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The Poetic Edda: The Heroic Poems

The Poetic Edda: The Heroic Poems

by Henry Adams Bellows

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Passed down long ago from poet to poet and singer to singer in the great oral tradition of Scandinavia, this collection of heroic sagas explores a mythical world. Incorporating legends of Norse gods and heroes, great fires and floods, superhuman warriors and doomed lovers, these dramatic poems weave vivid portraits of powerful characters caught up in passion, ambition


Passed down long ago from poet to poet and singer to singer in the great oral tradition of Scandinavia, this collection of heroic sagas explores a mythical world. Incorporating legends of Norse gods and heroes, great fires and floods, superhuman warriors and doomed lovers, these dramatic poems weave vivid portraits of powerful characters caught up in passion, ambition, and destiny. Filled with gripping conceptions of the world's creation and ultimate destruction, the verses chronicle the triumphs and tragedies of a lost mythological past, where words of wisdom and beauty echoed off the steel of waving swords.
The hero poems of The Poetic Edda are literary monuments that have inspired such luminaries as Richard Wagner and J. R. R. Tolkien. This Dover edition, which includes exceptionally detailed and complete translations by Henry Adams Bellows, will continue to enchant new generations of readers. It is a companion to The Poetic Edda: The Mythological Poems, also available from Dover Publications.

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By Henry Adams Bellows

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14060-5



Once let a figure become popular in oral tradition, and the number and variety of the incidents connected with his name will increase very rapidly. Doubtless there were scores of Weland stories current in the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries, many of them with very little if any traditional authority. The main one, however, the story of the laming of the smith by King Nithuth (or by some other enemy) and of Weland's terrible revenge, forms the basis of the Völundarkvitha. To this, by way of introduction, has been added the story of Völund and the swan-maiden, who, to make things even more complex, is likewise said to be a Valkyrie. Some critics maintain that these two sections were originally two distinct poems, merely strung together by the compiler with the help of narrative prose links; but the poem as a whole has a kind of dramatic unity which suggests rather that an early poet—for linguistically the poem belongs among the oldest of the Eddic collection—used two distinct legends, whether in prose or verse, as the basis for the composition of a new and homogeneous poem.

The swan-maiden story appears, of course, in many places quite distinct from the Weland tradition, and, in another form, became one of the most popular of German folk tales. Like the story of Weland, however, it is of German rather than Scandinavian origin, and the identification of the swan-maidens as Valkyries, which may have taken place before the legend reached the North, may, on the other hand, have been simply an attempt to connect southern tradition with figures well known in northern mythology.

The Völundarkvitha is full of prose narrative links, including an introduction. The nature of such prose links has already been discussed in the introductory note to the Grimnismol; the Volundarkvitha is a striking illustration of the way in which the function of the earlier Eddic verse was limited chiefly to dialogue or description, the narrative outline being provided, if at all, in prose. This prose was put in by each reciter according to his fancy and knowledge, and his estimate of his hearers' need for such explanations; some of it, as in this instance, eventually found its way into the written record.

The manuscript of the Volundarkvitha is in such bad shape, and the conjectural emendations have been so numerous, that in the notes I have attempted to record only the most important of them.

There was a king in Sweden named Nithuth. He had two sons and one daughter; her name was Bothvild. There were three brothers, sons of a king of the Finns: one was called Slagfith, another Egil, the third Völund. They went on snowshoes and hunted wild beasts. They came into Ulfdalir and there they built themselves a house; there was a lake there which is called Ulfsjar. Early one morning they found on the shore of the lake three women, who were spinning flax. Near them were their swan-garments, for they were Valkyries. Two of them were daughters of King Hlothver, Hlathguth the Swan-White and Hervor the All-Wise, and the third was Olrun, daughter of Kjar from Valland. These did they bring home to their hall with them. Egil took Olrun, and Slagfith Swan-White, and Völund All-Wise. There they dwelt seven winters; but then they flew away to find battles, and came back no more. Then Egil set forth on his snowshoes to follow Olrun, and Slagfith followed Swan-White, but Völund stayed in Ulfdalir. He was a most skillful man, as men know from old tales. King Nithuth had him taken by force, as the poem here tells.

Prose. Nithuth ("Bitter Hater") : here identified as a king of Sweden, is in the poem (stanzas 9, 15 and 32) called lord of the Njars, which may refer to the people of the Swedish district of Nerike. In any case, the scene of the story has moved from Saxon lands into the Northeast. The first and last sentences of the introduction refer to the second part of the poem; the rest of it concerns the swan-maidens episode. Bothvild ("Warlike Maid"): Volund's victim in the latter part of the poem. King of the Finns: this notion, clearly later than the poem, which calls Völund an elf, may perhaps be ascribed to the annotator who composed the prose introduction. The Finns, meaning the dwellers in Lapland, were generally credited with magic powers. Egil appears in the Thithrekssaga as Völund's brother, but Slagfith is not elsewhere mentioned. Ulfdalir ("Wolf-Dale"), Ulfsjar ("Wolf-Sea"), Valland ("Slaughter-Land") : mythical places without historical identification. Valkyries: cf. Voluspo, 31 and note; there is nothing in the poem to identify the three swan-maidens as Valkyries except one obscure word in line 2 of stanza 1 and again in line 5 of stanza 5, which may mean, as Gering translates it, "helmed," or else "fair and wise." I suspect that the annotator, anxious to give the Saxon legend as much northern local color as possible, was mistaken in his mythology, and that the poet never conceived of his swan-maidens as Valkyries at all. However, this identification of swan-maidens with Valkyries was not uncommon; cf. Helreith Brynhildar, 7. The three maidens' names, Hlathguth, Hervor, and Olrun, do not appear in the lists of Valkyries. King Hlothver: this name suggests the southern origin of the story, as it is the northern form of Ludwig; the name appears again in Guthrunarkvitha II, 26, and that of Kjar is found in Atlakvitha, 7, both of these poems being based on German stories. It is worth noting that the composer of this introductory note seems to have had little or no information beyond what was actually contained in the poem as it has come down to us; he refers to the "old stories" about Völund, but either he was unfamiliar with them in detail or else he thought it needless to make use of them. His note simply puts in clear and connected form what the verse tells somewhat obscurely; his only additions are making Nithuth a king of Sweden and Völund's father a king of the Finns, supplying the name Ulfsjar for the lake, identifying the swan-maidens as Valkyries, and giving Kjar a home in Valland.

    Maids from the south through Myrkwood flew,
    Fair and young, their fate to follow;
    On the shore of the sea to rest them they sat,
    The maids of the south, and flax they spun.

    Hlathguth and Hervor, Hlothver's children,
    And Olrun the Wise Kjar's daughter was.

    One in her arms took Egil then
    To her bosom white, the woman fair.

    Swan-White second,—swan-feathers she wore,
    And her arms the third of the sisters threw
    Next round Völund's neck so white.

    There did they sit for seven winters,
    In the eighth at last came their longing again,
    (And in the ninth did need divide them).
    The maidens yearned for the murky wood,
    The fair young maids, their fate to follow.

1. The manuscript indicates line 3 as the beginning of a stanza; two lines may have been lost before or after lines 1-2, and two more, or even six, with the additional stanza describing the theft of the swan-garments, after line 4. Myrkwood: a stock name for a magic, dark forest; cf. Lokasenna, 42.

2. In the manuscript these two lines stand after stanza 16; editors have tried to fit them into various places, but the prose indicates that they belong here, with a gap assumed.

3. In the manuscript these two lines follow stanza 1, with no gap indicated, and the first line marked as the beginning of a stanza. Many editors have combined them with stanza 4.

4. No lacuna indicated in the manuscript; one editor fills the stanza out with a second line running: "Then to her breast Slagfith embraced."

5. Line 3 looks like an interpolation, but line 5, identical with line 2 of stanza 1, may be the superfluous one.

    Völund home from his hunting came,
    From a weary way, the weather-wise bowman,
    Slagfith and Egil the hall found empty,
    Out and in went they, everywhere seeking.

    East fared Egil after Olrun,
    And Slagfith south to seek for Swan-White;
    Völund alone in Ulfdalir lay,

    Red gold he fashioned with fairest gems,
    And rings he strung on ropes of bast;
    So for his wife he waited long,
    If the fair one home might come to him.

    This Nithuth learned, the lord of the Njars,
    That Völund alone in Ulfdalir lay;
    By night went his men, their mail-coats were studded,
    Their shields in the waning moonlight shone.

6. The phrase "Völund home from a weary way" is an emendation of Bugge's, accepted by many editors. Some of those who do not include it reject line 4, and combine the remainder of the stanza with all or part of stanza 7.

7. The manuscript marks the second, and not the first, line as the beginning of a stanza. Some editors combine lines 2-3 with all or part of stanza 8. No gap is indicated in the manuscript, but many editors have assumed one, some of them accepting Bugge's suggested "Till back the maiden bright should come."

8. No line in this stanza is indicated in the manuscript as beginning a new stanza; editors have tried all sorts of experiments in regrouping the lines into stanzas with those of stanzas 7 and 9. In line 3 the word long is sheer guesswork, as the line in the manuscript contains a metrical error.

9. Some editors combine the first two lines with parts of stanza 8, and the last two with the first half of stanza 10. Njars: there has been much, and inconclusive, discussion as to what this name means; probably it applies to a semi-mythical people somewhere vaguely in "the East."

    From their saddles the gable wall they sought,
    And in they went at the end of the hall;
    Rings they saw there on ropes of bast,
    Seven hundred the hero had.

    Off they took them, but all they left
    Save one alone which they bore away.

    Völund home from his hunting came,
    From a weary way, the weather-wise bowman;
    A brown bear's flesh would he roast with fire;
    Soon the wood so dry was burning well,
    (The wind-dried wood that Völund's was).

10. Some editors combine lines 3-4 with the fragmentary stanza 11.

11. No gap indicated in the manuscript; some editors combine these lines with lines 3-4 of stanza 10, while others combine them with the first two lines of stanza 12. The one ring which Nithuth's men steal is given to Bothvild, and proves the cause of her undoing.

12. The manuscript indicates line 3, and not line 1, as the beginning of a stanza, which has given rise to a large amount of conjectural rearrangement. Line 2 of the original is identical with the phrase added by Bugge in stanza 6. Line 5 may be spurious, or lines 4-5 may have been expanded out of a single line running "The wind-dried wood for Völund burned well."

    On the bearskin he rested, and counted the rings,
    The master of elves, but one he missed;
    That Hlothver's daughter had it he thought,
    And the all-wise maid had come once more.

    So long he sat that he fell asleep,
    His waking empty of gladness was;
    Heavy chains he saw on his hands,
    And fetters bound his feet together.

    Völund spake:

    "What men are they who thus have laid
    Ropes of bast to bind me now?"

    Then Nithuth called, the lord of the Njars:
    "How gottest thou, Völund, greatest of elves,
    These treasures of ours in Ulfdalir?"

    Völund spake:

    "The gold was not on Crani's way,
    Far, methinks, is our realm from the hills of the Rhine;
    I mind me that treasures more we had
    When happy together at home we were."

13. Elves: the poem here identifies Völund as belonging to the race of the elves. Hlothver's daughter: Hervor; many editors treat the adjective "all-wise" here as a proper name.

15. In this poem the manuscript indicates the speakers. Some editors make lines 1-2 into a separate stanza, linking lines 3-5 (or 4-5) with stanza 16. Line 3 is very possibly spurious, a mere expansion of "Nithuth spake." Nithuth, of course, has come with his men to capture Völund, and now charges him with having stolen his treasure.

16. The manuscript definitely assigns this stanza to Völund, but many editors give the first two lines to Nithuth. In the manu- script stanza 16 is followed by the two lines of stanza 2, and many editions make of lines 3-4 of stanza 16 and stanza z a single speech by Völund. Grani's way: Grani was Sigurth's horse, on which he rode to slay Fafnir and win Andvari's hoard; this and the reference to the Rhine as the home of wealth betray the southern source of the story. If lines 1-2 belong to Völund, they mean that Nithuth got his wealth in the Rhine country, and that Völund's hoard has nothing to do with it; if the speaker is Nithuth, they mean that Völund presumably has not killed a dragon, and that he is far from the wealth of the Rhine, so that he must have stolen his treasure from Nithuth himself.


Excerpted from THE POETIC EDDA by Henry Adams Bellows. Copyright © 2007 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Henry Adams Bellows is also known for his acclaimed translation of Peter Abélard's The Story of My Misfortunes. His work on The Poetic Edda is praised for its balanced approach.

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