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"Fate Catches Fire"
on 19 August 2016
This is a review of the Oxford World Classics edition of 1996, a new translation by Carolyne Larrington. She provides a fifteen-page introduction, although each of the thirty-five ‘chapters’ has its own brief introductory words. Without the introductions I am not sure I would have understood what was being sung – and even with the introduction and notes I was still often unsure of “the allusions and obscurities.” In short, this book was not an easy or even enjoyable read. Her translation is direct and does not attempt to be poetic itself.
‘The Poetic Edda’ (‘Edda’ means ‘poetics’) is an Icelandic compilation made around 1270. Still kept in Reykjavik, Larrington describes it as “an unprepossessingly-looking codex the size of a fat paperback.” It is therefore not one single poem, nor even one single conception, but a collection of different poems on different subjects. They are thought to date to the first millennium, that is before Christianity arrived in Scandinavia.
Larrington tells us that the book has the “oldest and most original form” of many scenes we think about when considering the myths of the pagan north, its characters including the likes of Odin, Thor, Brunhilde, Sigurd, and Yggdrasill. Indeed, if I had read the ‘Kalevala’ with one ear on Sibelius, I read the ‘The Poetic Edda’ with my other ear on Wagner (for example ‘The Lay of Fafnir’). And the very first chapter – ‘The Seeress’s Prophecy’ – has the names of dwarves that Tolkien would later use. But there are many, many more names included. Indeed, there is a twenty-five-page index at the back of the book which lists almost a thousand.
In short, this is a book I will keep for reference rather than as a good read.