Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Digitizing Hervor - Part 1: The Project

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"Wake thou, Angantyr!
Wakes you Hervor,
Svafa's offspring,
Your only daughter;
The keen-edged blade
From the barrow give me,
The sword dwarves smithied
For Sigrlami."

This is the first of a series of posts I hope to do about a project I've spent the last 7 weeks working on, and which I expect will occupy my attention to some extent all the way through the summer of 2018.

The Project

I am creating a digital edition of the Hervararkviða, also known as Hervor's Incantation or The Waking of Angantyr. This edition will be based on the version found in the Hauksbók manuscript and will include a Manuscript Facsimile, Diplomatic, Normalized Old Norse, and Modern English translation, along with textual apparatus and a short commentary. The Digital Hervararkviða is intended to be a student's edition specifically for students of Old Norse and Germanic Philology.

The Hervararwhat?

The Hervararkviða is an Old Norse poem, written in an Eddic verse form called fornyrðislag, literally "ancient-sayings-law." It tells the story of the shield-maiden Hervor's quest to wake the ghost of her famous berserker father Angantyr (and his eleven brothers) and bully him into handing over her family's cursed sword, Tyrfingr, a weapon so bloodthirsty that once drawn it cannot be sheathed again without shedding blood, even if it is the blood of a kinsman. Hervor succeeds in acquiring the sword, even though she knows it will prove the destruction of her descendants. Hervor's story is part of a larger saga known as Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks or The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise, written down in the late 13th or early 14th century, but clearly compiled from a number of much older stories.

So why are you doing this?

In the Fall of 2014 I began working on my MA from Signum University. Over time, my interest in general medieval literature has developed into a particular interest in the discipline of Germanic Philology and the languages and stories of the ancient northern world (although I remain interested in a wide variety of Indo-European studies). A project like the Digital Hervararkviða ticks a lot of boxes for my final thesis project: it's a good way to showcase my strengths as both a technology professional and a philologist. It's also a useful proof-case for the application of the digital humanities to what has traditionally been regarded as a pretty "dusty" field. In that way, it's a neat microcosm of Signum's mission statement.

Right, right. But why are you really doing this?

Someone (I do not remember whom) once said, "I read because I want to speak with the dead." That's an apt way to sum up my relationship with old texts, and particularly poetry like the Hervararkviða or Beowulf. The almost-alien quality of the medieval script, the arresting strangeness of the alliterative verse, the sonorous music of the language--all of these things take me back (as surely they must have done for 13th century Icelanders) to a different world of larger-than-life characters.

And it's hard to imagine anyone more larger-than-life than Hervor (who, as it happens, also wants to speak with the dead). Stunningly beautiful, as a young woman she cares more for swordplay and horsemanship than for weaving or embroidery, and takes out her teenage angst by essentially heading for the woods and living the life of a bandit. After she is goaded about her parentage by a slave, she decides to prove she is actually the daughter of the famous berserker Angantyr by going and claiming the family's cursed sword from her father's ghost. This she eventually manages to do, as the poem retells, after Angantyr's repeated attempts to terrify her fail. But it turns out Angantyr has a good reason for denying his daughter the sword: It is cursed, and if she takes it it will be the ruin of all her family. Hervor acknowledges this, but says she doesn't care. As so often is the case in these stories, the prophecy comes true. By her pride, Hervor secures her reputation, but dooms her future heirs.

Hervor (like Eowyn or Turin Turambar) is the sort of proud, doomed character with whom I fall in love rather easily, and the Hervararkviða--which I first encountered during Signum's Introduction to Old Norse--is one of my favorite Old Norse poems.

But do we really need another edition?

That's a good question. After all, a very good critical edition of the whole of Hervarar saga (a synthesis of the three main manuscript sources) is freely available from The Viking Society for Northern Research, as is a facing translation and commentary by Christopher Tolkien. I'll answer this question in my next post, when I introduce the methodology I am using in this project, and what will make The Digital Hervararkviða so different from previous editions of the poem.

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