W. H. Auden's co-translation with the scholar Paul B. Taylor of portions of the Icelandic verse saga the "Edda" is dedicated to J. R. R. Tolkien, and with reason. Auden's first encounter with Icelandic was under Tolkien's influence. This is wholly fitting, perhaps; Icelandic and Germanic myth is best known to a general reader through its influence on Tolkien and Wagner. Certainly this book is a convincing argument that the Norse body of myth deserves more attention, as does its verse.
The verse of the Edda is highly alliterative and stanza-based, generally told in the first person or as dialogue. It reads much like "Beowulf" in any good poetic translation, filled with pungent consonants and forthright statements. Auden's rendering anticipates Seamus Heany's acclaimed "Beowulf" in its readability and beauty in English, producing passages like the following:
"Doughty Thor drew boldly The hideous serpent up on board, Struck with his hammer the high hair-mountain Of the writhing Coiler, Kin of the Wolf." (p. 92)
Familiarity with Norse mythic cosmology helps in passages such as that, of course, and the Introduction by Taylor and Peter Salus explains both the meter and the world of the poems. It is somewhat more scholarly in bent than Heany's introduction to "Beowulf", but is nonetheless quite helpful to a non-specialist like myself.
I don't know any Icelandic and thus cannot speak to the truth of the translation in sound or sense. However, its beauty in English is gripping.
Any reader of Tolkien will have a shock of recognition in encountering this book. Several names, including both Thorin and Gandalf, will be instantly familiar, as will a certain ethos of hall, host, mighty deeds, and far-off doom. Anyone wishing to explore Tolkien's literary roots should read the Edda and "Beowulf"; this rendering of the Edda, the work of one of the great poets of the twentieth century (and a Tolkien acolyte to boot) is a superior choice.
It's a real shame that this book is out of print. Given the bestseller status of the Heany "Beowulf", another first-quality rendering of alliterative Northern verse could well have a successful life in today's market. As things stand the book is worth searching for. I recommend it as highly as I may.