to encompass and fiction, and philosophy, and religion, and myth, and history.

(Beyond pure fiction, Montaigne’s essays cater to all the remaining categories, and not on a merely superficial level.)

Maybe I generalize. Anyhow. Why the lack of exposure of the Scandinavian folklore? I don’t imagine strictly one reason:

Classic education, for one, emphasized the Greco-Roman and Christian studies in hand with the Latin languages (seconded by the Greek). But would that inhibit independent pursuit?

I guess the lack of translations too played a role. Old Icelandic and Old Norse (the languages of much of the early Scaldic/Eddaic poetry responsible for the myths), were not the common source of study.

Of the Middle-Age available opus, Saxo Grammaticus also incorporated his renditions of the Nordic universe in his Latin history of the Danes, but I guess this too didn’t gain the same traction among the lower European tradition.

(Though Saxo’s writings fall not even among my top fifty of priorities, they would make for curious reading. The Norse Gods are supposedly there portrayed in a much less prolific light, nor divine, but more charlatan and parenthetical, though this be my understanding.)

The varied origins of Scandinavian myth also wouldn’t have made their exposure simple. Most of what the sources draw upon are the alliterative poems (as most early Germanic/Old-English/Old-Norse poetry).

And one must appreciate alliterative verse to pursue this matter. Admittedly, I’ve grown a taste for it through Beowulf and Sir Gawain (and the Greek Knight), though struggled with the more perplexing employ throughout my sampling of Piers Plowman.

However, beyond the form, these early poems were too many, too varied, and too often contrary. And back during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, beyond the Icelandic synthesizer Snorri Snurluson (and the aforementioned Saxo Grammaticus), there wasn’t much to leverage if one didn’t wish to dig through the heaps of disparate poems.

With the Greco-Roman, it’s a different story. While the original sources, as far as the oral tradition, too, tended to vary and often contradict, the synthesizers were aplenty: Homer, Hesiod, the tragedians (Sophocles/Euripides/Aeschylus) among the Greeks, and Virgil, Ovid, Statius (etc) among the Romans.

The latter group, for the prevailing Latin, were widely diffused as far back as the Middle Ages. But then translations of the Greek writings also gained far broader territory in heavy contrast to the Scandinavian.

These days, of course, the Nordic materials have become ubiquitous: in part due to the increased 19th/20th-century interest, in part due to Tolkien, and, if we’re to approach the present, thanks to cinema and television.

To summarize, why do I find the Scandinavian literary affluence lacking in the classic European tradition? Among the major reasons, at least:

  1. the less accessible source languages and their lacking presence in academia.
  2. the lack of synthesis of the disparate alliterative poems from which the myths derive.

In postscriptum, I don’t find anything inherently distancing in their nature that I don’t identify in the Greco-Roman opus.

Questions, comments? Connect.