Myth and Fiction in Early Norse Lands

Myth and Fiction in Early Norse Lands (Variorum Collected Studies) Hardcover – 29 Feb 1996

by Ursula Dronke
Hardcover: 327 pages
Publisher: Routledge; 1 edition (29 Feb. 1996)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0860785459
Dronke, Ursula, Myth and Fiction in Early Norse Lands (Variorum Collected Studies Series C524), Aldershot, Variorum, 1996; cloth; pp. xii, 313;
1996 R.R.P. £49.50.

Spanning the period 1947 to 1993, this collection of essays is fitting to Dronke's long-sustained involvement with Old Norse/Icelandic poetry, mythology and sagas, and with related literatures, Old English in particular. To start with an indication of the contents, the heading 'Norse literature and the Classical World' takes in three essays, 'Classical influence on early Norse literature' (1971), 'Voluspd and Sibylline traditions' (1992), and 'The Prologue of the Prose Edda: explorations of a Latin background' (1977). Under the heading 'Poetry and Mythology' we have 'Eddie poetry as a source for the history of Germanic religion' (1992), "The Scope of the Corpus Poeticum Boreale' (1989), 'Voluspd and satiric tradition' (1979), 'The War of the Æsir and Vanir in Voluspa' (1988), 'Ominnis hegri' (1984), 'Art and Tradition in Skimisma (1962), 'Sem jarlar fordum. The influence of Rigspula on two saga-episodes' (1981), 'Beowulfand Ragnarok' (1969), and 'Pagan beliefs and Christian impact: the contribution of Eddie Studies' (1993).
Finally, under the heading of 'Narrative Structures' we have 'Le caractere de la poesie germanique heroique' (1977), 'The poet's persona in the Skalds' sagas' (1978), "The saga of Hromund Gripsson and Dorgilssaga' (1947-48), and 'The role of sexual themes in Njdls saga' (1981). To these are added a brief introduction and an equally brief but useful index. The volume does not make room for bibliographic or other updates, but understandably so, since effectively the later essays and the newly completed Volume II of The Poetic Edda perform this function. Dronke's approach typically combines intense and subtle 'close reading' with wide-ranging comparative mythology and anthropology. In the latter respect she evidently owes much to Georges Dumezil (cf. VII 226) and, beyond him, to the so-called Cambridge School—a style of scholarship with which she is notably more in sympathy than most of her British contemporaries.
Confronting a besetting problem in Old Norse/Icelandic philology, the lack of datable texts, in the course of her review of the methodology (or lack of it) underlying the Corpus Poeticum Boreale, she supplies a characteristic answer: namely that 'the poetic qualities of a work, its intellectual content and style of verbal skill—should lead us to its correct dating' (V 97). Correspondingly, the paucity or cryptic expression of the Old Norse/Icelandic mythography encourages her into textual and mythological exegesis via a long succession of comparisons with other texts and mythologies (notably Celtic, Finno-Ugric, Roman, Greek and Indian). In the case of Rigsþula dating and the comparative approach are linked in the proposition that the necessity and value of 'external analogues are measures of the antiquity and genuineness of Eddic heathen material' (IV 657). Though obviously not much interested in modern metrical and linguistic studies, Dronke otherwise writes with a mastery of philological argument with an ability to explore all conceivable avenues and analogues at first hand. These qualities can be seen in a series of thought-provoking studies.

She forms the oddly heterogeneous motifs associated with Heimdallr in Rigsþula and elsewhere into a coherent pattern. She interprets Lokasenna as an example of carnivalesque 'ritual reversal', where blasphemy against the established gods temporarily becomes the order of the day (V 106). She reconstructs a source poem to account for the giant-builder allusion in Voluspa (VI 63-71). She resourcefully combines European folklore with ethology to support the hypothesis that when Oðinn brought the mead of poetry home to Asgarðr he did so in the shape of a heron, not, as Snorri would have it, an eagle (VIII). She traces a coherent pattern of euhemerized myths in Beowulf, basing her analysis upon three Scandinavian analogues—though whether she is justified in positing a poet w h o deliberately diminished the stature of older myths for his 'Christian didactic purposes' (XI325) is another matter. From time to time both the literary criticism and the comparative mythology leave me uneasy. Dronke tends to reify 'genius' and sensitivity as expected attributes of poets and audience respectively. Can we really know...
The first group of essays in this volume explores the links between early Norse literature, from the 9th to the 13th century, and the learned world of medieval Europe. In the second group the focus is upon the range of theme and style in Norse mythological poetry. Some of the key texts are considered in relation to Anglo-Saxon poetry as well as to the wider and more archaic Indo-European cultural inheritance. The third group offers detailed analyses of early Norse heroic poetry, of the formatic role of verse in the Icelandic sagas and of the final perfecting of prose as the ultimate saga medium. The 16 essays, taken together, are essential reading for all scholars, critics and historians who seek to understand the development of one of the world's most unusual and sophisticated literatures.