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A landmark new history of Old Norse-Icelandic literature, this volume is a comprehensive, up-to-date guide to a unique and celebrated body of medieval writing. Chapters by internationally recognized experts offer the latest in-depth analysis of every significant genre and group of texts in the corpus, including sagas and skaldic verse, romances and saints' lives, myths and histories, laws and learned literature. Together, they provide a scholarly, readable and accessible overview of the whole field. Innovatively organized by the chronology and geography of the texts' settings – which stretch from mythic history to medieval Iceland, from Vinland to Byzantium – they reveal the interconnectedness of diverse genres encompassing verse and prose, translations and original works, Christian and pre-Christian literature, fiction and non-fiction. This is the ideal volume for specialists, students and general readers who want a fresh and authoritative guide to the literature of medieval Iceland and Norway.
The German writer Günter Grass (1927–2015) is perhaps still most celebrated for his novel Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), published in 1959, and first translated into English two years later. The Tin Drum is set largely in Gdansk, in a period of the twentieth century roughly corresponding to Grass's own life from his birth to the novel's publication. It has been rec-ognized as a work in the so-called magic realist genre, in which a realistic setting is combined with openly fantastical elements. The Grass scholar Peter Arnds has argued, with particular reference to The Tin Drum, that magic realist novels generally draw on mythic materials, but in fact, he adduces very few actual mythic allusions in his analysis of The Tin Drum. In what follows, I will show that Günter Grass drew heavily and persistently on Old Norse mythology in his creation of what many regard as one of the great European historical novels of the twentieth century.
The Tin Drum and History
Oskar Matzerath, the protagonist of The Tin Drum, announces his status in the very first sentence of the novel as an inmate of a mental hospital. We are thus primed to engage with an unreliable narrator, as indeed Oskar proves to be. He recounts the circumstances of his own conception and birth in 1924, at which he is a precocious and sardonic witness and commentator. His alleged neonatal impressions are hearing his mother's promise that he will be given a toy drum on his third birthday, and the oddly confirmatory drumming noise a moth is making as it flutters wildly against a lightbulb above his mother's bed. He is indeed given a drum for his third birthday. But the same day, he tells us, he flings himself through an open trapdoor down into the cellar of the family grocery shop – a horrific childhood accident which our unreliable narrator Oskar represents as a deliberate and carefully considered act. He ascribes his subsequent failure to grow as a conscious exercise of his own will. On the day he ends his growth, he begins his career as a drummer. He is a dwarf with a drum
AROUND THE YEAR 1270, an unknown Icelandic scribe copied an anthology of poems into a manuscript now known as the Codex Regius, or Konungsbok (the royal manuscript); this collection is usually called the Poetic Edda. Some leaves of the manuscript are missing now, but over two dozen poems are preserved in what is left of it. Of these, eleven are mythological, placed together in the first half of the manuscript. The remaining poems are based on heroic legends about the Volsungs – a dynasty including Sigmundr the Volsung, descended from the god Óðinn, and his son Sigurðr the celebrated dragon-slayer, who is betrothed to the valkyrie Brynhildr, but marries Guðrún, the sister of the Burgundian heroes Gunnarr and Hǫgni.
It is not known how, or from where, these poems were sourced by the anthologist, so we know nothing of their age, authorship or provenance, which might have been very various in each respect. But it is clear that the anthologist – or his immediate source – carefully ordered the individual poems in ‘chronological’ narrative order to produce a legendary history of the Volsungs in which key episodes such as the killing of the dragon by Sigurðr, or his murder at Brynhildr's perverse and vengeful instigation, are each represented by a vividly dramatic poem either largely or wholly made up of the speech of the protagonists, interspersed with some explanatory prose links.
Many of these episodes were evidently popular and had long been widely known throughout northern Europe in the Middle Ages. There are plenty of Viking Age stone carvings of Sigurðr killing the dragon, for instance, a good number of them in northern England. Another unknown medieval Icelandic author took the legendary material of the Codex Regius – before some of the poems were lost – and turned it into saga narrative: Vǫlsunga saga (The Story of the Volsungs). This prose account necessarily loses some of the drama and immediacy of the original poems, but offers in its place continuity, consistency and some (arguably unconvincing) explanation of character and motive (many readers have judged the saga to be a disimprovement of the material).
Eddic poetry has been far and away the most influential genre of Old Norse literature. Its reception – not only in Western Europe and North America, but throughout the world – has been wide-ranging, far-reaching, and long-lasting. Although its influence has been most evident in literary texts, there are representations of eddic scenes in the visual arts – from Viking Age sculpture to Western European romantic art and beyond. In spite of rather little evidence for musical performance in Old Norse, eddic poetry has also inspired music of various kinds – most notably, of course, Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle. As a vehicle for Old Norse mythology, and the supposed vessel of ancient Germanic religious beliefs, its influence on the history of ideas, and especially on political thought, has been particularly significant, and the subject matter and ethos of eddic poetry have continued to make their mark on popular contemporary culture.
I shall use the term ‘reception’ to refer to three processes: the post-medieval dissemination of the texts themselves, direct critical response to them, and evidence of their influence on later works. I will discuss the influence of eddic poetry on literature (primarily in English) in three sections: the influence of the verses in fornaldarsögur (sagas of ancient times) (especially the sequence of verses known as The Waking of Angantýr), the influence of mythological verse, and the influence of the heroic poems about Sigurðr and Brynhildr. Along the way, I will consider the influence of eddic poetry on visual art and on music, and then on the history of ideas; I conclude with a brief account of its reception in popular contemporary culture. I will be as inclusive as possible about which poems may be designated ‘eddic’. As we shall see, some of the most widely and popularly received eddic poetry is found outside the Codex Regius.
Before examining the post-medieval dissemination of eddic poetry, we should briefly consider its oral prehistory. Its existence is evident from Viking Age sculpture, such as representations of Sigurðr the Dragon-Slayer, many of them from Britain, and a number of Viking Age sculptures seem to represent scenes from ragnarǫk as alluded to in Vǫluspá.
The basic facts of W.H. Auden's life-long engagement with things Icelandic — and especially its medieval literature and myth — are well known. His father believed that the family came from Iceland, the surname ‘Auden’ being an Anglicization of the Icelandic given name ‘Auðunn’. He even toyed with the possibility that it was related to the name of the god Óðinn, and wrote to the Icelandic scholar Eiríkur Magnússon for confirmation of this; in a brief reply, Eiríkur dismissed the suggestion. But Dr Auden fostered in his son an interest in Old Norse myth — with considerable success. In Letters from Iceland, Auden writes that having listened to his father reading Icelandic folk tales to him, he now ‘know[s] more about Northern mythology than Greek’. His colouring — fair hair and a pale complexion — tended to confirm both his own and his friends’ assumptions about his Scandinavian ancestry, and he repeatedly referred to Iceland as ‘holy ground’. Towards the end of his life, in 1969, he and Paul Taylor published The Elder Edda, an English translation of selection of Old Norse verse which very largely comprises the mythological poems of the Edda.5
Just as familiar is W.H. Auden's engagement with Old English poetry. His response to J.R.R. Tolkien reciting Beowulf is very widely quoted: ‘I was spellbound. This poetry, I knew, was going to be my dish.’ But however positive his attitude to hearing Old English poetry read aloud, he did badly in his exams, and got a Third; a friend reported that he cried when he came out of his Old English paper. Nevertheless, as Chris Jones notes, he was to write in 1962 that: ‘Anglo-Saxon and Middle English poetry have been one of my strongest, most lasting influences.’ Auden's free translation of the Old English elegy The Wanderer (which begins, confusingly, with a line adapted from the early Middle English alliterative sermon Sawles Warde: ‘Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle’) is perhaps his most celebrated Old English derived piece, but the pervasive influence of medieval English alliterative metre is evident throughout Auden's oeuvre.
The distinction between the two elements of Auden's double debt ought, then, to be pretty clear, Old Norse traditions providing the mythic allusions in Auden's work, and Old and Middle English metres influencing or informing his prosody.
An excellent collection... breaks new ground in many areas. Should make a substantial impact on the discussion of the contemporary influence of Anglo-Saxon Culture. Conor McCarthy, author of Seamus Heaney and the Medieval Imagination
Britain's pre-Conquest past and its culture continues to fascinate modern writers and artists. From Henry Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Reader to Seamus Heaney's Beowulf, and from high modernism to the musclebound heroes of comic book and Hollywood, Anglo-Saxon England has been a powerful and often unexpected source of inspiration, antagonism, and reflection. The essays here engage with the ways in which the Anglo-Saxons and their literature have been received, confronted, and re-envisioned in the modern imagination. They offer fresh insights on established figures, such as W.H. Auden, J.R.R. Tolkien, and David Jones, and on contemporary writers such as Geoffrey Hill, Peter Reading, P.D. James, and Heaney. They explore the interaction between text, image and landscape in medieval and modern books, the recasting of mythic figures such as Wayland Smith, and the metamorphosis of Beowulf into Grendel - as a novel and as grand opera. The early medieval emerges not simply as a site of nostalgia or anxiety in modern revisions, but instead provides a vital arena for creativity, pleasure, and artistic experiment.
Contributors: Bernard O'Donoghue, Chris Jones, Mark Atherton, Maria Artamonova, Anna Johnson, Clare A. Lees, Sian Echard, Catherine A.M. Clarke, Maria Sachiko Cecire, Allen J. Frantzen, John Halbrooks, Hannah J. Crawforth, Joshua Davies, Rebecca Anne Barr
The publisher’s blurb on the inside cover of North speaks of Seamus Heaney’s ‘idea of the north’, a myth allowing him to ‘contemplate the violence on his home ground in relation to memories of the Scandinavian and English invasions which have marked Irish history so indelibly’. In this essay, I want to show how Heaney has derived this ‘idea of the north’ – more properly, his idea of northern pasts – from Old Norse and Old English literary traditions, and how both the sameness and the alterity of these pasts are related to his own, and our, present. I will look first at North, and then take the poem ‘Funeral Rites’ as a detailed case in point. An important duality will emerge: the individual’s engagement with an historical past, however it has been constructed, and the poet’s engagement with, and reuse of, earlier literature. This double relation is of course central to the subject of the second part of this essay, Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, an Old English poem on Scandinavian subject matter: the ‘big thing’, as Heaney himself has described it.
Not everyone has admired North. And even its admirers have not warmed to all the poems in it. But one glorious exception is the first of the two opening poems ‘in dedication for Mary Heaney’. ‘Sunlight’ is not only outside the body of poems in the volume, but also outside its central theme, the relation between past and present. Indeed, the picture of the poet’s aunt baking on a sunlit afternoon is located outside time itself: she sits patiently waiting for ‘the scone rising’ in the space – temporal as well as spatial – between ‘the tick of two clocks’ (N 9). Mary Heaney, in the poet’s memory, inhabits a no-man’s-land between two time systems, aligned to neither of them. The rising she awaits has nothing to do with political history, that connotation (surely unavoidable in any Irish context) evoked only to draw playful attention to its significant absence.
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