The Medieval Review 15.01.11

Whaley, Diana. Poetry from the Kings' Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages, 1. Turnhout: Brepols, 2012. Pp. ccxv, 1206. €165.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9782503518961 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Martin Chase
Fordham University

This massive two-part book is the third of nine planned volumes of the Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages series to be published: Poetry on Christian Subjects (vol. 7) appeared in 2008 and Poetry from the Kings' Sagas 2 (vol. 2) in 2009. Poetry from the Kings' Sagas 1, edited by Diana Whaley with the assistance of an impressive cohort of contributing editors, includes the poetry found in Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla and other sagas of the medieval kings of Norway. In addition to the portion of the skaldic corpus indicated by the title, Poetry from the Kings' Sagas 1 contains a substantial general introduction to all nine volumes.

The introduction provides insight into the many decisions the general editors of the series had to make about the procedures they would follow. The edition was conceived as a much-needed replacement for Finnur Jónsson's Den norsk-islandske skjaldedigtning (since 1915 the standard scholarly edition of skaldic poetry), and there is a tendency to follow Finnur's example where there is no compelling reason not to do so. This is apparent from the outset in the editors' determination of what constitutes "the skaldic corpus." Modern scholarship has traditionally divided Old Norse/Icelandic poetry into the subgenres "skaldic" and "eddic," and the general introduction provides a helpful discussion of the blurred boundaries between them. The editors note the significance of internal criteria (meter, subject matter, poetic language) as well as external ones (context of preservation, social context of composition), but the upshot is that they capitulate [their word] to scholarly tradition and like Finnur, define skaldic poetry by what it is not, setting out to include in the edition all Old Norse poetry up to the end of the fourteenth century apart from "the Poetic Edda corpus." This in turn begs the question of what the Poetic Edda Corpus is: here it is defined as "the Poetic Edda anthology [i.e. the Codex Regius: Reykjavik, Árni Magnússon Institute, GKS 2365, 4to] and eddic poetry regarded as closely related to it." The editors of Kommentar zu den Liedern der Edda (ed. Klaus von See, Julia Zernack, et al., Frankfurt, 2001-) and Eddukvædi I-II (ed. Jónas Kristjánsson and Vésteinn Ólason, Reykjavík, 2014) have likewise capitulated to tradition (likewise commenting on the blurred boundaries) in setting the scope of their editions.

This is eminently sensible from the point of view of dividing up the labor to avoid unnecessary reduplication of the editorial work and deliver the freshly edited texts into the hands of readers as quickly as possible, but it unfortunately tends to obscure the need for a reassessment of the ways we classify the poetry. The poems Haraldskvæði, Eiríksmál, and Hákonarmál, for example--expertly edited for this volume by R. D. Fulk--stand out in sharp contrast alongside the classic "skaldic" verses in dróttkvætt meter. Their meter, subject matter, and poetic language are those characteristic of the "eddic" poems, but the context of their preservation is the manuscripts of the kings' sagas--although Hákonarmál is recorded as a continuous whole (as are the eddic poems), rather than as isolated stanzas embedded in the prose narrative. Those familiar with these texts will appreciate the nuance of Fulk's designation of them as "the three early-eddic praise poems in the skaldic corpus," (Gabriel Turville-Petre called them "poems of praise in pre-scaldic style," while Jón Helgason said they are metrically and stylistically close to eddic poetry) but it may strike newcomers as self-contradictory and perplexing, at least until they delve into his commentary. Future readers, who will turn to Poetry from the Kings' Sagas 1 for the standard editions of these poems, will understandably be inclined to think of them as "skaldic."

The series departs from Finnur Jónsson's edition in its division of the material according to the context of its preservation rather than chronologically: forthcoming volumes will include Poetry from Treatises on Poetics, Poetry on Icelandic History, Poetry in Sagas of Icelanders, Runic Poetry, and Poetry in Fornaldarsögur. This is a logical arrangement of a body of texts where there is so little certainty about authorship and date, and it will undoubtedly influence future scholarly approaches to both the poetry and the prosimetrical contexts in which so much of it is preserved. The editors describe their method as "essentially conservative," by which they mean that "there is at least a predisposition to considering the merits of unfamiliar linguistic or stylistic usages." But to readers accustomed to the methods of the new philology, the editorial attempt to recover "the archetype and through that the poet's own words" can be jarring, given that the dates of the earliest manuscripts and the presumed dates of composition are often several centuries apart.

Likewise contrary to the new philology is the systematic normalization of the language of the poems. The editors acknowledge that "the dating of skaldic poetry is notoriously difficult," but they nevertheless "attempt to reproduce orthographically the presumed state of the language at the time of poetic composition." Using the linguistic changes outlined in Adolf Noreen's Altnordische Grammatik as a guide, they determine distinguishing characteristics for four periods (ninth century to 1200, 1200-1250, 1250-1300, and 1300-1400), and normalize the texts accordingly. This certainly promotes ease of reading, especially for readers accustomed to the similar approach of Finnur Jónsson and the Íslensk fornrit editions of the sagas, but it can give an overly optimistic notion of what can be known with certainty about both the dating of the poetry and the evolution of the language. The poems are also normalized on metrical grounds, so that where possible they conform to the rules for rhyme, meter, and diction outlined in Snorri Sturluson's Edda. The standardization helps the reader understand the artfulness of the dróttkvætt at its high point, but again (as with standardized editions of medieval and early modern English texts) it may hide the nuances of what counted as rhyme or what metrical variation was permitted at a time when both language and poetic aesthetic were changing.

None of this is meant as negative criticism: bringing any medieval text to print necessitates decisions about how it will appear, and the editors have managed to achieve a format that is coherent, systematic, and meaningful. The true beauty of the edition, however is the accompanying Skaldic Database edited by Tarrin Wills and currently accessible at The printed edition shows us the tip of the skaldic iceberg; the Database reveals what lies beneath. Indeed, the knowledge that they were making all the relevant information available in the Database must have given the editors greater confidence as they made their judgments about the printed edition. The new philologist uneasy with normalized and emended texts can find here, in addition to the text and commentary of the book, digital scans and transcriptions of the manuscripts, a lexical concordance, metrical concordance, kenning index, links to digitized dictionaries, earlier editions, and much more, all viewable in an interactive interface by moving the cursor across the words of the stanza. The Database claims to allow "a seamless transition for the end-user between the material record of the poetry, the poetry itself, and its language, analysis and description": it achieves this and more. It stands out among digital editions and other digital humanities projects for its comprehensiveness, accuracy, and ease of use, and others would do well to use it as a model. The introduction to Poetry from the Kings' Sagas 1 discusses the Database and some of its features--which are growing so exponentially that many may not yet have existed at the time of the publication of the book--but its availability is a secret rather too well kept. There is no mention of how to access it, or the pertinent information that the electronic editions of the published volumes are publicly available after two years from the publication date, or that subscribers to the more recent books can set up log-in access by corresponding with the Database editor.

With notable exceptions (Hákonarmál, Jómsvíkingadrápa, Rekstefja, Óláfs drápa Tryggvasonar) the manuscript context of the poetry of the kings' sagas is prosimetrical, that is, the stanzas of poetry are interspersed in the prose of the saga narratives. The manuscripts often attribute stanzas to particular skalds, and sometimes name the longer poems from which they are cited, but editors were faced with reconstructing the original texts. The reconstructed texts are more often than not fragmentary, and it can be difficult to know how to order the stanzas, or even to determine which stanzas belong to a larger poem. These decisions have been left up to the individual contributing editors, and in many cases new (and convincing) readings have emerged. This is the case with Edith Marold's editions of Glymdrápa and Vellekla, Alison Finlay's of Gráfeldardrápa, and Russell Poole's of Hákonardrápa and Nesjavísur: the editors have pondered the suggestions made by scholars in the course of the century since the publication of Finnur Jónsson's edition, applied their own good judgment, and proposed new versions. In his edition of Haraldskvæði, on the other hand, R. D. Fulk finds, in light of inconclusive evidence and lack of scholarly consensus, that there is no convincing reason to alter Finnur Jónsson's necessarily arbitrary arrangement. In all these cases the commentary is enlightening and raises the question of how important or fixed the order of stanzas was to the skalds themselves. Poems, closer to the eddic-skaldic frontier, that are composed in non-syllable counting meters present additional challenges: Marold's edition of Ynglingatal and Poole's of Háleygjatal wrestle with the basic questions of how to divide the poems into lines and stanzas and provide new matter for our understanding of the metrical forms.

Diana Whaley has contributed a fifty-page introduction to Poetry from the Kings' Sagas 1 to supplement the one-hundred-page general introduction, in which she lays out the nightmarishly complex textual history of the volume's contents: thirty-one traditions comprising more manuscripts than I cared to count, as well as biographies of the twenty-three rulers and dignitaries the poems commemorate. It will be useful both to scholars of the Kings' Sagas and to skaldicists. She is to be commended for the timely completion of so demanding a work, and above all for delivering it apparently without a single typo. My only regret is that neither the general introduction nor her introduction to the volume is included in the index. The highly developed search functions of the Database compensate for this, but I suspect that many readers will miss a page index to the material as they sit with the printed volumes.

Poetry from the Kings' Sagas 1, like the other published volumes of the series, is stunning in the amount of information--both documentary and interpretive--that it makes available, and perhaps equally stunning in its implication of how much is still unknown or uncertain and remains to be discovered. This volume is particularly wide in the scope of its interest: poetic form, the prosimetrical genre, transmission of texts, Norwegian history, pre-Christian Nordic religion, and much more. We can look forward to the new wave of skaldic studies it is certain to generate. It lives up to the high standards and, not least, the efficiency of the series thus far, and bodes well for the volumes that are still forthcoming.

Copyright (c) 2015 Martin Chase

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