Gunnarsslagr: An Apocryphal Eddic Poem


  Gunnars-slagr
An Apocryphal Eddic Poem



"...As beautiful as any of the genuine Eddic poems." —N.M. Petersson
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The 14th century fornaldarsaga, Norna-Gestr þáttur, tells of its pagan protagonist Gest playing a harp in the Christian Olaf Tryggvason's hall. On that occasion he is said to have played a piece called Gunnarsslagr ('Gunnar's [harp]-striking'), a name indicating a dance tune.  That poem is lost.

Tekr Gestr hörpu sína ok slær vel ok lengi um kveldit, svá at öllum þykkir unað í á at heyra, ok slær þó Gunnarsslag bezt.

"Gest took his harp and played it well, and long into the evening, so that everyone was delighted to hear it, and he played the Gunnarsslag best."

On a trip to Iceland in 1780, Gudmundur Magnusson discovered a poem by that name in a paper manuscript along with other eddic poems. It certainly raised a few suspicions that the poem was young, but much more suggested to him that the poem was authentic ("authentiam") and he considered it equal to Vegtamskviða and Hrafnagaldur Óðins. Since this was also the opinion of other experts who examined it, Gudmundur Magnusson decided to print Gunnarsslagr as the thirteenth poem in the second volume of his Edda. In the first quarter of the 19th century, some considered the poem a heathen composition, despite the fact that its author made no attempt to present it as genuine.

In manuscript NKS 1877 4to, the poem is presented with these words on the cover page:  

Gunnars-lagr / Ein af þeim töpuðu kviðum / Sæmundar-Eddu, / fundin í Íslandi ár 1787 / af G. Magnæus / með fáeinum Leiðrettingum og útskýringum  

'Gunnars-lagr / one of the lost poems of Sæmund's Edda, / discovered in Iceland year 1787 by G. Magnæus / with a few corrections and explanations. "      

The poem was printed in the first edition of the Eddic poems,
Edda Sæmundar hinns fróða, in Copenhagen 1787-1828, with a note in the introduction indicating that it was probably composed by clergyman Gunnar Pálsson. In 1818, August Afzelius published a Swedish translation of the poem in Sæmund den vises Edda.  In subsequent years, Peter Erasmus Müller (1818), Finnur Magnússon (1822), P. A. Munch (1847) and Niels Matthias Petersen (1865) all argued that the poem was young. As late as 1837, Ernst M. L. Ettmüller (1802-1877) defended the poem as genuine. Seemingly aware of the truth, Benjamin Thorpe included it in his mid-19th century translation of the Poetic Edda, with this remark:

"[T]he one entitled Gunnar's Melody is no doubt a comparatively late composition; yet being written in the true ancient spirit of the North is well deserving of a place among the Eddaic poems."

 Since then, there has been little interest in the poem.

Gunnar Pálsson (1714-1791) is known to have composed Gunnarsslagr, a poem in the style of the Poetic Edda concerning the death of Gjúki's son, Gunnar, as he plays his harp in a snake-pit facing certain death.  The reference in Norna-gests þáttur may have given him the inspiration. Gunnar Pálsson made no claim that Gunnarsslagr was ancient, nor made any effort to conceal his authorship of it. In a collection of his poems, gathered after 1777 and now preserved in the British Museum,  Gunnar refers to Gunnarsslagr as a 'new composition' that he sent to Eyjólur Jónsson. In a letter dated 23 Sept 1745, recently discovered by Haukur Thorgeirsson (2008), Eyjólur responded to Gunnar Pálsson regarding the poem. See "
Gunnarsslagur and Valagaldur Kráku: Eddic poems from the 18th century."
The poem has an archaicized language and vocabulary and is clearly an effort to imitate a genuine medieval poem.  . It is usually regarded as a beautiful, well-constructed poem, quite unlike other eddic poems which commonly present textual and interpretative problems. The Thorpe translation (below) is correct in the main and mostly accurate, as the poem is easy to understand and free of interpretation problems.

 
 

 Both the poem and the translation are in the public domain.
The following edition is after that of Haukur Thorgeirsson.
In his translation, Thorpe appears to miss two words in the text;
the translation of which been inserted by Haukur in square brackets.

A Manuscript of the Poem can be found HERE.

 
 
Gunnars-slagr
Composed by Gunnar Pálsson (1714-1791)
Gunnar's Melody
Translation by Benjamin Thorpe 1865
1. Ár var þat Gunnarr
gørðisk at deyja,
Gjúka sonr,
at Grábaks sölum.
Fœtr váru lausir
á fylkis nið
en hendr heptar
hörðum fjötri.

2. Fengin var harpa
fólkdjörfum gram,
íþrótt sýndi,
ilkvistu um hrœrði,
steig hagliga
hörpustrengi,
vara sú list leikin
nema lofðungs kundi.
 
3. Söng þá Gunnarr
svá mælandi,
fekk mál harpa
sem maðr væri,
en eigi sœtara
þó svanr væri,
glumði orma salr
við gullnum strengjum.
 
4. "Mína veit ek systur
manni verst gefna
ok Niflunga
níðingi festa.
Heim bauð Atli
Högna ok Gunnari,
mágum sínum
en myrði báða.
 
5. Víg lét þá
fyrir veizlu taka
ok orrostu
fyrir ölteiti.
Þat mun æ uppi
meðan öld lifir,
léka svá við mága
mangi forðum.
 
6. Hví þú svá, Atli,
heiptir rœkir?
Sjálf olli Brynhildr
sínum dauða
ok Sigurðar
sárum bana.
Hví vildir Guðrúnu
grætta láta?
 
7. Sagði Huginn forðum
af hám meiði
ossar ófarir
at mög dauðan.
Sagði mér Brynhildr,
Buðla dóttir,
hvé Atli mundi
oss um véla.
 
8. Gat þess ok Glaumvör
er við gistum bæði
hinsta sinni
í hvílu einni,
minni váru málu
megnir draumar:
'Farattu Gunnarr!
Flár er þér nú Atli.
 
9. Dör sá ek þínum
dreyra roðinn,
gálga görvan
Gjúka syni.
Hugða ek þér dísir
heimboð gøra.
Munu ykkr brœðrum
búin vélræði.'
 
10. Kvað ok Kostbera,
kvæn var hon Högna,
rúnar vilt ristnar
ok ráðna drauma.
Snotrt var hjarta
í siklinga brjósti,
hvárgi knátti hræðask
harðan dauða.
 
11. Oss hafa nornir
aldr um lagit,
örfum Gjúka
at Óðins vild.
Má við ørlögum
engi sjá
né heillum horfinn
hugum treysta.
 
12. Hlær mik þat, Atli,
at þú hefir eigi
hringa rauða
sem Hreiðmarr átti.
Einn veit ek hvar fé þat
fólgit liggr,
síðan þér Högna
til hjarta skáru.
 
13. Hlær mik þat, Atli,
at þér Húna kindir
hlæjanda Högna
til hjarta skáruð.
Hnipnaðit Hniflungi
við holundu,
ne sér við brá
sáran dauða.
 
14. Hlær mik þat, Atli,
at þú hefir látna
menn þína marga
er mæztir váru
fyr ossum sverðum
áðr svelta fengir.
Hefir ór mær systir
meiddan þinn bróður.
 
15. Skalat enn Gunnarr
æðru mæla,
Gjúka sonr,
at Grafvitnis bóli,
ne hryggr koma
til Herjaföður:
hefir fyrr buðlungr
böðvi vanizk.
 
16. Fyrr skal mér Góinn
grafa til hjarta
ok Níðhöggr
nýru sjúga,
Linnr ok Langbakr
lifrar slíta,
en ek minni hafni
hugarprýði.
 
17. Þess mun Guðrún
grálega reka,
er okkr lét
Atli svikna.
Hon mun þér konungi
hjörtu gefa
húna þinna
heit at kveldverði,
 
18. ok blandinn mjöð
blóði þeira
drekkr þú ór skálum
skararfjalla.
Sú mun þik hugraun
harðast bíta,
er þér Guðrún bregðr
glœpum slíkum.
 
19. Skömm mun þín ævi
at skjöldunga liðna.
Fær þú illan enda
af órum sifspellum.
Er þér slík maklig
af umsýslan várrar
systur sárneyddrar
svik þér at gjalda.
 
20. Mun þik Guðrún
geiri leggja
ok Niflungr
nærri standa.
Leika mun þín höll
í loga rauðum,
síðan muntu á Náströndum
Níðhöggvi gefinn.
 
21. Sofinn er nú Grábakr
ok Grafvitnir,
Góinn ok Móinn
ok Grafvölluðr,
Ófnir ok Sváfnir,
eitrfánir,
Naðr ok Niðhöggr,
ok nöðrur allar,
Hringr, Höggvarðr,
fyrir hörpuslætti.
 
22. Ein vakir uppi
Atla móðir,
hefir sú mik holgrafit
at hjartarótum,
lifr um sýgr
ok lungu slítr.
Erat lengr líft
lofðungs kundi.
 
23. Hættu nú, harpa,
heðan mun ek líða
ok Valhöllu
víða byggja,
drekka með ásum
dýrar veigar,
seðjask Sæhrímni
at sumblum Óðins.
 
24. Nú er Gunnars slagr
görva kveðinn,
hef ek höldum skemt
hinsta sinni.
Fár mun enn síðan
fylkir ilkvistum
hljóðfagra sveigja
hörpustrengi."
1. It of old befell that Gunnar,
Giuki's son,
was doomed to die
in Grábak's halls.
The feet were free
of the king's son,
but his hands were bound
with hard bonds.
 
2. A harp he seized,
the warrior king
his skill displayed,
his foot-branches moved,
the harp-strings
sweetly touched:
that art had not been practised
save by the king's son.
 
3. Then sang Gunnar,
in these strains:
the harp got voice,
as it had been a man;
yet not a sweeter sound,
had it been a swan;
the hall of serpents echoed
to the golden strings:
 
4. "I my sister know
wedded to the worst of men,
and to the Niflungs'
base foe espoused.
To his home bade Atli
Högni and Gunnar,
his relations,
but murdered both.
 
5. Slaughter he made them
take for festivity,
and conflict for
convivial potations.
Ever will that survive
while men shall live:
so did relations never
any one delude.
 
6. Why, Atli! dost thou
so wreak thy anger?
Herself did Brynhild
cause to die,
and Sigurd's
cruel death.
Why wouldst thou Gudrún
cause to weep?
 
7. Long since the raven told,
from the high tree,
our calamities,
at our relation's death;
Brynhild told me,
Budli's daughter,
how Atli would
deceive us both.
 
8. This also Glaumvör said,
when we both reposed,
for the last time,
in the same bed,
- my consort had
portentous dreams -
'Go not Gunnar!
Atli is now false to thee.
 
9. A lance I saw
red with thy blood,
a gallows ready
for Giuki's son:
I thought for thee the Dísir
prepared a feast;
I ween that for you brothers
treachery is at work.'
 
10. Said also Kostbera -
she was Högni's wife -
the runes were falsely graved,
and the dreams interpreted.
But the heart beat high
In the princes' breast,
neither knew fear
of a cruel death.
 
11. The Norns have for us,
Giuki's heirs,
a life-time appointed,
at Odin's will;
no one may
against fate provide,
nor, of luck bereft,
in his valour trust.
 
12. Atli! I laugh
that thou hast not
the red-gold rings
that Hreidmar owned;
I alone know where that treasure
hidden lies,
since that Högni
to the heart ye cut.
 
13. Atli! I laugh,
that ye Huns
the laughing Högni
to the heart cut.
The Hniflung shrank not
from the scooping wound,
nor flinched he from
a painful death.
 
14. Atli! I laugh,
that thou hast lost
many of thy men
that choicest were,
beneath our swords,
before thy own death.
Our noble sister has
thy brother maimed.
 
15. Yet shall not Gunnar,
Giuki's son,
fear express
in Grafvitnir's dwelling;
nor dejected go
to the sire of hosts:
Already is the prince
inured to suffering.
 
16. Sooner shall Góin
pierce me to the heart,
and Nidhögg
suck my reins,
Linn and Lángbak
my liver tear,
than I will abandon
my steadfastness of heart.
 
17. Gudrún it will
grimly avenge,
that Atli us
has both deceived;
she to thee, king! will
give the hearts
of thy cubs,
hot at the evening meal;
 
18. And [mead mixed
with] their blood
thou from cups shalt drink
formed of their skulls.
That mental anguish shall
bite thee most cruelly,
when Gudrún sets
such crimes before thee.
 
19. Short will be thy life
after the princes' death;
an ill end thou wilt have,
for breach of our affinity:
such is befitting thee,
through the deed
of our sister sorely impelled
thy treachery to requite.
 
20. Gudrún will thee
with a lance lay low,
and the Niflung
stand hard by;
in thy palace
will the red flame play;
then in Náströnd thou shalt
be to Nidhögg given.
 
21. Now is Grábak lulled,
and Grafvitnir,
Góin and Móin,
and Grafvöllud,
Ofnir and Svafnir,
with venom glistening,
Nad and Nidhögg,
and the serpents all,
Hring, Höggvard,
by the harp's sound.
 
22. Alone wakeful remains
Atli's mother,
she has pierced me
to the heart's roots,
my liver sucks,
and my lungs tears.
A longer life-space is not
for the king's son.
 
23. Cease now, my harp!
hence I will depart,
and in the vast
Valhall abide,
with the Æsir drink
of costly cups,
be with Sæhrimnir sated
at Odin's feast.
 
24. Now is Gunnar's melody
all sung out;
I have men delighted
for the last time.
Henceforth few princes will
with their foot-branches
the sweetly sounding
harp-strings strike."
 
1867 Sophus Bugge

Norrœn Fornkvæði
Fortale p. XLVIII

...Endelig er i enkelte nyere Papirafskrifter iblandt Digtene i Sæmundar Edda optaget et Digt i 8 linjet fornyrðalag Guunarsslagr оm Gjukungen Gunnars Harpe spil og Kvad i Ormegaarden. Dette er trykt som Tillag i Edda Sam. ed. AM. II, 1001)—1010 og i Rasks Vdg. S. 274—277. At det ikke kunde være gammelt, var klart, og i den AM. Udg. II, p. XXIV—XXVII frem förtes Oplysninger, som kun lod liden Tvil tilbage оm, at det var forfattet af den lærde islandske Digter sera Gunnar Pálsson (födt omkring 1712, död 1793) оm hans Navme efter Antydningen i þattur af Nornagesti. Men enhver Tvil bortryddes ved Oplysninger, som ere mig meddelte af Guðbrandr Vigfusson: Gunnarsslagr findes i Kvæðasafn sera Gunnars Palssonar i British Museum 11, 192 (ikke Autograph), og der kar Forfatteren scie (efter 1777) skretet оm dette Digt;
 
"Eg sendi þetta nýsmiðað þeim nafnkenda manni séra Eyjólfi à Völlum, er lét vel yfir og lagði þetta til siðast: jubeo te macto esse tanto in antiquitalibus nostris profectu; og ætla eg þetta hafi verið 1745—46. Stein lögmanni sends eg og exemplar, .... er mitt litla verk vel approberaói. Framar man eg eigi af að segja, enda máské tortýndr sé sá verki, þar mag. Hálfdan Einarsson hans eigi getr i sinni sciagraphia hist, lit., en nefner þó aðra mina smákveðlinga."

G. P. S.

...Finally, in some later paper copies among the poems in the Edda Sæmundar is included a poem in 8-line fornyrðalag metre named Gunnarsslagr about the Gjukung Gunnar in the snake-pit, singing and playing the harp. This is printed as conferred Edda Sæm. ed. AM. II 1001) -1818 and in Rask’s ed. p. 274-277. That it could not be old, was clear and in the AM. Ed. II, p. XXIV-XXVII the preliminary Information gave little doubt that it was written by the learned Icelandic poet Mr. Gunnar Pálsson (born about 1712, died 1793) whose inspiration for the name came from its mention in Norna-Gestr þáttur. But any doubt is cleared away by information provided to me by Guðbrandr Vigfusson: Gunnarsslagr is found among the poetic works of Mr. Gunnar Palsson in the British Museum 11, 192 (Unsigned) and the popular author himself (after 1777) wrote about this poem:
 
"I sent this new composition to … þeim nafnkenda manni séra Eyjólfi à Völlum, er lét vel yfir og lagði þetta til siðast: jubeo te macto esse tanto in antiquitalibus nostris profectu; og ætla eg þetta hafi verið 1745—46. Stein lögmanni sends eg og exemplar, .... er mitt litla verk vel approberaói. Framar man eg eigi af að segja, enda máské tortýndr sé sá verki, þar mag. Hálfdan Einarsson hans eigi getr i sinni sciagraphia hist, lit., en nefner þó aðra mina smákveðlinga."

 G. P. S. [Gunnar Pálsson]

 
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