Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 415

A tale of ancient Scandinavia, Frithiof’s Saga is told in a modern spirit by Esaias Tegnér. The old story is presented in a narrative poem of twenty-four cantos, each canto done in a different meter. Frithiof himself is more akin to a modern hero than he is to the great warriors of other Scandinavian tales. Tegnér’s effort is similar to that of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in that he attempts to shape the epic material of an ancient Norse story into nineteenth century poetic form. Although the poem lacks the simplicity and power of old Norse poetry, the imagery is memorable and the lyricism sweet and beautiful. Tegnér’s long narrative poem displays an odd sort of virtuosity: The poem remains faithful to its ancient ancestor in theme and narrative detail, yet it is made up of a curious blend of Scandinavian and English images and rhetorical devices in twenty-four different meters.

Because of forces beyond their control, Frithiof and his beloved are parted, and Ingeborg marries another, King Hring. The hero gallantly respects the marriage, and the king to whom his beloved is married, by maintaining the proper courtly distance. Frithiof’s Saga does not end tragically, however. Through Hring’s benevolence, Frithiof and Ingeborg are reunited, and Frithiof satisfies his pride by defeating the brother kings. The magnificent reconciliation canto, rendered by Tegnér in blank verse, evokes the grandeur of Norse mythology and the theme of atonement.

Frithiof’s Saga provided Tegnér with the opportunity to employ a pastiche of images and rhetorical devices. His rendering of each canto in a different meter demonstrates both virtuosity and preoccupation with the surfaces of poetry. Virtuosity for its own sake is no virtue, and it is regrettable that Tegnér did not choose to render his poem in a less obtrusive and more unified manner, for the work elevates style at the expense of content. Tegnér’s use of imagery raises further concerns. For example, readers find the Norse blood-and-guts warrior amid Elizabethan roses and the lilies, nightingales, and vanished dreams of the English Romantics. The poem displays two or three obvious thefts from William Shakespeare, and perhaps another from Percy Bysshe Shelley. It may be that the Swedish poet wished to align his narrative poem with the English literary tradition. Frithiof’s Saga was enormously successful when it appeared, becoming something of the poem of the Swedish people. It has been translated and read around the world.

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