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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Eddas (Icelandic; Ninth to Thirteenth Centuries)
Critical Introduction by William Henry Carpenter (1853–1936)
THE FANCIFUL but still commonly believed meaning of the word “Edda,” which even many of the dictionaries explain as “great-grandmother,” does not, after all, inaptly describe by suggestion the general character of the work to which it is given. The picture of an ancient dame at the fireside, telling tales and legendary lore of times whose memory has all but disappeared, is a by no means inappropriate personification, even if it has no other foundation. In point of fact, ‘Edda’ as the title of a literary work has nothing whatsoever to do with a great-grandmother, but means “the art of poetry,” “poetics”; and only by an extension of its original use does it belong to all that is now included under it.  1
  There are in reality two ‘Eddas,’ which are in a certain sense connected in subject-material, but yet in more ways than one are wholly distinct. As originally applied, the name now used collectively unquestionably belonged to the one, variously called, to distinguish it from the other, the ‘Younger Edda,’ on account of the relative age of its origin; the ‘Prose Edda,’ since in its greater part it is written in prose; and the ‘Snorra Edda,’ the Edda of Snorri, from the author of the work in its original form. In contradistinction to this, the other is called the ‘Elder Edda,’ the ‘Poetical Edda,’ and from the name of its once assumed author, the ‘Sæmundar Edda,’ the Edda of Sæmund.  2
  Legitimately and by priority of usage, the name ‘Edda’ belongs to the first-named work alone. In the form in which it has ultimately come down to us, this is the compilation of many hands at widely different times; but in its most important and fundamental parts it was undoubtedly either written by the Icelander Snorri himself, or under his immediate supervision.  3
  Snorri Sturluson, its author, both from the part he played in national politics in his day and from his literary legacy to the present, is altogether the most remarkable man in the history of Iceland. He was born in 1179, his father, Sturla Thordarson, being one of the most powerful chieftains of the island. As was the custom of the time, he was sent from home to be fostered, remaining away until his foster-father’s death, or until he was nineteen years old; his own father in the meantime having died as well. He entered upon active life with but little more than his own ambition to further him; but through his brother’s influence he made the following year a brilliant marriage, and thus laid the foundation of his power, which thereafter steadily grew. In 1215 Snorri was elected “Speaker of the Law” for the Commonwealth. At the expiration of his term of service in the summer of 1218 he went to Norway, where he was received with extraordinary hospitality both by King Hakon, who made him his liegeman, and by the King’s father-in-law, Earl Skuli. On the authority of some of the sagas, he is said to have promised the latter at this time to use his influence to bring Iceland under the dominion of Norway. Two years later he returned to Iceland, taking back with him as a present from the King a ship and many other valuable gifts. In 1222 he was again made “Speaker of the Law,” which post he now held continuously for nine years.  4
  Iceland, as the Commonwealth neared its end, was torn apart by the jealous feuds of the chieftains. A long series of complications had aroused a bitter hostility to Snorri among his own relatives. In 1229, he found it necessary to ride to the Althing at the head of eight hundred men. The matter did not then come to an open rupture, but in 1239 it finally resulted in a regular battle, in which Snorri’s faction was worsted. To avoid consequences he immediately after fled to Norway. Unwisely, he here gave his adherence to Earl Skuli, now at odds with the King, and thereby incurred the active displeasure of the latter; who, evidently fearing the use of Snorri’s power against him, forbade him by letter to return to Iceland. The command was disregarded, however, and he presently was back again in his native land. In 1240 Skuli was slain, and shortly afterward King Hakon seems to have resolved upon Snorri’s death. Using Arni, a son-in-law of the Icelander, as a willing messenger, he sent a letter to Gissur, another son-in-law, between whom and his father-in-law an active feud was on foot, demanding that he send the latter a prisoner to Norway, or if that were impossible, to kill him. Gissur accordingly, with seventy men at his back, came to Snorri’s farmstead Reykjaholt on the night of the 22d of September, 1241, when the old chieftain was mercilessly slain in the cellar, where he had taken refuge, by an unknown member of the band.  5
  In spite of his political life, Snorri found opportunity for abundant literary work. The ‘Icelandic Annals’ say that he “compiled the ‘Edda’ and many other books of historical learning, and Icelandic sagas.” Of these, however, only two have come down to us: his ‘Edda’ and the sagas of the Norse kings, known since the seventeenth century as the ‘Heimskringla,’ the best piece of independent prose literature, and in its bearing the most important series of sagas, of all the number that are left to attest the phenomenal literary activity of the Icelanders.  6
  Snorri’s ‘Edda’—both as he, the foremost poet of his day, originally conceived it, and with its subsequent additions—is a handbook for poets, an Ars poetica, as its name itself signifies. That it served its purpose as a recognized authority is discoverable from the references to it in later Icelandic poets, where “rules of Edda,” “laws of Edda,” “Eddic art,” and “Edda” are of frequent occurrence, as indicating an ideal of poetical expression striven for by some and deprecated by others. As Snorri wrote it, the ‘Edda’ was an admirably arranged work in three parts: the ‘Gylfaginning,’ a compendium of the old mythology, the knowledge of which in Snorri’s day was fast dying out; the ‘Skáldskaparmál,’ a dictionary of poetical expressions, many of which, contained in ancient poems, were no longer intelligible; and the ‘Háttatal,’ a poem or rather series of poems, exemplifying in its own construction the use and kinds of metre. As it has come down to us, it has been greatly added to and altered. A long preface filled with the learning of the Middle Ages now introduces the whole; the introductions and conclusions of the parts of the work have been extended; several old poems have been included; a Skáldatal, or list of skalds, has been added, as have also several grammatical and rhetorical tracts,—some of which are of real historical value.  7
  With regard to matter and manner, the parts of Snorri’s ‘Edda’ are as follows:—The ‘Gylfaginning’ (the Delusion of Gylfi) is a series of tales told in answer to the questions of Gylfi, a legendary Swedish king, who comes in disguise to the gods in Asgard to learn the secret of their power. By way of illustration it quotes, among other poetical citations, verses from several of the lays of the ‘Elder Edda.’ The ‘Skáldskaparmál’ (Poetical Diction) is also in great part in the form of questions and answers. It contains under separate heads the periphrases, appellatives, and synonyms used in ancient verse, which are often explained by long tales; and like the preceding part, it also is illustrated by numerous poetical quotations here, particularly from the skalds. The ‘Háttatal’ (Metres), finally, consists of three poems: the first an encomium on the Norwegian king Hakon, and the others on Earl Skuli. It exemplifies in not fewer than one hundred and two strophes the use of as many kinds of metre, many of them being accompanied by a prose commentary of greater or less length.  8
  That Snorri really wrote the work as here described seems to be undoubted, although there is no trace of it as a whole until after his death. At what period of his career it arose, can however merely be conjectured. We only know with certainty the date of the ‘Háttatal’; that may not unlikely have been the nucleus of the whole, which falls undoubtedly between 1221 and 1223, shortly after the return from the first visit to Norway. The oldest manuscript of the ‘Snorra Edda,’—now in the University Library at Upsala, Sweden,—which was written before 1300, assigns the work to him by name; and the ‘Icelandic Annals,’ as has already been stated, under the year of his death corroborate the statement of his authorship of “the Edda”—that is, of course, of this particular ‘Edda,’ for there can be no thought of the other.  9
  Snorri’s poetical work outside of the ‘Edda’ is represented only by fugitive verses. An encomium that he wrote on the wife of Earl Hakon has been lost. As a poet, Snorri undoubtedly stands upon a lower plane than that which he occupies as a historian. He wrote at a time when poetry was in its decline in Iceland; and neither in the ‘Háttatal’ nor in his other verse, except in form and phraseology, of which he had a wonderful control, does he rise to the level of a host of earlier skalds. It is his critical knowledge of the old poetry of Norway and Iceland that makes his ‘Edda’ of such unique value, and particularly as no small part of the material accessible to him has since been irrevocably lost. Snorri’s ‘Edda,’ in its very conception, is a wonderful book to have arisen at the time in which it was written, and in no other part of the Germanic North in the thirteenth century had such a thing been possible. It is not only, however, as a commentary on old Norse poetry that it is remarkable. Its importance as a compendium of the ancient Northern mythology is as great,—one whose loss nothing could supplant. As a whole, it is of incalculable value to the entire Germanic race for the light that it sheds upon its early intellectual life, its ethics, and its religion.  10
  The history of the ‘Elder Edda’ does not go back of the middle of the seventeenth century. In 1643 the Icelandic bishop Brynjolf Sveinsson sent as a present to Frederick III. of Denmark several old Icelandic vellums, among which was the manuscript, dating, according to the most general assignment, from not earlier than 1350; since called the ‘Codex Regius’ of the ‘Edda.’ Not a word is known about its previous history. As to when it came into the hands of the bishop, or where it was discovered, he has given us no clue whatsoever. He had nevertheless not only a name ready for it, but a distinct theory of its authorship, for he wrote on the back of a copy that he had made, “Edda Sæmundi Multiscii” (the Edda of Sæmund the Wise).  11
  Both Bishop Brynjolf’s title for the work and his assumption as to the name of its author—for both are apparently his—are open to criticism. The name ‘Edda’ belongs, as we have seen, to Snorri’s book; to which it was given, if not by himself, certainly by one of his immediate followers. It is not difficult, however, to explain its new application. Snorri’s ‘Edda’ cites, as has been mentioned, a number of single strophes of ancient poems, many of which were now found to be contained in Brynjolf’s collection in a more or less complete form. This latter was, accordingly, not unnaturally looked upon as the source of the material of Snorri’s work; and since its subject-matter too was the old poetry, it was consequently an earlier ‘Edda.’ Subsequently the title was extended to include a number of poems in the same manner found elsewhere; and ‘Edda’ has since been irretrievably the title both of the old Norse lays and of the old Norse Ars poetica, to which it more appropriately belongs.  12
  The attribution of the work to Sæmund was even less justifiable. Sæmund Sigfusson was an Icelandic priest, who lived from 1056 to 1133. As a young man he studied in Germany, France, and Italy, but came back to Iceland about 1076. Afterward he settled down as priest and chieftain, as was his father before him, on the paternal estate Oddi in the south of Iceland, where he lived until his death. Among his contemporaries and subsequently he was celebrated for his great learning, the memory of which has even come down to the present day in popular legend, where like learned men elsewhere he is made an adept in the black art, and many widely spread tales of supernatural power have clustered locally about his name. Sæmund is the first writer among the Icelanders of whom we have any information; and besides poems, he is reputed to have written some of the best of the sagas and other historical works. It is not unlikely that he did write parts of the history of Iceland and Norway in Latin, but nothing has come down to us that is with certainty to be attributed to him. There is however no ancient reference whatsoever to Sæmund as a poet, and it is but a legend that connects him in any way with the Eddic lays. Internal criticism readily yields the fact that they are not only of widely different date of origin, but are so unlike in manner and in matter that it is idle to suppose a single authorship at all. Nor is it possible that Sæmund, as Bishop Brynjolf may have supposed was the case, even collected the lays contained in this ‘Edda.’ It is on the contrary to be assumed that the collection, of which Brynjolf’s manuscript is but a copy, arose during the latter half of the twelfth century, in the golden age of Icelandic literature; a time when attention was most actively directed to the past, when many of the sagas current hitherto only as oral tradition were given a permanent form, and historical works of all sorts were written and compiled.  13
  The fact of the matter is, that here is a collection of old Norse poems, the memory of whose real time and place of origin has disappeared, and whose authorship is unknown. Earlier commentators supposed them to be of extreme age, and carried them back to the very childhood of the race. Modern criticism has dispelled the illusions of any such antiquity. It has been proved, furthermore, that the oldest of the poems does not go back of the year 850, and that the youngest may have been written as late as 1200. As to their place of origin, although all have come to us from Iceland, by far the greater number of them apparently originated in Norway; several arose in the Norse colonies in Greenland; and although the whole collection was made in Iceland, where alone many of them had been remembered, but two are undoubtedly of distinct Icelandic parentage. With regard to their authorship, results are less direct. Folk-songs they are not in the proper sense of the word, in that in their present shape they are the work of individual poets, who made over in versified form material already existing in oral tradition. Only a small part of the ancient poetry that arose in this way has been preserved. From prose interpolations which supply breaks in the continuity of the lays in the ‘Elder Edda’ itself, as well as from isolated strophes of old poems, else unknown, quoted in Snorri’s ‘Edda,’ and from the citation and use of such poetical material in sagas and histories,—we know for a certainty that many other lays in the ancient manner once existed that have now been for all time lost.  14
  Brynjolf’s manuscript contains, whole or in part, as they are now considered to exist, thirty-two poems. From other sources six poems have since been added, presumably as ancient as the lays of the ‘Codex Regius,’ so that the ‘Elder Edda’ is made up of thirty-eight poems, not all of which, however, are even reasonably complete. In form they are in alliterative verse, but three different metres being represented, all the simplest and least artificial of the many kinds used by the Norsemen. In content the lays fall under three heads: they are mythic, in that they contain the myths of the old heathen religion of the Norsemen; ethic, in that they embody their views of life and rules of living; or they are heroic, in that they recount the deeds of legendary heroes of the race.  15
  The mythic poems of the ‘Edda,’ taken together, give us a tolerably complete picture of the Northern mythology in the Viking Age; although some of them were not written until after the introduction of Christianity, and are therefore open to the imputation of having been to a greater or less extent affected by its teachings. The oldest poems of the collection are mythical in character. In some of them a particular god is the principal figure. Several of them, like the ‘Vafthrúdnismál,’ the ‘Grimnismál,’ ‘Baldrs Draumar,’ and the ‘Hárbardsljód,’ in this way are particularly devoted to Odin, whose supremacy they show over all other beings, and whose part they describe in the government of the universe; in others, like the ‘Hymiskvida,’ the ‘Thrymskvida,’ and the ‘Alvísmál,’ Thor occupies the prominent part in his strife with the giants; single ones have other gods as their principal actors, like Skirnir, the messenger of Frey, in the ‘Skírnismál,’ Loki, the god of destruction, in the ‘Lokasenna,’ or Heimdall, the guardian of the rainbow bridge which stretched from heaven to earth, in the ‘Rígsthúla.’ A few of them are both mythic and heroic at the same time, like the ‘Lay of Völund,’ which tells of the fearful revenge of the mythical smith upon the Swedish king; or the ‘Song of Grotti,’ the magical mill, which ground what was wished, first peace and gold for its owner, King Frodi of Denmark, but later so much salt on the ship of Mysing, who had conquered the king and taken it away, that all together sunk into the sea, which henceforth was salt. By far the greater of the mythic lays is the long but fragmentary poem ‘Völuspá,’ the ‘Prophecy of the Sibyl,’ which is entitled to stand not only at the head of the Eddic songs but of all old Germanic poetry, for the beauty and dignity of its style, its admirable choice of language, and the whole inherent worth of its material. Its purpose is to give a complete picture, although only in its most essential features, of the whole heathen religion. It contains in this way the entire history of the universe: the creation of the world out of chaos; the origin of the giants, the dwarfs, of gods, and of men; and ends with their destruction and ultimate renewal. The Sibyl is represented at the beginning in an assemblage of the whole human race, whom she bids be silent in order that she may be heard. Many of the strophes, even in translation, retain much of their inherent dignity and poetic picturesqueness:—

  “There was in times of old
where Ymir dwelt,
nor land nor sea,
nor gelid waves;
earth existed not,
nor heaven above;
there was a chaotic chasm,
and verdure nowhere.
“Before Bur’s sons
raised up heaven’s vault,
they who the noble
mid-earth shaped,
the sun shone from the south
on the structure’s rocks;
then was the earth begrown
with green herbage.
“The sun from the south,
the moon’s companion,
her right hand cast
round the heavenly horses:
the sun knew not
where she had a dwelling:
the moon knew not
what power he possessed;
the stars knew not
where they had station.”

The gods thereupon gave the heavenly bodies names, and ordained the times and seasons. This was the golden age of the young world, before guilt and sin had come into it; a time of joy and beneficent activity. A deed of violence proclaimed its approaching end, and out of the slain giants’ blood and bones the dwarfs were created. The gods then made the first man and woman, for whom the Norns established laws and allotted life and destiny. The use of gold was introduced, and with it its attendant evils; the Valkyries come, and the first warfare occurs in the world; the gods’ stronghold is broken, and Odin hurls his spear among the people. In rapid succession follow the pictures of the awful ills that happen to gods and men, which finally end in Ragnarök, the twilight of the gods, and the conflagration of the universe. This however is not the end. The Sibyl describes the reappearance of the green earth from the ocean. The gods again come back, and a new golden age begins of peace and happiness which shall endure forever.
  Scarcely inferior to the ‘Völuspá’ for the importance of its material is the ethical poem or rather collection of poems called the ‘Hávamál,’ the ‘Speech of the High One,’—that is, of Odin the supreme god. The poem consists of sententious precepts and epigrammatic sayings, which ultimately have been set together to form a connected, though scarcely systematic, philosophy of life. The whole is naturally attributed to Odin, the source of all wisdom, the father and giver of all things. A part of the poem is the oldest of all the Eddic lays, and the whole of it was at hand early in the tenth century. Although many of its maxims show a primitive state of society, as a whole they are the experience of a people more advanced in culture than we are apt to fancy the Norsemen of the Viking Age, who could nevertheless philosophize at home as sturdily as they fought abroad. The morality of the ‘Hávamál’ is not always our morality, but many of its maxims are eternally true. Its keynote, again and again repeated, is the perishability of all earthly possessions, and the endurance alone of fairly won fame:—
  “Cattle die,
kindred die,
we ourselves also die;
but the fair fame
never dies
of him who has earned it.”
  The heroic poems of the ‘Elder Edda’ recount as if belonging to a single legendary cycle what originally belonged to two; the one of Northern origin, the other the common property of the whole Germanic race. They are the Helgi poems on the one hand, and the Völsung poems on the other. Together they tell the “Story of the North,” and come nearest to forming its greatest epic; it is the same story which Wagner has set to music as immortal in his ‘Ring of the Nibelung,’—although the principal source of his material is the prose ‘Völsunga Saga’ and not the ‘Edda,’—and which in a form much later than the Icelandic versions is also told in the German ‘Nibelungenlied.’  18
  The Helgi poems are only loosely connected with the story of Sigurd the Völsung, and originally, but without doubt long before they were committed to writing, had no connection with it at all. As they now stand at the head of the heroic lays they are made to tell the deeds of early members of the Völsung race; namely, of Helgi Hjörvard’s son, and Helgi Hundingsbane, who is said to have been named after him. The latter the ‘Edda’ makes the son of Sigmund the Völsung, and consequently an elder brother of Sigurd, the hero of the subsequent cycle of poems. To these last they are joined by a prose piece ending with a description of Sigurd’s parentage and birth, and his own personality, which the poems themselves do not give at length.  19
  The remaining poems, fifteen in all, tell the old Germanic story of Sigurd, the Siegfried of the Nibelungenlied, in the most ancient form in which it has come down to us. As contained in the ‘Edda’ it is a picture of great deeds, painted in powerful strokes which gain in force by the absence of carefully elaborated detail. In various ways it is unfortunate that the lays composing the cycle are not more closely consecutive; a difficulty that was felt by the earliest editors of the manuscript, who endeavored to bring the poems and fragments of poems then extant into some sort of connection, by the interpolation of prose passages of various lengths wherever it was considered necessary to the intelligibility of the story. As it is however there is even yet, and cannot help but be, on account of the differences in age, authorship, and place of origin of the lays, an inherent lack of correlation. Many of the poems overlap, and parts of the action are told several times and in varying form.  20
  The Sigurd poems belong to a time prior to the introduction of Christianity, as is incontestably proved by the genuine heathen spirit that throughout pervades them. Their action is in the early days, when the gods walked upon earth and mixed themselves in human affairs. The real theme of the epic which the lays form is the mythical golden hoard, and with it the fated ring of the Nibelung, owned originally by the dwarf Andvari, from whom it is wrung by the gods in their extremity. Andvari curses it to its possessors, and it is cursed again by the gods who are forced to deliver it up to Hreidmar as blood-money for his son, whom Loki had slain. Fafnir and Regin, the brothers of the slain Ottur, demand of their father their share of the blood-fine, and when this is refused, Hreidmar is killed while asleep, and Regin is driven away by Fafnir, who then in the guise of a dragon lies upon the golden hoard to guard it. Egged on by Regin, Sigurd slays Fafnir, and Regin also when he learns that he intends treachery.  21
  Sigurd gives the ring of Andvari, taken from the hoard, to the Valkyrie Brynhild, as a pledge of betrothal; and when in the likeness of Gunnar the Nibelung,—having by wiles forgotten his former vows,—he rides to her through the fire, the ring is given back to him by Brynhild, who does not recognize him. The fatal ring is now given by Sigurd to his wife, Gudrun the Nibelung, who in a moment of anger shows it to Brynhild and taunts her with a recital of his history. Brynhild cannot bear to see the happiness of Gudrun, and does not rest until Sigurd is slain; and in slaying him, Guthorm, the youngest of the Nibelungs, is killed, struck down by the sword of the dying Sigurd. Brynhild, who will not outlive Sigurd, perishes on her own sword. Gudrun is subsequently, against her will, wedded to Atli the Hun. Gunnar and Högni, her brothers, the two remaining Nibelungs, are invited to visit Atli, when they are straightway fallen upon, their followers are killed, and they are bound. They are asked to give up the golden hoard, whose hiding-place was known to them alone; but Gunnar first demands the death of his brother Högni, and then triumphantly tells Atli that the treasure is forever hidden in the Rhine,—where, he only knows. He is cast into a serpent pit, and dies. Atli’s sons and Gudrun’s are slain by their mother, changed by the madness of grief at the slaughter of her brothers into an avenging Fury, and Atli himself and his men are burned in the hall. Carried then by the sea, into which she has hurled herself, Gudrun comes to the land of King Jonakr, who makes her his wife. Swanhild, the daughter of Sigurd and Gudrun, had been married to King Jörmunrek, but coming under unjust suspicion, is trodden to death by horses; and Gudrun dies of a broken heart, with a prayer to Sigurd upon her lips. Last of all, the sons of Gudrun and Jonakr, who, incited by their mother, had been sent out to avenge their sister, are stoned to death; and the curse only ceases to work when there is nothing more left for it to wreak itself upon.  22
  It is a story of great deeds, whose motives are the bitter passions of that early time before the culture of Christianity had softened the hearts of men. The psychological truthfulness of its characters, however, in spite of their distance from to-day, is none the less unmistakable; and we watch the action with bated breath, as they are hurried on by a fate as relentless and inevitable as any that ever pursued an Œdipus. They are not the indistinct and shadowy forms which in many early literatures seem to grope out toward us from the mists of the past, whose clinging heaviness the present is unable wholly to dispel, but are human men and women who live and act; and the principal characters, particularly, in this way become the realities of history, instead of what they actually are, the creations of legend and myth.  23
  Many of the poems of the ‘Edda’ have been several times translated into English. Notable renderings are those by Dean Herbert, and by William Morris in the translation of the ‘Völsunga Saga,’ by Magnusson and Morris. The only metrical version of all the lays is that of Benjamin Thorpe (London, 1866). A literal translation of the entire extant old poetry of the North is contained in Vigfusson’s monumental work, the ‘Corpus Poeticum Boreale.’ The ‘Snorra Edda’ has been translated by G. W. Dasent (Stockholm, 1842); by I. A. Blackwell in ‘Northern Antiquities’ (London, 1847); and by R. B. Anderson (Chicago, 1880).  24

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