Hello, and welcome to the October 2022 Folklore & Fiction dispatch. This month, I'm delighted to bring you the work of guest poet and actor Math Jones. Math was born in London, but lived in Worcester for many years, and is now based in Oxford. A pagan in the Old English and Norse tradition, he often writes poetry on the stories and in the metres of that tradition. He also writes more usual verses, performing throughout the Midlands and London. A bookseller for many years, he retrained in 2008 to be an actor, and has been acting professionally since then, as Math Sams. He has understudied a major role in a West End show. Math's 2017 poetry album eaglespit is available on Bandcamp, his 2018 poetry book Sabrina Bridge is available through Black Pear Press, and his 2019 poetry book The Knotsman is available through Arachne Press. He can also be found on YouTube.
Most recently, Math has completed a poetic retelling of "Gylfaginning," the second section of Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, which details the mythology of the Northern Germanic peoples. An excerpt of this epic poem appears in the dispatch, and he reads this excerpt in the podcast. He has also agreed to discuss his creative process, which he has both written and recorded for us. So we'll be sharing space this month! Math's poetry will appear next in the dispatch and podcast, followed by my brief folkloristic analysis of "Gylfaginning." Then Math will take the baton again with a discussion of creative process, and I'll close with an introduction to Old English poetics for poets.
Let's get started.
Math: Excerpts from "Gylfaginning"1
The Medieval Scandinavian Motif Database by Sina Weiss is derived from the Motif-Index of Early Icelandic Literature by Inger M. Boberg, and there are over a hundred motifs listed for "Gylfaginning" in it. The dedicated researcher should follow the dispatch link in the footnotes for a more thorough treatment of these than I can offer now, but here is a short list of important motifs found in Math's excerpt:
- A128.4. God with one hand. Hand cut or bitten off.
- A151.4. Palaces of the gods.
- A18.104.22.168.1. Wolves as god's dogs.
- A192.1. Death of the gods.
- A462.1. Goddess of beauty.
- A475.1. Goddess of love.
- A1072.2. Fettered monster as ferocious animal (Fenrisúlfr).
- F422.214.171.124. Dwarfs as smiths.
- F864.1. Fetter for Fenris' wolf.2
"Gylfaginning" is part of the Prose Edda, a 13th century text written in Old Icelandic, which is a variation of Old Norse. Based on the oral tradition of the earlier Viking age, it details the myths and exploits of the Northern Germanic gods, giants, dwarves, and elves.3 It was written by Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic chieftain whose primary interests in writing were to preserve traditional poetic forms and make the oral culture of the Icelanders more accessible to the Norwegian elite.45 Widely recognized as the best resource available for Norse mythology, it recounts the creation of the cosmos from the body of the primordial giant Ymir to its eventual destruction at Ragnarok and its subsequent rebirth.6 The word "Gylfaginning" means "the deluding of Gylfi" and points to the framing story around the myths, in which:
Gylfi disguises himself as a traveller named Gangleri, a name meaning ‘strider’, ‘walker’, or ‘wanderer’, and journeys to visit the Æsir. This mysterious people is said to be newly arrived in the North, and Gangleri seeks to discover the source of their power. In the Æsir’s majestic but illusory hall, Gangleri/Gylfi meets three manifestations of Odin: High, Just-as-High and Third. These strange, lordly individuals sit on thrones one above the other. Gangleri questions them and, story by story, they reveal what they know.7
These myths of Odin, Thor, Loki, Tyr, Frigga, Freya, and others are some of the most heavily adapted in popular culture. Odin features prominently in Neil Gaiman's American Gods, Thor destroys a check-in desk at Heathrow Airport in Douglas Adams' The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, and Norse mythology serves an important function in Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead, which inspired The 13th Warrior. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has also given us tales of Thor, Loki, Odin, and Frigga, among others, and so has The Northman, Vikings, Assassin's Creed: Valhalla, and a great many other movies, television series, and video games. So the storyteller interested in adapting these myths is faced with the challenge of finding new stories to tell with them.
"Gylfaginning" is also part of a corpus of texts utilized in the reconstruction and reimagination of Northern European, pre-Christian religious belief and practice. Interested readers and listeners will find a useful introduction to Northern-inspired Paganism in Mathias Nordvig's book Ásatrú for Beginners: A Modern Heathen's Guide to the Ancient Northern Way and Joseph Hopkins' website Mimisbrunnr.info: Developments in Ancient Germanic Studies. Math Jones' own Northern-inspired Paganism informs his poetic approach to "Gylfaginning," which is fitting, since the Prose Edda was also intended to preserve traditional poetic forms and inspire poets to use them. In the next section, he discusses this union of cosmology, belief, and craft.
Math: Poetic Process
The urge to create often comes out of feelings, anxiety or angst, just as the well, Hvergelmir, the bubbling-kettle, gives rise to the rivers so important in Norse cosmology. And as someone young, I first wrote words prompted by my teenage anxiety and untested worry about life.
Later, having put writing by to focus on acting, I found a spiritual home in Old English and Norse polytheism, Heathenry, and wanted words of praise for rites and rituals, praise-poems that would satisfy not only me, but the gods, the ghosts and the people gathered.
This drew me back to writing, but not only that, introduced me to the old metres of Alliterative Verse. Tolkien first spelled out the rules for me, but it took a year or so of writing nothing, to suddenly get the knack of head-rhyme, rather than end-rhyme: the repetition of sound at the start of a word, not the tail.
The main purpose of head-rhyme in this metre is to link the verse in a kind of chain, or a web; not so much for poetic flourish, though that’s there too. It’s very practical, and often works best if not noticed. It’s fun also. And absolutely needs to be heard, not read. That’s when it makes sense.
And it’s apt, it’s fitting, for the mythic subject matter. (There’s an Old English word, maeth, used in the name Mathilde, which means just that – what is fitting.) But it fits elsewhere as well: "Mothers’ Song," on eaglespit, is heroic verse dealing with labour, birth, and mother-hood. "Housepost," on the same album, deals with nurture and care. (Both of those, and "Lenctenlong," are included in a forthcoming anthology on the Alliterative Revival.)
Writing for a community requires a writer to think not only of themselves, but to add, if they can, to the understanding of others. Also, for such a varied congregation, to not write too much: to not exclude from too specific an expression. Half of the poetry is supplied by the listener – what is happening in their thought in response to the words. Space needs to be left for them.
I write more mainstream verse as well now, often prompted by a swelling from the well – I think that well lives in all of us, though sometimes it seems a fearful emptiness. Sometimes it comes in alliterative metre without my noticing. It often feels like a gift from somewhere, a goddess or god, prompting me to a moment of praise.
Ceallaigh: Old English Poetics for Poets
Like Math, I write alliterative verse in modern English, and some years ago I put together a guide to the form for my blog under the title "Old English Poetics for Poets". I'm reissuing an extended excerpt of it here for those of you who want to write in the form, and I also recommend you read Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf or Simon Armitage's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which are masterful examples of Old English verse rendered for the modern reader.
Note: Old English and Old Norse alliterative schemes are similar, but their elaborations and variants do differ, and the poem Math shared with us this month follows an Old Norse scheme.
Old English poetry is alliterative, which means that it follows a system of alliteration which binds its verses together and creates a distinctive sound.8 However, Old English alliteration does not simply make use of the first syllable in each word. Rather, it makes use of the dominant syllable in each word, the syllable most stressed in speaking. In addition, alliteration does not mean the repetition of initial letters in the stressed syllable; it means the repetition of initial sounds.
Here are a few examples of initial syllable alliteration:
- world - wield
- rightly - RA/cing
- just - JEW/el
Here are a few examples of stressed-syllable alliteration:
- voice - a/VOW/ed
- u/PON - PI/ous
- crest - ac/CUSE
Here are a few examples of alliteration by initial sound and not initial letter:
- kite - ac/CRETE
- jest - sug/GEST
- whole - HAL/low
In addition, it should be noted that in Old English poetry, any initial vowel in a syllable would alliterate with any other initial vowel. Here are a few examples of vowel alliteration:
- AP/ple - O/ver
- in/I/tial - EE/rie
- U/lulate - E/gress
Finally, the letter combinations sc, sp & st will only alliterate with themselves. Here are a few examples of this kind of alliteration:
- scad - SCA/lar
- space - spa
- stab - STA/ble
A line of Old English poetry is made of two half-lines separated by a caesura, or break. In modern renderings of Old English poems, that break is represented by a space between the half-lines. However, those half-lines and spaces do not appear in Old English manuscripts. Rather, the poetry is written like prose.9
Each half-line contains two stressed syllables, also called lifts, and a number of unstressed syllables, usually between two and five. These unstressed syllables are also called drops. The half-lines must be divided both syllabically and logically so that rhythm and poetic sensibility are preserved.
Here is an example from Mary Alexandra Agner’s poem, "The Eightfold Year":
I yearn this year for yams yanked10
Syllabic and Logical Division:
I YEARN this YEAR | for YAMS YANKed
Do you see how the half-lines are divided into syllabic and logical units? The first half-line has two lifts and so does the second. The first half-line expresses half of the poetic thought, and the second line expresses the other half of the poetic thought.
In Old English poetry, the two lifts in the first half-line (also called the on-verse) will usually alliterate with the first lift in the second half-line (also called the off-verse). The second lift in the off-verse does not often alliterate with any other syllable in the line.
Here is an example of this:
I PENned a POem that PREACHed THUSly
Finally, weak words like articles and prepositions almost never carry stress or alliterate with other words in a line of Old English poetry.
The Line Types
There are five basic schemas for lifts and drops employed in half-lines of Old English poetry. These are often referred to as Sievers’ Types for the researcher who first delineated them. It should be noted that skilled poets would not have written on-verses and off-verses of a line in the same type, since this would cause the rhythm of the line to sound monotonous.
Here are the five basic types:
Type A – lift-drop-lift-drop
HEAven HELP them
Type B – drop-lift-drop-lift
She WANTS a COF/fee
Type C – drop-lift-lift-drop
The RED HAWK flew
Type Da – lift-lift-drop (with a half-lift before the drop)
Type Db – lift-lift-drop (with a half-lift after the drop)
BLACK, SHIN/ing (fea)thers
Type E – lift-drop-lift
GI/ving them GIFTS
When in doubt about which syllable constitutes a lift, remember that a lift will normally be a long syllable. It should also be noted that Type A half-lines might be preceded by an initial non-stressed syllable, but this variation only occurs in on-verses.1112
This edition of Folklore & Fiction represents over twenty hours of research, writing, and production. If you found it helpful, I hope you'll consider supporting the Folklore & Fiction project on Patreon. That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! Join me next month for an exploration of "The Marriage of Sir Gawain."
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- 1. Math Jones, Gylfaginning, 2022.
- 2. Sina Weiss, “Medieval Scandinavian Motif Database,” accessed July 7, 2022, http://www.mesmo.gwi.uni-muenchen.de/index.php/home/reference/?r=Gylf
- 3. Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology, trans. Jesse L. Byock (London: Penguin Classics, 2006), Introduction.
- 4. Byock, Introduction.
- 5. Kevin Wanner, Snorri Sturluson and the Edda: The Conversion of Cultural Capital in Medieval Scandinavia, Snorri Sturluson and the Edda (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), 145.
- 6. Wanner, 140.
- 7. Byock, Introduction.
- 8. Peter S. Baker, Introduction to Old English, 3rd Edition. (Chichester, West Sussex, and Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 123-131.
- 9. Baker, 123-131.
- 10. Mary Alexandra Agner, “The Eightfold Year,” Forgotten Ground Regained, last modified 2005, accessed July 6, 2022, http://alliteration.net/poetry/eightfold.htm
- 11. Baker, 123-131.
- 12. Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran, “Old English Poetics for Poets,” Folklore & Fiction, last modified May 25, 2010, accessed July 7, 2022, https://csmaccath.com/blog/old-english-poetics-poets