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“Young girl, I declare you are not like most men”: retranslating The Poetic Edda

Not every scholar of medieval English has the privilege of translating a major poetic text, and fewer still have the chance to do it all over again, eighteen years later. My first edition of the Poetic Edda was published in 1996 and about two years ago, I was invited to think about a second edition, one which would expand the number of poems and which could be brought up to date in other ways. But what could have changed as far as this classic work was concerned in the meantime?

Well, unlike a single poem, such as Beowulf or Piers Plowman, the Poetic Edda is a collection of poems. Most of these are to be found in a single manuscript, known as the Codex Regius, kept in the Árnar Magnússonar Manuscript Institute in Reykjavík, Iceland. But, preserved in other Icelandic manuscripts, are a good number of further poems in the same kind of metre, which relate more stories of Norse gods and heroes. Four or five of these poems have always been considered part of the Poetic Edda and I translated them in the first edition. But now there was room for some more.

Peter_Nicolai_Arbo-Hervors_død
“Hervors død” by Peter Nicolai Arbo (Hervor was a shieldmaiden in the cycle of the magic sword Tyrfing, presented in Hervarar saga and of which parts are found in the Poetic Edda). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve added three more eddic poems which I think are interesting in different ways. The first of them is traditionally known as “The Waking of Angantyr.” It tells the story of a warrior-maiden Hervör, who dares to go alone to an eerie island, haunted by her undead father and his eleven brothers. Hervör wants her father’s magical sword Tyrfing, but Angantyr is determined not to give it to her. He’s quite surprised that a girl should dare to come to the uncanny place:

Young girl, I declare you are not like most men,
hanging around by mounds at night
with an engraved spear and in metal of the Goths [armour],
a helmet and corslet before the hall-doors.

At first Angantyr pretends that he doesn’t have the sword, next, he warns (truthfully) that the sword bears a curse, but finally he hands it over to the triumphant Hervör. A bold and determined heroine and an undead corpse — this seemed like a good addition to the new translation. The other additions are “Groa’s Chant” and the “Sayings of Fiolsvinn,” two related poems. A young man called Svipdag has been cursed by his stepmother to go on a quest to find and woo the lovely Menglod, a task fraught with danger: “she has ordered me to go where she knows there’s no going,” Svipdag laments. Wisely, he first visits the grave of his dead mother for advice. Groa is indeed anxious to help and she sings a number of spells over Svipdag. If he crosses rivers or sea, if he’s chained up or assailed by frost, “may no corpse-cold come to ravage your flesh / nor bind your body in its joints.”

Groa chants spells for her son, from The Elder or Poetic Edda, translated by Olive Bray with illustrations by W. G. Collingwood (1908). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Groa’s last spell will help Svipdag if he must “bandy words with the spear-magnificent giant,” and this is exactly what happens. When the hero finally reaches Menglod’s hall, the watchman Fiolsvinn won’t let him in. Entrance is only permitted to the man who can fulfill a whole series of impossible tasks, set up in a circular fashion. Svipdag is about to despair, but wait! No man can come in unless he has carried out this task — or unless his name is Svipdag! And so when Svipdag reveals his name, he gains entry to the hall and is rapturously embraced by Menglod, who chides him lovingly, “A long time I’ve sat on Healing-rock / waiting day after day for you!”

What constitutes a medieval poem? One of the most important poems in the Poetic Edda, “The Seeress’s Prophecy” exists in three different versions in medieval Icelandic manuscripts. Very often editors have combined the texts of all three versions to try to recover what they think might have been the “original” form of the poem. But nowadays scholars tend to think that this is a pointless endeavor. After all, this poem probably existed in oral tradition for a hundred or more years before it was first written down and there was likely never a definitive version. Newer critical thinking argues that it is better to reproduce what actually appears in the medieval manuscripts than to try to find the lost original. And so I’ve provided two versions of this poem, one written down in 1270, and one which was written down about forty years later. In the earlier version, the death of Baldr the Beautiful ushers in the beginning of the end of the world: Ragnarök. Baldr’s mother Frigg had made everything on earth promise not to hurt him, but she did not bother with the mistletoe, for it was so little and frail. Wicked Loki shaped it into a dart and put it in the hands of Baldr’s blind brother Hod when all the gods were amusing themselves by throwing things at Baldr and watching them bounce harmlessly from him. Here Baldr lounges against a wall, while Loki guides the fumbling and hooded Hod:

The Death of Baldr, from The Elder or Poetic Edda, translated by Olive Bray with illustrations by W. G. Collingwood (1908). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In the later version, preserved in the Hauksbók manuscript, which was compiled in the first decade of the fourteenth century, Baldr isn’t even mentioned; that seems to be a difference worth recording, and it suggests that the death of Baldr wasn’t necessarily connected to Ragnarök.

And perhaps most importantly, eighteen years ago talking about the reception of the Poetic Edda meant talking about Wagner, William Morris, and Tolkien. Nowadays the influence of these wonderful poems is felt much more widely, in popular culture as well as in the opera house. Hollywood has its Thor films; novelists such as Neil Gaiman in American Gods (2001), young adult authors such as Melvin Burgess and Joanne Harris, even Game of Thrones, with its dragons, ravens, shield-maidens, its endless winter, wolves and giants, have seized on eddic themes and motifs to capture the imaginations of new generations. I hope that this new version of the Poetic Edda, with its additions, updates, and revisions will also find new readers to thrill to these poems, which speak to us in comic, tragic, grandiose, crude, witty, profound, and commonsense tones.

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