Some Penguin Classics try, with adorable flat-footedness, to jump on the zeitgeist bandwagon in order to reach those ever-elusive unconverted readers. It’s an inherently silly thing for Penguin Classics to do, since theirs are the books that created the zeitgeist in the first place; in a perfect world, our reading culture would be attentively watching what Penguin Classics did, not the other way around.
But even so, the folks in Penguin’s publicity department still try, every once in a while, to jazz up some of their offerings in order to make them seem more relevant to whatever happens to be trending on Twitter. And there’s something extra-endearing about how bad at it they tend to be! A perfect case-in-point is the fantastic little series of re-issues they’ve come out with recently called “Legends from the Ancient North.” The series features five volumes: The Elder Edda, The Saga of the Volsungs, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Wanderer: Elegies, Epics, Riddles, and Beowulf. Each volume’s cover has been given a wonderfully eye-catching redesign by Petra Borner with illustrations by Isabelle de Cot (whose names are printed on the bottom back of each book in unreadable micro-type – a shameful oversight on Penguin’s part, considering the fact that the popping covers are the first thing any of those unconverted readers are going to notice), and each of those brilliant covers is marred by the addition of a bright orange sticker saying “Classics that inspired J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.” Which is an attention-grab not so much for Tolkien’s beloved children’s classic (which Penguin itself still cannot reprint) as it is for the Peter Jackson movie The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which comes to theaters just in time for Christmas and will probably make $500 million at the box office. But had the Penguin PR people had the savvy of those party-people over at TMZ, they’d have scanned the list of upcoming movies and found a closer match to these great, wintry old classics: Marvel Studios’ Thor: The Dark World, which is actually in theaters now, and which is going to make a cool $1 billion at the box office. The Hobbit features a quasi-Northern world full of sorcerers, dwarves, elves, and dragons, a heady pastiche created by ardent medievalist Tolkien. Thor: The Dark World features the Norse gods themselves, who also stride through most of these wonderful reprints flying, fighting, talking, and joking even more ebulliently than they do in Marvel’s latest blockbuster.
It serves as further notice that Penguin Classics is first and foremost (one might almost say hopelessly) book-oriented, and that’s perfectly fitting: these five volumes are far more personal and entertaining than any pastiche could possibly hope to be.
Half the volumes are comparatively lesser-light works of old Anglo-Saxon and Norse lore, presented again at the prompting of an outlook so concisely expressed by Michael Alexander in the Introduction to his 1966 translation of The Wanderer:
The excuse, ultimately, for a book of this sort is a conviction on the part of the author that some early English poems deserve to be read by those who do not make their living out of the subject, that what is excellent should be made current. Not much Old English verse has survived, but among the debris there are some very fine things …
The contents of Alexander’s volume – which include “The Dream of the Rood” and “The Battle of Maldon” – will be the least familiar to any readers coming here looking for Hobbit prequels, and yet the ingenious riddles Alexander includes will remind those same readers of the most memorable little section of Tolkien’s book (odds are extremely good that director Peter Jackson will manage to bungle that charming riddle-swapping scene in his upcoming movie, but there’s always hope).
Likewise the ancient Icelandic Saga of the Volsungs (here reprinting Jesse Byock’s 1999 translation) will be unfamiliar to most general readers, who can be envied for encountering for the first time the flinty, blood-spattered, and austerely beautiful world it brings to life. It’s a story full of lightning-quick shifts of register, and Byock handles it deftly.
The centerpiece of the set is Andy Orchard’s splendid 2011 translation of the Codex Regius, the Elder Edda storehouse of Icelandic mythology, here given the kind of lavish popular volume it hasn’t had in like measure since the version done by Paul Taylor and W. H. Auden half a century ago. Orchard loads the work with critical support in the form of copious End Notes, but his actual translation is so good, so exciting and fresh (as is only fitting for a translator whose imagination was first ignited by the work of the great Roger Lancelyn Green), that readers caught up in it won’t often remember to consult those notes. The Elder Edda features some rollicking-grand adventures of the Norse gods – sly, sarcastic, horny Loki, treacherous, word-tricky, horny Odin, bombastic, hammer-flinging, horny Thor, handsome, valiant, horny Frey and the rest, and if these stories aren’t as well-known as their ancient Greek counterparts, they certainly ought to be. Their bawdier and livelier than anything else in the mythological canon, and Orchard catches those qualities better than any translator before him, as in the scene where Frey sends his barb-tongued servant Skirnir to woo a stand-offish Giant maid on his behalf and the exchange between the two grows hilariously acrid, with Skirnir abusing the maid:
“Hrimgrimnir is the ogre’s name, who shall have you,
down below Corpse-gates;
rough thralls there under the roots of a tree
will give you the piss of goats;
you’ll never get a better drink,
girl, whatever you want,
girl, after what I want.
‘cock-craving’, and ‘frenzy’, and ‘impatience';
I can cut away what I cut in,
should any reason arise.”
(The rough wooing works; she agrees to meet with Frey, go figure)
Penguin presses another translation of Michael Alexander’s into service in the set, this time his 1973 version of that perennial crowd-pleaser Beowulf with its foreboding opening set in the Grendel-haunted haul of Heorot, where the hero stands watch alone in the night:
Gliding through the shadows came
the walker in the night; the warriors slept
whose task was to hold the horned building,
all except one. It was well-known to men
that the demon could not drag them to the shades
without God’s willing it; yet one man kept
It’s inevitable that this will feel a bit galumphing when compared to Seamus Heaney’s gloriously gritty 1999 translation, and long-time readers of Open Letters Monthly might feel the same way about Bernard O’Donoghue’s 2006 translation of the final work in the set, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and although Adam Golaski’s version Green beats O’Donoghue’s version for sheer virtuosity, O’Donoghue’s is also excellent – and has the virtue of being both well-annotated and complete (whereas Golaski, in his sloth, still slumps, like Grendel, outside the grace of God).
It’s often been commented that one of the most enjoyable aspects of the ongoing Penguin Classics line is its gamesome willingness to re-invent its enormous back-catalogue to suit new creative ideas, and “Legends from the Ancient North” is a marvelous example of that. And if the theatrical resurgence of the “Ancient North” – in the form of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies, or Marvel’s bludgeoningly fun Thor franchise – or even The History Channel’s utterly excellent ongoing series Vikings, which you should all be watching – is to spark a mini-renaissance of this great, violent, poetic literature, this Penguin Classics set is a perfect place for readers to start. So maybe it catches a bit of zeitgeist after all.