03.01.02, Ross, ed., The Old Norse Poetic Translations of Thomas Percy

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Tom Shippey

The Medieval Review baj9928.0301.002


Ross, Margaret Clunies, ed.. The Old Norse Poetic Translations of Thomas Percy: A New Edition and Commentary. Series: Making the Middle Ages, 4. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2001. Pp. xiii, 290.
Reviewed by:
Tom Shippey

Thomas Percy's present fame rests on his Reliques of Ancient English Poesy, published in 1765, a work which gave the inspiration to the Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge as well as Scott's collection of Border ballads, and which ensured that English Romanticism would at the same time be very largely English medievalism. However, two years before that date Percy published a work which has become less famous and very much less available to scholars, his Five Pieces of Runic Poetry. Yet its importance on the less-than-scholarly level can hardly be over-estimated. In it Percy introduced his readers to the word "saga" -- it had been used before, but in the much larger and more expensive format of George Hickes's Linguarum vett. Septentrionalium Thesaurus (1703-5). He instructed them about barrows, and runic letters, and heroes who died laughing. Not far away, hinted at or described in the Five Pieces and to be expressed in so many words in Percy's Northern Antiquities of 1770, were the ideas of Valhalla, and the Norns of destiny, and the Valkyries who choose the slain, all of them now part of the mental furniture of the Western world, but completely unknown even to the educated in the eighteenth century.

Most memorably if most unfortunately, Percy launched on the world the stereotype of the bloodthirsty Viking drinking beer out of the skulls of his enemies. This has become the very stuff of comic books -- in Asterix et les Normands the Normans who confront the dimunitive French hero continually offer each other a convivial skull: "O, je ne refuse jamais un petit crane." The idea is based on a characteristic mistranslation of the most puzzling feature of skaldic verse, the liking for elaborate periphrases. So, in stanza 25 of "The Dying Ode of Regner Lodbrog" (or "Krakumal") the text as given by Percy reads Drekum bior ad bragde / Ur piukvidum hausa, not exactly accurate but recognizable (with hindsight) as "we shall drink beer from the curved trees of skulls," i.e. out of drinking-horns. But Percy translates, following Ole Worm, "we shall drink BEER out of the sculls of our enemies." The mistake has been repeatedly criticized by every scholar who has commented on the poem, it entirely contradicts modern attempts to rehabilitate the Vikings culturally, but too late: the image has proved ineradicable.

Percy's work is accordingly an important document not only in the reception of Old Norse literature, but in the history of sensibility, but it has been hard to locate and hard to understand. In this new edition, Margaret Clunies Ross provides a facsimile of the Five Pieces itself, with facing page commentary and explanation keyed to marginal notes; an Introduction; and a further edition of Percy's translations of Old Norse poems in Bodleian MS Percy c. 7. The story attached to this latter, detailed in the Introduction, is as follows. Percy proposed a collection of "runic" poems to his mentor William Shenstone in 1760, sending him "The Epicedium of Haco" ("Hakonarmal")and three stanzas from two other skaldic poems. Shenstone tolerated the "Epicedium" but rejected the fragments, which Percy accordingly did not include in his 1763 publication. He carried on translating, however, and there are four sets of skaldic verses surviving in manuscript, including two versions of the poem "Darratharljoth," to become famous in 1768 in Thomas Gray's version, "The Fatal Sisters." Taken together, Ross declares, these four sets "provide an excellent introduction to Norwegian and Icelandic skaldic poetry of the late ninth and tenth centuries," being "far less influenced by the blood and guts ideas of Viking Age society and its poetry" than the poems in Five Pieces -- though that, no doubt, is why they were not published.

Percy had other goals, however, besides introducing Old Norse to English readers. One was to make them feel that they had some claim on it. Four of the five pieces he published have some connection or other with Britain, or specifically with England. Regner Lodbrog was killed in Northumbria, "The Ransome of Egill the Scald" ("Hofuthlausn") was allegedly composed in York, the "Haco" of the "Epicedium" was brought up at the court of King Athelstan, and the Harold of "The Complaint of Harold" was the Norwegian king killed at Stamford Bridge in 1066. Only "The Incantation of Hervor," now known as "The Waking of Angantyr," is entirely non-English, and that satisfied another probable intention, also aimed at in "The Complaint of Harold," which was to provide an interest for female readers. Yet another and more overt purpose was to make a telling contrast with the Ossian translations being published from 1760 by James Macpherson. Macpherson never produced his manuscript originals, so Percy makes a point of printing his and indicating his scholarly sources. In his "Preface" Percy remarks disingenuously that it must appear "to the greatest disadvantage" of his own work to have it "brought into a comparison with those beautiful pieces." And yet, who can say to what they owe their superiority? No-one will know "till the Translator thinks proper to produce his originals." Quite what was the power of national feeling in this literary quarrel between an Englishman and a Scotsman, fourteen years after the battle of Culloden, Ross (an Australian) does not try to estimate, but the details of the facsimile suggest that Percy is almost guying his competitor visually.

The other main feature of Ross's work is her careful disentangling of Percy's sources. Besides the Hickes Thesaurus, Percy had a fair amount available to him in early Scandinavian editions by, for instance, Ole Worm (1636), Olaus Verelius (1672), Thomas Bartholin (1689), and Johan Peringskiold (1697), but there was a tendency for them to repeat each other. Percy's "Incantation of Hervor," for instance, is taken from Verelius's Swedish edition of the Hervarar Saga, but the poem was translated into English from Verelius's Swedish translation by Hickes, or by a Swedish collaborator of Hickes, in the Thesaurus, and was also translated into Latin by Bartholin. Percy knew all these works and might cut from one to the other. Furthermore, he had the great assistance of his close neighbour Edward Lye, whose parish of Yardley Hastings in Northamptonshire was less than two miles from Percy's own parish of Easton Maudit. Percy could therefore walk over, borrow books, and get the help of the much more linguistically learned Lye on anything that gave him trouble.

Ross explains carefully and well what Percy had available, what he understood or did not understand, and where he went wrong -- the latter nearly always, I would suggest, from a familiar kind of "audience pressure," as Percy struggled to get in what his readers wanted, or to remove what they could not take. In the latter category is anything that seems "low," like the mention of male nether garments -- Lodbrog stays Lodbrog, not "hairy trousers" or worse "hairy breeks" -- or too much stress on the ungentlemanly drink of beer. It is all right to "quaff full goblets," but mentioning what is in the goblets is avoided where it can be: perhaps beer, in the quotation above, is felt to go with the skulls. In the former category is anything that might interest or placate a female audience: the Norse feinkum vier Thoru, "we got Thora," becomes in Worm's Latin impetravimus Thoram, but in Percy's English "my reward was the beauteous Thora." It is a strange image that Percy creates in his published and unpublished translations, the tenth century as seen through the eighteenth, but it has been a powerful and persistent one. To the previously unknown translations of skaldic verse Ross has added Percy's two attempts at the Old English "Battle of Brunanburh," to round off a very complete and valuable act of scholarly recovery.

It needs to be said finally that Brepols have created an unusually beautiful and well-produced volume, easy to read, devoid of error, splendidly and solidly bound. If only standards were as high as this with all university presses.

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Tom Shippey