Tag Archives: myths and marchen

Hildur, Queen of the Elves and Other Icelandic Legends

J.M. Bedell, Hildur, Queen of the Elves and Other Icelandic Legends (Interlink Books, 2007)

Ever met a Christian elf? Have you ever been bridled by a witch and ridden to a meeting with the Devil himself? Have you ever seen a priest forgo blessing a mountainside because a troll begs him for a place to live? Ever seen books upon which the words were writ in fire? Climbed upon the back of a nennir (water horse) and found yourself drowned as a result? (Well, clearly not, as you’re here reading this thus-far slightly rhetorical review.) Settle down, then, and crack open J.M. Bedell’s Hildur, Queen of the Elves and Other Icelandic Legends. You’ll find yourself enriched, intrigued, and confused only by some Icelandic names and why exactly this book is named after Hildur.

Of course, before you can even find out who Hildur is, you’ll have to get through the somewhat (but only somewhat) exhaustive introduction. I recommend reading the first few pages of the Introduction and then skipping it until after you’ve read the folk tales, to be honest. Reading the first few pages will give you a feel for how the oral tradition among Icelanders was conducted, which is really all you need before jumping into the tales feet-first. The tales themselves can teach you quite a bit about the Icelandic tradition and culture: life is full of hardship and death, encounters with the supernatural often bring grief (although short encounters can be lucky), even the wicked must have a place to live, people are not always honest with each other, and you must always learn from your bad behavior (to name but a few of the encoded behavioral messages). In the end, you can return to the Introduction to read analyses of the different types of tales, definitions of contexts for the creatures and characters featured, and an authorial overview regarding the compilation of Icelandic folktales.

Once in the thick of the collection, you’ll find that the tales are divided up arbitrarily. If you like to skip around in your books, go ahead: no harm will come of it here. If you want to read all the ghost stories before getting to the magicians or the trolls, go ahead. While most of the stories fit into their categorization, I should warn you that some of the stories fit in only cursorily and can turn into a bit of a dry recounting of several different kinds of tale (all involving the same character). Along these same lines, cultural notes are also inserted into quite a few of the stories and can sometimes interrupt the flow. This is a flaw on a greater face of beauty, however, as the majority of the tales are rendered in an engaging and cohesive manner.

Westerners will find many of these stories familiar, but will also be surprised. This is reflective of the diverse composition of Icelandic culture as detailed in the Introduction. You’ll find name-guessing tales, magical objects that bring luck and woe, and deals with the Devil within this collection. You’ll also find that the elves are almost indistinguishable from regular people (apart from having nicer lives), that trolls proliferate across the rocky hillsides, and that the Icelandic brand of Christianity is quite comfortable coexisting with all this magic-using, Devil-tempting, and monster-existing. The raising and inheritance of ghosts also proves quite interesting, while the landscape of Iceland is populated with some monsters not quite like any found elsewhere in the world.

Going back to Hildur for a moment, I really am not sure why this book wasn’t named after one Saemundar. He cuts a much more important figure in Icelandic lore. He’s only known as Saemundar the Learned: wise, powerful, shadow-less, a regular triumphant adversary of the Devil, and a magician once believed to be a writer of the Edda. Yet this collection is named after Hildur, a simple servant who also happens to be Queen of the Elves and who isn’t mentioned in story after story (in this collection at least). Titling the book after Hildur simply puzzles me, but this may be due to my lack of previous knowledge of Icelandic folklore.

As a student of fairy tales and a novice in Icelandic lore, I found this book to be a satisfactory sampling of the current Icelandic tales translated into English. The collection of tales and accompanying introduction make this compilation accessible to any interested party, though I should warn you that the nature of the stories is like that of Iceland: breathtaking at times, but always dangerous. Exercise caution when reading these stories in view of immature or closed minds.

This review was originally published at Green Man Review on August 22nd, 2007.

Tales of the Golden Corpse

Sandra Benson, Tales of the Golden Corpse (Interlink Books, 2007)

Tales of the Golden Corpse, a collection of Tibetan folk tales, as retold by Sandra Benson, is a brilliant introduction to a realm of folk tales little explored in the West. Useful for scholars wishing to begin their enquiry into Tibetan secular literature, the collection is also a gem for the layman’s library. The stories in this collection are both familiar and new, instructional and absorbing: they use common fairy tale tropes, often tweaked in ways new to the Western understanding of such stories, while also teaching Tibetan values that are applicable across many cultures. People of all ages would do well to take heed of these stories, with their honoring of humility and cleverness and compassion: the wicked are punished and the good are rewarded, though not always in the ways one would normally wish.

This collection opens with an introduction that is succinctly informational, yet not tedious or exhaustive. Sandra Benson gives us the background upon which to project these tales and explains the framework within which the tales are told: the stories interweave, sub-stories in a great framework. Indeed, the stories are told just this way even today over most of Tibet. Children living on remote plains as well as children living in the villages are instructed in these tales by their families. Benson shares some of the basic cultural conventions of Tibet as well, and shortly introduces us to some of the character types in the stories. She concludes with a brief history of this particular collection of tales.

As we leap into the tales themselves, the format of the stories explained in the introduction is quickly proven: these stories are truly stories within a story. The language is clear and rhythmic and we are drawn in: a boy, being punished for killing seven wicked men (for although they were wicked, it’s still a sin to kill them), is trying to fetch a corpse made of turquoise and gold and return it to a wise Buddhist practitioner. This corpse, it is said, has the power to bring many good things into the world. However, not one word must be spoken to the corpse on the return journey or it will instantly return to its home. The corpse is very tricky and uses stories to distract the boy into speaking. So we have the stories told by a corpse traveling on the back of a penitent boy, who loses his concentration on not speaking and must fetch the corpse again and again with each new tale.

The tales themselves are peopled with familiar characters and tropes: wicked men, evil tyrants, ineffectual or foolish rulers, wise poor men, honorable tradesmen, and creatures who can change their skins. We learn that the rich disdain having the same name as commoners and that commoners are quite often smarter than any rich or powerful man. These stories abound with promises not to reveal identities, as often seen in other fairy tales: yet this promise, when broken, doesn’t always result in punishment or disappearance. Compassion is the key here. We see how important adages are to the Tibetan culture, as almost every story seems to contain at least one proverb. Some of the stories are complete in themselves and resolve the story, where other tales end suddenly and leave one guessing some of the concluding details. This is due to the framework within which the stories are told: once the penitent boy talks, the corpse immediately retreats back to his home cemetery and the whole fetching process must begin again. At first, this game of Sudden Story Death can seem tiresome, but one quickly realizes a benefit of this format: sudden endings leave you wondering about the story longer. Sudden endings let the story sink into your mind and take hold as you try to resolve it for yourself, drawing out the lesson and deciding what just might have happened in the true end. This is a brilliant and intriguing way to involve listeners in a narrative.

Following the collection of twenty-five stories is a section of Commentary that gives further information and background to each of the stories. While the basics of the stories are easily grasped, this extra information helps ground the stories more deeply in the framework of Tibetan culture. The author was also kind enough to include a glossary for some of the most common terms used in the stories: a reader can easily reference these when there’s a particular common element he doesn’t quite understand. The recommended reading section is also quite useful for those wishing to study these tales or Tibetan culture more closely.

As a fan and student of fairytales, I found this book to be a worthy addition to my library. I wouldn’t hesitate to share it with children or other adults! These stories have much to say about how to live life well, and it does so simply and effectively. Some of the imagery is disturbing, while some imagery is quite charming: but in our fairy tales, would we have it any other way? If you have any interest in fairy tales or Tibet or teaching yourself (or others) some great values, pick up this Tales of the Golden Corpse immediately.

This review was originally published at Green Man Review on August 22nd, 2007. It received the Excellence in Writing Award from the editorial staff of that publication.

King Arthur

King Arthur (Touchstone, Jerry Bruckheimer Films, 2004)

I love Arthurian legend to bits, though it’s been a long time since I went through my last intense Arthurian phase. I’ve never minded all the many reinterpretations of Arthurian legend either. I’ve read some rather good books that completely changed the story around, but that I still felt had some merit for perpetuating Arthurian myth. To put my tolerance for reinterpretations of classic stories another way, I’ve learned that it’s not the names and minute details that are truly important to stories. It’s the core of the story, the basic meaning and theme.

So I went into King Arthur, this recent Bruckheimer film that purports to deconstruct Arthurian legend, thinking that I might find something to enjoy. I knew it wasn’t going to get Arthurian legend “right,” but I had hopes that it would be a decent story on its own and still carry some of the themes that are inherent to Arthurian legend while it got at the supposed true story behind those legends.

Oh, no, I was so very wrong. In short, this film makes four major mistakes: its name, its use of legend, its claim toward historical accuracy, and the story itself.

The first mistake is that this movie is improperly named. If you claim that you’re going for the story behind the legend of King Arthur, don’t give it a legendary name. How about Cassius the Bear, considering this movie goes with the theory that Lucius Artorius Castus, a dux of the Roman forces in Britain at the time, is the historical basis for King Arthur? That would have worked just fine, and would have dispensed with several of the audience’s expectations: that this movie would transmit some of the values of Arthurian legend, even as it supposedly deconstructed the myth.

The second mistake is that this movie makes a claim toward historical accuracy, proclaiming in the opening text that new anthropological evidence has yielded conclusive evidence as to the real identity of King Arthur (which is simply factually incorrect). The audience is then told that the film is a record of those occurrences. Yet, as it begins, the movie immediately pulls in characters from Arthurian myth. Lancelot is the first character we see, a young Sarmatian man who is being pressed into military service to the Roman Empire. The only problem is that Lancelot is a literary invention, originating in Arthurian legend in the twelfth century. We may accept that Lucius Artorius Castus is the man who came to be renowned as King Arthur, but what about the “Woads” calling his sword Excalibur in the film? As far as I know, the name Excalibur and the legends that surround it are also literary inventions no older than the twelfth century. And what about the rest of Arthur’s cadre, pulled from the various legends: Galahad, Bors de Ganis, Tristan, Gawain, Dagonet? How are they justified to be in this film, what historical evidence does the writer base their presence on?

Thirdly, this film is not historically accurate. As far as I can tell, this film takes point some time in the 5th century, C.E (which puts a few holes in that Artorius theory considering he supposedly lived in the 3rd century). We know the film takes place before the collapse of the Roman Empire, but that Rome is pulling its forces out of Britain. Therefore, by this tangential evidence, we can conclude that there was no Pope in Rome at the time of the film– the Church was still headed by a bishop. Yet that’s a major plot point– it’s the Pope’s favorite godson and pupil that must be saved by the good Arthur and his knights. There’s a sticky point right there– there may have been wealthy Romans living on the wrong side of Hadrian’s Wall, but a high-ranking nobleman whose son is the Pope’s favorite godson is going to be living on the periphery of the Empire when Rome is already making preparations to withdraw? I don’t think so. How about calling the Picts “Woads”? How about bandying about the term knight, when knighthood hasn’t been conceived yet (considering what became knighthood started evolving in France in the eleventh century)? I could go on, but I think those are plenty of points to put holes in the historical accuracy claim-boat.

Finally, last but certainly not least, the story is simply not a good one. I was aghast when I discovered the screenplay was by the same writer responsible for Gladiator, as Gladiator is a rather good movie, story-wise. The plot for King Arthur is contrived and annoying, depicting indentured soldiers thirsting after their freedom being pressed into doing a last mission for the Roman Empire. This last mission involves going into incredibly dangerous “Woad” territory to rescue a wealthy noble Roman family who’s in the path of an advancing Saxon invasion. Various things happen which are supposed to demonstrate Arthur’s legendary noble heart, but you really just get conflicting messages of how he feels about the British natives and dubious messages about the commitment of his “knights” to any higher ideal. In a similar vein, the cinematography of the movie was as lame as the story. Instead of grand shots lending the film an epic scope, we are treated to somewhat drab landscapes and horrible battle scenes. The battle scenes are confusing and monotonous, featuring dizzying shots and men making the same slashing motions at opponents who fall down unbloodied, again and again. While we’re on the subject of battles, how about five knights and a small contingent of “Woads” taking out an entire Saxon army? I don’t care how many smoking tar hills they built to confuse the enemy, that small a contingent would not be capable of destroying an entire Saxon army on open ground.

I was highly disappointed by the King Arthur film: as a film relating itself to Arthurian myth, as a historically accurate film, and as a story in itself. I even feel that I wasted the money spent to see it, and would exhort everyone else to instead spend their money on renting Monty Python and the Holy Grail. That movie is much more consistent and amusing, and doesn’t leave me feeling as if I wasted my time.

This review was originally published at Green Man Review on August 1st, 2004, and was a Featured Review in that edition. It also received the Excellence in Writing Award and the Grinch Award from the editorial staff for that edition.