EDDIC TO ENGLISH

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URSULA DRONKE

The Poetic Edda, Vol. I: Heroic Poems (1969)
The Poetic Edda, Vol II: Mythological Poems (1997)
The Poetic Edda, Vol. III: Mythological Poems II (2011)
Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press

Translated Poems:

Vol. I (4)

Atlakviða, Atlamál in grœnlenzku, Guðrúnarhvǫt, Hamðismál

Vol. II (5)

Vǫluspá, Rígsþula, Vǫlundarkviða, Lokasenna, Skírnismál

Vol. III (4)

Hávamál, Hymiskviða, Grímnismál, Grottasǫngr

Other notable contents:

Numerous original essays (see discussion below)

Notes? Footnotes
Dual edition? Yes
Bowlderization/censorship: None (cf. II. p. 340.32, 340.34)
Original illustrations?
None

I. SAMPLES

a.) Vǫluspá (I, p. 26):

It was early in the ages
when Ymir made his dwelling:
there was not sand nor sea
nor chill waves.
Earth was not to be found
nor above it heaven:
a gulf was there of gaping voids
and grass nowhere,

b.) Dronke provides no translation of Helgakviða Hundingsbana II.

c.) Rígsþula (II, p. 173):

With Rígr Jarl
he despited runes,
teased him with tricks
and knew better than he.
The he got his due
and gained the right then
to be called Rígr,
and have knowledge of runes.

II. REVIEWS

  1. Gay, David. 2000. "Review of 'The Poetic Edda, Vol. 2' (Dronke)." Folklore Forum 34(1):85-86. Online. Negative.

    Sample quote:

    “Dronke's commentary has some problems as well, especially the tendency to fully present only that evidence most favorable to her readings and the failure to draw from relevant folklore scholarship and primary materials.” (p. 85

  2. McKinnell, John. 2001. Review: Ursula Dronke, ed. The Poetic Edda. Vol. 2, Mythological Poems. Alvíssmál 10 (2001): 116–28. Online. Mixed.

    Sample quote:

    This book is a great achievement, and all serious scholars of Old Norse mythology will need to use it. I particularly value its clear elucidation of textual problems, its illuminating commentaries, and its sensitive and imaginative literary paraphrase-interpretations of the poems … However, it also has flaws: Dronke occasionally creates the textual details she wants for her interpretations (especially in Rígsþula) and often ignores the arguments of those who take different views from hers (especially about date and provenance), rather than presenting the reasons why she disagrees with them. She also seems to me to underrate the seriousness and importance of Lokasenna and to impose a single, rather partial view on Skírnismál. Perhaps, with the continual growth of modern scholarship, the time is past when a single scholar can hope to produce an authoritative edition of the whole eddic corpus, or even of a major section of it, such as is covered here. While there is much in this book to admire and to learn from, it does not in the end provide the authoritative modern edition of these poems for which many of us were hoping.”

III. Observations

Compared to other English translations of the Poetic Edda, English scholar Ursula Dronke’s three-volume translation of segments of the Poetic Edda makes for an odd duck. Her first volume saw publication in 1969, followed by another volume in 1997, and then a third volume in 2011. Dronke died in 2012 at age 90 (her obituary, authored by scholar Heather O’Donoghue for The Guardian, may be read here).

Readers will note that Dronke’s translation editions contain scant few poems in comparison to other translations of the Poetic Edda. Dronke appears to have intended to publish more volumes. For example, in 1997, she writes that “volumes III and IV are already well advanced in their preparation … and volume I is to be reprinted with corrections and bibliographical updating” (1997: vii). Volume III, published in 2011, decades later, contains only a few more poems.

In the preface to volume II, Dronke informs readers that “the purpose of this edition is literary: to open up for the common reader the delights of the complexities and felicities of the poems and the beauty of the language, and to show the poets’ intellectual command of their themes, mythological, religious, and human” (1997: vii). Yet Dronke’s edition of the Poetic Edda places barriers before the “common reader” in three crucial ways:

1. Accessibility: Copies of Dronke’s translation dwell primarily in the bowels of university libraries. Few copies appear to be available at these rare schools today.

2. Expense: Unlike every other English translation of the Poetic Edda, Dronke’s edition remains solely priced for university collections. As of summer 2019, readers can expect to pay hundreds of dollars per volume to obtain copies.

3. Scope: As mentioned above—and evidently based solely on personal preference—Dronke chooses comparatively few poems to translate. Although the concept of the Poetic Edda is somewhat amorphous, Dronke provides so few poems that her translation can only be considered partial.

These three factors render Dronke’s translation the least approachable, least available, and least comprehensive English translation of the Poetic Edda to date. More so than any other translation of the Poetic Edda, Dronke’s collective editions are not for “the general reader” unless that reader is someone who happens to have access to the few university libraries that retain all three volumes of her translations or willing to pay several hundred dollars. (It’s notable that, as a specialist composing the present study, I myself encountered numerous barriers finding copies of Dronke’s translations at university libraries.)

To her credit—particularly in light of more recent translations by Jeramy Dodds (2014) and Jackson Crawford (2015)—Dronke provides copious notes, in fact more so than most other editions of the Poetic Edda, and many of them highly technical. However, unlike nearly every other English language translator of the Poetic Edda, Dronke also includes numerous self-authored essays along with her translations. These essays are at times highly speculative.

As an example, consider the notes left behind by a former owner of my copy of volume II. In Dronke’s translation of Vǫluspá, this anonymous author inscribes “Wrong! Fantasy!” next to Dronke’s discussion about invoking an image of an armed statue of the god Óðinn (1997:31)—indeed, no such statue receives any mention in the poem—and a hastily scribbled “what about the Norse sibylline evidence not included here?” appears next to the first paragraph of Dronke’s “A Christian Context of Vǫluspá” (1997: 93). As in many of the commentator’s other notes, the anonymous writer is correct to raise this question: Dronke neglects to discuss the extensive Germanic record of seeresses, preferring to discuss potential Christian influence.

Dronke’s marked approach to the mythological poems of the Poetic Edda is not restricted to volume II. For example, volume III notably contains an essay on the god Þórr’s battle with the monstrous serpent Jǫrmungandr, wherein Dronke’s essentially ignores the wider comparative contexts of the battle in favor of a Christian interpretation (which would no doubt cause aforementioned anonymous annotator to throw the book through a window).

Ultimately, Dronke’s translations may prove most valuable for scholars seeking manuscript discussion and, with much caution, her other commentary. However, without a general audience-oriented paperback reprint available to, as Dronke puts it, “the common reader”, only the most privileged can expect to leaf through these volumes.