The Poetic Edda, translated with an introduction and notes by Carolyne Larrington.
Oxford University Press, clothbound re-issue 2019. 347 pages.
Reviewed by Anthony Madrid
Here is something really good.
Back story. In 1999, I bought the first version of the book under review. It was, at the time, three years old, an Oxford World Classics specimen, back when they were mainly yellow and had those boxy titles in bold, Fiesta-ware stripes. Y2K was looming; everybody in NYC was ready for the lights to go out any second. Ragnarök.
I didn’t even know what the Poetic Edda was. I bought the book on the very sound principle that it seemed like the kind of thing Jorge Luis Borges would know all about and quote from. Reader, it is exactly that. Let me quote the first few sentences of the introduction:
The old, one-eyed god Odin hangs nine days and nights on the windswept ash-tree Yggdrasill, sacrificing himself to himself; the red-bearded Thor swings his powerful hammer against the giant enemy; the ravening wolf Fenrir leaps forward to seize the Father of the Gods in his slavering jaws; the terrible passion of Brynhild for the dragon-slayer hero Sigurd culminates in her implacable demand for his murder—all these famous scenes from Old Norse myth and legend are vividly staged in the Poetic Edda.
She’s not overselling the goods. The poems are crazy and very satisfyingly barbaric. They read like the effusions of men in helmets who drink honey straight from the hive, and scratch their nuts with weapons.
Something else you get from Carolyne Larrington’s introduction: she is a fine stylist. Her introduction by itself is worth the price of the book, but ya can’t help but think while you’re reading it “OK, but can she deliver the poetry?” She can. If you want a little taste, click on this piece I wrote, years ago, on “The Sayings of the High One,” my favorite item in the Poetic Edda. Look at how she handles the rhythm. I, for one, wondered if the original Icelandic could possible be any better.
Now, in 2019, for mysterious reasons, OUP has released this lovely hardcover of the book in its revised (2014) state. I should have thought this would be too much to ask for. The ’90s version is on that awful newsprinty paper that tans badly with age; mine is pretty shabby looking. The new hardcover is on much better stuff. Granted, it’s not bound with thread, but the cover is genuine cloth. So it should stand up to all the love you’re gonna be giving it.
Note. In 2011, Penguin Classics printed a version of this same material, trans. Andy Orchard, title The Elder Edda. In my (admittedly casual) opinion it reads an awful lot like the Larrington, which—you know what, that’s a good thing, if we’re being honest, and, who knows, it may be better than Larrington in parts. Somebody should do a careful comparison, sometime. ¶ Different in style, crunchier, AND she gives you the original Icelandic en face, is Ursula Dronke’s version, in several volumes, a million dollars each. She was Larrington’s teacher and is dead now. Then there’s the great translation from the ’20s by Henry Adams Bellows. You can read the whole text of that one online for free. Meanwhile, I’ve never looked at the Hollander (orig. pub. 1962). ¶ The version I can’t recommend is the surprisingly weak W.H. Auden version. He collaborated with somebody, I forget whom—somebody who knew Icelandic. The only reason to get that text is to delve the mystery of great poets and how they sometimes lose most of their talent during the last ten or fifteen years of their lives.
ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book is called Try Never (Canarium Books, 2017). www.anthonymadrid.net