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The History of the Danes, Books I-IX: I. English Text; II. Commentary

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In the early years of the thirteenth century the Danish writer Saxo Grammaticus provided his people with a History of the Danes , an account of their glorious past from the legendary kings and heroes of Denmark to the historical present. It is one of the major sources for the heroic and mythological traditions of northern Europe, though the complex Latin style and the wide range of material brought together from different sources have limited its use. Here Hilda Ellis Davidson, a specialist in Scandinavian mythology, together with the translator Peter Fisher, provides a full English edition; each of the first nine books is preceded by an introductory summary, and a detailed commentary follows on the folklore and life and customs of twelfth-century Denmark - including the sources of Hamlet , of which Saxo gives the earliest known account.

HILDA ELLIS DAVIDSON's other books include The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England ; PETER FISHER is also the translator of Olaus A Description of the Northern Peoples .

528 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1204

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Saxo Grammaticus

84 books24 followers
Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1150-1220) also known as Saxo cognomine Longus was a Danish historian, thought to have been a secular clerk or secretary to Absalon, Archbishop of Lund, foremost advisor to Valdemar I of Denmark. He is the author of the Gesta Danorum, the first full history of Denmark.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 27 of 27 reviews
Profile Image for Anders.
338 reviews8 followers
March 19, 2019
“Gloom occasionally ends in joy and inauspicious beginnings turn into brilliant conclusions.”

Good ol' Saxo, or as I like to call him: Good ol' Rocky Schoolteacher. I don't think it's right to begin a discourse on Saxo that doesn't feature Michie's rousing ode:

Huggery-muggery
Saxo Grammaticus
As a historian
Hadn't much flair;
One might have said he was
Supererogatory
Had he not mentioned the
Hamlet Affair.

--James Michie, self-proclaimed master of dissing obscure authors in history

And it's true! Saxo's claim to fame is largely because of that Hamlet story he retells, although for those in the know (of which I can now count myself) it was not Hamlet but Amleth! However, as Peter Fisher, the translator of this book goes on to explain in the introduction, actually Saxo has some other insights to offer as well. And Davidson, for her part, rigorously-perhaps too rigorously and not rigorously enough (the constant companion complaint of any commentary)-supports Saxo's relevance with ample notes.

Rather than starting at the beginning, let's start with the most famous stuff. Hamlet! So this is probably where Shakespeare was inspired *cough* stole *cough* his story of Hamlet or at least from a French summary of it or something. It's a decent story, certainly one of the better organized of the lot. There's a ghost and avenging the father by killing the uncle. The nice old switcheroo with the letter that says kill the messenger. But it also contains tropes reused from other chapters or from older poetic or prose works that make it a bit flavorless.

The other most famous thing is Ragnar Lothbrook! or Regner Lothbrog as Saxo likes to call him. According to him, Lothbrog was a nickname based on his ratty clothes. Regner does some of the most famous things like marrying Lagertha (Lathgertha), uniting Denmark under peaceful rule (though he is a dirty pagan!), and dying by being bitten by poisonous snakes. He also says that famous line about the boar dying and the piglets coming to avenge him. And they do! They blood eagle poor old King Aella (Ella) like good Viking sons. Again, a decent story, some of his sons have some character to them, but aside from having similar tropes, Saxo spends less time on the story. Davidson says this (Book IX) was written last and so it could be indicative of the late work of Saxo or that he was ready to end this. Whatever the case may be, I think Regner deserves a little more attention. Oh and King Knut comes up briefly. I think I saw him in a museum once.

Okay those are the two most famous things; everything else is pretty run of the mill-some combination of I'm a real scholar so I'm writing in LATIN and imitating the CLASSICAL authors, trying to make a Danish history for Danish people to be excited about, appeasing his patron, making sure the pagans don't look too cool cuz Christianity is the true faith, a dash of Euhemerism because the pagan gods were really just exaggerated stories about mortals although he's totally fine with wizards and magic, giants, dragons, and herculean feats of strength (Come on, Anders, there's gotta be some fun in the age of heroes!). Like I said, lots of tropes and when it's not tropes it's almost like a catalogue of people ruling, doing some challenge to get a wife, enduring some form of betrayal or suffering, and then passing on the lineage. Always, however, there is the endgame of Denmark being really cool. Some of the other Scandinavian countries get some play. Sweden gets almost the coolest hero in the work, Erik the Eloquent. Norway does some stuff. Iceland is where a lot of the stories that Saxo pulls from have been preserved. Finland is that spooky place on the fringe where Danish heroes go to kill people and become even cooler (Same for Russia and the Hellespont, although less spooky and more contemporary).

Overall, the stories are really not that compelling. Most of the book readings like a flimsily organized mishmash of history, stories cobbled together, lineages recited, tropes repeated. Based on merely that, Saxo is not held very high in my estimation as an author or historian. Herodotus does similar sorts of ethnographic stuff but better. Be that as it may, a few of the stories are gems-Starkather's book is maybe the best, but it takes a while to warm up and never really hits a stride. Starkather also features some of the best written poetry while the rest of the poetry of the work is hit or miss. And then there is the simple fact that Saxo did do a lot of research. His text lets us know all of the stuff he knew about, even though he changed the names to fit his jumbled narrative. If I knew more about the Scandinavian tradition of folktales and history I might be more impressed. As it is, reading Saxo just makes me want to go back to the original sources which I assume are better written and, focusing on just one thing and being of quite a different style and period, are more cohesive as works themselves like the Prose or Poetic Edda, Njal's Saga, The Volsungs, The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, even The Nibelungenlied. But I don't think this was a total waste of time by any means. I've had this book on my shelf for a long time; so long I don't even remember the circumstances of getting it. I know my parents got it for me for some Xmas or another. I keep thinking it must have been before I went to college and said gotta hold off on the Scandinavian stuff until I've read all of the Greco-Roman world (yes I know, an inestimably feasible goal). But it would have been a peculiar book for me to read in high school. I vaguely do remember starting it and then putting it down 10 pages in-which sounds like exactly what I would have done based on reading it now. “Wait this is supposed to be awesome Danish legends? Why is it so boring and random?” Hello teenager Anders.

Anyway, I'm glad I got around to reading it and now it can rest comfortably on my shelf, having been read. Some final miscellaneous comments: Peter Fisher's translation seems competent if a bit bland. I'd have to look at the Latin to say more or be more critical. Davidson's commentary is useful for some things. She certainly does a great job telling you what sources Saxo is mining and, for the most part, helpfully summarizing scholarly conclusions about dubious details. On the other hand, it gets a bit too chockablock with random bits where at points I just skipped whole books of the commentary- a sin I know, but I was running out of patience with dear old Rocky Schoolteacher. Davidson clearly knows her stuff and I'm sure if I were more acquainted with 13th century Denmark or the tradition of Danish histories, legends, folktales, and mythology, I would appreciate it more. Like I've already said throughout it's a bit jumbled and only comes together for 3 or 4 narrative arcs, but along the way there are some charming aphorisms evocative of Viking customs.

This book is rather difficult to recommend being so niche, so take that as you will! My final verdict is not quite supererogatory, but you have to know some stuff for it to be relevant. Otherwise it's a bit of a slog and only has a few arcs that pull you in.

My absolute favorite quote:
“When inconsolable grief falls on people they often make for strange and unknown retreats as though these might provide an antidote to their sadness; swamped by misery they are unable to cope with the society of men, for solitude is generally a friend to the heart-sick.”

Davidson unwittingly describing all of Saxo:
“How far this was a mainly literary exercise, based on Roman prototypes, and how far it may have been taken from Saxo's own [military] experience, is one of the most tantalising of the many problems which he has left for us to solve”

Saxo's Euhemerism:
“That the gods were overcome by men might strain belief, but ancient report testifies it. We say 'gods' more from supposition than truth, and give them the title of 'deities' by popular custom, not through their nature.”

Viking morals:
“Weakness is generally recognised by the way it needs others' help.”
“Everyone sets life before property, for nothing is dearer than breath to mortal creatures.”
“In general, Fortune takes revenge savagely for underhand achievements.”
Profile Image for Neil.
293 reviews42 followers
August 14, 2012
Saxo Grammaticus is far from a pleasant read but is a treasure trove of Germanic legend, although sometimes odd and giving very different versions to the legends contained in Eddic poetry and saga material, it's still essential reading. The added bonus to the Brewer edition is the inclusion of Davidson's book length introduction and commentary. The commentary provides a useful tool for readers wishing to compare Saxo's legends with the Old English, Icelandic and German versions.
Profile Image for Maja  - BibliophiliaDK ✨.
1,076 reviews631 followers
March 20, 2012
Et godt råd til alle, der har tænkt sig at give sig i kast med den her bog: Start op med at læse om danske middelalderkonger! Saxo er så absolut ikke god til årstal eller genealogi, derfor er det en god hjælp, at have læst lidt op på kongerækken først. Ellers bliver du stik-tos-rund-forvirret! Så er det sagt.

Profile Image for Monty Milne.
858 reviews42 followers
January 31, 2016
Important as this is as the earliest record of the history of the Danes, it has a much wider interest than that alone. Norse mythology, the Sagas, and the pre-Christian beliefs of the Scandinavians are all given some illumination by Saxo, even if the illumination is akin to the flickering shadow of a candle in a draughty stone cell, rather than the clear glare of modern electric light. Saxo was an intelligent and capable 12th century ecclesiastic whose writing has a certain colourful barbarism, but is also inclined to tedium, pomposity and verbosity. And he has some bizarre prejudices: he hates fancy cooking (which includes anything roasted, or any kind of sauce), and he hates actors. There is a certain irony in the latter, as Shakespeare took Saxo's account of King Amleth to turn it into his magnificent Hamlet - something which has given employment to countless actors ever since. How Saxo would have gnashed his teeth at that!
Profile Image for Jack Wright.
48 reviews
February 1, 2016
Not the easiest read, and some chapters/books were easier to follow than others. Chapter/Book 2 consisted of the story of a prince who attempted to avenge the killing of his father by his uncle, which Shakespeare took some significant elements from and turned into Hamlet. Chapter/Book 9 was about Ragnar Lodbrok and his sons which is always fun to read about. There was a lot of singing, drinking, killing. . . goodtimes. I might wait a while before rereading it, but I'm definitely glad that I did.
Profile Image for SVRosenmeier.
317 reviews3 followers
December 10, 2015
A long and interesting tale of the Danes past. A nice mixture of facts, folklore and history.
It is clear that it is Absalon him self who ordered this book to be written, but still pretty much the only peace of literature regarding the Danish kings before Gorm Den Gamle, year 1200.
A bit annoying that a lot of the kings and other persons had the same name. It makes it pretty hard to remember who was who etc.
Profile Image for Mihai Zodian.
55 reviews44 followers
January 28, 2021
I liked the heroic Amleth, the source of the more famous doubter and a tragic figure as well. Lagertha from Vikings is also traced here.

The author is very polemical towards the old religion, especially regarding Odin and one can trace here a root for the idea that supernatural beings are just deified humans. In general, Saxo is very warlike and heroic in his writing and is promoting his kingdom and patrons.
1 review
January 25, 2017
Interesting stories including the earliest of the legend kings of Denmark. My personal favourite story in this book is the story of the coolest shieldmaiden of all time Svanhvide.
Profile Image for Laure.
89 reviews16 followers
January 4, 2019
Un excellent ouvrage, quoique dense et difficile à lire au premier abord. Je pense nécéssaire la lecture de ces écris avec le regard qui conviens à l'époque et au contexte d'hier, à savoir, femme=mal et danois=bien. On ne peut que trop bien sentir un nationalisme débridé de la part de Saxo et un jugement ultra-sexiste de la place de la femme renforcé par un présent de vérité générale. Saxo agit ici comme Machiavel dans le Prince et exhorte clairement Valdemar le grand à une conduite proche de la chevalerie moyenageuse typique des gestes et épiques de ce temps (Les chroniques du roi Arthur par exemple) tout en louant l'ascendance du roi.

Je tiens à dire que quelques personnages féminins m'ont particulièrement plu et que leur traitement m'a rempli d'une noire fureur et jamais je n'ai autant fait de doigts d'honneur à un livre ou eu envie de mettre mon poing dans la gueule d'un homme comme Saxo Grammaticus, ou de rouler mes yeux à chaque poème que composaient les hommes EN PLEIN CHAMP DE BATAILLE!!!!! Je pense à Amlethus, cette petite raclure de goret, à Scatartus (je n'ai pas retenu son prénom tellement ce mec m'a enragé) qui donne des coups de poings à une femme violée et qui la slutshame OKLM et à toutes ces femmes par qui la lignée des rois Danois a pu survivre pendant que ces messieurs étaient occupés à se comporter comme des merdes.

Bref, cette lecture fut hautement instructive! Je recommande ce livre vivement à qui est passionné par l'age des Vikings et les encourage à croiser les sources avec les sagas norroises et a lire cette geste avec les yeux d'alors (en adoptant néanmoins le principe que la geste des danois c'est suer gay quand on y pense)
678 reviews55 followers
January 6, 2019
This book is a mess. But book 3, about Prince Hamlet of Denmark, was awesome. The rest of it I won't be reading to my next kid. My seven-year-old says, "This book is goodish. It's an okay book." I feel the same way. It was fine. Wars, dragons, heroes, some good stuff. But a mess.

We are now reading Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla, and I wish we had read that first. If I had read Heimskringla first, I would not have had any patience for this book.
5 reviews1 follower
July 27, 2018
A unique view of Germanic mythology, history, and worldview. While anything written by an individual affiliated with the Church is subject to some degree of scrutiny for bias, Saxo seems to have an affinity for his homeland and its rich, pre-Christian history - I'm not sure if I'm overlooking the bias, but I appreciate that quality in his writing. Fair warning: Saxo is verbose.
January 2, 2023
Un très beau récit qui est très bien écrit mais déçu de la brièveté de l'histoire d'Amleth et celle de Lagertha.
Profile Image for Joseph F..
447 reviews12 followers
May 21, 2013
The edition I am reviewing is of an old translation by Oliver Elton. Although it uses the English we know from the King James' bible, it still has its charm. Here is a book that all lovers of Norse mythology should have. The stories are less of the dealings of the gods as we find in the Eddas, and more with the legendary history of Denmark. Think of it as Denmark's version of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of England. Here are the stories of Frode, Starkad and Ragner Lodbrok, made famous recently due to the show Viking. It even has the earliest version Hamlet (here called Amleth). A bit hard to get through sometimes due to the repeating names and denseness of text, but worth it.
Profile Image for sologdin.
1,706 reviews617 followers
August 24, 2016
the gesta danorum is lotsa fun, drawn, like herodotos, from all kinds of dubious source materials. includes famously the source text for hamlet, though it arises from the period wherein scandinavia was christianizing, an arena of theologic discord. shakespeare presents denmark as though it were a protestant kingdom, as in his own time--but at best it was catholic space at the time SG was writing--and the legend itself is retroactive to pagan times. so, several levels of conflation here!
Profile Image for Rick.
135 reviews7 followers
October 21, 2011
Saxo Grammaticus’s early-13th-century HISTORY OF THE DANES is a fascinating account of the (mostly legendary) Danish kings, and versions of many of the same stories are found in the Icelandic sagas and poetry. THE HISTORY OF THE DANES is perhaps best known as the earliest source for the Hamlet story, and for many people, that alone should be worth the price of admission. The only drawback to the book is that the footnotes, although extensive and quite useful, are printed as a separate volume.
Profile Image for Francesco.
122 reviews6 followers
January 6, 2016
Che faticaccia leggere la storia cronologica di un popolo priva di un qualsiasi riferimento se non vago a eventi o date che permettano di contestualizzare correttamente gli eventi stessi! Ma il fascino delle gesta di questi uomini grezzoni è tanto.

Interessante il libro dedicato ad Amleth, futuro Hamlet di più grande fama, che praticamente è una versione in prosa della tragedia shakespeariana. Interessante anche notare come si pone un autore cristianizzato come Saxo rispetto al passato pagano della propria nazione (hint: si pone malissimo).
Profile Image for Nicki Markus.
Author 63 books264 followers
August 23, 2014
This is a fascinating read that blends history with mythology. It looks at the reign of various kings and the heroes who fought for and against them, often linking in with aspects of Norse myth.
This is a great edition with extensive and very useful comments, explaining some of the finer points of the tales.
Well worth a read if you are interested in Scandinavian history and/or mythology.
Profile Image for Dan.
Author 26 books7 followers
May 16, 2010
If you need to read Saxo, then this is the edition to get. I'd rate Davidson's commentary at 4 stars. It's just Saxo himself that I dislike. ;-)
87 reviews5 followers
July 25, 2011
a must to uderstand your heritage and dream about when we were great - great stories of heroes and glory...
Profile Image for Renée.
87 reviews
September 24, 2015
I wasn't expecting too much, but I really really liked this ... loads of interesting material (to me)on mythology and heroic literature
Displaying 1 - 27 of 27 reviews

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