"Hearing I ask, From the holy races"
In the framework of the History of the English Language course I am currently taking (Currently helmed by professor David J Wrisley), we were required to pick a medieval text document and engage with it on various levels of remediation, taking notes of our experience at each step of the process. Professor Wrisley kindly allowed me to pick an Old Norse text, accomodating my Nordic yearnings and graduate studies interests. I invariably gravitated towards the Codex Regius, deciding on tackling Fáfnismál - The Lay of Fáfnir.
Initial Thoughts: What the Hel am I looking at
I looked online and landed on Finnur Jónsson's facsimile edition, made in 1891. The Fáfnismál was marked as beginning on folio 59, and upon opening the image was promptly greeted by the realisation that, while the Poetic Edda might be one of the most revered (and my personal favorite) poetic work of the medieval period, it is written down in the original manuscript in prose form and not in the neat hemistichal verse form I am used to when working with the english translations. Even though the facsimile is comparatively recent (The original manuscript is 600 years older than the one I am working with), It's is still showing great signs of wear and tear, with the right side of the folio being faded and making the letters difficult to discern. A “smudge” appears on the upper middle part of the document, and a small scribbled sketch, possibly of some plant or tree(Yggdrasil?), appears at the bottom of it. There seem to be two stylized “S” letters, one at the beginning of the page and one just after the middle of it, marking the beginning of the Lay of Fáfnir with a height of approximately three normal lines. It was potentially written using a different ink, possibly a colored one, seeing that it seems to have faded to a greater extent than the other characters.
Transcription #1: Digital to Paper
Now onto the first part of the exercise, transcribing a short passage of it onto paper.
After silently staring at the image for around 30 minutes and the slow, sinking feeling of my soul seeping into Valhalla failing to subside on its own, I snap out of my torpor and try to look online for a digital transcription that could enable me to attempt my own, beyond the simple “drawing” and imitating of the shapes taunting me on screen.
Even before starting the actual transcription process, the first difficulty was locating the beginning of the Lay of Fafnir, which turned out to be inconspicuously marked by the faded S near the middle bottom of the folio. Once this marker was identified, I proceeded with the transcription task.
After wrangling with the manuscript for 45 minutes, on the paper these words appeared:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains.
The first hurdle was to accommodate myself to certain letter shapes, notably the S which only appears in its serpentine state at the beginning of a sentence, seemingly denoting the usage of capital letters in Old Norse. You can see in the image on the right the quick cheat sheet I doodled in order to facilitate the process. Another thorny (pun intended) issue comes with the presence of letters that are no longer a part of the modern english alphabet, including the thorn “þ” and the eth “ð”. It is when I was faced with these indecipherable symbols that I referred to most heavily to the gloss that I had found, and it is during this process that I found the most troublesome element of the manuscript: the existence of one-off symbolic abbreviations that incorporate whole syllables and sometimes whole words. In these cases, I decided to retain the original symbol and tried to copy it as faithfully as possible. Here is another record I kept of all such symbols.
One final thing I noticed during the final review of my transcribed document was my usage of different sign for the letter “s”, sometimes adopting the Old Norse one and sometimes using my French-born cursive one. I however held off long enough on the admonishing and self-flagellation to find out that the author of the manuscript was guilty of the same transgression: the word “mögr” meaning “son”, appears twice in the passage I transcribed. The first time it appears as if it is written "maugr" with what seems to be an "a" appended with some kind of a "u" after it, while the second time it seems that it is written with an "o" with thin line over it to represent the umlaut. Textual unreliability is apparently as big a factor to the modern blogger as it was to skaldic poet, and when the opportunity to draw parallels between me and the Poetic Edda presents itself, I shall humbly and melodramatically take it.
Transcription #2: Paper to Digital
The second remediation involves transcribing my written transcription back into digital form. Due to the myriad of symbols existing in the text and how generally alien the Old Norse alphabet is to me, I decided against attempting to recreate it accurately using the unicode standard, but rather try to mirror it as closely as possible using only the modern English alphabet. This will evidently involve a lot of arbitrary editorial agency on my part. For example, I have decided to look at the online gloss when dealing with the abbreviated symbols and simply copy them as they appear, having no other methodology or know-how to decipher them on my own. However, I decided to copy “conventional” characters such as “N” as they appear in the text, rather than mimicking the doubling which is done in the gloss (the “N”’s in the manuscript are usually transcribed as two “N”’s). Here is the result:
A few other things came to mind while comparing my final digital version to the one available on Voluspa.org is the fact that mine does not include punctuation except the odd period or two, while on the website the transcription includes commas and semi columns and question marks, all of which do not appear in character form in the original manuscript.
And now, for the ineluctable final, concluding, recapitulatory conventional paradigm, I will spare you the customary introspective tackiness (It goes without saying that I have enjoyed this exercise intensely). Instead, I tried to look online for an audiobook or a reading of the Elder Edda in Old Norse in order to engage a final time with yet another remediation of the text. I sadly couldn’t find any such recording, and would like as such to ask, If any of my readers happens to know where to find such resource, please leave a comment below and let us all share in the glory of the old gods and and the old heroes.
References and relevent links:
-The website from which I got the Codex Regius Finnur Jónsson's facsimile edition, 1891.
-The side by side Old Norse - English resource I used.
-The course website for which this post was prepared.