Title: The Poetic Edda: Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes
Translator: Jackson Crawford
Date Started: May 8, 2017
Date Finished: July 22, 2017
Reading Duration: 75 days
Genre: Mythology, Poetry, Classic
Compiled by an unknown author in Iceland around 1270, and based on sources dating back centuries earlier, the single main manuscript of The Elder Edda is one of the literary wonders of the medieval world and the greatest source of knowledge of Viking lore in existence. These mythological and heroic poems tell of gods and mortals from an ancient era: the giant-slaying Thor, the doomed Volsung family, the hell-ride of Brynhild and the cruelty of Alti the Hun. Eclectic, incomplete and fragmented, these verses nevertheless retain their stark beauty and their power to enthrall, opening a window on to the thoughts, beliefs and hopes of the Vikings and their world. Andy Orchard’s new translation faithfully conveys the spare, unadorned style of the original metre and language. The glossed text us accompanied by four additional poems, a chronology, further reading, an index of names, a note on pronunciation, and an introduction discussing the poems in detail, the history of The Elder Edda and its influence on writers from Tennyson to Tolkien.”
The Poetic Edda, compiled histories, stories, and legends of Scandinavia, is not what I would call a complete or even cohesive compendium, but rather cobbled together vignettes of the Vikings and north men from cold and brutal lands. Its influence is undeniable across eons and media: Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, which in turn inspire J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and more modernly George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Square Enix’s famous franchise, most emphatically Final Fantasy VII, BioWare’s Dragon Age, and obviously Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, though all of these titles merely scratch the surface of how deep its inspiration goes.
The society that produced the Edda believed in unavoidable fate (Sors imanis et inanis – “Fate monstrous and empty.” – Carmina Burana/FFVII – “One Winged Angel”) (Valar morghulis – “All men must die.” – GRRM A Song of Ice and Fire), and this tenet is rife in their tales. Prideful boasts were not frowned upon, but rather lauded so long as the men making them could live up to the proclaimed task, because war, valor, and conquest were part of daily life. Magic is not such much a system in Norse Mythology, but rather just woven into the fabric of their worldview. It would not be out of the ordinary for a character in a poem to turn into a fish for a while before seamlessly transforming back into a man.
Many of these stories not only predate Christianity, but also preempt it, such as the paradigm of “the god hung on the tree” in the poem “Havamal.” Odin gives himself to himself upon Yggdrasil, the World Tree, which is later mirrored in Christianity with God (as Christ the Son) sacrificing himself to God (the Father). As God’s Son, he serves as an extension of God on earth (which is mirrored both subversively as well as darkly in Final Fantasy VII with Aeris and Sephiroth respectively). Odin also famously gives up one of his eyes in order to gain knowledge, *spoiler* which is used in Thor Ragnarok. *end spoiler*
The downside to the poems in such scattered form is it’s difficult to keep track of and remember what happened in them without extensive notes, since cohesive stories are easier to recall; however, this is how they were taken down: not necessarily in order, sometimes the same retold in a different way, and/or another poem negating one of its brethren. Since these stories were part of an oral tradition, how they’re arranged in the compendium cannot be faulted; The Poetic Edda presents them as is. There are other collections that seek to order and relate them in a more modern story-like fashion, but unfortunately, you must be careful when you search for anything “Norse” related as you might run into foully appropriating white supremacists. One of my friends warned me about this, making me glad I asked her for a recommendation before I fell down the wrong rabbit hole.
This collection is the seminal foundation of Norse Mythology, and it’s a fine place to start. There is a rough beauty to the Edda, and though the men of the north accepted fate as the gods did the inevitability of Ragnarok, they still fought to prove themselves worthy and crafted these wild and splendid songs.