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24.04.07 Clunies Ross et al. (eds.), Poetry in Sagas of Icelanders

24.04.07 Clunies Ross et al. (eds.), Poetry in Sagas of Icelanders

The Icelandic Sagas are renowned for their terse, vivid, and unforgettable storytelling. Translations of this unique body of novel-like prosimetric narrative still sell well today. Yet those who enjoy the sagas, many of which date to the fourteenth century, know that most of them come with difficult bits of older poetry embedded within them. This is skaldic poetry--among the most complex and highly wrought forms of poetry from the Middle Ages. The intricacy of skaldic meter is famous, as interlaced and exquisite as the goldwork on the Sutton Hoo belt buckle, and just as easy to get lost in. The complex beauty of skaldic poetry is worth the high price of admission--deep knowledge of poetic scansion, alliteration, stress patterns, complex compound kennings, and the Old Norse language itself are needed to unlock a single verse or stanza. These high barriers to entry are also the reason this poetry is understudied outside of specialist circles. Thus, the Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages series has aimed from the start to make this poetry more accessible. Indeed, while it is easy to find good scholarship on the Icelandic Sagas, until now, it has been harder to find the same for the Poetry in Sagas of Icelanders. This two-part volume fulfills its stated purpose admirably: “this edition, with its various editorial aids to the understanding of the poetry, will hopefully go some way towards liberating the poetry from the straitjacket of obscurity and allow an integrated view of these sagas as comprising both prose and verse” (xc).

In part, this is achieved by the format in which stanzas are presented. In this volume, as throughout the series, each skaldic stanza is presented individually in its original word order as edited from manuscript witnesses. Immediately below this, in fine print, the words are rearranged into a prose word order that reflects the natural syntactic patterns of the grammatical forms. In doing so, the editors essentially “untangle” the poems. Laying them out in a more linear fashion greatly facilitates the reading and translation of the text for those who wish to tackle the Old Norse for themselves. After this, a highly literal modern English translation follows that unravels a further layer of complexity: the kennings. For example, a kenning from stanza 16 of Einarr Skúlason’s Geisli is presented as follows: “stríðandi látrs ins døkkva hrøkkviseiðs lyngs”; “the enemy of the lair of the dark coiling fish of the heather.” Some would probably say the meaning of this prose-order rendering is still opaque. Thankfully, the editors have mercy on readers, and gloss this series of nested metaphors in square brackets and sequentially name the referents behind the kennings, from innermost outwards, in this case: [SNAKE > GOLD > GENEROUS MAN]. By this serpentine logic, we can deduce that the “dark coiling fish of the heather” means SNAKE; its “lair” is traditionally GOLD, because snakes/dragons rest on treasure hoards; the enemy of a hoard is a GENEROUS MAN because he distributes gold. This example comes from the endpapers found in every volume within this series, showcasing not only the difficulty and richness of the material presented in these volumes, but also to highlight the pedagogical ethos that suffuses them. Although skaldic poetry can seem formidable and imposing, the editors are driven by a love for it. They have a clear passion for passing on to future generations the knowledge of how to approach and interpret this poetry. These scholarly volumes thus wed philology and pedagogy, much as Snorri Sturluson’s own Prose Edda did some seven and a half centuries ago.

Unlike the Prose Edda, this pair of books was not produced by a single scholar. Behind this entry are three head-editors: Margaret Clunies Ross, Tarrin Wills, and Kari Ellen Gade. Tragically, on March 5, 2022, a great light in the field was unexpectedly extinguished: Kari Ellen Gade, who edited more than 1,100 of the 6,000 stanzas in the entire skaldic corpus, passed away. Her long-time Indiana University colleague, collaborator, and friend, R. D. Fulk, took up the reins as series editor to help steer the work through to completion. In a sense, then, this volume is a fitting monument to a lifetime of fastidious care for and scholarship on these poems, a beadurōfes bēcn (hero’s beacon) that will light the way for future saga scholars. The beacon that is this volume was built by many hands, and thanks are due to the following contributors: Hannah Burrows, Margaret Clunies Ross, Alison Finlay, R. D. Fulk, Kari Ellen Gade, Colin Grant, Jonathan Grove, Kate Heslop, Edith Marold, John McKinnell, Klaus Johan Myrvoll, Richard Perkins, Judy Quinn, Rolf Stavnem, Diana Whaley, and Tarrin Wills. Together, the two parts of this volume amount to a towering 1,613 pages. It is impossible to cover so much material in so short a review. But I do wish to map out the introduction, to point out how thoughtful, useful, and meticulously scaffolded the work is.

Section I, by Margaret Clunies Ross, delineates which contributors wrote which sections, a model for collaborative humanities ventures. The approach should serve as an example, moving forward, of a powerful collaborative humanities project that can contribute to and reshape multiple fields. Section II (also by Clunies Ross) provides a valuable overview of the genre of the Icelandic Family Sagas and the role that poetry plays in them. She documents different iterations of the prosimetrum form attested in the sagas, and provides reflections upon the varying proportion of prose-to-poetry in different sagas, as well as the poetry’s roles within the narratives.

In section III, Tarrin Wills discusses the complex manuscript situation behind the poems in this volume, noting that the texts are attested in a staggering 700+ manuscripts (many of which are early modern and written on paper), and that the present edition relies on some 150 of them. This truly monumental work is thus an invaluable resource to anyone who wishes to know about the manuscripts behind medieval Scandinavian literature in general. Wills introduces the major manuscripts that contain the sagas, and usefully provides a glimpse of rates of medieval textual production that speak to the popularity, survival, and provenance of the sagas over the centuries. Coupled with the Skaldic Poetry Database website <>, researchers can directly access images of the poems, in all their paleographically messy and unstandardized glory. Together with the edited versions presented in print, readers have full access to these poems and can clearly see the layers of editorial intervention at play.

Section IV, by Klaus Johan Myrvoll, covers philological questions on dating and authenticity of the stanzas. He provides an overview of ten chief metrical principles used to date skaldic poetry, which is immensely useful for those who wish to learn more about and make use of this crucial but admittedly arcane philological toolkit. He also includes a useful summary of the corpora of the verse associated with several sagas at the end.

In section V, R. D. Fulk (drawing upon Gade’s notes) discusses meter, providing overviews and descriptions of the various attested Old Norse metrical forms witnessed in the volume. Of interest are the relative proportions of the kinds of verse found in each saga: Fulk notes that 75% of the verse in these sagas is in the dróttkvæt form, while 13% is in kviðuháttr, 6% in fornyrðislag, and the remainder are other various forms, with no ljóðaháttr found at all. Fulk observes (cix) that the predominance of dróttkvæt stanzas implies that medieval audiences were invited to believe in these narratives as historical rather than fictional. The careful and concise descriptions of each verse type are illustrated with well-chosen examples which will serve experts and students alike. The approach represents exactly the kind of philological precision that the field has come to know and appreciate from both Fulk and Gade. In fact, this section, as in so many others, actually obscures the depth of rigor and expertise required by the volume’s task. It is all made to look far easier than it truly is, a testament to the editors and contributors not only as philologists, but also as passionate and gifted educators.

Section VI, also by Fulk and Gade, documents the process of normalization employed in the edition. This highly technical section provides ample illustrations of the kinds of phonological changes that occurred over the centuries during which these poems were composed and through which they were passed down and orthographically modified. Again, although technical, this is the sort of section that repays multiple re-readings for those who wish to be able to follow along with linguistically-based arguments about dating stanzas or even detecting words or phrases that may predate the rest of a stanza.

In section VII, Margaret Clunies Ross covers poetic form and function. The section gives a clear-eyed picture of how saga compilers may have integrated pre-existing poems or stanzas into their narrative, as well as an overview of the function of traditional poetic genres. For instance, Clunies Ross explains how a “Question and Answer” technique was used early on--in it, stanzas of a single pre-existing poem could be divided up into answers by one character to a series of questions posed by another character in the saga narrative. The technique allowed a character to reflect upon or comment upon events during the saga’s action. She also points out that such an approach may have resonated with thirteenth-century audiences due to the popularity of similarly structured pedagogical texts, such as the Old Norse Elucidarius and Snorri’s Prose Edda. Part VIII, also from Clunies Ross, covers poetic diction in these skaldic poems, providing interesting discussion of kennings and gender, as well as the shifts that occurred after the advent of Christianity, such as the genericizing of deity names in kennings.

In section IX, the final section of the introduction, Clunies Ross provides a useful “How to Use this Edition.” The editors envisage a wide readership of the sagas and try to guide the various interested parties along lines that might serve their varied purposes, a move which should well serve the generations of scholars and students who will be using the volume in the coming decades (at least). There also follows an appendix of half-kennings that appear in the Skaldic Poetry Database, current as of this volume’s publication.

The fact that my overview of this volume’s introduction is as long as a typical book review itself should underscore the immensity of this contribution to scholarship. Across both parts, each of 24 sagas’ collected stanzas is presented (as well as stanzas from a further two short tales and two “texts recorded outside a saga context”). Each entry begins with a useful summary of its saga, an overview of its particular manuscript situation, and a special focus on the relationship of the stanzas to the saga in which they appear, especially the relative chronology of the stanzas and the history of opinions on that topic. This feature makes each saga entry a treasure trove not only because of the poetry presented and copious commentary, but for the invaluable up-to-date bibliographies that cover scholarship in the necessary array of languages--English, Icelandic, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, French, German, and more. Each entry also includes a biography for each “poet” who speaks a stanza in the saga (whether that individual is likely to have been a historical person or not), including useful cross references to their appearance in other sagas (if any). It will be a standard reference work for all future work on the Icelandic Family Sagas for this reason.

Like other volumes in the series, this one distributes a staggering amount of complex information. There are a few features of the print volumes that obscure some linguistic evidence: for instance, the poems in the series are standardized according to the linguistic features known from the presumed date of composition. Still, this makes readers’ lives easier by facilitating lookups in dictionaries, and is more than remedied by the online component, the skaldic poetry database. The editors and contributors are to be lauded for yet another impeccable scholarly monument that should serve as a guide for scholars in the field, and inspiration to all who encounter the volume.