The Poetic Edda (Toronto, ON: Coach House Books, 2014, $23.95, 280 pages). Translated by Jeramy Dodds. Review by Eleni Zisimatos.
This translation of Old Norse and Icelandic poems by Jeramy Dodds is an exceptional work of Canadian poetic achievement. The book is divided into three sections: “Mythological Poems,” “Heroic Poems,” and “Poems Not in The Codex Regius,” all of which have their own impetus and flavour. The first section is lighter, more playful; replete with sayings and advice from the old, wise ones. “Heroic Poems” is more involved and deals more with heroes and heroines, deeds, mishaps, and destinies. The last section follows along the lines of “Heroic Poems,” where we encounter strong imagery like: “‘Dan and Damp have costly halls, / more lavish lands than you; / they know how to sail, how to make / a sword bite, run the red from a wound.’”
This book brings to light the background for the Tolkien myths, brings to the forefront Viking legends—the Norse mythology we often don’t realize we are engaged with when we read about Valkyries, the undead, and magic lore. The original Icelandic poems were written by Christian scribes in Iceland around the thirteenth century, which undoubtedly were influenced by the struggle between Pagan and Christian beliefs. Kings and Queens abound throughout the volume, as do witches and magic, and the all-important ash tree, Yggdrasil. The text jumps to attention with passages like:
………………………….‘His teeth flash when he sees
………………………….his sword, or when he eyes Bodvild’s
………………………….ring. His stare is as sharp as a shiny
………………………….serpent’s. I say slice his sinews
………………………….and set him near Saevarstadir.’
There are numerous translations such as this one throughout the three sections—all lending freedom to the imagination and bringing us back in time to our own imagined mythology of these wild people.
If I was pressed to find a weakness in the book, I would say that there is sometimes (not often) a break between high and low language. For instance, a passage such as: “Whoever can rear heirs as astonishing / As those Gjuki sired would be happy. / Their courage will live on in every land / wherever people hear it,” is largely formal and contrasts with the more colloquial “‘Shut up, Freyja, I know you / all too well, you’re not flawless—you’ve been the bitch of every / Elf and Aesir on the benches here.’” But to be fair, there are differences in the style of the two texts (located in two different sections), and I could only judge properly if I read the poems in the original Icelandic.
I was also somewhat bothered by the opening epigraph that was not translated (I am a great fan of epigraphs). To make up for this minor oversight, Jeramy Dodds included an exhaustive and impressive “Annotated Index of Names” at the end of the book, an undertaking which I know from experience can drive a writer to distraction.
The Poetic Edda is a brilliant book—playful and imaginative. The language flows crisply and effortlessly in the hands of Dodds, and is accessible to both young and old readers. This translation is akin to Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, and is a notable addition to Canadian writing and translation.
Eleni Zisimatos is co-Editor-in-Chief of Vallum Magazine. She lives in Montreal.
This review was published in issue 12:1 “Surrender.” To see more from this issue, please visit Vallum‘s website.
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