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Review: The Song Weigher, by Egill Skallagrímsson

Brian McMahon, Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre, 14 August 2018

Egill emerges from the poems a complex figure, full of internal contradictions. In his translations, Crockatt captures as much his propensity to sullenness as his flights of fantastical wordplay. The English translations are spare, maintaining the integrity and structure of the original and preserving also the kennings, which are an essential feature of Old Norse skaldic poetry. A kenning, in Crockatt's words, "tie[s] two objects together in a way that gives a vivid filmic quality to a third, the object they replace" (p.133). Thus "sea-thralled stallion" for "ship" (p.62); "sheath's ice-rays" for "swords" (p.66); and "praise-cairn" for "poem" (p.116). Each of these renderings captures the sense of the original evocatively and hints at the semantic density of these typically compact poems.

Skalds were professional court poets in the Middle Ages, often Icelanders who had travelled to continental Europe for the purpose of serving some king or nobleman, and their skill was in composing fiendishly allusive and intricate verse to fit fixed alliterative patterns, often in a remarkably short space of time. One episode in Egils sagasees the protagonist locked in a cell overnight and tasked with composing a poem so stellar it will amuse the queen who has imprisoned him and buy him his freedom. The resulting text - Höfuðlausnor "Head Ransom" - is one of the finest in this collection, with an ingenious translation to match it. Because Old Norse is a heavily inflecting language, like Latin, word order is much less important in determining meaning than is the grammatical relationship of various words in a sentence. Thus the declension of nouns and conjugation of verbs means much more when interpreting a sentence than does the syntax per se. For this reason the language lends itself to alliterative structures, but skaldic verse, as Crockatt's appendix helpfully explains, also requires fidelity to fixed rules governing syllable-count per line (alternating between odd and even lines), stress patterning, half- and full-rhymes. In light of these complexities, the clarity of the translations, here rendered in verse despite the difficulties that presents, is hugely commendable.


[T]he real appeal here is in the lyrical and evocative translations which Crockatt has coaxed from this diverse and riddlic body of work. A fitting testament to a great and enduring poet.