1. The translated lyrics flow smoothly, with a feeling of great simplicity-- which no doubt took lots of skill and effort to cultivate! Translator Ian Cumpstey spent eight years in Sweden, where he absorbed the language and marveled at the integration of music into daily life.
[If you'd like to hear a sample read aloud, Skadi Press has posted "Widrick Waylandsson's Fight" to Soundcloud-- and I think you'll agree that the reader's charming accent does no harm! Oh, I'm such an American.]
2. The lyrics themselves are front and center. Short intros to each ballad enhanced my appreciation without overburdening me (a casual reader) with scholarly detail: Cumpstey provides a helpful summary, and then lets the ballad speak (or sing?) for itself.
3. There's something shattering about a tale of great trauma rendered so simply and directly...! Although as gory as Grimm's tales, many of these medieval songs evoke remarkable compassion in few words. For example, the ballad "Hilla-Lill" tells the fate of a lady who-- by consenting to an unsuccessful elopement-- furthered the slaughter of her father, lover, and six of her brothers:
"My brother he wanted to have me killed,
My mother she wanted to have me sold.
"And so I was sold for a bell so new,
It hangs in the church of St. Mary now.
"My mother she heard the chime of the bell,
And broken her heart into pieces fell."
Along the same lines...
4. Female suffering is voiced. These songs don't posit that fairytale women will live happily ever after, Disney style. Rather, the wives and daughters of legendary knights can-- and do-- lose all that is dear to them in a single battle; and even a lasting marriage can be far from romantic.
"Yes you took my serving girl,
And lay on the pillows of blue,
But me you've pulled me by my hair,
And cursed and beaten too,"
Elin accuses her husband from her deathbed. She refuses to forgive him-- and who could blame her? (Well, the Victorians. Maybe.)
5. Still, the women of these ballads aren't saintly. After Cumpstey's introduction described one young lady as "playing hard to get," I had to laugh out loud-- for she'd posted her suitors' severed heads on stakes outside her home! Yet the gentlemen callers kept right on coming.
6. Oh yes--and there's humor, too. Really! For example, a crossdressing Thor nearly gives away his game by revealing a less than delicate appetite. (I enjoyed this version of Thor's famous search for his lost hammer-- the only tale remotely familiar to me, by the way! All else was new.)
7. Homeschool potential. I could imagine high school students using this work to ease into early literature, or to sample from a different cultural context. Each ballad and its introduction read easily in one brief sitting, yet offer plenty of material for thought and discussion.
Happy Friday! Thank you for visiting, and please drop by This Ain't the Lyceum for more Quick Takes.
Disclosure: The author/translator gifted me a Kindle copy of this work in exchange for my honest review.