The King's Bow: Review of Rick McGregor's Per Olof Sundman and the Icelandic Sagas (1993)

John Dolan
Department of English
University of Otago
New Zealand

Deep South v.1 n.3 (Spring, 1995)

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It is sometimes difficult to think of the Scandinavian countries in the present tense, so overwhelming is the memory, real or invented, of their Viking period in which a few raiders from the coldest and poorest land in Europe managed to wreak havoc from Galway to Kiev. Rick McGregor's fascinating study of the contemporary Swedish novelist, Per Olof Sundman, examines the question of indebtedness to the gory and glorious past in a writer working in a wholly neutral, calm, belated Sweden.

Briefly, McGregor investigates the degree to which Sundman's novels have been influenced by the Icelandic sagas. The similarity has been often asserted, particularly in the case of Sundman's earlier works, since, as McGregor demonstrates in detail, the laconic, flat narrative style Sundman uses in most of his early work resembles the narrative style of the great Sagas. But McGregor points out that this sort of attribution of influence is not so simple. For example, he notes that in the case of American writers, laconic narration is likely to be attributed to Hemingway, not the sagas. Why should Sundman's terse style not be attributed to Hemingway as well, since, as McGregor notes, Sundman had some familiarity with Hemingway's work? Or, as McGregor also notes, the influence of Hemingway or other laconic modern writers might have come through a Swedish source, like the works of Bengtsson and Jonson. In fact, it is only by naive faith in something like racial memory that one could attribute Sundman's early laconic style unquestionably to the Sagas.

By bringing back into question the problem of literary influence, McGregor manages to make his work exciting even for the reader whose familiarity with Swedish literature is limited. In particular, his discussion of the Sagas in comparison with modern Scandinavian literature raises the question of the degree to which the fearsome past overshadows the becalmed present for a Swedish writer. The problem of transferring the style of the sagas to modern narratives is above all one of scale, much like that Pope faced in trying to write epic poetry in eighteenth-century England: the tropes are all there and ready to be used, but the scale is all wrong. The contemporary landscape is a tiny fraction of the huge arena of the writers of the Sagas. Sundman, in trying to shun the "psychological" novel adapted to detailing the petty problems of bourgeois Europe, must find events on a scale suited to the telling of simple facts--in other words, the psychological novel is perfectly adapted to a world in which nothing ever happens, while the style of the Sagas evolved in a world in which all too many things happened, all too often, to require commentary. In seeking a canvas for the event-centered, anti-psychological style, Sundman naturally looks to those twentieth-century events which most resemble the raiding and feuds of the Sagas, above all in his novel Ingenjör Andrées luftfärd (The Flight of the Eagle), Sundman tells the story of a doomed arctic balloon voyage -- a story which the Saga writers could have told in their sleep.

Indeed, one of the delights of the book is the selection of passages from the saga McGregor has highlighted. The wonder and cruelty of the Medieval Icelandic landscape emerge vividly from passages like these. The first, from Olofs saga, is an illuminated moment from the mass conversion of the Norse to Christianity:

. . . The King had Rauthr brought before him and bade him take the baptism . . . Rauthr shouted and yelled at him, he said he would never believe in Christ, and he insulted God terribly.Then the King became enraged and said Rauthr would have the worst death there was. So the King had people take him and tie him with his back to a log, He had them put a stick between his teeth so his mouth stayed open. Then he had an adder put before [Rauthr's] mouth, but the snake would not go into his mouth, it wriggled away, because Rauthr blew on it.Then the King had a . . . tube brought, and put it into Rauthr's mouth, actually some people say that it was his trumpet the King had put in his mouth. Then he released the snake into it and thrust a glowing iron bar in after it. Then the snake wriggled into Rauthr's mouth and down through his throat and gnawed its way out through his side. That is how Rauthr lost his life. (McGregor 24)

Wow! But Kings don't behave in such a cinematic manner these days, and balloon disasters don't happen every day. As Paul Nizan said, "Events are not a public utility, events are not delivered to your doorstep." As chronicled by McGregor, Sundman's literary evolution becomes a protracted experiment in matching a grand narrative manner to a tiny landscape (as when Pope agonizingly miniatured and transposed the Homeric poetics he had spent his youth learning to the field of the possible: i.e. the bucolic vistas of "Windsor Forest.") In McGregor's reconstruction of Sundman's career, it becomes clear that the modern author experienced his most successful period (the "middle period" in McGregor's term) when he abandoned his search for a Northwest Passage which would allow him to use the storytelling techniques of the sagas in novels of twentieth-century life. Sundman's best stories, McGregor argues, came to be when Sundman accepted the modern convention of interior life, unreliable narration, and so on; and when, after the "middle period," Sundman returned to the laconic conventions of the Sagas, his work declined in quality.

One of the incidents from the Olofs saga which McGregor describes in detail is the moment when a great archer whose own bow has been splintered is given the one belonging to the King. Drawing the arrow back, he finds the bow soft, and cries, "Too weak, too weak is the King's bow!" In Sundman's case, as told by McGregor, it is tempting to imagine the modern Scandinavian writer who attempts to use the style of the great Sagas making a directly opposing complaint: "Too strong, too strong is the Sagas' voice!"

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