December 16, 2012
The norse origins of Bilbo Baggins (Nancy Marie Brown, 12/13/12, National Post)
In the late 1920s J. R. R. Tolkien provoked an argument. Opposing him, among others, was C. S. Lewis. Tolkien had not yet written The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Lewis had not yet written The Chronicles of Narnia. They were debating the appropriate curriculum for English majors at Oxford University, where they both taught.Tolkien believed too much time was spent on dull and unimportant writers like Shakespeare, whom Lewis revered. Instead, Tolkien thought, students should read Snorri Sturluson.Who?And not only Snorri but the other fine authors of the Icelandic sagas and the Eddic poems. And the students should read them in Old Norse.Lewis had read the mythological tales from Snorri's Edda in English as a boy. He found the Norse myths more compelling -- as stories, he said -- than even the Bible. Like Tolkien, he was drawn to their Northernness: to their depictions of dragons and dwarfs, fair elves and werewolves, wandering wizards, and trolls that turned into stone. To their portrayal of men with a bitter courage who stood fast on the side of right and good, even when there was no hope at all.It's even better in the original, Tolkien said. He had been reading Old Norse since his teens. He loved the cold, crisp, unsentimental language of the sagas, their bare, straightforward tone like wind keening over ice. Reading Snorri and his peers was more important than reading Shakespeare, Tolkien argued, because their books were more central to our language and our modern world. Egg, ugly, ill, smile, knife, fluke, fellow, husband, birth, death, take, mistake, lost, skulk, ransack, brag and law, among many other common English words, all derived from Old Norse. As for Snorri's effect on modernity, it was soon to mushroom.
Posted by Orrin Judd at December 16, 2012 8:50 AM