The Old Norse world, rewoven

Sigrene’s Bargain with Odin 
by Zoë Landale

Toronto: Inanna Publications, 2023
$19.95 / 9781771339681

Reviewed by Harold Rhenisch

*

Sigrene’s Bargain with Odin is a book of magic—the magic of a realm of belief in which women weave worlds, the magic of art, and the magic of a stage magician’s sleights-of-hand.

The action of this epic poem takes place in the domain of the Norse gods and goddesses, head-splitting heroes, the gods’ horses, and a dragon. It’s a story about the end of an old order and the creation of another.

In the parallel accounts of Greek myth, the new generation came from killing off goddesses, who cut fate into life-sized threads. Men got to rule. Pender Island’s Zoë Landale (Orchid Heart Elegies) turns this story inside out. It’s a woman, half divine, who creates here, by choosing to be human as we know it. The threads aren’t cut but woven. It’s a welcome change and worth the book.

The difference, though, is not as large as it looks. Perhaps the greatest male hero was Alexander—a historical figure who turned childhood trauma into an empire that stretched from Macedonia to India. His myth tells of him cutting the Gordian Knot, an impossible tangle of threads that goddesses used to maintain power in Central Turkey. Nobody could untie it. Alexander sliced it in two with his sword. The rest is history.

Landale’s heroine, Sigrene, is just as charming and cunning—and at times a modern mortal thrown into the past. That’s odd. A magic that makes the past live by peopling it with fictions is a mythology of the present. It’s art.

The more traditional magic here is called Seiðr (seithr). It’s part of the Trolldom magic of premodern Scandinavia. As it is rarely mentioned in old texts, it is open to free interpretation. Landale’s interpretation is respectful, evocative, beautiful even, and artful. It’s worth the book, too.

Even so, Sigrene’s Bargain with Odin is an epic, and epic has rules. Some are rules of character. (Landale’s are lovable.) Some are rules of plot and form. Landale’s aren’t always on target. Epic plots are celebratory. Hers are novelistic. Sometimes, they chafe. The men, for example, are secondary figures. Their character is given. It doesn’t rise from them. We can argue that they come from Seiðr, the art of weaving fate. If so, they are really figures woven into a tapestry of vision or memory. It’s a beautiful vision, but it’s sometimes hard to reconcile such woven, two-dimensional figures with the powerful actors that Sigrene must outwit. 

In comparison, the women are full characters, yet even with them the forms are thin. Despite the strength of the male gods, their narratives are sketched together without real opposition—but, hey, it’s the same with graphic novels and they are much loved. It’s not a mortal flaw. It just gnaws a bit at the strength of the magic.

One view of Seiðr has women weaving battle that men then undertake. Think: Lady Macbeth and the witches pressing Macbeth into the death that awaits us all. Such weaving is woven into Landale’s art. Her lines carry the weight of a shuttle thrown across a loom’s warp, from right to left, where it is held for a moment then thrown back. The weight is often at the beginning of the lines here. The effect gives heaviness to many passages. Lines stop as they begin. At times, however, orphaned beats at a line’s left are matched through the line and caught up in the same pattern on the right:

I had relatives? The Vanir looked at me with black
eyes, unreadable as water in a well. Heimdal called, Before 
you go, Grímur, come back and drink with me. I may believe

your warnings.

It’s lovely. It’s beautifully patterned. At other times, prose narrative dominates, like this:

          I was starving and so chilled I could barely
clutch the neck of my brave-hearted mare. My hands were
stiff as saplings. I was dispirited to my core by the wretched
smell and darkness like a thief. Maybe it was despair wafting

down spiderweb-sticky from Hel.

And that’s the thing about this book. The shape shifts, and so often that it’s hard to tell what shape it should have. When the changes work, they’re as gorgeous as Landale’s stunning imagery, singing gloriously, with masterful use of Norse verse traditions of half-weighted words to push the action along in full power. Then, just as suddenly, the lines grow over-short or over-long, and the timing is lost. 

I never was quite able to figure out if these changes were meant to map the changes in Sigrene’s thinking, or in the worlds she was binding, but it doesn’t really matter: an epic is a drone, continued sound carried by vibrating strings or vocal chords. Sigrene’s story, though, is meant to be read not sung. My advice is, read the book, but if you find the lines tripping up your tongue, then just read them as prose until the music grabs you again, because Sigrene and her story are charming. They really are.

The last section of Landale’s epic is in an entirely different form. It’s a simpler weave, with fewer beats per line, and does not fail. Landale holds the threads here strongly. They weave the creation Sigrene made by killing the Norse one. In this medieval Irish Christian world, Sigrene—and Landale—appear more at ease. Sigrene is no longer an adolescent but a woman with her feet on the ground. Male opposition is gone. It’s beautiful.

Author Zoë Landale (photo: Ingrid Paulsen)

That kind of mastery of form and character is uneven in the Old Norse sections that precede it, which are told more than sung. That’s not illogical. When you’re preparing to weave, the set up of the warp is the bulk of the work. The weaving of the weft through the long threads is quick. For a narrative, though, 80% setup and 20% action is a little unbalanced.

Some of the details are equally variable. The forms of Old Norse epic are twinned forms, with a pause in the middle of a line. Each line is a woven mirror of chain rhymes, not alien to the old iron age Finnish epic the Kalevala, which was sung by two singers holding hands, rocking back and forth, with call and echo in each line. In comparison, Homeric epic is more like surf and rhythmic dance, and ballads, which are English (Landale’s language), are more like the rowing of a boat. In that landscape, what Landale has is not chain rhyme, but a highly variable measure, at times artfully matching Norse half and quarter beats, but mostly in the tradition of English translations based on classical Greek dance measures, so variable that at times they are a little hard to dance to.

Some of the details of Landale’s Old Norse world are equally up for grabs. This is not lived mythology, as you might get in the retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin myth in the Icelandic TV series Katla. It’s a story in a world of prose, not a magic that creates the Norse world new, but one that creates the modern world by killing off the old one as a field of romantic battle. That’s kind of Landale’s point.

Which is all fine, if you don’t take your magic seriously enough to see it as more than art. Twentieth century epics such as Pound’s Cantos or Williams’ Patterson chose art. So does Landale. She does it as well and as unevenly as they do, but with the welcome addition of a contemporary activist heroine. Calling it magic, though, well, that’s art for you.

*

Harold Rhenisch

Harold Rhenisch has written thirty-four books from the Southern Interior since 1974. He won the George Ryga Prize for The Wolves at Evelyn (Brindle & Glass, 2006), a memoir of German immigrant life from the Similkameen to the Bulkley valleys, including the story of Hans and Charlotte. His other grasslands books are Tom Thompson’s Shack (New Star, 1999) and Out of the Interior (Ronsdale, 1993). He lived for fifteen years in the South Cariboo and has worked closely with the photographer Chris Harris on Spirit in the Grass (2008), Motherstone (2010), and Cariboo Chilcotin Coast (2016), as well as on The Bowron Lakes (2006), all published by Country Lights; and he writes the blog Okanagan-Okanogan. His The Salmon Shanties: A Cascadian Song Cycle, a series of drum songs for the salmon in English and Chinook Wawa and honouring the poet Charles Lillard, is appearing this fall from Oskana Editions. Harold lives in an old Japanese orchard on unceded Syilx Territory above Canim Bay on Okanagan Lake. [Editor’s note: Harold Rhenisch has reviewed books by Kerry Gilbert, Robert Hilles, Sho Yamagushiku, Bradley Peters, Aaron Tucker, Dale Tracy, Dominique Bernier-Cormier, Selina Boan, Joseph Dandurand, Délani ValinRobert Bringhurst, Rayya Liebich, Sarah de Leeuw, Roger FarrStephan TorreDon Gayton, and Calvin White for BCR. His book Landings (Burton House, 2021) was reviewed by Luanne ArmstrongThe Tree Whisperer (Gaspereau, 2021) was reviewed by Adrienne Fitzpatrick.]

*

The British Columbia Review


Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie


Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an online book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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