Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

One of my favorite books is an old Icelandic saga from the 10-12th century: Kormak's saga. The old sagas should be treated as stories – unless supporting evidence of the happenings can be found. 


With Kormak’s saga there is more than a little evidence of the events and, whether we realize it or not, the story has already touched all of us.

Kormak was the younger son of a farmer.  Like second sons of the day this meant he had to leave home and travel the world. 

The saga is still fresh and raw.  It has strong characterization and some half-decent poetry.  It takes us into the ordinary lives of extraordinary people.  

It gives us some wonderful pictures of Icelandic life.  During the long dark days of winter, the Icelanders could not leave their farmsteads.  Instead Kormak and the others would sit with their friends, male and female, playing checkers and chess in front of a fire - sometimes for days and months at a time.  Then, during spring, they got out and exploded into the world. 

Maybe it is natural human thing to play games during winter - maybe it gives us a chance to regroup and recharge.  And, perhaps, to reshape the world. 

The saga itself deals with the impossible love of the warrior-poet Kormak for the fiercely independent woman Steingerd. 

The romance is cursed soon after they meet.  Even though betrothed, Kormak fails to attend the wedding with Steingerd.  This sets off a series of events that leads to her marriage to first one and then another merchants.  Kormak cannot forget Steingerd - their paths cross through the years – and their lives remain interwoven as Kormak travels through the Nordic world. 

Bitterness dogs the relationship – although Steingerd holds some affection for him, she never forgives Kormak for failing to marry her.  Even though he undertakes heroic tasks for her (and writes some pretty good love poetry), opportunity does not return.  Late in the saga when he rescues her from kidnappers, she rejects him saying that she would not exchange one knife for another. 

The story ends with Kormak and his brother, Thorgils, going off raiding in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England.  Kormak is seriously injured in battle with a Scot giant, failed by his sword Skrymir.  Sadly, he survives long enough to be taken from the battle field and dies in bed.  Bad move - once you are taken off the field, you become ineligible for an eternity of entertainment and stories in the halls of the gods. 

A little while before Kormak dies, the brothers establish a town on the coast of England.  The saga records: “It was they who established the stronghold named Scarborough.”  The name itself comes from Thorgils’ nickname “Skardi” (a reference to Thorgil’s harelip).

Scarborough is a port city on the mid-East coast of England.  We all know about Scarborough, and its ancient fair, from an old ballad. 

The ballad itself has had many forms and is of uncertain origin.   It is an exchange between disaffected lovers.  They take turns at setting each other impossible tasks – some that mirror the events in the life of Kormak and Steingerd. 

You can only be a true love of mine if you complete these impossible tasks.  But, if not:

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Let me know that at least she will try
And then she'll be a true love of mine.

In the ballad, as in the saga, there is no reconciliation between the former lovers. 

The fortification at Scarborough (located midway the East coast of England) on North Sea coast of North Yorkshire was subsequently destroyed and rebuilt – but the brother’s choice of location seems vindicated by the re-establishment of a castle on the headland and the grant of charters in 1155 and 1163, permitting a market on the sands. 

By royal charter in 1253 the fair was allowed to run for a six-week trading period attracting merchants from all parts of the medieval world.  It ran from 15 August, until 29th September ("The Burgesses and their heirs forever may have a yearly fayre in the Borough, to continue from the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary until the Feast of St Michael next following"). The fair continued for 500 years.

Learned scholars say the ballad is only 300 years old.  Maybe it is of recent origin – but the story it tells of the trials of love, is far far older. 

April 2014

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