The Poetic Edda – the heroic poems

The Icelandic poem Helgakviða Hundingsbana starts, in the Codex Regius manuscript, with an unusually large letter A (starting the word ‘Ar’ meaning Early or Once upon a time) which suggests the scribe was well-aware that he was transitioning from the sequence of mythological poems – stories about the unruly Norse gods – to the second part of the Poetic Edda, which records the deeds of heroes and mortal men and women.

The most striking thing about the 19 heroic poems is the way they focus on the same cycle of stories which dominate Snorri’s Prose Edda and are also the subject of the Volsungsaga, namely the legends of King Sigmund, his sons Helgi and Sigurd, the latter’s fight with the dragon Fafnir, his ill-fated love triangle with Brynhild and Gudrún, the latter’s ill-starred marriage to Atli, and then to king Jörmunrekkr. The Greeks have many cycles of legends – the Trojan War, or Theseus, or Perseus, or Jason and the Argonauts. But Norse legend seems fixated on this one, rather fissile tragedy of Sigurd and Gudrún.

The 14 poems about this legend have the added distinction of having a massive hole ripped out of the heart of them. 8 folios which could have contained anything between 200 and 250 stanzas – at an average of 50 stanzas per poem, some 5 entire poems – have at some stage been removed from the Codex, right in the middle of the Sigurd cycle of poems, giving rise to endless speculation about the missing content.

The heroic poems fall easily into three sections:

The story of Helgi Hundingsbani
The story of the Nibelungs
The story of Jörmunrekkr, king of the Goths

…respectively, Scandinavian, German and Gothic in origin.


The story of Helgi Hundingsbani

Immediately (and typically of the Poetic Edda) there are textual issues, because poems 1 and 3 are about Helgi Hundingsbana (so-called because he kills king Hunding in battle) but poem 2 is about a completely different Helgi, Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar, who lived a generation before Helgi Hundingsbana and who Helgi Hundingsbana was named after. It makes for a much simpler experience just to read poems 1 and 3. When you do this you realise that number 3 covers a lot of the same ground as number 1, and both – after the heroic birth and heroic deeds and comic flyting before the big battle – are about the surprisingly romantic story of Helgi the hero and his true love Sigrun the valkyrie. The poems lead up to the climactic scene of Sigrun’s nightly visits to Helgi’s funeral barrow, hoping to meet and talk with her dead lover, a subject which endeared itself to the sentimental Victorians. The (as usual) rather confusing story of Helgi Hundingsbane is usefully summarised on Wikipedia.

Helgakviða Hundingsbana I – The First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane or Helgi the Hunding-Slayer
(Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar – The Lay of Helgi the Son of Hjörvard)
Helgakviða Hundingsbana II – The Second Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane or Helgi the Hunding-Slayer

As usual, I quote the Henry Adams Bellows translation because it is both out of copyright and easily available online:

1. In olden days, | when eagles screamed,
And holy streams | from heaven’s crags fell,
Was Helgi then, | the hero-hearted,
Borghild’s son, | in Bralund born.

2. ‘Twas night in the dwelling, | and Norns there came,
Who shaped the life | of the lofty one;
They bade him most famed | of fighters all
And best of princes | ever to be.

3. Mightily wove they | the web of fate,
While Bralund’s towns | were trembling all;
And there the golden | threads they wove,
And in the moon’s hall | fast they made them.


The Niflung or Nibelung Cycle (the story of Sigurd, Bryinhild and Gudrún)

Frá dauða Sinfjötla (Sinfjötli’s Death) This is a short prose text which summarises the story found in the saga and elsewhere: Sinfjötli, son of Sigmund, who had been prominent in the Helgi poems for carrying out dialogues of abuse with various enemies, is poisoned in front of his father by his step-mother in revenge for killing her husband/brother (delete as appropriate, depending on which version you’re reading). In all the versions the grieving Sigmund does nothing to the poisoner but carries the body to a fjord and calls a ferryman to take him across but the boat is only big enough for one passenger and the ferryman takes Sinfjötli’s body and then mysteriously disappears. Was he Odin?

Grípisspá (Grípir’s Prophecy) 53 stanzas – Sigurd abruptly appears in the cycle of poems, rides up to his uncle Gripir’s who prophesies his destiny. It’s not a pretty sight.

“Ever remember, ruler of men,
That fortune lies in the hero’s life;
A nobler man shall never live
Beneath the sun than Sigurth shall seem.”

Reginsmál (The Ballad of Regin) The editors point out that the next three poems might very well be one long one; they are in a similar style, with frequent short prose inserts to move the story along. The third one breaks off abruptly where vital pages have been torn from the Codex. In Reginsmál the young Sigurd is apprenticed to Regin at the court of king Hjalprek. The king gives Sigurd ships to sail back to Volsung land and take revenge for his father. A stranger shouts at the ships from the shore. It is Hnikar (?) and they ask him what are the best omens before a battle:

20. “Many the signs, | if men but knew,
That are good for the swinging of swords;
It is well, methinks, | if the warrior meets
A raven black on his road.

21. “Another it is | if out thou art come,
And art ready forth to fare,
To behold on the path | before thy house
Two fighters greedy of fame.

22. “Third it is well | if a howling wolf
Thou hearest under the ash;
And fortune comes | if thy foe thou seest
Ere thee the hero beholds.

23. “A man shall fight not | when he must face
The moon’s bright sister setting late;
Win he shall | who well can see,
And wedge-like forms | his men for the fray.

24. “Foul is the sign | if thy foot shall stumble
As thou goest forth to fight;
Goddesses baneful | at both thy sides
Will that wounds thou shalt get.

25. “Combed and washed | shall the wise man go,
And a meal at mom shall take;
For unknown it is | where at eve he may be;
It is ill thy luck to lose.”

Fáfnismál (The Ballad of Fáfnir) 44 stanzas – Like so many of the poems the action happens before it starts. In the prose prologue Sigurd waits in the trench and kills the dragon. This poem is about what interests this culture, a dialogue between the hero and the dragon about wisdom and fate. Eventually leads to the scene where Sigurd cooks the dragon’s heart, tastes the blood, understand the birds warning him against Regin, who he promptly decapitates.

Sigurth spake:
28. “Better is heart | than a mighty blade
For him who shall fiercely fight;
The brave man well | shall fight and win,
Though dull his blade may be.

29. “Brave men better | than cowards be,
When the clash of battle comes;
And better the glad | than the gloomy man
Shall face what before him lies.

Sigrdrífumál (The Lay of Sigrdrífa) In this poem, in this version, the woman asleep on the Hind’s Fell surrounded by a wall of flame is not Brynhild, but a different Valkyrie named Sigrdrífa. Sigurd wakes her and then they do what these people love: have a wisdom dialogue, in fact a monologue, in which she first explains what runes you need to practice various skills, and then gives a numbered set of practical advice for warriors. It is in the middle of this sequence, after stanza 27, that the poem breaks off abruptly because a great hole has been torn in the codex. The fifth folio of eight sheets is missing, maybe 250 verses, a huge chunk of text covering the central story of the betrothal of Sigurd and Brynhild and the treachery of queen Grimhild, are missing. This is referred to as THE GREAT LACUNA.

6. Winning-runes learn, | if thou longest to win,
And the runes on thy sword-hilt write;
Some on the furrow, | and some on the flat,
And twice shalt thou call on Tyr.

7. Ale-runes learn, | that with lies the wife
Of another betray not thy trust;
On the horn thou shalt write, | and the backs of thy hands,
And Need shalt mark on thy nails.
Thou shalt bless the draught, | and danger escape,
And cast a leek in the cup;
(For so I know | thou never shalt see
Thy mead with evil mixed.)

8. Birth-runes learn, | if help thou wilt lend,
The babe from the mother to bring;
On thy palms shalt write them, | and round thy joints,
And ask the fates to aid.

9. Wave-runes learn, | if well thou wouldst shelter
The sail-steeds out on the sea;
On the stem shalt thou write, | and the steering blade,
And burn them into the oars;
Though high be the breakers, | and black the waves,
Thou shalt safe the harbor seek.

Apparently this is the most confused and scraped together of all the Codex Regius poems. As Henry Adams Bellows puts it: “the strange conglomeration of stanzas which the compiler of the collection has left for us, and which, in much the same general form, seems to have lain before the authors of the Volsungasaga, in which eighteen of its stanzas are quoted, is not a poem at all… The Sigrdrifumol section as we now have it is an extraordinary piece of patchwork…a collection of fragments, most of them originally having no relation to the main subject. All of the story, the dialogue and the characterization are embodied in stanzas 1-4 and 20-21 and in the prose notes accompanying the first four stanzas; all of the rest might equally well (or better) be transferred to the Hovamol…”

—–THE GREAT LACUNA—–

Brot af Sigurðarkviðu (Fragment of a Poem about Sigurd) After the Great Lacuna this poem starts or rather resumes in mid-flow. Its 19 stanzas cover Sigurd’s murder and the recriminations between brother and sister Gunnar and Gudrun. It’s notable that’s Sigurd’s death, in this poem, happens out of doors by a river on some journey. Also that it is treated very casually:

4. They cooked a wolf, | they cut up a snake,
They gave to Gotthorm | the greedy one’s flesh,
Before the men, | to murder minded,
Laid their hands | on the hero bold.

5. Slain was Sigurth | south of the Rhine;
From a limb a raven | called full loud:
“Your blood shall redden | Atli’s blade,
And your oaths shall bind | you both in chains.”

6. Without stood Guthrun, | Gjuki’s daughter,
Hear now the speech | that first she spake:
“Where is Sigurth now, | the noble king,
That my kinsmen riding | before him come?”

7. Only this | did Hogni answer:
“Sigurth we | with our swords have slain;
The gray horse mourns | by his master dead.”

“Slain was Sigurth | south of the Rhine” that’s how the central moment of the entire legend is casually described, preparing the way for stanzas recounting Gunnar’s conversations with Gudrun. Dialogue always trumps action in these poems.

Fra Dauda Sigurdar This is a short piece of prose which admits there are at least three versions of where Sigurd was killed: by a river, in a forest, or in bed.

Guðrúnarkviða I (The First Lay of Gudrún) In 27 stanzas Gudrun is unable to weep for her dead husband despite various ladies of the court coming to her and telling their life stories and the woes they have suffered; until suddenly she breaks down and bitterly laments..

17. “So was my Sigurth | o’er Gjuki’s sons
As the spear-leek grown | above the grass,
Or the jewel bright | borne on the band,
The precious stone | that princes wear.

18. “To the leader of men | I loftier seemed
And higher than all | of Herjan’s maids;
As little now | as the leaf I am
On the willow hanging; | my hero is dead.

Sigurðarkviða hin skamma (The Short Lay of Sigurd) at 71 stanzas the longest poem in this section, it recaps much of the plot, including the murder of Sigurd which, here, takes place in his bed next to Gudrun. In fact the poem isn’t about Sigurd at all, but in the first part describes Gudrun mourning – and in the second half details Brynhild’s elaborate plans to kill herself and arrange a big funeral pyre for herself and Sigurd. It is striking that, in this poem, Sigurd is killed in his bed and that, again, there appears to be lines or maybe whole stanzas missing, so that the fatal event is strangely mangled and elided.

20. “Gotthorm to wrath | we needs must rouse,
Our younger brother, | in rashness blind;
He entered not | in the oaths we swore,
The oaths we swore | and all our vows.”

21. It was easy to rouse | the reckless one.
. . . . . . . . . .
The sword in the heart | of Sigurth stood.

Helreið Brynhildar (Brynhild’s Hell-Ride) a short poem of 14 stanzas in which Brynhild, riding down to hell is questioned by an ogress in a cave and justifies her life and actions. “It shows the confusion of traditions manifest in all the later poems; for example, Brynhild is here not only a Valkyrie but also a swan-maiden.”

13. “Yet Guthrun reproached me, | Gjuki’s daughter,
That I in Sigurth’s | arms had slept;
Then did I hear | what I would were hid,
That they had betrayed me | in taking a mate.

14. “Ever with grief | and all too long
Are men and women | born in the world;
But yet we shall live | our lives together,
Sigurth and I. | Sink down, Giantess!”

Dráp Niflunga (The Slaying of The Niflungs) A short prose piece recounting the gruesome events after Sigurd’s funeral, where Gudrun is married off to Atli who invites her brothers to Hunland, hoping to steal their gold, tortures them, cuts out Hogni’s heart, then throws Gunnar in the snakepit where he plays the harp until bitten by an enormous adder which may or may not be Atli’s witch mother.

Guðrúnarkviða II (The Second Lay of Gudrún) In these 44 stanzas Gudrun is seen telling her story to captive king Theoderic, from the murder of Sigurd through her drugging and betrothal to Atli, to the visit of her brothers to Atli and their murder, and up until Atli’s fearful bad dreams – which presage Gudrun’s bloodthirsty murder and cooking of her own sons! This is thought to be the oldest poem in the book, dating form the 900s, an estimate reinforced by the use of Germanic details eg the fact Sigurd is murdered in a forest. It seems that the version of him being murdered in bed next to Gudrún is a later, Scandinavian, version.

This poem has real power.

3. Till my brothers let me | no longer have
The best of heroes | my husband to be;
Sleep they could not, | or quarrels settle,
Till Sigurth they | at last had slain.

4. From the Thing ran Grani | with thundering feet,
But thence did Sigurth | himself come never;
Covered with sweat | was the saddle-bearer,
Wont the warrior’s | weight to bear.

5. Weeping I sought | with Grani to speak,
With tear-wet cheeks | for the tale I asked;
The head of Grani | was bowed to the grass,
The steed knew well | his master was slain.

Guðrúnarkviða III (The Third Lay of Gudrún) a very short 11 stanza poem on a side event, one of Atli’s slave girls Herkja, claims to have seen Gudrun being unfaithful with the captive king Thjodrek. they both undergo ordeal by boiling water: Gudrún plunges her hands into the boiling water to get the stones from the bottom of the kettle and her hands are fine; Herkja does the same and her hands are badly scalded so she is thrown into a bog and drowned as punishment.

Oddrúnargrátr (The Lament of Oddrún) In these 34 stanzas Oddrún laments the tragic events which have overcome them all. She is sister to Atli who became Gunnar’s lover (presumably after Brynhild’s death). She doesn’t feature in any of the other versions or stories. It seems she has been invented in order to author this lament.

19. “Love to Gunnar | then I gave,
To the breaker of rings, | as Brynhild might…

21. “Yet could we not | our love o’ercome,
And my head I laid | on the hero’s shoulder…

Atlakviða (The Lay of Atli) These 44 stanzas cover Atli’s invitation to Gunnar and Hogni to come visit; Gudrun’s inclusion of a ring carved with runes warning them not to; their deliberation and fateful decision to go; their capture immediately on arrival; Hogni’s heart is torn out but Gunnar refuses to confess where the gold is and so he is thrown into the snakepit; in revenge Gudrun serves up the corpses of their sons to her husband Atli, before stabbing him in bed and then setting fire to the entire stronghold, killing all the staff and servants. This is reckoned to be one of the oldest poems in the collection and is without doubt one of hte grimmest and most intense.

Atlamál hin groenlenzku (The Greenland Ballad of Atli) A much longer version of the above, with 101 stanzas – ie Gunnar and Hogni’s fateful visit to Atli, this time bringing in their wives for extensive conversation before the boys set off.


The story of Jörmunrekkr, king of the Goths Though put in a separate category by scholars these stories are just a continuation of the story of Gudrún: having woken up beside the bloodsoaked body of her husband, mortally wounded by her brothers, she grieves and laments then is drugged and married off to Atli, only to witness her two brothers have their hearts torn out or be bitten to death in a snake pit, before she murders her two sons by Atli and serves him up their cooked corpses, before setting fire to the entire stronghold and burning everyone inside to death. She walks into the sea to drown herself but can’t, instead floating across the sea (strongly indicating, as the scholars point out, that she has become part-witch). Here, in a new land, she is found by and marries her third husband, Jonak, and bears him three sons Sorli and Erp and Hamther. Here she brings up Svanhild, her daughter by Sigurd. The mighty and violent Goth king Jormunrek wants to marry Svanhild and sends his son Randver to woo her. Inevitably, Randver and Svanhild fall  in love but are betrayed to the king who promptly has his son hanged, and the beautiful Svanhild trampled to death under horses’ feet.

A handy summary of this story is told on the Kids Britannica website.

To quote Henry Adams Bellows:

“Chief among the popular tales of Ermanarich’s cruelty was one concerning the death of a certain Sunilda or Sanielh, whom, according to Jordanes, he caused to be torn asunder by wild horses because of her husband’s treachery. Her brothers, Sarus and Ammius, seeking to avenge her, wounded but failed to kill Ermanarich. In this story is the root of the two Norse poems included in the Codex Regius. Sunilda easily became the wife as well as the victim of the tyrant, and, by the process of legend-blending so frequently observed, the story was connected with the more famous one of the Nibelungs by making her the daughter of Sigurth and Guthrun. To account for her brothers, a third husband had to be found for Guthrun; the Sarus and Ammius of Jordanes are obviously the Sorli and Hamther, sons of Guthrun and Jonak, of the Norse poems. The blending of the Sigurth and Ermanarich legends probably, though not certainly, took place before the story reached the North, in other words before the end of the eighth century.”

Guðrúnarhvöt (Gudrún’s Inciting) 22 stanzas. “The present title is really a misnomer; the poet, who presumably was an eleventh century Icelander, used the episode of Guthrun’s inciting her sons to vengeance for the slaying of Svanhild simply as an introduction to his main subject, the last lament of the unhappy queen.” The story is told much more fully in the prose Voldungsaga; what this emphasises is the way the Codex Regius poems are about, emphasise and foreground the experiences of women, especially the figure of the grieving Gudrún. Much more than Sigurd or Gunnar, she is the enduring memory of the heroic poems.

Hamðismál (The Ballad of Hamdir) 31 stanzas. Gudrun’s sons take revenge for the trampling to death by horses of their sister Svanhild. They chop off the four limbs of the king responsible, Jörmunrekkr, before themselves being stoned to death by his men. This is a strange afterthought of a poem, starting with the sons’ foreboding, skipping very elliptically over their murder of their half-brother Erpi on the way, and then in just a few stanzas dealing with what must have been an epic fight in which king  Jormunrek and both sons die, and their last words are a fitting epitaph to the whole sorry story…

“We have greatly fought, | o’er the Goths do we stand
By our blades laid low, | like eagles on branches;
Great our fame though we die | today or tomorrow;
None outlives the night | when the Norris have spoken.”

Or, in the Penguin Andy Orchard translation:

“Great glory we have gained
though we die now or tomorrow;
no man survives a single dusk
beyond the norns’ decree.”

This is Svanhild, daughter of Sigurd and Gudrún. Pretty, eh? Her father is murdered in his bed, her mother drowns herself, and Svanhild is either tied to horses and torn to pieces or trampled to death by horses, depending on which version you read.

Black and white illustration of Svanhild

Svanhild (from Fredrik Sander’s 1893 Swedish edition of the Poetic Edda/Public Domain)

Everybody dies and the Völsung line is wiped out. A fitting end to these strange, damaged, elliptic and addictive poems from the depths of Europe’s long Dark Age.

Sagas

Widsith

Widsith is an Old English poem. Like most Old English texts it exists in just one manuscript version, in this case in the Exeter Book, a manuscript of Old English poetry compiled in the late 10th century and containing approximately one sixth of all the Old English poetry we possess. By such slender threads and accidents did this ancient literature survive…

The poem is in traditional OE alliterative verse ie the line has four beats and is divided in half; the sound of the first stressed syllable in the second half of the line sets the alliteration;  the first stressed syllable in the first half-line must alliterate with it; the second stressed syllable in the first half line may or may not; the fourth stressed syllable, ie the second one in the second half of the line, must not alliterate.

Widwith is the name of the narrator (the word means “far journey” so is more emblematic than real) and the opening lines introduce him:

Widsið maðolade | wordhord onleac,
se þe monna mæst | mægþa ofer eorþan,
folca geondferde | oft he on flette geþah
mynelicne maþþum. | Him from Myrgingum…

Widsith spoke, unlocked his word-hoard,
he who had travelled most of all men
through tribes and nations across the earth.
Often he had gained great treasure in hall…

Quite quickly the poem turns into a survey of the people, kings, and heroes of Europe in the Heroic Age of Northern Europe (300-600AD). T

  • he first section is a list of famous kings, contemporary and ancient (“Caesar ruled the Greeks”), in a very formulaic way: ‘(name of a king) ruled (name of a tribe)’:

ætla weold Hunum, Eormanric Gotum,
Becca Baningum, Burgendum Gifica.
Casere weold Creacum ond Cælic Finnum,
Hagena Holmrygum ond Heoden Glommum.

Attila ruled the Huns, Eormanric the Goths,
Becca the Baningas, Gifica the Burgundians.
Caesar ruled the Greeks and Caelic the Finns,
Hagena the Holmrycgas and Henden the Glomman.

The second section contains the names of the peoples the narrator visited, in the format ‘With the (name of a tribe) I was, and with the (name of another tribe)’:

Swa ic geondferde fela fremdra londa
geond ginne grund. Godes ond yfles
þær ic cunnade cnosle bidæled,
freomægum feor folgade wide.
Forþon ic mæg singan ond secgan spell,
mænan fore mengo in meoduhealle
hu me cynegode cystum dohten.
Ic wæs mid Hunum ond mid Hreðgotum,
mid Sweom ond mid Geatum ond mid Suþdenum.
Mid Wenlum ic wæs ond mid Wærnum ond mid wicingum.
Mid Gefþum ic wæs ond mid Winedum ond mid Gefflegum.
Mid Englum ic wæs ond mid Swæfum ond mid ænenum.

So I travelled widely through foreign lands,
through distant countries, and there I met
both good and bad fortune, far from my kin,
and served as a follower far and wide.
And so I can sing and tell a tale,
declare to the company in the mead-hall
how noble rulers rewarded me with gifts.
I was with the Huns and the glorious Goths,
with the Swedes and with the Geats and with the South-Danes.
I was with the Wenlas, the Waerne and the Wicingas.
I was with the Gefthan, the Winedas and the Gefflegan.
I was with the Angles, the Swaefe and the Aenenas.

In the third section the narrator lists the heroes of myth and legend that he has visited:

Wulfhere sohte ic ond Wyrmhere; ful oft þær wig ne alæg,
þonne Hræda here heardum sweordum
ymb Wistlawudu wergan sceoldon
ealdne eþelstol ætlan leodum.
Rædhere sohte ic ond Rondhere, Rumstan ond Gislhere,
Wiþergield ond Freoþeric, Wudgan ond Haman;

I visited Wulfhere and Wyrmhere; there battle often raged
in the Vistula woods, when the Gothic army
with their sharp swords had to defend
their ancestral seat against Attila’s host.
I visited Raedhere and Rondhere, Rumstan and Gislhere,
Withergield and Freotheric, Wudga and Hama.

It concludes with wise words about the life of a wandering minstrel and his reliance on the patronage of discerning kings:

Swa scriþende gesceapum hweorfað
gleomen gumena geond grunda fela,
þearfe secgað, þoncword sprecaþ,
simle suð oþþe norð sumne gemetað
gydda gleawne, geofum unhneawne,
se þe fore duguþe wile dom aræran,
eorlscipe æfnan, oþþæt eal scæceð,
leoht ond lif somod; lof se gewyrceð,
hafað under heofonum heahfæstne dom.

Wandering like this, driven by chance,
minstrels travel through many lands;
they state their needs, say words of thanks,
always, south or north, they find some man
well-versed in songs, generous in gifts,
who wishes to raise his renown with his men,
to do great things, until everything passes,
light and life together; he who wins fame
has lasting glory under the heavens.

From which we can conclude that this culture liked lists. It liked lists of peoples and tribes and of the great kings and warriors that led them. No stories as such, just lists. If Widsith stands out for any reason it’s for the special pleading of the minstrel author as to how jolly successful he’s been and how well-rewarded by various wise and cultured patrons:

There the king of the Goths granted me treasure:
the king of the city gave me a torc
made from pure gold coins, worth six hundred pence…

Then Scilling and I with our clear voices,
before our glorious lord, struck up our song;
sung to the harp, it rang out loudly.
Then many men with noble hearts
who understood these things openly said
that they had never heard a better song.

In fact, the whole poem could be considered a very early example of that undervalued literary genre, the CV. And like all CVs it contains some whopping fibs:

Mid Israhelum ic wæs ond mid Exsyringum,
mid Ebreum ond mid Indeum ond mid Egyptum…

I was with the Israelites and with the Assyrians,
with the Hebrews and the Indians and with the Egyptians…

So – A culture which enjoys lists of high sounding kings and exotic peoples and extravagantly inaccurate claims. I read it because three of the names in this couplet feature in the great Northern tale of the Völsungs, of Sigmund and Sigurd and Brynhild and Gudrún.

Attila ruled the Huns, Eormanric the Goths,
Becca the Baningas, Gifica the Burgundians.

Gudrún marries, then murders, Atli (Attila) king of the Huns; she is the daughter of Gifica (Gjuki) king of the Burgundians (Niflungen); she then marries Jörmunrekkr (Eormanric), her fourth husband, who murders her. Not, on the whole, a happy story. What is staggering is the power of the legends which became attached to these kings (Attila died 453, Gifica died 407, Eormanric died 375) and lived after them for so very long. The Volsung saga, the Poetic Edda, were written down in the 1200s, 800 years after these legendary kings died. 800 years accumulating depth and complexity and resonance and power!

Priscus at the Court of Attila the Hun

The Roman historian Priscus visited the court of Attila the Hun as ambassador from the Emperor in Constantinople and, miraculously, although most of he History of his times which he wrote is lost, the fragment describing Attila’s court survives. Among other things it contains a fascinating description the kind of setting in which poetry or music would have been composed and received. The party of Romans is invited to Attila’s wooden house, the grandest in the village. The guests are seated on benches lining the walls. There is a ceremony of toasting each of the leaders in order of precedence; a lot of food is served.

When the viands of the first course had been consumed we all stood up, and did not resume our seats until each one, in the order before observed, drank to the health of Attila in the goblet of wine presented to him. We then sat down, and a second dish was placed on each table with eatables of another kind. After this course the same ceremony was observed as after the first.

Then:

When evening fell torches were lit, and two barbarians coming forward in front of Attila sang songs they had composed, celebrating his victories and deeds of valour in war. And of the guests, as they looked at the singers, some were pleased with the verses, others reminded of wars were excited in their souls, while yet others, whose bodies were feeble with age and their spirits compelled to rest, shed tears.

And after the serious songs, the light entertainment:

After the songs a Scythian, whose mind was deranged, appeared, and by uttering outlandish and senseless words forced the company to laugh. After him Zerkon, the Moorish dwarf, entered… On the occasion of the banquet he made his appearance, and threw all except Attila into fits of unquenchable laughter by his appearance, his dress, his voice, and his words, which were a confused jumble of Latin, Hunnic, and Gothic. Attila, however, remained immovable and of unchanging countenance nor by word or act did he betray anything approaching to a smile of merriment

Tough crowd.

Related links

The opening lines of Widsith in the Exeter Book

The opening lines of Widsith in the Exeter Book

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún by JRR Tolkien

Since the death of JRR Tolkien in 1973, his son Christopher has been working through his father’s papers, publishing a steady stream of posthumous editions of the Great Man’s writings. Largest has been the twelve volume set The Histories of Middle Earth in which Christopher compiled all the unfinished, abandoned and alternative versions Tolkien drafted for the epic mythology of which ‘Lord of the Rings’ is only an episode.

Tolkien earned his living, of course, as a Professor of English at Oxford, specialising in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse poetry. He routinely delivered lectures about both subjects and marked students’ translations of verse from both traditions.

Still, it came as a surprise to both fans and experts in the field when Christopher Tolkien announced he was publishing two long poems by Tolkien, written in English but obeying the rules of the eight-line fornyrðislag metre found in Icelandic Eddaic poetry. Not only is the form Icelandic but the subject matter is an ambitious attempt to retell the entire tale of Sigurd and Gudrún – a central legend of the north European Dark Ages, the subject of a third of the poems in the Poetic Edda, the entire subject of the Icelandic Völsunga saga, of the German epic poem the Nibelungenlied, of the long poem The Story of Sigurd the Volsung by William Morris and, most famously, the basis of Richard Wagner’s vast four-opera cycle, the Ring of the Nibelung.

Contents

The challenge Tolkien set himself to overcome is that the three main sources for the story – the Elder Edda, the prose Edda and the Völsunga saga – contradict each other in the outline of the story, in many details, even in the names. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún aims to cut through the scholarly pernicketiness and hesitancy about manuscript variants and textual ambiguities etc, in order to tell one clear consistent story. It succeeds brilliantly!

The New Lay of the Völsungs is the first and longest of the two poems, nearly 130 pages long and divided into 10 sections. It starts with the creation of the world, a short retelling of the famous Völuspá poem from the Poetic Edda:

Of old was an age
when Odin walked
by wide waters
in the world’s beginning;
lightfooted Loki
at his left was running,
at his right Hœnir
roamed beside him.

That’s the fornyrðislag metre: four lines divided in two halves (or eight short lines, as here), two syllables emphasised in each half line, each emphasised syllable in the first half line alliterating with the first emphasised syllable in the second half line.

Birds sang blithely (two alliterating beat words)
o’er board and hearth, (one alliterating beat word, one not)
bold men and brave (two alliterating beat words)
on benches sitting.  (one alliterating beat word, one not)
Mailclad, mighty  (two alliterating beat words)
his message spake there  (one alliterating beat word, one not)
a Gautish lord (one alliterating beat word, one not – irregular)
gleaming-harnessed.  (one alliterating beat word, one not)

The tale moves briskly on through the successful career of king Völsung, his son Sigmund, and his son, Sigurd, through Sigurd’s famous killing of the dragon Fafnir, his betrothal to the Valkyrie Brynhild, his drugging by king Gjúki’s wicked wife Grimhild, so that he forgets Brynhild and marries Gudrún; in this state of amnesia he swaps bodily shape with his brother-in-law Gunnar to help Gunnar woo and wed Brynhild – but the day after the marriage Brynhild realises Gunnar is not the hero she thought and the oblivion potion wears off a distraught Sigurd, and both lovers are left married to other partners. The infuriated Brynhild tells Gunnar Sigurd has seduced her and Gunnar gets his idiot brother, Gotthorm, to murder Sigurd in his bed. They build a funeral pyre for Sigurd and the deranged Brynhild kills herself and is burned along with the hero whose death she caused.

Commentary on The New Lay of the Völsungs Christopher Tolkien gives a detailed account of the manuscripts JRR left behind along with useful clarifications of where JRR departed from, or chose between, the various sources.

The New Lay of Gudrún is shorter at 56 pages and follows the career of the widow Gudrún as she is married off to Atli, the infamous Attila, king of the Huns (!), who invites her brothers, Gunnar and Högni  to visit and promptly tortures them to extract the gold treasure Sigurd brought with him from killing the dragon Fafnir.  Högni  has his heart cut out and Gunnar refuses to talk so Atli throws him into a snakepit where Gudrún sends him a harp which he plays and magically prevents the snakes biting him. Until one does. At her brother’s funeral Gudrún serves Atli the bodies of his own sons, cooked, and then burns Atli’s stronghold to the ground. She summarises the long tragic events, all the dead princes the curse of Andvari’s gold has killed, before drowning herself in the sea.

Commentary on The New Lay of Gudrún shorter set of notes on the poem and the story of Gudrún.

Appendix A – A short account of the origins of the Legend Christopher seeks to  establish, via Tolkien’s lectures, notes, remarks and scattered pieces of paper, where his father stood on the various theories about the origin of the Sigurd and Fafnir legend (dragon, gold, hero) and how it came to be combined with the obviously different legend about the Niflungs. Complex stuff.

Appendix B – The Prophecy of the Sibyl Tolkien essayed a translation of part of the famous Völuspá poem from the Poetic Edda into 12 6-line stanzas of traditional English rhyming verse. It is interesting how bad this is:

Then darkened shall the sunlight be
and Earth shall founder under sea,
and from the cloven heavens all
the gleaming stars shall flee and fall;
the steam shall rise in roaring spires
and heaven’s roof be licked with fires.

It doesn’t have the compression and power of the long fornyrðislag poems, showing that the eddaic poems live or die by their concision and power. Also shows what a very traditional poet Tolkien is, using outdated poeticisms to fill in the metre of the longer English line.

Appendix C – Two fragments of a heroic poem of Attila in Old English one is 40 lines long, the second 28 lines long, two translations of sections of the Norse eddaic poem Atlakviða into Old English (Anglo-Saxon). One for the specialists.

Changes

The two commentaries detail the changes Tolkien made to his source material in order to create one unified coherent story. Along with the introduction and appendices they dwell at length on the confused state of the old texts, how they appear to be trying to reconcile different traditions, different stories, about different sets of heroes. Christopher Tolkien admirably recounts his father’s theories as expressed in lectures, notes and random scraps of paper. If you have the mental capacity, Christopher supplies the evidence you need to assess Tolkien’s theories about the origins and authorship of all the various Dark Age sources.

But there is one MASSIVE change Tolkien makes in his version of the poems, which is entirely gratuitous, entirely his own addition to this ancient tangle of narratives. He makes Sigurd not just any old warrior, but THE warrior, the Chosen One of Odin who, it is explained in the opening section, will be the last best hope of the gods when the time comes for their Last Battle with the giants, at the Ragnarök.

This is hugely unlike the Norse originals, a complete and surprising transformation. One reason the Völsunga saga is so confusing is because, as so many of the other sagas, one damn thing happens after another. There is no sense of foregrounding individuals or important scenes. Plenty of other lives and stories occur before we get to Sigurd in either the Völsungasaga or the Poetic Edda, and the story carries right on after his death without a blip.

One of the challenges of reading the sagas is this complete lack of all the devices we know from novels and plays and films and TV which make crystal clear who the hero and heroine are, prepare the ground for them, and then focus in on dramatic moments in their story. In the sagas one person with a complex family tree follows another in puzzling profusion – leaving the reader struggling to figure out who among the scores of Helgis and Hognis is the actual “hero”.

In sharp contrast Tolkien makes Sigurd a hero of world-shattering importance, not just another Helgi but THE man who will come to Valhalla to help the gods fight against the giants.

Thy womb shall wax
with the World’s Chosen,
serpent-slayer,
seed of Odin.
Till ages end
all shall name him
chief of chieftains,
changeless glory.

It transplants the entire story into a different worldview. Very tempting to remember Tolkien was a Roman Catholic and has here imposed a Christian-shaped importance to the hero. If not that personal a shift, it at the least gives the narrative a priority and importance which the Norse original lacks.

This big shift is just one way in which Tolkien makes his poems much more modern, comprehensible and meaningful than the original Norse. The story is smoothed out into a comprehensible linear narrative. Characters get lots of dialogue to explain their motives. Scenes are properly set and the way prepared for the protagonists to say what’s on their minds. You understand what’s happening and why.

This couldn’t be more unlike the clipped, laconic, obscure and often impenetrable poems of the Poetic Edda. The obscurity and garbled brokenness of the originals is of a piece with the compressed power of the originals. Tolkien can’t match or replace that. But this paperback might make a good transition for readers who like modern fantasy and want to tentatively explore the sources of Tolkien’s imagination before diving  straight in to the challenging Poetic or Prose Eddas.

Photo of the woodcarving of Sigurd killing the dragon Fafnir, wood carving from Hylestad stave church in Norway

Sigurd killing the dragon Fafnir, wood carving from Hylestad stave church in Norway

Sagas

Jonathan Alibone @ Reading Room Gallery

Reading Room is a leading digital consultancy in Soho, central London. They have very imaginatively turned the (fairly small) Reception and Waiting area of their offices into a gallery which showcases new young artists. Visiting them on business recently, I was very struck by the exhibition of paintings by Jonathan Alibone.

There’s a text explaining that the pictures “offer a critical interrogation of western culture’s beliefs and values, and an exploration of the conflicted territory between such opposing concepts as: faith and doubt, reality and fantasy, the enduring and the transient, and physical desire versus spiritual longing”. Well. Maybe. An artist has to write something to explain or rationalise his work.

But I just immediately liked his paintings. I liked the size and shape of them (a yard or so square). I liked the roughness of the way the oil sat on the centimetre-deep canvases. I liked the way they had no frames and the sides of the canvas were raw, unpainted.  I liked the splotching and blotching of paint on the surface – I’ve always liked unfinished oils, paintings which overtly state the incompletess, the incompletability of the work of art, from Dada, collage, cubism onwards, the impossibility of completion, perfection or ‘beauty’ in such a chaotic century.

The subject matter is gothic, dwelling on skulls and deaths heads, or Hollywood pinups from the 50s cut out and abandoned in post-apocalyptic wastelands of oil, or soft porn images. (The latter reminded me a bit of the lovely mosaics by Chris Ofili which, when you look close up, turned out to be made from hundreds of hard core images cut out from porn mags.)

The use of 1950s Hollywood icons reminded me of JG Ballard, his obsession with Elizabeth Taylor in ‘Crash’. Here’s a black and white image of Liz (painted, cut from a magazine?) abandoned in a dark desert landscape with tempting apples hanging from pale drizzles of paint, wittily titled ‘Landscape with Sin’.

Landscape with Sin by Jonathan Alibone (by permission of the artist)

Landscape with Sin by Jonathan Alibone (by permission of the artist)

The obviousness of the Hollywood motif and of the Bible reference, the triteness of the apparently apocalyptic or pseudo-religious sentiment, is, for me, itself a comment on the hopeless self-referentiality of the visual arts; Dada thought painting was over in the 1910s; the cubists cut up and pasted newspapers/magazines onto the canvas; the surrealists undermined all rationality of art; the abstract expressionists made painting about the surface and contour of the paint itself; Andy Warhol made prints of any striking image which caught his window-dressing eye. Alibone comes very, very late to this worn-out 20th century tradition. These paintings aren’t secondary or tertiary, they contain archaeological depths of recycled imagery, countlessly overused stock imagery from film or pop, stereotypical religious paraphernalia and iconography which have become so emptied of meaning or import as to have gone beyond the emptily decorative into new spaces of meaninglessness. I like that the imagery inhabits – creates – embodies this extremity of used-upness. I like the feeling of hollowness the images give me.

But also – I like these paintings for their painterliness. I really like the Alibone’s use of oil. I enjoy the texture of the background, the unknown dun landscape where Liz has been plonked down and her apples of desire incongruously hang.

‘Something For The Weekend’ is a visual gag, a cemetery death’s head hung on a condom dispenser – Sex and death, pleasure and mortality, the little death and the big death etc. Endless loops of critical discourse could be generated about these mashups; overeducated curators could spin reams of commentary on the witty conceits which fill Alibone’s works.

Something for the Weekend by Jonathan Alibone (by permission of the artist)

Something for the Weekend by Jonathan Alibone (by permission of the artist)

In an early essay TS Eliot said the meaning of the poem is like the steak the burglar tosses to the guard dog; while the dog gives all his attention to the meat, the burglar quietly goes about  his business. Eliot meant that, while the reader fusses and frets about the “meaning” of the poem, the poem goes about its actual work, using words, phrases, rhythms, assonance, rhyme etc, beneath the level of conscious thought, having its impact, making itself felt, changing our sensibility.

I feel the same about Alibone’s work. The overt image in each painting or drawing is witty, clever, ironic -sometimes ominous or cheesy, sometimes with the hollowness of a pop collagist like Richard Hamilton. The interplay between striking image and witty title – Sin-A-Rama, To All Who Come To This Happy Place, Sirens Sweetly Singing – tosses sops to the reader’s conscious mind, make us laugh or shiver.

But all the time the art – the colour and fabric and texture and design – are doing their subconscious work, alterning sensibility and feeling.

I like the texture. I like these works as built, made, artefacts. ‘Something For The Weekend’ is a collage of images cut out from somewhere and pasted onto acrylic paint spread over canvas. The image itself is striking and maybe a little obvious. It’s the way the surface of the painting is so evident, so demonstrative, which I enjoy. It’s a little like Banksy, where the roughness of the brick or concrete wall is a vital part of the image, of the tonal effect.

I like the interplay in Alibone’s art between the airiness of the Elizabethan conceits and the tough, thickened, oil and canvas reality of the finished artefacts.

There’s more variety than I imply. See his page on Riseart.com for more images. But almost all of them share a similar palette, a similar approach to recycling figurative imagery, always of the human figure, with a sensuous attention to the surface, to paint, to canvas, which gives all his works a visceral immediacy.

Buy one!

To All Who Come To This Happy Place by Jonathan Alibone (by permission of the artist)

To All Who Come To This Happy Place by Jonathan Alibone (by permission of the artist)

The Rest is Noise 6: The Art of Fear

To the South Bank for the latest study weekend in their year-long The Rest Is Noise festival; this weekend it’s The Art of Fear ie music and culture under the dictators Stalin and Hitler, and straightaway you have a dilemma. The history and culture of the Nazi rise-to-power and the Bolshevik revolution are substantially different: Germany was Europe’s most advanced industrial country, Russia its most backward: so do you flit between sessions on each or focus on one? After some thought I decided I know enough about Shostakovitch – I’ve listened to all the symphonies countless times, I’ve read testimony and seen the film several times, a year ago I was reading Orlando Figes’s history of the Bolshevik revolution, but about music under Hitler I know a lot less.

Breakfast with Shostakovitch: The Leningrad Symphony Very enjoyable hour led by enthusiastic Rachel Leach who got audience members to play the vibes, drums and bash a piano along with a cellist, violinist and percussionist from the LSO to explore the component parts of Shostakovitch’s most famous symphony. He wrote it in Leningrad during the murderous siege by the Nazis during the second world war when hundreds of thousands of Russians died of cold and starvation, it was smuggled out of the besieged city and played in the West to great acclaim. The first movement is dominated by a 12 minute long repeating drum pattern which begins quietly and builds to nightmareish proportions, generally taken to represent the advance of the German army into the Russian heartland. But like everything to do with Shostakovitch the story is muddied; he later claimed a lot of it was written before the war and was about the destruction of Russian life wrought by Stalin. It is one of the biggest, longest (90 minutes), loudest pieces of classical music ever written. Over-the-top bombast or triumph of the human spirit in face of terrible adversity: you takes your pick. They were investigating it in such detail because it was the big concert being given that evening by the City of Birmingham Orchestra.

Anne Applebaum: Opening lecture The phenomenally intelligent and successful Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and historian Anne Applebaum, author of a terrifying book about the Russian gulags, did the impossible and delivered a half hour overview of both Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Lenin’s USSR which covered the main points and offered me, at least, thought-provoking new ideas. She said the word ‘totalitarian’ was coined by a speechwriter for Mussolini, and it was defined as “Everything within the State, nothing outside the State, everything for the State”. What Hitler and Lenin-Stalin had in common was a contempt for the ‘softness’ of bourgeois politics, for democracy. Both shared a completely new theory of Power. The completeness of the vision, the ambition, is unprecedented in human history: to remould human beings; to create a new race of humans (pure Aryan Germans or communist Man); to completely re-engineer Society from top to bottom leaving no quarter, no inch untouched. And to change the Mind, to change the way human beings think, both dictators realised the importance of art and culture in the broadest sense, as the field where humans learn about their society and express their feelings and ideas. if you want to completely re-engineer these thoughts and feelings into approved channels then, it follows logically, every aspect of art and culture must be meticulously controlled and regulated. Art must be realistic and comprehensible by everyone; any art which retreats from the social challenge, which obsesses with purely personal subject matter, with obscure symbolism or sets itself up into petty cliques, such art is obviously anti-social and, in effect, sabotaging the Great Plan. Any artist who is gifted with the means of helping the people towards the Promised Land but wilfully refuses the task and prefers agonising about their own petty personal problems or tinkering with obscure “formalist” theories is clearly a traitor…

A quick sandwich out on the Festival Hall balcony, and then have to choose one of the five events all happening simultaneously at 1pm: I decide not to go to Noise Bites 4×15 minute whistle-stop tours through the key artists, social movements and scientific breakthroughs of the era ie Leni Riefenstahl, Picasso’s Guernica and Nazi Architecture; not to go to a talk on Propaganda Posters presented by John Milner from the Courtauld Institute; not to see Christopher Nupen’s award-winning film “We Want The Light” which explores the relationship between the Jews and German music. My feeling from previous weekends is that films can be seen on dvd or YouTube – what is unrepeatable is lecturers talking and answering questions (and, sure enough, We Want The Light is available on YouTube.)

Erik Levi: Music and the Nazis This was a really good lecture. Erik is Reader in Music and Director of Performance at Royal Holloway. He has made a really detailed study of the documents of music in Weimar and Nazi Germany, the magazines and associations and concert programmes, and come up with fascinating findings.

  • Number one, it is astonishing how central culture is to Mein Kampf. Hitler is obsessed with the centrality of culture in promoting a pure strong Aryan Germany; to be strong again Germany must think itself proud and strong. Looking around he saw George Grosz and a host of contemporary artists and composers revelling in German’s defeat and poverty and humiliation: this would be changed!
  • Two: we all think about the cool revolutionaries in the Weimar Republic, but there was a deep fund of “conservative bitterness”, a large number of composers and musicians who disliked the new music and thought it was betraying the nobility of what is, after all, the greatest musical tradition in Europe – Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Wagner. As early as 1920 Hans Pfitzner wrote a pamphlet attacking the new music (presumably of Stravinsky) and identifying the Jews with controlling music establishment and ruining German music. (Levi points out that in fact Jews did hold positions of power, running various symphony orchestra and operas and figuring heavily among the controversial new composers – Weill, Eissler). The Nazis, ostensibly a political party, thought it worth their time and energy organising protests against the (hugely popular) Threepenny Opera and the jazz opera, Jonny Spielt Auf.
  • It is striking that Goebbels, shrewdly, is contributing to the conservative and reactionary music periodicals, infiltrating and conscripting conservative musical discourse for the Party’s goals. Levi quotes a passage of Goebbels calling for a “steely Romanticism” which faces reality without flinching.
  • The Wall Street Crash and the arrival of talkies had the joint affect of throwing thousands of musicians out of work. Through the twenties each town had a cinema (Germany had a massive film industry) which employed a full orchestra. With talkies and then musicals all these musicians were sacked, joining the ranks of the unemployed which Hitler offered work.
  • Hitler comes to power and does give them work. The Nazis invest a huge amount in music. they save the Berlin Philharmonic and the Bayreuth Festival from bankruptcy. They fund concerts of good German music in every city, they sponsor festivals celebrating anniversaries of Bach, Wagner etc. The flight of so many eminent Jews creates vacancies in numerous institutions. In music as in economics the Nazis institute protectionism: German music by German musicians. The most eminent German composer, Richard Strauss, notoriously writes: “Thank God we have a new regime which takes music seriously” and is made President of the Reichskammer.
  • Levi discussed the fate of six iconic pieces from the period:
    • Berg’s Lulu is banned, for both its corrupt subject matter (a prostitute) and its twelve tone experimentalism
    • Stravinsky’s Jeu de Cartes is, surprisingly, welcomed and widely played. Stravinsky was a big fan of Mussolini’s fascism and wanted (and needed) his music to be played in Germany so he was careful not to offend the authorities. They ignored his revolutionary ballets and played his easier neoclassical stuff.
    • Bartok was vehemently anti-fascist but his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste was widely played. Why? Because Bartok could be portrayed as a nationalist, devoted to folk art, to blood and soil (in contrast to the stereotype of the rootless, urban, decadent Jewish influence which the Nazis saw as the key enemy)
    • Hindemith was banned and left.
    • Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana was probably closest to Goebbels’ idea of steely Romanticism; it is full of modernist, post-Stravinsky rhythms, but harnessed to colossally simple tunes and harmonies.
    • Richard Strauss: poster boy for the regime who secretly despised the top Nazis but was happy to take all the awards and positions they offered him.

At 2.30 another set of difficult choices: I decide not to go see Phil Walker from the University of Surrey discuss the origins of The Nuclear Era; the Noise Bites whistle-stop tour through Mass Observation, Orwell and David Gascoyne, or Irish actor Jack Healy performing his one-man show about Shostakovich.

Instead queue to see BBC History Commissioning editor Martin Davidson give an enthusiastic talk titled The Vile and The Sublime: Hitler and Art. I think this was meant to be about Leni Riefenstahl and her notorious documentary film about the 1934 Nurenberg rally, Triumph of the Will. Martin has made various documentaries about Nazi Germany including one on this very subject. But it was his swift overview of the cultural trends which led up to Nazism which I found riveting: the Romantic movement posited that there is more to the world than the prosaic reality we face day to day; there are higher levels, numinous realms of the imagination accessible to poets and artists and imaginative heroes who can show us the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age: Arnold and Ruskin and Morris told us that only Art can save us from the mundane and the philistine and encourage idolisation of the great Poets who shape and transmit these precious spiritual values to us masses. It is Thomas Carlisle who takes the fateful step of carrying this Romantic adulation into the realm of Politics, with his series of essays and books delineating the political Hero, the Cromwell and Napoleon, the Strong Man who bends the destinies of nations to his will. Meanwhile, in another strand, Richard Wagner writes his pamphlet, Das Judenthum in der Musik (1850), stereotyping the rootless, cosmopolitan Jew as the enemy of pure nationalist music, by extension the underminer of the Modern Nation. And elsewhere Charles Darwin’s epigones spin the idea of natural selection into theories of spiritual or physical or political evolution,  whereby nations are engaged in a life or death competition to survive and any elements or aspects of society which are backward or diseased risk jeopardising the survival of the entire nation, of everyone.

And then the whole world exploded in the unprecedented disaster of the Great War, an unparalleled catastrophe, murder on an industrial scale, which ushered in the 20th century and all its immeasurable evil, vileness and horror. The War leaves the defeated utterly bereft of hope, amid the wreckage of ruined empires, all illusions destroyed. It was a war of the entire nation coming together on an unprecedented scale and when Germany lost, it wasn’t some remote army, it was the entire society from top to bottom which failed. From all of these strands Hitler concocted what Davidson quotes Hugh Trevor-Roper as describing as “bestial Nordic nonsense”. But to the majority of people who voted for Hitler in 1933 it made sense:

Germany had been comprehensively betrayed: the Weimar democrats and socialists and Jews had stabbed this mighty nation in the back and betrayed her noble army to the Jews on Wall street and the Bolshevik Jews and the Jews within, the degenerate, rootless intellectuals. The noble German worker and soldier needed to be saved from unemployment and humiliation by a strong Leader who could unite the nation, and defeat its enemies within and abroad.

Speer built the gleaming modernist Zeppelin stadium outside the quaint traditional volkish town of Nurenberg, Goebbels staged the rally, Leni Riefenstahl filmed it.

4pm more difficult decisions. I chose not to attend Frank Whitford on the Nazi exhibition of Degenerate Art; or to join the enormous queue for novelist Helen Dunmore talking about The Long Shadows Of War, what society chooses to memorialise and what to forget; more Noise Bites whistle-stop tours through Picture Post, Orwell and the Paris International Exhibition; nor to go watch three British Wartime Propaganda Films, tempting as this was, on the principle that you can always see these things on dvd or YouTube; ditto Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky.

Instead I went to see A listening guide to the weekend’s music presented by very English music professor, critic and broadcaster David Fanning and the excruciatingly giggly, girlish Iranian pianist and musicologist Michelle Assay. Half way through one balding guy in front of me turned to the balding guy next to him and stage whispered ‘This is rubbish’. They had decided David would be the teacher and Michelle the cheeky pupil who needed to answer questions about Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovitch correctly to pass her test. Which led to excruciating ‘jokes’ in an uncomfortably kinky atmosphere, and didn’t very well convey the Wikipedia-level trot through the careers of the three composers. Didn’t learn anything: Stravinsky the chameleon modernist who unleashed wild pagan rhythm for everyone else to explore; Prokofiev the optimistic futurist associated with urban, sporting, energetic music who somehow never created the big masterpieces; Shostakovitch who started off as a jokey satirist but was chastened into the morbidly grandiose symphonist of popular memory. I should have kept to to my Nazi theme and gone to the talk on Degenerate Art.

There was more. I didn’t go to see the Southbank Sinfonia play Music from Terezin concentration camp; Will Self deliver a lecture about Kafka’s influence on totalitarian music; another opportunity to see Jack Healy be Shostakovich; the pre-concert talk about Shostakovich, Prokofiev & Stalin by music journalist and radio presenter Stephen Johnson; a screening of Tony Palmer’s film about Carl Orff, “O, Fortuna!”; or the evening’s big concert, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra performing Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, preceded by an introductory talk by historian Orlando Figes.

You can have too much of a good thing…

The bad guys

The Poetic Edda – the mythological poems

If the previous post was a factual review of the background to the Elder Edda, this one is a more detailed consideration of the individual poems which make up the first part of the Codex Regius, called the Mythological poems because they deal exclusively with stories about the Norse gods.

Icelandic poetry, like Old English poetry, is characterised by beats not rhymes. The poems come in a number of metres. By far the most common is the so-called Fornyrthislag (“Old Verse”), generally four lines each with four beats, handily remembered as four-four measure. Each short line is divided by a cæsura into two half-lines. Each half-line has two accented syllables and two (sometimes three) unaccented ones. The first and second emphasised syllables in the first half of the line alliterate with the first of the two emphasised syllables in the second half. In this example of a Fornyrthislag stanza the accented syllables are underlined:

VreiÞr vas VingÞórr, | es vaknaÞi
ok síns hamars | of saknaÞi;
skegg nam hrista, | skor nam dýja,
Þ JarÞar burr | umb at Þreifask.

It isn’t always possible to replicate this in English and various translators try (and succeed) to varying degrees. Often the stanza doesn’t have four lines and often it’s hard to identify three clearly alliterating elements, and the translations I’ve read rarely stick rigidly to this schema. In fact finding four English lines each containing four beats, three of them alliterating, is the exception rather than the rule.

The poems have many stanzas, the longest over 160, the average being around 50.

The poems rarely include narrative. They don’t often tell you what happens. Rather as in Greek drama, what happens generally happens offstage and is reported in prose prefaces or prose sentences or paragraphs inserted throughout a poem. This frees the poems to concentrate on what they do well – dialogue: dialogues about the Universe (on the origins and destiny of the world); dialogues about Wisdom (proverbial advice); speeches of praise; and the trading of vituperative insults (in medieval English poetry referred to as flyting (it is striking that the Wikipedia entry on flyting takes as examples two poems from the Poetic Edda, the Hárbarðsljóð where Thor and Odin exchange insults, and the Lokasenna where Loki abuse all the other gods)).

Carolyne Larrington is the author of a very useful paper, Translating the Poetic Edda into English. This lists an impressive sequence of translators: Icelandic Poetry by Amos Cottle (1797), Select Icelandic Poetry by William Herbert (1804, 1806, and 1842), The Edda of Sæmund the Learned by Benjamin Thorpe (1866), The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs, with certain songs from the Elder Edda by Eiríkr Magnússon and William Morris (1870), Corpus Poeticum Boreale by Vigfusson and York Powell (1883), The Elder or Poetic Edda by Olive Bray illustrated with black-and-white drawings by W. G. Collingwood (1908), The Poetic Edda by Henry Adams Bellows (1926), The Poetic Edda by Lee M. Hollander (1928), Poems of the Vikings by Patricia Terry (1969), Elder Edda: A Selection by WH Auden, Taylor, and Salus (1969), The Poetic Edda by Carolyne Larrington (1996), Norse Poems (the expanded Auden and Taylor) (1981), and Poetic Edda by Ursula Dronke (1969, 1997), The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore by Andy Orchard (2011).

In an ideal world one would a) have access to them all b) have time to carefully compare and contrast the versions. Ideally one would understand medieval Icelandic in the first place and be able to compare all the translations with the originals. In this life, however, I don’t understand medieval Icelandic and I can’t access most of the 20th century versions. The best I can do is compare & contrast the versions I can access, and try to nail down, to identify, the poetry in these poems. Are they worth reading? Why? What pleasures do they give?

The Tree of Yggdrasil, title page of The Elder or Poetic Edda translated by Olive Bray. By WG Collingwood (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Tree of Yggdrasil, title page of The Elder or Poetic Edda translated by Olive Bray. By WG Collingwood (source: Wikimedia Commons)

þ is pronounced as th as in thing. ð is pronounced as d.

1. The Eleven (or is it Ten?) Mythological Poems

Völuspá (66 stanzas long) – The Volva or seer or prophetess tells what she knows about the Creation of the World, and then about Ragnarok, the famous twilight of the gods when Valhalla will go down in flames and most of the gods will be killed. The wolf Fenrir will swallow Odin. Thor will kill the serpent Jörmungandr but then collapse, dead from its venom.

Henry Adams Bellows translation (1923):

44. Now Garm howls loud | before Gnipahellir,
The fetters will burst, | and the wolf run free;
Much do I know, | and more can see
Of the fate of the gods, | the mighty in fight.

45. Brothers shall fight | and fell each other,
And sisters’ sons | shall kinship stain;
Hard is it on earth, | with mighty whoredom;
Axe-time, sword-time, | shields are sundered,
Wind-time, wolf-time, | ere the world falls;
Nor ever shall men | each other spare.

Andy Orchard (2011)

44. Garm howls loud before Looming-cave
The bond will break, and the ravenous one run;
much lore she knows, I see further ahead,
of the powers’ fate, implacable, of the victory-gods.

45. Brothers will struggle and slaughter each other,
and sisters’ sons spoil kinship’s bonds.
It’s hard on earth: great whoredom;
axe-age, blade-age, shields are split;
wind-age, wolf-age, before the world crumbles:
no one shall spare another.

Hávamál (165 stanzas long) – a long rambling collection of proverbs and wisdom sayings with the tale of Odin and the mead interpolated. The length, complexity and – ultimately – thin content of this one makes it my least favourite. If in doubt, skip it.

Vafþrúðnismál (55 stanzas long) – a wisdom poem, Odin visits the giant Vafthruthnir and they immediately engage in a series of questions about the origin of the world and the workings of the universe.

Othin spake:

36. “Ninth answer me well, | if wise thou art called
If thou knowest it, Vafthruthnir, now:
Whence comes the wind | that fares o’er the waves
Yet never itself is seen?”

Vafthruthnir spake:

37. “In an eagle’s guise | at the end of heaven
Hræsvelg sits, they say;
And from his wings | does the wind come forth
To move o’er the world of men.”

Grímnismál (54 stanzas) – naming himself Grimnir Odin visits king Geirröth who ties him between two fires as a torture. On the eighth day as the fire is burning his cloak Odin/Grimnir speaks a long encyclopedia text, describing the halls in heaven, the geography of the earth with its rivers, the wolves that chase the sun and moon across the heavens, with a resounding peroration enumerating all his names, before the terror-stricken king rises to his feet, stumbles over his sword and (in a fitting punishment for his hubris) impales himself.

46. Grim is my name, | Gangleri am I,
Herjan and Hjalmberi,
Thekk and Thrithi, | Thuth and Uth,
Helblindi and Hor;

47. Sath and Svipal | and Sanngetal,
Herteit and Hnikar,
Bileyg, Baleyg, | Bolverk, Fjolnir,
Grim and Grimnir, | Glapsvith, Fjolsvith.

48. Sithhott, Sithskegg, | Sigfather, Hnikuth,
Allfather, Valfather, | Atrith, Farmatyr:
A single name | have I never had
Since first among men I fared.

Skírnismál (43 stanzas) – Frey spies the giantess Gerd and falls in love with her. He sends Skirnir with his sword to woo her. When Gerd refuses polite offers of apples and gold Skirnir turns very nasty and declaims a long curse: Gerd will live in misery among the giants who rape her and feed her filth. Abruptly, Gerd realises she was in love with Frey all along!

29. “Rage and longing, | fetters and wrath,
Tears and torment are thine;
Where thou sittest down | my doom is on thee
Of heavy heart and double dole.

30. “In the giants’ home | shall vile things harm thee
Each day with evil deeds;
Grief shalt thou get | instead of gladness,
And sorrow to suffer with tears.

Hárbarðsljóð (60 stanzas) – Thor, returning from another giant-killing expedition to the east, comes to a sound and shouts across at the ferryman to bring his boat. The ferryman refuses and they hurl insults at each other, more precisely asking each other what they’ve achieved and belittling each other’s claims. The ferryman is Odin in disguise. It is noticeable that while Thor boasts of fighting giants, Harbard/Odin boasts of sleeping with women.

Harbarth spake:
18. “Lively women we had, | if they wise for us were;
Wise were the women we had, | if they kind for us were;
For ropes of sand | they would seek to wind,
And the bottom to dig | from the deepest dale.
Wiser than all | in counsel I was,
And there I slept | by the sisters seven,
And joy full great | did I get from each.
What, Thor, didst thou the while?”

Thor spake:
19. “Thjazi I felled, | the giant fierce,
And I hurled the eyes | of Alvaldi’s son
To the heavens hot above;
Of my deeds the mightiest | marks are these,
That all men since can see.

Hymiskviða (40 stanzas) – Thor visits the giant Hymir with a view to borrowing his cauldron so Ægir can brew mead for the gods. He persuades Hymir to go fishing but whereas Hymir catches two whales Thor pulls up the world-serpent Jörmungandr. This poem is notable for its unusually high density of kennings or allusive references, poetic riddles.

23. The warder of men, | the worm’s destroyer,
Fixed on his hook | the head of the ox;
There gaped at the bait | the foe of the gods,
The girdler of all | the earth beneath.

24. The venomous serpent | swiftly up
To the boat did Thor, | the bold one, pull;
With his hammer the loathly | hill of the hair
Of the brother of Fenrir | he smote from above.

25. The monsters roared, | and the rocks resounded,
And all the earth | so old was shaken;
Then sank the fish | in the sea forthwith.

Lokasenna (65 stanzas) – Loki gatecrashes a party of the gods and insults each one in turn, with detailed knowledge of their misdeeds and vices. None go uninsulted.

Loki spake to Tyr:
40. “Be silent, Tyr! | for a son with me
Thy wife once chanced to win;
Not a penny, methinks, | wast thou paid for the wrong,
Nor wast righted an inch, poor wretch.”

Loki spake to Freyr:
42. “The daughter of Gymir | with gold didst thou buy,
And sold thy sword to boot;
But when Muspell’s sons | through Myrkwood ride,
Thou shalt weaponless wait, poor wretch.”

Loki spake to Byggvir:
46. “Be silent, Byggvir! | thou never couldst set
Their shares of the meat for men;
Hid in straw on the floor, | they found thee not
When heroes were fain to fight.”

Þrymskviða (33 stanzas) – Thor wakes up to find his hammer is missing. Loki flies as a bird to the house of the giant Thrym who confirms he has it and will only return it if he can marry the goddess Freya. Loki concocts a plan to dress Thor as a woman and journey to Thrym’s court. Here they fool hrym right up until the giant foolishyl returns his hammer to Thor whereupon the god brains him and all his followers. Composed around 900, short and punchy, with no gaps or interpolations, it has been called one of the best ballads in the world.

18. Then bound they on Thor | the bridal veil,
And next the mighty | Brisings’ necklace.

19. Keys around him | let they rattle,
And down to his knees | hung woman’s dress;
With gems full broad | upon his breast,
And a pretty cap | to crown his head.

20. Then Loki spake, | the son of Laufey:
“As thy maid-servant thither | I go with thee;
We two shall haste | to the giants’ home.”

Völundarkviða (43 stanzas) – As Andy Orchard points out, this poem is in the wrong place. It’s a poem about the legendary crippled blacksmith, Völund, his trials and revenge on King Nithuth for hamstringing him (Völund kills the king’s young sons, presents their skulls adorned in silver as drinking cups and their eyes as gems to the queen, and seduces and impregnates the king’s daughter Bothvild). It should be in part two, the section on mortal heroes. That’s where Henry Adams Bellows moves it to.

37. “Their skulls, once hid | by their hair, I took,
Set them in silver | and sent them to Nithuth;
Gems full fair | from their eyes I fashioned,
To Nithuth’s wife | so wise I gave them.

38. “And from the teeth | of the twain I wrought
A brooch for the breast, | to Bothvild I gave it;
Now big with child | does Bothvild go,
The only daughter | ye two had ever.”

Alvíssmál (35 stanzas) – Thor keeps the dwarf, Alvis, who has come to collect Thor’s daughter in marriage, in conversation with a series of questions about the correct names of parts of the universe (sky, sea, stars etc) until day breaks and the dwarf is turned to stone by sunlight.

Thor spake:
29. “Answer me, Alvis! | thou knowest all,
Dwarf, of the doom of men:
What call they the night, | the daughter of Nor,
In each and every world?”

Alvis spake:
30. “‘Night’ men call it, | ‘Darkness’ gods name it,
‘The Hood’ the holy ones high;
The giants ‘The Lightless,’ | the elves ‘Sleep’s joy”
The dwarfs ‘The Weaver of Dreams.”‘

Only ten poems, but reading them all is to go on a long journey across time and space, from the creation of the universe to the end of the world, via a whole series of mini-dramas and ballads laced with heartlessness, humour and horror. These poems and their harsh unforgiving worldview are addictive.

The Poetic Edda

1. SUBJECTIVE – The difficulty of medieval Icelandic literature

This is extremely scholarly stuff. Although they say you should just dive in and start reading the poems as poems, this is in reality impossible. You have to know the background facts about the poems (as I summarise them below) – you have to be a bit prepared for the non-rhyming, alliterative form of the poems – and then the poems themselves are generally obscure, sometimes sinking to complete unintelligibility if it weren’t for the extensive notes. Both the new penguin edition (The Elder Edda translated by Andy Orchard, 2011) which I started off reading – and the online version of the Poetic Edda translated by Henry Adams Bellows (1936) which I ended up consulting – pepper the poems with notes on every stanza, every line, every name. And then you discover that the scholars themselves are in confusion about multiple aspects of the poems. They don’t know who many of the characters referred to are, entire lines are missing from the manuscript so editors guess what should be there, guess at the meaning of obscure words, cut and move around lines and sometimes entire stanzas to fit theories which are still contested. Some editors make these decisions; some editors make others. So different editions vary a lot the order of words, lines, stanzas and even the poems they include.

In other words, at every level – from the titles, the names of characters, the order of stanzas, even the very existence of stanzas and lines, to the meaning of individual words and phrases – there is obscurity piled on obscurity. And that’s before you arrive at the “final” ie largely invented-by-editors, version of the poems – to discover that the poems themselves take delight in a clipped, allusive style which only deepens the obscurity. Almost all the poems are in tight, short, four-line stanzas, structured by alliteration, not rhyme (as in the Anglo-Saxon poetry from the same time) which, when translated, sound like  this (Bellows translation):

Alvíssmál (The Ballad of Alvís, The Lay of Alvís, All-Wise’s Sayings)

Alvis spake:
1. “Now shall the bride | my benches adorn,
And homeward haste forthwith;
Eager for wedlock | to all shall I seem,
Nor at home shall they rob me of rest.”

Thor spake:
2. “What, pray, art thou? | Why so pale round the nose?
By the dead hast thou lain of late?
To a giant like | dost thou look, methinks;
Thou wast not born for the bride.”

To understand this, you have to look in the notes to discover that, Alvis is a dwarf; apparently (ie the editor is guessing as much as we are) he has been promised a bride among the goddesses (by whom? why? – nobody knows), specifically (editors assume, from the context) Thor’s daughter, Thrudr – and has arrived to collect her. Thor is unhappy about this and spends eight stanzas contesting Alvis’s right, before settling in to a regular (and – quel relief! – easy-to-understand) series of questions and answers: if the dwarf can answer them, he will win his bride.

This pattern of Thor’s question and Alvis’s response goes on for 34 stanzas and is a rare sequence where the reader perfectly understands what is going on, until abruptly:

Thor spake:
35 “In a single breast | I never have seen
More wealth of wisdom old;
But with treacherous wiles | must I now betray thee:
The day has caught thee, dwarf!
(Now the sun shines here in the hall.)”

Which I didn’t understand at all until I read in the notes that dwarves (like giants) mustn’t be exposed to sunlight; that they, in fact, turn to stone in sunlight. And so Thor (usually portrayed as pretty thick here and in the Prose Edda) has outwitted the dwarf by making him answer so many riddles that the sun has come up and killed him.

This extract captures a) the obscurity of the poems b) the necessity for a lot of explanation and notes c) their laconic and allusive style, hard to follow even once you do know the story, and d) the harsh Northern worldview: it is cold; solemn promises are broken; dwarfs and giants are mocked and killed; children are killed and cooked and served to their parents; warriors slaughter each other in battle; Odin seduces or rapes young women; Thor kills everyone; an enormous amount of time is spent explaining the genealogy of characters who appear for one line never to be seen again…

This Edwardian illustration of the scene by WG Collingwood, in my opinion ludicrously humanises and sanitises this poem, converting it a) visually into the cartoon world of Noggin the Nog b) introducing a note of late Victorian/Edwardian chivalry (the stricken maiden clutching her father’s waist) which is totally absent from the text of the poem (the daughter doesn’t appear or speak) and from the worldview of the poems as a whole (which is harsh and brutal, with no chivalry or romance or honour: it is a kill-and-be-killed world).

Thor protecting his daughter Thrudr, from the dwarf Alvis (Image: W.G. Collingwood. 1908/public domain)

Thor protecting his daughter Thrudr, from the dwarf Alvis (Image: W.G. Collingwood. 1908/public domain)

2. OBJECTIVE – Background

Almost everything we know about Norse mythology and legend comes from two medieval manuscripts, the Poetic Edda and the The Prose Edda. I reviewed the Prose Edda a few weeks ago. It’s a handbook for Icelandic poets, explaining to the would-be poet the traditional poetic forms and – crucially for us – giving brisk summaries of the key Norse myths and legends which the young poet needs to know. It’s ascribed to the Icelandic chieftain and lawmaker Snorri Sturluson. Throughout his prose text he quotes from older poems as examples of style or to illustrate points from the stories. Therefore, for centuries scholars speculated that there must exist a body of older poems which Snorri so regularly refers to.

So imagine the delight of scholars when, in 1643, an Icelandic bishop, Brynjólfur Sveinsson, revealed that he had discovered just such a manuscript of ancient Icelandic poems in his library. He sent it as a present to the king of Norway, and as a result it is now known as the Codex Regius.

Modern scholars have established that the manuscript was written in the 13th century, but nothing is known of its author. The bishop fancifully ascribed it to Sæmundr the Learned, a larger-than-life 12th century Icelandic priest – partly to counterbalance Snorri’s authorship of the Prose Edda. This is rejected by modern scholars but it has led to the situation where each of the books can be known by any of three titles:

The Prose Edda / Snorri’s Edda / the Younger Edda

The Poetic Edda / Sæmundr’s Edda / the Elder Edda.

Allitrative

The Eddic poems are composed in alliterative verse where the aim is to get alliterative consonants to fall on the two stressed syllables in the first half of the line, and one of the two stressed syllables in the second half. Thus the Alvíssmál quoted above, begins:

Bekki breiða,
nú skal brúðr með mér
heim í sinni snúask,
hratat of mægi
mun hverjum þykkja,
heima skal-at hvílð nema.”

(Source: The New Northvegr Center)

Andy Orchard in the 2011 Penguin translation gives this as:

“Now must a bride spread the benches for me,
and be taken home in a trice;
it’ll seem a rushed match to everyone here:
but at home no one will rob us of rest.”

The language of the poems is usually clear and unadorned ie there is little or no metaphor or simile, little imagery of any kind. This absence of colour is probably the single factor which makes them seem to bare and archaic and brutal. It contrasts with the other main Norse tradition, of skaldic poetry, composed by named poets (or skalds) who often write about their feelings, and do so in verse packed with clever riddles and allusions.

Oral tradition and Timescale

Like most early poetry the Eddic poems were passed orally from poet to poet for centuries. None of the poems are attributed to a named author though some of them show strong individual characteristics and are likely to have been the work of individual poets. Scholars sometimes speculate on hypothetical authors but there is – typically – no agreement. Andy Orchard’s notes confidently point out one poem as being the oldest in the collection, maybe from the 800s, others as probably being written about the time the Codex was written down ie the 1200s.  What strikes the casual reader is the tremendously long timescale this implies: that poets were working in the same style with the same stories for four or five hundred years!

In fact, the single most striking thing for me about the entire Edda is the fact that a key player in the sequence of poems at the end (the ones about the legendary hero Sigurd which take up a third of the text) is Atli (who marries and then is murdered by the ill-fated Gudrun), and that all scholars agree this refers to Attila the Hun! who died in 453! That his name is still being invoked in poems being composed and written down in the 1200s, 800 years after is death, says something very deep about the culture of the Dark Ages, about the way legends spread right across Europe (Attila’s campaigns took him from Constantinople to Rome – his legend is being written about in Iceland!), and about Time in the Dark Ages – these stories endured for nearly a thousand years, providing fictional types and figures to shape the imaginations of scores of generations.

By reading it now, in 2013, I feel I am tapping into something very deep, very archaic, into dark and brutal truths about our culture and our history…

Translations

There is a range of translations into English to explore:

The Poems

1, The mythological poems

The Codex Regius is divided into two parts: part one contains the eleven mythological (ie concerned with gods) poems. Mythological Poems in Codex Regius:

  1. Völuspá (Wise-woman’s prophecy, The Prophecy of the Seeress, The Seeress’s Prophecy)
  2. Hávamál (The Ballad of the High One, The Sayings of Hár, Sayings of the High One)
  3. Vafþrúðnismál (The Ballad of Vafthrúdnir, The Lay of Vafthrúdnir, Vafthrúdnir’s Sayings)
  4. Grímnismál (The Ballad of Grímnir, The Lay of Grímnir, Grímnir’s Sayings)
  5. Skírnismál (The Ballad of Skírnir, The Lay of Skírnir, Skírnir’s Journey
  6. Hárbarðsljóð (The Poem of Hárbard, The Lay of Hárbard, Hárbard’s Song
  7. Hymiskviða (The Lay of Hymir, Hymir’s Poem)
  8. Lokasenna (Loki’s Wrangling, The Flyting of Loki, Loki’s Quarrel)
  9. Þrymskviða (The Lay of Thrym, Thrym’s Poem)
  10. Völundarkviða (The Lay of Völund)
  11. Alvíssmál (The Ballad of Alvís, The Lay of Alvís, All-Wise’s Sayings

Part two is a collection of heroic lays about mortal heroes. These consist of three layers:

  • the story of Helgi Hundingsbani
  • the story of the Nibelungs
  • the story of Jörmunrekkr, king of the Goths

…respectively, Scandinavian, German and Gothic in origin. As far as historicity can be ascertained, Attila, Jörmunrekkr and Brynhildr actually existed.

  1. Helgakviða Hundingsbana I or Völsungakviða (The First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane, The First Lay of Helgi the Hunding-Slayer, The First Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani
  2. Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar (The Lay of Helgi the Son of Hjörvard, The Lay of Helgi Hjörvardsson, The Poem of Helgi Hjörvardsson)
  3. Helgakviða Hundingsbana II or Völsungakviða in forna (The Second Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane, The Second Lay of Helgi the Hunding-Slayer, A Second Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani)

The Niflung Cycle

  1. Frá dauða Sinfjötla (Of Sinfjötli’s Death, Sinfjötli’s Death, The Death of Sinfjötli) (A short prose text)
  2. Grípisspá (Grípir’s Prophecy, The Prophecy of Grípir)
  3. Reginsmál (The Ballad of Regin, The Lay of Regin)
  4. Fáfnismál (The Ballad of Fáfnir, The Lay of Fáfnir)
  5. Sigrdrífumál (The Ballad of The Victory-Bringer, The Lay of Sigrdrífa)
  6. Brot af Sigurðarkviðu (Fragment of a Sigurd Lay, Fragment of a Poem about Sigurd)
  7. Guðrúnarkviða I (The First Lay of Gudrún)
  8. Sigurðarkviða hin skamma (The Short Lay of Sigurd, A Short Poem about Sigurd)
  9. Helreið Brynhildar (Brynhild’s Hell-Ride, Brynhild’s Ride to Hel, Brynhild’s Ride to Hell)
  10. Dráp Niflunga (The Slaying of The Niflungs, The Fall of the Niflungs, The Death of the Niflungs)
  11. Guðrúnarkviða II (The Second Lay of Gudrún or Guðrúnarkviða hin forna The Old Lay of Gudrún)
  12. Guðrúnarkviða III (The Third Lay of Gudrún)
  13. Oddrúnargrátr (The Lament of Oddrún, The Plaint of Oddrún, Oddrún’s Lament)
  14. Atlakviða (The Lay of Atli). The full manuscript title is Atlakviða hin grœnlenzka, that is, The Greenland Lay of Atli, but editors and translators generally omit the Greenland reference as a probable error from confusion with the following poem.
  15. Atlamál hin groenlenzku (The Greenland Ballad of Atli, The Greenlandish Lay of Atli, The Greenlandic Poem of Atli)

The Jörmunrekkr Lays

  1. Guðrúnarhvöt (Gudrún’s Inciting, Gudrún’s Lament, The Whetting of Gudrún.)
  2. Hamðismál (The Ballad of Hamdir, The Lay of Hamdir)
Heithrun, the she-goat who lives on the twigs of the tree Lærath (presumably Yggdrasil), and daily gives mead for the heroes in Valhall

Heithrun, the she-goat who lives on the twigs of the tree Lærath (presumably Yggdrasil), and daily gives mead for the heroes in Valhalla

Other “eddaic” poems

Because “eddaic” poems are so distinctive in style, it is easy to identify eddaic poems which occur in other collections and manuscripts. A selection of these is often included in editions of the Poetic Edda. Which ones depends on the editor. Those not in Codex Regius are sometimes called Eddica minora from their appearance in an edition with that title edited by Andreas Heusler and Wilhelm Ranisch in 1903.

For example Andy Orchard’s edition includes the following non-Codex Regius poems:

  • Baldrs draumar (Baldr’s Dreams)
  • Gróttasöngr (The Mill’s Song, The Song of Grotti)
  • Rígsþula (The Song of Ríg, The Lay of Ríg, The List of Ríg)
  • Hyndluljóð (The Poem of Hyndla, The Lay of Hyndla, The Song of Hyndla)
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