Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Prose Edda / Snorri Sturluson -- NY: American-Scandinavian Foundation and London: Humphrey Miford Oxford University Press, 1923.

In the early 13th century, Iceland's great poet Snorri Sturluson collected the stories of his culture now known as The Elder Edda and worked them into retelling now known as The Prose Edda. It is divided into three self-sufficient sections: Gylfaginning or The Beguiling of Gylfi, Skaldskaparmal or The Poesy of Skalds, and Hattatal or Enumeration of Metres. These and portions of these works have been translated into English since the first attempt in 1770; however, not until 1916 was the whole of Skaldskaparmal translated. This was done by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur for the American-Scandinavian Foundation. Brodeur's The Poesy of the Skalds appeard in the same volume with his translation of Gylfanginning. Hattatal, however, defied Brodeur's translation abilities, due to its highly technical nature. Indeed, fitting appropriate English vocabulary into the metre of the original work is likely impossible.

The Beguiling of Gylfi is the most accessible and engaging to the two translated works. It tells the story of the Norse gods, from the creation of the world to their death at the hands of the giants. While the work is certainly pagan, Snorluson introduces it by telling how the original knowledge of the Biblical story of Genesis was forgotten by the people of Northern Europe and how they constructed the Odinic myths; however, once he has established his Christian credentials, Snorluson faithfully retells the pagan stories without lacing them with foreign Christian interpolations.

The Beguiling of Gylfi recounts the exploits of Odin, Thor, Loki, Baldr, Freyja, Freyr, and other lesser Norse gods. Its stories include norns, valkyries, giants, elves, dwarves, men, shape shifters, and dragons. It provides a brief account of the story of Sigurd, Brynhild, and Gudrun. The stories are told to Gylfi by Harr of the AEsir, descendants of the Norse gods. The work provides an excellent summary of the Norse pantheon and cosmology.

The Poesy of the Skalds contains verses and some brief narratives, but is essentially a compendium of ways in which the poets of the Elder Edda referred to various gods and important subjects. Essentially, it is a handbook for poets (skalds) seeking to understand how to poetically refer to the subjects in their poems. So, for example, a young skald is directed to refer to Odin as "Allfather" and Thor as "Defender of Asgard and of Midgard" or "Smiter of Hrungnir." Baldr is "Companion of Hel" or "God of Tears." Loki is "Theif of the Giants" or "Forger of Evil;" "the Sly God" or "Contriver of Baldr's Death." Poetic references are recommended for such things as man, gold, the sky, the earth, battle, fire, etc.

The epithets for all these relate to the subject's place in Norse legends, and along with helping us understand the Norse view of the world, provide a rich summary of the poetic sensibility of the Icelandic skalds. Snorluson quotes stanzas of poetry that employ these epithets and sometimes provides us with longer narratives illustrating why the subject has received the epithet. Reading these stanzas in the context of Sturluson's poetic instruction allows us to understand why Norse poetry feels so loaded with meaning.

The Beguiling of Gylfi will reward anyone interested in the Norse mythology. Its gritty narratives are thrilling in a way that Greek and Roman mythology with all its glamour is not. The Poesy of the Skalds, on the other hand, will reward the more poetic reader, unconcerned with plots or narratives, but happy to read the isolated, but stirring, turn of phrase.

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