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date: 19 November 2017

The European Circulation of Nordic Texts in the Romantic Period

Summary and Keywords

From the 1750s until the 1840s, the interest in Icelandic manuscripts of mythology and heroic sagas, as well as various forms of Nordic folklore, entered a new phase. One of the central reasons for this was an emergent attention to vernacular, national, and even primitive literature associated with the rise of Romanticism. Investigations of the Nordic past had been carried out before this time, and a popular craze for all things “Viking” came later in the 19th century, but the Romantic period marks a major juncture in relation to providing the Old North with cultural meaning. If the intellectual history of rediscovering Old Norse texts (i.e., poetry and prose written in the North Germanic language until the 14th century, known primarily from Icelandic manuscripts) and medieval Nordic folklore (found in medieval ballads, sagas, and heroic legends) differed in various European countries, there was also a remarkable sense of common aim and purpose in the reception history as it developed during the Romantic period. This was because European scholars and writers had come to see medieval Nordic texts as epitomizing the manners and literature of a common Germanic past. In particular, Old Norse texts from Icelandic manuscripts were believed to preserve the pre-Christian religion, as this was once shared by Scandinavians, Anglo-Saxons, Germans, and the Franks. Thus, interest in such texts circulated with particular intensity between Scandinavia, Germany, and Britain, as well as, to a lesser degree, France. Paradoxically, if medieval Nordic texts were seen as wild and unwieldy pieces, unaffected by classical learning and sophistication, they were also sought out as triumphant records of the vernacular and national. In addition to this, the untamed use of fantastic and sublime elements in these texts fitted into a new Romantic emphasis on the primitive and imaginative resources of literature.

There are three interrelated areas in which Nordic texts made an impact. The first of these was in the field of antiquarian studies. Scholars had taken an interest in the texts and culture of the Nordic past beginning in the 17th century, publishing their findings primarily in Latin. But efforts were redoubled after Paul Henri Mallet, a professor at Copenhagen, published a popular history of the Old North (1755) and a selection of Norse poetry (1756) in French. These works gained wide European traction and influenced the reception history in fundamental ways during the Romantic period. The second area of impact was the acceleration of translations and/or adaptations of original manuscript texts that began to appear in modern European languages. But, in effect, a relatively small body of texts were repeated and reworked in various national languages. The third area in which the interest in Nordic literature asserted its impact was among writers and poets, who trawled antiquarian works on Norse history and mythology as an ore to be mined for the purpose of creating—or rather reviving—a national literature. This was a literature that consciously broke with classical models and decorum to provide a new poetic orientation that was both more vernacular and imaginative.

The celebration of medieval Nordic literature cannot be treated in isolation, as if it were an independent phenomenon; it was part of a wider revival of ancient national/vernacular literary forms around Europe. To a significant degree, the attention to Old Norse texts was propelled by the phenomenal success that the Gaelic Ossian poetry enjoyed across Europe. Norse poetry was harnessed as a Germanic parallel that could match both the vigor and purported ancientness of the Ossian tradition. Sometimes the Nordic past was invoked as a larger legacy that represented a shared ethno-cultural past; at other times, it was used with a more focused nationalist aim. But, whatever the intent in individual circumstances, the rediscovery of the Old North took place through the circulation of ideas and key texts as part of a wider European exchange.

Keywords: Nordic, Old Norse, medieval, antiquarianism, heroic poetry, Romanticism, mythology, Germanic, Ossian

The Scholarly Reception

A number of 17th-century antiquarian works on the Old North would continue to inspire Romantic-period writers. In Antiquitatum Danicarum de Causis Contemptae a Danis Adhuc Gentilibus Mortis (Danish Antiquities on the Pagan Danes’ Disdain of Death [1689]), the Danish antiquarian Thomas Bartholin glorified the old Danes for their purported death-defiance and martial courageousness. These ideals were often repeated, and played a significant role in the development of National Romanticism in Europe, as this looked to a nobler past. Another idea that was accorded much cultural attention was the Danish antiquarian Ole Worm’s misguided theory in [Runir] seu Danica literatura antiquissima, vulgo Gothica dicta luci reddita (Runes: or the Most Ancient Danish Letters, Popularly Called Gothic, Brought to Light [1636; rev. ed. 1651]) that Old Norse poetry had originally been recorded in runes as part of a widespread manuscript culture. A consequence of this theory was that “Runic”—alongside “Gothic” (as we find it in Worm’s title) gained currency as a general term for Old Norse literature in English. In fact, runes had been used primarily for inscriptions on wood or stone by early medieval Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons. The runic script with its angular letters and simple strokes was well suited for this purpose. The occasional use of runes in manuscript for the recording of poetry (as in the early 14th-century Scandinavian manuscript known as Codex Runicus) shows a nostalgic and deliberately revivalist use. There is no evidence that an original legacy of manuscripts with Old Norse poems in runes ever existed as an alternative to manuscripts in Latin letters. Worm’s printings of poems in runes were modern transliterations.1

One of the most important ways in which these 17th-century studies had an impact on the Romantic period was through the Icelandic manuscript texts that scholars transcribed and translated into Latin (with the help of Icelandic amanuenses). These texts were later retranslated into the vernaculars of various European nations and mined as repositories for new imaginative compositions.

The first major works on the Old North, its history, and its literature published in a modern European language were by Paul Henri Mallet (1730–1807), the Genevean professor at Copenhagen. Commissioned by the Danish government, Mallet published Introduction à l’histoire du Danemarch où l’on traite de la religion, des moeurs, des lois, et des usages des anciens Danois (1755; rev. ed. 1763, 1773), which details the ancient history, manners, and religion of the Danes. A year later, this was followed by Monumens de la mythologie et de la poesie des Celtes, et particulierement des anciens Scandinaves (1756), an anthology of translations, primarily Icelandic texts that also included the Swedish folklore tale of King Grym.2 This collection sparked a whole new interest in the Scandinavian textual legacy, which Mallet saw as representative for all northern peoples who had worshipped Odin and Thor (i.e., the Germanic peoples he misnames as Celtique throughout). The confusion between the ancient Celts and Germanic peoples was common in authoritative scholarly work, such as Philipp Clüver’s Germaniae Antiquae (1616), Johann Georg Keysler’s Antiquitates selectae Septrionales et Celtae (1720), and not least Simon Pelloutier’s Histoire des Celtes (1750). But with the rise of Romantic Nationalism, which emphasized the tie between a people and its ethnic-vernacular past, such lack of discrimination became increasingly untenable.

In his representation of the old northerners, Mallet drew on a traditional image of Scandinavia as the cradle of liberty, an idea that can be traced back to medieval times.3 This notion was given new prominence in the 18th century in Montesquieu’s treatise of political philosophy De L’Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of the Laws [1748]). Montesquieu and later Mallet also evoked traditional environmental-humoral theories, which presumed that the cold climate conditioned the Scandinavians to become courageous and spurn luxury (a negative quality in 18th-century parlance). This theory was used as part of a larger discourse on the difference between the south and the north of Europe, which became discernible in much antiquarian writing.

In Denmark and Scandinavia, Mallet’s works were enthusiastically received, but his writings also awakened a Gothomania in France. One of the leading writers in this respect was the Danish-French geographer Conrad Malte-Brun (1775–1826). Taking inspiration from Mallet, Malte-Brun emphasized the bravery and freedom of the ancient Scandinavians as virtues that were foundational for the creation of modern Europe. Madame de Staël (1766–1817) was more specifically interested in the literature of the Old North. However, she mistakenly yoked the Norse texts translated by Mallet with those that James Macpherson had published in the name of the Celtic Ossian. This was under the assumption that these texts constituted a singular northern tradition of literature (as opposed to the literary accomplishments of southern Europe). In her chapter on northern literature in De la littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (1800) and in De l’Allemagne (1813), Madame de Staël showed a clear preference for the northern branch of literary achievement, which she considered to be most suitable for promoting liberty. She pits the melancholy yearnings, respect for women, and independent spirit of the North against the sensuality and pleasure-seeking proclivities of the South. If Madame de Staël broke new ground in the field of comparative literature, it was to the detriment of the Mediterranean south.

In other parts of Europe, Mallet’s works were also received as part of an emerging interest in the vernacular pasts. Mallet’s writings were translated into German by A. F. Roese in 1765 and subsequently praised in a fulsome review by Johann Gottfried Herder (1774–1803), who himself would go on to translate several Nordic texts in his collection Volkslieder (1778–1779).4 In Britain, the literary antiquarian Thomas Percy (1729–1811) translated Mallet’s texts into a two-volume edition with the telling title: Northern Antiquities: or, a Description of the Manners, Customs, Religion and Laws of the Ancient Danes, and Other Northern Nations; Including Those of Our Own Saxon Ancestors (1770). In the preface, and in his copious notes, Percy highlighted two things of central importance to the reception of Old Norse literature in Britain. First, Mallet had not adequately distinguished between the Celtic and the Germanic peoples. Percy strikes a blow for what he refers to as the “Gothic” (i.e., Germanic) peoples, as these can be seen to comprise a distinct ethnic and cultural category with their own unique literary heritage. Second, he sees Old Norse poetry as directly relevant to the Anglo-Saxons. He thereby threw new scholarly weight behind the practice of citing Old Norse texts in discussions of the English past, as had been done by 17th-century English antiquarians such as Robert Sheringham and William Temple on the premise that the Anglo-Saxons had come from northern parts of the continent. At a time before the discovery of several important Old English texts, most notably Beowulf, it was held that the form and function of the largely missing imaginative literature of the Anglo-Saxons could be extrapolated from the literary vestiges of the old Norsemen. Such connections became so well-established that the French writer François-René de Chateaubriand could write in his Sketches of English Literature: “It would be almost impossible to take a separate view of literature during the epoch of the Anglo-Saxons and that of the Danes; I shall therefore treat of them together.”5

A significant study that made such assertive pronouncements possible was Thomas Percy’s “Essay on the Ancient Minstrels of England” (1765; rev. ed. 1775, 1794), included in the first volume of his popular collection Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Percy argued that the medieval English minstrels derived their skills from the tradition of skalds, the Scandinavian bards. In particular, Percy pointed to the heroic romance as a genre that could be traced to northern origins. Thus, he confronted previous ideas of romance as a literary form deriving from Mediterranean or eastern traditions. The literary historian Thomas Warton (1728–1790) accepted most of Percy’s points about the skaldic foundation of English poetic history in his seventy-two-page dissertation Of the Origin of Romantic Fiction in Europe, prefixed to the first volume of The History of English Poetry (1774). Warton uses the composite epithet “Dano-Saxon” to refer to literary culture in England before the Norman invasion.6 Warton conjectured that the Anglo-Saxons maintained contact with the literary culture of Scandinavia after they had left the continent, receiving visits from skalds in subsequent centuries.7

Another key publication was Thomas Percy’s Five Pieces of Runic Poetry Translated from the Islandic Language (1763), a selection of heroic texts excerpted from Icelandic saga writing. In the preface, Percy points to a fundamental kinship between Icelandic and the English language in an attempt to argue that the texts represented a shared tradition. It has been noted that Percy copied the title and page design of this collection (down to quoting verses by the Roman poet Lucan) from Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and Translated from the Galic or Erse Language (1760), James Macpherson’s first publication of Ossian’s poems.8 Macpherson claimed that his material was taken from oral informants, representing an uncorrupted tradition going back to the 3rd century by the Gaelic bard Ossian. In the preface to Five Pieces, Percy is candid about his motives for publishing: “It would be as vain to deny, as it is perhaps impolitic to mention that this attempt is owing to the success of the ERSE fragments [i.e., Macpherson’s Fragments].”9 Borrowing terminology from the translation theorist Itamar Even-Zohar’s study of literary polysystems, the literature of England can be said to have reached a turning point as the demand for ancient vernacular poetry rose in the wake of Ossian’s popularity. The cultural capital generated by Ossian’s Celtic poetry created a vacuum in England, which paved the way for the intervention of Norse/Germanic literature of the past within the polysystem of available genres.10

The reception of Norse mythology coincided with the recuperation of ethnic and ancestral history. This was exercised through the common assumption that Odin was originally a (human) warlord from the East. It was regularly asserted in antiquarian works that Odin had been forced to migrate with his retinue to the northern parts of Europe on account of Roman imperial attacks on his dominions. On his journey to the North, Odin allegedly installed his sons as rulers in Scandinavia, Germany, and England, where the primitive inhabitants worshipped them as deities. This euhemerist theory (an interpretation of mythology that presumes it to have originated from real historical events or personages) had already been proposed by the 13th-century Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson in the prologue to the Prose Edda and with variations in the beginning of Heimskringla (both from the 1220s). In Romantic-period publications, it was generally argued that the historical Odin had brought with him the art of runic script as well as a tradition of poetry inflected with eastern imaginative influences. Thus, the wild and inventive images of Old Norse literature could rationally be explained as the legacy of eastern origins. This theory enjoyed much support throughout the period and was rehearsed among other places in Thomas Carlyle’s famous essay on Odin in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1840).

In Germany, the mythology of Odin, Thor, and the Norse gods was taken up as important for the reconceptualization of a vernacular Germanic culture. In Johann Gottfried Herder’s philosophical dialogue “Iduna, oder Apfel der Verjüngung” (Iduna, or the Apple of Rejuvenation [1796]), Norse mythology is recommended as a suitable subject that could pave the way for a new national literature and help artists effect a cultural renewal. Nonetheless, artists would first have to jettison the raw and barbarian elements of this heathen belief system to make it culturally effective. A concrete link between Norse mythology and cultural history can also be found in the Heidelberg historian Franz Joseph Mone’s Geschicte des Heidenthums im nördlichen Europa (History of Heathenism in Northern Europe [1822–1823]). Here, Mone asserts that the metaphysics contained in the mythology of the Eddas have had a profound influence on German history. Purportedly, the core philosophy that formed the foundation of Germanic beliefs in the past had not only provided nourishment to various historical conflicts and religious tensions throughout the ages (such as the Reformation), but also influenced contemporary confessional disparities.

In Scandinavia, a theory that Norse mythology represented a form of proto-Christianity gained currency. The Eddas were interpreted as harboring a concept of the Trinity and a monotheistic reverence for a supreme All-Father. This was because the real-life Odin and his fellow migrants had been monotheists when they left Asia, according to the Danish-Norwegian antiquarian Peter Frederik Suhm (1728–1798) in his seminal treatise Om Odin og den hedniske Gudelære og Gudstjeneste i Norden (On Odin and the Pagan Creed and the Divine Sacrament in the North [1771]). Suhm’s grandiose ideas of Nordic mythology as innately monotheistic, but since corrupted into polytheism, was sympathetically received around Europe. However, it had its most significant impact on the Danish writer and theologian N. F. S. Grundtvig (1783–1872). Working both as theologian and national antiquarian, Grundtvig was awakened to what he himself labeled his Asarus (“Aesir-inebriation,” i.e., an immoderate enthusiasm for the Norse gods). In 1808, this led Grundtvig to write the lines: “Great Odin! White Christ, your dispute is cancelled out. Both sons of the All Father.”11 This audacious merging of Nordic mythology with Christianity is also clearly observable in Grundtvig’s treatise Nordens Mytologi (Nordic Mythology [1808]).12 However, in an 1832 revision of this work, Grundtvig extricated himself from what he had come to consider as injudicious opinions. He now divorced Nordic mythology and Christianity to categorize them as “philosophy of life” and “faith,” respectively. But, the sense that Eddic religion essentially covered the same ground as the Bible is not annulled. Theories that Norse mythology concealed profound inner or mystical meanings gained some traction in the Nordic countries. One case of this reception was the Swedish intellectual Pehr Henrik Ling (1766–1839), who set out in Eddornas sinnebildslära (The Symbols of the Eddas [1819]) to explain that Norse mythology contained spiritual types reflecting a philosophy of Nature that lay beyond and above later dogmatic codes of religion. Also in England, the poet William Blake (1757–1827) appears to have chosen a mystical approach to interpreting the Eddas as a series of divine archetypes. In response to Bishop Richard Watson’s claim that those who did not know the Christian religion were deprived of morality or a sense of the divine universe, he exhorted all conservative Christians to “Read the Edda of Iceland.”13 Later, J. J. Garth Wilkinson (1812–1899), who was responsible for the first letter-press edition of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, wrote a Swedenborg-inspired exegesis of the first poem in the Poetic Edda: The Book of Edda called Völuspá: A Study in Its Scriptural and Spiritual Correspondences (1897).

Translations and Adaptations

The oldest examples of Nordic literature were the texts collected in what was known as the Poetic (or Elder) Edda, contained in the Codex Regius manuscript and traditionally attributed to the Icelandic priest Sæmundr the Learned (an attribution now largely rejected in modern scholarship). Some of the mythological poems had circulated piecemeal in Latin translation, but interest revived considerably in the final decades of the 18th century. An authoritative edition completed under the auspices of the Arnamagnæan Commission was published in Copenhagen between 1787 and 1818. But Bertel Christian Sandvig’s substantial translation of the texts into Danish had already appeared between 1773 and 1775. There were several European translations of the Vǫluspá, the first and best-known poem in the collection. The speaker of this poem is a seeress (völva) who, in an address to Odin, recounts the story of the world from its creation to its destruction. Louis-Félix Guynement de Keralio made a French translation in 1763 and Frederic G. Bergmann published a version in 1838; translations were also published in German by Michael Denis in 1772, Johann Gottfried Herder in 1779, and Frederich Majer in 1818. In Britain, Amos Cottle brought out a small collection titled Icelandic Poetry, or the Edda of Saemund, Translated into English Verse (1797), which also contained a version of the Vǫluspá. It is not clear whether the translation was made from Icelandic or (more likely) through the intermediary of Latin. But, at the time the publication came out, enough scholarly material was already available to allow the poet William Wordsworth to criticize the volume for its “many inaccuracies which ought to have been avoided.”14 The scholar, poet, and clergyman William Herbert (1778–1847) is usually credited with publishing the earliest accurate English version of Norse verse, Select Icelandic Poetry: Translated from the Originals (1804). Herbert’s prose summary of the late-13th-century Gunnlaugs saga ormstunga (Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue), an Icelandic story of a romantic love triangle, centering on Helga the Fair, became the inspiration for Walter Savage Landor’s poetic juvenilia Gunlaug (1806). Later, Herbert himself wrote the epic-length poem Helga (1815), which drew on material from the Edda and the sagas.

There were indeed significant overlaps between scholarly interest and the poetic uses of Norse material. In 1801, Walter Scott (1771–1832) considered bringing out “an abridgement of the most celebrated Sagas, selecting the most picturesque Incidents & translating the Runic Rhymes.”15 The project was never completed in its entirety, but Scott wrote a paraphrase of Eyrbyggja saga (describing events in the 10th and 11th centuries), which he contributed to the collection Illustrations of Northern Antiquities (1814), an anthology Scott co-edited with Henry Weber and Robert Jamieson. The anthology contained translations of “Metrical Tales, from the Old German, Danish, Swedish, and Icelandic Languages.” In Scott’s literary productions, beginning with The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), a long narrative poem focusing on the past literary tradition that prevailed on the border between England and Scotland, the Norse poetic tradition is referenced on several occasions.

A number of translations and adaptations of Nordic texts were written and circulated across language barriers in Romantic-age Europe. In Britain, the two most influential adaptations of Norse poetry were “The Fatal Sisters. An Ode” and “The Descent of Odin. An Ode” by Thomas Gray (1716–1771). The Odes were written in 1761, but not published until the bookseller James Dodsley included the two pieces in the 1768 edition of Gray’s Poems. In a short “Advertisement” prefacing the poems, Gray explains that the odes had originally been intended to appear in a history of English literature as “some specimens of the Style that reigned in ancient times among the neighbouring nations, or those who had subdued the greater part of this Island, and were our Progenitors.”16 “The Fatal Sisters” is an adaptation of the Old Norse poem Darraðarljóð (Lay of Darts) translated through the Latin text printed in the Icelandic historian Thormodus Torfæus’s history of the Orkney Islands, Orcades seu rerum Orcadensium historiae (1697). The verses describe a scene in which the Norse Valkyries (female figures who select slain warriors for Valhalla) spin the fate of men on a loom with human entrails and skulls. An undated entry in Gray’s Commonplace Book, entitled “Gothic,” refers to the Icelandic poem as “The Song of the Weird Sisters, or Valkyries.”17 This title reflects the notion that a version of the Norse Valkyries had been usurped as part of Scottish folklore through the influx of Scandinavian settlers and, in turn, came to inform William Shakespeare’s reference to the Weird Sisters in Macbeth.18

Gray’s “The Fatal Sisters” is a rather free paraphrase of the original, where the first stanza, for example, has no equivalent in the source text. Gray also liberally interpolated adjectives such as griesly, gasping, and trembling throughout. The second of Gray’s Norse odes is based on the poem known as Baldrs draumar (Balder’s Dreams), which had been translated into Latin by Danish antiquarian Thomas Bartholin. It is a poem about Odin awakening a seeress from her grave, through the use of magic incantations, to know the fate of the murdered god Balder. Gray’s reimagining of the Norse poems suited 18th-century preoccupations with the Gothic. The odes were often reprinted, cited, imitated, and even parodied. Thomas James Mathias included free adaptations of Norse poetic material in his Runic Odes: Imitated from the Norse Tongue in the Manner of Mr. Gray (1781; repr. 1790, 1798, 1806). Gray’s odes sparked an interest in Norse poetry not only in Britain but also in Europe, but a side-effect of their popularity was that they gave the general impression that Norse poetics was primarily inclined toward evoking terror. Thomas Carlyle expressed his misgivings about Gray for providing a generation of readers with a “gloomy palace of black ashlar marble, shrouded in awe and horror.”19

An example of the fascination with Norse poetry as a source of horror can be seen in the rediscovery of traditional Danish folklore, examples of which had been anthologized in Peder Syv’s antiquarian collection Et Hundrede Udvalde Danske Viser … Forøget med det Andet hundrede Viser (One Hundred Selected Songs … with Another One Hundred Songs Added [1695]). Herder translated some of these songs for his collection of European folk ballads, Volkslieder (1778–1779). Another ballad, which Herder entitled “Der Wasserman,” tells the story of a maiden who marries an evil water sprite, which results in her drowning. Herder’s German translation was rendered into English under the title “Water King” by Matthew Lewis in his Gothic novel Ambrosio, or The Monk (1796). Lewis expanded the ballad to twice the length of his German source and included it as a song performed outside a convent in Spain. Later, the song was reprinted in Lewis’s collection Tales of Wonder (1801; actually late 1800), a two-volume edition with sixty pieces, both traditional folk ballads and new compositions. The collection also includes other translations/adaptations of Danish ballads: “Elvers’s Hoh,” “The Erl-King’s Daughter,” and “The Water King,” as well as two Norse songs, “The Sword of Angantyr,” and “King Hakon’s Death Song,” all of which had previously been included in Volkslieder translated into German by Herder. Tales of Wonder shows a fascination with elves and various nature sprites—what Lewis calls the “hobgoblin repast,” for which Nordic folklore was seen as a repository.

The most successful adaptation with a wide European reach was not concerned with horror but evoked an unabashed sentimentalism of tragic love. The Swedish bishop Esaias Tegnér (1782–1846) composed Fridthjofs Saga, based on Friðþjófs saga hins frœkna, an Icelandic fornaldarsaga from c. 1300. The plot takes place in 8th-century Iceland, centering on Frithjof “the bold,” who is refused marriage to his beloved Ingeborg. Consequently, Frithjof becomes a Viking (i.e., one of the seafaring raiders from the Scandinavian countries who ravages the coasts of Europe from 800 ad), only later to return and take revenge on those who had prevented the marital union. In 1820, Tegnér brought out cantos of his adaptation in the journal Iduna, published by Göthiska förbundet (Gothic Society), a group formed in 1811 with the vow to “absolutely in duty bound … investigate the sagas and chronicles of the old Goths [i.e., Norse ancestors],” as their constitution stipulated.20 The poem’s full twenty-four cantos were published in book form in 1825. The poem achieved enormous success and was translated into practically all European languages. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was fulsome in his praise, calling it an “alte, kraftige, gigantischbarbarische Dichtart” [old, immense, gigantic-barbaric poetic form].21 Several German translations followed. There were also four independent English translations between 1833/34 and 1839.22 Tegnér had read the Swedish and Latin translations of the poem published by the antiquarian Erich Julius Björner in 1737, but the inspiration for his adaptation came from the most prominent revivalist of Nordic poetry, the Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger (1779–1850)—especially Oehlenschläger’s poem Helge (1814), an adaptation of an old legendary tale of love and revenge. Tegnér followed the sequence of events in the original Friðþjófs saga hins frœkna, but recreated Frithjof as a Romantic hero, depicting him in a decidedly sentimental light. As Tegnér wrote in a letter to the English translator George Stephens, the saga contained “occasional instances of the raw, the savage, the barbarous, which required to be either altogether taken away or to be considerably softened down … it was necessary to modernize.”23

Many adaptations were clearly changed to create a desired image of Norse poetry and to engage contemporary readers. The sentimentalist agenda aligned Norse poetry with Ossian, which in itself was James Macpherson’s rather liberal reworking of traditional elements to 18th-century standards of literary fashion. The image of the tender-hearted Norse warrior belongs to the creation of a “muscular sensibility,” as identified by the literary historian Dafydd Moore.24As noted above, another tendency was to enhance the horror of the original and thereby tap into the popular taste for Gothic sensibilities. However, it was also possible to represent the ancestors’ confrontation with the sublime as a heroic achievement. Mallet, for example, expressed admiration for the northern mythologizers who dared embrace the terrible truth of Ragnarök with unrivaled courage, linking the poetic musings on the final conflagration of the world to “that wild enthusiastic courage which animated the ravagers of the Roman Empire, and conquerors of the greatest part of Europe.”25

New Works with Nordic Themes

The interest in composing new poetry with Nordic themes was intrinsically bound up with the long-standing and European-wide fascination for Ossian. Frequently, writers were inspired to write their Nordic-themed pieces in response to Ossian. Consequently, a clearly discernible Ossianic melancholy or sentimentalism is often introduced into adaptations of Norse material. The earliest German-speaking poet, who took an interest in the Norse past, was Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg (1737–1823), who comments on Ossian in his Briefe über Merkwürdigkeiten der Literatur (1766–1767). Around the same time, he composed Gedicht eines Skalden (Poem of a Skald [1766]), about the awakening of the Norse skald Thorlaug. In five songs, he described nature with unequivocal Ossianic inflections and muses over lost time. While residing in Copenhagen, Gerstenberg became a close friend of the German expatriate poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724–1803). In the poem “Unsere Sprache” (Our Language [1767]), Klopstock makes several references to Norse tradition, although Ossian is held up as a model of the bard whose poetry can create continuity with the past. In the conclusion, Bragi, the Norse god of poetry, is seen resting on a harp, but the indication is that he may in future pick it up and strike its strings.26 In “Der Hügel und der Hain” (The Hill and the Grove [1767]), Klopstock expressed the intention to leave behind classical literary ideals (symbolized by Mount Parnassus) for the German bard, who sings in the ancient grove of Odin. Klopstock’s work was instrumental in kindling what classically inclined poets would refer to as the Bardengebrüll, a “bardic roar,” pursued among his followers and imitators in Germany. In particular, images of the ancient bard/skald were taken up among the Göttinger Hainbund (Grove League of Göttingen), a society of poets following Klopstock’s lead in praising skaldic poetry and Germanic mythology. The poetry produced by this group of poets contains numerous references to Nordic material, but the mythological characters are merely names not backed up by any in-depth antiquarian attention. The focus is primarily on nature, friendship, and writing nationalist-tinted poetry, in which Nordic references are mostly reduced to ornamental value.

A more serious engagement with the Nordic past is found in the novels of German writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué (1777–1843), who wrote the romance novels Aslaugas Ritter (1810) and Die Fahrten Thiodolfs des Isländers (1815). The latter was highly praised by Walter Scott, who urged its translation into English.27 Fouqué’s play Sigurd der Schlangentödter (1808) was the first modern German dramatization of the Nibelung legend, which the author combined with Icelandic sources. The play was given two sequels, Sigurds Rache (1809) and Aslauga (1810). The trilogy was published under the title Der Held des Nordens in 1810. Fouqué’s Nordic bent influenced Richard Wagner’s conception of the cycle of epic dramas Der Ring des Nibelungen in a significant way. The accommodation of Norse mythological figures to themes of the Nibelung tradition, placing the composite drama on the Rhine, as we see it with full force in Wagner, remains one of the most successful national localizations of the Norse tradition.

Beyond the attention given to Old Norse mythology, a wide interest in Scandinavian folklore also thrived and can be seen to illustrate the circulation of material across European borders in the Romantic period. A ballad inspired by Danish lore was “Erlkönig” by Goethe (1749–1832). The poem was first included in Die Fischerin, a 1782 Singspiel; subsequently, it saw numerous printings and European translations throughout the period. Goethe adapted the traditional Danish folk-song theme of elves luring, abducting, and killing humans. A number of ballads about the malevolent Elf-King and his daughter had been collected in the antiquarian Peder Syv’s anthology of Danish songs, and Johann Gottfried Herder rendered one of the songs about the Elf-King’s daughter into German in his Volkslieder. However, Herder mistranslated the Danish elle (elf) into the similar-sounding German word for alder (erl), so that the poem appears under the title of “Erlkönigs Tochter.” To cast the sprite as an Alder-King makes some sense, however, as Goethe’s poem recounts a father’s nightly ride through a forest with a boy. The youth believes he sees the Erlkönig and eventually dies from this frightful experience. The poem has been set to music numerous times by several composers, most notably by Franz Schubert.28 Goethe’s adaptation was translated into English by Walter Scott in his 1799 collection An Apology for Tales of Terror and two years later by Matthew Lewis to be included in his collection Tales of Wonder.29 In fact, no less than forty-two printings of the text appeared in various English translations before 1860.30 Scott maintained the idea that the folklore spirit was an “ERL or OAK-King,” as did Charles Nodier and Émile Deschamps in their French versions (“Le Roi Des Aulnes”). The Romantic-period Danish translations by the poets Adam Oehlenschläger (1806) and Steen Steensen Blicher (1814) also make the supernatural force a spirit of the woods, and it is not until H. S. Vodskov’s 1893 Danish version of Goethe’s ballad that the poem is back-translated to “Elverkongen” (Elf-king), showing awareness of the native tradition that had inspired Goethe.

Goethe’s poem was one of the compositions adding to the reputation of Nordic folklore as a storehouse of horror. In the anonymous English collection Tales of Terror (1801), a burlesque imitation entitled Hrim Thor or The Winter King. A Lapland Ballad introduces a fiendish king of winter, whose name is a reflex of the Norse Hrimthursar (Frost Giants) in the Poetic Edda. Lapland was a place traditionally associated with black magic and frightful witches. In fact, Lapland served as a canvas on which one could project the ideas of northern superstitious wickedness. Think of Shakespeare’s “Lapland sorcerers” and John Milton’s “Lapland witches.” In fact, Milton’s reference from Paradise Lost was repeated by Henry Füseli in the title of his oil-painting The Night-Hag Visiting the Lapland Witches (c. 1796). The poem about Hrim illustrates the extent to which Nordic superstition had become associated with Gothic horror. Certainly, it was no coincidence that the doyenne of Gothic writing, Ann Radcliffe, chose Norse mythology as a background for her Salisbury Plains. Stonehenge (1826), the story of Odin’s attempt to subdue a dragon-like wizard named Warwolf, who draws support from Hela, the ruler of the Norse underworld.

In Scandinavia, Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger was the flag bearer for new literary writing on Nordic themes. His debut Digte (Poems) published in 1802 contains numerous references to the pagan past. Like the German Frühromantiker, which inspired the young Oehlenschläger, he represents the poet as uprooted in the prosaic present. For this reason, the speakers in his poems gravitate to remnants of the old times (the archaeological finds of Golden Horns, sacrificial groves, the old seat of kings at Leire, etc.). The ancient North comes to symbolize an Ur-condition, when mythology reflected a close connection between man, nature, and the gods. Oehlenschläger uses the perfectly Romantic term “Phantasie” (Imagination) about the ancient mythology. If the thought of the pagan sacrifices is unsavory, this “otherness” of the past also serves to put the present into negative relief. The civilized world, with its half-hearted commitment to religion, pales in comparison with the wild sublimity and imaginative resourcefulness of the forefathers. Thus, there is an unresolved tension between the past and the present that the poet must negotiate. One of Oehlenschläger’s poetic speakers describes how thinking of the old sacrificial rites makes him shiver, yet he is also nostalgic about the devotion and collective communal purpose that the pagan faith could command: “Harald’s dream makes him shudder –/ Yet he longs for times past.”31 Already in 1800, Oehslenschläger wrote a prize-winning essay for the University of Copenhagen on the question: “Is it useful for the belles lettres of the North to use and commonly accept Norse mythology in place of Grecian myths?” This he answered affirmatively with reference to Karl Philipp Moritz’s Götterlehre oder Mythologische Dichtungen der Alten (1791), in which the Greek gods are interpreted as a result of the universal human capacity for the poetic. He also evoked Herder’s argument in Über die neuere deutsche Literatur (1767) that mythology was a sensuous vision of the universe in which man expressed his humanity. Thus, rather than reject mythology as superstition of an unenlightened age, the artist should adopt a heuristic approach so as to emulate the ancients without buying into their pagan beliefs. Oehlenshläger wrote a number of poems and dramas based on either mythology or Nordic legend, including Thors Reise til Jotunheim (Thor’s Journey to Jotunheim [1807]), Baldur hin Gode, et mythologisk Sørgespil (Balder the Good: A Mythological Tragedy [1807]), Palnatoke (1809), Starkad (1812), Hroars Saga (1817), Nordens Guder (The Gods of the North [1819]), Ørvarodds Saga (1841), and Regnar Lodbrok (1849). On account of the success he achieved with Nordic-themed writing, Oehlenschläger was crowned as the “Nordic Poet-King” in 1829 by Bishop Esaias Tegnér in the cathedral of Lund, Sweden. Several of his Nordic-themed poems and plays were translated into German. Extended passages from Hakon Jarl (1807), revolving around the transition from paganism to Christianity, were translated into English in Blackwood’s Magazine (1820), and the full play appeared in 1840.

There are sporadic indications of a mystical reception of Nordic mythology in Oehlenshläger’s works, but nowhere near to the degree found elsewhere in Danish antiquarian reception, or as it became manifest in the works of the Swedish poet P. D. A. Atterbom (1790–1855). In “Skaldar-mal” (1811), Atterbom developed theories from F. W. J. Schelling to understand the heathen gods of the Norse pantheon as emblems that must be interpreted as part of a Naturphilosophie, a primal wisdom and sublime spiritual power that feeds into the representation of the gods, so that Thor is a symbol of God’s male principle, et cetera. The Nordic mythology should therefore not be ignored as an outmoded and mistaken heathenism; rather, it encodes the essential spirit of man. Atterbom combined this idealist strain with the patriotic imperative that the age of mythology must return to revive the Swedish spirit. In the final lines of the poem, Atterbom exhorts his compatriots: “Rise up youth of the North! If your blood is warm/Intone once again the songs of the forefathers in your chest!”32 In Norway, which achieved independence from Denmark in 1814, the national poet Henrik Wergeland showed skepticism about the retrograde aggrandizement of the past at the expense of pressing political issues of the present. In “Til en ung digter” (To a Young Poet [1833]), he writes “Skald, look not behind thee,/Not towards the rune-inscribed stone,/ Not towards the grave-mound, which hide barbaric days!/Lad the shields lie! Let the bones molder!”33

In France, the fascination with ancient Nordic manuscripts of skaldic composition was also notable. One outcome of this was the long prose poem Les Scandinaves (1801) by Joseph Chérade-Montbron (1768–1854), a poem he passed off as a manuscript of an ancient text. However, it was entirely his own composition about the expulsion of Suenon, the king of Skaane, by the Vandals, and his consequent tribulations and exploits until the eventual restoration to the throne. Chérade-Montbron’s poem is full of plot reversals and action-packed scenes, but it is unaffected by the veneration for the freedom-loving northerners that was found in Mallet’s antiquarian work and otherwise generally accentuated in the French reception.

An engagement with the North as the purported cradle of liberty is, however, writ large in the two companion poems “The Race of Odin” and “The Death of Odin” (1795) by the Romantic poet Robert Southey (1774–1843). In these poems, Southey picks up on the theory that Odin was a historical ruler, who had been ousted from his homeland by invading Roman forces and forced to flee to northern Europe. Southey, still in his politically radical phase, clearly found a dignitary of libertarian ideals in Odin, whose untrammeled fight for freedom only grew stronger “[n]urtured in Scandinavia’s hardy soil,” where he secured a legacy of “free-born offspring.”34 The idea of a historical Odin excited William Wordsworth to the extent that he considered composing an epic-length poem about him, as we learn in the beginning of The Prelude. In support of the theory that the Norse god was originally the 2nd-century king Mithridates VI, Rome’s most formidable enemy, Wordsworth wanted to describe his flight from the east to become “Odin, Father of a Race.”35 The project was aborted, but the same semi-historical legend of flight from Roman slavery and freedom served as the central plot in both George Richards’s Odin. A Drama (1804), and in the Scottish poet William Drummond’s Odin. A Poem (1817).

The idea of Odin as a historical forefather who had come from the east was also seized upon to explain the many grandiose and sublime images that characterized Norse poetry. This theory was based on the legends in Hávamál, a section of the Poetic Edda that contains both the tales of how Odin won the runes and gained the magical mead of poetry. In Britain, the idea of skaldic song and its alleged ability to enthrall and enrapture its audiences also attracted poetic attention. One of the first original Nordic-themed pieces was Thomas Penrose’s “The Carousal of Odin” from 1775. This is a poem about the power of skaldic song for arousing Scandinavian warriors to fight.36 The same idea is found in Joseph Sterling’s “Scalder: An Ode” (1782).37 These poems underscore the uncanny quality associated with skaldic song to move and affect the surroundings in profound ways. This idea partly derived from the Eddic poem Runa Capitula (translated by Mallet), which enumerates the wonders produced by writing runes and the power of Odin’s songs to cure sickness and grief, render the arms of enemies unusable, and magically loosen the captor’s fetters.38 The gentleman poet Edward Jerningham also paid reverence to skaldic song in The Rise and Progress of the Scandinavian Poetry (1784). The first part of the poem is a celebration of Norse mythology and skaldic poetry as a storehouse of poetic images. Robert Southey wrote a dedicatory poem to Amos Cottle’s English translation of the Poetic Edda (1797), in which he praises the “strong verse” of the Nordic skalds, and observes that “the Poet’s soul” may “best attain full growth” amid pine-covered and rocky landscapes, the “wildest scenes of strange sublimity.”39

A limited number of stock images were repeated with some regularity in many of the poetic compositions concerned with the Old North. One of the most popular images was that of the Scandinavian warriors drinking mead out of the skulls of their enemies. This image alludes to a line from the skaldic poem Krákumál, translated into English numerous times as “The Death Song of Ragnar Lodbrog” or variations of this title. In an annotation to a transcription of the poem in [Runir] seu Danica literatura antiquissim (1636), Ole Worm misconstrued the kenning (a metaphorical compound phrase forming the basis of much skaldic poetry), so that ór bjúgviðum hausa [from the curved wood of skulls] was interpreted to refer to the skulls of humans rather than drinking horns made from animal bone. The image of the skull-drinking northerners had much allure for Romantic writers imagining the pagan past. In the course of the early 19th century, references to a broader palette of texts became possible with the mounting interest in them. A welter of well-known themes, songs, and borrowings from, for example, Eyrbyggjasaga and Eirikssaga are found in Walter Scott’s semi-Gothic novel The Pirate (1822). Scott’s story is a melodramatic tale with a backdrop in late-17th-century Norse culture, traditions, and language that had survived in the remote Shetland Islands. In this way, Scott managed to incorporate the rich imagination of Norse tradition, which had intrigued a generation of Romantic-era writers, into a historical tale that took place on British ground and thereby fitted in with his other Waverley novels. There are no other historical novels that so clearly make use of Norse culture during the period, but this would change later in the 19th century with the Victorian passion for Viking-related tales, as seen in saga-imitations and Nordic-themed novels by popular writers such as H. Rider Haggard and Robert Louis Stevenson.40

A popular theme from Norse mythology that was taken up by European writers was the death of Odin’s son, Balder. The Danish poet Johannes Ewald’s drama Balders Død (Death of Balder [1773]) presented Balder’s death, caused by the cunning of the trickster Loke, as a tragedy symbolizing the death of innocence. Ewald’s novel use of Nordic rather than Greek mythology was discussed widely in European magazines. The English poet Frank L. Sayers (1763–1817) saw a German translation of this drama, which inspired the composition of The Descent of Frea: A Masque in Two Acts (1790).41 The play is about Frea, the goddess of beauty and Balder’s lover, who descended to the underworld to entreat Hela, the goddess of death, to release him. The masque contains a long passage on hell that relishes the horror imagery that was often associated with Norse mythology. The Russian historian N. M. Karamzin wrote in a review to the Moscow Journal of 1792 that Sayers’s northern poems presented “a rich imagination [and] natural simplicity,” and that Sayers (the writer Thomas Holcroft) was proof that “English literature rises again.”42

Sayers was clearly influenced by Ossian, as his two other dramas, Moina: A Tragedy and Starno: A Tragedy (printed with The Descent of Frea in the collection Dramatic Sketches of the Ancient Northern Mythology [1790]), focus on the Celtic past—taking the names of the protagonists from Macpherson’s Ossian publications. Inspiration from Ossian often blends with Norse mythology, as is also evident in Thomas Love Peacock’s employment of Ossianic terminology in the poem Fiolfar (1806).43 This is a heroic romance with attempted antiquated diction, a format Walter Scott also tried his hand at in the Norse-inspired poem Harold the Dauntless: A Poem (1817). The poem is presented as a mock-saga, which Scott initially published anonymously to pander to a taste for Norse tales. As he later conceded, the verses were simply “like schoolboys” kites that “served to show how the wind of popular taste was setting.”44 The progress of Old Norse literature must therefore be explained both as a turn of the intellectual tide toward vernacular and national history, and the opening up of book-market opportunities, especially in the wake of Ossian’s popularity. Harold is a poem about a Scandinavian beserker in England, who eventually converts to Christianity after killing the specter of Odin at the accursed Castle of Seven Shields. The narrative motif of killing off superstition is more than a little reminiscent of the Ossian poem Carric-Thura, in which Fingal battles and finally defeats the “gloomy ghost” of Loda (i.e., the Scandinavian god Odin). Scott’s tale is an allegory of how modern England emerged as brave heroes laid to rest their wild, superstitious paganism and accepted the truth of the Gospel. Scott’s poem is representative of a literary trend by which the Scandinavian invasions of England were used as a vehicle for negotiating an understanding of Englishness. This was particularly important during a time when a French invasion was a threat and is one possible way to contextualize the theme of the battle between King Alfred and the Scandinavian invaders in Joseph Cottle’s Alfred: An Epic Poem in Twenty-Four Books (1800), poet laureate Henry James Pye’s Alfred: An Epic Poem, in Six Books (1801), and John Fitchett’s Alfred, A Poem (1808).

However, one cannot reduce these poems to mere historical allegories. Nor would this be possible for Richard Hole’s verse romance Arthur; or, the Northern Enchantment: A Poetical Romance (1789), about an earlier invasion of Odin worshippers. Especially, in Hole’s and Cottle’s poems, the heavy use of references to Norse mythology (duly footnoted with antiquarian meticulousness) is clearly part of a strategy for modernizing English poetry, attempting to take it in a new direction that puts paid to trite reliance on classical machinery. Norse superstition contained imaginative resources that could help in this venture. Richard Hole writes in the preface to his poem that he made use of “the old Gothic fables” as they “exhibit a peculiarity of manners and situation which if not from their intrinsic excellence may from their being less hackneyed afford more materials for the writer’s imagination and contribute more to the reader’s entertainment.”45 Cottle equally defends the decision to riddle his poem with allusions to pagan superstition because of the “peculiar scope to the imagination that the wildness of Gothic superstitions afforded … divested of those fetters which clog the sober dialogue of the moderns.”46

If some of the works produced in the late 18th and early 19th century are hard to come by today, it is clear that Nordic history, legend, and mythology served as significant vehicles for writers seeking alternatives to classical models. The recovery of literary tradition (often collating diverse texts to invent a “tradition”) was intrinsically connected with the rise of philology, which became a major vehicle for the promotion of nationalism. The establishment of philology as a science paved the way for the foundation of national museums, university chairs, and cultural heritage movements whose legacy can still be seen today. The new focus on the Old North signified a cultural revivalism associated with the spirit of the people, their literary traditions and imaginations. The Old Norse mythology and heroic legends came to form part of what has been termed National Romanticism in various European settings, especially in Britain, Germany, and the Nordic countries. But, the idea of a shared northern tradition (the Gothic or Teutonic) also percolated across boundaries and language barriers to give impetus to an understanding of broader cross-European affiliations.

During the Romantic period, Norse material was established as central to the understanding of the ancestral past. This is a notion that continued in post-Romantic reception. One of the most articulate promoters of such ideas was the Victorian-era author William Morris, who declared in the preface to his 1877 adaptation of Volsunga Saga: “this is the Great Story of the North, which should be to all our race what the Tale of Troy was to the Greeks.”47 A number of modern-day celebrations of Nordic heritage can be seen as distant offshoots of the Romantic-period appropriations of the vernacular past. This includes Viking-design tattoos; Viking festivals held every year at several locations in Europe; and Asatru societies that adopt folkish perspectives on Odinism.

Review of the Literature

There is a growing and stimulating critical literature available on the adaptations and reimaginings of the Norse medieval tradition in the Romantic period. However, most studies tend to focus on what used to be called pre-Romantic texts; that is, adaptations published in the second half of the 18th century. Other studies take up the Romantic appropriations of Norse material as part of a larger overview that spans several centuries.

The studies in the field primarily concentrate on the reception in a single language area. The foundational study of the reception in Britain is Frank Edgar Farley’s still valuable Scandinavian Influence in the English Romantic Movement.48 Margaret Ormberg’s Scandinavian Themes in English Poetry: 1760–1800 deals with early Romantic (or what was once called pre-Romantic) appropriations.49 A number of more recent studies also cover some aspects of 18th-century texts that became important for the Romantic period texts, especially the adaptations of Thomas Gray.50

Within the past two decades, an important work that provides an outline of the dynamics behind the appropriations of Norse text, in particular as a response to the success of the Gaelic Ossian poetry, is Margaret Clunies Ross’s The Norse Muse in Britain: 1750–1820.51 The American Transcendentalists are discussed in Erik Ingvar Thurin’s The American Discovery of the Norse: An Episode in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, which reveals an interest across the Atlantic that warrants more study.52 Heather O’Donoghue’s English Poetry and Old Norse Myth: A History is a more recent study that deals with some Romantic-period developments.53 A number of the central Romantic texts that either adapted Norse manuscript material or freely used the northern past as theme are available in Robert W. Rix’s edition Norse Themes in British Literature, 1760–1832.54

A two-volume study of the French reception was published by Thor J. Beck under the title Northern Antiquities in French Learning and Literature, 1755–1855: A Study in Pre-romantic Ideas, but the work has a scope that reaches far beyond Francophone writing.55 The important role played by Paul Henri Mallet in Germany is taken up in German articles by Thomas Krömmelbein, while other aspects of the German reception are given attention by Matthias Teichert.56 Julia Zernack, who is heading the Edda-Rezeption project at the Goethe University Frankfurt, has published some of the project results in English, which also includes a forthcoming examination of reception in Eastern Europe.57

The uses of Old Norse texts and Nordic lore among Scandinavian Romantic writers has primarily been examined in the Scandinavian languages, but some important perspectives are presented for an anglophone readership in Adolph Burnett Benson’s The Old Norse Element in Swedish Romanticism.58 In English, the Scandinavian reception is also discussed in articles by Sverre Bagge and Robert W. Rix, as well as a collection of essays edited by Jon Stewart.59

In regard to studies with a transnational scope, an older but still relevant examination is John L. Greenway’s The Golden Horns: Mythic Imagination and the Nordic Past.60 Two more recent studies of appropriations of Norse myth and legend (which include discussions of Romantic texts) are Heather O’Donoghue’s From Asgard to Valhalla: The History of the Old Norse Myths and Martin Arnold’s Thor: Myth to Marvel.61 More specialized studies of the stylistic changes that the rediscovery of Norse poetry encouraged in Romantic poetics are also beginning to appear, for example in a recent article by Mats Malm.62

Further Reading

Arndt, Astrid. Imagologie des Nordens. Kulturelle Konstruktionen von Nördlichkeit in Interdiziplinärer Perspektive. Frankfurt am Main and New York: P. Lang, 2004.Find this resource:

Arnold, Martin. Thor: Myth to Marvel. London: Continuum, 2011.Find this resource:

Beck, Thor J. Northern Antiquities in French Learning and Literature, 1755–1855: A Study in Pre-Romantic Ideas. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University, 1934–1935.Find this resource:

Clark, David and Carl Phelpstead, eds. Old Norse Made New: Essays on the Post-Medieval Reception of Old Norse Literature and Culture. London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2007.Find this resource:

Greenway, John L. The Golden Horns: Mythic Imagination and the Nordic Past. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1977.Find this resource:

Helgason, Jón Karl. The Rewriting of Njáls Saga: Translation, Politics and Icelandic Sagas. Clevedon, U.K.: Multilingual Matters, 1999.Find this resource:

Kristmannsson, Gauti. Literary Diplomacy: The Role of Translation in the Construction of National Literatures in Britain and Germany, 17501830. 2 vols. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2005.Find this resource:

O’Donoghue, Heather. English Poetry and Old Norse Myth: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Omberg, Margaret. Scandinavian Themes in English Poetry, 1760–1800. Uppsala, Sweden: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1976.Find this resource:

Rix, Robert W. “Thomas Percy’s Antiquarian Alternative to Ossian.” Journal of Folklore Research 46.2 (2009): 197–229.Find this resource:

Rix, Robert W. “Gothic Gothicism: Norse Terror in the Late Eighteenth to Early Nineteenth Centuries.” Gothic Studies 13.1 (2011): 1–20.Find this resource:

Rix, Robert W., ed. Norse Romanticism: Themes in British Literature 1760-1830. Romantic Circles Praxis Series, 2013.

Rix, Robert W. “‘In darkness they grope’: Ancient Remains and Romanticism in Denmark.” European Romantic Review 26.4 (2015): 435–451.Find this resource:

Ross, Margaret Clunies. The Norse Muse in Britain 1750–1820. Trieste, Italy: Edizioni Parnaso, 1998.Find this resource:

Teichert, Matthias. “Die Rezeption der mittelalterlichen skandinavischen Literatur in Deutschland.” In Kulturelle Dreiecksbeziehungen. Aspekte der Kulturvermittlung zwischen Frankreich, Deutschland und Dänemark in der ersten Hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts. Edited by Karin Hoff et al., 241–259. Würzburg, Germany: Königshausen & Neumann, 2013.Find this resource:

Williams, Kelsey Jackson. “Thomas Gray and the Goths: Philology, Poetry, and the Uses of the Norse Past in Eighteenth-Century England.” Review of English Studies 65.271 (2014): 694–710.Find this resource:

Notes:

(1.) Robert W. Rix, “Runes and Roman: Germanic Literacy and the Significance of Runic Writing,” Textual Cultures 6.1 (2011): 114–144.

(2.) For the political reasons and history behind Mallet’s books, see Thor J. Beck, Northern Antiquities in French Learning and Literature, 1755–1855: A Study in Preromantic Ideas (New York: Publications of the Institute of French Studies, Columbia University, 1934), esp. 1–74.

(3.) Robert W. Rix, The Barbarian North in Medieval Imagination—Ethnicity, Legend, and Literature (London and New York: Routledge, 2015).

(4.) The review originally appeared in Königsberger Gelehrten und Politischen Zeitunge, August 12, 1765. It was reprinted in L. B. Supan, ed., Herders Sammtliche Werke, vol. 1 (Berlin: Weidmann, 1877), 74–75.

(5.) François-René de Chateaubriand, Sketches of English Literature; with Considerations on the Spirit of the Times, Men, and Revolutions, 2d ed., 2 vols. (London: Henry Colburn, 1837), 1: 53.

(6.) Thomas Warton, “Of the Origin of Romantic Fiction in Europe,” in The History of English Poetry, from the Close of the Eleventh to the Commencement of the Eighteenth Century, 3 vols., Thomas Warton (London: J. Dodsley et al., 1774–1781), 1: xxvii, xxxiv, xxvii.

(7.) Ibid., xxiii.

(8.) See facsimile reproductions of Fragments and Five Pieces in Margaret Clunies Ross, The Norse Muse in Britain, 1750–1820 (Trieste, Italy: Edizioni Parnaso, 1998), 60, 62.

(9.) Thomas Percy, Five Pieces of Runic Poetry Translated from the Islandic Language (London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1763), v.

(10.) Itamar Even-Zohar, Polysystem Studies [= Poetics Today 11.1] (1990): 45–52, esp. 49.

(11.) “Høje Odin! Hvide Krist, slettet ud er jeres Tvist. Begge Sønner af Alfader,” from Maskeradeballet i Dannemark (1808), in Udvalgte Skrifter, vol. 1 (Copenhagen: Nordisk Forlag, 1904), 233.

(12.) See Martin Chase, “True at Any Time: Grundtvig’s Subjective Interpretation of Nordic Myth,” Scandinavian Studies 73.4 (2001): 507–534.

(13.) Blake’s annotations to Bishop Richard Watson’s An Apology for the Bible (1797), in William Blake, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman, rev. ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 615.

(14.) Wordsworth to Joseph Cottle, December 13, 1797, in Letters of the Wordsworth Family from 1787 to 1855, ed. William Knight, 3 vols. (New York: Haskel House, 1969), 1: 112.

(15.) Letter to George Ellis (March 27, 1801), in The Letters of Sir Walter Scott, ed. Herbert Grierson, vol. 12 (London: Constable, 1932–1937), 178.

(16.) Thomas Gray, Poems by Mr. Gray: A New Edition (London: J. Dodsley, 1768), 85–96.

(17.) See William Powell Jones, Thomas Gray: Scholar (n.p.: Russell & Russell, 1964), 103.

(18.) This notion was well known in the 18th century; see, for example, Richard Hurd in Essay on Chivalry and Romance (London: A. Millar et al., 1762), 54–55.

(19.) Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (London: Chapman and Hall, 1840), 31. For recent information concerning Gray’s influence on the literature of Gothic horror, see Martin Arnold, “On the Origins of the Gothic Novel: From Old Norse to Otranto,” in Bram Stoker and the Gothic: Formations to Transformations, ed. Catherine Wynne (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 14–29.

(20.) Adolph Burnett Benson, The Old Norse Element in Swedish Romanticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1914), 8. Each member adopted the name of a heathen forefather. Tegnér was “Bodvar Bjarke.”

(21.) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Ueber Kunst und Alterhum, vol. 5 (Stuttgart, 1824), 143.

(22.) Adolph B. Benson, “A List of English Translations of All of the Frithiofs Saga: A Retrospect at the Centenary,” Germanic Review 1 (1926): 142–167.

(23.) Quoted in Esaias Tegnér, Frithiof’s Saga a Legend of the North, trans. George Stephens (Stockholm: A. Bonnier; London: Black and Armstrong, 1839), 45.

(24.) Dafydd Moore, Enlightenment and Romance in James Macpherson’s The Poems of Ossian: Myth, Genre and Cultural Change (Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2003), 87–112.

(25.) Paul-Henri Mallet, Northern Antiquities: or, a Description of the Manners, Customs, Religion and Laws of the Ancient Danes, and Other Northern Nations; Including Those of Our Own Saxon Ancestors, trans. T. Percy, vol. 2. (London: T. Carnan and Co., 1770), 168.

(26.) Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, F.G. Klopstock’s Oden und Epigramme (Leipzig: Philipp Reclam jun., 1945), 142–143.

(27.) Letter to G. H. Gordon, July 14, 1818, in Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, ed. J. G. Lockhart, 4 vols. (Paris: Baudry, 1838), 4: 157.

(28.) Werner-Joachim Düring, Erlkönig-Vertonungen; eine historische und systematische Untersuchung (Regensburg, Germany: G. Bosse, 1972).

(29.) Walter Scott, An Apology for Tales of Terror (Kelso: Printed at the Mail Office, 1799), 1–3; and Matthew Lewis, Tales of Wonder, vol. 1 (London: W. Bulmer, 1801), 55–57.

(30.) Lucretia Van Tuyl Simmons, Goethe’s Lyric Poems in English Translation Prior to 1860 (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1919).

(31.) Adam Oehlenschläger, “Harald i Offerlunden,” Digte (Copenhagen: Fr. Brummers Forlag, 1803), 55: “Harald gyser ved sin Dröm –/ Önsker dog de gamle tider.”

(32.) P. D. A. Atterbom, “Skaldar-mal,” in Samlade dikter, vol. 1 (Uppsala, Sweden: Leffler & Sebell, 1838), 38: “Upp, Nordmanna yngling! Är bloden dig varm/Stäm åter för fädernes sånger din barm!”

(33.) Henrik Wergeland, “Til en ung digter,” in Henrik Wergelands samlede skrifter, 2 vols. (Christania Denmark: Chr. Tönsberg’s forlag, 1852), 1: 229: “Skjald, ei se du tilbage/ei mod den runede Steen!/ei imod Højen, der gjemmer barbariske Dage!/Lad ligge de Skjolde! lad smuldre de Been!.”

(34.) Robert Southey, “The Race of Odin,” in Poems, containing The Retrospect, Odes, Elegies, Sonnets, &c. by Robert Lovell, and Robert Southey (London: C. Dilly, 1795), 99.

(35.) William Wordsworth, The Prelude: or, Growth of a Poet’s Mind (text of 1805), ed. Stephen Gill, rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), Bk. I, ll. 185–189.

(36.) Thomas Penrose, Flights of Fancy (London: J. Walter, 1775), 11–14.

(37.) Joseph Sterling, Poems (Dublin: Joseph Hill, 1782), 36–41.

(38.) Mallet, Northern Antiquities, 2: 216–223.

(39.) Amos Cottle, trans., Icelandic Poetry, or The Edda of Saemund (Bristol, U.K.: 1797), xxxiii–xxxvi.

(40.) See Andrew Wawn, The Vikings and the Victorians: Inventing the Old North in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Rochester, U.K.: D. S. Brewer, 2000).

(41.) Frank Sayers, Dramatic Sketches of the Ancient Northern Mythology (London: J. Johnson, 1790), 1–25. For Sayer’s inspiration, see William Taylor, Some Biographical Particulars, in Poetical Works, ed. William Taylor (London: W. Simpkin and R. Marshall, 1830), xl.

(42.) Quoted in A. G. Cross, N. M. Karamazin: A Study of His Literary Career, 1783–1803 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971), 47.

(43.) Thomas Love Peacock, Palmyra: and Other Poems (London: W. J. and J. Richardson, 1806), 67–92.

(44.) Walter Scott, “Introduction,” Lord of the Isles (Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1857), 16–17.

(45.) Richard Hole, “Preface,” in Arthur; or, the Northern Enchantment. A Poetical Romance, in Seven Books, Richard Hole (London: G. G. J. and J. Robinson, 1789), vi.

(47.) William Morris, The Collected Works, vol. 7 (London: Longmans, 1911), 286.

(48.) Frank Edgar Farley, Scandinavian Influence in the English Romantic Movement (Boston: Ginn and Co., 1903).

(49.) Margaret Ormberg, Scandinavian Themes in English Poetry: 1760–1800 (Uppsala, Sweden: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1976).

(50.) Alison Finlay, “Thomas Gray’s Translations of Old Norse Poetry” in Old Norse Made New: Essays on the Post-Medieval Reception of Old Norse Literature and Culture, eds. D. Clark and C. Phelpstead (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2007), 1–20; and Kelsey Jackson Williams, “Thomas Gray and the Goths: Philology, Poetry, and the Uses of the Norse Past in Eighteenth-Century England,” Review of English Studies 65.271 (2014): 694–710.

(51.) Margaret Clunies Ross, The Norse Muse in Britain: 1750–1820 (Trieste, Italy: Parnaso, 1998).

(52.) Erik Ingvar Thurin, The American Discovery of the Norse: An Episode in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1999).

(53.) Heather O’Donoghue, English Poetry and Old Norse Myth. A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)

(54.) Robert W. Rix, ed., Norse Themes in British Literature, 1760–1832, Romantic Circles Praxis Series (2012).

(55.) Beck, Northern Antiquities.

(56.) Thomas Krömmelbein, “Mallet in Deutschland: Zur Wirkungsgeschichte der nordischen Poesie und Mythologie,” Aus dem Antiquariat 12 (1995): 449–456; and Matthias Teichert, “Die Rezeption der mittelalterlichen skandinavischen Literatur in Deutschland,” in Kulturelle Dreiecksbeziehungen. Aspekte der Kulturvermittlung zwischen Frankreich, Deutschland und Dänemark in der ersten Hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts, eds. Karin Hoff et al. (Würzburg, Germany: Königshausen & Neumann 2013), 241–259.

(57.) Julia Zernack, “Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and German Culture,” Iceland and Images of the North, eds. Sumarliði R. Ísleifsson and Daniel Chartier (Québec, Canada: Presses de l’Université du Québec, 2011), 157–186; “The ‘Nordic Renaissance’ in Russia and Poland,” in Pre-Christian Religions of the Norse: Research and Reception, ed. Margaret Clunies Ross (forthcoming winter 2017).

(58.) Adolph Burnett Benson, The Old Norse Element in Swedish Romanticism (New York: AMS Press, 1966).

(59.) Sverre Bagge, “Oehlenschlaeger and Ibsen. National Revival in Drama and History in Denmark and Norway c. 1800–1860,” in Manufacturing Middle Ages, eds. P. Geary and G. Klaniczay (Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2013), 71–87; Robert W. Rix, “‘In darkness they grope’: Ancient Remains and Romanticism in Denmark,” European Romantic Review 26.4 (2015): 435–451; and Jon Stewart, ed., Kierkegaard and His Contemporaries: The Culture of Golden Age Denmark (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2003).

(60.) John L. Greenway, The Golden Horns: Mythic Imagination and the Nordic Past (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1977).

(61.) Heather O’Donoghue, From Asgard to Valhalla: The History of the Old Norse Myths (London: IB Tauris, 2007); and Martin Arnold, Thor: Myth to Marvel (London: Continuum, 2011).

(62.) Mats Malm, “Translations of Old Norse Poetry and the Lyric Novelties of Romanticism,” in Studies in the Transmission and Reception of Old Norse Literature: The Hyperborean Muse in European Culture, eds. Judy Quinn and Adele Cipolla (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2016), 151–163.