The Elder Edda Revisited: Past and Present Performances of the Icelandic Eddic Poems

The Elder Edda Revisited: Past and Present Performances of the Icelandic Eddic Poems

By Eva Nielsen

Master’s Thesis, Florida State University, 2005

Abstract: The historical, national, and academic values of the Icelandic Eddic poems—or Elder Edda—have received much scholarly attention in the past. Yet, there is another aspect of these poems that deserves more exploration and consideration: that of their theatrical history.

In this thesis, I argue that the Eddic poems were used in some type of dramatic performances in the early Middle Ages. My main criteria include the inherent dramatic dialogue of the poems as well as the suggested performer-audience relationships that lie within. While conducting an investigation of some basic medieval performance theories, including modes and places of performance, I will also examine the coexistence of the, relatively pagan, mythological Eddic poems and Christianity—which was introduced to the Icelanders at the turn of the eleventh century. Finally, I will utilize the abovementioned research and develop a contemporary production proposal of my own. In doing so, I will be drawing upon historical context, not in the interests of constructing a historically accurate production but to provide insight into the cultural context from which the poems emerged.

Essentially, I argue that the Elder Edda holds a prominent place in theatre history, and this thesis will highlight the poems’ past and present contributions to the field.

Introduction: The Icelandic Eddic poems are the most ancient documented Scandinavian literature. The majority of these poems revolve around Nordic gods, kings, dwarfs, and giants and many of them may have been several hundred years old when they were finally compiled and recorded on leaves by an unknown scribe in 1270. The Icelandic Eddic poems, also referred to as the Poetic or Elder Edda, serve as a cornerstone of Icelandic identity. Not only are they of excellent literary quality but they also provide ìa rare treasure to sources about a stateless society. Consequently, the poems serve as a major attraction at Reykjavikís renowned Arni Magnusson Institute, are taught in schools nationwide, and have been translated into many foreign languages, especially during the twentieth century. As Lee M. Hollander, renowned poet and philologist, notes “What the Veda are for India, and the Homeric poems for the Greek world, that the Elder Edda signifies for the Teutonic race: it is a repository, in poetic form, of their mythology and much of their heroic lore…” Clearly, their significance and popularity are inarguable.

Although I consider the historical, national, and academic value of the poems to be of great importance, I believe that there is another aspect of them that deserve more exploration and consideration, that of their theatrical history. In regards to the Eddic poems, this field of study is almost non-existent. Indeed, theories towards the poems’ role in theatre history are both undeveloped and ambiguous. What first struck me when I started my research on the Elder Edda is that, during the past four decades, several theatre practitioners have experimented with presentations of some of the poems and demonstrated that they can be highly effective in dramatic performance. Granted, this does not serve as evidence of performances during the thirteenth century, but it does indicate the poems’ innate performability. This potential raised questions for me that have resulted in this project.

Click here to read this thesis from Florida State University

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