book-reviews

The Elder Edda

by anon. (tr. Andy Orchard)

Rating: ★★★

The Elder Edda (also known as the Poetic Edda) is a collection of the earliest Norse mythological verse, preserved in an Icelandic text (the Codex Regius) from the 13th century. It was once thought to be one of the earliest preservations of these oral traditions, though nowadays it's recognised as actually being based on another source. In any event, it's an early, song-meter rendition of some Norse mythology.

There are essentially two sections to the collection. The first section is overtly mythological, and deals with various stories of the gods. This is mostly the best bit of the book, as the Norse sense of humour comes through quite well, and you get great scenes such as Loki foully bad-mouthing everyone at a party, and Thor being dressed up as a bride to retrieve Mjolnir (his hammer) from a giant. You also get a strong taste of the fatalism in the culture, revealed through prophecy. All the gods know of the looming events of Ragnarok, many of their own deaths, and they accept this with a shrug. Of course, there is also much bawdy violence, sex talk and braggardry, as befits any good religious stories.

The second section of the book is the pseudo-historical heroic stories section. This focuses on a number of tales of the Gothic people, primarily woven together by the much-remarried character of Gudrun. Several of the more incomprehensible songs are in this section, with some sudden shifts of location or speaker which can be quite confusing. One of the best stories was the one where Gudrun, faced with the murder of her brothers by her husband Atli (Attila the Hun), kills their children and feeds them to Atli and his men at a feast, and then, once he is drunk, telling him, killing him, and burning down his hall in what is a surprisingly stirring vengeance story.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the verse in this poetic collection. Usually I find poetry turgid and hard to read any volume of, but the stories in the Edda flow for the most part as easily as prose, the translation easy to parse. As with Bernard Scudder's translation of Egil's Saga, I found some of the annotation on the poems irritatingly patronising. I certainly found the resolution of the more obscure kennings -- little poetic puzzles of genealogy and lore -- helpful, but alongside this were notations explaining blatantly obvious allusions and poetic forms. I was also confused by the decision to separate the notes on the poems from the works themselves, which meant I could hardly remember the content by the time I discovered the notes exist (particularly odd because there were more useful notes on a line-by-line basis included in these).