Sunday, 23 September 2012

Literary Styles

Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword (London, 1977; original publication, 1954) begins and ends in the style of a saga:

"There was a man called Orm the Strong, a son of Ketil Asmundsson who was a yeoman in the north of Jutland." (p. 15)

"Here ends the sage of Skafloc Elven-Fosterling." (p. 208)

His Hrolf Kraki's Saga (New York, 1973) begins and ends in the same style:

"There was a man called Eyvind the Red, who dwelt in the Danelaw of England while Aethelstan was king. His father was Svein Kolbeinsson, who had come there from Denmark..." (p. 3)

"Here ends the saga of Hrolf Kraki and his warriors." (p. 261)

Chapter I of his War Of The Gods (New York, 1999) begins with the subject matter of an Edda:

"The gods themselves fought the first war that ever was." (p. 9)

However, its human action begins, in Chapter II, in the style of a novel:

"Up into the hills that rise north of the Scania lowlands came a small troop riding." (p. 15)

Let us compare the three texts so far. In The Broken Sword, Hrolf Kraki's Saga and War Of The Gods, Chapter I, a narrator directly addresses the reader and starts his story at the beginning. The gods are close to the beginning of all things and here they begin war, an important social institution for the Vikings. Neither Orm nor Eyvind will turn out to be our hero. Orm is Skafloc's father. Eyvind's Danish wife will recount Hrolf Kraki's Saga. These are the things that we need to be told first.

By contrast, War Of The Gods, like Paradise Lost after its opening invocation, "plunges into the midst of things" (in media res). We have yet to learn who the "...small troop..." are. We soon learn that this troop, en route to visit a giant, guards the two sons of a recently slain king. Thus, we learn what is going on while it is going on. Major events, including a battle, have already occurred but one of the characters soon recounts this to another and thus to the reader.

In accordance with the conventions of a novel, we expect the narrative, even if it is in the third person, to be presented from the point of view of a single one of its protagonists. The likeliest candidate is Braki Halldorsson, who fares at the head of the troop. Our expectation is only partly fulfilled. Certainly, we do not hear the voice of a distanced story-teller informing us equally about all of the characters and events. On the other hand, the point of view remains collective:

"...uneasiness was upon them." (p. 16)

"...Braki and his following...sat down, feeling bolder than before." (p. 19)

"Braki's followers loosened their grip on their weapons. Things were going as he had promised them." (p. 18)

Thus, when, after this third quotation, the text relates:

"Once this giant had murderously raided farms..." (p. 18)

it is telling us what Braki's followers knew and could reflect on as they relaxed while his earlier promise to them was fulfilled. This is different from a literary style in which the narrator or story-teller simply recounts the giant's deeds directly to the reader.

In War Of The Gods, the human story ends with the hero's followers finding his body. There is no conclusion in which we could be told about the succession or subsequent events. The novel as a whole ends in novelistic style with dialogue when Njord of the Vanir tells Odin of the Aesir:

" '...from this day to the last, we are brothers.' " (p. 298)

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