Old Norse Myths and Runic Sources: Summary Reviews and recommendations

1.  THE EDDAS:  ENGLISH-LANGUAGE EDITIONS:

1a.  Snorri Sturluson’s ‘Prose Edda:’  The only English translation worth getting is that by Anthony Faulkes:  it’s widely reputed to be accurate and complete.  It’s also a bit tricky to find, because his name is not listed with the book on Amazon.  I went to my own order history to get the exact title for you, and the two ISBN’s listed with it:    Edda (Everyman’s Library) Paperback – April 6, 1995  by Snorri Sturluson (Author)  ISBN-10: 0460876163  ISBN-13: 978-0460876162  Very affordable.  This is the only edition I’m aware of in English that has all three parts of Snorri’s ‘Prose Edda:’  Gylfaginning, Skaldskaparmal and Hattatal.  It also has an extensive introduction by Anthony Faulkes.  This must be one of the best buys you can make with respect to English-language editions of the Old Norse Eddas.

1b.  English-language editions of the ‘Poetic Edda:’                                                         a.  Ursula Dronke’s three-volume translation and exegesis of Edda poems is in a class of its own, both for the depth of scholarship and for the price, which is very high.  The translations are elegant.  Down sides:  (i)  Three volumes, several hundred dollars each: you’d think you could at least get a complete set of the Poetic Edda, but, no, far from it in fact.  Dronke translated the oldest poems and the ones she liked the best, and then she passed on from this vale of tears before she could finish her fourth volume, which still wouldn’t have made a complete set of the poems.  (ii)  Her attitude.  The good Lord only knows why someone who was so profoundly anti-heathen spent her whole scholastic career studying the pagan North, but, she did.  I don’t consider myself to be a heathen (much), but I nevertheless find her frequent gratuitous slams (especially of the pagan god Odin) to be grating.  Also, the third volume, ‘Mythological Poems II,’ is not on par with the first two in terms of either notes or text commentaries; Dronke was clearly under severe pressure to finish the volume.                                                                                                               The first volume contains the following ‘heroic’ Eddic poems:  Atlakviða (The Lay of Atli), together with an extensive discussion and text commentary; Atlamál in grœnlenzku (The Greenlandic Lay of Atli); GuðrúnarhvötHamðismál, together with an extensive discussion of the legendary and supernatural backdrop; and finally, an extensive discussion of  Hamðismál in connection with the 9th cent. skaldic (court) poem  Ragnarsdrápa.

Volume II, ‘Mythological Poems,’ is my personal favorite of the three volumes, with its not-too-be-missed translations and extensive commentaries on:  Völuspá (Prophecy of the Völva, ‘ seeress,’), Völundarkviða ((Völundr’s ‘poem’ or ‘song’), Skírnismál (Sayings of Skírnir), Lokasenna (the Slanderous sayings of Loki) and Rígsþula.                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Volume III has Hávamál (Sayings of the High One), Hymiskviða (Hymir’s poem),  Grímnismál (Sayings of Grímnir), Grottasöngr (The song of Grótti).  Of these, only  Hymiskviða has an extensive commentary and discussion.  Grímnismál is especially disappointing with respect to Dronke’s commentary and discussion.  (But see a very fine ‘study’ page on Grímnismál here):  http://www.germanicmythology.com/PoeticEdda/Grimnismal.html  

b.  I’ve read a number of criticisms of Lee F. Hollander’s translation of the ‘Poetic Edda,’ but it has a lot to recommend it, in my opinion:  it gives one a feel for how the verse types work in Old Norse; he provides plentiful notes for those who want them, so people who are new to the myths can quickly get a sense for what they’re all about, and his scholarship is reliable.  Downsides:  he does employ archaisms to get around the difficulties of translating precise poetic metres, and it is somewhat grating; and he does on occasion sacrifice accuracy for the sake of cadence.   He also gives an excellent introduction to the various poetic metres.   (Dr. Hollander also published a fabulous prose translation of Snorri Sturluson’s ‘Heimskringla,’ ‘History of the Kings of Norway,’ still in print and very affordable.)

c.  A very new (and quite affordable) translation of the ‘Poetic Edda’ is the one done by poet and fellow Canadian Jeramy Dodds, under the oversight of the well-known scholar Terry Gunnell, who also supplies the preface, validating Dodd’s own scholarship and describing the translation as “… bearing in mind the original qualities and inherent music of Eddic poetry while at the same time bringing the poems up to date and giving them a new immediacy…”  I do like Dodds’ elegant verse translations, but, the lack of notes is a down side for those who have no prior acquaintance with the myths.  He does provide a detailed chart, though, showing the ‘genealogy of the gods and jotuns [giants, sort of], and an excellent drawing showing all of the ‘worlds’ featured in the Norse myths.

There is the occasional mis-step:  for instance, surely a translation of ‘being’ for ‘vitr‘ to describe the swan-maiden wives of Volund and his brothers would have been preferable to translating it as ‘beasts.’  But Dodds, who is a poet in his own right, has a brilliant sense for the lyrical power of poetry, and his translations convey the stark beauty of the Edda poems very well.

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2.  THE EDDAS:  ENGLISH-LANGUAGE COMMENTARIES:                                        a.  John McKinnell’s anthologies of his Eddic commentaries, ‘Meeting the Other in Norse Myth and Legend’ and ‘Essays on Eddic Poetry,’ are both eminently readable, very well-researched and thoughtful.  Although I don’t always agree with McKinnell’s interpretations, he has an enthusiasm for his subject matter that I find to be quite contagious.  He is never dry or boring.  ‘Meeting the Other,’ published by D.S. Brewer, is a high-quality printing and contains a preliminary section on McKinnell’s “Aims, Methods and Sources,” as well as an Appendix of “Summaries and Translations of Sources,” both of which are lacking in the ‘Essays on Eddic Poetry’, the latter which was compiled by two of his students.  Some of the topics in the two anthologies have a similar focus but a different slant; others are altogether different from those in the other anthology and I recommend getting both of them.

b.  I’m not a fan at all of editors Paul Acker’s and Carolyne Larrington’s second Eddic anthology: ‘Revisiting the Poetic Edda, Essays on Old Norse Heroic Legend;’ but their first volume:  ‘The Poetic Edda, Essays on Old Norse Mythology,’ is excellent, with very focused topics written by such eminent scholars as John McKinnell, Judy Quinn and English language translations of scholars such as Lars Lönnroth.  The lucidity of the anthology is perhaps at least to some degree owing to the talent of the editors; for instance, Joseph Harris’s ‘Cursing with the Thistle:  Skírnismál 31, 6-8, and OCE Metrical Charm 9, 16-17’ is more readable than I have otherwise found Harris to be.  I highly recommend ‘The Poetic Edda, Essays on Old Norse Mythology.’

c.  Another very fine collection of eddic commentaries is ‘Edda:  A Collection of Essays,’ edited by  R.J. Glendinning and Haraldur Bessason, published by the University of Manitoba Press’ in 1983 and reprinted in 1985, still a very worthwhile read with such articles as:  ‘The Edda as Ritual:  Odin and His Masks,’ by Einar Haugen; ‘Insults and Riddles in the Edda Poems,’ by H.R. Ellis Davidson;   ‘On the Composition of  Vǫluspá, by  Régis Boyer; ‘Eddic Poetry as Oral Poetry:  The Evidence of Parallel Passages in the Helgi Poems for Questions of Composition and Performance,’ by Joseph Harris; ‘ Guðrúnarkviða forna.  A Reconstruction and Interpretation,’ by Robert J. Glendinning; ‘Pagan Sympathy:  Attitudes to Heathendom in the Prologue to Snorra Edda,’ by Anthony Faulkes, and other articles.

d. In a sub-category of its own is ‘The Nordic Apocalypse:  Approaches to Vǫluspá and Nordic Days of Judgment, ‘ edited by Terry Gunnell and Annette Lassen.  A beautifully produced book with a number of full-color plates, it features very fine articles on the first and best known of the Eddic poems, such as:  ‘The Background and Scope of Vǫluspá,’ by Kees Samplonius; ‘Manifest and Latent Biblical Themes in Vǫluspá,’ by Pétur Pétursson; ‘Vǫluspá and Time,’ by Vésteinn Ólason, ‘Heathenism in Vǫluspá:  A Preliminary Survey,’ by John McKinnell;’ ‘The Early Scholarly Reception of Vǫluspá from Snorri Sturluson to  Árni Magnússon,’ by Annette Lassen;’ and others.  A jewel to be acquired, by serious students of Vǫluspá.

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3.  DICTIONARIES OF OLD NORSE MYTHS AND LEGENDS:                                 a.  ‘Dictionary of Northern Mythology,’ by Rudolf Simek (translated into English by Angela Hall), published by D.S. Brewer, is the best all-around compilation in English that I know of.  Very comprehensively researched.                                                                                               b.  ‘Cassell’s Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend’, by Andy Orchard, is not as comprehensive in terms of the concepts referenced; however, it is much more fully indexed in terms of the source references for each term it does address.                                 c.  John Lindow’s ‘Norse Mythology:  A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs is neither as comprehensive in its reach as Simek’s book, nor as exquisitely detailed in its cross-references as Orchard’s book, but he tells the old stories well, his material is well organised and he offers many ‘suggestions for further reading’ on the topics.

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About Marnie Tunay

I'm not here much at the moment. You can visit my web-sites to learn more about me. https://marnietunay2.wordpress.com/
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