Wood Wroth's Reviews > The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore

The Elder Edda by Anonymous
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Dec 03, 13

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PLEASE NOTE: Due to poor organization of translations on this website, I must note that this is a review of Andy Orchard's translation of the "Poetic Edda", which he has titled "The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore".


Being familiar with Andy Orchard's handbook on Norse mythology ("Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend", 1997) and finding it to be a nice middle ground between Rudolf Simek's deeply flawed handbook and the limited scope of John Lindow's own, it was with high hopes that I waited for Andy Orchard's 2011 English translation of the Poetic Edda, or, alternately, as Orchard has chosen to go with here, the "Elder Edda". Specifically I had hoped that Orchard's 2011 Penguin Classics translation would be a superior alternative to Carolyne Larrington's commonly available Oxford World's Classics translation (titled "The Poetic Edda" and first published in 1996). Unfortunately, Orchard's translation not only continues most of the problems found in Larrington's translation, but also introduces a variety of new issues.

Let's begin with the title. This translation of the Poetic Edda is titled "The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore", and the material contained within is frequently referred to as "viking lore" throughout. Referring to these poems as "viking lore" may have been a marketing decision intended to move units, but it is unfortunately misleading; the lore in question primarily dates from the Viking Age, sure, but elements of the compositions date at least as far back as the Migration Period (the 5th to 9th century CE) and other elements are from a few hundred years after the Viking Age ended (the Poetic Edda was compiled in the 13th century and the Viking Age is held to have ended in the 11th century). Further, famous as the vikings are, they made up a small fraction of Scandinavian society at their greatest. Daily life among the vast majority of the North Germanic peoples was focused squarely on matters pastoral and agricultural and had little to do with this specific class of Norsemen. Anyway, a minor gripe, but it needs to be pointed out.

The introduction essay is considerably more hairy. The first major issue here is Orchard's handling of weekday names. Orchard makes it seem as if the English days of the week are of Old Norse origin (p. xvii) and, consequently, that modern English "Friday" is named after the goddess Freyja. In actuality, these weekday names were put in place by way of a process known as interpretatio germanica. This occurred in nearly all recorded Germanic languages and well before the Viking Age. As a result, the English weekday names are not a product of Old Norse influence but arose natively, and so bear the names of native Anglo-Saxon deities. As a result, English "Friday" in fact translates to 'Frige's Day'. Old English "Frige" is linguistically cognate to the name of the Old Norse goddess "Frigg", and not that of the Old Norse goddess Freyja. Why Orchard offers this muddled commentary rather than simply pointing out how closely related the English and the Norse were I do not know. It would have likely have whetted the interest of the reader to point out that, as is the case with all Germanic languages and mythologies, the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse were fellow siblings of a Proto-Germanic mother.

Later in his introduction, Orchard offers up some curious personal commentary as simple fact. The first incident of this occurs when Orchard discusses women in the mythological poems contained within the Poetic Edda. According to Orchard, "in the mythical world of the Codex Regius [the most important Poetic Edda manuscript], women are largely scheming and suspect, when they are not simply victims or the objects of unwanted sexual attention" (xx). From Freyja's ferocious refusal to be downtrodden in "Þrymskviða" (p. 98), to Odin's reminder that men can be just as untrustworthy as women in "Hávamál" (p. 27), to Odin's dependence upon the wisdom of an ancient, dead female völva in "Völuspá" (pp. 1-14), this is a particularly dubious interpretation of the role of the numerous goddesses, valkyries, and other strong-willed, strong-minded female beings depicted in these poems. True, the female aspect of Germanic mythology is far under-represented in these poems, but so are most things that don't relate to the god Odin or royalty, likely due to the source of their recording (skalds of particular royal courts). Orchard might have pointed out the strong female component found in our records of Germanic paganism and its mythology. Beginning with veneration of Nerthus as recorded by Tacitus in 1 CE (Germania) on to repeated references to a strong tradition of powerful, intelligent seeressess wielding power throughout the records of the heathen Germanic peoples (such as Veleda, Albruna, Waluburg, Ganna, and Gambara), and reaching all the way up to our records of Norse mythology, it is clear that women were no lesser beings to the pre-Christian Germanic peoples.

In the same section is Orchard's commentary on what he calls "the twin fatal flaws of Norse pagan belief" (p. xxxv). Orchard says these two flaws were that Norse pagan beliefs were "fragmented" and also "had an uncertain future". Regarding his first point, Orchard claims that since Germanic (or specifically Norse) paganism appears to have been fragmented and non-unified, it was destined to be replaced by Christianity. However, what he neglects to mention is that while few surviving sources on continental Germanic paganism exist, these sources frequently seem to closely parallel the Old Norse material (i.e. the Merseburg Incantations, Nerthus>Njörðr, etc.), which points to more unity than Orchard is willing to give credit for here, despite the vast distances in time and place between these attestations.

Orchard's second point revolves around Norse afterlife beliefs, which he describes as a simple Valhalla-Ragnarök model (on an apparently linear timescale). Orchard briefly compares this to Christianity's afterlife narrative, which he evidently deems to have offered more to believers and thus insinuates that it was therefore more attractive. This is problematic for multiple reasons, but the primary reason is that the Germanic afterlife beliefs were clearly nowhere near as simple as Orchard here says (which the Poetic Edda alone makes perfectly clear). From references to reincarnation and reduplication of mythical elements (and so to the potential of cyclic time), to several distinctly different methods of burial on the archaeological record, to references in the Poetic Edda to ill-defined afterlife locations such as Freyja's afterlife field Fólkvangr (notably, Orchard ignores that Odin is in fact attested as having to cede half of his harvest of the dead to the goddess, even though he takes the time to problematically render Fólkvangr as--groan--"Battle-Field" (p. 52)), this is a gross simplification on the part of Orchard that is entirely misleading and does not help his audience in understanding the material he presents.

Yet what is perhaps most striking about Orchard's claim of "twin fatal flaws" is that he for some reason neglects to mention the primary reason for this shift in religion: the systemic, bloody, and much-resisted process of the Christianization of Germanic Europe. From Charlemagne's crusade against the pagan Saxons, waged with extermination orders for those that refused Christianization in hand (see Charlemagne's infamous "Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae" and the Massacre of Verden), to archaeological finds of mass employment of emblematic replicas of Thor's hammer all over Scandinavia as a defiant responses to enclosing Christian crosses, and references to death-or-conversion throughout the Old Norse record, it is inappropriate for Orchard to fob off these events with a poorly-supported theory of supposed "flaws".

It is further crucial to mention that, despite the Christianization process, elements of these beliefs continued to live on in folklore and folk practice, where deity names are recorded as in use until as late as the 19th century in Germanic-language speaking areas, sometimes exactly in the context of Old Norse attestations (!). These beliefs have also been the source in modern times for modern reconstructionist Germanic pagan groups. In fact, as Orchard mentions his fondess for taking trips to Iceland in his translation, he should well be aware that a modern Norse heathen movement now makes up the second largest religious group in the country; the ever-growing Ásatrúarfélagið. And they are hardly alone. Groups inspired by Germanic paganism now exist in every country in Europe, throughout the United States, South America, and as far away as Australia. Why does this sizable cultural shift get no mention here? While Orchard does mention that the Poetic Edda has had much literary influence through the years, it is by no means an overstatement to say that the Poetic Edda has been influential well beyond those dusty circles, and that the work remains a potent cultural force.

Moving on to the "A Note on Spelling, Pronunciation, and Translation" section, Orchard details some of his translation choices. Unfortunately, Orchard has decided to arbitrarily and inconsistently translate some of the proper names in the text to whatever he has most preferred. Mind-bogglingly, Orchard admits that this practice is "frankly indefensible" (p. xliv) but goes ahead and does it anyway! What exactly does this mean for the reader? Well, for example, the proper name Gullveig is rendered as "Gold-draught" (p. 8), despite the fact that it is just as likely that "Gullveig" could be rendered as something like "Gold-strength" or even (by way of semantic value) "The Bright One". Additionally, since these are proper names that may have been archaic in their time, this practice is a lot like referring to your 20th century pal Alfred as "Elf-Counsel", yet with far more etymological certainty than is available in most of the etymological troublesome proper nouns Orchard handles in his translation. Restricting this sort of tomfoolery to the Index of Names section in the back of the book would have avoided any confusion nicely, and Orchard's earlier handbook contains plenty of etymologies to draw from.

Adding to this unfortunate decision is Orchard's choice to continue the practice of inappropriate and unhelpful glossing found in some other translations. For example, the glosses "giant" and "ogre" (both derived from Greco-Roman mythology) are slapped on top of various words for a variety of beings specific to the mythology, such as "thurs", "jötunn", "risi", and "troll", rendering exactly what is being referred to unclear and the semantic context totally indiscernible. Even the place name "Jötunheimr" is rendered as "Giants' Domain". Besides, the source text is entirely unclear how "giant" any of these beings were considered at any given time. This poor practice should have been discontinued long ago, even if, yes, a minor note about what the scary, scary word may mean would be required. I mean, do we gloss "valkyrie" as "fury" or "Odin" as "Jupiter"? Fortunately not, and these culturally-specific concepts should be treated with the same level of respect.

Considering the whole package, there does not really seem to be a lot of reason for this translation to exist; it offers essentially nothing of particular value that its precursor (Larrington's translation) does not, and it frequently reads much like it. Additionally, it is an entirely bare-boned affair, free of any special media or aesthetic treatment, and the Old Norse is not included (a low-priced dual-edition translation remains unavailable for all current English translations). It further does not offer, say, translations of rarely published poems associated with the Poetic Edda (such as the wonderful "Hrafnagaldr Óðins", unfortunately restricted to some early translations). The inclusion of any of these elements would have set it apart from all other modern English translations. On the up side, it is useful for its footnotes--which, with the issues outlined above as examples, one would do well to eye with caution--and is also mildly useful as yet another translation to compare prior Poetic Edda translations to. Perhaps Penguin simply needed a translation similar to Oxford's Larrington translation and Orchard was up to the task. Whatever the case, the wait for a definitive English Poetic Edda translation continues.

I am not advising the reader to avoid this translation. In fact, short of Ursula Dronke's unavailable translation(s), a superior alternative does not come to mind. However, if one does decide to get this translation, he or she will benefit from searching online for Benjamin Thorpe's 19th century translation along with Henry Adam Bellows's early 20th century translation for comparison. Both translations are in the public domain. Due to his avoidance of glossing, Thorpe's translation in particular retains its value, and will counteract some of the confusion to be found here. Lee M. Hollander's mid-20th century translation is still widely available and is also useful for comparison. Otherwise, tread with care.
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message 1: by Rich (new) - added it

Rich I'm going to print this and put it in my book. Thanks.


message 2: by Alan (new)

Alan Sheinwald Sometimes when i'm bored and need a damn good laugh, i read fifty shades of grey reviews.


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Nicole I love this review.


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