Monday, July 27, 2009
Gunnar Staalesen's Varg Veum
I had a chance to see the first of the new TV films based on Gunnar Staalesen's series about Bergen, Norway private detective Varg Veum (on the MhZ Network, a public TV station in the U.S. that specializes in non-U.S. programming, mostly news). Three of Staalesen's novels have been translated, though a couple of them have been out of print for a while, and a 4th is about to be released by Arcadia in the U.K. The film is an interesting portrait of Bergen and of an unconventional private detective: Veum is a former social worker, specializing in children's cases. As a detective, he also frequently works on cases involving children. So while he's a tough and hard-boiled investigator on the one hand, he's also a principled and socially conscious citizen and professional (the social consciousness comes through a bit clearer in the novels). The actor playing Veum, Trond Espen Seim, is quite good, showing the character's melancholy determination without overdoing it. The rest of the characters, business professionals and cops, are a foil for Veum's seedy persona (and the cast is quite effective, in a European style of acting--fairly low-key). The story involves a missing child, a corporation that, while undergoing a generational change of leadership, is also involved in dirty deals. How the missing child is related to the corporation's greed is a complex trail that Veum gradually unravels, while getting abused verbally and physically by cops and corporate thugs. It will be interesting to see how the Veum series develops, but this first entry is quite effective in updating the private detective while also providing a new model for a detective's background and motivation. And the series also should remind us that what seems like a gap between Sjöwall and Wahlöö and the current Scandinavian crime wave (beginning with Wallander) was in fact a busy time for the crime genre in the Scandinavian countries--Staalesen's first crime novel appeared in 1975 and Varg Veum first appeared in English translation in 1986. This is an excellent and unique series that should not be forgotten in our appreciation of Scandinavian crime fiction's current worldwide popularity. And one benefit of the availability of the new film is that a reader finally gets some idea as to how "Varg Veum" should be pronounced...
Posted by Glenn Harper at 9:59 AM
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Sounds very interesting. I don't suppose you want to give us clues about that pronunciation?
The pronunciation is not like Swedish, which was the main thing I was wondering about. They say his name very quickly, the first name with an English "r" ("ah") and they pronounce the "g" like English (not as the Swedes would pronounce that "g," they'd say it as more of a "y"). The "Veum" is pronounced as if it were Latin, in 2 syllables, with both vowels voiced. Does that make sense? I'm not a linguist so I don't have the technical vocabulary. I'd be curious if anyone has any ideas about the derivation of the name--it sounds very Scandinavian but I can't relate it to any mythology or traditional names that I'm familiar with.
Thanks - I'm not a linguist either, so that made perfect sense.
Apparently Varg has something to do with wolf in old norse. Veum is also an old norse word that either means "wood" or "farmstead" - at least, according to the all-wise interwebs. It has a nice sound to it, whatever it implies.
Ask any Icelander, the natural born linguists of the old Viking language which the Scandinavians have long since forgotten.
The language Norwegians call Old Norse, we in Iceland call Old Icelandic, and it was of course the same language 1000 years ago spoken by the Vikings. Present day Norwegians twist and tweak a lot the form and meaning of words from their their old language because they think they understand, but they've utterly forgotten. To Icelanders who still read, speak and understand much of the original Viking language the original meanings and Norwegian misunderstandings are often transparently clear, so we smile a lot at the Norwegian attempts. Even our Nobel prize winner of literature, Halldor Laxness, used to tease our Norwegian friends, some of whom were insulted, by saying they don't have a language of their own, only a mix from other countries.
Then of course through the ages language and meanings have been incessanly transformed with each new generation to reflect changing realities.
Old meanings for the word VARG is WOLF, also but less common a SWORD. We may infer that wolves played havoc with farmers livestock in the old days, and from there see how the meaning evolved metaphorically. In modern Icelandic the most common meaning is a harmful animal or person.
Old meanings for VÉ is homestead and also probably more common the very specific meaning for the particular places where the old wikings used for their "blót's" that is their offer feasts of sacrifice and worship of their heathen gods, now mythological figures. Hence the meaning evolved to mean a place of worship in general, a place where you can be at peace with your thoughts, or a holy place. In modern Icelandic the meaning is pretty much the same.
Then why do I mention VÉ when we're discussing VEUM...? It is because VÉUM is the plural dative case for VÉ...
Then there is an old clinging phrase, often used to even in modern Icelandic, we say that somebody is: "vargur í véum," the "ur" beeing added in modern Icelandic because there really was an R at the end of VARG in the Viking language, the Norwegians dropped the R, but Icelancers kept it, and added a U for easier pronounciation. The "í" means in or inside.
So for a literal meaning of the phrase "vargur í véum," we could say: "a wolf in the house," but the metaphorical meaning is the one that usually prevails: "an uninvited guest playing havoc in a holy place." Or we might even dig back to the old old meaning of VÉ maybe more appropriate for the plot of the Staalesen stories: "an uninvited guest to place of humans sacrifice..."
Because Varg also became a mans name in Scandinavia, though not in Iceland, my guess is that Staalesen knew the old phrase, chose to drop the "í" from it, to have a plausible sounding surname to Norwegians who have long ago forgotten its real meaning, and it works well also in modern Icelandic, since it clings there instantly with the old phrase...
Excellent series, very literary Scandinavian in mood (i.e., resignedly melancholy). I too was a linguistics major, and went on for a graduate degree in Medieval Studies. I've also have been a sci-fi/fantasy fan since age 13. (I'm now 75.) I recognized "varg" as "wolf" the first time I saw the TV series since there's at least one other appearance of "varg" in literature: You may recall J.R.R. Tolkien, a linguist and Medievalist, giving the name "wargs" to the vicious wolves of Middle Earth--animals big enough to be ridden by orcs, his huge goblins. The "w" in "warg" indicates an Old English spelling (from the Danelaw?) and to Old & Middle English speakers the "w" would have been pronounced as we do. I think that another fantasy author, years ago, used the word "warg"--was it this time for werewolf? If anyone remembers such a novel or story, please refresh my memory. "Varg" is still defined as an alternate word for "wolf" in my small Icelandic-English dictionary.
Although "thorp" spelled with the thorn symbol, is given for "homestead" in my Icelandic-English dictionary, worldwide "b" and "v" are virtually interchangeable. If you have an Old Norse etymological dictionary, see if "ve" would be the Old Norse cognate to Middle Danish "-by", both with the meaning of "settlement", "hometead" Towns ending in "-by" are found in modern Denmark and at least dozens of others in England's Danelaw, like Crosby, Ainderby, and Whitby. "-Thorp" is common in England's North and East, too. Oddly, the Norse areas of Scotland in Sutherland, the Orkneys and Shetlands seem to have no "-by" names, although many villages, like Trondavoe (Shetl.) are clearly Norse in origin.
Varg Veum = Wolf in holyness
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