A Folio Society limited edition
Illustrated by Simon Noyes
The poems of the Old Norse collection known as the Poetic Edda
respond to one of humankind’s greatest urges – the search for origins.
Subtle, complex and suggestive, yet disarmingly direct in style, these
tales of gods, heroes and monsters, of love, war, folly and deceit,
inhabit a world more primal in character than any other corpus of
European mythology. We do not know who composed them, or
when, but ever since their rediscovery in the 17th and 18th centuries
they have inspired intellectuals and artists in all media, for whom
these poems held the tantalising key to a shared Northern identity.
All but a few of the poems in the Poetic Edda were preserved in a single manuscript known as the Codex Regius, copied by an unknown Icelandic scribe in the 1270s and presented by the Lutheran Bishop of Skálholt, Brynjolf Sveinsson, to the Danish court nearly four centuries later. Bishop Brynjolf was convinced that this unassuming manuscript contained the hitherto lost source material for the great treatise on Norse poetry by the Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson (1179– 1241), which its author had referred to as an edda or poetics. The Codex Regius was duly dubbed the Poetic Edda or Elder Edda, to distinguish it from Snorri’s ‘younger’ prose work.
Translations into Latin, French and English were enthusiastically received by a public eager to construct a sense of its own legendary past. Early adaptations of the Edda poems such as Thomas Gray’s The Descent of Odin heralded a mania for the Norse myths in the 19th century, reaching its apogee in works by William Morris and in Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, of which the mythological substrata are formed from Eddic tales. The fascination with the collection continued into the following century, with Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden and Jorge Luis Borges all professed admirers. Most pervasively of all, J. R. R. Tolkien found inspiration in the Edda for his creation of Middle Earth.
‘I was drawn irresistibly to the northern sagas; and I now tried, as far as was possible without a fluent knowledge of the Scandinavian languages, to acquaint myself with the Edda . . .’
The Folio Society limited edition of the Poetic Edda presents the
poems in a manner which is at once elegant, accessible and discreetly
scholarly. With meticulous attention to type size and line length, the
Norse and English texts are displayed side by side, the first line of
each stanza aligned to facilitate comparison of original and translation.
Notes are provided at the foot of each page, providing vital
elucidation of the poems’ meaning without impinging on the main
text, and an index of names provides a helpful digest of the Edda’s
huge cast of characters. The combination of sensitive design and
judicious inclusion of scholarly apparatus makes this parallel-text
presentation of the Poetic Edda the ultimate reading edition of this
endlessly fascinating work.
The translation selected for this edition is the authoritative and highly readable text by Oxford scholar and founder of the Eddic Research Network Carolyne Larrington, first published by Oxford University Press in 1996. Her addition of seven further poems not found in the Codex Regius completes this comprehensive presentation of the verse Eddic corpus. Formerly a student of the late, great authority on the Poetic Edda, Ursula Dronke, Carolyne Larrington has recently turned her attention to the novels of George R. R. Martin; her book Winter is Coming: The Medieval World of Game of Thrones (2016) analyses one of the most phenomenally successful modern responses to medieval storytelling traditions.
‘The poems . . . a millennium later speak individually to us in comic, tragic, grandiose, crude, witty, profound, and common-sense tones’
The plainness of the Codex Regius – an unadorned manuscript without
illuminations or marginalia – created an irresistible opportunity
for the Folio Society limited edition to offer its own creative response
to the Poetic Edda. Simon Noyes, who previously illustrated Folio’s
edition of the Icelandic Sagas, has produced a suite of twenty illustrations
for the Edda, closely anchored in the text, each of which is
tipped on to the page facing the relevant passage in the poems.
Working with translator Carolyne Larrington and Joe Whitlock Blundell of The Folio Society, Simon conducted extensive research into runic carvings and Viking relics of the period to which the poems of the Edda are broadly dated, as well as seeking inspiration at sites such as Avebury in Wiltshire. Only after he had digested all this material and could produce a fresh, imaginative response to it, rather than a simple reworking of recognisable images, did he commence work on the illustrations. Simon’s aim throughout has been to create images that reflect the intoxicating mixture of directness and mystery that is so integral to the magic of the Edda.
Simon notes that this commission was very different from the Sagas – the Poetic Edda demanded not a straightforward narrative approach, but a more fluid technique which relied on moments of intense creativity. The process by which he strove to inhabit the arcane, hallucinatory world of the poems was, in Simon’s words, ‘like method acting’. And unlike any previous commission, he found that once he felt in harmony with the material, he could continue almost indefinitely – poetic inspiration indeed.
The sense of deep antiquity which so enthralled the Poetic Edda’s early
readers – something more primal than anything offered by Classical
literature or indeed any other European tradition – is most evident in
the mythological poems which open the collection as presented in the
Codex Regius. The first eleven poems in the manuscript comprise a
Norse theogony recounting the creation of the world from chaos, the
descent of gods such as Odin from primordial giants, and then the
travails of the principal gods, the Æsir, until their final destruction at
the great conflagration of Ragnarok, after which the world is reborn
and populated by a new generation of gods and surviving humans.
The Seeress’s Prophecy (or Völuspá) which opens the collection is probably the best known of all the poems in the Edda, and our most important source for the stories of the Norse gods. Its 62 stanzas take the form of a systematic recital of ancient lore by the Seeress to Odin, culminating in her announcement of the Doom of the Gods to come. Generally dated to the late 10th century, just before the conversion of the pagan North to Christianity, The Seeress’s Prophecy is widely considered a kind of sacred text of the old Scandinavian religion. Densely allusive and apparently the product of a world in religious transition, it has fired the imagination of scholars and artists perhaps more than any other poem in the collection.
After this account of divine origins, the mythological poems are organised by protagonist, with poems featuring Odin followed by Skirnir’s Journey – which focuses on Freyr, son of the sea-god Niord – then tales of Odin’s son Thor and other, marginally divine figures. This last group includes The Poem of Volund, the tale of the smith Volund, ‘lord of the elves’, and his violent revenge on his captor Nidud, a legend familiar to visitors to the British Museum from its depiction on the famous 7th-century Anglo-Saxon Franks Casket.
‘Like all great imaginative literature, the myths are not imprisoned in their own time and place; they tell us of their makers but they also tell us a lot about ourselves – our own deep longings and fears.’
The mythological works of the Codex Regius are followed by a series
of poems recounting the deeds of heroes. Bringing together characters
from legend and historical figures such as Attila the Hun and
Gunnar, king of the Burgundians, the heroic poems form a whole in
the Edda comprised of three layers: the story of Helgi, a hero whose
fate is determined by his involvement with the valkyrie Sigrun; the
story of the Burgundian line of the Nibelungs, most centrally Sigurd,
the slayer of the dragon Fafnir and possessor of the treasure hoard
later known as the Rhinegold; and the story of the Gothic tyrant
Iormunrekk. After the mysterious intimations of the mythological
poems, the heroic lays present a more familiar pattern of exploits by
outstanding but fallible mortal men and women.
Within the Nibelung sequence, the Lay of Fafnir presents Sigurd’s slaying of the dragon in engagingly unexpected fashion – instead of a titanic struggle in the vein of the climax of Beowulf, Sigurd stabs Fafnir from below while hiding in a pit, after which the poem consists of a conversation between the hero and the fatally wounded dragon; then a tetchy exchange with his foster-father Regin in which the latter offers praise for Sigurd’s feat but attempts to take the credit for himself; and finally a dialogue with the nuthatches, whom Sigurd can understand through his accidental tasting of Fafnir’s blood, who announce his future marriage to Gudrun and recommend that he employ the dragon’s golden hoard to win her hand.
Unlike the monster in Beowulf, Fafnir possesses distinctly human characteristics – most notably the power of speech – and was to prove an inspirational character to J. R. R. Tolkien, whose wise, talking dragons Smaug (in The Hobbit) and Glaurung (in The Silmarillion, where he dies in identical fashion to Fafnir) are consciously modelled on this memorable figure from the Edda.
‘I had very little desire to look for buried treasure or fight pirates . . . the land of Merlin and Arthur were better than these, and best of all the nameless North of Sigurd and the Volsungs, and the prince of all dragons. Such lands were pre-eminently desirable.’
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Review by anon on 21st Mar 2017
"What a wonderful edition! The best translation that I have read (and I've read a lot of them). The binding is superb, and the leather is thick and sumptuous. It will last forever.The illustrations ar..." [read more]
Review by jlallred2000 on 8th Dec 2016
"It took a while for this to grow on me but in the end I am very happy with it. The leather is superb. The art work is completely fitting and quite attractive."
Review by joutsen on 1st Dec 2016
"Folio Society rarely disappoints, but it does with this book. Depending on the perspective it gives mixed feelings at least. The binding looks truly beautiful, no doubt, but the leather is quite a ..." [read more]