Friday, May 26, 2017

The Elder Edda (trans. Andy Orchard)

"Myths, gods and heroes from the Viking world", promises the subtitle to the new Penguin edition of The Elder Edda, and from the moment I discovered it in the library a few months ago I've been waiting for a good opportunity to tuck in. My acquaintance with Icelandic literature has been fairly limited - I've read  Njal's Saga, The Saga of the Volsungs, and of course Tolkien's The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun which doesn't really count, but I knew to expect gore, fatalism, and some of the sparest, barest, most economical writing I've ever come across.

The Elder Edda comes in two parts. The first section contains mythological poems dealing with the gods, goddesses and fates of Norse myth, while the second is a cycle of poems revolving around Sigurd the Dragonslayer and his ill-fated loves Brynhild and Gudrun. I was already familiar with the Sigurd cycle from The Saga of the Volsungs, and from Tolkien's Sigurd and Gudrun (with Christopher Tolkien's excellent commentary on the same). In the Edda, the story is told in a way that seems rather more fractured and fragmented. The poetry itself often elides events, lacunae plague the text, and the poems don't always follow a logical progression: they repeat and restate events, often with significant contradictions (is Brynhild the same figure as the valkyrie who teaches Sigurd runes? was Sigurd murdered at home or in the forest?). It's not surprising that most people would just read The Saga of the Volsungs instead, which tells the story in a much more straightforward fashion. But now that I've actually read the Edda, I think this is a crying shame. In poetic form, these stories gain far more power than they did in prose; they become a grand, operatic tale of fate, compulsion, obsession and loss.

(Epic poetry, and poetry that tells any kind of story, has been out of style for hundreds of years, and it's such a shame. There are just some things you can do in poetic storytelling that you can't do in prose.)

Part 1 of the Edda, the part that deals with myths of the gods, was the part that was mostly new to me. It was also the part I had the most mixed feelings about. My two favourite poems in the whole collection cropped up here. The Voluspa, the very first poem of all, is magnificent. It tells the legend of the creation of the world and then fast-forwards into a prophecy of Ragnarok, employing repeated lines and even stanzas to build up an incredible dramatic intensity - I would recommend trying to get a copy of this book just for the pleasure of reading this poem. And then there's the game of Spot the Inkling: Tolkien and Lewis both obviously loved this particular poem. Lewis lifted whole lines from it for his poem Cliche Came Out of Its Cage, and Tolkien got the names of Gandalf, Durin, Thorin Oakenshield and the other dwarves here. (Who knew that Bifur and Bofur translate as "Trembler" and "Grumbler", while "Bombur", of course, is "Tubby"? Seems like Disney wasn't so far out with the names of Snow White's dwarfs either). And I suspect that the image of the surviving gods after Ragnarok discovering their gold playing-pieces in the grass of the newly-remade world may have found its way into Prince Caspian.

Another favourite poem from this section was The Song of Volund. You hear legends of lame blacksmith gods all over Europe of course - there's the English Weyland (obviously related) and even the Greek Hephaestos, but the Norse Volund is an elf prince seeking revenge after a brutal attack. His revenge, when he takes it, is more brutal than the original wrong, because this is a pagan story of grisly and pointless violence, but there's high drama here too and a certain kind of harsh beauty. 

Many of these mythological poems, however, have less to do with storytelling and more to do with various contests between the gods: mostly contests of lore or insult. The latter have a strong gutter element that I didn't appreciate, but the lore-contests were fascinating for the way in which they presented the Norse cosmology and philosophy. The Havamal contains some of the most detailed discussion of pagan philosophy and conduct: to read it is to step into a world that has, thankfully vanished. Pagan piety is both recognisable and alien to us today, all of it predicated upon a fundamentally hostile universe in which anyone can only trust himself: don't drink too much, don't speak too much, give gifts in an attempt to make friends, don't trust your friends, don't trust your women, and don't be ambitious:
Middling-wise should each man be
never over-wise;
for he lives the fairest life of folks
who knows not over-much. 
Middling-wise should each man be
never over-wise;
for a wise-man's heart is seldom glad,
if he is truly wise. 
Middling-wise should each man be
never over-wise;
he never knows his fate before,
whose spirit is freest from sorrow.
The poems of the Elder Edda, a record of Icelandic paganism, were written down well after the conversion of Iceland to Christianity, evidently by Christian scribes. As usual, I'm left with little doubt in my mind that they did this to preserve in the remembrance of their people not just the cultural achievements of paganism, but also the cultural failings. Norse paganism was deeply characterised by suspicion, fatalism, and violence. We ought not to take our own culture for granted or pride ourselves on our superiority. There, but for the grace of God, go we.

Find The Elder Edda on Amazon or The Book Depository.

4 comments:

Joseph J said...

I tried reading the eddas once. It didn't go well. I suppose it helps if you know the stories already. They are much more obscure and primitive then I expected. They didn't seem much more sophisticated then native American mythology. Its funny how primitive culture is very child-like, except more violent and mystical.

They like to play with size and quantity a lot. Like, oh now he is a giant and swallowing the ocean, but he hasn't even left the room which is confusing. And here is a riddle that stumped people 1800 years ago, good luck trying to figure it out now! Its hard to picture what they are describing - dwarves and trolls and giants and such creatures aren't very well defined like they are now. What were they imagining, really, when they talked about these things? It isn't very clear. Reminds me a bit of early Welsh stuff I read for my Arthur course. The primitive imagination is not easy for us to step into. We think too literally.

Suzannah said...

I would say that we think more along lines of long-term cause-and-effect. If we work hard and save our pennies, we will in the future have enough to buy X. And that's a result of the Augustinian, Biblical linear view of time and history, where you have unrepeatable progress toward a definite goal. Primitive societies, without a Christian worldview or the effects of a Christian worldview, tend to have a view of history that is cyclical and incomprehensible (just look at all those Greek tragedies happening to people for no good reason, just the gods' hostility) and the goal is an escape from history and time and everything but ritual cause-and-effect.

I've been reading Gary North's UNHOLY SPIRITS, and it's fascinating on the topic of primitivism.

Andrew of the House of Lacey said...

Have you read TISHA? It is a story (auto-biography?) of a young school-teacher in Alaska. In the story there is an interesting presentation of the difference in ideology between indigenous peoples and the West. The 'store away for later view' and the 'something will turn up' view. I thought what you said, Suzannah, tied in to this rather well in reference to the Western mindset.

Suzannah said...

Andrew, no, I haven't read that. But it wouldn't surprise me--there are some things that primitive cultures have in common.

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