Sea Sagas of the North is a challenging book, looking at the effects of global warming on communities, with a touch of Old Norse and Icelandic legend
Sea Sagas of the North
Hawthorn Press, £15
This is a complex book mingling Old English, Old Norse and Icelandic legend with contemporary observations of global warming and the effect on communities and fisheries.
Its subtitle is ‘Travels and Tales at Warming Waters’.
It refers back to the tsunami which may have brought the end of Doggerland and transformed it into the new North Sea from 7500 BCE and looks ahead to the possibility of Ragnarok, the destruction of the world through fire, disasters and flooding.
Jules Pretty’s fear is that may come as soon as 2050 unless people act collectively to achieve net zero carbon emissions and bring an end to the rising and warming of the waters.
Global warming, as we know, is a global problem but the geographical scope of this book is more limited.
The narrative is structured within a generally clockwise movement from the Westfjords of Iceland and Flatey Island, via Danish Sjaelland and the Lofoten Islands, to the north Kent coast, Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk, then onwards to Hull, Grimsby, Whitby, Lindisfarne, Shetland, St Kilda and the Faeroes, before returning to Iceland.
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Although a useful Appendix to the book indicates walking and ferry routes for readers to follow, North Sea sailors will naturally find that their local knowledge underpins much of the material and may be enhanced by it.
There are some particularly interesting examples from recent social history, for example the enslavement of young boys in the Grimsby fisheries from 1872, the role of the Hull ‘headscarf warriors’ campaigning for better maritime safety measures during 1968 and the financial collapse of 2008 precipitated, in part, by the mismanagement of the Icelandic cod quota.
It is often challenging to read these experiences alongside tales of gods, dragons and shaman and also Pretty’s inclusion of his personal travels and friendships.
Some readers will be stimulated by this refusal to privilege one type of experience of another: others will feel that cod-quotas and dragon hoards don’t belong in the same book.
Stylistically each section opens with prose-poetry setting out the main themes, then a couple of more overtly poetically-written sagas.
This uses eight-line unrhymed stanzas, with central line breaks which reference the structure of Old English poetry, but without attempting to replicate its alliteration. It’s a very readable poetry.
Occasionally lines can be clunky but at its best there is some beautiful writing and some unexpected insights for those who are prepared to see the way we use the waters as essentially connected with the way we take responsibility for the world.
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