on 5 February 2012
This work, together with the Elder Edda which covers much of the same material in verse form, comprises the very core of what we know as Norse myth. Often, original sources of this type can be either dry, academic translations or incomprehensible, esoteric hodgepodges. Not so here.
The stories of the Aesir and the mortal heroes they influenced are among some of the exciting and fascinating known to man. Not only a vivid picture of the northern world at that time, they are also simply great tales, with violence, passion, trickery and magic by the bucketload. The characters, from the straightforward, somewhat brutish Thor to the wise, mysterious Odin and the cunning, mischievous Loki are endlessly entertaining in all their many adventures.
This is a great translation, too, sacrificing none of the linguistic complexity of the originals while maximising comprehension. Any confusing parts are explained in (fully hyperlinked) notes; even more usefully, there is a full glossary/index of terms and names at the back, including original spellings and translations of every name. Further appendices offer an overview of the Norse mythology as well; this is a volume that caters for both the long-time nordic scholar or the casual reader.
An essential purchase, then, and one that I would recommend to anyone interested in the myths; start here, and then venture the Elder Edda for the full experience.
on 18 August 2010
Most of what we think of when we think of Norse mythology is in the "Prose Edda", a 13th century Icelandic manuscript. In this translation, it consists of 3 parts: a short prologue, the Gylfaginning, and Skaldskaparmal.
The prologue is just a few pages long, and was probably added later. It's inconsistent with the rest and confusing, and best skipped by the first-time reader.
The second part, Gylfaginning, is the real thing. It takes the form of a conversation between Gylfi and three manifestations of Odin. Gylfi questions, and they tell him the whole history of the gods, from the earth's creation out of the body of the giant Ymir, all about the cosmic tree Yggdrasil and the structure of the universe, introductions to each of the gods (Aesir), the death of Balder, Thor's adventures in the land of the giants, how Odin lost his eye, the various schemes of the trickster Loki, right up to the apocalyptic battle of Ragnarok.
Gylfaginning is only 70 pages long, so it's very fast-paced, and very readable.
Skaldskaparmal has more tales of Norse heroes, including the tale that became Wagner's Ring cycle. The narrative thread isn't as strong as Gylfaginning, so it's not as engrossing for the casual reader, but still interesting.
This is an excellent edition. The translation is highly readable, and the introduction is straightforward, clear and comprehensive, aimed at the general reader, rather than the scholar. It also has notes, and an index giving each appearance of each character and place, as it's easy to lose track of some of the strange names. The appendices include a detailed description of the structure of the cosmos according to Norse mythology, and also an illustration showing Yggdrasil and all the worlds surrounding it.
If you're unfamiliar with Norse mythology, you'll be surprised at how accessible this Prose Edda is; it is also stirring, imaginative, and sometimes bawdy and amusing.
on 8 September 2015
This is not so much a review of Snorri Sturluson's Edda as it is specifically a review of Jesse Byock's heavily abridged translation of the same, published by Penguin Classics.
I was deeply disappointed by Byock's heavily abridged translation, for obvious reasons. Snorri Sturluson's Edda makes no pretence of being a work of literature, and neither in the original Old Icelandic nor in a modern English translation like Byock's does it read particularly well. But it doesn't need to. The Edda's primary value for the modern reader, and the reason why Snorri Sturluson wrote or compiled it back in the thirteenth century, is that it serves as a uniquely detailed and largely coherent summary of the Old Norse mythos, by an author or antiquarian who, born 180 years after Iceland converted to Christianity, was rightly concerned that what had previously been common knowledge of the gods, goddesses and myths of Iceland and Norway (if not the broader Norse diaspora) was fading away into oblivion. In compiling this work, Snorri has done us a favour unique in mediaeval literature: without his Edda we would not know even half as much about Norse mythology as we do, and its only other significant repository, the anonymus Poetic Edda, would be largely incomprehensible. As a result, Norse mythology is as widely known, enjoyed and influential as that of the Romans and the Greeks (whose own mythologies were documented while their religious aspects were still practiced), the significance of which can only be fully appreciated when one considers how much of the prechristian traditions of Europe, not having been documented in a similar way, are forever lost to us. To take only one tragic example, although the Lithuanian peoples were the last Europeans to officially convert to Christianity, as recently as the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, we nevertheless know very little about what they converted from – their traditions were not written down in any form even remotely comparable to the level of detail of the earlier Norse Eddas, let alone the surviving literature of Mediterranean antiquity.
For all these reasons it should be obvious to anyone that a modern reader, unable to read Old Icelandic and therefore requiring a thorough and meticulously accurate translation, will come to Snorri's Edda not in order to enjoy it as a work of literature (which it was never intended to be) but to savour each and every detail of what its compiler wanted to preserve of Norse mythology for prosperity. But Byock, arbitrarily abridging the second third of Snorri's Edda (Skáldskaparmál, On the Language of Poetry), and wholly omitting the last (Háttatal, List of Metres), robs readers of that possibility. Yes, he gives us a workmanlike translation of the first third (Gylfaginning, The Deluding of Gylfi), in which we are treated to, inter alia, Snorri's accounts of the Norse creation myths, of the Æsir (the Norse gods), of the god Freyr and his love for the giantess Gerðr, of the unlikely partnership of the gods Thor and Loki, of Thor's subsequent fishing expedition, of the tragic murder of Baldr the Good and its aftermath, and, finally, of the Norse Apocalypse, Ragnarök. But this is not enough, and these relatively well-known stories will certainly not satisfy the reader thirsting to deepen his or her knowledge of Old Norse mythology. Who today knows anything about the goddesses Eir, Fulla, Gefjun, Gná, Hlín, Lofn, Nanna, Sága, Sjöfn, Syn, Vár or Vör? Or enough about the gods Hermóðr, Höðr, Hœnir, Týr, Ullr, Váli and Víðarr? As a well-educated and intelligent reader extremely interested in Norse mythology, I deeply resent having Byock's subjective opinions that Skáldskaparmál and Háttatal are pedantic, technical and obscure imposed on me. I can make such value judgements for myself, and, in the (actually unlikely) event that I find any part of Skáldskaparmál and Háttatal pedantic or obscure, I can do the skipping myself, but to be able to do that, I have to have something to skip! And Byock's arbitrary abridgement robs both me of that possibility and his own translation of any lasting value for the interested layman. One can only wonder what the commissioning editors at Penguin Classics were thinking, other than, “Quick, Everyman have a translation of Snorri's Edda out, we need one too. Which hack will collude with us in churning one out as fast as possible?” Shame on you, Penguin Classics! Shame on you!
Footnote about Byock's anglicization of Old Norse names: The anglicization of Old Norse names has long been a contentious topic. Even a purist like me will concede that there are valid arguments for using the well-known modern English forms Odin and Thor (to give only two examples) instead of the actual Old Icelandic names Óðinn and Þórr, though personally I would already prefer the correct Valhöll in place of the erroneous but widespread Valhalla (to give a third). But Byock, like many other translators, takes anglicization to a ridiculous level. There _are_ no modern English forms of Alsviðr, Alþjólfr, Ámsvartnir, Andhrímnir and Andlangr (to take a random fragment of the Glossary at the back), so what is the point of rendering them as Alsvinn (sic!), Althjolf, Amsvartnir, Andhrimnir and Andlang, other than to rob the translation of Old Icelandic flavour? And the absurd lengths to which Byock's irrational anglicization is taken reach their nadir when we come to the subject of the many names of Odin. To take just one example, his secret name Þriði is anglicized as Thrid. But this is patently absurd when you consider that the whole point of this name is that it means “Third” and refers to one of the three aspects of Odin (High, Just-as-high, and Third) doing the deluding in The Deluding of Gylfi. Leave it as Þriði for the purists, or translate it as Third for the layman, but rendering it as “Thrid” is just being stupid!
on 4 June 2012
Starting from the origins of the gods and the universe, taking us all the way to the final battle of Ragnarok, this is a gripping must read for any mythology fans. The tales of Odin, Loki and especially Thor are enthralling, Tales of frost giants, dwarves, elves, how the rainbow is actually the bridge to Midgar, the giant snake that surrounds the world of middle earth.
And yes, some of these name such as middle earth may sound familiar, that's because Tolkien gained great inspiration for his lord of the rings trilogy from these Norse myths. Written in poetic form it is beautifully read out loud, where you gain the maximum pleasure from poetry.
Filled with maps, genealogy trees and more, this book is a must read for any one that wants to know more of the legend that is Thor.