In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews a new translation of Scandinavia’s founding literary works
What connects the Jim Carrey film The Mask, the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, and the Thor movie franchise? The answer is that they all owe a debt to an anonymous collection of poems, known as the Poetic Edda, written around a thousand years ago in Scandinavia and now available in a gloriously new translation by Carolyne Larrington, complete with an introduction also by Larrington: The Poetic Edda (Oxford World’s Classics Hardback Collection).
The word edda is thought to mean ‘poetics’, and first appeared in the work of the thirteenth-century Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson, although the Poetic Edda is a separate group of tales from the prose works authored by Snorri. Indeed, like the numerous Anglo-Saxon poems, from ‘The Wanderer’ to Beowulf to ‘The Battle of Maldon’, which were probably composed at a similar time to the works that make up the Poetic Edda, the poems collected together under the eddic title are anonymous: the works have survived but the names of those who gave us these wonderful, vibrant, and panoramic stories of heroism, gods and giants have been lost in the mists.
Even the tales themselves in the Poetic Edda may be less familiar than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, or the Greek and Latin poetry produced before. Yet some of the stories we find in the Edda have gone on to influence other, better-known tales (better-known to English readers, anyway). The song of Volund may sound unfamiliar, but it’s roughly the same story that is known to English readers as the tale of Wayland the smith – a heroic story of Germanic origin, probably derived from the eddic original, detailing the sufferings and vengeance of a blacksmith. In the eddic version it also, pleasingly, mentions a place named Myrkwood, the inspiration for Tolkien’s Mirkwood.
And talking of Tolkien, a number of elements of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are reworkings of tropes and motifs originally found in the Edda. Bilbo Baggins’s riddle-exchange with Gollum is, as Larrington points out in her informative introduction, a version of the eddic wisdom-contest; many of the names for the dwarves in The Hobbit were lifted from the Seeress’s Prophecy, which mentions Thorin, Oakenshield, and Gimle, among others. Tolkien even retold a number of the heroic poems from the Poetic Edda (published in 2009 as The Legend of Siguard and Gudrún). And W. H. Auden, one of Tolkien’s first great champions, undertook a translation of some of the Poetic Edda following his travels in Iceland with Louis MacNeice in the 1930s.
Larrington’s introduction is good at drawing the reader’s attention to some of these more prominent ways in which the Poetic Edda has left its mark on western culture over the last century or so. But its influence even extends to modern fantasy like George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and the TV series Game of Thrones (with the threat of the summer giving way to an unending winter). But first and foremost, Larrington’s introduction, and crisp, accessible translation, invite us to take the Edda on its own terms, to engage with these poems of heroism and harsher times as myths which have weathered the centuries and emerged as fresh and arresting as they ever were.
Every good mythology needs its creation myth, outlining the very beginning of the world and the prophesied end, thrown in for good measure. The Poetic Edda is no different, and the Seeress’s Prophecy recounts how the gods created the world before settling down to enjoy it, until one day they were ‘disrupted by three girls from Giant-land’. Dwarfs are created, then humans, then the fates. The rest, as they say, is history – or myth, anyway. But moving ahead to the future, the Prophecy forecasts Ragnarok and the death of the gods including Odin’s fate at the hands (or rather talons and jaws) of the wolf Fenrir. The word ‘edda’ is something of an etymological oddity, and it’s not the only one in the history of the Norse poetic myths. The phrase ‘twilight of the gods’, made famous by both Richard Wagner (as the German Götterdämmerung) and Friedrich Nietzsche in the nineteenth century, is founded on a lexical mix-up: the Norse original, Ragnarok, literally means the Doom of the Gods, but somewhere along the line the word rök (‘doom’) was confused with røkkr (‘twilight’). One for the QI team there.
The Seeress’s Prophecy heads this translation of the Edda, The Poetic Edda (Oxford World’s Classics Hardback Collection), dealing with first and last things as it does, but historically the Prophecy reads as something of a valediction: as Larrington’s introductory note to it points out, the pagan religion of Thor and Odin and Loki was already beginning to be superseded by Christianity when the Prophecy was written some time in the late tenth century. It would be over half a millennium before the Poetic Edda would truly be rediscovered and this pagan world of trickster gods and violent heroes, giants and dwarves and magic, would become known again.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.