Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Original Grimdark: King Harald’s Saga


Fantasy literature uses the word “saga” quite liberally, as if any story with wizards and battles qualifies. Yet sagas refer properly to the old Icelandic sagas, a vast collection of histories, tales, and legends dutifully recorded by Medieval scholars and poets. Though most of these writers saw themselves as writing factual accounts of the heroic past, they were quite willing to stretch the truth when necessary; thus the legendary King Harald of Norway becomes almost eight feet tall, and can rush into a battle without shield or armor and hack down a horde of foes unscathed. It certainly sounds better than what must have been the still remarkable, but far more mundane reality. Not surprisingly, given the fuzzy distinction between truth and reality, Icelandic sagas touch on a number of modern genres: history, fantasy, romance, folklore, even horror—it’s all here, written in succinct yet extremely colorful language. 

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Learning to Re-Read the Novel


In Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), often considered the first English novel (as we now define the term), the book opens with the words “I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good Family...” and ends some two-hundred pages later without a single chapter break or exchange of dialogue. Though one of the most influential books written in English, everything about it now seems hopelessly old-fashioned and a tedious chore for the modern reader (weaned on YA lit, especially) to wade through. For this reason it appears less and less frequently on college syllabi, and not at all in the high school classroom, where it was once enjoyed a popularity similar to—and perhaps even rivaling—Harry Potter.