Dear friends of Junction Books, I am pleased to announce that we will be publishing our first ever full book of poetry. The book will be a translation of Old Norse-Icelandic poems by Emily Osborne, a poet and translator from British Columbia.
The book will be titled: Quarrel of Arrows: Ten Poets from Medieval Norway and Iceland. Along with the translations of poems, introductory essays will be written on each translated poet, as well as an overall introduction about Old Norse-Icelandic poetry. I am very much looking forward to working with Emily on this project, and we anticipate the book will be published and available in the fall of 2019.
To whet your appetite, below is a poem translated by Emily, along with some notes that will give context to the poem and assist you in understanding the poetry.
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Hallfreðr vandræðaskáld’s “Erfidrápa Óláfs Tryggvasonar”
(“Memorial Poem for Óláfr Tryggvason”)
Translated by Emily Osborne
A skald must hew this news in metre:
Óláfr, the jumbler of his rivals’
bulwarks, never urged his troops to bolt
from the blade’s jeering. That bench-fellow
of his folk, that triumph-heavy tree
of chainmail, wielded chin-up words
to his warriors. Now I grant
Óláfr’s oration its afterlife.
Danger ringed the horse of deep waters.
Danish squadrons swelled, surrounding
the ship, but dauntless Óláfr hurled
helmet-wands at Danes. Yet I was handed
grief in that victory: more steadfast
friends of mine were cut down while
fighting for the fir who rode Skævaðr,
mythical steed galloping on seas.
That army-shrinker shot sword-fierce
through warships, he split tough
scalp-stumps of staunch sword-trees.
Óláfr had the knack of reddening
his blade, the spar-arm of his steel
chest-bark. Those iron mouths chopped
down many cherry-trees who met for
battle, the valkyries’ assembly.
Axes laid down the law at shield-walls.
Those ogres of ramparts were decisive,
declaring which warriors’ lives
would be swiftly stowed away.
I retell how spears resounded,
how Óláfr’s shield, a high sky-rim,
ricocheted with the war-clouds’ roaring.
Óláfr fed famished wolves flesh
lavishly; he guarded floundering
ocean-wagons, stood unflinching
with warriors against countless
storms of thundering combat-walls.
When blades bit the life-halls of doomed
soldiers, when the southern seas swelled
with blood, which heroes did heroes
of the shield-ground herald as Óláfr’s
hardiest fighters, most loyal oaks?
While I serve up the smooth draught
of giants, folks debate the truth;
someone should really figure this out.
Am I pouring out praise for my prince –
the hunger-blunter of gulls that circle
over the crash of gleaming moons
strapped to the flank of the sea-king’s steed –
as a living lord or dead? Men swear
both reports are true. It’s risky
to track down facts about Óláfr.
He’s wounded, whatever the fallout.
An emissary of the sword-point’s
clout claimed that Tryggvi’s son,
treachery-scorning Óláfr, still lived.
It’s unlikely his highness is here.
Folks who say Óláfr hightailed
home from the blizzard of steel
are really breeding fairy tales;
the truth is tougher to stomach.
I’ve lost a godfather gutsier
than every rancor-greedy prince
under the northern sky’s span,
the awning that dwarves shoulder.
Never will requital redress
the loss of my lord who fuelled
assemblies of swords, slicing shields,
bursting broad prow-moons with blades.
Heaven and earth will tear in two
before any ruler rivalling
the grace of glad-hearted Óláfr
could believably be born. Matchless
among mortals, most righteous to men.
May chaste Christ house the soul
of that well-versed monarch,
harbour it high above all lands.
Hallfreðr vandræðaskáld Óttarsson was a late tenth-century skald (“poet”) from Iceland. Hallfreðr was one of the court poets of Óláfr Tryggvason, King of Norway (995–1000), who is said to have converted Scandinavia to Christianity “by the sword.” According to the medieval prose narrative Hallfreðar saga, Hallfreðr had to convert from his pagan religion to Christianity while serving Óláfr. This conversion was difficult for many Icelanders, including Hallfreðr, and may be one reason why he bore the nickname “vandræðaskáld” (“skald of difficulties”). Hallfreðr composed an Erfidrápa* (a memorial poem in courtly meter) for Óláfr, which details the king’s last battle at sea against the Danish army. Although this poem unequivocally praises Óláfr’s bravery in battle, it presents moments of ambiguity concerning Óláfr’s posthumous reputation. Hallfreðr reports rumours that the king was still alive (rumours which preceded Óláfr’s sainthood). The skald, however, makes clear these reports are not true: the king is dead, and he has an afterlife both in heaven and in Hallfreðr’s own composition.
Hallfreðr’s poetry combines diverse registers: political, personal, humorous, and elegiac. Elaborate description and periphrasis are often juxtaposed with stark statements of the effects of violence and loss. His poem is composed in the dróttkvættmetre, the “courtly” metre containing strict syllabic and alliterative patterns, and usually containing many “kennings”. Kennings are a type of compound metaphor found in Old Norse-Icelandic and Old English poetry; the most well-known example today is perhaps “whale-road” for the sea. Hallfreðr’s kennings in his Erfidrápacharacterize battle, poetry, warriors, bodies and ships. Sometimes these kennings are extended to include many interlinked metaphors, giving a rather psychedelic effect. Kennings in the following excerpt of his poem are based on variations of common structures, for example:
“Argument of weapons” or “sound of weapons” = battle
“Beast of ocean” or “wagon of ocean” = ship
“Helmet-wands” = swords
“Decreaser of armies” or “jumbler of armies” = skilled warrior
“Trees of weapons” = warriors
“Chest-bark” = breast-plate
“The assembly of valkyries” = battle
“War-clouds” = shields
“Monsters of shields” = axes
“Life-halls” = chests
“Drink/draught of giants” = poetry (this kenning is based on the myth of the “mead of poetry”, in which poetry was given to humans as an alcoholic beverage from divine beings)
“Hunger-diminisher of eagles” = warrior who feeds flesh to beasts of battle
“Messenger of weapons” = warrior
“Ship-moons” = shields
“Weapon-storm” = battle
- The Old Norse text of Hallfreðr’s Erfidrápa survives in several manuscripts from the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Edited transcripts of the Old Norse manuscript text with normalized spelling can be found in Finnur Jónsson’s Den norsk-islandske skjaldedigtning(Nordisk forlag, 1912–1915), Volume B1, pp. 150–57 and Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages: Volume 1, ed. Diana Whaley (Brepols, 2012), p. 400. The Old Norse I have used above corresponds to Jónsson’s normalized and punctuated text.