Earlier this year, I came across a spectacular find in the local Northfield Bookstore. While browsing, I came across an old book from 1916, titled Andvari's Ring, by Arthur Peterson, outfitted with a deep green cover, no dust jacket and gold lettering. Popping the cover open, it appears to have been a rejected copy from Norwich University's Kreitzberg Library, just up the street. Looking over the first couple of pages, I discovered that the book was a translation of a Norse epic poem, the legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, which I had another translation of, by author J.R.R. Tolkien. The book looked absolutely fascinating, and I picked it up, reading it piecemeal over the last couple of months. The result was a read that absolutely blew me away, not only for its story, but because it was a root story that has since influenced numerous others since its inception, providing a considerable amount of insight into modern popular culture.
The myth is an interesting one, and I can't see why the Norse mythology and Vikings haven't become more popular in modern culture, especially as publishers and production companies have looked towards a lot of older material to churn to the masses. The story is a fun one, with quite a lot of violence, quite a lot of speculative fiction source material and a number of surprising connections to other myths and historical figures around the world: Attila the Hun makes an appearance, as does Claudius, Cleopatra, and some of the underlying myths that informed King Arthur's Sword in the Stone to J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. The influences in Tolkien’s works are clear, which should come as no surprise, given the author’s deep level of influence in mythology, which appears in his professional and fictional works.
What impressed me greatly was the role that these sorts of ground zero myths have for modern culture: looking at a number of modern stories, such as the ones above, it's clear that there's quite a lot of borrowing and common ground between stories. As my girlfriend and I marathoned Stargate SG-1 over the course of this fall, there was a heavy dip into Arthurian legend that supplemented some of the Norse undertones with a couple of storylines, while J.R.R. Tolkien's estate has recently released a new translation, titled Sigurd and Gudrún. Despite some of these influences, there's been no major capitalization on this sort of storyline, for better or for worse. Such attention focuses the general public on a subject that doesn't necessarily get the attention that it might deserve, for better or for worse.
This particular copy, coming up on its century mark, feels and looks like a book. It has a small amount of heft for something its size, with an unassuming cover, rather than a photo shopped gimmick that's been informed by marketing and research teams. It's lasted the test of time, and I think for that reason, it attracted my attention as something worth reading.
Andvari's Ring feels like a real book, from the physical appearance to the text inside. There is precious little on the author or any other titles that he might have published, and reading this sort of early material on the legend, one that informed some of the cornerstone works of speculative fiction, helps to further my own interest in the genre. Reading the classics of any genre is important, but going further, into the roots of the subject, helps to put the elements into place, based on an author's knowledge and understanding of what then informed their work. Understanding these root influences grants a far better understanding, therefore, of the subject that's being read. While it might not help with the specific enjoyment of a derivative work, it does help when you begin to put things together as a larger whole.
Andvari's Ring helps to fulfill both functions: understanding and enjoyment, and for those two reasons alone, it's worth looking up. Google Books has a copy, here, and I'm sure that other copies exist throughout used bookstores and forgotten libraries.