Ragnarök’n’roll! The Poetic Edda and Tolkien’s Sigurd and Gudrún

My son and I have been talking about Ragnarök. Besides the super cool sound of this Norse word and the deep world behind it, we are being fueled by Neil Gaiman’s new book, Norse Mythology. I listened to the author read it when it came out, and Nicolas has just been able to land a (beautifully designed) copy from the library. That it is timed with a new apocalyptic-looking Thor film has kept the Twilight of the Gods on our minds.

And, on top of all of this, I found out that Dr. Carl Anderson is offering a free three-part seminar at Signum University on Tolkien’s Sigurd and Gudrún. Here is the seminar description:

From early childhood, the story of Sigurd the Dragonslayer exercised a fascination on J.R.R. Tolkien. Elements and echoes from the medieval Vǫlsung-Nibelung Cycle of legends are woven through his published fiction. Tolkien composed his own versions of these tales in English alliterative verse modeled on Old Norse poetic style during the 1930s, before the publication of The Hobbit and The Lord of Rings, but these works did not come to light until 2009 when they were published as The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún. These works, like other posthumously published pieces including “Sellic Spell” (published with Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf), The Fall of Arthur, and The Story of Kullervo, show Tolkien working his own voice through the tangled skeins of myths, legends, and history in anticipation of that voice’s imminent maturation in his own original fiction.

For Norsophiles (a word made up by SignumU staff, methinks), this is a great event. While I am not a Norse scholar, I did review a new translation of The Poetic Edda–one of the critical sources of Ragnarök and Tolkien’s retelling/newtelling of Eddaic legends. For those that are afraid to find their way into the Edda, Dodds’ translation is excellent, and I’ve reprinted the review from Scrivener below. And you will recall that C.S. Lewis was fascinated by boreal myths and the longing they evoked in him (see here and here).

Make sure you connect with the seminars on Tolkien’s Sigurd and Gudrún (starting tomorrow).

  • Thursday, April 27, 11:30 AM EDT – 1 PM EDT
  • Tuesday, May 2, 11:30 AM EDT – 1 PM EDT
  • Thursday, May 4, 11:30 AM EDT – 1 PM EDT

You can sign up here, and if you can’t get to one of the times you’ll be able to watch it at SignumU’s youtube channel (as ancient lovers of story have always done). This is a free event, but do consider donating to Signum. No one does what they do.

Dodds, Jeramy, trans. The Poetic Edda. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2014. $23.95. Reviewed by Brenton D.G. Dickieson in Scrivener 40 (April 2015), 44-49. Read it free online. I apologize that the beautifully desined side-by-side the editors did doesn’t work here.

One day a young C.S. Lewis casually flipped to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Tegner’s Drapa and read these words:

I heard a voice that cried,
Balder the beautiful
Is dead, is dead— (Lewis 17).

The pleasure of reading these lines was quite different from other pleasures he had experienced, more “like a voice from far more distant regions….”  In his autobiography, Lewis described his first reading of Norse saga: “I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be…” (17). This “Pure Northernness,” filled out with Wagner’s Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods would come to engulf Lewis with its “vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity…” (Lewis 73).

Lewis is not alone of those captured by that sense of Northernness. Even more influential, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium and numerous characters in the Marvel Universe find their origin in Norse mythology. The influence is obvious for the latter, as Thor, Odin, and Loki are feature characters in a new generation of videographical storytelling. Within the evocative mindscapes of Middle Earth, however, the influence is less obvious. Dwarves are common fare in fantasy, and we might know that Tolkien’s elves, transformed as they are, evoke the Norse realms of Alfheim and Svartalfheim (Elfland and Dark Elfland, captured as Lios Alfar and Svart Alfar in Canadian Tolkien editor and fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry).

When we move to The Poetic Edda—one of Norse mythology’s key texts—we see immediately how Tolkien was drawn into the old Nordic speculative universe. Only eleven stanzas into the first poem, the influence of the Edda on Tolkien is obvious:

11. Nyi and Nidi, Nordri, …
Althjof, Dwalin, Nar and Nain,
Niping, Dain, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur,
Nori, An and Onar, Ai, Mjothvitnit,

12. Vigg and Gandalf, Vindalf, Thrain
Thekk and Thorin, Thror, Vit and Lit …

13. Fili, Kili, Fundin, Nali….

And the list continues. While not the greatest example of the work’s poetic quality, this list from Jeramy Dodds’ new translation of The Poetic Edda demonstrates how very important this oft-neglected medieval text is. The Eddic poems are “invaluable primary sources on early Nordic mythology and heroic legend” (Dodds 8). Their mythological and historical value, as well as their contemporary influence, warrant translations for new generations of readers. Award-winning Canadian poet Jeramy Dodds has indeed provided a fresh translation, vivid and accessible, a skillful combination of the closeness of the text with the remote wilderness of the world that birthed it.

As Dodds explains in his “Introduction,” The Poetic Edda is made up of “oral pagan poems, passed mouth to ear for centuries, until they were flash-frozen onto vellum sometime around 1270 by Christian monks in Iceland” (12). Dodds’ translation aims at a precise method of thawing this text so that it exposes the culturally bound mythology that the Edda encapsulates.

In particular, Dodds has aimed for accessibility. Indeed, his translation is shockingly fresh, drawing out images heretofore buried in previous translations that obscured the meaning. At other points, Dodds chooses a voice in his interpretation that reshapes the poem.

A side-by-side comparison of one of the poems will show the value and limitations of Dodds’ translation. Below are several stanzas of “Loki’s Flyting,” or “Lokasenna” in some editions. In the left-hand column is Henry Adams Bellows’ traditional translation. At the opening of the poem, we see how Bellows captures the majesty of a formal interlocutor calling for a tale. Dodds (below) takes a different approach with subtle shifts in translation.

Bellows: “Speak now, Eldir, | for not one step
Farther shalt thou fare;
What ale-talk here | do they have within,
The sons of the glorious gods?”

Dodds: ‘Eldir, before you take another step,
tell me, what do those sons
of the Triumph Gods have
going on inside as far as ale-talk?’

The syntax is clearer in Dodds’ translation, and he leaves behind Bellows’ alliterative “glorious gods” for a categorical refinement: the Triumph Gods. Each translator captures the Edda’s propensity for compound words with “ale-talk.” Overall, the translations are quite similar.

Throughout the poem Dodds chooses a far more colloquial approach—even more than the updating of English for this decade. In Loki’s taunt of the gods below, Dodds leaves behind the Bellows’ Shepherd Psalm echo with the colloquialism, “fetch me a seat.” As well, “bid me forth to fare” is far different in tone than Dodds’ “tell me to clear off.”

Bellows: [Loki]
7. “Why sit ye silent, | swollen with pride,
Ye gods, and no answer give?
At your feast a place | and a seat prepare me,
Or bid me forth to fare.”

Dodds: [Loki]
7. ‘Why so silent, you haughty gods,
have you nothing to say to me?
Fetch me a seat here at your feast
or tell me to clear off.’

As the poem continues, Bellows’ evocative translation heightens the battle of wits, while Dodds’ translation allows the conversation to take the personality of a rap battle. “Mad art thou” is the formal equivalent of “you’re a lunatic,” and Dodds restores alliteration with the street insult, “your wits are out of whack.”

Bellows: Othin spake:
21. “Mad art thou, Loki, | and little of wit,
The wrath of Gefjun to rouse;
For the fate that is set | for all she sees,
Even as I, methinks.”

Dodds: Odin said
21. ‘Loki, you’re a lunatic – your wits
are out of whack if you want Gefjon
as an enemy, for she can foresee
the world’s future as well as I can.’

Both are better than Lee Hollander’s “Bereft of reason and raving thou art”; Bellows evokes the poetic past without becoming archaic, while Dodds draws the text very close to the speech of the television generation. As the insults continue, three stanzas heighten the difference between the two philosophies of translation.

Freyja spake:
32. “False is thy tongue, | and soon shalt thou find
That it sings thee an evil song;
The gods are wroth, | and the goddesses all,
And in grief shalt thou homeward go.”

Loki spake:
32. “Be silent, Freyja! | thou foulest witch,
And steeped full sore in sin;
In the arms of thy brother | the bright gods caught thee
When Freyja her wind set free.”

Njorth spake:
33. “Small ill does it work | though a woman may have
A lord or a lover or both;
But a wonder it is | that this womanish god
Comes hither, though babes he has borne.”

Freyja said:
31. ‘Your tongue’s cutting, I’m sure
one day it’ll flail you to pieces.
The Æsir and the Asynjor are livid
with you. You’ll go home unhappy.’

Loki said:
32. ‘Shut up, Freyja, you’re riddled with
wickedness, a real witch. The giggling
gods walked in on you riding your own
brother, Freyja, and then you farted.’

Njord said:
33. ‘Who cares if a woman takes lovers
with or without her husband? Odd, though,
how a cock-gobbling god like you
got in here after birthing his own babes.’

Note the punning contrasts in Freyja’s speech. For Bellows, “tongue” leads to “evil song,” which opens up to wrath and grief. Dodds heightens the pun—a “cutting tongue … flails to pieces”—but loses the transumptive power. From “flailing” Dodds moves to “livid” as the contemporary of “wrath.” While “livid” has metaphorical possibilities, they leave behind “cut to pieces” for new rigidity. Certainly, “And in grief shalt thou homeward go” is an archaism. But if Dodds had finished the stanza, “You’ll go home in grief,” he would have recovered consonance while capturing the idea of “gravity”—etymologically connected with “grief”—that may strengthen lividity. Or perhaps a crimson frown would contrast the giggling gods’ bluish countenance.

Bellows’ nostalgic poetry is as intentional as Dodds’ kitchen table prose-in-verse. In Bellows’ 1930s, “said” or “spoke” were the common translation for the Old Icelandic kvað. However, “spake” helped evoke the poetic atmosphere Bellows desired—Tolkien or Lewis might have done the same. Certainly Bellows’ translation is more elevated, but in stanzas 32 and 33, Dodds demonstrates the poignancy and humour in a far more immediate way. While “thou foulest witch” has a poetic elegance lacking in “a real witch,” the immediacy of “Shut up, Freyja” has its own poignancy. Hear it as prose from the trickster Loki’s mouth: “The giggling gods walked in on you riding your own brother, Freyja, and then you farted.” While I wish Dodds risked some exclamation marks, if we recall the ale-house scenery, we can imagine hundreds of horns raised in salute at the insult. Moreover, Dodds has recaptured the original frata, obscured in Bellows’ translation, which is marvellously paired in a verbal pun with Freyja in the original text. At the charge of incest, the double-wronged Njörð—father of Freyja and her purported lover-brother—castrates and impregnates the grinning god-son Loki, accusing him not simply of homoerotic desire, or even of passivity in that pairing. Instead, Loki’s lack of manhood turns scrotum to womb, god to goddess.

Doubtless Bellows’ is a stronger piece of poetry than Dodds’ storytelling form in these examples. There were times that I yearned for the archaic poetry over the vulgar prose, especially in the heroic tales, which seem to me to plod on with too little diversity in style. Dodds’ translation, however, brings us to the immediacy of the language. There is little incomprehensible in Dodds’ Edda. In this way Dodds’ Edda is the J.B. Phillips translation of Norse poetics, the Living Bible of The Poetic Edda. Yet, it is not the Edda for dummies. For all Dodds aims at today’s language, he retains the Æsir and the Asynjor, intentionally creating distance for the reader: while the language is close to us, the world is not. What is lost in atmosphere—the Northerness that Tolkien and Lewis longed for—is gained in the reader’s contextual understanding of this distant world.

This tightrope walk leads to some obscurity about who the intended reader truly is. The translation is easy to read, colloquial, and evocative; the introduction is basic, informative, and designed to intrigue. The index cleverly combines definitions with topical cross-sections, doing one of the jobs we would expect of footnotes that are absent in this text. Everything but the text slips away, with open fields of white space for the reader’s notes. One would presume, then, that non-professional readers are in view. An academic audience would demand text critical notes and a research review.

Yet there are challenges for the lay reader too. For contemporary ears trained in the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare, or the rhymes of Dr. Seuss, hip hop, greeting cards, limericks, and pop music, Old Icelandic poetry is going to be a stumbling block in its very form. Even those familiar with the medieval-evocative poetry of Lewis and Tolkien, or the new streams of modern poetry opened by T.S. Eliot, are going to find the poetry itself to be strange. It simply lacks the metrical diversity or baseline rhythms we know in English poetry. Dodds’ dependence on alliteration is light, bucking trends of heavy consonance in verse translation and initial rhyming, such as the tendencies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight translators J.R.R. Tolkien and Simon Armitage, or Hollander’s Edda. While heavy alliteration can cause the contemporary reader to flounder, since The Poetic Edda is so inspirational to subsequent poets I still wonder if more of that initial rhyming could have been kept.

While Dodds’ translation is meant to be an Edda Vulgate, some of the word choices are strange to the ear. The choice of “ninny” as the translation of ósnotr instead of the more classic and intertextually rich “fool” is very odd. If Dodds wanted to strip away the temptations to archaic language, he could have used “loser.” “Ninny” strikes me as an after-school special word from the last century. But Dodds himself does not shrink from the offensive. Homophobic slurs and gender-bending insults are kept throughout his Edda. Particularly interesting is his translation, “cock-gobbler.” While this is a creative rendering, we have in North American English a popular slur—“cocksucker”—that would do just as well without the oddness. It may be that these two examples of “ninny” and “cock-gobbler” began as alliterative choices; if so, however, I cannot discern the pattern.

Besides these small translational quibbles, there is one aspect of the introduction that is missing for the intelligent, nonprofessional reader. Besides those traditions mentioned above—myth and mythology, poetry, and Nordic-soaked fantasy like J.R.R. Tolkien or Guy Gavriel Kay—the other stream of readers will be those who encountered the Halls of Valhalla through comic books and their film interpretations. When my ten year old saw I was reading the Edda, he quickly snatched it away from me and poured over the spatial geography of Yggdrasil. No one would argue that the introduction should be written for preteens—my son got lost in the introduction—but this particular reader represents a significant part of popular culture that encounters Thor, Odin, Loki, and the Frost Giants in a particular stylized context. These sorts of readers are often encyclopedic in their understanding of what they think of as “Norse mythology.” I think this particular introduction, aimed at the new reader, would have benefitted from a brief conversation that redefines Loki and the Jotuns in the Edda with the Marvel Universe in mind.

This detailed consideration contains few criticisms that stack up against the sheer freshness and creativity of this new translation. The introduction is excellent in what it covers, the family trees and map of Yggdrasil are essential, and an index-glossary is an elegant use of space. The university student or lover of poetry and myth will find this translation both engaging and approachable. Considering the too few paths to the Northern climes of Yggdrasil, this is by far the easiest for new pilgrims. A professional can add this translation to his or her resources in viewing the text from a new angle and reading it afresh. It is a beautifully produced book, a relevant and long-needed translation, and an opportunity for a new generation of readers to find their way to the imaginative landscapes of The Poetic Edda. That it is completed by a Canadian poet who is so young and yet so accomplished is a notable moment.

Works Cited

Bellows, Henry Adams, trans. The Poetic Edda: Translated from the Icelandic with an Introduction and Notes. New York: Princeton University Press, 1936.

Dodds, Jeramy, trans. The Poetic Edda. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2014.

Hollander, Lee M., trans. The Poetic Edda. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1962.

Kay, Guy Gavriel. The Fionavar Tapestry. Toronto: Harper Perennial Canada, 1995.

Lewis, C.S. Surprised by Joy. Princeton: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1955.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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8 Responses to Ragnarök’n’roll! The Poetic Edda and Tolkien’s Sigurd and Gudrún

  1. wanderwolf says:

    I’m always impressed by just how smart Tolkien was and how he was able to take a huge body of oral and ancient literature and funnel it through into new forms in the 20th Century.
    Kind of looking forward to the new Thor movie, too.


  2. Very informative. I recently borrowed this book from the library. It is difficult to follow at times. The introduction itself is a mini-book, if you will. The story of Ragnarok brings thrill to the heart!

    Liked by 1 person

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