The companion volume to Dover's The Poetic Edda: The Mythological Poems, this vibrant compilation presents the heroic sagas of Scandinavia's ancient oral traditions. These timeless legends of superhuman warriors and doomed lovers have inspired storytellers such as Richard Wagner and J. R. R. Tolkien and continue to enchant modern readers.
One of my earliest memories is of waking up in my parents’ bed when I was very young. The light was shining softly through the curtained windows, and the bed was cool. The quiet of the morning was broken only by the chirping of birds and, from the wooded hill behind our house, the unearthly song of the whippoorwill. I don’t know if this is one memory or a series of memories mashed together in my mind. Somehow, it’s not the memory itself that matters, but the feeling of supreme peace and perfection that the memory calls to mind. This feeling is also tied inseparably with memories of my mother singing the song “In the Garden” many times. Along with this prevailing mood, I also have strong memories of a feeling of remoteness or distantness; it is a feeling of magic created by stories of King Arthur or knights in shining armor, a feeling of strong nobility and epic deeds. There is one time of the year in which both of these moods always combine seamlessly into one blissful tapestry, like Eden and Valhalla rolled into one: Christmas. This feeling or mood is indescribable, but I always feel a yearning for it. It is there in Christmastide, and there are a number of other stories, songs and books that kindle the flam. Know it when I feel it, but it’s incredibly hard to put into words.
Imagine my happiness when, in college, I realized that I was not alone in these feelings. C.S. Lewis wrote of the feeling he described as “northernness,” and tied it to the human longing for Joy. Though Lewis himself called the feeling indescribable, I recognized in his descriptions and in what Tolkien wrote of as the “noble northern spirit” the selfsame emotion stirred in me by these memories and stories. For both Tolkien and Lewis, the type of literature that best expresses this mood of the soul is Northern literature, that is the literature of the Norse and Germanic people of the Middle Ages. From my experience, they are absolutely correct.
Beowulf and the Saga of the Volsungs are among my favorite books, and when I read the mythological poems of the Poetic Edda, I was delighted by every scrap of poetry in it. Naturally, I had to press onward and read hero poems as well. The Poetic Edda is a collection of Icelandic poems collected in the 1100s and 1200s, though many of the poems date to a much earlier time period. They are, for the most part, pre-Christian poems, and show the roots of later Norse Sagas. The two main storylines in the poems are those of Helgi and Sigurd. The Sigurd/Gudrun/Atli cycle would eventually be the basis for the Saga of the Volsungs. Also I met an old friend from Anglo-Saxon poetry, Weyland the Smith (here called Weland).
There is a power in Norse poetry not to be found anywhere else. It contains all the magic of Welsh folktales, but with a noble heroism and hardness not found in the Welsh or Celtic stories. It is also fun to see these stories develop over time as different authors and editors arrange and compose material to fit their purposes. For example, the version of the stories composed in Greenland bear a marked difference from those composed in Iceland. I loved the Nibelungenlied and the Saga of the Volsungs and it was nice to see the thread of the tapestry being woven and created over time. The story told is rich and deep, full of trust, betrayal, and strength in the face of death.
I wouldn’t recommend this book for anyone not already familiar with the Norse tales. Read the Saga of the Volsungs first so that you can have a better appreciation for these remarkable poems. Other than that, this is one of the best books I’ve read this year I can’t praise it highly enough.
Volume one of the Oxford edition of the Poetic Edda contains the texts and English translations of four of the best heroic poems in the collection. The four poems focus on the fall of the Burgundians and the Gothic Ermanaric legend. The texts included are the Atlakviða (The Lay of Atli), Atlamál hin groenlenzku (The Greenland Ballad of Atli, The Greenlandish Lay of Atli, The Greenlandic Poem of Atli), Guðrúnarhvöt (Gudrún's Inciting, Gudrún's Lament, The Whetting of Gudrún.) and the Hamðismál (The Ballad of Hamdir, The Lay of Hamdir).
Each poem is accompanied by Ursula Dronke's masterful introductions and commentaries. In these sections dronke analyses each poem line by line and looks into the dating of the poems, structure and much more. These sections show her extensive knowledge of both the Norse and German versions of the Burgundian and Ermanaric sagas. I particularly enjoyed the sections where Dronke gives translations of the historical sources on the fall of the Burgundians and the Low German ballad Koninc Ermenrikes Dot. This book is so enjoyable, I think a reread will be on the cards before long.
The only bad points are the price and lack of a glossary. Oxford should sort this out and give the book a wider readership. With all the interest in the Eddic poems at the moment, I'm sure halving the price would help it sell.
While Norse mythology has seen an increase of interest in the past half century, not so it’s heroic sagas though as seen in this book there is a reason for that. The Poetic Edda: The Heroic Poems is half of a collection of anonymously written poems from across the Norse world and translated in the early 20th Century by Henry Adam Bellows.
The heroic poems are divided into three lays or cycles: Helgi, Niflung, and Jormunrekkr. The first three poems feature the early Danish hero, Helgi, through all of them cover some of the same events. The overwhelming number of poems are a part of the Niflung cycle which is a Norse rendition of the German heroic epics connected with Siegfried—of Wagner operatic fame. The final two poems are about the revenge against Jormunrekkr by two brothers of the wife he killed as incited by their mother Guthrun from the Niflung cycle.
While some individual poems are good, “Atlamol en Gronlenzku” being one example, many more are pieced together and or cover the same events though written by different writers. Once you have read several poems in a row about the same events or one explicit event, all the poems are lessened in quality. After a while, one is looking to see how different writers create different ways to cover the same thing but grow quickly unimpressed especially when Bellows explains in introductions or footnotes that some lines are probably from a different poem.
Overall, this is a very well translated collection of poems, some of which are very good, however do to the fact many of the cover the same things over and over the overall collection because burdensome to read.
This is the scholarly work on the poetic Eddas with the Old Icelandic poem on one side of the page and the English translation on the other side followed by commentary at the end of the poem. The book is an amazing feat of scholarship but it is not for everyone. I almost did not read it but I am glad I did it is well worth the effort. If the book has a problem it has been out of print for forty years and Volumes 2,3, and 4 are not readily available and are very expensive on amazon. I guess they qualify as rare books.
This is the second volume of two in the Henry Adams Bellows translation of the Poetic Edda. My thoughts on the first volume, the Mythological Poems, are all echoed here: fantastic translation, excellent and absorbing notes on the poems and history, and the poems themselves are outstanding for a multitude of reasons. As historical artifacts they provide a unique look at a culture from an age of legend and mystery. Their style and substance is so timeless and satisfying that they stand high as poems and as tales of myth and folklore. The stories told here are the product of many generations of legend-blending, adaptation, growth, and imagination, with huge narrative power. As a whole set of mythical cycles, this work becomes even greater than the sum of its parts, by delivering a massive body of cultural lore in the most regaling way possible.
This half contains 19 poems and a prose piece acting as a bridge between the poems directly before and after it. These poems tell tales of legendary heroes from Norse myth, many of which came by way of Germanic tales moving northward.
What is more obvious in this volume than in the mythological poems, due to the fact that many of these poems fit together into a heroic cycle narrative, is just how much has been lost or not understood in the Poetic Edda. The notes make clear that many lines or stanzas are missing, that certain words or phrases are untranslatable or too obscure to understand the meaning of, and the transcribing of these poems was not always clean and coherent and canonically consistent by the compiler(s) of the Edda.
In the mythological poems this was not as apparent, at least not to me, even though the problems were every bit as present. But my primary incentive for reading the Edda at this time was my recent reading of the Nibelungenlied and the Volsungasaga, which each tell a version of a saga that is also told here, in the Poetic Edda. And because of how familiar I now am with that cycle of myths and stories and scenes, I could notice the missing pieces Bellows pointed out here, and the internal inconsistencies of the compilers, the problems of trying to piece together fragments into a coherent whole. And that only adds to the intrigue and mystique and power of this body of work, in my opinion.
I probably should stop repeating myself so often, but I will one more time say that these works are just terrific, high caliber excellence and of the utmost interest to me. These Heroic Lays, as they’re known, fall into a few separate cycles or categories, according to the scholars.
The first handful of poems are concerned with the character Helgi, a man whose mythos is a bit fluid, requiring that he be reborn in order to be slayed by multiple other men, under slightly different names but largely the same roles and status. He is a figure much like Sigurd, who, in some of Helgi’s incarnations, is his half-brother. And he is every bit as heroic and powerful as Sigurd/Sigurth, with each of these poems detailing his feats, his mythical encounters, and his deaths. In one of these poems, Sigurth’s other half-brother, the incest-born Sinfjolti appears briefly, apparently as a crew member on Helgi’s ship when he sails to Frekastein to slay King Granmar and his sons, because one of his sons was promised Sigrun’s hand in marriage. Sigrun was Helgi’s in his mind, so he had to destroy them. Anyway, I mention Sinfjolti here because he, and the description of Helgi and his kin as Volsungs, are the only things that link the Helgi lays with the Sigurd heroic cycle.
The next two cycles, the Niflung and Jormunrekkr lays, describe many of the same events as the Nibelungenlied and the Volsungasaga. I’ve written extensively on my thoughts concerning this story so I won’t touch too much on it here. It’s great to see the Eddic version of these tales. They are clearly more aligned with the Volsungasaga than the Nibelungenlied, given their shared Scandinavian tellings. And the gaps in the original manuscript offer a lot of credible speculations from scholars, often times being interpolated with the help of the Volsungasaga, which was composed from many of these poems, maybe directly.
Other times, some aspects of these poems seem to contradict parts of the Volsungasaga, by relating a slightly different version of events or altering details. In fact, some of these poems contradict one another, like Atlakvitha and Atlamol (the Greenland poems), which both relate the climactic scenes of the Gjukungs’ fates. In both tellings, and in the Volsungasaga, Atli’s men hope to trick Gunnar into thinking Hogni has died by showing him his heart ripped from his chest. In the Volsungasaga and the Atlakvitha, a man named Hjalli has his heart ripped from his chest and shown to Gunnar, who is not tricked because the heart trembles unlike Hogni’s, which would never tremble. In the Atlamol, however, detailing the same events, Hogni prevents Hjalli’s murder and is instead murdered himself. Hogni dies in both versions, but Hjalli does not.
There are other things like this, where small details seem to be at odds with other details, and it’s really enjoyable reading the notes regarding these differences and how the ancient poets must have tried to reconcile certain conflicts, or how their incomplete knowledge or culturally-influenced variations could have led to these kinds of issues. In the end, these differences or contradictions don’t matter. Like I said, they even seem to deepen the intrigue and mystery and fascination behind these poems. What is important is the grand experience and the mythical power of these remarkable tales. The vision of the foggy past they share is such that it only increases ones desire to learn more and to read more and to experience more.
I absolutely loved the Poetic Edda, from the first to the last poem. Every introduction offered a wealth of knowledge and context and history and insight that enhanced my overall enjoyment of an already incredibly enjoyable body of mythological work. The tales and connected cycles and myths in these poems are brilliant in story and in how they are told, even if some sections are only incomplete fragments or interpolated or hard to make sense of in modern languages. This is a monumental piece of history and literature.
Every time I read the Eddas I'm left feeling both extremely grateful and sorrowful. The Eddas can be compared to a once mighty ship that sailed and was wrecked at sea and all we have left of it is a single piece of drift wood. It's clear that we probably have just a tiny fraction of the rich lore that likely existed in Germanic paganism and the rest is lost for all of time. However, I am also quite grateful some Icelanders felt nostalgic enough for the pagan stories and found them worthwhile to write down which is unlike other Germanic cultures, such as with the Anglo-Saxons, who seemed to have preferred a cleaner break with their pagan past. Without the Eddas, it's likely we would know little more about the pagan gods beyond their names as is the case regarding our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon paganism. The heroic lays are very interesting to read as it is kind of a train wreck as the compiler of the poems attempts to reconcile the varying traditions regarding Sigurth and Guthrun from their Frankish origins to the Norse adaptation resulting in some characters having multiple backstories in the same poem! I particularly enjoyed the story of Voland who must of have been a popular figure throughout the Germanic world and how well the story told matched the visual depiction of the Wayland on the Franks casket dating from the 8th century in England. The Eddas are arguably the most important texts to understanding Pre-christian religious belief in Germanic culture.
Sigurth - hero immortal of old tales, How was it thou wast slain by such men, Those ye called thy friends, aye, And e'en brothers by thy wife so fair?
Thy death - oh, the pain it bringeth to recount - Led to deaths by the dozen, Trickery and revenge, and e'en Pedicide foul, By crazed Guthrun, Sigurth's widow.
Her husbands one, two three died After Norns' fated decision. And Her sons, one, two, three - yea, and more! Daughters and half-sons, with bodies in full blossom, Despoiled of life, slain or beheaded, Or ripped limb from limb by horses ivory and sable Upon dismal grey-ish road, O! Such was Swanhild's death.
But was it freedom or fate of Norns Which thus set all in motion? Are we men in control of our fates, Or do dimmer laws hold true, Which, inscrutable and capricious, Dimly saturate all things as Norns Spin and weave our lives and deaths?
O, Guthrun! Why didst thou not flee? Why didst thou seek, in everything, More blood to flow? Thine own, aye, And thy children's flowed as much As thy enemies and thy brothers!
She who by sword lives shall also By sword die. And she who lives For honor above kindness, or, Truly - above goodness - Above e'en love shall slink down into The dark, the Hel-dark, Where red pools of blood Are the only warmth, and The sun is darkened, and the Moon doth not shine...
The stories are mostly entertaining though they can be difficult to follow. I read the Henry Bellows translation and without his notes I would have been lost pretty often since there are lots of metaphors and allusions that don't make much sense without further explanation. Overall enjoyable but a retelling is going to be much better for most people.
A bit difficult to get through, but still enjoyable. I wish the notations had been modern translations of the prose though instead of just informing the reader that certain stanzas were originally combined.