Old Norse literature

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Old Norse literature,

the literature of the Northmen, or Norsemen, c.850–c.1350. It survives mainly in Icelandic writings, for little medieval vernacular literature remains from Norway, Sweden, or Denmark.

The Norwegians who settled Iceland late in the 9th cent. brought with them a body of oral mythological poetry that flourished there in a sturdy, seafaring world removed from the warring mainland. The first great period, which lasted until c.1100, was oral, as writing was not introduced until well after the establishment of Christianity (c.1000). From c.1100 to c.1350 both the oral poetry and new compositions were set down. The conscious, clear prose style that developed for both saga and history antedates that of all other modern European literatures except Gaelic. In the later 13th cent., with Iceland's loss of independence to Norway, literary activity declined and had virtually disappeared a century later.

The surviving body of literature can best be discussed as consisting of several types. Eddic writings (see EddaEdda
, title applied to two distinct works in Old Icelandic. The Poetic Edda, or Elder Edda, is a collection (late 13th cent.) of 34 mythological and heroic lays, most of which were composed c.800–c.1200, probably in Iceland or W Norway.
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) were condensations of ancient lays, in alliterative verse (see alliterationalliteration
, the repetition of the same starting sound in several words of a sentence. Probably the most powerful rhythmic and thematic uses of alliteration are contained in Beowulf, written in Anglo-Saxon and one of the earliest English poems extant.
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), on old gods and heroes. Many of the heroic lays involve the legend of SiegfriedSiegfried
or Sigurd
, great folk hero of early and medieval Germanic mythology. His legend, important in several Germanic epics, recounts his killing of the dragon Fafnir, his marriage to Gudrun (or Kriemhild), his love and betrayal of Brunhild, and his tragic death.
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 and BrunhildBrunhild
, Brünnehilde
, or Brynhild
, mighty female warrior of Germanic mythology and literature. In the Nibelungenlied, a medieval German epic poem (see under Nibelungen), she is the warlike queen of Iceland, whom Siegfried defeats in combat and wins
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; the mythological lays, focusing on Norse gods, include "The Lay of Thrym," a narrative about Thor, and "The Seeress' Prophecy," which begins with creation and anticipates the gods' demise.

Also composed in alliterative verse, but more complex and artificial in form, was scaldic poetry, which flourished in Norway about the 10th cent. and reached its height slightly later in Iceland. Comprising poems of praise, triumph, lamentation, and love, it is subjective in approach and highly mannered in technique. Intricate metrical schemes are meticulously observed, and diction is polished to the point of preciousness, especially in the incessant use of the kenning (a metaphoric substituted phrase, e.g., "ship-road" for "sea"), found also in Anglo-Saxon literatureAnglo-Saxon literature,
the literary writings in Old English (see English language), composed between c.650 and c.1100.

See also English literature. Poetry
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. As the scalds became a group apart, and only the initiated could understand their highly allusive verse, Snorri SturlusonSnorri Sturluson or Sturleson
, 1178–1241, Icelandic chieftain, historian, critic, and saga teller, the leading figure in medieval Norse literature.
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 was prompted to write the Prose Edda (c.1222) as a text of scaldic poetry, in a vain attempt to promote and preserve the old techniques.

As scaldic poetry declined, new forms rose to replace it, among them the ballad and the sacred hymn. A new rhymed verse developed, somewhat analogous to that in Middle English literatureMiddle English literature,
English literature of the medieval period, c.1100 to c.1500. See also English literature and Anglo-Saxon literature. Background
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 and used for much the same purpose—translation and paraphrase of foreign romancesromance
[O.Fr.,=something written in the popular language, i.e., a Romance language]. The roman of the Middle Ages was a form of chivalric and romantic literature widely diffused throughout Europe from the 11th cent.
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. The bulk of medieval Norse literature, and the most readable today, survives in the form of sagassaga,
in Old Norse literature, especially Icelandic and Norwegian, narrative in prose or verse, centering on a legendary or historical figure or family. Sagas may be divided into sagas of the kings, mainly of early Norwegian rulers; Icelandic sagas, both biographical and
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, that is, prose narratives, sometimes interspersed with verse, which relate the lives of legendary or historical figures with objectivity and skillful characterization and which reflect the old Icelandic devotion to personal honor and family.

Historical writing of the 11th and 12th cent. is also noteworthy. In this field Snorri Sturluson contributed his Heimskringla. Ari Thorgilsson produced Islendingabók (c.1125), an account of the island's history, an abridged version of which has survived. He was probably partly responsible also for the Landnámabók, a topographical and genealogical account of Iceland; other works by Thorgilsson have been lost. Finally, all the Scandinavian countries produced medieval ballads, but these were not written down until much later. There remain numerous unsolved problems concerning oral composition, transmission of origins and influences, and dating.


See studies by H. R. Davidson (1943, repr. 1968) and L. M. Hollander (1945, repr. 1968); S. Einarsson, A History of Icelandic Literature (1957); Old Norse Literature and Mythology, ed. by E. C. Polomé (1969).

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In the penultimate chapter of the volume Rudolf Simek provides an extensive survey of references to alfar (elves) in Old Norse literature, noting their distribution, identifying their varying roles and functions in literature, and comparing them with the alfar of contemporaneous Danish and Saxon folk religion.
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Structure and Meaning in Old Norse Literature. New Approaches to Textual Analysis and Literary Criticism.
Lee and Solopova begin their innovative project with a well-researched general introduction of just over fifty pages, which provides information on not only Tolkien's impressive academic career but also on the history and study of Old English, Middle English, and Old Norse literature and languages.
Organized in three sections: nationalism, philology, and myth, along the way the volume touches on Shippey's interests in Tolkien, in reception history, and in Old English and Old Norse literature. It will thus appeal differently to readers engaged in aspects of the many and various disciplines which the honorand has made his own.
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By contrast, Carol Clover's analysis of maiden warriors in Old Norse literature offers a survey of the women who take on the military roles of their fathers, becoming figures 'between worlds' (87).