Posts Tagged ‘Poetic Edda’

Jacksons EddaOr I suppose we should say Edda Jacksonar? Anyway, I got a(n advance?) copy of Jackson Crawford’s The Poetic Edda in the mail today, and while I don’t have time for a full review (and probably won’t for a while–way way too much to do) I wanted to give some initial impressions and put it on everyone’s radar! And OK, Jackson is an acquaintance of mine (another young scholar in my field and the guy who taught a couple of my current UCLA courses before I got here–he is a linguist though, unlike myself, but that is OK too I guess), and I am kind of a softy when it comes to people I know, so don’t expect any sort of a hyper-critical dissection here–there will be plenty of those I’m sure, as no translation is going to please everyone.

And at this point we should also note (as Jackson himself has) that this is meant to be a translation for the casual reader. He has unpacked many of the kennings, has not attempted to reproduce the original meters (no argument from me there–my favorite translation of the Beowulf poem is entirely in prose), and has left out many of the heiti (alternate names for gods and such)–and tries to avoid any verbal gymnastics, keeping things nicely pithy. You can get a feel for the difference if we contrast some of the first stanzas from Völuspá, the first poem in Poetic Edda, as translated in Andy Orchard’s recent translation and Jackson’s new one (and check out the original here if you want):


A hearing I ask of all holy offspring,

the higher and lower of Heimdall’s brood.

Do you want me, Corpse-father, to tally up well

ancient tales of folk, from the first I recall?

I recall those giants, born early on,

who long ago brought me up;

nine worlds I recall, nine wood-dwelling witches,

the famed tree of fate down under the earth.

It was early in ages when Ymir made his home,

there was neither sand nor sea, nor cooling waves;

no earth to be found, nor heaven above:

a gulf beguiling, nor grass anywhere.


Heed my words,

all classes of men,

you greater and lesser

children of Heimdall.

You summoned me, Odin,

to tell what I recall

of the oldest deeds

of gods and men.

I remember the giants

born so long ago;

in those ancient days

they raised me.

I remember nine worlds,

nine giantesses,

and the seed

from which Yggdrasil sprang.

It was at the very beginning,

it was Ymir’s time,

there was no sand, no sea,

no cooling waves,

no earth,

no sky,

no grass,

just Ginnungagap.

The latter certainly reads a bit easier, doesn’t it? The former, on the other hand, preserves a bit more data (or noise, depending on what you are reading for) from the original. Sorry I don’t have Larrington’s recent revision of her translation available–I’ve heard good things about it though. If you are wondering which translation to go for, I would say 1) Jackson if you want it made easy for you, do not typically read ancient lit (translated or otherwise), and/or are just “checking it out”, or if you are teaching Norse mythology to more of a High School age crowd, 2) Orchard or Larrington if you are more interested in getting more “data” on the original text, even if it makes the reading awkward at times, want more thorough notes (Jackson has an introduction to each poem, while Larrington and Orchard have more thorough endnotes–still aimed more at the undergrad though), and/or are taking/teaching a college level course on Norse mythology, and 3) if you are engaging at a post-undergrad level with the material, well, go learn Old Norse! These translations could be helpful “cribs” while you are starting out, and of course it is always handy to see how someone else has parsed a line, whether they are going for a looser or more direct translation.

One interesting bit about this translation–Baldrs draumar and a few of the “Eddic Appendix” poems are inserted following the poems of “Gods and Elves” (though I kind of wish it was “Gods and minor supernatural creatures”, as that lets us keep the descending momentum of “Gods>Elves>Dwarves in this section, rather than having good old Völundr sandwiched between Thor poems [the story of the smart-ass dwarf All-Wise does involve Thor, though], rather than after the Codex Regius poems (meaning, the full run of poems from the most complete medieval manuscript).

I’m not going to try to go into the relative accuracy of any translation right now, since I don’t have time to hunt down anything I disagree with and since pretty much any translation is going to have bits that scholars disagree with, and even mistakes and misreadings to be corrected in later editions. The point here: Jackson’s translation offers a lighter, more accessible alternative to the other translations out there (or: it is what it is). Even if you have one of the other translations, this is a nice one to pick up as a foil to the others, or just for a nice, quick read on a rainy evening while sitting by the fire in your… um, mead-hall, I guess.

Thanks for a great book, Jackson, and I look forward to reading more!

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Jackson's take on the poem is that of the Old West--mine is more that of David the Gnome, I guess...

Jackson has his cowboy-take on the Gnomic poem–mine is more David the Gnome, I guess…

Well, three current English translations anyway, now that Jackson Crawford has his translation of Poetic Edda for the general reader tapped for publication with Hackett Publishing Company in the (hopefully near) future. I’ve been meaning to post about this news, plus a rehash of my previous notes on Edda translations, but after finding out that this is apparently Cowboy Poetry week, I figured this would be a good opportunity to mention both Jackson’s upcoming Edda and his “Cowboy Hávamál,” a really cool rendering of the long poem of wisdom and Odinic escapades from Poetic Edda (his new translation will not be cowboy-style–which may relieve some and disappoint others, I suppose). I have a brief introductory post to the Old Norse Hávamál from way back at the start of this blog, if you are unfamiliar with this somewhat unwieldy but super interesting poem (Jackson’s translation is of the “Gnomic Poem” section, the title of which led to my possibly ill-advised comic to the upper right…), though if you want a more thorough introduction and Old Norse text oriented towards scholars in the field, David Evan’s edition is available online. An older non-cowboy translation is available here, though I recommend the current translations instead. Speaking of which…

A (finally completed) depiction of a moment that was left unrendered (but I think implicit) in Völundarkviða, one of my favorite poems in Poetic Edda.

A (finally completed) depiction of a moment that was left unrendered (but I think implicit) in Völundarkviða, one of my favorite poems in Poetic Edda.

I have a general and short introduction to Poetic Edda in my post on the difference between Skaldic and Eddic poetry, though if you have a subscription to The Literary Encyclopedia I did the entries on Poetic Edda and Prose Edda. Jackson’s translation will join two other current English versions, Larrington’s Poetic Edda and Orchard’s Elder Edda (both translations of the same book, despite the difference in titles). The selling point for Jackson’s translation, according to Jackson’s own blog, is that it in a “truly readable, contemporary style,” written for casual readers outside the classroom. Not that Larrington or Orchard are intentionally trying to obfuscate the material, but I think that scholars who are used to teaching the material in the classroom (since I have noticed this myself–though of course Jackson teaches these things in the classroom as well) have a tendency to allow the “Oddness” of the material to shine through in translation. Personally, I think this is productive, at least in a classroom setting. As has been noted by scholars in a variety of disciplines (for example, archaeologist of the North Neil Price discusses this in his book The Viking Way, citing a scholar in Classic, if I remember correctly), while we might notice the “Other” (the explicitly different or monstrous relative to the culture of the text we are studying) or the “Queer” (that which “queers” or subverts the norm of the culture of the text), we often miss the “Odd,” the ways in which the text itself, a product of a different culture and semantic world than our own, resists our own attempts to “get it”–or, we may have the illusion that we “get it,” interpreting what we see in terms of our own horizon of expectations, until we hit a knot of indecipherability, where we come up against the alienness of the text, or our own alienness relative to the world the text comes out of and once spoke within. A translation which preserves some of this ambiguity and “Oddness” helps signal the student that it will take some effort to come to terms with the text, as well as reminding us that we can never wholly “master” it–it always speaks to use from another world, to some degree (actually, another lit-crit person and I recently had a bit of an argument with a linguist about just this topic with reference to biblical translation–I suspect that there might be a bit of a divide values-wise in this matter between those who study ancient texts primarily and those who study Language primarily…).

None of this to say that I disagree with Jackson’s project–I’m really excited, actually, and curious to see how he handles the denser and weirder portions. My students have always struggled through the Helgi poems, for example, and the opening Völuspá can be super frustrating for neophytes (or anyone) with its allusiveness (an allusion is more frustrating than effective when we no longer know the reference). Meanwhile I hear Larrington’s translation is being reworked, so I’ll look forward to looking over all three eventually. 

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Valkyrie Valentine 1 fixedHappy V-day everyone! (Viking-day? Valkyrie-day? Well, close enough)  For those of us who like our women strong and deadly, here’s to those ladies of the air and battlefield, the Valkyries! (valkyrja, “chooser of the slain”, or less poetically, “corpse-chooser”) OK, while some of the Old Norse stories of valkryies or other strong women (eg the Maiden Kings) may edge towards (or dive straight into) more of a taming-of-the-shrew sort of narrative (to put it mildly), there are others in which these warrior women seem to make it through with their self-respect intact, even if a love story ensues. In Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar (The Lay of Helgi Hjorvardsson), the valkyrie Svava not only names the hero (while she rides by in splendor in the sky) and tells him where to find his sword (normally things that would be done by his father), after she marries him we are told that she remains a valkyrie as before, rather than losing her heroic status after finding a man “strong enough to make her a woman” or whatever. Not that the three Helgi poems in Poetic Edda are an unmixed bag–we have two versions of Helgakviða Hundingsbana (Helgi the Bane of Hunding), the first of which is short and triumphant, entirely focused on the hero as a supermasculine awesome warrior dude, and in which he kills the valkyrie’s family-approved suitor and everyone else, to which she replies… yay, now I can marry you, versus the second version, which seems to represent a female perspective a bit more, as she finds herself caught between her lover and her family, the former killing the latter (in order to be able to marry her, true…um…), and then being killed by her surviving brother. Like the women in Beowulf (especially the digressions), she (normally a force of nature in her professional role) is caught in the web woven by the martial patriarchy and suffers for it. Not the most empowering representation of a valkyrie, but one which gives more of a voice to a female perspective on the patriarchal Viking age comitatus than the teenaged-angsty-wishfulfillment of Helgakviða Hundingsbana I.

Mist Valkyria Black BackdropThe Helgi poems mentioned above are all in Poetic Edda (available in two excellent translations, here and here–but I must warn you that the Helgi texts are especially hard to follow for a beginner), at the start of the “Heroic Poems”, following the stories of the gods and supernatural beings, but they are not the only valkyrie love stories in PEIn fact, the Sigurðr-Brynhildr-Guðrún triangle, famous throughout the Heathen/early Christian North and down into our day through Wagner’s Ring Cycle, is central to the entire second half of PE. At the end of the “Mythological Poems” we have an abortive valkryie love story in Völundarkviða, another story which subverts, to some degree, masculine agency by having the swan-maiden valkyries (apropos of their usual function?) choosing their mates (I gather this from the wording in the first few stanzas of the poem, which portrays the women as active and the men as passive) rather than the other way around, as is typical in Swan Maiden stories, and then leaving their men because they feel drawn back to war. OK, that part made me sad, I confess, and we maybe have this female agency countered later in the poem in Völund’s seduction/rape (?) of the human princess Böðvildr, but I feel like there are enough Iserian gaps re: the significance of the valkyries in some of these stories that we can celebrate them as the awesome supernatural warrior women that they are. Hurrah for valkyries!! But if you choose me, please be careful what exactly you are choosing me for, Ms. Corpse-chooser…

PS, in case you are in need of some sappy, V-day poetry of the more depressing sort, remember my short verse here! And yeah, the rating is pretty low now–it used to be a lot higher, but someone went through ALL the poems from that time (not just mine) and lowered everybody’s score, so let’s just hope that jerk learns the true meaning of V-day… or whatever.

Also, will try to get around to posting about the coded runic love messages that have been in the news lately!

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It pays to be the instructor of record.  Penguin sent me a complimentary copy of Andy Orchard’s new translation of Poetic Edda, presumably hoping that I would switch it out for Larrington’s Oxford UP translation.  It’s a bit late, so I think I will stick with Larrington for now, but I will probably put Orchard’s book on the recommended reading list– if the students can’t read the Old Norse originals, then they can at least get a feel for the variety of ways certain passages may be interpreted.  I haven’t gotten very far into it yet, but I think I will try to write a review for a journal (if I can find one that doesn’t already have a review lined up…)  For now, here are some brief comments.

The Ramsund stone from Sweden. From Wikicommons.

The cover illustration is a close up of the Ramsund stone, specifically the spot where Sigurd is shoving his sword through the frame/Fafnir’s body.  The story of Sigurd, Brynhild, etc takes up the second half of Poetic Edda, or the majority of the Heroic Poems.  The title Orchard (or maybe Penguin) has chosen for the translation is The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore.  Sounds a bit melodramatic to me, but I suppose they are trying to capitalize on the idea of Edda as an arcane repository of ancient Germanic lore.  Speaking of which, let’s clarify just what the eddas are.  The name Elder Edda stems from the assumptions made when the primary manuscript (Codex Regius 2635 4to) was “discovered”.  The text was owned by Bishop Brynjólfr Sveinsson of Skálholt in Iceland during the 1600s and was given as a gift to the king of Denmark (Iceland was ruled by Denmark until the 20th century).  Brynjólfr believed that the text was that used as a source by Snorri Sturluson in his Edda, and so he called this “new” manuscript Edda as well.  In addition he attributed this Edda to Sæmundr hinn fróði (Sæmund the learned), famous in legend, but known to have lived in the 1100s in Iceland, decades before Snorri.  Thus this new Edda was often called Sæmundar Edda (The Edda of Sæmund), or the Elder Edda.

Olive Bray’s translation of Elder Edda. From Wikicommons.

The manuscript actually dates to around 1270, whereas Snorri is thought to have written his Edda in the early 1200s (though our earliest manuscripts date to around 1300).  I prefer the term Poetic Edda, since the bulk of the text is in poetry, while Snorri’s  Edda I call Snorra Edda or Prose Edda, as the latter is mostly written in prose (although it is actually a book of poetics– in fact, the name may mean “poetics”).  The term Elder is perhaps still defensible, even though Sæmundr is no longer thought to be the author/compiler.  After all, Snorri quotes versions of some of these poems in the first section of his own Edda.  Despite this, I prefer to stick with Prose versus PoeticElder versus Younger just doesn’t work so well when each of the poems in question has its own unique problems in dating.  Some of the poems may ultimately date back to the Viking age, but it is a bit much to assume that they have survived the centuries unchanged, and it has been suggested that some of the poems were composed specifically for the 1270 manuscript.

Well, more on what exactly the Eddas are some other time.  For now, you can buy Andy’s book and get a good idea from his introduction.  Speaking of which, the introduction is one of the big differences (well, not actually so big) between his translation and Larrington’s.  Where Larrington spends most of her time introducing the mythological world which the first half of Poetic Edda deals with, Orchard focuses much more on the text itself.  He covers the manuscript and its history in more detail, and instead of summarizing the mythology as a whole, he runs through the poems and gives a brief summary of each, along with comments relating to scholarship and modern reception– for example, in discussing the lacuna in the heroic poems, he mentions JRR Tolkien’s reconstruction of the missing lays (not intended as a scholarly piece, of course– Tolkien wrote his poems in English, after all).  Orchard also includes a larger recommended reading list than Larrington’s translation, though how significant that is in a translation for the lay reader, I don’t know.

Larrington’s translation gives an introduction to each poem, with notes on kennings in the margins and further notes in the back of the book.  Orchard’s presentation is similar with the marginal notes and the end notes, but he saves the individual introductions for each poem for the end notes section as well.  This allows him to give the poems as a continuous text, interrupted only by the titles.  This is slightly closer to the presentation in the Codex Regius manuscript, except that in the manuscript the poems are not written out in stanzas, but in full-page lines just like the prose.  The manuscript also lacks “titles” in our sense, giving instead notes like “about Volund”, “about Volund and Nidud” in the rubric.  These are included in Orchard’s translation after the titles.  As for the quality of the translations, I haven’t had time to look into that yet.  I generally like Larrington’s book, though there are times when I am not so happy with particular notes or translations– but I expect that will be the case with any translation.  Some parts of Orchard’s introduction look hurried to me– every now and then a sentence’s meaning seems garbled or unclear.  For example, he references the possible “great-grandmother” etymology of Edda, but fails to explain why that term may have been used by Snorri (or later scribes) for his Edda.  There were other bits, but I will wait to comment on them till after I’ve had a chance to read through the intro again.

In any case, it is nice to have two full translations of Poetic Edda by quality scholars on the market.  If you’d like to see the Codex Regius manuscript (our primary source for these poems, but not the only one), the Arnamagnaean institute has images online here.  My earlier notes on the Eddas and reference material on Norse mythology can be found here.  More on the Eddas later, and Eddic Poetry versus Skaldic Poetry.

NEWS: Another Poetic Edda translation has been announced, this one aimed at a more general audience.

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