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Eddic Poetry as World Literature

Eddic Poetry as World Literature

By Joseph Harris

Collegium Medievale, Volume 29, 2016

Ægir, Rán and their nine daughters, from a 19th century Swedish translation of the Poetic Edda.

Introduction: Our focus is primarily on the thirty-odd well-known poems of the Poetic Edda, but for the record, I mention that the genrecalled eddic poetry also includes all the Old Norse-Icelandic poetry which is similar to that of the two central eddic anthologies, the Codex Regius (GKS 2365 4to) and the Arnamagnæan manuscript AM 748 I 4to, at least some twenty-two titles, scattered among various manuscript contexts.

Contemporary scholarship in this field is very international, with an internationalism facilitated by the global spread of English and the participation of scholars from the US, Britain, and, not least, from Australia and new Zealand, but also of anglophone scholars from Scandinavia and the Continent. The field is aided by a number of recent publications, such as the important posthumous book on dating eddic poetry by Bjarne Fidjestøl. Other such vital recent aids include: A Handbook to Eddic Poetry; Eddukvæði; Kommentar zu den Liedern der Edda; The Poetic Edda.


One deficiency, perhaps, in this happy picture of eddic scholarship is the relative scarcity of broadly literary-critical and comparative discussion, critical writing in the tradition of older humanists such as Ker, Chadwick, or Bowra. In contemporary academia a conjunction of eddic poetry with “world literature” might encourage such large-canvas thinking, but my approach here will be to attempt to reframe contentious issues in eddic studies from the world literature point of view. Later perhaps a Ker, Chadwick, or Bowra will come along wielding that big brush. The eddic issues I will touch on include orality, dating, relationship to the ballad, provenance, international sources, and broadly typological literary relations. But we start with some basics about world literature itself.

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