Sunday, May 31, 2015

Warrior Lore: Scandinavian Folk Ballads (Ian Cumpstey)

What a thoroughly delightful book this is. Ian Cumpstey, a chemist and litterateur from the Northwest of England who spent a number of years living in Sweden, set himself the challenge in this and his earlier volume, Lord Peter and Little Kerstin: Medieval Ballads from Sweden, of conveying the energy and entertainment of medieval Scandinavian ballad poetry in vigorous, accessible, popular language. He has thoroughly succeeded in this goal.

In his Preface, Cumpstey situates these ballads at the intersection of poetry, song, storytelling, and legend. Warrior Lore focuses on fighting heroes and their memorable deeds, some of which end well, some tragically, some comically. The ballad form was (still is, to the extent that anyone wishes to exploit it) highly flexible in tone. Therefore, within an 81-page volume containing ten poems about great warriors, there is nonetheless considerable variety. 

“Widrick Waylandsson’s Fight with Long-Ben Reyser” and “Twelve Strong Fighters” are a twinned pair of fighting ballads with a vein of high-spirited comedy, which together comprise a single story. Two ballads about the young sportsman Heming find him showing off his skiing skills, thwarting a troll, getting the girl, even besting a king.

“Hilla-Lill,” “Sir Hjalmar,” and “The Cloister Raid” look at women’s tragedies within the context of a warrior culture; “The Stablemates” has a more positive romantic outcome.

Confirmed medievalists and Scandinavian enthusiasts will eat all this up. Who else? Well, this material, and the Poetic Edda that came before it, has a lineage that extends into modern pop culture on several fronts. There is a Thor ballad here, “The Hammer Hunt,” that should charm fans of the Marvel super-hero, whether those who began with the comic books in the Sixties, or followers of the more recent movies. The Thor comics were my first exposure to this legendary world, so I can speak from personal experience.

J.R.R. Tolkien was also inspired by the traditional Scandinavian corpus of poetry. One sees Aragorn’s and Faramir’s forebears everywhere in Warrior Lore. Cumpstey also includes a riddle song, “Sven Swan-White,” that irresistibly brings to mind the riddle scene between Bilbo Baggins and Gollum in The Hobbit that has such far-reaching implications in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Riddling appears to have lost some steam as a popular activity these days, but Cumpstey reminds us why it has been traditionally and deeply enjoyed in most human cultures.

I think it is far from accidental that a rural Englishman should find this poetry congenial. English poetry has its origins in Scandinavian poetry, after all – think of Beowulf. A world of poetic adventure that has long been lost to most readers is perfectly recoverable with Ian Cumpstey’s enthusiastic assistance.

Skadi Press

Warrior Lore: Scandinavian Ballads

Lord Peter and Little Kerstin: Medieval Ballads from Sweden

No comments:

Post a Comment