20.04.16 McGillivray, Influences of Pre-Christian Mythology and Christianity on Old Norse Poetry

Main Article Content

Sarah M. Anderson

The Medieval Review 20.04.16

McGillivray, Andrew. Influences of Pre-Christian Mythology and Christianity on Old Norse Poetry: : A Narrative Study of Vafþrúðnismál. Northern Medieval World: On the Margins of Europe. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications , 2018. pp. 217. ISBN: 978-1-58044-335-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Sarah Anderson
Princeton University

The eddic poem Hávamál urges us to praise ice--but only once it has been crossed. This study by Andrew McGillivray (University of Winnipeg) ventures out onto the treacherous ice of interpreting a mythological poem found in the anonymous Elder or Poetic Edda, and one of course must wonder if McGillivray's brave thought-experiment will traverse the critical expanse without misfortune. After all, eddic and skaldic poetry contains nearly all that survives of the Norse versions of Germanic mythology. Fundamental questions about the composition, oral and written transmission, reception, and audiences of the some fifty extant eddic poems are as yet unsettled--to put the catalogue of difficult and dense problems laconically.

McGillivray places the dialogue poem Vafþrúðnismál at the center of his study. This eddic poem begins with a prologue in which Óðinn asks Frigg whether he should undertake the journey to the giant Vafþrúðnir's hall; that is followed by a narrative stanza in which the god sets off despite Frigg's advice; and, lastly, the bulk of the poem is comprised of a wisdom contest of some fifty verses between the giant and the god, in which each character answers a question asked by the other, thus divulging much about the beginning, end, and structure of the cosmos in the process. We aren't surprised when Óðinn wins--nor that the tricky god does so by asking the giant a question about what Óðinn had whispered to his son Baldr before he is laid on his funeral pyre. To this query only the god has the answer. By the terms of the wager, Vafþrúðnir forfeits his life, though the giant's death does not occur within the poem as it now exists. McGillivray discusses Vafþrúðnismál largely with respect to it in the Codex Regius (formerly kept at Det Kongelige Bibliothek, Copenhagen, Kongsbók has been held by Stofnun Árna Magnússonar í íslenskum fræðum, Reykjavík since 1971) in which codex the fullest version of the eddic poem survives. As relevant, McGillivray comments on the poem in a defective copy in the fragmentary AM 748 Ia 4to and in manuscripts containing Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, in which the poem is quoted. McGillivray's monograph sticks to Vafþrúðnismál as a literary work, to which the manuscript and transmission histories are preambulatory.

As McGillivray concludes in chapter 1, "Vafþrúðnir Who?," he intends to situate Vafþrúðnismál "in its thirteenth-century Icelandic literary context" (18) by way of a comparative method. McGillivray explains that Vafþrúðnismál "... can most logically be read in context with the other mythological poems, especially poems relating to knowledge, and to some degree in relation to the compilation as a whole, including the heroic poems" (7). This statement suggests that McGillivray will depend on the assemblage of mythological and heroic poems and prose links in the Codex Regius as exemplary. That's a lot of ice to cross, and McGillivray tries to limit its dangers. So, he declares that, "As far as the origins of the content of the eddic poems are concerned, any speculation beyond this point is irrelevant to the present study" (40). He then turns emphatically toward the problems of "narrative time" (41) as represented in Vafþrúðnismál, and thus away from the pre-history and manuscript history of eddic poetry, by the end of chapter 2, "Critical Contexts." In the penultimate chapter of his book, McGillivray closely considers the eddic poem, Alvíssmál, likely a younger eddic poem, possibly from the twelfth century (even the late twelfth century), in which the dwarf Alvíss debates the hammer-heavy god Þórr, whose daughter the dwarf wishes to marry. The coming of daylight settles the pre-nuptials. In the chapters between these two terminals, McGillivray investigates Vafþrúðnismál both as a literary text and mythological document, using an important array of texts in which the Norse cosmos and mythological narratives are laid out, including Gylfaginning, from Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, and Ynglinga saga, whose chapters begin the famed collection of kings' sagas known as Heimskringla, itself attributed to Snorri in the late sixteenth century.

A reader is quite grateful to an author who so clearly describes what issues will not be taken up, as McGillivray does at several points in his two opening chapters. But are his disclaimers sufficient? Can problems like the "origins of the content" of an eddic poem like Vafþrúðnismál be set aside so completely from a discussion privileging the Codex Regius, for example? When McGillivray describes his critical progenitors, he reveals that three theorists--Mircea Eliade, Aron Gurevich, and Paul Ricoeur--"importantly inform the present analysis" (27). McGillivray summarizes how select elements of each scholar's theories apply to Vafþrúðnismál and the poem's critical history in a subsection of chapter 2 called "Theories" (27), a heading with a sort of deadpan humor to it, as there are plenty of theories exercised elsewhere in this book (for instance, he does not mention the abundant influence of Claude Lévi-Straus, whom he will cite in the last chapter, throughout his analysis). Let us consider the example of Ricoeur. McGillivray points toward Ricoeur's dense propositions about the relationships among time, temporality, and narrative on which he declares his "close reading" of Vafþrúðnismál depends (31). Several other crucial elements of Ricoeur's narratological theories--and more broadly, the ways that Ricoeur's hermeneutics opens up both understanding and explanation of narrative--would perhaps have been useful to McGillivray here. For one, Ricoeur stipulates that an aporia or irresolvable paradox will be revealed just beyond the limits of any argument's logic. For a student of the "open texts" of eddic poetry (cf. Umberto Eco, by way of Roland Barthes, on the "open text," and particularly Eco's point that a text may be both "open" interpretatively and structurally), such irresolvable gaps and inconsistencies as Ricoeur imagines are frequently encountered, but are not as deftly comprehended in this reading as Ricoeur's thinking would allow. McGillivray's bibliography lists only a single article by Ricoeur, rather than citing the philosopher's magisterial Time and Narrative (3 vols.; 1984-88 in English translation) which one would have expected as Ricoeur is credited as constitutive of this study. McGillivray's use of the careful work of contemporary specialists in Norse subject-areas is much surer, and Margaret Clunies Ross, Carolyne Larrington, John Lindow, and John McKinnell make up--as well they should--the Norse-focused structure of McGillivray's study.

So much about Vafþrúðnismál compels close attention: recent laudable short studies include the thoughtful treatment of the character of Óðinn by Kevin J. Wanner ("God on the Margin" [2007]); the witty dive into the deeper subjects of this dialogue poem by Ármann Jakobsson ("A Contest of Cosmic Fathers" [2007]); and the careful revelations of John McKinnell ("The Paradox of Vafþrúðnismál" [revised in 2014]). Thus, a praiseworthy effect of McGillivray's book-length study is to break a path for more contemporary monographs on eddic poems. Vafþrúðnismál makes a particularly good choice for a first investigator of Norse mythology and literary criticism, too, if for no reason other than the fact of its relatively simple language when compared to other eddic poems. For the non-specialist or English-only reader, a necessary pre-condition for further work on Vafþrúðnismál is also Tim William Machan's conservatively edited and well-received edition of the poem (second revised edition, 2008), which steers commendably clear of re-playing scholarly reconstructions of the poem's text, offers the erudite context one expects from a senior medievalist. McGillivray cites this edition, too, among the commendable list of primary sources he has used.

The core of McGillivray's book, then, is likely to lead to more discussions of Vafþrúðnismál, as well as to broader analyses of the works that make thirteenth-century Icelandic literature so rich. McGillivray's four central chapters (chapters 3 through 6) frame Vafþrúðnismál expansively--and with interesting results. The opening gambit of "The Guest Waits on the Floor" (chapter 4; the title alludes to a line from the poem) moves to counter Sigurður Nordal's critique of how poorly structure and content fit together in the "jumble" of Vafþrúðnismál, a critique that is a part of the Icelander's well-known 1923 publication on Völuspá. McGillivary demurs, declaring that Vafþrúðnismál is, after all, a "dramatic poem" and Völuspá a "narrative poem in the form of a monologue, albeit with dramatic features" (86). I cannot say if these statements parry Sigurður Nordal effectively. But against the formidable dismissals of Vafþrúðnismál by Sigurður Nordal and by Einar Ól. Sveinsson (1962), McGillivray makes an intriguing point about the relative scale of the giant's hall, where the contest takes place in the poem, and the vast scale of the Norse mythological cosmos indexed by the lore exchanged in this wisdom contest. McGillivray goes on to apply Terry Gunnell's speculation about the marginal markings in the Codex Regius version of Vafþrúðnismál, which, beginning with stanza 18, introduce the speakers (102 ff). These notes, Gunnell has conjectured, were needed for silent readers of the eddic poem, rather than for audiences of the verses when performed dramatically. Whether in agreement with Gunnell's wider theory of performance or not, McGillivray does treat Vafþrúðnismál as drama, and pretty successfully so, in the center of his book. When McGillivray concludes his study with the eighth chapter, "Closing Time", he might have returned to performance, especially as a part of ritual--a sort of drama that bridges pre- and post-Christian Iceland--to grapple with the "form of the poem itself" (187) and its reception in thirteenth-century Iceland, and to consider the morphology of the wisdom contest between the giant Vafþrúðnir and the god Óðinn.

It ends for each of us, as Andrew McGillivray reminds his readers in the last paragraph of his study, mirroring Óðinn's own plangent question about his fate toward the finale of Vafþrúðnismál (see, e.g., stanza 52). Despite some of the shortcomings of this narrative study of an important eddic poem, one hopes that McGillivray will survive our own desolate and perhaps nearer future in order to further query the texts that constitute Norse mythology.

Article Details