George Johnston, renowned for his fine translations of Old Icelandic tales such as The Saga of Gisli and Thrand of Gotu, takes a look at two orally-preserved stories from the middle of the ninth to the eleventh century. The first, 'The Saga of the Schemers', is unique in that the work is wholly imaginative and its mood is comic whereas most are weighted on the side of passion and tragedy. The second, 'The Saga of Viga-Glum', leans more traditionally on the story of a known Icelandic chieftain of the tenth century. Yet it cannot be read as history; fictional and folktale motifs have been worked into reports of actual events, and supernatural elements, belonging to pagan mythology and worship, have held their place in the telling. This is an accurate and thoughtful translation executed by a master.
About the author
George Johnston was born in Hamilton, Ontario, on October 7, 1913. Johnston knew early on that he wanted to be a writer, and published early poems (often comic-satiric), as well as newspaper columns, film reviews and plays, during his years at the University of Toronto's Victoria College, where he studied philosophy and English.
When war was declared, he joined the RCAF and served four and a half years, including thirteen months as a reconnaissance pilot in West Africa. He returned to Canada in 1944, married Jeanne McRae, and completed his MA and doctoral studies at the University of Toronto. In between, he taught two years (1947-49) at Mount Allison University, and in 1950, having found teaching to his liking, accepted a post at Ottawa's Carleton University where, for twenty-nine years, he was a charismatic and much-loved professor of Old and Middle English and Old Norse. His first book of poems, The Cruising Auk, written during the war, was not published until 1959, when he was forty-six.
Sabbatical years were decisive in Johnston's life. During his first, 1957-58 at Dorking in Surrey, he met Peter Foote of the University of London, who taught him Old Norse, and began translating The Saga of Gisli in collaboration with him. A second sabbatical, in 1967-68, was spent in Denmark and included the discovery of modern Faroese poetry and the first of four visits the Johnstons made to the Faroe Islands. A last sabbatical, 1974-75, spent mostly in Gloucester, England, included a three-week visit to Iceland.
After The Cruising Auk, Johnston published four more poetry collections before the appearance of Endeared by Dark, his Collected Poems, in 1990. A man whose diverse interests included calligraphy, bell-ringing, wine-making and beekeeping, who kept up a wide correspondence and enjoyed reading the classics aloud with his wife, Johnston retired from Carleton in 1979. He died in August of 2004.
'George Johnston's other voice emerges as he becomes a translator of Icelandic eddas ... The bedrock lifts like a tectonic plate and all looseness withers in the press of the stark alliterative form.'
Globe & Mail
'This beautiful book is a celebration of an ancient tradition, skilfully rendered for modern audiences by respected poet and scholar George Johnston. Johnston's first collection of sagas, Thrand of Gotu, is also now available.
'Johnston may well be Canada's most accomplished poet in the sense that he writes poetry as a craft, not as self-revelation, or propaganda, or ''high art'', or psychological therapy. He is preoccupied with rhythms, with diction, with tones and nuances, and the creative challenge of complex metres and stanza forms. ...This verse celebrates ordinary life in tones that vary between the ironic and the sombre, and the tender and the stoic, but its technique is impeccable, and its chief pleasure lies in the display of an unostentatious but formidable artistry. He is also the master of ''occasional'' poetry, and most of these poems have worn well, transcending their immediate occasions with shrewd insights and unpretentious wisdom. Above all, he discovers a new originality within the deeply traditional.'
Canadian Book Review Annual