Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Reading the Old North: Where to Begin

I was recently asked by a young person of my acquaintance for some recommendations on where she might find inexpensive and approachable versions of the literature of the Old North, particularly Old Norse literature. She was more interested in primary sources than published summaries, so I've prioritized this list accordingly.

Volsunga saga - This legendary saga (fornaldarsaga) tells the story of the Volsung family, and includes the archetypal dragon-slaying. It's the basis for the later medieval German Nibelungenlied, Wagner's Ring Cycle, and (ultimately) Star Wars. There's no reading old Germanic myth or legend without reading the Volsunga saga, since everyone who is anyone is ultimately related to the Volsungs in some way.
  • An old-school translation by William Morris (this is the one Tolkien read as a boy; by a coincidence it is also the first thing of the Old North that I read as a boy) is freely available online. The English may be a bit archaic for some, but if you can get around that it's quite good.
  • Jesse Byock has a translation that's been around for a while. When it comes to Old Norse scholars, Byock is the real deal.
  • Dr. Jackson Crawford has new translation that dropped earlier this year, which includes a translation of the saga of Ragnar Lothbrok (sort of the unofficial sequel to Volsunga saga). I haven't read it yet, mainly because it's been so popular it keeps going out of print. I have a copy now, so when I get time I'll do a review.
Hervarar saga - This is one of my favorite sagas. It tells the story of the cursed sword Tyrfing (probably originally the name of a Germanic tribe, not a sword), and its bloody history as it is handed down through the generations and ultimately results in brother rising up against brother. This saga has everything you could want: cursed swords, shield maidens waking the angry ghosts of their beserker fathers from cursed barrows, and one of the greatest riddle-contests of the Old North (undoubtedly the inspiration for the riddle-contest in The Hobbit).

  • The best version of this poem remains Christopher Tolkien's translation and commentary, which fortunately is available for free
Snorri's Edda - Also called the Prose Edda or the Younger Edda. For a variety of reasons, it's not a reliable summary of pre-Christian Germanic religion or mythology (though many people would like it to be), but it was an early attempt to summarize the stories of the ancient North, intended as a tool to instruct those who would compose (or appreciate) skaldic poetry. Despite the fact that it never seems to be quite what anyone wants it to be, it remains one of our most important primary sources for studying and understanding the Old Norse myths and legends.
  • There is a free version available on Sacred Texts. As with most Sacred Texts offerings, it's pretty old (having been translated in 1916). 
  • Project Gutenberg has an even older translation (which I rather like) by Rasmus Anderson.
  • Byock has a translation via Penguin classics.
The Poetic Edda - Also called the Elder Edda. The Edda is really a collection of different poems, composed at different times and on a variety of themes (but mostly about the old Northern myths and legends). It's not what you'd call a religious text (though again, some people would like it to be so), but it is the oldest and best preservation of the stories of the pre-Christian North that we have. If you read the works listed above and find you enjoy the poetry interspersed throughout, this collection of nothing but poetry is for you.
  • There is a very good free version I will recommend from The Viking Society of Northern Research. It's perhaps a bit old, but it isn't as though these things have changed that much. What I particularly like about this edition is that there is a huge introduction, comprised of a summary of each of the poems. Don't try to read the whole introduction all at once. Instead, read the introduction for the poem you're about to read, to help you understand the context and any of the particularly difficult allusions, then read the corresponding poems.
  • Dr. Jackson Crawford has a great new translation that has been selling very well on Amazon (as has his translation of Volsunga saga). I recently gave my own copy away, but once I get another I'll do a review. I have very minor "quibbles" with a couple of the translation decisions, but on the whole this is an easy and approachable way to get into Norse poetry.
The Sagas of the Icelanders - This is not a free edition, but it's a wonderful collection of Icelandic sagas (including my favorite, Egil's saga). Unlike the above works, these sagas operate within the historical and quasi-historical past of the Icelanders themselves. So although they are informed by the old moods and literary conventions of the North (including larger-than-life heroes, skaldic poetry, etc.), they are broad in scope. I can think of no better collection of stories to introduce a student to the unique spirit of Northern literature. The paperback is a very reasonable price, especially for such a large book.

There's a lot of other reading you could do, and I haven't even touched on Beowulf. But this is more than enough to start with. My final recommendation is to check out Dr. Jackson Crawford's YouTube channel if you haven't done so already. It's full of free, engaging, and scholarly explanations of Old Norse literature and language, and the man knows how to wear a hat.


Currently reading: From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic (A Linguistic History of English), by Don Ringe
Current audio book: The Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien
Currently translating: Aiwaggeljo Þairh Maþþaiu, Chapter VI, from Wright's Gothic Grammar.

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