10 April 2011

The Poetic Edda: The Hero Tales

One of my earliest memories is of waking up in my parents’ bed when I was very young. The light was shining softly through the curtained windows, and the bed was cool. The quiet of the morning was broken only by the chirping of birds and, from the wooded hill behind our house, the unearthly song of the whippoorwill. I don’t know if this is one memory or a series of memories mashed together in my mind. Somehow, it’s not the memory itself that matters, but the feeling of supreme peace and perfection that the memory calls to mind. This feeling is also tied inseparably with memories of my mother singing the song “In the Garden” many times. Along with this prevailing mood, I also have strong memories of a feeling of remoteness or distantness; it is a feeling of magic created by stories of King Arthur or knights in shining armor, a feeling of strong nobility and epic deeds. There is one time of the year in which both of these moods always combine seamlessly into one blissful tapestry, like Eden and Valhalla rolled into one: Christmas. This feeling or mood is indescribable, but I always feel a yearning for it. It is there in Christmastide, and there are a number of other stories, songs and books that kindle the flame. I know it when I feel it, but it’s incredibly hard to put into words.

Imagine my happiness when, in college, I realized that I was not alone in these feelings. C.S. Lewis wrote of the feeling he described as “northernness,” and tied it to the human longing for Joy. Though Lewis himself called the feeling indescribable, I recognized in his descriptions and in what Tolkien wrote of as the “noble northern spirit” the selfsame emotion stirred in me by these memories and stories. For both Tolkien and Lewis, the type of literature that best expresses this mood of the soul is Northern literature, that is the literature of the Norse and Germanic people of the Middle Ages. From my experience, they are absolutely correct. Beowulf and the Saga of the Volsungs are among my favorite books, and when I read the mythological poems of the Poetic Edda, I was delighted by every scrap of poetry in it. Naturally, I had to press onward and read hero poems as well.

The Poetic Edda is a collection of Icelandic poems collected in the 1100s and 1200s, though many of the poems date to a much earlier time period. They are, for the most part, pre-Christian poems, and show the roots of later Norse Sagas. The two main storylines in the poems are those of Helgi and Sigurd. The Sigurd/Gudrun/Atli cycle would eventually be the basis for the Saga of the Volsungs. Also I met an old friend from Anglo-Saxon poetry, Weyland the Smith (here called Weland).

There is a power in Norse poetry not to be found anywhere else. It contains all the magic of Welsh folktales, but with a noble heroism and hardness not found in the Welsh or Celtic stories. It is also fun to see these stories develop over time as different authors and editors arrange and compose material to fit their purposes. For example, the version of the stories composed in Greenland bear a marked difference from those composed in Iceland. I loved the Nibelungenlied and the Saga of the Volsungs, and it was nice to see the thread of the tapestry being woven and created over time. The story told is rich and deep, full of trust, betrayal, and strength in the face of death. I wouldn’t recommend this book for anyone not already familiar with the Norse tales. Read the Saga of the Volsungs first so that you can have a better appreciation for these remarkable poems. Other than that, this is one of the best books I’ve read this year I can’t praise it highly enough.

5/5 Stars

2 comments:

Chris said...

Although I don't understand it exactly, I too have experienced something akin to the feelings of the "northern noble spirit."

I'm presently reading Tolkien's rendition of Sigurd and Gundrun. This is my first experience with Norse poetry other than through the secondary influences of Lewis and Tolkien. I find it somewhat difficult but I appreciate the simple beauty of it. Perhaps, I'll check out the Poetic Edda in the near future

Rick said...

You should read the Saga of the Volsungs first. It tell the same story in prose that Tolkien is telling in verse in his Sigurd and Gudrun book. It's nice to have the background story before you get to the poetry.