The Faraway North by Ian Cumpstey

30644384The great hero Sigurd is joined in this collection by troll-battling warriors including Holger Dane, Orm the Strong, and others. There are dramatic scenes of romance, betrayal, and loss. Some of the ballads translated here are attested by paintings or maps that date from earlier than when the first full ballad texts were first written down in the 1500s. An adventure ballad relevant to the history of an Eddic poem is also included.

When Ian got in touch to offer this little collection of ballads for review I instantly agreed. As you may know I’m Estonian, so Scandinavian countries are just across the waters from my home country. While the Estonian epos of ‘Kalevipoeg’ is quite similar to the Finnish ‘Kalevala’ I don’t have much knowledge of similar epic poems or ballads from the Swedish/Norwegian/Danish cultures. Naturally, I was intrigued.

These ballads convey a fantastic vision of the world as it was imagined in medieval Scandinavia, with monsters and magic intermingled with very human concerns of heroism, tragedy, love, and revenge.

All of the ballads in this translated collection carry a similar theme. The hero, the villain, a maiden. The undying love and battles fought. The ballads are quite short and if as a reader you wish to be handheld through the story, some bits may be confusing to you. For example, the dialogue is not ‘labeled’ and at times you’ll find a good chuck of action didn’t occur. One minute you’re reading how the hero sits on a horse ready to fight a troll and the next minute you’re conversing with the maiden after defeating the troll. It didn’t cause an issue with me. I just read and the overall setting and scene was what counted in the end.

The ballads are storytelling songs that were passed down as part of an oral folk music tradition in Scandinavia. This collection brings many new ballads to the English-speaking reader. The readable verse translations succeed in conveying the rhythm, spirit, and imagery of the originals. The translations are mainly based on Swedish and Norwegian ballads, with some from Danish tradition.

For each ballad, there is also a short introduction with commentary and background information.

The ballads included are:
Åsmund Frægdegjeva; Steinfinn Fefinnson; Esbjörn Proud and Orm the Strong; Sunfair and the Dragon King; Bendik and Årolilja; Sigurd Sven; Sivard Snare Sven; Little Lisa; Sven Norman and Miss Gullborg; Peter Pallebosson; Sir Svedendal; King Speleman; Holger Dane and Burman; Sven Felding; St Olaf’s Sailing Race.

Overall, I truly enjoyed this collection. Majority of the ballads are in rhythm and rhyme. Translating texts can cut and chop a lot of the beautiful language, meaning and feeling out of the original, but in this case I was still able to get quite a full-bodied picture and result.

I’m sure you’ve noticed from the blurb a mention of commentary and background information. Fret not, they’re succinct and provide a great overview ahead of each ballad.

So, if you want to try something different- why not start with The Faraway North and find out what the medieval Northeners were up to 🙂

Mr Rating: 5*****. I enjoyed the ballads. I also recognize the work and research that has gone into getting this collection translated and out there for the rest of English speaking countries to discover.

9 comments

  1. I would have never thought to read Scandinavian Folk Ballads. Never comes up in conversation…
    I guess it should more!
    Made me wanna check it out!
    I mean, how can I pass on Scandinavian ballads? Just can’t! 🤔

    Liked by 1 person

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