Saturday, April 06, 2013


I read Paul Park's "Ragnarok," because it was mentioned in Paul Cook's essay on why science fiction poetry is bad and in F. J. Bergmann's response. Both Cook and Bergmann said "Ragnarok" is based on the Icelandic sagas.

Yes, but...

"Ragnarok" is a poem, and the sagas are always prose. One reason I read "Ragnarok" was to see if Park was basing his poem on Eddic poetry. He is, sort of, though his stanzas run on. Eddic poems are more like ballads. Each stanza is complete.

I haven't checked to see how closely he follows the meter and alliteration of Eddic poetry. This is an example is from the Waking of Angantyr, courtesy of Wikipedia:
Vaki, Angantýr! || vekr þik Hervǫr,
eingadóttir || ykkr Tófu!
Selðu ór haugi || hvassan mæki
þann's Svafrlama || slógu dvergar.

(Awaken, Angantyr! It is Hervor who awakens you, your only daughter by Tófa! Yield up from your grave the mighty sword that the dwarves forged for Svafrlami.")
I don't know if you can tell through the foreign language, but the verse has a beat like a hammar. The language is spare and compressed. This is my word-by-word translation of the above stanza:

Wake, Angantyr!// Wakes you Hervor
only daughter // by Tofa.
Give from grave // sharp sword
That for Svafrlami // forged dwarves.

I have added one word, "for," in the last line. It is implicit in the case-ending of Svafrlami. Notice that the Wikipedia translation adds a lot of words and makes some of the words fancier. I rooted around in my Old Norse dictionary, looking for the word "hvass" meaning mighty. I found "hvass," which means sharp or prickly.

Also from Wikipedia:
Fornyrðislag (the verse form) has two lifts per half line, with two or three (sometimes one) unstressed syllables. At least two lifts, usually three, alliterate, always including the main stave (the first lift of the second half-line). It had a variant form called málaháttr ("speech meter"), which adds an unstressed syllable to each half-line, making six to eight (sometimes up to ten) unstressed syllables per line.

So, a fairly tight structure, based on meter and alliteration, which reinforce each other, thus the hammar-like beat.

Because of the run-on narration, Park's poem reminds me of English translations of Beowulf.

As for the content of "Ragnarok" -- yes, Park has clearly used the Icelandic sagas. Though I found his story far more brutal and ugly than the sagas. They, after all, were written by educated Christians living in the 13th and 14th centuries, who were influenced by European literature of the time. Compared to the sagas, I find Park's story a pointless description of violence, which has no resolution -- only praise of revenge. Well, he warns us about this in the title. This is about the end of order.

The conventional end of a saga is an ending of violence. The blood feud finally winds down, and the survivors make peace. The great, violent, dangerous hero finally dies and is replaced by men who are less heroic and more reasonable. Park's story reverses this. It begins with a precarious peace and ends in full-bore war.

I read the Eddic poem about Volund the Smith recently, because I was putting Volund in a story. Now, there is a brutal and ugly tale, much closer to what Park is doing. The Eddic stories have the savagery of myths: Cronos eating his children.

The great message of the sagas comes from Njals saga and the wise and noble legal expert Njall: "By law the land is established, and through lawlessness it is destroyed." This is not the message of the Eddas.

So, final conclusion: Park is using both the Eddas and the sagas. His poem is a tour de force. I don't like it, because he is doing horrible things to Iceland. But I think his story makes sense, given where we are now: in the early 21st century, with the breakdown of human civilization due to global warming evident on the horizon.


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