Old Norse literature

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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Old Norse literature

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 Edda) were condensations of ancient lays, in alliterative verse (see alliteration), on old gods and heroes. Many of the heroic lays involve the legend of Siegfried and Brunhild; 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 literature. As the scalds became a group apart, and only the initiated could understand their highly allusive verse, Snorri Sturluson 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 literature and used for much the same purpose—translation and paraphrase of foreign romances. The bulk of medieval Norse literature, and the most readable today, survives in the form of sagas, 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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