Warrior Lore by Ian Cumpstey

wl-cover-smallOld Norse heroism seems to be in vogue these days, given the popularity of Thor and the film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which is steeped in Norse mythology. Furthermore, the classic literature of the North has been gaining academic readerships ever since the publication of the Penguin collection The Sagas of Icelanders in 2001. Add to this Jeramy Dodds’s recent translation of the Poetic Edda, a cultural treasure of classic tales about Odin, Loki, Freyr, and the rest of the Asgard gang, and the cultural milieu in which Ian Cumpstey’s Warrior Lore (Skadi Press, 2014) enters can be said to be densely populated indeed. The question is, can such a collection of Scandinavian folk ballads stand out?

While certainly Warrior Lore will encounter a much smaller audience than The Hobbit movies, it is a book to which a reader such as Tolkien himself might have been drawn. Written down around 1600 AD, these folk ballads collected and translated by Cumpstey from the original Swedish are part of the heroic tradition of poetry. This means contests of arms, kidnapped lovers, trolls, riddles, and, yes, even skiing.

Told in four-line, rhyming stanzas that are followed by a chorus line, these poems tell the warlike exploits of some of Scandinavia’s forgotten heroes. Most character names will be unfamiliar to readers, although there is one story, “The Hammer Hunt,” in which Thor and Loki make an appearance. Also, those familiar with the Norman Conquest of 1066 will appreciate the appearance of King Harald Hardrada in “Heming and King Harald.” They will also learn, when Harald dies at Heming’s hand instead of at the Battle of Stanford Bridge,  just how loosely the poets regarded historical fact.

Warrior Lore varies from Cumpstey’s earlier collection Lord Peter and Little Kerstin in its reduced emphasis on magic and fantastic beings–all except the trolls. In compensation, there is plenty of axe-swinging violence of the kind to expect from medieval Scandinavians. Although the ballads become slightly monotonous–the competition between warriors and the rhyming stanza form rarely present surprises–it is a short collection and I was impressed by the scholarship. Cumpstey traces the manuscript transmission of each story and speculates on the oral tradition behind them. For each tale that has survived down to our own time, many other tales have been forgotten. Although the ballads are not exhaustively collected, they are a window into a new world of literature, and form an accessible supplementary resource.

Lovers of Scandinavian and old Norse myths and legends will likely be the first to read Warrior Lore. Academics interested in alternative narrative traditions in the medieval European milieu–stories uninfluenced, as far as  I know, by the all-pervading Greek traditions of the Mediterranean–should be interested as well. As a student of English, I am keenly aware of just how different these ballads are from anything springing from the influence of the Graeco-Roman epics of Virgil and Homer. They also greatly differ from the tradition of tale-telling represented in The Arabian Nights and The Decameron.  Yet they are not completely different. Plot is considered primary instead of character, and the relatively straightforward narratives value the human virtues of cleverness and competition. The contest of arms between Hector and Achilles is made of the same stuff as the fight between  Heming and King Harald.

Given the academic significance of Warrior Lore, I, for one, hope that it earns its place in the constellation of similar English translations of Scandinavian poetry–and earns the attention of many more readers.

 

If you want to buy a copy of Warrior Lore, please buy it from the publisher’s website. This will better benefit the publisher and author: http://www.northerndisplayers.co.uk/

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Ian Cumpstey
Ian Cumpstey

 

 

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The Chalchiuhite Dragon by Kenneth Morris

Perusing the books on sale at MythCon 45 at Wheaton College in Norton, MA this summer, I stumbled across a most peculiar historical fantasy novel. It was the long-lost masterpiece of Kenneth Morris, The Chalchiuhite Dragon.

Well-known, if not actually famous, for his modern Celtic fantasies such as The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed and Book of Three Dragons, Morris was a contemporary of J.R.R. Tolkien and the Inklings, though he spent most of his time within the tight-knit community of the Theosophical Society in Wales and California. The Chalchiuhite Dragon, his final novel, was left unpublished at his death, and is the only classic fantasy based in Mesoamerica that I have read. Due partly to the prompting of Ursula K. Le Guin, who valourized Morris’s writing style in “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” a famous 1970s essay on proper diction in fantasy writing, this final novel was edited and published fifty-five years after the author’s death in 1992.

I was left in utter amazement that Morris’s book should be resurrected from the dead in the early 90s in a book cover style that seems to label it as a bestselling, contemporary novel. This astonishing story in the history of fantasy publishing is all the more remarkable since Morris’s writing style is at least partly the reason why editors felt it was valuable to publish this novel posthumously. The style is anything but contemporary; in fact, I might call the style as opaque as jade. When mixed with the obscure, impossible-to-pronounce-without-a-guide Toltec names, following the novel’s storyline was a labour. The dictionary of names at the back of the book is a necessary tool, and the absence of a map makes the storyline still more difficult to follow. Yet there is no doubt that it is written in a high style.

In terms of reading difficulty, Morris is between Tolkien and E.R. Eddison–Tolkien being the easiest to read and Eddison being the most difficult. It is these two authors, with Morris and George MacDonald, whom Le Guin declares to be the true masters of epic diction in modern fantasy. Especially for fantasy authors who are themselves interested in imitating the formal epic style of modern fantasy, The Chalchiuhite Dragon can make an instructive read in addition to an entertaining one.

The prose is a rock wall over which you must climb to access the spectacular Mesoamerican vistas. The novel should reward any devotee of modern fantasy who is willing to work through passages such as the following:

On the night of the Arrival of the Gods, every priest in Huitznahuac watched in his deity’s temple for the Divine Event. Thus the Royal Uncle Acatonatzin, being Tezcatlipocâ-priest, watched from the koo of the Soul of the World.

There are words you will not understand and some characters have more than one name, like Nopal’s alternatives names, Nopalton and Nopaltontli. But despite the density of the prose, it can make a rewarding reading for those interested.

Believe it or not, the story behind the The Chalchiuhite Dragon is one that lies behind a story that will be familiar to some. It is about mythical Huitznahuacan, a capital city of a kingdom that has never known war, and the events leading up to the birth of the Plumed Serpent Quetzalcoatl, whose form in a jade (chalchiuhite in Toltec) statue becomes a key image in the novel. Yes, this is (approximately) the same Quetzalcoatl whom the Aztecs, according to legend, mistook for Hernàn Cortes during the Spanish conquistador’s invasion of Mexico. Quetzalcoatl is like the Jesus Christ of Mesoamerica, a Prince of Peace and lawgiver for the Toltecs. However, the main action of the story is the lead-up to this miraculous birth during the holy month of Teotleco.

At times reading like an anthropological description of an ancient people’s religious practices, The Chalchiuhite Dragon comes across as a subtle mix of classical literature and political intrigue. When the Huitznahuatecs encounter foreign ambassadors during a festival, a whole new and dangerous world becomes introduced to them–Toltec civilization. Toltecs have a mysterious practice called war, with which the Huitznahuatecs are unfamiliar. The utopian, though naive, city must survive the conquest of the Toltecs and the wily machinations of its war leaders. A story about innocence lost and the hope for future peace emerges, a rewarding, oddly Christmas-y conclusion to a particularly well-written and neglected modern fantasy classic.

Imagine if Tolkien had written The Lord of the Rings sixty years ago, but it was only published this year. That is was what the intrigue behind The Chalchiuhite Dragon must have been like in 1992. Now in 2015, it is up for a new generation of Morris fans to determine whether it will be celebrated and for how long it will be remembered.

Greenmantle by Charles de Lint

GreenmantleWhat happens when you combine Robert Graves’s The White Goddess with Martin Scorsese’s mafia flick Goodfellas? I’m not sure, but it wouldn’t be far from Charles de Lint’s 1988 ‘mythic fiction’ novel Greenmantle.

Called the father of urban fantasy, Charles de Lint is the author of dozens of novels that combine fantasy with mainstream fiction. Perhaps ironically then, many of his novels concern the hipster class of bohemian folk musicians who certainly live beyond the ‘mainstream.’ However, Greenmantle abandons the usual urban settings and artsy protagonists of de Lint’s other fiction for a single mother and her bookish daughter who settles in the Ottawa suburbs.

De Lint stays true to mainstream fiction’s value of depicting how real people deal with real situations–it’s just that sometimes those situations are fantastic. Ali, the teenaged protagonist, moves outside the city after Frankie, her mother, wins the Wintario lottery. Ali’s fondness for classic works of fantasy that many readers will never have heard about–and the fact that she has moved between several different homes with her mother over her childhood–sets her apart from other teenagers. While living on the outskirts of a great forest, Ali makes the friendly acquaintance of a mysterious Italian neighbor, as she puzzles over the distracting, unearthly sounds of pan pipes that emerge from the bush.

This calm, even idyllic setup is preceded by intense scenes that seem to come from a Mario Puzzo novel. Tony Valenti, a member of the Sicilian fratellanza, is framed for the murder of his godfather–a crime he did not commit. He escapes Europe to hide away in his safe house in Canada while the heat dies down–right next door to Ali and Frankie. Meanwhile, Earl, Frankie’s ex, concocts a scheme to force her to sign over the Wintario money.

Alone, these plots could fuel a high-stakes thriller. Combined with the fantastic presence of the god Pan in the woods behind Ali and Frankie’s home, Greenmantle becomes something more than that.

An incarnation of the Horned One described in Robert Graves The White Goddess, Pan is a mystery, a being who appears at times as a human, a stag, a goat-footed satyr, or a combination of forms. The piping that summons him affects everyone differently, although for most people it produces feelings of hope. The only problem is, it seems, that a pack of baying hounds constantly hunts the great stag. Is the mystery’s power failing in a world that has no more need of mystery? Not only Greenmantle, but Charles de Lint’s entire oeuvre, seems to ask this question.

Without ever really making the thematic connections between the three interweaving plots explicit, de Lint places Frankie and Tony in the role of the hunted stag. Men from the fratellanza are coming to kill Tony, just as the baying hounds pursue Pan, and Earl is on the hunt for Frankie. I was half-expecting Tony to become the stag at one point, rather like how in Greek mythology–specifically, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses–Diana, the Virgin Goddess, transforms Actaeon into a stag. ‘The hunter becomes the hunted’ is both a mythological trope and something you can hang on the cover of an airport thriller novel. De Lint somehow makes it all work, elevating his thriller to the status of visionary art.

De Lint describes his chief inspiration for Greenmantle as Lord Dunsany’s novel The Blessing of Pan, in which a Christian vicar attempts to evangelize neo-pagan worshipers. Wolding, the paganized village in Dunsany’s story, becomes New Wolding in Greenmantle, after the inhabitants of the former village immigrate to found an independent, hidden, and self-sufficient village in Ontario. This gesture is one of several references to the history of fantasy contained in the novel itself, which reveals de Lint’s consciousness of writing within a tradition that stretches back long before Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. De Lint inhabits his ‘second generation’ status as a fantasy author with innovative purpose.

There is magic, mystery, and brutal murder behind the covers–certainly a work of adult fiction. Yet women and men should be equally attracted to reading this wonderful book. De Lint has a facility of writing strong female characters and, in my reading, I found the ‘male’ and ‘female’ elements of this novel to be well-balanced; it has features that will strongly appeal to guys and gals. One scene in particular includes Frankie lecturing Tony, who is a slightly macho Italian, on some of the finer points of feminism–a memorable scene.

Greenmantle is classic Charles de Lint and a great introduction to an author who should be read more frequently.

Charles de Lint
Charles de Lint

Photo Credits:

Charles de Lint: author page