THE POETIC EDDA : THE HEROIC POEMS

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Author: unknown
Translator: Henry Adams Bellows
Publisher: Dover Publications (2004 Edition)
Bought from: Book Depository

Introduction

Germanic mythology refers to the stories and pagan beliefs of the people who lived in Northern Europe before and during the early days of Christianity. Over the years, as a result of migrations, distinct strains emerged − the branch that took hold in Scandinavia and Iceland is usually referred to as Norse or Northern Germanic mythology to distinguish it from Continental Germanic mythology.

Very little remains in written form of Continental Germanic myths. On the other hand, many more works of Norse mythology have survived such as The Poetic Edda, The Prose Edda and The Volsunga Saga.

The Poetic Edda is a collection of poems that were probably first composed and orally transmitted by court minstrels in medieval Scandinavia called skalds in the 10th century.The poems that appear in modern editions of The Poetic Edda are mostly found in a manuscript called Codex Regius. Codex Regius itself is believed to have been written by an unknown author in Iceland around 1270. The 13th century saw an amazing flowering of literature in Viking Iceland — The Prose Edda was written during this period as were poetry and sagas (prose tales about the journeys, disputes and lives of the Vikings). The language used in these works was Old Norse, the language of Scandinavia during the Middle Ages (c 500 – 1400 CE).

The Poetic Edda is made up of two parts. The first part consists of poems which feature the Norse pantheon and includes Voluspa, the story of the creation and future destruction of the universe. The second features poems about mortal heroes and includes the so-called Niflung Cycle (the parallel of the Middle High German epic poem Nibelungenlied).

There is a separate text called The Prose Edda, The Younger Edda, Snorri’s Edda or simply Edda, attributed to Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson (c 1220s). In The Prose Edda, Snorri made multiple references to poems found in The Poetic Edda.

Today, the 2 Eddas are the main sources of Norse mythology.

What is it about?

This volume of The Poetic Edda is a hodgepodge of tales about the warrior Helgi Hundingsbane, the Niflungs, and Jörmunrekkr, the king of the Goths.

The Niflung cycle makes up the bulk of the volume and relates the well known twisted relationship between Sigurd (Siegfried in German), Brynhildr (Brünnhilde), Gudrun (Kriemhild), Gunnar (Gunther) and Atli (Etzel).

What about the book?

There are three translations of The Poetic Edda currently in print, by Bellows (1923), Lee M. Hollander (1928) and Carolyne Larrington (1996). Dover Publications has republished Bellow’s translation in 2 volumes. The second volume Of Bellows, subtitled The Heroic Poems, is based on the part called Lay of the Heroes in the original translation. It includes a useful introduction and Bellows has supplied useful annotations.

The first volume is subtitled The Mythical Poems and is based on the part called Lays of the Gods in the original translation.

Bellow‘s translation is in the public domain. The 2 Dover volumes are not cheap (the first volume costs S$12.40). Together, they are more expensive than the Larrington’s translation (Oxford University Press) but cheaper than the latest edition of Hollander (University of Texas Press). With Dover’s Bellows, it is possible to buy just The Mythological Poems for stories relating to the gods and choose a different source eg. the prose Völsungasaga for stories relating to heroes.

Finally …

Norse mythology was largely unknown outside Scandinavia until the 1800s. Since then, it has left a deep legacy on western culture, from the operas of Richard Wagner to the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and the comics and movies of Marvel. However, the source materials, such as The Poetic Edda, have not been well preserved.

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