Before I stumbled across a review in the back of http://www.vallummag.com/ (12:1) I had never heard of The Poetic Edda. Or any Edda. I was so entranced by the description I added it to my “to-read” list and actually managed to track down a copy a few months later. But you know, I don’t actually know anything about Norse folklore. I’ve heard of Thor, and Odin and his ravens; Loki; Sigurd and Brynhild. I didn’t think my lack of knowledge was going to be an issue. It’s a book about Icelandic mythological poems. Surely it will cover whatever I need to know. Tell you what, just to make doubly sure I have all the information necessary, I’ll read the foreword and introduction. Even the index! I’m set.
I dog-eared the pages with the family trees and the index because I referred to them so often and still barely scraped by. The index is a list of character names with single-word descriptors like “dwarf” or “Jotuness” and the pages the names are used on. Odin’s nicknames run an entire column. Different people may have the same name. If your level of knowledge of Nordic legends is mostly gleaned from Avengers movies, you’ll be as lost as I am. The Poetic Edda is meant to be the paper mimic of an ancient, community-building aural experience, by firelight with a tankard of ale. Interruptions were probably punished by stabbing. The poems are reproduced the same way. I’ve heard rumblings of a Prose Edda version which sounds like it might be better suited to the novice reader, so if this is your first kick at the Viking saga can consider starting with that? Without sufficient background, it’s hard to construct a frame to hang the poems on.
And hang they must, because they don’t really stand on their own. The language is rigid and brittle, although there are parts that glow. Two of my personal favourites were:
I know I hung in a winded tree
nine whole nights, spear-pierced,
ardent to Odin, me to myself
on that tree whose taproots
no one will ever know. (53)
He began to bloom at the bosom of his friends,
a radiant-born elm backlit by bliss. He gave
openly and paid his horde in gold, never
hoarding any of his blood-splattered loot. (127)
But stanzas like that are few and far between. To be fair, these poems began as oral traditions. They were meant to flex with the times and audience in addition to being augmented by facial expression, inflection, tones, and pauses, vital elements of communication which are impossible to duplicate in writing even when you don’t have hundreds of years’ distance, culture, and language barriers putting the finishing touches on the crevasse before you. Tall order. Still, even when I peered out from the haze of characters to marvel at the language there wasn’t a lot of language to marvel at. Maybe the tone and meter are more faithful to the Icelandic originals than other works have been. Apparently what I was really hoping for was an epic poem (or several) with rich, luscious language to feast on. This wasn’t it.
Final note: content warnings for some homophobic language, quite a lot of violence, and some graphic sexual coercion.