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21.03.11 Crawford, The Wanderer's Hávamál

The Medieval Review

21.03.11 Crawford, The Wanderer's Hávamál


Jackson Crawford's The Wanderer's Hávamál is a convenient, engaging edition and translation of Hávamál, the most prominent of Old Norse wisdom poems. This handy and attractive book includes the Old Norse text of the poem accompanied by a facing-page translation (1-86); a general introduction (xi-xviii); a commentary on the Old Norse text of the poem (87-140); four brief additional Old Norse texts about Odin (141-156); a glossary of Old Norse names (157-160); and the CowboyHávamál, an additional and particularly special translation of the first eighty-one stanzas of Hávamál (also known as the Gestaþáttr, or "Guest's Section") (161-178). Both the facing-page translation and the Cowboy Hávamál were first printed in Crawford's The Poetic Edda: Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes (Hackett, 2015), and here they are reprinted with some improvements, based on the author's ongoing research and thinking about the poem, made to the facing-page translation. As Crawford informs us in the Foreword (viii), readers of his 2015 translations desired a standalone version of Hávamál complete with the original Old Norse text, and The Wanderer's Hávamál is the answer to their requests. But aside from that more practical of motives, it is equally clear that the work has a deeper raison d'etre. It is everywhere apparent that Hávamál holds a place close to Crawford's heart, and The Wanderer's Hávamál is an outgrowth of the author's many years of close engagement with the poem. Crawford also has an admirable dedication to free public education--many readers will recognize him from his free online educational videos--and this dedication to reaching wider audiences shines through in this edition, which is a resource suitable both for academics but also for those who have little experience with Old Norse language or poetry. While to date there have been numerous translations of the Poetic Edda and its individual poems, Crawford's latest work is unique in its blend of accessibility and erudition, and it is sure to lead readers from a variety of backgrounds into a deeper understanding of the poem and its context.

The introduction is lucid and interesting. It begins with a clear overview of this composite poem and an outline of its contents. The outline includes several brief but informative discussions, such as the approximate dates for the poem's composition and compilation into its current form (xvi-xviii) and the relation of runes to the poem's Rúnatál ("Tally of Runes") section (xiv-xv), to cite a few examples. The introduction continues with a discussion of Old Norse meter and how Crawford chooses to render this into Modern English (xix-xviii). It concludes with sections on the Old Norse language and the spelling conventions Crawford employs (xviii-xxxii), on pronunciation (xxxii-xxxv), and a concise list of texts for further reading (xxxv-xxxvii). In addition to providing a succinct but substantial account of the poem, Crawford does not shy away from some technical description (though he leaves most technical discussions or interpretive cruxes to the commentary). Examples include brief explanations of the etymology of the titular element háva- (xviii-xix) and of Old Norse meter. These elements interlace with the author's appraisals of the poem's merits to form a well-balanced introduction which prepares a wide variety of readers to approach and engage with the contents and language of the poem.

The text and facing-page translation are well presented, and this main translation is clean and engaging. Crawford walks the reader through his stylistic approach to translation in the introduction (xxv-xxviii), and there he explains that, rather than opting for a more literal translation or one which clings to the verse-structure of the Old Norse poem, he has chosen a free verse translation style which attends to the semantic level of the stanza more than the line. A free-verse translation style is well-suited to a modern rendering of the early Germanic heroic meters, because free verse captures something of the sententious and "word-oriented" nature (as opposed to meter- (in the classical sense) or other number-oriented natures) of the source texts. The choice to reckon with stanza-meaning over line-meaning is somewhat unavoidable given the linguistic differences between Old Norse and Modern English, as Crawford notes (xxvi-xxvii), but it often has the unfortunate drawback of presenting difficulties for those who might be new to the Old Norse language and who would attempt to gloss the source text. And it must be stated that while Crawford hopes that the Old Norse text and commentary might "prove useful to readers who aspire to read Hávamál in Old Norse" (ix), this text is not meant to be a guide to Old Norse language or verse; it maintains its primary focus on the poem itself and the sentiments therein. Nevertheless, Crawford preserves word and line order where it is possible to do so without sacrificing the sense (take, for example, stanza 22.1-3: Vesall ψ / ok illa skapi / hlær at hvívetna, "A stupid man / and an undisciplined one / laughs at everything"), and many of the difficulties which a reader new to Old Norse may encounter in comparing the Old Norse text to a sense-for-sense translation are mitigated by the explanations given in the commentary section. Another clarifying strategy Crawford employs in his translation is a type of "cultural translation." A fine example emerges already in the second stanza, where it is said that a guest must wait á brǫndum. As Crawford explains in the commentary (91), this phrase seems to mean "on firewood" and refers to a custom of guests sitting on firewood outside of a home until they are invited inside; but as there is no contemporary equivalent for this practice, Crawford renders the phrase into the more readily understood "on the threshold." Overall, the author has taken great care to give his translation the human, down-to-earth feel which he sees in the original poem, and accordingly the translation presents the gist of the poem's counsels in clear, straightforward tones which have their own sort of music in their meaning.

When the reader turns to the commentary, s/he is better acquainted with the depth of Crawford's scholarship and his subtle, level-headed approach to his subject. The commentary begins with an explanation of how the Norse text is presented (87-91), and here the author demonstrates his understanding of how many readers are already interfacing with Old Norse texts (that is, through older public-domain editions online) in order to pre-emptively answer these readers' questions about how his edited Norse text varies from older editions. And it is worth noting in brief again how successfully Crawford is able to speak to a variety of audiences. As stated above, the commentary also offers readers new to Old Norse more thorough explanations of translations, especially when the Old Norse text is difficult to interpret or contains an obscure word or idea. The note to stanza 7 (92) contains the first of many helpful word-for-word renderings of the Old Norse text, which are thoroughly unpacked from the literal level to help readers see how the author has arrived at his translations and interpretations. Crawford's opinions are informed by the most recent of scholarship, as can be seen, for example, in his enlightening note to stanza 138 (127-130). Here, taking into account Anatoly Liberman's recent suggestions, Crawford describes the uncertainty surrounding which tree Odin actually hung himself from, and whether the names Yggdrasill and Yggdrasill's Ash were in fact originally intended to refer to the World-Tree. As in this example, the commentary generally gives readers a good sense of some of the vast scholarly discussion which surrounds the poem, and the author situates his own thoughts well in relation to the choices made by other editors. The commentary also includes many useful cross-references with the manuscript text and in general provides an illuminating window into this unique poem.

After the commentary, Crawford presents Modern English translations of four brief Old Norse texts, namely Darraðarljóð, Eiríksmál, Hákonarmál, and an excerpt from Gautreks Saga. These are included to give readers a better sense of the character Odin, who is the implied speaker of Hávamál but who is only obliquely present there. These texts are followed by a brief glossary of names--not exhaustive, of course, but perfectly suited to the poems presented in this edition and representative of the diversity of Old Norse myth and legend. These entries are often relatively thorough and contain helpful cross-references. The last section of the book is the Cowboy Hávamál, a translation of the Gestaþáttr which Crawford has composed in the dialect of his own grandfather. A brief introduction to this section describes something of the author's personal connection to the poem, a work which has long reminded Crawford of his grandfather's wise words. The Cowboy Hávamál is a refreshingly unique take on the poem, communicating the worn and weathered tone (to use Crawford's phrase, "sad with wisdom" (161)) of the original poem's wandering narrator in a manner which is perhaps more familiar to a modern (especially American) audience. Whether the reader finds the feel of this translation closer to the spirit of the original poem, I leave to them; without knowing what the specific original audiences or performance contexts of Hávamál might have been, it is somewhat hard to judge. But whatever the case, the Cowboy Hávamál throws the poem into new relief, bringing its hard natural and human world to life, and it is a fine way to conclude this solid edition.