Old Norseicelandic Eddas

SAGAS Scholars since the 17th century have made substantial use of Old Norse/Icelandic literature as they have attempted to interpret medieval English literature. Nowhere has this tendency been more prominent than in the discussions of Anglo-Saxon pre-Christian religion. Almost all that we know about Anglo-Saxon religion prior to Christianity comes from place names, archeological evidence, and a small amount of written evidence, but almost all we understand about it comes from Old Norse sources. These written sources are themselves not without problems as the forms in which they survive date from more than two centuries after Iceland's conversion to Christianity. Chief among them are two very different texts known as the Eddas.

The Poetic Edda (also known as the Elder Edda or S®mundar Edda) is a collection of 29 poems found in one manuscript known as the Codex Regius, written in the late 13th century. The manuscript contains 12 poems that deal with a pre-Christian belief system. Most of these poems are narratives concerning the pre-Christian gods, but "Havamal" (The Sayings of Havi) is a poem of 164 stanzas containing gnomic wisdom, wise counsel, runic ritual, and the function of spells, all attributed to "the High One," or OSin. Perhaps the most famous of the mythological poems is Voluspd (The Prophecy of the Sybil), which recounts the final battle between gods, giants, and wolves, which will destroy the world. The heroic (epic) poems deal with heroes and heroines whose exploits are also found outside Old Norse in works such as Beowulf.

The Prose Edda (also known as the Younger Edda or Snorra Edda) is the work of Snorri Sturluson (1178/91241). A handbook for poets, it is divided into four parts. The first, a brief prologue, is an euhemeristic account of the pagan pantheon. Part 2 presents a nonChristian account of the creation and destruction of the world along with narratives involving the pagan gods, all copiously illustrated with quotations from the

Elder Edda and Old Norse skaldic poetry. Part 3 is mainly concerned with explaining the meaning of the kenningar (kenning, compound metaphors) and the heiti (synonyms) which were a feature of skaldic poetry. Part 4 is a 102-stanza poem in praise of king Hákon Hákonarson of Norway (1217-63) and the earl Skúli Bár0arson (1188/9-1240). Each stanza is in a slightly different meter which is introduced and commented upon if necessary. Like the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda, particularly parts 2 and 3, has been ransacked for information that might elucidate pre-Christian references in Old English texts, forgetting at times that the Eddas themselves are not unproblematic documents and that they have been significantly affected by the ideology and practice of Christianity.

Beginning in the 12th century, a tradition of prose narrative or saga came into being, which tradition has been conventionally divided into numerous "genres": konungasogur (kings' sagas); biskupasogur (bishops' sagas), Íslendingasogur (saga of the Icelanders), sam-tídarsogur (sagas of contemporary events), heiligramanna- and postulasogur (sagas of saints and apostles), fornaldarsogur Nor0urlanda (sagas of ancient times in the northern lands), and riddarasogur (sagas of knights). The 40 sagas of the Icelanders have historically been best served by translation into English. Some of these sagas, such as Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar and Gunn-laugs saga ormstungu, have significant sections that are set in England during Anglo-Saxon times.

Perhaps the best-known claim for a link between Old English literature and the Íslendingasogur are the parallels found between Beowulf and Ásmundarsonar from the Grettis saga. Of particular note are the similarities in the fight between Beowulf and Grendel and that between Grettir and Glámur, and in Beowulf's encounter with Grendel's mother at the bottom of the mere and Grettir's one with the giant (jotun) behind the waterfall at Sandhaugar. While it might not be possible to determine the relationship between the two works to everybody's satisfaction, it seems incontrovertible that there is a relationship.

Other scholars who have investigated Norse-English literary relationships have looked at Norse links to the English Gawain Cycle, Sir Thomas Malory's "Tale of Sir Gareth," and Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Pardoner's

Tale," and "The Wife of Bath's Tale." Claims have also been made for a link between Ans saga bogsveigis, a fornaldarsogur Nor0urlanda saga surviving from the 15th century and the Middle English Robin Hood ballads. While these are inconclusive, other investigations have revealed possible connections between the stan-zaic form and parts of Piers Plowman.

The lack of surviving information about the belief system of pre-Christian England means that the Eddas and the sagas will continue to be used as resources to make up the deficiency, but in some ways the work that is being done to find links between this material and Middle English literature promises to open up more fruitful avenues of inquiry.

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