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(Vol. VIII. Poetry in the fornaldarsǫgur > 7. Introduction > 7. Structure, style and diction of fornaldarsaga poetry > 7.1. Genres of fornaldarsaga poetry)

7.1. Genres of fornaldarsaga poetry

The editors of Edd. Min. drew the chronological borderline for inclusion in their anthology of fornaldarsaga poetry at the end of the thirteenth century in order to distinguish eddic poetry that still followed the metrical and stylistic rules of older Icelandic verse from later poetry that did not. They also invoked other selection criteria. One of their main tests for inclusion of longer poems or groups of lausavísur ‘freestanding stanzas’ in Edd. Min. was whether the poetry conformed to poetic genres (Gattungen) that Heusler and Ranisch regarded as characteristic of the verse that belonged in eine Familie ‘in one and the same family’ with the heroic poetry of the Poetic Edda (Edd. Min. iii). The contents of Edd. Min. are arranged both in terms of their subject-matter and in terms of the stylistic types to which the editors judged they belonged. In the year before Edd. Min. appeared, Heusler (1902) had published a long article on the importance of dialogue poetry in Germanic narrative verse, an article that still commands attention today, so it is not surprising that one of the criteria invoked for classifying the poetry in Edd. Min. was whether it was primarily dialogic, monologic or involved third-person narrative.

Another criterion employed in Edd. Min. was whether a poem could be classified as a Lied, a German word sometimes translated into English as ‘lay’, with the connotation of having originated from an oral tradition as a heroic song- or ballad-like poem of some length. This is a concept that owes a lot to the nineteenth-century idea that heroic songs were the foundation of a Germanic national literature (Heusler 1905; de Vries 1963, 44-71). Poems identified as lieder were given pride of place as the first ten items in Edd. Min. By contrast, various groups of lausavísur and even dialogue poems that reflected ‘no epic story’ (keine epische Fabel, Edd. Min. iv), like the mannjafnaðr ‘comparison of men’ from Ǫrv, were accorded an implicitly lesser status, as were various other poetic genres, like dance stanzas, prophecies, riddles and curses. While a modern attempt to identify the various kinds of fornaldarsaga poetry follows Heusler and Ranisch in making use of several of their analytical criteria, it pays greater attention to the role the poetry plays in the saga in which it is embedded, though noting that there are some poems within fornaldarsögur, like Útsteinskviða ‘Poem of Útsteinn’ (Útsteinn Útkv) in Hálf, that have hardly any points of connection with the narrative of the prose saga and some sagas, like Hrólf, that contain very little poetry, where one might have expected a good deal.

There have been relatively few recent critical studies of the conceptual and stylistic building blocks of fornaldarsaga poetry in comparison to the poetry of the Poetic Edda, the heroic group in particular. Aside from Heusler (1902), many earlier literary surveys, such as de Vries (1964-7), have tended to see similarities between poetry in fornaldarsögur and the verse of the Poetic Edda in terms of specific literary influence from one text to another, rather than in terms of repeatedly used structural and conceptual features. Recently, however, valuable detailed work has been contributed to form the basis of such an analysis by the editors of the Frankfurt-based Kommentar zu den Liedern der Edda (Kommentar 1997-) and two recent chapters by Schorn (2016a and b) have begun to explore this field.

There are obvious similarities between the Poetic Edda corpus and fornaldarsögur poetry on many levels, metrical, thematic and lexical, but there are also differences. Among the similarities is the use of a dialogic narrative frame within which to energise a great variety of narratives of conflict. The dialogue form is a very plastic medium in fornaldarsögur, as it is in Saxo (Friis-Jensen 1987, 59), and Heusler was right to draw attention to its probable antiquity as a literary form in Germanic poetry and to its great malleability in fornaldarsögur. In Heiðr alone, for example, three very different groups of stanzas make use of the dialogue format: the encounter between Hervǫr and her dead father Angantýr amidst the grave mounds of Samsø, the riddles of Gestumblindi and the ancient battle of the Goths and the Huns. Dialogue is also the preferred literary mode even for the presentation of the topic of armed conflict between legendary heroes, like the fight on Samsø (Old Norse Sámsey) between Ǫrvar-Oddr, his companion Hjálmarr and a group of twelve berserks (Ǫrv 5-12), recorded in manuscripts of both Heiðr and Ǫrv. The literary effect of the use of dialogue here, in which each of the heroes expresses his view of the battle, is to give the event a personalised quality that would be difficult to achieve through third-person narrative. Another such example, from Hálf, is the focalisation provided by dialogue to the topic of the burning of the Hálfsrekkar inside an enemy hall, as described in the exchange between the foolish King Hálfr, who is blind to imminent danger, and his wise retainer Innsteinn in Innsteinskviða ‘Poem of Innsteinn’ (Innsteinn Innkv).

Dialogue is also the medium of choice, unsurprisingly, for verbal combats between rivals that do not (quite) escalate into physical conflict. These are designated mannjafnaðr ‘comparison of men’ and senna ‘quarrel, flyting’ in Old Norse and employ a number of standard formulae in which the speakers challenge their rivals in terms of their physical courage, manly accomplishments and social status (cf. Harris 1979; Clover 1980; Bax and Padmos 1983). Here fornaldarsaga poetry is as rich as, if not richer than, the examples found in the Poetic Edda (Hárbarðsljóð (Hárb), Lok, the flytings between Atli and Hrímgerðr in Helgakviða Hjǫrvarðssonar (HHj) and between the giantess Hyndla and the goddess Freyja in Hyndluljóð (Hyndl)). Instances in fornaldarsögur include Útkv (Hálf), the mannjafnaðr between Ǫrvar-Oddr and two rivals as well as Oddr’s exchange with a pagan priestess in Bjálkaland (Ǫrv), sennur between Ketill hœngr and the Saami king Gusi(r), between Ketill and a troll-woman, Forað, and between Ketill and a viking, Framarr (Ket); a senna between Ketill’s son Grímr and two troll-women (GrL); and various exchanges of the heroes Hjálmþér and Ǫlvir with apparently hostile supernatural creatures in HjǪ. This use of verbal dialogue of a usually agonistic kind between fornaldarsaga heroes and the denizens of the supernatural worlds they inhabit reflects the dominance of themes of Otherworld encounters in this sub-genre of the Icelandic saga.

While the extent of the use of dialogue in fornaldarsaga poetry is remarkable, the presence of first-person monologue in this corpus is even more so. By contrast with the Poetic Edda, where monologue is often attributed to female speakers, particularly in the elegaic poetry attributed to the women of the Nibelung households (Guðrún Gjúkadóttir, Brynhildr Buðladóttir, Oddrún Atlasystir), the first-person monologue in fornaldarsögur is an almost exclusively male medium. Many of the examples of monologue in these sagas are of a particular kind, usually termed ævikviða, literally ‘life-poem’ or poetic autobiography, a term not attested, however, in ONP. (The term ævidrápa is sometimes used in scholarly discussion, especially as applied to Ǫrvar-Oddr’s monologue, but it is technically incorrect, as this and the other fornaldarsaga monologues only occasionally contain refrains, a defining characteristic of a drápa.)

Edd. Min. described such ævikviður as monologischen Rückblickslieder ‘monologic retrospective lays’, referring to the characteristic positioning of ævikviður at crucial times of a character’s life, usually when he is on the point of death and looking back on the events that shaped it, hence the frequent inclusion of the term ‘death-song’ in descriptions of this poetic kind (cf. Marold 2005b). Heusler (1902, 199-200, 232) called these poems ‘situation poems’ (situationslieder) and identified them as unique to Old Norse and to Saxo. Among the poems of this type are Hjálmarr’s death-song in Ǫrv, also partially recorded in Heiðr (Ǫrv 13-29), Ǫrvar-Oddr’s own lengthy ævikviða (Ǫrv 71-141), Hildibrandr’s death-song in Ásm (Ásm 1-6), Krm, attributed to the dying Ragnarr loðbrók, Ásbjǫrn’s ævikviða in OStór (OStór 4-12), and, in an Íslendingasaga with many similarities to the fornaldarsaga, both the ævikviður attributed to Grettir Ásmundarson in Gr (Grett Ævkv I 1-3V and II 1-4V (Gr 22-4 and 39-42) as well as the Hallmundarkviða ‘Poem of Hallmundr’ (HallmGr Hallkv1-6V (Gr 51-6)) in the same saga. Svart Skauf has already been mentioned in Section 3 as, in part, a parody of an ævikviða. The Víkarsbálkr ‘Víkarr’s Section’ of Gautr arguably constitutes Starkaðr’s ævikviða although in its present form the stanzas are divided and presented as lausavísur within the saga text. It may also be possible to classify Hrókskviða ‘Poem of Hrókr’ (Hróksv Hrkv) in Hálf as a kind of ævikviða: although the speaker Hrókr is not on the point of death, he has been subject to great misfortune, which, however, has a happy ending, when the woman who overhears his monologue agrees to marry him. Most of these poems are in fornyrðislag, though the two ævikviður from Gr are in kviðuháttr and Krm and Ásb Ævkv are in variants of dróttkvætt. The latter two have another feature in common that is not found in the other poems of this genre: each has a single-line refrain at the beginning of the majority of its stanzas.

The ævikviða displays consistent structural and thematic components. (1) The speaker is mortally wounded (or in danger of death) and (2) his impending death inspires him to compose a poem, (3) looking back at the many significant events of his life (or sometimes (3a) focusing on the circumstances in which he got his death wound), normally highlighting a series of martial exploits in which he has engaged alone or with others. (4) The poem is presented as a first-person narrative of what ’I’ or ‘we’ did and experienced. (5) The speaker of the ævikviða usually has an audience (i.e. the poem is a monologue but not a soliloquy), and this audience is quite often female (cf. Sonatorrek ‘Hard Loss of Sons’ (Egill StV) in Eg). (6) The speaker enjoins his audience to write down his poem, often on a rune stave (Eg, Gr) or to commemorate him on some other form of lasting memorial (Ǫrv; cf. Beowulf 2792-2808 (Beowulf 2008, 95-6)). (7) The speaker dies at the moment when or very shortly after he finishes uttering the poem. (8) Sometimes the speaker is abnormally long-lived (e.g. Starkaðr and Ǫrvar-Oddr, cf. Norna-Gestr and the Old English Wīdsīð), thus allowing his many exploits to be told at very great length.

The evidence of the various manuscript versions of the ævikviður in fornaldarsögur indicates that they became a very popular kind of poetry in Iceland in the later Middle Ages. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries some of them were subject to a good deal of scribal amplification and reworking, as can be seen from later manuscripts. It may be plausibly suggested that they fulfilled the need to amplify the characters of heroic figures in these sagas along similar lines to the treatment of the heroes of romance and legend in other vernacular literatures of the European High Middle Ages. Saxo Grammaticus’s knowledge of similar death-songs, like Hildiger’s in Book VII (Saxo 2015, I, vii. 9. 14-15, pp. 506-9) and Starkatherus’s in Book VIII (Saxo 2015, I, viii. 8. 3-8. 11, pp. 560-71), indicates that such vernacular poetic kinds existed already, or were in process of evolution, in the late twelfth century.

There are other examples of monologue poetry in fornaldarsögur that do not conform to the ævikviða model. Typically, the speakers’ poetic monologues are interspersed with prose, in which the reactions of their audiences are noted, making it difficult to determine whether these were original longer poems with prose links added later or original lausavísur combined in a prosimetrum. Several examples of prophetic declamations by vǫlur ‘prophetesses’ (cf. Vǫluspá (Vsp) and Hyndl in the Poetic Edda) occur in Hrólf (Hrólf 2-5), Ǫrv (Ǫrv 1-3) and OStór (OStór 1), the last-named probably an imitation of the Ǫrv stanzas, while the Buslubœn ‘Busla’s curse’ (Busl) in Bós is the sole example of its kind. These are the only monologic poems in the corpus in which the speakers are female. There is also a small group of prophecies uttered by male speakers, including Bragi Lv 1aIV and 1b, the latter stanza in Hálf, Mágus jarl in Mág 1-3, and a variety of supernatural beings that predict the fates of members of the family of King Hálfr Hjǫrleifsson in Hálf. These last include a þurs ‘giant’ (Anon Hálf 1), a mountain in the shape of a man (Anon Hálf 2) and a marmennill ‘merman’ (Hálf 6-16). The Bragi figure here (cf. Lindow 2006), as well as the other supernatural beings in Hálf, act as agents of natural order in the uncertain world of human conflict depicted in this saga (cf. Torfi H. Tulinius 2002, 115-16). The monologue of the trémaðr ‘wooden man’ (Ragn 38-40) at the end of Ragn fulfils a similar function. Likewise, the prophecies of the spámaðr ‘prophet’ Merlin, as expressed in the two long poems Merl I and II, convey a sense of overarching destiny to the jumble of pseudo-historical and legendary events recounted in these works.

The poetry in some fornaldarsögur does not fit easily into the categories discussed above. In the probably late Frið, for example, there is great variability between the two main versions of the saga, and frequent disparity between them in terms of the content and sequencing of the stanzas they contain. Most of the stanzas are first-person narrative accounts of events, persons and personal feelings attributed to the protagonist, Friðþjófr, himself, but these are presented in the saga as lausavísur. There is a long sequence of stanzas, which might once have been part of a longer poem, in which Friðþjófr describes a storm at sea on the way from Norway to Orkney brought on by two troll-women who threaten him, his companions and his ship, Elliði, with destruction. These stanzas interweave several themes: of the power of the storm and the supernatural forces that cause it; of Friðþjófr’s love for the beautiful Ingibjǫrg, which is thwarted by his enemies (who have set the troll-women on him), and of the difference between the perils of the sea and the soft life among women back in Norway. Such a mixture of elements of romance, the supernatural and the sensational must have appealed to a fourteenth-century Icelandic audience, just as it appealed to European Romantic tastes in the nineteenth century.

An especially difficult saga to fit into any kind of pattern is Ragn. Like Frið, its poetry consists exclusively of lausavísur and these form small groups depending on the identity of their fictive speakers. Most of the stanzas are spoken by Ragnarr and his wives and sons. They describe actions, mostly fights, in which the father and sons had been involved or in which they met their deaths, and they are partly retrospective, beginning with Ragnarr’s account of his slaying of a serpent from which he got his nickname loðbrók ‘Hairy-breeches’ and won his first wife, Þóra. There is an admixture of dialogue between Ragnarr and his second wife Kráka/Áslaug, but the primary impression conveyed by the stanzas as a whole is of a family history of warfare and then vengeance, orchestrated by Ragnarr’s second wife, now called Áslaug/Randalín, for the deaths in battle of her sons and stepsons. Two stanzas (Ragn 26-7) present Ragnarr’s own account of his impending death in the Northumbrian King Ælle’s snake-pit, with wording reminiscent of sts 24 and 28 of Krm, but the death-song form is merely incipient here. At the end of its Y version the saga concludes with a group of six almost mannjafnaðr-like stanzas (Ragn 32-7) exchanged by two wandering ex-warriors loyal to Ragnarr and his sons and, finally, there is the eerie monologue of the trémaðr, who stands forlornly on the island of Samsø where he was once set up as the recipient of sacrifice by the sons of Loðbrók (or Loðbróka, see Ragn 39, second Note to l. 4). The saga thus has a dying fall, suggesting the end of a glorious, heroic era in which Ragnarr and his family played important roles.

The social resonance in Iceland of the legend of Ragnarr, his sons and various wives perhaps offers a clue to the nature and structure of the saga and its poetry. It is well known that it came to be believed that Áslaug, Ragnarr’s second wife, who plays an important part in Ragn and in RagnSon, was the daughter of the legendary heroic couple Sigurðr Fáfnisbani and Brynhildr Buðladóttir, and that through her a number of important Icelandic families descended (Ólafia Einarsdóttir 1964, 62-8). Ari Þorgilsson includes mention of her (though he does not give her actual name) in his own family tree at the end of his Íslendingabók ‘Book of the Icelanders’ (Íslb) of c. 1122-33 (ÍF 1, 28) and he mentions the killing of King Eadmund of East Anglia in 869/870 by Ívarr Ragnarsson in the same work. Thus the story of Ragnarr and his wives and sons had an important position between legend and history for an Icelandic audience and this in-between status may be reflected particularly in the saga’s poetry, in which all but the trémaðr’s monologue is in a version of the court metre, dróttkvætt, and, like stanzas in historical sagas, presented as lausavísur. Krm is also in a version of dróttkvætt, as has been mentioned earlier.

Runic data from Samnordisk runtextdatabas, Uppsala universitet, unless otherwise stated