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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