Fiction Reviews

The Poetic Edda

(1999 / 2019) Carolyne Larrington, Oxford University Press, £16.99 / US$24.95, hrdbk, xxxx + 347pp, ISBN 978-0-19-883457-1


This is a lovingly presented translation of one of the most important works of Norse mythology, an absolute must for fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) Thor and Avengers movies, as well as fantasy work by authors from J. R. R. Tolkien to Neil Gaiman.

Edda means 'poetry' so Poetic Edda (there is a Prose Edda too) translates as ‘Poetic Poetry’.

Carolyne Larrington’s translation is bookmarked by two distinct versions of The Seeress' Prophesy, outlining the doom of the gods (Gotterdammerung or Ragnorak) presented with a grim sense of inescapable fate.  The Seeress sees all time and space, from beginning to end, and outlines everything from the creation of the giants to the day the dragon Nidhogg carries the corpses of all the fallen away.  Several verses have the Seeress asking the listener if s/he want to hear more, which not only acts as a tease for the poetry to follow but serves as a warning of the increased knowledge to be revealed of the inevitable inescapable doom awaiting all of us.

The prophesy is relentlessly bleak but many of the Eddic poems and fragments offer a great deal of humour.  Thrym’s Poem reads like a Carry on up Asgard, with Thor dressing very reluctantly in drag to recover his hammer from Thrym, who is holding it hostage until Thor lets him marry Freyia. Loki teases the Thunder God remorselessly throughout the escapade.

Thor is often treated as the brunt of the jokes, with his stubborn pride constantly getting him into trouble. In 'Harbard’s Song', Thor simply wants to cross a river but the ferryman (his father Odin in disguise) refuses to take him and the two major gods throw insults at one another over the river.  It reads like the kind of rap-battle trash talk Eminem might engage in.

Riddle games and word play battles are a popular devise in the Edda. Larrington notes that this was a direct inspiration on Tolkien’s riddles in The Hobbit (1937) when Bilbo Baggins tangles with Gollum and Smaug.  The games involve increasingly difficult questions being asked until the loser faces a riddle that can’t be solved.  Sometimes the riddle-contests have a dark edge.  In Brynhild’s 'Ride to Hell' Brynhild (The Brunhilde of Wagner’s Ring Cycle of operas), after voluntarily dying on her husband’s funeral pyre, travels to Hell to reunite with him, but has to out-riddle a giantess to get through to him.

As the verse-tales progress, mortal heroes and warriors become more important than the gods.  In some later collected tales the Norsemen engage with the Hun with even Atilla The Hun gaining a mention as myth fuses into history. 'The Song of Hyndla' predict the coming of a greater god than Odin, which the translator indicates to be a hint towards encroaching Christianity with the un-named new god very likely being Jesus.

Sometimes the violence and tragedy are horrific. In 'The Poem Of Atli', Gudrun feeds her own children to her husband, Atli in an act of vengeance, a devise later used by Shakespeare in Titus Andronicus (1594).  Gudrun’s life of troubles, violence and grief dominates the human-centred poems.  When she is unable to cry and grieve over the death of her beloved Sigurd (Siegfried), various women try to help her cry by telling their own tales of woe, before the body of Sigurd itself is laid out for the widow, who finally finds some closure.

The book serves not only as a great work of mythical poetry, but as a fantastic example of translation work.  In her notes for 'Loki’s Quarrel', Carolyn Larrington describes the poem’s complex metric structure. Loki, barred from a banquet in Aegir’s Hall, when all the other gods are invited, gatecrashes and insults them all one by one.  Each insult is given two stanzas while the defences are given just one. To complicate the structure, each defence is given by another god defending the victim of the previous insult and Loki’s stanzas shift the abuse from one god to the other, defender by defender.  Larrington carefully maintains this structure in her translation.  The game ends when Thor, arrogant as ever, arriving late to the feast, declines to play along and just threatens Loki with violence until he leaves.

Each poem in the collection is split into numbered stanzas with extensive notes on the writing and broader mythical meanings too.  A fabulous collection worthy of multiple readings.

Arthur Chappell


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