Some remarks about the Vǫluspá

In my previous post I made a casual mention of Tolkien. Those of us familiar with Anglo-Saxon get a slight kick out of watching The Two Towers—when Bernard Hill and Ian McKellen do the funeral scene (the long cut, not the theatrical release), we can make sense of the dialogue without looking at the subtitles. “Wæs þu Þeodred hæl” etc.

Here then, for those unfamiliar with Icelandic but know the Hobbit well, are stanzas 10 to 13 of the Vǫluspá. The text I reproduce here is from my copy of Neckel’s 1936 Heidelberg edition of the Codex Regius MS. There are better editions but I like this one. That said, I have put in brackets some modern spellings where they might alter meanings but for our purpose here it doesn’t really matter.

10. Þar var Mótsognir    mætstr um orðinn
dverga allra,     en Durinn annarr;
þeir manlíkon [mannlíkun]    mǫrg um gørbo [gerðu]
dvergar ór iǫrðo [í jörðu],    sem Durinn sagði.

11. Nýi ok Niði,     Norðri ok Suðri,
Austri ok Vestri,    Alþiófr, Dvalinn,
Bifurr, Bǫfurr,    Bǫmburr, Nóri
Ánn ok Ánarr,    Ái [Óinn], Miǫðvitnir.

12. Veigr [Veggr] ok Gandálfr,    Vindálfr, Þorinn [Þráinn],
Þekkr [Þrár] ok  Þorinn [Þráinn],    Þror [Þekkr], Litr ok Vitr,
Nár [Nýr] ok Nýráðr —    nú hefi ek dverga
— Reginn ok Ráðsviðr —    rétt um talða.

13. Fíli, Kíli,    Fundinn, Náli,
Hepti, Víli,    Hanarr, Svíurr,
Frár, Hornbori,    Frægr ok Lóni,
Aurvangr, Iari,    Eikinskjaldi.

Doesn’t matter if you don’t understand it. It’s a list of names—of dwarves specifically (“dverga”). See anything familiar?


Dvalinn (Dwalin)

Bifurr, Bǫfurr, Bǫmburr, (Bombur is the fat one)

Nóri, Óinn (in new editions)

Gandálfr (Aha! means, in my view “elf with staff of Power” from gandr (-s, -ar), m. magic staff; renna göndum, to ride a witch-ride.—this is from Zoega’s dictionary; but I have also seen “grey-elf” (Grándálfr) in some editions—maybe a bit of wishful thinking on the part of the editors.)

Þorinn (pronounced Thorin)

Þráinn (Thrain)

Fíli, Kíli,

Fundinn, (father of Balin, as I recall, the Lord of Moria)

and finally,

Eikinskjaldi. Oakenshield.


There you go.

Divided loyalties

When I was at University I could never decide which I liked better, Anglo-Saxon (the language, that is, also called Old English), or Old Icelandic (also called Old Norse). On reflection I know that I enjoyed Old Icelandic more primarily because of my tutor, Dr John S. Martin, who would tell all manner of interesting stories. You can learn a little of him from his obit, presented together with that of the late violinist Nelli Shkolnikova, here.

What the obit doesn’t say is that during his travels he learnt a thing or two from Sigurður Nordal and that he studied some of the Irish language under, well, Éamon de Valera near the end of Dev’s life. Is it all true? Dr Martin has been described as a ‘raconteur’, and he certainly was that, but he wasn’t particularly known for drawing a long bow and I doubt he would have bamboozled those in statu pupillari. He had been knighted by the King of Sweden in 1988 (Order of the Polar Star) and had the appearance—when I knew him—of a retired Viking.

“Don’t worry about what it means,” he would say about a difficult section of text. “Let it flow through your veins. The meaning will come soon enough.” He said it often enough that it has become my motto when dealing with any language I am trying to learn, as well as my advice to anyone (actors, for example) struggling with things like Elizabethan English or Beckett.

He insisted on teaching us the modern Icelandic pronunciation so that when we should one day return ‘home’ to that beautiful island, we would be understood even if our vocabulary was distinctly mediaeval. And I do consider Iceland home.

Down the yellow-brick road about half a mile was the English Department where my tutor held seminars that were entirely a different kettle of fish. Dr Muir, rather well known now for his edition of the Exeter Book, ran a seminar that was more aligned to the new school of scholarship. More linguistics than philology, science than art—at least, that’s the kind of student the seminar seemed to attract, or so it seemed to me: Hot bespectacled auburn-haired girls who had forgotten more about palaeography than I would ever know; bearded earnest gentlemen investigating the implications of u-mutation; literary theorists from another part of the Department looking to write their theses on Foucauldian readings (this was the early ’90s) of the Domesday Book—that kind of thing.

They were all very serious people. I, on the other hand, would be seriously hungover and would occasionally improvise juvenile translations to piss them off—but the joke would always fall flat and I would end up with egg on my face. Honi soit qui mal y pense: Honey I have a headache—different language, but I trust you get what I mean.

On another occasion, “clearly, the Beowulf-author has lifted from Tolkien! Shame!” And so forth.

Withering glare from bespectacled hot redhead.

May Day Malaysia 2013

All Malaysians have the democratic right to cast a vote but this has no meaning if it is divorced from the responsibility of holding ourselves accountable for that choice in the subsequent parliamentary and state legislative term.

But we are not in the habit of demanding information from our representatives or compelling them to put forward what we believe to be the national interest in Federal and state policy during the term. Instead we prefer to be led by the politicians. We seem to need them to tell us what to think, and we choose manifestos the same way we choose toothpaste. There are some who have told me that election manifestos and policies are the same thing. All I can say is that the standards I set for policy seem to be higher than theirs.

We don’t expect our representatives to cross the floor for reasons of conscience when voting on individual Bills. The Dewan Rakyat tends to divide only on money Bills, and even then the vote is taken by a rudimentary count of those sitting on the opposing benches—MPs are assumed to toe their respective party lines on every matter.

This does not deny that the Opposition can vote with the Government from time to time, as happened with the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 1983, but of the 40 Bills that passed in the Dewan Rakyat last year can we as a nation profess familiarity any more than (say) five?

Maybe five is pushing it. Some of us might have heard of the Evidence (Amendment) Bill (No. 2) 2012, which added the infamous s. 114A to the Evidence Act 1950, but how many were aware of it prior to its passage on April 18, 2012? How many were aware that cogent arguments were made that day by M. Manogaran (DAP-Teluk Intan), Azan Ismail (PKR-Indera Mahkota), and Gobind Singh Deo (DAP-Puchong) against the Bill’s provisions for the presumption of fact in publication? Read the Hansard report yourself if you like. The debate on the Second Reading runs from pp. 2-82.

What about the other 39 Bills that went through the House? What about state enactments?

An argument has been doing the rounds that goes like this: If you can’t be bothered taking an interest in voting, then don’t complain when politicians shaft you later. This is one of the daftest things I’ve heard. If you wish to vote, by all means do so. You have a right to it, just as you have a right to spoil your vote or (under our law) to withhold it. It really doesn’t matter a damn either way if you don’t take an interest in what the politicians do after they’ve been voted into office—and the higher the office, the greater the burden.

To argue the former without the latter is to argue that one’s democratic rights and responsibilities consist in and are limited to the single act of casting a vote every five years.

This is a patent absurdity.

We aren’t choosing between a panacea and a painful death, but this is what we’ve reduced the argument to. Likewise, we reduce the argument for things like the minimum wage to what the middle-class can afford. It is as if the national interest is simply middle-class interests writ large.

I am a left-wing conservative. I happen to think that the nation has a universal obligation to all who reside within its borders and that this obligation includes (for example) the same minimum wage and benefits for all workers, foreign and domestic. I hold this view in common with the Socialist Party, at least in principle, but this is not represented in any of the other parties vying for supremacy in the polls this Sunday.

Enjoy your May Day holiday. If you have domestic help in your employ, I’m sure they can look after your brats, cook, clean, wash your cars, etc. while you sip your latte and waffle endlessly about how oppressed you are and how it is time to change things.