The Medieval Review 17.09.10

Quinn, Judy and Adele Cipolla, eds. Studies in the Transmission and Reception of Old Norse Literature: The Hyperborean Muse in European Culture . Acta Scandinavica, 6. Turnhout: Brepols, 2016. pp. 355. ISBN: 978-2-503-55553-9 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Verena Höfig
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Studies in the Transmission and Reception of Old Norse Literature: The Hyperborean Muse in European Culture is an anthology dedicated to the impact of Old Norse-Icelandic literary works on later art forms. The ethnonym hyperborean in the title is used in reference to classical authors such as Herodotus or Pausanias, who identified the people living north at the fringes of the world as "beyond Boreas." Inspired by the hyperborean muse, the volume collects fifteen contributions, most of which were presented at an international conference in Verona in 2011. The articles are arranged in chronological order, starting with three texts on the transmission of Old Norse literature before and between the oldest extant manuscripts, followed by eight essays on adaptations of Old Norse literature ranging from Shakespeare to the propaganda works of Third Reich Germany. The remaining four contributions deal with contemporary medievalism, and focus on genres as diverse as contemporary poetry, crime fiction, and graphic novels and comics.

Part I of the book on the transmission of Old Norse literature commences with Adele Cipolla's survey of the editorial history of Snorra Edda, which is preserved in multiple manuscript versions with a high degree of variation that have proven to be challenging to the requirements of modern printed books. Outlining the changing methods and attitudes of scholars toward manuscript witnesses and the critical reconstruction of Snorra Edda, Cipolla isolates three phases in its editorial history and explores to what degree individual editors "confront the audience of editions and translations with the composite, heterogeneous character of the work in medieval manuscripts" (35). She finishes the article with a survey of synoptic editions of multi-version poetic texts that are now available online, including an ongoing Italian effort to publish a hypertextual version of Skáldskaparmál.

In her essay on recent editions of the eddic poem Völuspá, Judy Quinn argues against editorial creations of idealized texts, critically evaluating the rationale behind Ursula Dronke's 1997 edition of Völuspá and her underlying assumptions about its performance and composition - a "necessary, if pedantic, exercise" in her own words (73). Pedantic or not, Quinn convincingly demonstrates how the often multiple points of contact between orally performed poems and written recordings pose limits to traditional methodologies of textual criticism, especially the stemmatic method.

Unperturbed by Quinn's contribution which scrutinizes the use of stemmatic relations for manuscript editing, Odd Einar Haugen adds a case study of the importance of intermediary and (now lost) manuscripts when producing a stemma. Haugen focuses on "horizontal contamination" (the use of more than one exemplar of a manuscript by a copyist, a common practice in medieval textual transmission) in the example of the so-called First Grammatical Treatise (Fyrsta Málfræðaritgerðin). In so doing, Haugen presents two arguments against disregarding intermediary and now lost manuscripts (eliminatio codicum intermediorum) when producing a stemma for this short treaty on Icelandic phonetics.

The second part of the anthology shifts its focus from scribal to literary adaptation and the re-imagining of Old Norse literary works up to the twentieth century, beginning with two essays exploring the figure of Hamlet. In "In Search of Amlóða saga" Ian Felce tracks down the earliest references to a postulated Amlóða saga, and follows the traces of this tradition to a kenning preserved in Snorra Edda, Saxo's Gesta Danorum (its earliest extant rendering) and François de Belleforest's Histoires tragiques, which were known to Shakespeare. Felce ultimately ascribes the complexity of Shakespeare's Hamlet to the fact that Saxo's Gesta Danorum may have been a direct source of the Ur-Hamlet, the now lost play that provided Shakespeare with details of the medieval Scandinavian tradition that he could not have found in Belleforest's narrative.

Marcello Rossi Corradini traces down the sources of inspiration for Apostolo Zeno and Francesco Pariati's libretto Ambleto, composed in 1705, which draws from Saxo but not from Shakespeare (who was still unknown in Italy at the time), via the Latin works of Ole Worm and Thomas Bartholin. The author argues that this work "deserves to be rediscovered as an independent work of art, unconstrained by comparison to Shakespeare's masterpiece," as a drama that combines Hamlet's feigned madness in a sophisticated manner with the creation of a new genre of neo-classical tragedy (124).

In "Translations of Old Norse Poetry and the Lyric Novelties of Romanticism" Mats Malm investigates to what extent a "mimetic" mode of translating Old Norse texts (in which the translation follows the form of the original), for instance in Johannes Göransson's Hyperboreorum Edda of 1746, anticipated later romanticist ideals of German thinkers such as Johann Gottlieb Herder and Friedrich Schleiermacher. As Malm demonstrates, mimetic translation was not first launched by Schleiermacher's 1813 Ueber die verschiedenen Methoden des Uebersetzens, but several decades earlier by scholars in Scandinavia who edited and translated Old Norse texts.

Next, Tereza Lansing analyzes the post-medieval literary reception of Hrólfr kraki in Icelandic texts such as Rímur af Hrólfi kraka by Eiríkur Hallsson and Þorvaldur Magnússon, or Rímur af Hrólfi kóngi kraka by Vigfús Helgason, and Danish classics such as Rolf Krage by Johannes Ewald or the Skjöldung trilogy by Adam Oehlenschläger. Lansing then discusses the potential relationship of these works to the largely unknown and unedited fifteenth-century Icelandic text, Böðvars saga bjarka, a reworking of an earlier fornaldarsaga. Concluding her essay is a (disappointingly short) analysis of Poul Anderson's wonderful 1973 novel Hrolf Kraki's Saga, which Lansing classifies as an "Iron Age dystopia written at the height of the Cold War" which is "more pagan" than any of the other preserved literary works about Hrólfr (177).

Two essays on August Strindberg follow this section. Massimiliano Bampi looks at two works by the Swedish poet which are inspired by the legendary figure Starkaðr: Sagan om Stig Storverks son from 1906 and the unfinished play Starkodder Skald (only a prologue and final act are extant). While Strindberg was a passionate reader of Oehlenschläger and studied Old Norse literature during his student days in Uppsala, the two works Bampi discusses were written late, after the artist's Infernokris. What ultimately drew Strindberg to explore Starkaðr as a literary figure at this point in his life was, according to Bampi "the hero's fate, so full of sorrow and grief, which was determined by divine intervention" (193). His Starkaðr is a convergence of other well-known figures such as Hercules, Ahasverus and Merlin.

Maria Cristina Lombardi likewise explores Strindberg's interest in Old Norse works, this time in one of his early works, I vårbrytningen. This text is based on Áns saga bogsveigis, which Strindberg adapts to work through his own difficult relationship with his father, identifying with the outcast protagonist and adding another layer to his creation of an identity of a talented but scorned poet.

In "William Morris and the Poetic Edda," Alessandro Zironi tracks down William Morris' interest and subsequent reworkings of Old Norse texts, which were formative for his literary career, but not necessarily published during his lifetime (as in the case of his eddic translations). As Zironi demonstrates, the "ancient, uncorrupted ethics" of Iceland (as Morris perceived them in his studies) were an important foundation for Morris' thoughts about socialism (212). The article includes an edition of an unpublished lecture about the god Baldr, and two detailed tables listing Morris' collected Nordic works and calligraphic manuscripts on Old Norse topics.

Julia Zernack's essay is a detailed survey of the appropriation of Norse mythology as a tool of political propaganda, which, as she demonstrates, is not limited to Nazi propaganda but was already underway during earlier discussions about racial ideology in Northern Europe. Zernack focuses on two examples in particular: the transformation of a well-known quotation from the eddic poem Hávamál into a catch phrase of prominent presence in war literature of the early twentieth century and Neo-Nazi slogans ("Ewig lebt der Toten Tatenruhm"), and the political utilization of the gods Þórr and Heimdallr by right- and left-leaning political groups.

With the first essay in part III of the book, Heather O'Donoghue provides a short study of elements from Old Norse mythology in contemporary English and Scots poetry. After a useful survey of the various purposes to which mythic material from the North has been put in poetry in English from Thomas Gray onwards, the author focuses on the works of five poets, Pauline Stainer, Kathleen Jamie, Ian Duhig, Robin Robertson and Don Paterson. These authors' inspirations by the hyperborean muse led to a wide variety of interpretations of things Norse, for instance Stainer's rather sustained allusions to Yggdrasill in The Ice-Pilot Speaks, or Robertson's evocation of Adam of Bremen's reaction upon attending the great midwinter Sacrifice in Uppsala in the text of the same name.

Following are two contributions on Icelandic crime fiction. First, Chiara Benati analyzes Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson's 2004 novel Flateyjargáta, which deals with a series of murders occurring on the Icelandic island Flatey in the 1960s, while simultaneously immersing itself in the content of the famous fourteenth-century manuscript Flateyjarbók (named after the island). As Benati demonstrates, the importance of this manuscript, an "Old Norse 'Bible'" (298) lies in its function as "priceless symbol of identity, both for the small community of Flatey and for Iceland itself: it represents the extraordinary flourishing of culture in the Middle Ages and preserves Icelandic national pride, in addition to some of its most important literary texts" (308).

Second, Carolyne Larrington writes about Arnaldur Indriðason's tenth novel Konungsbók from 2006, a historical thriller that skillfully weaves together the history behind the return of the most famous Icelandic medieval manuscript in 1971 (the so-called Konungsbók or Codex Regius, containing most of the poems constituting the Poetic Edda) with settings in 1950s Copenhagen and rural Iceland during the 1860s. Teasing out some of the structural indebtedness that Arnaldur owes to Alfred Hitchcock's storytelling and filmmaking techniques, Larrington simultaneously reveals the novel's strong intertextual relationship with Halldór Laxness's trilogy Íslandsklukkan in this outstanding literary analysis.

The final contribution by Fulvio Ferrari focuses on the serialization of plots from sagas and eddic poems in Italian comics for children, and an Icelandic graphic novel series, Sögur úr Njálu. Two examples from the second book of the series are presented to contradict Umberto Eco's claim that intersemiotic translation is impossible, and by necessity amounts to a new interpretation of a source text. The reader here struggles to follow Ferrari's argument, as the evidence presented does not suffice to confirm his (controversial) claim. Next and not connected to the previous argument follows a survey of popular Italian comic book series dealing with Vikings, such as La regina dei vichinghi from 1952, which mostly stands out for the fact that "no effort is made to draw on eddic mythology in order to confer credibility upon the reconstruction of an archaic Scandinavian community" (334). It makes for an entertaining read, nonetheless.

With its wide methodological, chronological and generic scope, Studies in the Transmission and Reception of Old Norse Literature: The Hyperborean Muse in European Culture constitutes a varied yet valuable contribution to a still evolving field, the reception and subsequent refashioning of early Norse (especially Icelandic) culture in the works of scholars, artists and politicians across Europe. The volume is unique in its geographical scope and consideration of a wide variety of genres, including plays by Shakespeare and Strindberg, eighteenth-century Italian opera, or recent crime fiction from Iceland, along with more "classically" philological studies of the editorial history of Snorra Edda or the poem Völuspá. Scholars and students of both medieval and modern Scandinavian culture will find this to be an inspiring, rich and entertaining collection, though it needs to be mentioned that individual entries vary in their quality and argumentative depth, and that some contributions represent work which has already been published elsewhere (though not necessarily in English).

Copyright (c) 2017 Verena Höfig

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