Part of the attraction of eddic poetry for modern readers lies in its particularly compelling blend of the familiar and the remote. It presents a strange world, distanced physically and chronologically from that of its audience; a world populated by larger-than-life characters drawn from myth and legend who experience a correspondingly heightened form of reality. The anxieties of the real-world societies of medieval Scandinavia are played out in the grandest possible terms on the eddic stage. There is much in this poetry that appeals to universal human experience, but it is inextricably framed within its own particular cultural setting. The interpretation of eddic poetry begins with investigation of this context. Approaching genre in Old Norse poetry is deeply problematic – as it is in any literary tradition – and made more so by the nature of the preservation of eddic poetry across a variety of manuscripts and by its relationship to associated prose texts (see Clunies Ross on preservation, Chapter 1 in this Handbook). Some of these difficulties are ultimately insurmountable if the aim is to construct a rigid and universal taxonomy. Rather than shoe-horn eddic verse into such a mould, we should therefore seek to construct a refined and nuanced – even if sometimes apparently contradictory – series of overlapping generic criteria, best conceived of as literary modes, and a similarly flexible perspective on these modes’ relationship to Old Norse poetics and literature more broadly.
Genre is itself a highly malleable literary tool; one which aids composers or performers as well as audiences. It provides the former, in the terminology of Hans Robert Jauss (1982), with a ‘mode of writing’ (or ‘mode of composing’, as we might extrapolate back to the oral period) to shape new works within comprehensible frames of reference, and the latter with a ‘horizon of expectations’ according to which they can judge and interpret new material. Thus, genre can be interpreted loosely as any set of conventions used to contextualise a composition: it is a useful device for describing mediation between composer and audience, and can be based on a near infinite array of features finding expression in form, style, and content.