The Medieval Review 10.03.08

Gade, Kari Ellen. Poetry from the Kings' Sagas 2: From c. 1036 to c. 1300 (2 vols.). Part I: Poetry by Named Skalds c. 1035-1105. Part II: Poetry by Named Skalds c. 1105-1300 and Anonymous Poetry. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages, vol.2. Turnhout: Brepols, 2009. Pp. cvii, 914. $160 ISBN 978-2-503-51897-8. .

Reviewed by:

Roberta Frank
Yale University
Roberta.Frank@yale.edu

This is another landmark publication, the second in a planned nine-volume series that will place the study of skaldic verse on a new footing (see TMR 09.10.19). Few bodies of medieval vernacular verse are stranger, richer, more unsettling, and less mined than the poetry of the early North. At the beginning of the nineteenth century Thomas Love Peacock disparaged skaldic verse as "a rhapsody of rejoicing in carnage, a ringing of changes on the biting sword and the flowing of blood and the feast of the raven and the vulture, and fulsome flattery of the chieftain, of whom the said skald was the abject slave, vassal, parasite and laureat, interspersed with continual hints that he ought to be well paid for his lying panegyrics." Readers of the strikingly weird English paraphrases in Gudbrand Vigfusson's Corpus Poeticum Boreale (1883) could be forgiven for responding the same way. In the past, access to the skaldic corpus--whose five-thousand stanzas are dispersed in three hundred and seventy manuscripts--was restricted to a small group of Old Norse scholars with facility in Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, and Norwegian, the languages of the standard research tools. The English introductions, translations, and notes in Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages are now making this treasure-trove available to the rest of the world.

Poetry from the Kings' Sagas 2: From c. 1035 to c. 1300 is the companion volume to Poetry from the Kings' Sagas 1 (forthcoming), which will stop at 1035, the death of Cnut the Great. The book under review contains over eight hundred stanzas and half-stanzas by fifty-nine named and a score of anonymous skalds, mostly Icelanders. The contributing editors, in descending order of pages allotted, are: Diana Whaley (at 125 pages), Judith Jesch (55), Jayne Carroll (35), Valgerðr Erna Þorvaldsdóttir (23), Lauren Goetting (17), Russell Poole (7), and Matthew Townend (2). All have done a magisterial job with difficult texts and enticed new meaning out of old and sometimes soiled and torn manuscripts. Pride of place, however, goes to the unflappable and untiring volume editor, Kari Gade herself, who is not only responsible for the bulk of the stanzas edited here (about 70% or 600 pages) and the Introduction to the volume, but who also oversaw, in the course of four or five long months, eight complete sets of proofs. (Apparently the publisher's new print system was not fully compatible with the project's complex computer files.) It is impossible in a short review to do justice to the learning, interpretive range, paleographic skill, and stamina displayed by her and her fellow editors.

The stanzas in this volume occur, with only two exceptions, as verse quotations in thirteenth-century vernacular prose works about the kings of Norway, Denmark, and the earls of Orkney, or in thirteenth-century treatises on poetics and grammar. Saga-writers habitually divided extended poems into separate stanzas, and then distributed these stanzas throughout their sagas, quoting them as evidence for statements in the prose. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct securely the original sequence or number of stanzas in a skaldic poem. Sometimes the order of the dispersed stanzas is different in the different manuscripts of the same saga; sometimes the assigning of a particular stanza to a specific poem, or its attribution to a named skald, or the date of the event described or the identity of the recipient praised or blamed is problematic. The Introduction correctly criticizes Finnur Jónsson, editor of the two-volume standard edition of the corpus (1912-15), for having been "rather subjective in his assignment of stanzas to extended poems and in his arrangement of stanzas within these poems." But since scholars cannot distinguish with certainty between a variant stanza (the result of the vagaries of performance and two hundred years of transmission) and a rival or competing stanza on a similar event and belonging to the same or another poem, such subjectivity would seem hard to avoid.

The poets featured in this volume are presented in approximate chronological order, in accordance with the reigns of the rulers addressed. The editors carefully document and cross-reference any deviations from the standard edition. It seems to be editorial policy to accept the unanimous attributions ("Haraldr also said") of the sagas and poetic treatises, and then, when necessary, to "doubt wisely" in the notes to that stanza. Thus the first "skald" in the volume, King Magnús inn góði Óláfsson (r. 1035-47), is credited, as in Finnur's edition, with one undistinguished obscene ditty and one love-stanza. The editor nevertheless finds convincing Russell Poole's demonstration that the latter stanza probably belongs to a poem by another royal Magnús (387). As in the standard edition, fragments from the poetic treatises are sometimes inserted here and there in a reconstructed court poem if these verses seem to the editor to concern a person or an event therein addressed (160; see also 118-120, sts. 7 and 8 for an example). This procedure may be unavoidable, but it is still worrisome. The new edition is open and rigorous about its methodology, but it is dealing with a corpus in which uncertainty and variability are endemic.

The material gathered in this volume will launch, or so I hope, a thousand theses. This newly accessible verse has something for medievalists in many disciplines: history (naval, crusade, conversion, peace and conflict studies, state formation), of course, but also linguistics, anthropology, psychology, archaeology, theology, mythology, medicine, metallurgy, carpentry, and oral poetics, along with ornithology and ichthyology (names of birds and fish, useful in weapon-, warrior-, battle- and gold-kennings, abound). Anglo-Saxonists puzzled by the gifstol "gift-seat, throne" of Beowulf 168a can now ponder the meaning of gjafstóll in the verse of a thirteenth-century skald (722). Much of the poetry in the Kings' Sagas commemorates the careers, journeys, and campaigns of Scandinavian rulers; this volume covers their antics from the late Viking-Age to the High Middle Ages. The stanzas know of Africans and Bulgars, Saracens and Wends, Langobards and Saxons, Irish and Scots. Scandinavian warships sail the seas from Shetland and the northmost regions of the Saami to Venice and Sicily, Acre and Constantinople. Jerusalem is mentioned five times, Bergen, eleven times, and Russia (Garðar), fourteen times, but Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe islands not once. We meet great kings and not so great kings, their sidekicks and their nemeses--men saddled with epithets such as the good, the bad, the great, the stout, the black, the wise, the quiet, the taciturn, the mouth, round-eye, bare-leg, broad-shoulder, blood-axe, plough-penny, sow, pig, stone-wall, law-mender, garment-flap, hard-belly, paunch-shaker, broad-arsed, lump of lard, whining turd, and hillock-shit.

The volume's prefatory material and general introduction include a list of sigla and technical terms as well as a full account of the prose sources for the stanzas and the manuscripts (with stemmata) in which they are found. Kari Gade also provides a helpful overview of the lives of the rulers and dignitaries commemorated, usefully noting which events in their careers are entered in the various poems. There is a final Bibliography, and Index of First Lines, and Seven Indices of Names and Terms. At the end of the project, after all nine volumes have been published, its electronic database will be used to generate a new dictionary of the language of Old Norse poetry and a new analysis of kennings and kenning types. But the latter may be imperfect if some traditional kenning "solutions" are not given a second look. One thirteenth-century skald, for example, long before American slang got into the act, seems to have been fond of referring to battle-axes as women: "Brisk warriors made the troll-woman of battle [AXE] sing in the snow-storm of spears [BATTLE]" (685). And again: "The riding troll-women of green shields [AXES] tore the wall of Svolnir [SHIELD]" (714). But two stanzas later (715), when "the dísir (uncanny- or witch-women) of the sun and moon of Hogni's girl [= Hildr (hildr "battle") > SHIELDS] sing very shrill battle-songs with a sharp mouth around the heads of men...," the kenning is "solved" as [VALKYRIES], despite the immediately preceding axe-kenning, despite the skald's allusion to "sharp mouth," and despite the propensity of weapons in this verse to sing in battle. Finnur translated this kenning as "valkyries," but the goal of the new edition is to think outside the box.

The indirection and sophistication of the court poetry in this volume is noteworthy. A skald's vague-sounding aside--"one must make the forest denser with brush"--is a veiled warning to his king that every warrior, no matter how negligible, makes the army stronger (15). One stanza provides evidence that the snekkja, a warship whose size and type are elusive, was not certainly smaller than a skeið, as has been assumed (66). Another provides the first recorded instance of the abstract noun viking in skaldic verse (438). A third stanza is the sole independent evidence for a Danish king's journey to Russia (436) and his impressive multilingualism (439). We learn about twelfth-century raiders driving cattle down to a beach and slaughtering them for food (91), and get glimpses of the Vikings' mistreatment of a conquered population's women (95, 296, 302, 308, 487). One editor helpfully points out that the familiar-to-us metaphor in one stanza--"to weigh all the issues in the balance"--here refers to the portable scales used by traders (342); one seafaring skald calls churches "ships of services" (453) and the kenning-type catches on; a leader's death by sword is mockingly (to my ears) referred to as the "quivering illness (high fever, malaria?) of the gleam of the shield [=sword]" (717). Some puzzles are left unsolved, such as why a skald might give a cuckolded husband the female epithet "slender-fingered" (568)--or does this adjective describe instead the philandering Norwegian king? There is much in this volume for specialists to mull over, while those outside the field will discover for themselves the jagged conglomerate of the sensual and spiritual that is skaldic verse, the delight in hearing the sounds of words work magic.

This publication renews one's faith in the possibilities of scholarship. We owe a debt of gratitude to all those involved in bringing this series into being, not least the distinguished and many-hatted volume editor of Poetry from the Kings' Sagas 2.