Old Norse skaldic poetry, with its convoluted syntax and formulaic use of ‘kennings’, is likely to seem too contrived to appeal much nowadays, but the far more straightforward eddic poetry is another matter, and with due concession to the sensibilities of a more heroic age the modern reader can feel quite at home in it. Here is a section from the Guðrúnarkviða, the lament of Gudrun for her dead husband, the dragon-slaying Sigurd, after his death at the hands of Gjuki’s sons. I love the way the rhetoric shifts suddenly at the end into the simple pathos of a woman missing her ‘málvinr’, literally her ‘talk-friend’. I append my own translation, but even if you may not know the language try to hear the alliterative beat of the original.
By the way, Tolkien enthusiasts will rejoice to meet here the original of the Arkenstone, that lies on the breast of Thorin under Lonely Mountain.
Svá var minn Sigurðr hjá sonum Gjúka
sem væri geirlaukr ór grasi vaxinn,
eða hjörtr hábeinn um hvössum dyrum,
eða gull glód-rautt af grá silfri,
eða væri bjartr steinn á band dreginn,
jarknasteinn yfir öðlingum.
Ek þótta ok þjóðans rekkum
hverri hæri Herjans dísi;
nú em ek svá lítil sem lauf séi
oft í jölstrum at jöfur dauðan.
Sakna ek i sessa ok i saeingu
My Sigurd stood above the sons of Gjuki
As the tall spear-leek stands above the grass
Or the long-legged hart above the lesser beasts
Or the red gold above grey silver
Or as if he were the bright stone on a bracelet,
The arkenstone, precious among princes.
And I myself seemed to the leader of men
A maid of Odin’s hosts, higher than any.
Now I am nothing, like a leafless tree
Laid low by my king’s death, at board and bed
Missing my good gossip…