The Big Idea: Marie Brennan

When history and myth provide you a tale that is… unsatisfying, what is one to do? If one is Marie Brennan, and the story is The Waking of Angantyr, the answer is: reimagine.


I wanted the story I was promised.

When I was a senior in college and working on my thesis, I read Patricia Terry’s Poems of the Elder Edda. It includes not only the text of the Poetic Edda, but several other Old Norse poems written in a similar style — one of which is called “The Waking of Angantyr.” It’s a dialogue between a young woman named Hervor and the ghost of her father, Angantyr, from whom she demands his cursed sword. According to Terry, Hervor “wants the sword as an instrument of vengeance.” When I studied the language for a semester as part of my thesis prop, my textbook, E.V. Gordon’s An Introduction to Old Norse, concurred: Hervor, he says, is “determined to avenge her father and her uncles.”

Awesome, I thought. I need the rest of that story.

So I hunted down the saga in which “The Waking of Angantyr” appears: no simple task, since it’s far from the most well-known of the Norse sagas. In fact, I only know of one translation, by Christopher Tolkien — yes, the son of that Tolkien. Acquiring a copy from the 2001 internet was easier said than done, but with it finally in my hands, I eagerly sat down for a tale of ghosts, a cursed sword, and bloody vengeance.

I didn’t get it.

The saga (called The Saga of King Heiðrek the Wise in Tolkien’s translation) is . . . how shall I put this . . . kind of a mess. For starters, it’s probably several unrelated texts in a trench coat, all of them newer than “The Waking of Angantyr.” Despite one of the other titles being Hervarar saga, i.e. Hervor’s Saga, Hervor only appears in about a quarter of the story. And while I did get a few cool bits from that — like her dressing up as a man and going around as a viking (raider) — what happens after she gets her father’s cursed sword from his ghost is, uh, basically nothing? She continues on for about a page, then goes home and has a kid, who is the centerpiece of the next, mostly unrelated story…

The Waking of Angantyr: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Forbidden Planet

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