Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics by JRR Tolkien (1936)

Tolkien was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford from 1925 to 1945. In 1936 he delivered this lecture about Beowulf to the British Academy. It is often cited as a turning point in studies of the poem because it completely changed the focus of study from seeing Beowulf as a primarily historical document which frustratingly fails to explain the many legends it refers to and wastes all its energy on childish monsters – to viewing it as a sophisticated work of art which uses its fairy-tale monsters to convey a surprisingly modern and relevant worldview about the ubiquity of Evil and the need to confront it, no matter what the cost.

Beowulf misused as history Tolkien claims that up to his time Beowulf has been recognised as important by critics and historians but consistently misinterpreted. By historians, philologists, archaeologists etc it has been mined for information about Germanic customs and religion and clothes and warfare. But Beowulf is not a historical document: it is a poem, a work of art. Its very success as a poem has created the sense that it is historical when, in fact, the most recent research tends to highlight (as with Shakespeare’s treatment of history) only its inconsistencies and cavalier approach.

So far from being a poem so poor that only its accidental historical interest can still recommend it, Beowulf is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content, and is largely independent even of the most important facts… that research has discovered. It is indeed a curious fact that it is one of the peculiar poetic virtues of Beowulf that has contributed to its own critical misfortunes. The illusion of historical truth and perspective that has made Beowulf seem such an attractive quarry, is largely a product of art. The author has used an instinctive historical sense – a part indeed of the ancient English temper (and not unconnected with its reputed melancholy), of which Beowulf is a supreme expression; but he has used it with a poetical and not an historical object.

Critics despise the monsters And literary critics have consistently been embarrassed by the centrality to the plot of the monsters which Beowulf has to kill – Grendel, his mother and the dragon. Literary critics up to Tolkien’s day preferred the many Germanic tales which are alluded to throughout the poem, stories which dealt with purely mortal men and sounded a lot like the classical tragedies they all did in Classics at school. For these critics, the Beowulf poet was guilty of crass bad taste in banishing these moving adult tragedies to the periphery and placing at the centre of the poem a series of childish folk tales, dealing with creatures out of fairy story or nursery rhyme. Tolkien quotes the great critic WP Ker, who in 1905 wrote:

The great beauty, the real value, of Beowulf is in its dignity of style. In construction it is curiously weak, in a sense preposterous; for while the main story is simplicity itself, the merest commonplace of heroic legend, all about it, in the historic allusions, there are revelations of a whole world of tragedy, plots different in import from that of Beowulf, more like the tragic themes of Iceland. Yet with this radical defect, a disproportion that puts the irrelevances in the centre and the serious things on the outer edges, the poem of Beowulf is undeniably weighty. The thing itself is cheap; the moral and the spirit of it can only be matched among the noblest authors.

Tolkien’s counter arguments It is this damning perception which Tolkien sets out to overturn: he succeeded so well that his lecture is cited by every study since as marking a sea change in attitudes. For Tolkien asserted that, far from being the rag-tag miscellany of an immature and juvenile culture, of a poet overwhelmed by silly folk stories and stitching them together willy-nilly – the Beowulf poet was a latecomer, arriving at the end of a mature and full civilisation, after it had been converted to Christianity, well aware of all the old legends and stories, who made a conscious choice to place the monsters at the centre of the poem because they are in fact the quintessence of the old pagan worldview: they encapsulate on a mythical level the evil, unreason and unavoidable death which all men face.

Tolkien marshals a range of arguments:

  • Other long Old English poems – eg Andreas, Guthlac – which contain just as dignified and high a style, somehow fail to have anything like the impact of Beowulf – could it be the much-condemned mythical subject matter which gives Beowulf depth and not its peers?
  • Criticism of the triviality and folk-taleness of the plot stem from reducing it to a synopsis, telling the story in outline – a fine methodology for comparative folk tale analysis but disastrous for poetry, which is made out of the texture of the words.
  • A deep prejudice of taste makes the critics of his time rate purely human tragedies as the highest genre – “Doom is held less literary than άµαρτία”. This represents a lack of feeling for “the mythological mode of imagination”

The significance of a myth is not easily pinned down on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet has done. Its defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and he will be left with a formal or mechanical allegory, and, what is more, probably with one that will not work. For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected.

  • The very process of analysing the poem, for purely historical or archaeological or narratological purposes, destroys its greatest effect, its power in every part.

Far from putting the essential legends of Germanic heroes at the periphery and filling the foreground with triteness, the Beowulf-poet has summarised the essence of  the Northern worldview, of a doomed hero with his back against the wall – the exaltation of undefeated will. This is the Northern spirit which receives such stirring expression in the words of Byrhtwold at the battle of Maldon.

It is in Beowulf that a poet has devoted a whole poem to this theme, and has drawn the struggle in different proportions, so that we may see man at war with the hostile world, and his inevitable overthrow in Time… The particular is on the outer edge, the essential in the centre…

When we have read his poem, as a poem, rather than as a collection of episodes, we perceive that he who wrote hæleð under heofenum may have meant in dictionary terms ‘heroes under heaven’, or ‘mighty men upon earth’, but he and his hearers were thinking of the eormengrund, the great earth, ringed with garsecg, the shoreless sea, beneath the sky’s inaccessible roof; whereon, as in a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat….

Beowulf is not, then, the hero of an heroic lay, precisely. He has no enmeshed loyalties, nor hapless love. He is a man, and that for him and many is sufficient tragedy…

It is not an irritating accident that the tone of the poem is so high and its theme so low. It is the theme in its deadly seriousness that begets the dignity of tone:

lif is læne: eal scæceð leoht and lif somod.

So deadly and ineluctable is the underlying thought, that those who in the circle of light, within the besieged hall, are absorbed in work or talk and do not look to the battlements, either do not regard it or recoil. Death comes to the feast, and they say He gibbers: He has no sense of proportion. I would suggest, then, that the monsters are not an inexplicable blunder of taste; they are essential, fundamentally allied to the underlying ideas of the poem, which give it its lofty tone and high seriousness.

By putting the monsters at the centre of his poem, the poet transcends the details of time and place to confront the timeless Problem of Evil

Tolkien goes on to address various other criticisms which have been made, such as that the poet’s combination of Old Testament with Germanic legends shows confusion and primitiveness. Tolkien argues at length that it shows just the opposite – a profound mind meditating on and assimilating the implications of the new Christian worldview:

In the poem I think we may observe not confusion, a half-hearted or a muddled business, but a fusion that has occurred at a given point of contact between old and new, a product of thought and deep emotion. But that shift is not complete in Beowulf – whatever may have been true of its period in general. Its author is still concerned primarily with man on earth, rehandling in a new perspective an ancient theme: that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die. A theme no Christian need despise…

Yet this theme plainly would not be so treated, but for the nearness of a pagan time. The shadow of its despair, if only as a mood, as an intense emotion of regret, is still there. The worth of defeated valour in this world is deeply felt. As the poet looks back into the past, surveying the history of kings and warriors in the old traditions, he sees that all glory (or as we might say ‘culture’or ‘civilization’) ends in night. The solution of that tragedy is not treated—it does not arise out of the material.

We get in fact a poem from a pregnant moment of poise, looking back into the pit, by a man learned in old tales who was struggling, as it were, to get a general view of them all, perceiving their common tragedy of inevitable ruin, and yet feeling this more poetically because he was himself removed from the direct pressure of its despair. He could view from without, but still feel immediately and from within, the old dogma: despair of the event, combined with faith in the value of doomed resistance. He was still dealing with the great temporal tragedy, and not yet writing an allegorical homily in verse.

Tolkien contrasts Beowulf with the southern, Mediterranean world of the Classics, which so many of his contemporaries were brought up on and against which they are judging Beowulf and finding it lacking:

It is the strength of the Northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them Victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage. ‘As a working theory absolutely impregnable.’ So potent is it, that while the older southern imagination has faded for ever into literary ornament, the northern has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times. It can work, even as it did work with the goðlauss viking, without gods: martial heroism as its own end. But we may remember that the poet of Beowulf saw clearly: the wages of heroism is death.

Unlike, say, the Odyssey with its strange, hanging happy ending or the Iliad which ends in media res with the funeral of Patroclus but the war still unconcluded, Beowulf ends with the funeral and burial of the hero and the threatened end of his people, the Geats. Although it manages to have Christian sentiment throughout, the final feeling is of a very modern existentialist view of the world, as cold, heartless, shelterless, where most of us are abandoned to figure out our lives by whatever code or guidelines we can muster. For Tolkien, writing in the 1930s, in the shadow of the Nazis, the heartless Northern view of life must have seemed much more pressing and contemporary than the sweet perfections of the Classic tradition.

Hygelac's watchman greets Beowulf's boat

Hygelac’s watchman greets Beowulf’s boat

Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics online

Beowulf – elements of style

In the introduction to his Penguin 1973 edition of Beowulf, Michael Alexander summarises elements of the style of Beowulf and their consequences. (All quotes in the following are from Michael Alexander’s 1973 translation, reproduced with kind permission of the author):

1. The alliterative verse line

Number one is the use of alliteration as a device to order the verse rather than end-rhyme. Alliteration is much more intrusive, up to three words are dictated by the form as opposed the one of end-rhyme and this helps the tendency to clump words into alliterating stock phrases. Next is the inflected nature of the language which allows complex meaning to be conveyed by one word, and powerful meanings by just two. Compact and energetic. But the real key to Old English verse structure is the caesura which divides the two half lines, holding in balance the short clauses:

þaér æt hýðe | stód hringedstefna

There at hythe [harbour] | stood the ringed-prow [ship]

This balancing has all kinds of affects, as Alexander puts it:

Traditional oral composition by phrase accounts for an exclamatory lack of syntactic subordination and for the tacking, eddying, resumptive movement of the sense.

There is a continual play between the demands of sense ie the syntactic units not to be too far apart – and of the alliterative scheme ie some sets of words fit fluently together regardless of sense and so being grouped together regardless of sense: an accumulation of short stocky phrases.

The symmetry of the halves of the line produces balance, antithesis and chiasmos much more commonly than in unrhymed iambic pentameter, and the forward movement is much more impeded than in later English blank verse. The halves of the line are, as often as not, out of the natural sequence of prose or spoken syntax and, as the mind reshuffles the parts of the sentence, the tendency is for the half-lines to move apart; but the alliteration and the stress pattern bind them together. The final impression of the verse in Beowulf is of contrasting energies being held in a rhythmic balance – and this is also the impression of the poem as a whole.

This is what Alexander captures in his use of “exclamatory”. Reading Anglo Saxon verse is like a series of hand grenades going off in your mind, in your mouth, as punchy phrase follows punchy phrase. Or, as Tolkien puts it in his famous essay, The Monsters and the Critics:

We must not view this poem as in intention an exciting narrative or a romantic tale.The very nature of Old English metre is often misjudged. In it there is no single rhythmic pattern progressing from the beginning of a line to the end, and repeated with variation in other lines. The lines do not go according to a tune. They are founded on a balance; an opposition between two halves of roughly equivalent phonetic weight, and significant content, which are more often rhythmically contrasted than similar. They are more like masonry than music.

2. Other elements of style

The kenning is a figure of speech in old Germanic or Norse literature which uses two words, one in the genitive or possessive case, to create a periphrasis or roundabout way of describing an object. Thus, in Beowulf, the sea is described as the seġl-rād “sail-road” (1429b), swan-rād “swan-road” (200a), hron-rād “whale-road” (10). (Riddles were a big part of Germanic culture. There are two entire sets of riddles in the AngloSaxon corpus, 90 riddles survive in the Exeter Book. Kennings are a kind of miniature riddle).

From the south blazed
the sun, the world’s candle (1965-6)

When heaven’s jewel
has glided from the world… (2073)

God they thanked
For the smooth going over the salt-trails (228)

Day in the east grew
God’s bright beacon, | and the billows sank… (571)

… a chief shall greet
his fellow with gifts | over the gannet’s bath (1861)

Riding at anchor
the strayer of ocean… (1882)

A special sea dress, | a sail, was hoisted… (1906)

… until they took part | in that play-of-the-shields… (2038)

the daring-in-battle | would address the harp,
the joy wood… (2108)

since the legacy of the hammer [sword], | hard and battle-scarred,
the iron edges, | had utterly destroyed him (2828)

As this selection shows they are good but not that good. Some of them stray from being kennings to being simple metaphors. In fact it’s surprising and a little disappointing that there are so few kennings in Beowulf, I counted fewer than 20 in total. This is not where the poet’s energies were directed. More effort went into…

Pleasure in elaborating – armour God, kings, heroes and some classes of objects tend to have repeatable descriptive phrases cluster round them in apposition.

He then saw in the hall | a host of young soldiers,
a company of kinsmen | caught away in sleep,
a whole warrior-band. (728)

the grisly plaint of God’s enemy,
his song of ill-success, the sobs of the damned one
bewailing his pain. (786)

Let’s take objects first: the poem is awash with description of objects, especially those manmade objects which indicate status and class and that means, pre-eminently, arms and armour. Finely carved armour, especially if it involved gold, was possibly the most precious and rare object in the Migration Age; cups, goblets, jewellery come a close second but armour was heavily invested with the masculine values of the time – the strongest warrior was expected to wear the finest armour; and arms and armour were also an important part of the gift-giving which bound Dark Age society together:

The war-coats shone
and the links of hard | hand-locked iron
sang in their harness | as they stepped along
in their gear of grim aspect | going to the hall.
Sea-wearied, they then | set against the wall
their broad shields | of special temper,
and bowed to bench, | battle-shirts clinking,
the war-dress of warriors. (322-8)

Then as a sign of victory | the son of Healfdene
bestowed on Beowulf | a standard worked in gold,
a figured battle-banner, | breast and head armour;
and many admired | the marvellous sword
that was borne before the hero. (1021-5)

Against sea-beasts | my body-armour,
hand-linked and hammered, | helped me then,
this forge-knit battleshirt | bright with gold,
decking my breast. (550-3)

Then the cup was taken to him | and he was entreated kindly
to honour their feast: | ornate gold
was presented in trophy: | two arm-wreaths,
with robes and rings also, | and the richest collar
I have ever heard of | in all the world. (1192-6)

On a side note, much of the armour has the image of a boar on it. Not sure if this was a generic symbol of warriors or relates to a particular tribe but, strikingly, boar motifs were found on the armour at the famous Sutton Hoo archaeological site.

Over the cheek-pieces
boar-shapes shone out, | bristling with gold,
blazing and fire-hard, | fierce guards
of their bearers’ lives… (303-6)

where the bound blade, | beaten out by hammers,
cuts, with its sharp edges | shining with blood,
through the boars that bristle | above the foes’ helmets! ( 1285-87)

He was my closest councillor, | he was keeper of my thoughts,
he stood at my shoulder | when we struck for our lives
as the crashing together | of companies of foot,
when blows rained on boar-crests. (1325-8)

Boar carved in iron on a helmet from the Sutton Hoo excavations

Boar carved in iron on a helmet from the Sutton Hoo excavations

Elaboration of names Not only are important objects described at length but important people tend to have multiple epithets clustered around them, “a series of synonyms in apposition”. A king or hero will be named and then their position as leader or their family position clarified, their genealogy or their deeds will be summarised in an apposite phrase or two. It bigs them up, it makes them more potent (as, to this day, we give the royal family or eminent soldiers or notable citizens an accumulation of names, titles and awards).

It also has a secondary affect, as Alexander points out, of placing everything and everyone within a realistically-conceived world. Characters don’t appear out of nowhere: their names, their deeds, their family and their history are all explained, and this technique is part of what gives to the poem its epic quality of describing a real and objective world.

to earth’s men the most glorious
of houses under heaven, | the home of the king (309)

“The Master of the Danes,
Lord of the Scyldings, | shall learn of your request.
I shall gladly ask | my honoured chief,
giver of armbands, | about your undertaking… (350)

“The Master of Battles | bids me announce,
the Lord of the North-Danes, | that he knows your ancestry…” (391)

To you I will now
put one request, | Royal Scylding,
Shield of the South-Danes, | one sole favour
that you’ll not deny me, | dear lord of your people,
now that I have come thus far, | Fastness of Warriors.. (426)

Great then was the hope | of the grey-locked Hrothgar,
warrior, giver of rings. | Great was the trust
of the Shield of the Danes, | shepherd of the people… (607)

… hoping that their lord’s son | would live and in ripeness
assume the kingdom, | the care of his people,
the hoard and the stronghold, | the storehouse of heroes,
the Scylding homeland. (910)

… stepping on eagerly | to the stronghold where
Ongentheow’s conqueror, | the earl’s defender,
the warlike young king… (1967)

The protector of warriors | rewarded me
with a heap of treasure, | Healfdene’s son. (2142)

… when Hygelac was slain
when that kindly lord of the peoples, | the king of the Geats,
the son of Hrethel, | among the hurl of battle
slaked the sword’s thirst… (2355)

Elaboration of God’s names And of course this applies most of all to descriptions of God who, naturally, merits multiple appositional phrases, to big up his magnitude, as he does in all churches to this day. To this day it is felt by many users of English that the only way to convey somebody or something’s power is to give them multiple epithets. More is more:

The Maker was unknown to them
the Judge of all actions, | the Almighty was unheard of,
they knew not hot to praise | the Prince of heaven,
the Wielder of Glory. (180)

The Father in His wisdom
shall apportion the honours then, | the All-Holy Lord… (687-8)

The ancient arose and | offered thanks to God,
to the Lord Almighty, | for what this man had spoken. (1396)

“I wish to put in words my thanks
to the King of Glory, | the Giver of All,
the Lord of Eternity, | for these treasures that I see… (2794)

Understatement of experience “Litotes is a figure of speech in which understatement is employed for rhetorical effect, principally via double negatives. Rather than saying something is attractive (or even very attractive), one might merely say it is ‘not unattractive'”. A bluff Northern Yorkshire understatement is meant to be a leading characteristic of Norse and Anglo Saxon verse but I found litotes relatively rare in Beowulf.

Nor was it ungraciously | that he greeted the strangers (1892)

The wind did not hinder | the wave-skimming ship (1907)

There was little cause | for crowing among the Hetware
for their conduct of the foot-fight… (2363)

Related to it is the way eloquent verse paragraphs often end with a short, pithy, blunt, ironic comment, like a capstone.

The Scylding champion, | shaking with war rage,
caught it by its rich hilt, and, | careless of his life,
brandished its circles, | and brought it down in fury
to take her full and fairly across the neck,
breaking the bones; | the blade sheared
through the death-doomed flesh. | She fell to the ground;
the sword was gory; | he was glad at the deed.

The last line and a half is the conclusion and climax of 50 lines describing the fight between Beowulf and Grendel’s dam, and very characteristically Anglo Saxon in its sudden laconic brevity: three short, pithy half lines, summing up the action with Nordic indirectness (“the sword was gory”) and understatement of emotion (“he was glad at the deed”).

He had dived to his doom, | he had died miserably;
here in his fen-lair | he had laid aside
his heathen soul. | Hell welcomed it. (850-52)

There were melting heads
and bursting wounds, | as the blood sprang out
from weapon-bitten bodies. | Blazing fire,
most insatiable of spirits, | swallowed the remains
of the victims of both nations. | Their valour was no more. (1120)

Before morning’s light
he flew back to the hoard | in its hidden chamber.
He had poured out fire | and flame on the people,
he had put them to the torch; | he trusted now to the barrow’s walls
and to his fighting strength; | his faith misled him. (2320)

It was not granted to him
that an iron edge | could ever lend him
help in a battle; | his hand was too strong.
I have heard that any sword, | however hardened by wounds,
that he bore into battle, | his blow would overtax
– any weapon whatever: | it was the worse for him. (2682)

Archaic and artful Anglo Saxon poetic diction is deliberately more archaic and elaborate than Anglo Saxon prose which tends to be simpler and more analytic. Many words occur in the poetry which are found nowhere in the prose, some of them related to older Norse terms. Ie Anglo Saxon poetry is a highly artificial and artful creation. The use of multiple short, laconic, forceful phrases in apposition creates a steady, powerful impact. As Alexander eloquently puts it:

the effect is of strenuous and untiring eloquence.

Full text of Beowulf with parallel translation

All quotes copyright © Michael Alexander 1973, reproduced with kind permission of the author.

Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode by JRR Tolkien (1982)

Known to millions as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien earned his living as a philologist, a specialist in Anglo Saxon, Middle English, and medieval Norse and German at Oxford University. His core activity was establishing the meanings of Anglo Saxon and Norse words which often exist only in a handful of forms, in a handful or only one manuscript, identifying where scribes and copyists made mistakes (as they often did), establishing their cognate forms in other early medieval texts, languages and dialects, with the ultimate aim of establishing ‘good’ texts. For 40 years, from the late 1920s to the early 60s,  he lectured and wrote about all aspects of Anglo Saxon (and its cousin, medieval Norse) literature.

The historic ‘interludes’ in Beowulf

The 3,000 line Old English ‘epic’ Beowulf contains quite a few references to the collective history of the north European Germanic tribes of the Dark Ages; the stories of various heroes of legend are told within the poem by the bards who populate the various kings’ halls (Hrothgar the Dane, Hyglac the Geat), but always quite allusively – the audience who heard these poems knew the stories extremely well; the pleasure was in the way the poet shaped and formed them.

Unfortunately, to us, 1,500 years later, these tellings are tantalisingly obscure, hinting at back stories which we can almost never verify or only painfully piece together from other fragments and damaged texts which happened to survive from Europe’s ‘Dark Ages’. This book is about one particular such legend which occurs around line 1,000 of Beowulf:

The Episode, Beowulf 1063-1160

After Beowulf fights and defeats the monster Grendel in Heorot, the meadhall of King Hrothgar the Dane, the king’s bard sings in celebration a brief summary of the story of Finn, Hnaef and Hengest. The ‘Episode’ as it’s called, lasts only 100 lines before the plot moves swiftly on, leaving a number of unresolved queries in its wake: what happens at Finn’s hall? Why is there a fight at all? Who exactly is it between – Danes and Frisians are mentioned, so where do the Jutes come in? Why does Hengest replace Hnaef as leader of the Danes? Is Hengest even Danish or some kind of exile or mercenary? Has he got anything to do with the Hengest who the Venerable Bede records as leading the Jutes who invade and start to settle Kent in 449AD? Why does Hengest decide to stay, along with the Danish warband, under the hospitality of the Frisian King Finn for an entire winter after Finn and his men have treacherously attacked them?

The Fragment

As chance would have it, and it really is the randomest of lucky chances, in the 1700s a scholarly vicar, George Hickes, published a fragment of Anglo Saxon verse he had found on spare sheet of manuscript in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s library. The sheet has since disappeared. All we have is his transcription, riddled with mistakes. But it is a fragment (starting and ending in mid-sentence) which seems to come from the story of Hnaef and Finn and seems to describe in hectic immediate style the start of the dramatic fight at Finn’s hall. This text has become known as the Fight at Finnsburg, also known as the ‘Fragment’.

Gathering Tolkien’s papers

When Tolkien died he left a vast amount of papers, published and unpublished, scholarly or part of his great imagined world of Middle Earth. His son, Christopher, has dedicated his life to establishing order and publishing definitive versions of these texts (hence, for example, the 12 volumes of the stories of Middle Earth). Over his career Tolkien lectured and speculated repeatedly about the relation between the Fragment and the Episode (which has also attracted a huge amount of attention from other scholars of the period).

Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode was compiled by the OE scholar Alan Bliss in an attempt to create a definitive version of Tolkien’s thoughts on this popular subject. It is divided into four parts:

1. Glossary of Names A very detailed consideration of the origin, meaning, other citings and interrelations of all the proper names used in both the Fragment and Episode: Hnaef, Healfdene, Scylding, Hengest, Finn. You get a good flavour of just how complicated it is trying to establish order and consistency from the wealth of fragments and references to names which differ in every citation and from language to language, in the Wikipedia article about Hrothgar, lord of the Danes, whose meadhall Beowulf visits and protects from the monster Grendel.

Investigating all the names which occur in both Fragment and Episode provides a foundation for…

2. Textual Commentary A detailed examination of key words and phrases in the text which shed light on the mystery. This is like the textual apparatus you get with any classic text, explaining in detail all the editorial choices and decisions. This passage gives a good flavour of the book. It is analysing lines 43-45 of the fragment which, in George Hickes’ transcription reads:

Þā gewāt him wund hæleð | on wæg gangan,
sǣde þæt his byrne | ābrocen wǣre,
here-sceorpum hrōr, | and ēac wæs his helm þyrl…

Then a wounded hero | away turned,
said that his byrnie | was a-broken
active in his armour| and also his helm pierced…

about which Tolkien writes:

45 Hickes [ie George Hickes’ transcription has…] Here sceorpum hror. ‘Active in his armour’ makes no sense in this context, which clearly is a complaint that their weapons are no longer serviceable. Compare the exclamation of Hjalti (Hialto) in Saxo’s translation of Bjarkamal: “Already, grievously have sword and darts cut to pieces my shield… of the broken shield the arm thongs alone remain.” Compare also the situation in Olafr Trygvasson’s last fight:

“Ōlāfr konungr Tryggvason stōð ī lypting ā Orminum, ok skaut optast um daginn, stundum bogaskoti, en stundum gaflǫkum, ok jafnan tveim sęnn. Hann sā fram ā skipit, ok sā sīna męnn reiða sverðin ok hǫggva tītt, ok sā at illa bitu; mælti þā hātt: ‘hvārt reiði þēr svā slæliga sverðin, er ek sē at ekki bīta yðr?’ Maðr svarar: ‘sverð vār eru slæ ok brotin mjǫk.’

In that case read hreosceorp (pl.) unhror. Unhror does not else occur, and hror is usually applied to persons – its sense is ‘valiant, mighty’ (but etymologically ‘active, agile’). Neither of these is a fatal objection to weapons. Cf. fyrdsearo fuslic (B.2618) ‘gallant’. The classic example is cene ‘noble’ – ‘bold’ – ‘sharp’. The accentuation héresceorp un| hrór (Type E) is not unprecedented: cf. se þe unmurlice | madmas dæleþ (B.1756), þæt is undyrne | dryhten Higelac (B.2000). Technically as a “noun-compound”, un- should have the accent, but in spite of the additional logical reason for accenting the negative un- it was clearly often unaccented (like ne) – owing partly to the influence of the simplex and partly to sentence-rhythm. It is often in origin an IE unaccented form. Cf. “the ùnknown warrior”, “into the ùnknown”; cf. also ON ó– accented, ú– unaccented.

That is Tolkien’s reasoning for changing hrōr to unhrōr in the passage quoted above, so that his amended version now reads:

Þā gewāt him wund hæleð | on wæg gangan,
sǣde þæt his byrne | ābrocen wǣre,
here-sceorpum unhrōr, | and ēac wæs his helm þyrl…

Then a wounded hero | away turned
said that his byrnie | was a-broken
his armour inactive | and also his helm pierced…

If you’re looking for hobbits, forget it. The whole book is written like this.

3. Reconstruction A brief conclusion, based on the detailed evidence of the previous two sections of what the actual story was, what are the historical events behind the legend, namely:

Finn is king of the Frisians., a border people caught between the powerful Franks to the south, Danes to the north. He has married Hildeburh, sister of king Hnaef of the Halfdanes, probably in an attempt to patch up some feud between them. The Halfdanes are probably a family or tribe on the edges of Danish royal influence proper, types of colonists. The Frisians are an ancient tribe recorded by the Romans as far back as the first century. Hnaef Halfdane takes 60 thanes to visit Finn; this half Danish, mixed nature of his following explains why a number of his followers appear to be Jutes from the Jutland peninsula. Presumably he was visiting his sister; probably he was bringing back Finn’s son who he had been fostering as per northern Germanic custom. He planned to spend the winder with Finn, his brother-in-law.

It seems that Hnaef the half-Dane, with Jutes among his retinue, arrives at Finn’s hall/stronghold to find there are a number of exiled Jutes there who have fled some internal Jutish feud. There is very bad blood between the Jutish contingents. The atmosphere is tense. The half-Danish contingent, housed in the guests’ hall, that night notice shields and armour creeping up on them in the night. This is where the Fragment starts with the first assault on the hall: Hnaef despatches men to guard the two doors; Garulf among the attackers falls; they fight for five days, with the attackers suffering grievous casualties, when an attacker turns to his king (Finn?) to say his armour is packing up, the king replying, How are the two others (presumably the pair of defenders defending the door) doing…?

The Episode starts with queen Hildeburh surveying the carnage “when morning came”. King Hnaef of the defenders has been killled. So has Hildeburh’s son by Finn (the assumption is that he had been sent as a ward to the court of Hnaef, had therefore slept with the half-Danes, had for some reason been forward in the defence and so killed). But Finn has suffered more with most of his thanes killed in the assault. Therefore he is forced to make a peace treaty with Hengest, who has succeeded Hnaef as leader of the guests. In it Finn promises to call off the attack, lease them the hall for the winter, give them as much gold and rings as he usually gives his Frisians; so that they in every way become his subjects. The treaty agreed, many of the Frisians return to their homesteads leaving Hengest and the half-Danes to winter with Finn. Hengest broods all winter long on the conflict between his duty to avenge his dead leader Hnaef and the peace treaty he has agreed with Finn. In the spring the sea thaws and a number of the half-Danes sail away to Denmark, taking the tale of the treacherous attack on them and the murder of Hnaef. They return with reinforcements. One of the half-Danes places a well-known sword in Hengest’s lap and the next thing we know Finn is dead, his hall burnt down, and the half-Danes have taken queen Hildeburh and all Finn’s gold back to their native land.

Popularity

The tale, and references to Finn, seem to be so widespread in the ancient literature because:

a) historically, it captures an important moment in the troubled tribal wars of the North Sea and Baltic, one which seems to have crystallised certain shifts of power towards the Danes, against the Frisians and which, importantly for the later English tribes, prompted Hengest’s mission to Britain.

b) culturally, it deals with the classic dilemma explored again and again in the Icelandic sagas: Hengest’s conflict between the prime duty to avenge a murdered lord and some other duty either of marriage or, as here, a sworn treaty.

c) of its psychological complexity: almost certainly Finn didn’t initiate the attack on the half-Danes, his Jutish guests did and he found himself dragged in to fight against his wife’s kin; he sees his own son killed; he himself dies and loses everything. It is a very Northern, bleak outcome. But also the wrecca or adventurer Hengest didn’t expect a fight, and probably finds leadership of the survivors thrust upon him. His ethical dilemma (described above) is at the centre of the Episode. And queen Hildeburh is a victim like Hecuba or Andromache; through no fault at all of her own seeing first her son then her husband killed, her marriage hall going up in flames and herself taken like booty back to her homeland with ashes in her mouth. She is a character worthy of Greek tragedy.

Three Appendices One of the appendices is a tentative chronology of the events outlined above: I was electrified to discover Tolkien thought that Beowulf must have been born around 500AD; and that, with his breadth of knowledge and command of the sources, he thinks the powerful wrecca (exile, adventurer) Hengest, whose brooding character dominates both Fragment and Episode, is the same Hengest who the Venerable Bede records as invading Kent with his partner Horsa in 453! Tolkien’s full chronology is:

410 Romans leave Britain
425 Hengest born
430 Healfdene born
Fight at Finnsburh occurs about 452. Hnaef aged about 30 dies. Hengest the king’s thegn is 25. Hildeburh, Hnaef’s sister, older than him, 33, so as to have a son old enough to fight (and die) 15?
453 Hengest, victorious in the fight at Finnsburh, but with all sorts of enemies, leads a war band along with Horsa in the invasion of Kent. He has an infant son Oesc. Horsa is killed in battle soon after.
460 Hrothgar, second son of Healfdene born
470 Oesc becomes a warrior. 473 last mention of Hengest, in a chronicle. He probably lives to old age.
480 Hygelac of the Geats born.
490 Kingdom of Kent established with Oesc as head of the new royal line.
495-505 death of Healfdene Scylding; accession of his second son Hrothgar aged 35 or so.
495-500 Beowulf born.
512 death of Oesc, recorded in Chronicle.
520 Beowulf, aged about 20, travels from the court of King Hygelac of the Geats to visit Heorot, hall of King Hrothgar of the Healfdenes. Fights Grendel and her mother.
525-30 death of King Hygelac in a battle with the Franks, as recorded in Gregory of Tours’ Historia Francorum.
570 the aged Beowulf sets out to battle the dragon who is terrorising his people. Dies and is buried beneath a great mound by the sea.

Criticism

I am not scholar enough to criticise the contents of this book in detail. The editor, Bliss, keeps up a steady stream of footnotes pointing out where Tolkien’s theories are out of date or wrong. And the book was published in 1982 – who knows what further discoveries and insights have been published in the past 30 years?

It is a big effort to read this book, but working through all 150 pages of Tolkien’s densely argued notes really takes you into the guts of the text with all its possible variant readings and interpretations. Even an amateur like myself comes away with a much more vivid feel for the complexity of the texts, for the power and beauty of the poetry, for the pathos of the central characters, and excited by the tantalising crossovers with actual recorded historical events.

The only criticism I can confidently make is that the book should have included the text of the poem Widsith. This 140-line Anglo Saxon poem is a lament by a wandering minstrel for the courts and kings he has known and performed for: some are clearly fantasy (Caesar, the king of the Egyptians) but others are highly factual references to real kings of Germanic tribes. Early in the poem he refers to Hnaef and Finn, lines Tolkien includes in his list of four sources of evidence which he will consider. It would have been easy and very convenient for the reader trying to follow the repeated references to Widsith if the book had included the full text and a decent prose translation of it.

Book jacket for Finn and Hengist, copyright John Howe and Random Books

Book jacket for Finn and Hengist, copyright John Howe and Random Books

Sagas

Beowulf – the epic

Beowulf is the longest Old English poem, some 3,200 lines in length, representing a tenth of the 30,000 lines of OE poetry which survive. It relates events set during the European Migration Era (400-600); was probably composed before the death of Bede (735); and the version we have was probably written down around 1000.

Setting All the events of Beowulf are set in Denmark and southern Sweden; it doesn’t even mention Britain or England which makes it odd that it is routinely discussed as the first great work in English literature – though having read the Eddas I now appreciate that Germanic culture, language, myths and legends stretched during this period in a continuum from the Black Sea to Iceland. Beowulf was only given its current name in 1805 and was first published in 1815.

Manuscript Beowulf survives, like most OE, in just one manuscript, in this case British Library Cotton MS Vitellius, which was damaged in a fire but luckily survived. The manuscript also contains handwritten texts of a homily on St Christopher, the Marvels of the East, the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle and an imperfect copy of another Old English poem, Judith. All five texts concern or mention fabulous beasts so the MS may well have been assembled around this theme. The verse is written out as continuous prose, divided into numbered sections. So the layout of all modern editions into traditional poetic lines, often with clearly marked half line-breaks, the punctuation, commas, full stops and speech marks, are all the work of modern editors.

First page of the Beowulf manuscript; legible but damaged

First page of the Beowulf manuscript; legible but damaged

Above, the first page of the Beowulf manuscript, from which scholars extract lines of verse, thus:

Hwæt! We Gardena | in geardagum,
þeodcyninga,  | þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas | ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing | sceaþena þreatum,
5monegum mægþum, | meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas.

Author Of course no-one knows who the author was or even where it was written: but scholars agree it is the work of a sophisticated and well-educated Christian, maybe even a monk, probably associated with one of the royal courts which flourished in the 700s, either of Wessex or Mercia or Northumbria.

Plot In his youth Beowulf the Geat, from south Sweden, sails to the legendary court, Heorot, of King Hrothgar the Dane, and frees it from being terrorised by the monster Grendel who has been attacking and sweeping off warriors to kill and eat for 12 long years. No sooner is Grendel defeated than his mother attacks. Beowulf tracks her back to her lair beneath a lake, there fighting and killing her. He returns in honour and laden with gifts to Geatland and his king, Hygelac. Eventually Hygelac and his son die and Beowulf becomes king of the Geats. 50 years later his own kingdom is threatened by a dragon. Beowulf heroically defeats the dragon but is himself killed; he is burnt on a pagan funeral pyre, buried in a mound by the sea, and it is predicted that his people will now perish. It is not a happy ending.

Historical provenance Beowulf is nowhere attested in the historical record. Maybe he is entirely fictitious. But his Geatish lord, Hygelac, was certainly real: he is recorded as dying in a skirmish against the Franks about 520 in Bishop Gregory of Tour’s History of the Franks. So soon after is when Beowulf would take over as king; and fifty years later would date his fight with the dragon and death around 570AD.

Network of references If the plot is so simple, how come the poem is so long? Partly because it is enmeshed in scores of references to other Germanic legends of the Migration Era. These were clearly designed to pad, bolster and ennoble the main plot, but are a stumbling block to the modern reader: whereas the contemporary audience would have caught the subtlest reference to these stories, we know next to nothing about these long-lost legends;  many are only barely explicable by reference to scattered and obscure references or fragments.

The Penguin translation Penguin translations have a long tradition of being old-fashioned and often poor quality. But Michael Alexander’s introduction and translation are both excellent. (Nota bene: I am referring here to the 1973 translation and introduction; Alexander updated his translation and completely rewrote the introduction in 2003.)

Michael Alexander’s introduction His main claim is that Beowulf is an epic, if we define epic as having these attributes:

1 inclusiveness of scope
2 objectivity of treatment
3 unity of consciousness, of ethos
4 an action of significance – epic amplitude – fullness of epic narration

An epic should be universal, taking in all of life and representing it in such a way that the general truth of the presentation is universally recognised. Its scope should embrace war and peace, men and gods, life and death in a comprehensive and encyclopedic way. And its presentation should be objective…. One’s consciousness of unity in the Iliad, and in epic generally, springs not from a unity of action but a unity of consciousness, an ethos which arises from a primitive intuition of the cosmic solidarity, organic unity and continuity of life.

1. Inclusiveness of scope Beowulf comprehends life and death, man and God, peace and war. It opens with the funeral of one hero, follows the career from young glory to aged defeat of another hero: a lifecycle. The entire life of a people, the Geats, its rise and fall, is described. Peace with its beauty and ceremonies in the hall of Hereot is described, and war and its devastating consequences among the Germanic tribes is continually referred to. Goodness and civilisation at the hall are disrupted by evil incarnated in the monsters. The start of history is captured by the scop or bard, who inaugurates Hereot by singing a poem of God’s Creation of the world – and the end of the history is symbolised by the prophesied extermination of Beowulf’s people after his death. God is seen intervening at key points throughout the poem; but the Devil is alluded to once and his forces, the monsters, drive the plot which is a microcosm of the endless battle of Good against Evil in a fallen universe. “The whole life of the people and of mankind is involved in the struggle of the hero-king against the dragon.” In its way, it is as cosmic in ambition as Paradise Lost.

2. Objectivity of treatment

  • The dignified presentation of death Alexander considers the poem gives weight and due importance to all its characters and especially to their deaths : “Every single one of the numerous individual deaths in the poem is given its full weight and significance… Homer and Tolstoy do not outdo Beowulf in their respect for the gravity and commonness of dying.” Though Alexander admits that the poet does intervene, does comment, does include homilies and morals, thus falling short of the “blithe cosmic impartiality” of Homer. But then who doesn’t?
  • Stock scenes “Much of the objectivity – the truth – comes from the traditional presentation of life in the heroic world. It is crystallised into generic scenes: voyage, welcome, feast, boast, arming, fight, reward… have the traditional and practised feel of solid simplicity and consistency… The familiar nuts and bolts of life are presented in stylised, elevated but simple form…”
  • Values “Value are constant: sunlight is good, cold is ominous.” Constant, simple and dignified. Feasting in the firelit hall is good. Being isolated in the cold moor is bad. Fighting alongside your brother warriors is good. Being betrayed by a colleague is bad.
  • Nature “The stage upon which the drama is set is large and simple. Men are haeleth under heofenum, ‘heroes beneath the heavens’, they are be twaem seonum, ‘between two seas’,  on middanyeard, on ‘middle earth’, swa hit waeter bebugeth, ‘surrounded by water’. Every event and action is positioned in a landscape which is both realistic but raised to a level of stylised simplicity, given a symbolic depth. “The sense of never losing one’s bearings is not only spatial but temporal. The coming of day or night or the seasons is never omitted.”
  • Genealogy “Likewise we know where ever man comes from… A man is identified as someone’s son or as someone’s kin. For important people or things, complete genealogies or lists of owners are given… Each action in Beowulf has a full spatial and temporal dimension, and the cosmic envelope of space and time is always assumed and usually felt to be there, immutable.”
  • Impersonal “In epic, human and non-human actions are felt to be part of a larger impersonal if organic process, the authority of which is not questioned, but accepted and respected. (Critics of Homer speak of the aidos, or respect, felt for the operations of the process.)” Alexander concedes the poet’s Christian comments and interventions do break this impersonality; they intrude sermonising; they prevent Beowulf rising to the heights of Homer. Nothing in western literature does.
  • Already known Unlike most modern narratives, whether novels or plays or movies, in an epic poem the audience knows the story and outcome before the start. This means a) the audience and poet are interested in the treatment not the plot b) the poem is full of flashbacks, recapitulations, anticipations: these amplify the sense of completeness, of pattern, of objectivity and detachment from events.

3. Unity of ethos is related to objectivity. The one enables the other. The poet achieves his objectivity because he is working within an objective worldview. “The stability of the system of epic formulae perpetuates the tribal view in the hallowed tribal words. This system is itself an organism. Each verbal formula is the tribe’s crystallisation of an aspect of experience…” The crystallisation is possible because of the tribe’s shared views. The tribe’s shared views are crystallised in the formulae. This is why the way in which OE alliterative verse tends to separate stock phrases in apposition into stand-alone units, also emphasises the deep, archaic, shared value in these phrases – and smoothing their clunky positioning out into fluent modern English prose completely obliterates not only their poetical, but their ideological impact, which is enormous.

Lofgeornost The last word of the poem is lof-geornost “most eager for praise” and “this is the primary theme of all heroic poetry, the prowess, strength and courage of the single male, undismayed and undefeated in the face of all adversaries and in all adventures. The hero surpasses other men, and his aristeia is rewarded by fame.  He represents the ultimate of human achievement in a heroic age, and embodies its ideal. Though he must die his glory lives on.”

The Aeneid issue CS Lewis divided epic into primary epic (made by a sometimes illiterate near-contemporary in the culture he is describing – Homer) and secondary epic (a conscious recreation of a vanished world by a highly literate author from another culture – Virgil). Beowulf is nearer the second category because, as all scholars acknowledge, although it is written about preliterate pagan Germanic society in pagan Germanic poetry using pagan Germanic formulae, it was actually composed by a highly literate Christian, possibly even a Christian Anglian monk, just about as far removed from the world of feasting, fighting German pagans as he could be. He is in love with the pagan world and its culture; presumably so is his audience or there would have been little point composing the poem; but he is decisively separated from it by his Christian faith.

Secondary epic This is what makes Beowulf a secondary epic: that the poet is not only looking back at a legendary past; he is looking back at the pagan world looking back at its legendary past. Not only is there a dying fall to his depiction of the pagan world (itself obsessed with the sense of transitoriness and passing-away); but he sees that the entire pagan worldview epitomised in his subject matter and in the Germanic style of stock phrasing, was wrong. There is a deeper level of melancholy. “To a literate consciousness deepened by Christianity, the heroic world of these heathen ancestors must have seemed doubly admirable and the limitations of heroic life doubly tragic.”

4. A significant action At its core Beowulf is a folk story or, deeper, a myth. A hero fights monsters three times: the first two times he conquers; the third time he is old and the monster kills him. It is a profound emblem of the life of man, overcoming challenge after challenge, but unable to avoid, ultimately, his own mortality. If, at a deep, mythical level, the story is about Man confronting his own Mortality, Alexander suggests that at a higher level the “significant action” or actions emphasise the importance of loyalty to the chieftain as the fundamental tie in heroic society; Beowulf dies on a mythic level because the dragon kills him, but on a social level because his 12 thanes abandon him; at his moment of need the bonds of allegiance break down; and that is symbolic of the fragility and vulnerability of heroic society as a whole. It has the same elegiac feel as the collapse of the Order of the Round Table. Sure, it’s attacked by external enemies; but it is its internal weakness that condemns it.

And here again the “Aeneid effect” kicks in – the poem laments the passing of one warband, one people, the Geats – but the Christian poet, at a higher level, laments the passing of the entire pagan way of life. It is a double elegy. It is made up of dynamic, vigorous, virile verse which, at every moment, is haunted by the transitoriness of human power and life. It is wonderful.

Beowulf sailing home by John Howe © John Howe (http://www.john-howe.com)

Beowulf sailing home by John Howe © John Howe (http://www.john-howe.com)

John Howe The illustrator John Howe has created a wonderful series of illustrations of Beowulf on his website. Enjoy and marvel.

Energy is eternal delight as William Blake said. Both Tolkien and Alexander emphasise the power and forcefulness and energy of the verse which, of course, reinforce the subject matter of the poem which is, ultimately, the hero’s virility. Beowulf has “a hero’s delight in his own prowess and a hero’s magnanimity to lesser men”. His virility burns bright in his youth; then diminishes and is conquered in old age, by death. It is no shame. We all share the same destiny. Beowulf is revered for his defiance, his unwillingness to go gentle into that good night, for his prowess.

The critics write of: “sustained energy as poetry”, “an utterance of power”, “characteristic power and beauty”, “powerful and unique power”…

All quotes copyright © Michael Alexander 1973, reproduced with kind permission of the author.

Translating Old English poetry

Translating Old English verse presents obvious challenges. Here I outline:

  1. the challenges and the character of OE poetry
  2. the deliberately idiosyncratic approach I am taking

1. The challenges

Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, is the language spoken by the Germanic settlers in England from their arrival in the 450s until a few generations after the Norman Conquest. Scholars divide OE into prehistoric OE (before anything was written down); Early OE 650-900; Late OE – after the Vikings/Danes invaded north and eastern England. There is a theory that interacting with the Danes in the Danelaw ie the East of the country which they settled, hurried the abandonment of the inflections which made OE hard to learn, speeding the transition to early Middle English. The Danes, the Normans and the spread of Latin learning, all did for OE. Some 80% of OE words didn’t survive into Middle English, let alone modern English.

Old English verse All OE verse is in alliterative measure ie no rhymes, no regular rhythms; instead each line is divided in half, with two stresses in each half: the start-sound of the first stressed word in the second half of the line must be alliterated by one of the two stressed syllables in the first half of the line, possibly both. The second stressed syllable in the second half of the line generally doesn’t alliterate, eg:

Brimmanna boda, | abeod eft ongean

Limited vocabulary A lot of the words are very samey: lots of geatu, ongean, gealgean, gangon, geganga, geseman, gofol. Not a scholarly opinion, but even when you hear it read aloud you get the impression there were far fewer words, and far fewer combinations of sounds available, than in modern English with its vast vocabulary. (See a handy list of core OE vocabulary)

Inflection – Old English is an inflectional language like Greek or Latin ie a lot of the grammatical information is contained in suffixes at the end of the word. The practical effect of this is that a lot can be said with few words eg ‘…folc and foldan. | Feallan sceolon…’

Compressed As with the poems in the Elder Edda, the alliterative form of Anglo-Saxon verse, and the inflectional nature of the language, tend to make the poetry compressed, very compressed. Pronouns and connective words aren’t necessary. A lot is conveyed by two words.  The modern English translation always takes more words to say the same thing.

Phrases 

  • Apposition The division of the already short 4-beat line into two 2-beat parts combined with the requirement for every line to alliterate, makes for continual use of apposition ie small alliterative phrases or units are deployed to fit the alliteration more than the flow of the sense.
  • Separation As in Latin poetry phrases can be widely separated since the inflections – not the word order – explain the grammatical relationship between them; short phrases often refer to people or actions a few lines earlier, rearranged to make the alliteration. This sense of dislocation and apposition adds to the special character of the poetry.
  • Stock phrases It is assumed the poetry originated in oral form, composed by skilled poets or skopas who used stock phrases or readymade formulas to elaborate on the spot equally well-known stories and legends. A number of stock half-lines occur in more than one poem; a few occur more than once in the same poem.

Laconic The affect of all these factors is to make the verse very clipped, abbreviated and laconic. The brevity tends to understatement; a lot is implied. There is a continual sense of very masculine understatement.

Litotes  This tendency is made explicit in the use of litotes, a Greek term for a figure of speech in which understatement is employed for rhetorical effect, usually through double negatives eg rather than saying that something is attractive (or even very attractive), you say it is “not unattractive”.

Feminine endings In the study of poetic meter a feminine ending is a line of verse that ends with an unstressed syllable. So:

  • Masculine ending: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day – the final beat falls on the final syllable
  • Feminine ending: To be or not to be, that is the question – the final beat falls on the penultimate syllable and the ‘-ion’ syllable is weak = feminine

Many of the final words in each line are infinitives or other forms which take a weak final syllable. OE poetry is full of weak, feminine endings. This produces a kind of dying fall to almost every phrase – eg “…folc and foldan. | Feallan sceolon…” giving the poems as a whole, a particular rolling music.

2. My approach

Many of the qualities listed above are lost in the translation into uninflected, uncompacted modern English. All the translations I’ve read, not unreasonably, try to translate Old English poetry into flowing, smooth, readable, fully comprehensible modern English. This involves:

  • using entirely modern words
  • entirely modern forms of the words eg especially simple uninflected verb forms and modern pronouns
  • unpacking the tightly wrapped and allusive stock phrases into fully explicit sentences
  • rearranging short phrases which are organised in the original in order to fit the alliterative scheme and thus often scattered, into more logically sequential orderings
  • losing the music of OE’s feminine, ie unstressed, endings, especially the feminine endings of infinitive forms of verbs

I’ve set out to try and avoid these losses. I am trying to create a version of mongrel English which stays as close as possible to the original in every respect – words and word forms, apposition and alliteration,  avoiding all Latinate or French words, using archaic forms and even inventing new words to bridge the gap between then and now, the damaged often obscure source text, and the clear fluent logic demanded by our shiny white screens. I am trying to make them readable but to keep as many of the qualities identified above as possible.

Caedmon’s Hymn (c670)
is the oldest recorded Old English poem, and one of the oldest surviving examples of Germanic alliterative verse. In his Ecclesiastical History of Britain, the Venerable Bede tells how Caedmon, an illiterate cowherd at a monastery in Whitby, has a vision which tells him to use traditional OE verse forms to praise the Christian God. Caedmon’s Hymn is nowadays regarded as the “first English poem”:

nu scylun hergan | hefaenricaes uard
metudæs maecti | end his modgidanc
uerc uuldurfadur | swe he uundra gihwaes
eci dryctin | or onstealde
he aerist scop | aelda bearnum
heben til hrofe | haleg scepen
tha middungeard | moncynnæs uard
eci dryctin | æfter tiadæ
firum foldu | frea allmectig

The Wikipedia translation:

Now [we] must honour the guardian of heaven,
the might of the architect, and his purpose,
the work of the father of glory
as he, the eternal lord, established the beginning of wonders;
he first created for the children of men
heaven as a roof, the holy creator.
Then the guardian of mankind,
the eternal lord, afterwards appointed the middle earth,
the lands for men, the Lord almighty.

My translation:

Now we shall honour | heavenrich’s guard
the might of the master | and his moodthink
the work wulderfather | so he wonders wrought
eternal Lord | ordered beginning.
He earliest shaped | for the children of men
heaven to roofe, | the holy shaper,
then middleyard | mankinde’s guard
eternal Lord | after appointed
fields for folk, | father almighty.

Related links

Modern iIlluminated manuscript-style illustration of Caedmon's Hymn by PC Hodgell

Modern iIlluminated manuscript-style illustration of Caedmon’s Hymn by PC Hodgell

The Battle of Maldon

The battle of Maldon took place in 991 on the shores of the River Blackwater in Essex. Vikings had landed on the small island of Northey and confronted a Saxon force on the river bank. Then, as now, a narrow causeways links the island to the mainland and is flooded at full tide. In the poem a Viking messenger asks safe passage to cross from the island to the bank to give battle properly. Disastrously, the Saxon leader Byrhtnoth agrees. Battle is given and Byrhtnoth is struck down. He consigns his soul to God and falls dead whereupon the coward Godrich flees the battlefield on Byrhtnoth’s horse, spooking many others to flee; but Byrhtnoth’s retainers and thanes remain, rallying each other with noble speeches as they fall one by one to overwhelming Viking numbers…

The battle is historical fact, reported in three versions of the contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as well as in later histories. Byrhtnoth was a historical figure, earl of Essex under King Æthelred the Unready. After his force was wiped out the Danes/Vikings were able to impose a massive tribute of of 10,000 Roman pounds (3,300 kg) of silver, the first example of Danegeld in England – exactly the tribute Byrhtnoth boasts, in the poem, we will never pay. The poem records a heroic failure, the first in a long line of military disasters which the English have taken a perverse pleasure in celebrating…

Composition The poem was probably composed a few years after the battle and therefore towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period (which lasted from the first arrivals in the 450s until the Normans conquered in 1066), many centuries after the kingdoms of England had converted to Christianity (a process started in the 600s). Among other things it shows how the pagan values of heroic pagan society had lived on into the Christian age.

The poem is 328 lines long but is incomplete. The original manuscript was burnt in a fire in the 1730s but had – fortunately – been transcribed. The opening and ending are missing and there is no title; the one we use is a convention. So is all the punctuation, all commas, full stops and speech marks.

Old English The poem is in Old English, the language which used to be called Anglo-Saxon ie spoken by the Germanic settlers in England between their arrival in the 450s and which lingered on after the Norman Conquest. It is in alliterative measure ie no rhymes, no regular rhythms; instead each line is divided in half, with two stresses in each half: the start-sound of the first stressed word in the second half of the line must be alliterated by one of the two stressed syllables in the first half of the line, possibly both. The second stressed syllable in the second half of the line generally doesn’t alliterate, eg:

Brimmanna boda, | abeod eft ongean

Pronunciation ð and þ are used interchangeably for ‘th’ as in thou and then. A g at the start of a word is pronounced as y. For more on Old English pronunciation you can watch a YouTube video or read a scholarly introduction.

Byrhtnoth’s challenge and defiance of the Vikings (lines 45-62):

“Gehyrst þu, sælida, | hwæt þis folc segeð?
Hi willað eow to gafole | garas syllan,
ættrynne ord | and ealde swurd,
þa heregeatu | þe eow æt hilde ne deah.
Brimmanna boda, | abeod eft ongean,
sege þinum leodum | miccle laþre spell,
þæt her stynt unforcuð | eorl mid his werode,
þe wile gealgean | eþel þysne,
æþelredes eard, | ealdres mines,
folc and foldan. | Feallan sceolon
hæþene æt hilde. | To heanlic me þinceð
þæt ge mid urum sceattum | to scype gangon
unbefohtene, | nu ge þus feor hider
on urne eard | in becomon.
Ne sceole ge swa softe | sinc gegangan;
us sceal ord and ecg | ær geseman,
grim guðplega,| ær we gofol syllon.”

“Hearest thou, sailor | what this folk sayeth?
They will to-you as tribute | spears give,
Poisonous tip | and olde sword,
War equipment | that to-you in battle will not profit.
Seamen’s messenger, | go announce again,
Say to thy troop | a more hateful tale,
That here stands undaunted | earl with his army,
Who wills to save | this nativeland,
Earth of Aethelred, | of my ruler,
Folk and fold. | Fallen shallen
Heathens at havoc. | Too shameful me thinketh
That you with our tribute | to ship goen
Unbefought, | now ye thus far  hither
In our earth | in be comen.
Nor shall to-ye so softly | riches befall;
Us shall spear and edge | ere make peace,
Grim battleplay, | ere we gifts give up.”

Byrhtnoth’s challenge read aloud

Byrhtnoth’s prayer for his soul (lines 173-180):

“Ic geþancie þe, | ðeoda waldend,
ealra þæra wynna | þe ic on worulde gebad.
Nu ic ah, milde metod, | mæste þearfe
þæt þu minum gaste | godes geunne,
þæt min sawul to ðe | siðian mote
on þin geweald, | þeoden engla,
mid friþe ferian. | Ic eom frymdi to þe
þæt hi helsceaðan | hynan ne moton.”

“I bethank thee, | ruler of peoples,
For all the joys | that I on world abode.
Now I of you, mild Master, | most need
That you mine ghost | grace to-grant,
That mine soul to thee | to-go might
On thine weald, | lord of angels,
With peace to-pass. | I am suppliant to thee
That the hell-scathers | hinder nay mighten.”

Related links

The Battle of Maldon

The Battle of Maldon

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

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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