Norse myths are probably more familiar than classical ones in the modern world, perhaps even more familiar than the Old Testament stories Europeans were once brought up on. That is remarkable when one considers the almost vanished literature on which our knowledge of the myths is based. We would know virtually nothing of the tradition of Eddic poetry, with its stories of Thor and Odin and Balder and the giants, if Bishop Brynjolfr Sveinsson had not found the one manuscript that contains most of them in an Icelandic farmhouse in 1662 and sent it as a curiosity to the Royal Library in Copenhagen. Our other main source is the prose account, to some extent based on the poems, which the unlucky Icelandic politician Snorri Sturluson (1178-1241) wrote as a guide to obsolete poetic diction a few years before his enemies cut him down as he hid in his own cellar. The Dane Peder Resen translated it into Latin in 1665, although interest in such subjects had been stirring in Scandinavia, as Heather O'Donoghue points out, for a hundred years before that. Just the same, Shakespeare, for instance, can't have known anything at all about Norse myth. Hamlet may, as O'Donoghue claims, go back to the story of Frodi's mill and the giantess-slaves who grind at a magic stone there, as told in one of the few Eddic poems outside the bishop's Codex Regius, and Hamlet's feigned madness may have something to do with the many riddle and wisdom contests to be found in Old Norse; but by Shakespeare's time these had long been overlaid by Latin versions, their originals lost or forgotten. Siward in Macbeth does sound very Norse, with his gruff refusal to mourn his son - 'Had he his hurts before? . . . Why then, God's soldier be he' - but Vikings did not have the patent on stoicism. Until about 1600 no English-speaker showed any awareness of Norse myth: the tradition was dead.
LRB 3 January 2008 | PDF Download