Written on a cross-country flight…hope this makes a lick of sense.

As promised, I’ve collected my thoughts on Bernard Scudder’s translation of Voluspa, The Prophecy.

It’s an unusual little volume, as I mentioned before, particularly when considered alongside the other translations that are out there.  Most notably, that’s because the other modern translations are of the entire Poetic Edda, of which Voluspa is a small, but important, part.  There’s some sense in this, I think, although I’m admittedly biased, since I’m planning on doing the same thing.  There are a number of different types of poems in the Edda, from the high mythology of Voluspa, to Odin’s homespun wisdom in Havamal, to the fairy-tale origin of man in Rigsthula, to the doings of human heroes in the story of Helgi Hundingsbana.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing to present them separately, I think.

Physically, it’s the odd man out as well.  I don’t know anything about Gudrun Press, which put it out, although the name makes me assume it’s Scandinavian (I’m writing this on a plane, so I can’t really look it up, but it was printed in Iceland).  It definitely has a lower-budget feel than the editions from Oxford, Texas, etc., so I’m assuming it’s smaller as well.  There’s a lot going on on the cover.  From top to bottom, it declares: Voluspa, The Prophecy, “More than 1000 years old,” “The Creation and Destruction of the World in the Viking Faith.”

I found this kind of off-putting and a bit cheesy at first, but as I thought about it, it made more sense to me.  Someone who picks up The Poetic Edda was probably looking for it and has a pretty good idea of what it’s about.  Not so for a much slimmer volume whose spine merely says The Prophecy.  Could be anything.  There’s also a quick, but accurate summary on the back that concludes: “The Prophecy is not only a unique record about the way people thought and viewed the world in ancient times, but also the most famous and undoubtedly the most beautiful poem from the Viking Age.”

Inside, the poem is laid out with a single verse per page; really, this is the only way you can do it if you mean to make a publishable book of it as a stand-alone piece.  I was excited to see that it is illustrated, unlike any other edition that I know of.  Upon looking into it, however, I was a little disappointed to see that the illustrations were not made for the edition.  The illustrations, from what I can tell, are photographs of some beautiful carvings made by Dagfinn Werenskiold, who passed away about a quarter-century before publication.  The carvings appear to be set in brick, so I assume they are decorations in a building somewhere?  One of the carvings, of Odin riding Sleipnir, is also the cover image of Carolyne Larrington’s translation.

While the carvings are impressive, there seems to be a limited number of them, as only 11 of the stanzas actually have an accompanying picture (along with two which, in a sort of recap, replicate four images that appeared earlier).  They also don’t always match up with the text perfectly, which makes sense.

All this makes me think that the target readership may be somewhat different from that which is picking up the bigger Eddas.  Perhaps more casual.  An interest in religion and mythology, certainly, but probably not a serious student.  Not reading it for a class.  Curious to hear more about what they’ve been told is an unusually beautiful poem.

Given all this, there’s a lot of room for Scudder to distinguish himself from the other translations, and I think the big failing here is that he doesn’t do so nearly enough.  It ends up feeling very similar to the others, which makes the whole project seem a tad unnecessary.

Scudder does do some good things to try to make the poem more accessible.  There are three brief appendices, with brief introductions and descriptions of the various players and places.  Scudder also tends to render names and epithets literally, “in order to maintain the flow of the poetry and give some sense of the archetypal forces at work,” so another appendix offers short notes to each stanza to help keep track of the action (although this does necessitate some flipping back and forth).

There is also a synopsis (although it seems it is not written by him) that tells the story in prose, cross-referencing it with the stanzas, which are each individually named.  I did feel like a couple of things in the synopsis weren’t canonically correct, but maybe there are alternate versions?  For example, it states that Odin made the pact with all living things save mistletoe to preserve Balder’s life, when I’ve always understood it to be Odin’s wife Frigg.  There are also a couple of other points where I might disagree with the account of events given here (e.g., the mysterious Gullveig presented as a creature of evil rather than a member/harbinger of the Vanir), but they’re pretty open to interpretation, so that’s OK.

As for the translation itself, it’s a very literal take on the text.  There are two points that strike me as mistranslations that affect the action of the poem, although I do not want to say for sure without a) having another look at a Norse edition, and b) knowing what edition he was working from.

There are also a couple of technical issues that arise with a more literal translation that, it seems to me, are pretty confusing if unaddressed.  The first is the issue of female pronouns, as there seem to be at least two, maybe three, distinct female voices in the poem.  The first is the “I” of Stanza One, who asks her human audience to listen to her as she recounts all she knows.  About 16 stanzas in, this abruptly shifts to the third person: “She remembers.”  It’s posited that this “she” may be the spirit who possesses the first-person narrator.  A few verses later, we get “she” again.

Then, even more confusingly, we get a few stanzas in which Odin himself, at some point in the past, visits a third-person “she” to purchase prophecy.  Is this witch the same as the spirit possessing our first-person narrator?  That is, is the ghost of an omniscient witch who once divined for Odin now speaking through the medium of the “I” who addresses her fellow humans?  In the prose synopsis, all these voices and personas are conflated into a single prophetess.  That’s a legitimate decision, of course, but it undercuts the accessibility of the poem to leave in the pronouns which, under that interpretation, now clash with one another for no apparent reason.  Similarly, there are issues with verb tenses; early in the poem, the narrator speaks in the present tense: “I ask,” “I remember,” “I know.”  Then the pronouns switch: “She remembers.”  “She knows.”  Then the verbs: “She sat,” “she saw.”  Then the pronoun again: “I saw.”  Then “she saw.”  Finally back to the present in the poem’s final words: “now she sinks.

A scholar, of course, needs to reproduce these shifts so other scholars can track them and formulate theses about them.  But if the translator isn’t going to provide some sort of explanation for this revolving door, I wonder if it isn’t kinder to casual readers to flatten out some of these differences by picking a person and a tense and sticking with them.

I would argue that the highest duty of a translation filling this particular niche is to the beauty of the poem itself, as extolled on the back cover.  A few nights ago, Meggy and her friend Hanna and I were talking about this issue, particularly w/r/t Biblical translations.  Hanna, who writes quite a lot about religion, said that the only version of the Bible that doesn’t drive her nuts by grating on her ears is the King James.  Which, of course, you probably don’t want to be counting on for your theology, from a standpoint of wanting the most literally accurate translation possible.  But there are other scholars, other translations for that.  For haunting majesty, for a title for your short story collection, there’s Big Jim.  It fills that niche better than any other, and probably will for some time.  That, I think, is what’s needed here.

Unfortunately, I think the poetic qualities of this particular translation are rather inconsistent.  There are a number of arresting, well-turned, yet still literal phrases: “the Vanir stamped the ground”; “drops of poison / drip through the hatch / that hall is entwined / with the ridged backs of serpents”; “men of ill oath”; “smears with red blood the gods’ heavenly site”; “the sunshine was black for summers after”; “all the kin of folly will go with the wolf”; “sun glints on the sword”.

That said, there are also a number of places where I feel that Scudder sacrifices comprehension or distances himself from the reader by staying too close to the text, or simply by odd word choices: “Balder/the blood-stained deity” (why not “god”?!?); “The wolf fills with the force / of men fated to die”; “All men strip clear / their homes in the world”; “perishes by the serpent / unfearful of reproach”.

A related issue is that I cannot sense a clear meter running through the poem.  Some lines are simply much shorter than most; some have more stressed syllables than the rest, or have stresses awkwardly placed.  I recognize that much poetry is now this way.  However, for a poem meant to be performed orally, it seems important to try to retain the steady quality which keeps driving it forward.  The original was flexible in many ways in the way it used meter, but it had a couple of firm rules that I think are worth taking into consideration.

I worry that now I have spent an hour and a half and over 1600 words trying to talk about this translation objectively, and that all I have managed to say is that I don’t love it because it doesn’t do things the way that I want to do them.  Maybe all I’ve done is convince myself once again that my project isn’t obsolete and that I should keep going.  Which is valuable (for me, anyway).

OK.  Turbulence over Omaha.  Time to sign off.




You’ve probably been waiting since the last post, breath all bated as hell, wondering if I would throw in the towel once my package arrived bearing yet another translation of Voluspa.

After tearing open the package with my teeth (it was made of duct tape or something), I disappeared with its contents into the bathroom.  It was a tense moment at the end of a long day.  I emerged with a triumphant whoop.  I can do better.

A fuller explanation of why will be forthcoming, but I want to spend some more time sitting with it first.  I think it does some things right and some things wrong, and I want to try to get a handle on those before I talk too much about it.

In the meantime, I’m heading down to LA and San Diego until next Friday for a conference.  I’ll try to assemble my thoughts on it before then, but no promises.


Defense against the Dark Arts

I spent Friday evening with good friends Ryan, Zubin, and Max as we prepared ourselves for a new role-playing campaign that Ryan’s going to be running for us.  New dice were handed out; character ideas were kicked around, revised, and scrapped; gaping holes in the party’s capabilities were discovered and papered over — who’s going to shoot arrows at us, anyway?

It’s been quite a while since we played in a serious, sustained fashion, although it was the way we spent most of our home-from-college summers.  Our two DMs could be pretty unforgiving, and while for the most part, we tried to avoid having our characters be standard hack’n’slash sociopaths, we would be presented with a real dilemma when we captured an enemy spellcaster.

I — usually playing a paladin or something — generally objected to killing prisoners, and we recognized the value of getting information out of them to make the rest of the adventure easier.  But we also knew that they could probably cast spells while tied up, maybe just with a word or a flick of the wrist.  So it became SOP to smash fingers and yank tongues out by the root.  Not a pleasant business, but we didn’t feel like we had a choice.

We did, of course, and as usual, the sagas teach us exactly what it was.  In this particular instance, we’re considering the Saga of the People of Vatnsdal.  It’s a multi-generational family story about some good people who move to Iceland to settle.  A lot of the early chapters (I’m not done with it yet, so maybe all of it’s this way) deal with unsavory elements moving into the neighborhood and the appropriate way to deal with them (frequently violence, but as a last resort). Many of these bad seeds have magic at their disposal; it’s something of a running theme.

This particular badfellow, Thorgrim Skin-hood, is a shepherd who convinced his boss, Mar, to encroach upon some prime grazing land belonging to the protagonists Thorstein and Jokul.  They find out literally a sentence later.  They slow-play their hand, passing on the opportunity to wreck Thorgrim’s house, waiting to act until they have an airtight case.  Thorstein’s very level-headed and good at these sorts of things; Jokul’s much more impetuous.  Eventually, like a year later, they decide to confront Thorgrim and Mar.  Both have a number of followers, so it’s going to be a proper skirmish.  Thorgrim hides near the edge of the battle, promising to be useful; once the battle starts, Jokul finds his sword Aettartangi is just turning folks black and blue, but won’t cut anyone.

Suspicious, they start looking around:

Jokul said, “I see where the monster shows his face above ground.”

Thorstein said, “There lies the fox in his lair,” and Thorgrim eyed them from where he lay — this was near the river.

Jokul and both brothers rushed towards him; Thorgrim raced towards the river.  Jokul got near enough for his sword to catch him, and it cut off whatever it made contact with, that is both his buttocks right to the backbone.  The place where he ran into the water has since been known as Hufuhyl ([Skin-]hood’s pool).

Jokul said, “Now Aettartangi has bitten.”

Thorstein said, “I fancy that it will do so from now on.”

The battle goes mostly their way from here on out.  I rather assumed that Thorgrim had died in the river.  Certainly if my butt were a gaping wound and I jumped into the water, I wouldn’t really expect to come out again, but that’s why I’m not an Icelander.  He’s not all that much better off though, as the settlement states:

“Thorgrim Skin-hood will receive no compensation for his injury, and he deserves something worse.”

Men then went home and were reconciled in this affair.  Thorgrim Skin-hood left the region and settled in the north at Melrakkasletta, and remained there until he died.

So it works!  Thorgrim learns, surely to his chagrin, that his ass is well and truly worthless, and our heroes can breathe easy for half a chapter until some other jerk down the river starts human sacrifices in his little compound.


When I was wee, around this time of year, I used to go to the YMCA with my dad a few times a week, frequently to play some basketball in their big gym.  There were two full-sized courts, divided by what I recall as a big vinyl curtain.  My dad was in an adult league, so he’d be playing a full-court game on one side, and the other side was mostly kids like me noodling around.

I was never a big proponent of playing with other kids when I was six.  I far, far preferred playing my own games.  On the basketball court, I usually acted out nightly highlight reels that unspooled spontaneously as I went along, portraying multiple players (not that I knew a ton of basketball players) from both teams, announcing under my breath the whole way.

So, picture small me, mumbling and dribbling in my school hoodie, with half the court to myself.  From the far side, a ball comes rolling my way.  Idly thinking I will be helpful to someone, I kick the ball back in the general direction whence it came and get back to the exciting conclusion of Hawks-Warriors or whatever.  Suddenly…

A yank!  A gasp!  I’m being garroted by my own sweatshirt!  Apparently some other shrimp of a kid’s been chasing after that ball for far too long to enjoy seeing me boot it all the way back where it came from, and he demands revenge.

We tussle and howl and bawl out of sheer upsetness.  The grown-ups hear what’s going on and pry us apart pretty quickly.  Now, I wasn’t a slugger by any means; my style was definitely more slappin’ and clawin’ (I was reproached about this by my dad on a couple of occasions, including this one, for not fighting more like a boy).  And I’ve never been really great at keeping my nails trimmed.  And I still remember very clearly seeing, as the other kid’s dad dragged him away, the livid streaks of blood on his neck and thinking, “I win.”

I guess that’s one way to do it.  Or there’s this:

A ball game was arranged early in winter on the plains by the river Hvita, and crowds of people came to it from all over the district…Egil [who is seven] was paired against a boy called Grim, the son of Hegg from Heggsstadir.  Grim was ten or eleven years old, and strong for his age.  When they started playing the game, Egil proved to be weaker than Grim, who showed off his strength as much as he could.  Egil lost his temper, wielded the bat and struck Grim, who seized him and dashed him to the ground roughly, warning him that he would suffer for it if he did not learn how to behave.  When Egil got back on his feet he left the game, and the boys jeered at him.

Egil went to see Thord Granason [a 15-year-old friend] and told him what had happened.  Thord said, “I’ll go with you and we’ll take our revenge.”

Thord handed Egil an axe he had been holding, a common type of weapon in those days.  They walked over to where the boys were playing their game.  Grim had caught the ball and was running with the other boys chasing him.  Egil ran up to Grim and drove the axe into his head, right through to the brain.  Then Egil and Thord walked away to their people.

This incident leads to a feud which kills seven men, including the aforementioned Hegg and his brother.  After all this mess, what’s the reaction from Egil’s folks?

Skallagrim [his dad] seemed indifferent to what had happened, but Bera [his mom] said he had the makings of a true Viking when he was old enough to be put in command of warships.



a game of chess (?)

I promised, quite some time ago, to talk a bit more about War Music, Christopher Logue’s “account” of the Iliad.  Fortunately, I’ve also had the chance to do a bit more translating, in between creating lesson plans for my summer school mythology course for advanced middle-schoolers.  Conveniently, there’s a bit of a dovetail there, so I’ll mention both.

Garry Wills’s preface to War Music rather knocked me on my ass.  He comes out swinging, but hard:

Translators come and go, but it is given to few poets to bring Homer crashing into their time, like a giant trampling forests.  In English, only three have done it — George Chapman, Alexander Pope, and Christopher Logue.

All three, as they say, “take liberties,” but not to get away from Homer.  Theirs are tremendous efforts toward him.  Poets who cannot or will not take such risks never get near their man.  They assemble dictionary equivalents, like that unoffending prosateur Richmond Lattimore, and call the result an epic.

Strong words!  But indeed, while Logue’s version may be a rover, it is rich and evocative.  For example, in the early confrontation between Agamemnon and Achilles, he captures both elegant poetry (honor is “like silence, like the gods,/ the movement of the stars! Beyond the stars!/ Dividing man from beast, hero from host,/ that proves best, best, that only death can reach,/ Yet cannot die because it will be said, be sung,/ Now, and in time to be, for evermore.”) and gruff soldiertalk (Paris is a “platinum maggot”; Achilles’s sobriquet for Agamemnon is not one to be repeated in polite, or even fairly rude, company).

His descriptions of action are far from word-from-word, but allow one to picture the scene in vivid detail, even be drawn into it.  He describes Achilles, pushed too far by Agamemnon’s grasping: “But those still dying see:/ Achilles leap the 15 yards between/ Himself and Agamemnon;/ Achilles land, and straighten up, in one;/ Achilles’s fingertips — such elegance! –/ Push push-push push, push Agamemnon’s chest;/ The King lean back; Achilles grab/ And twist the mace out of his royal hand/ And lift it…Oh…flash! flash!”

I mention this scene in particular because Logue’s effort toward specificity, that schoolyard shove that is as much for the benefit of the crowd as for the violence itself, was in my mind as I approached a difficult crux in The Witch’s Spell.  After the gods establish their homes, they make artifacts of gold and gad about playing board games on the grass until this golden age abruptly and mysteriously comes to its close.  Here’s Ursula Dronke’s literal translation:

They played chequers in the meadow, they were merry —

for them there was no want of gold —

until there came three ogres’ daughters,

of redoubtable strength, from Giant Realms.

Well, okay.  But what just happened?  In the next verse, the gods go rushing off and decide to create the dwarves, in a seeming non sequitur.  If we trust that there is some structure to the poem what does the board game have to do with the riches have to do with the ogresses have to do with the dwarves?  Dronke, in her commentary, proposes an idea.  Taking as an analogue a mill that produces endless gold — you’ve heard of this sort of thing in fairy tales — that is eventually destroyed by giantesses forced to work it, she posits that the game itself produces gold for the winner.  And since the gods are just playing themselves, there are no real stakes; they win no matter what.  But, when the giantesses appear, there is a threat in paradise.  Dronke posits that the giantesses challenge the gods and are on the verge of winning when the gods overturn the board in a fit of petulance or rage.  The pieces are scattered in the tall grass and forgotten, not to be recovered until the next age.   And the gods must find a new way to produce gold — hence the dwarves.

I like this idea quite a bit, and as I don’t have a better explanation, my goal’s become to depict that story while keeping it somewhat compact.  While I think it’s fine for Logue to take his digressions and invent dialogue, that also fits Homer’s style.  My poet is far more concise, and I’d like to maintain that concision wherever possible.  In this case, however, perhaps emboldened by Logue and Mills, I decided to give myself a little more room to maneuver, as I simply couldn’t find a way to make that very complex scene comprehensible without including a footnote of my own (I am no David Foster Wallace, nor was meant to be!)

At the same time, Logue’s Achilles was leaping about the room and jabbing my chest.  I had to have the scene fully pictured in my own head to be able to convey those slight hints and details and breathe some life into the confusing, awkward scene. I had to be willing to fill in some blanks and take those chances.

So first of all, at the risk of making things more foreign than need be, I decided that the gods were playing neither checkers nor chess, but rather hnefatafl, a Scandinavian variation on the theme. It’s most notable for its asymmetrical play; the King and his men begin outnumbered and surrounded by enemies and must escape to the board’s edge.  I thought the image would be a nice precursor to Ragnarok, where they would again find themselves beset on all sides, doomed to be overwhelmed.  With that said, I retained the word “chessmen” over “Kingsmen” under advisement, to help make the fact that they’re playing a board game a little more apparent.  I hope that doesn’t just cancel out this whole paragraph…

Indeed, another visual hint might be making the pieces themselves in the gods’ own images as they appear at Ragnarok, as yet unrecognizable to themselves.  Odin has not yet lost his eye, the Aesir have not yet allied with the Vanir, and so forth.  Because of this, Odin himself should be the god challenged to a game, so that he literally overthrows himself unknowingly at game’s end.  The fact that, before the giantesses arrive, they are playfully attacking their own king is made less perverse by the fact that they do not recognize him.  Perhaps he always escapes.  And it also reminds how low the stakes are; after all, the world has never really known war.  Why not laugh?  

No fine young fellow wants to imagine he'll one day be wedged in a bitty chair, wedded to a woman who's either in a state of permanent dismay or concerned about a massive zit.

The idea of Odin showing bad faith, of reneging on terms in a petty way, is an important one, as it presages other, more serious, broken oaths.  Soon the gods will betray the giant builder of the walls of Asgard, a turning point in the poem as events hasten toward catastrophe.  I wanted to fold all that history yet to unfold into a simple, thoughtless, frustrated flick of his wrist.

The giantesses’ very arrival in the gods’ enclave heralds that doom; one way or another, things will not remain the same on the swirling plane of Idavöll.  I liked very much the image of their shadow being the first sign they give Odin, enraptured with his game, of their ominous presence, like a bully stepping over a dusty recess game of marbles behind the gym.  The downside was that, for the shadow line, I really wanted to use the term “athwart” to describe the shadow falling across the board.  Alliteration dictated that the giantesses ought to be called “thurse” in that case, which is a little more archaic than I normally prefer to be.  Ryan got all up in arms about that one, saying no one would know what on earth I was talking about.   The compromise was to use some repetition — classic Anglo-Saxon poetic trick.  Call them “thurse-girls,” then “monstrous maidens,” then “ogresses,” and folks’ll figure it out from context.

I think the gold production can probably be glossed over, although Dronke may well be right about it, so I’ve moved the line about “no want of gold” to the previous stanza, where it has settled in comfortably.

Enough.  Here’s what I produced, turning Dronke’s one stanza into two of my own:

As breeze-sweep licks the lovely lushness,

they loll on the lawn; one, laughing, traps

the brawny chessmen on the bright-buffed board.

Athwart falls the shadow of thurse-girls three,

Those monstrous maidens who mean to play,

ogresses keen-eyed to outfox Odin.

They hound the champions.  Chase and checkmate.

A whine and a whisk; King’s in the weeds.

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