In his preface to a recent collection of essays on eddic heroic poetry and heroic legend, Tom Shippey remarks on the nineteenth-century realisation that ‘there was something recognisable in the heroic poems of what came to be called “the Elder Edda”’ (Shippey 2013: xiv). The compendium's heroes – Sigurðr, Atli, Jǫrmunrekkr, Þjóðrekr, even Brynhildr – were identifiable from historical sources such as Ammianus Marcellinus, Jordanes, and Gregory of Tours, and, in some cases, from their appearances in Old English or Old High German poetry – poems which predated the manuscripts in which the Old Norse verse was preserved by hundreds of years (see Shippey 2013, 1982; C. Tolkien 1953–57). The names – also sometimes the place names – remained the same, but the details of their stories, from dragon-slaying to unwitting cannibalism, from being rendered limbless to falling foul of Óðinn, were very different. A good number of eddic heroic poems, primarily the verse preserved in the Codex Regius, relate to a pan-Germanic legendary; they recall the Migration Age heroes whose names and deeds survived almost a millennium in the oral tales of the Anglo-Saxons, the Germans, and the Scandinavians. Tales of Vǫlundr the smith, of Hildibrandr, and the probably ancient sequence of verses sometimes known as Hlǫðskviða (Poem of Hlǫðr) or The Battle of the Goths and Huns also belong in this category. The poems associated with these legends span a remarkable range of genres, for, as Shippey notes, though eddic ‘heroes may choose not to speak … heroines have different speech privileges’ (2013: xviii). Thus, heroic narrative expands to encompass both male and female perspectives and heroic behaviour is both celebrated and critiqued in the poems preserved in the second half of the Codex Regius (see Clark 2012: 17–45; 67–88).
These ancient Germanic figures were not, of course, the only heroes commemorated in eddic poetry; by heroes, I mean humans who take up arms against human or supernatural foes, who are brave and fearless, but not necessarily morally admirable. The fornaldarsǫgur preserve poems about certain exclusively Scandinavian figures: Starkaðr, Angantýr, Hjálmarr, and Ǫrvar-Oddr (see Clunies Ross 2013).