Title: The Poetic Edda
Translator: Lee Hollander
Genre: (mostly Narrative) Poetry
Pages: 357
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Ever since being exposed to tales of Thor, Loki, Odin, Sigurd, Fafnir, Brunhilde, and so forth in My Bookhouse children’s books, I’ve enjoyed Norse Mythology. When I started trying to find the original (or at least oldest recorded) versions of the stories, I discovered that Norse prose is pretty dull in translation…then I discovered the far more interesting Norse poetry, and this book collects the best of it. This is my “Reread a Favorite Classic” entry over at the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018.

This poetry covers subject matter ranging from Norse cosmology to squabbles among the gods to the Volsung stories (Sigurd the dragon slayer, Brynhilde, the Rhinegold, etc.). I found some of the didactic poems a bit tedious, though some did give interesting insight into Viking culture (the Hávamál is basically a Viking book of Proverbs). The narrative lays in all their humor, heroism, tragedy, and brutality more than made up for any tedious bits…and who doesn’t want to read about cross-dressing Thor (Thrymskvida), Loki getting in an insult contest with the rest of the gods (Lokasenna), and the final showdown at Ragnarok (Völuspá)?

Lee Hollander’s translation is a challenging, but enjoyable read. He gives priority to maintaining the original meter and alliteration, which may mean that his rendering is a bit more functional (thought-for-thought) than formal (word-for-word). Personally, I prefer this approach in translated ancient poetry as long as the translator isn’t changing the intent/meaning of the original poet. It was written in a certain meter and/or alliteration and/or rhyme scheme and that is how I would like to read it!

The rhythm and alliteration take some getting used to, some of the words used in the translation are archaic, and the poets sometimes assume that you already know the basic story (especially in the bits about the Volsungs), but it is well worth the effort. There is so much more passion, sorrow, and artistry in the poetry than the plain prose versions.

3 thoughts on “Gods & Heroes

    1. Another book that’s along the same lines (and another one of my favorites) is J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun.” It’s a retelling of the Volsung Saga in the Norse alliterative verse format. Because it’s not a direct translation of occasionally contradictory poems preserved in fragmentary manuscripts the story has a bit more coherence (and Tolkien puts in a flourish or two of his own). Christopher Tolkien’s editorial notes range from helpful-if-you-don’t-already-know-the-story to I-really-don’t-care-what-the-rough-draft-said-so-shut-up-and-let-me-enjoy-the-poem-you-big-windbag.

      Liked by 1 person

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