A slow reader’s savage pleasure

I have a habit, and perhaps so too do you, of glancing down to the bottom of the page as I read.  Even — perhaps especially — when I know I shouldn’t, when suspense is building, when mysteries verge upon revelation.  I don’t want to do it.  If I could fetter my eyes, force them to follow the author-given flow of words, I would.  But the best I can do is cover the bottom of the page with my hand, as if a drunken editor were spoiling my fun by printing the crossword solution right-side-up for a Tuesday lark.

Why do I mention this?

It’s a very different story when you read in translation, particularly, I might add, when you’re translating an inflected language (and how about that darling cat diagram!).  Perhaps your eyes wander and you, sharp vocabulary student that you are, realize that, later in this very sentence, there will occur an event with regard to a turnip.  Even so, the plot may remain unspoiled; perhaps the turnip will speak with boldness, perhaps a courtier will give a gift to the turnip, perhaps a chef will julienne the turnip (is this a thing that happens?), perhaps a thief will be bludgeoned with a turnip, perhaps the particular scent of a turnip will be discussed.  That is to say, there’s enough grammar to decode within each word, enough cogitation required to make sense of it, that you can usually hold yourself in ignorance by force of will.

At least that’s the case for me, particularly because Norse roots haven’t buried themselves as deeply into my gray matter as the Latin ones have, so it’s pretty difficult for me to sight-translate at all.  My glossary shows extremely heavy signs of wear on the edges; you’d think I never washed my hands at all!

Moreover: any of you who’ve taken an intermediate language class may have had the experience of beginning to read a book in the original with full knowledge that the semester isn’t nearly long enough for you to reach the conclusion.  I still don’t know how the Medea ends (they work it out, right?)!  And somehow it feels like cheating to read the translation; I want the satisfaction of working it out from scratch.

All this explains how I laboriously read the opening few chapters of Hrafnkel’s Saga over a Connecticut fall-turning-winter without any idea of how things would turn out.  My image of Hrafnkel remained that of an unjust, cruel, but indomitable man, a bully of a chieftain who’d put on his blue-black shirt and killed his shepherd just for riding Hrafnkel’s favorite horse, the magnificent Freyfaxi; more importantly, it seemed clear he was the kind of man who’d get away with flouting some poor, shabby farmers.

A big portion of our final exam was translating a section from later in the saga, the part we’d never reached.  As I began to get deeper into the passage, I started wondering if I’d made a terrible mistake.  This didn’t seem right at all (from Terry Gunnell’s translation, not my exam):

During the day, the Thjostarssons sent for Freyfaxi and his herd, saying they wanted to see these wonderful animals that so many tales had been told about, “because you won’t find any better animals of this kind than these horses.”

The horses were led home, and the brothers looked them over.

Thorgeir said, “These mares look ideal for farming people.  I recommend that they be put to work for people for as long as possible, until the winter or age start troubling them.  But this stallion doesn’t seem any better to me than any other horses.  If anything, he is worse since he’s been the cause of so much trouble.  I don’t want him to be the cause of any more slayings than those which have already taken place.  It would be most fitting that he who owns him should take him.”

They now led the stallion down through the meadows, and along beside the river.  Below the farm, there are some high cliffs and a waterfall.  There is a deep pool in the river there.  They led the stallion out onto the cliff.  The men from the West Fjords pulled a leather sack over the head of the horse, and took some stout poles and set them against his flanks.  They then tied a stone around his neck, leaned hard against the poles and pushed him forward and off the cliff, so that he was destroyed.  This place has since been called Freyfaxahamar (Freyfaxi’s Cliff).

I cannot recall a reading experience that shocked me more, and the fact that it took a couple of hours to cover that much ground probably had something to do with it.  I simply could not believe what was happening until the stone went around Freyfaxi’s neck, and even then I expected a reprieve.  And where was Hrafnkel?  Chucked off a fjord as well?  I’m pretty sure I finished the test with a foolishly gaping jaw that didn’t close for hours.

He's just going for a lovely walk...right?

He's just going for a lovely walk...right?



  1. mordicai said,

    October 8, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    Spoiler alert!

  2. fleitasactual said,

    October 8, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    It’s many hundreds of years old! You had your chance.

  3. ihatedanger said,

    October 8, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    Oh noes! is all I can say.

  4. fleitasactual said,

    October 8, 2009 at 11:08 pm

    It’s a sad state of affairs, but Freyfaxi was a little bit of a tattletale.

  5. Hanna said,

    October 26, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    Chris, why did you not use MY photo of an Icelandic horse standing in front of a crater (near Snaefellnesjökull), available on Facebook? HMMMM?

    • October 26, 2009 at 11:49 pm

      Because the stripe on your horse’s back is the wrong color to be Freyfaxi JEEZ HANNA

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