Alvíssmál – The Ballad of Alvis

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aka The Ballad of Alvís, The Lay of Alvís, All-Wise’s Sayings

Alvíssmál (“Talk of Alvíss”) is a poem collected in the Poetic Edda, probably dating to the 12th century, that descibes how the god Thor outwits a dwarf called Alvíss (“All-Wise”) who seeks to marry his daughter.

Bellows’s notes on the poem

Introductory Note:

No better summary of the Alvissmol can be given than Gering’s statement that “it is a versified chapter from the skaldic Poetics.” The narrative skeleton, contained solely in stanzas 1-8 and in 35, is of the slightest; the dwarf Alvis, desirous of marrying Thor’s daughter, is compelled by the god to answer a number of questions to test his knowledge. That all his answers are quite satisfactory makes no difference whatever to the outcome. The questions and answers differ radically from those of the Vafthruthnismol. Instead of being essentially mythological, they all concern synonyms. Thor asks what the earth, the sky, the moon, and so on, are called ” in each of all the worlds,” but there is no apparent significance in the f act that the gods call the earth one thing and the giants call it another; the answers are simply strings of poetic circumlocutions, or “kennings.” Concerning the use of these “kennings” in skaldic poetry, cf. introductory note to the Hymiskvitha.

Mogk is presumably right in dating the poem as late as the twelfth century, assigning it to the period of “the Icelandic renaissance of skaldic poetry.” It appears to have been the work of a man skilled in poetic construction,–Thor’s questions, for instance, are neatly balanced in pairs,–and fully familiar with the intricacies of skaldic diction, but distinctly weak in his mythology. In other words, it is learned rather than spontaneous poetry. Finnur Jonsson’s attempt to make it a tenth century Norwegian poem baffles logic. Vigfusson is pretty sure the poem shows marked traces of Celtic influence, which is by no means incompatible with Mogk’s theory (cf. introductory note to the Rigsthula).

The poem is found only in Regius, where it follows the Thrymskvitha. Snorri quotes stanzas 2c, and 30, the manuscripts of the Prose Edda giving the name of the poem as Alvissmol, Alsvinnsmol or Olvismol. It is apparently in excellent condition, without serious errors of transmission, although interpolations or omissions in such a poem might have been made so easily as to defy detection.

The translation of the many synonyms presents, of course, unusual difficulties, particularly as many of the Norse words can be properly rendered in English only by more or less extended phrases. I have kept to the original meanings as closely as I could without utterly destroying the metrical structure.