The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

March 8, 2014

March 8, 2012

Ursula Dronke (November 3, 1920 to March 8, 2012) was a noted scholar whose research focused on the literature of medieval Iceland.  We quote at length from her Guardian obituary, in view of Dronke's interesting research. The words below are those of Dronke's student Heather O'Donoghue. By interesting research we refer to:

....the first volume of her monumental edition of the Poetic Edda,(1969) a medieval anthology of the great Icelandic mythological and heroic poems. The second volume, published in 1997, includes her translation of the poem "Völuspá", whose textual complexity and allusive obscurity are unparalleled.

"Völuspá" is spoken by a mysterious prophetess, summoned, as it seems, by the god Odin, and she transmits, unwillingly, the arcane knowledge she alone knows: about the creation of the world (and a time even before that), and then about its end, Ragnarök, the great Norse apocalypse, which she describes in dramatic detail. Ursula, with endless patience, and after years of study, developed a confident understanding of the text's literary dynamic, with its interplay of mediumistic voices, and its sudden switches between past, present and future. For Old Norse scholars, "Völuspá" had been a challenge; Ursula restored it as a work of art.

The third volume of the Poetic Edda went to press in Ursula's 90th year; the projected four volumes now remain incomplete. Nevertheless, this series has completely dominated Eddaic studies worldwide, with the sophistication of its literary analyses and the tremendous breadth of background knowledge brought to bear on the poetry.

Ursula Brown was born in Sunderland [North east England]. When she was four, the family moved to Newcastle, where her father was a lecturer at the university. ...[When the] outbreak of the second world war cut short her studies [in France]....she returned to England to take up the Mary Ewart scholarship in English at Somerville College, Oxford.

Graduating in 1942, she went to work briefly for the Board of Trade, but returned to Somerville as a graduate student in 1946, specialising in Old Norse, and supervised by the leading Old Norse specialist in Britain, Gabriel Turville-Petre, and JRR Tolkien. Her graduate work gained her a BLitt in 1949; it became her first major publication, an edition of the Old Norse Þorgils saga (1952) which immediately gained international recognition.

Ursula was a fellow and tutor in English at Somerville from 1950 to 1961. She met her husband, Peter Dronke, in 1959, at a meeting of the Medieval Society there. Peter recalls being overwhelmed by her warmth and intellectual vitality at one of her legendary parties later that year, packed as always with students and scholars from all over the world. They married in 1960 and Ursula moved to Cambridge with Peter, who took up a post in medieval Latin there. In 1962, their daughter Cressida was born....

After a spell as professor and acting head of Scandinavian studies at Munich University in the early 1970s, Ursula was elected to the readership at Oxford in 1976 and to a professorial fellowship at Linacre College. This was rightly regarded as a coup for Oxford. [
Dronke was the Vigfússon reader in Old Icelandic literature and antiquities at Oxford University from 1976 to 1988.]

Some of her many publications were produced jointly with Peter. Their day-to-day scholarly collaboration, as leading medievalists in adjacent fields, enriched the work of both. Her essays, collected as Myth and Fiction in Early Norse Lands (1996), reveal her range and dominant concerns: the essays situate Old Norse literature in general, and its celebrated mythology in particular, in the wider context of both ancient Indo-European traditions and medieval European learning. ... A lasting contribution to the study of Old Norse was her securing of a donation from the Swedish Rausing family to support the Old Icelandic readership at Oxford in perpetuity.

Ursula was knowledgeable about the good things in life – art, music, wine, food, people – and was always great fun, hospitable, stylish, energetic and witty. Her politics were as rigorous and uncompromising as her academic standards: throughout her life, she hated and spoke passionately against anything reactionary, ungenerous or cynical.

After retiring in 1988, Ursula continued to work on the
Poetic Edda and enjoyed time with her beloved grandchildren. As often as they could, she and Peter visited their house in Brittany, where Ursula had always been able to immerse herself in her work. She was incommoded, though never dispirited, by a series of hip operations; visitors to her hospital bedside would find her sitting up proofreading her own or others' work. The conviction that great literature should be a fundamental part of human life never left her.

We draw a cat reference from a book mentioned in her obituary, Myth and Fiction in Early Norse Lands (1996). Our interest is the chapter therein where she focuses on
 "the specific problem of the survival of stories about the Germanic gods." And in this context she mentions a saga, 
Gylfaginning, where a hero, Thor,  "succeeds in lifting from the floor one paw of the giant cat — who is Midgardsormr in disguise...." 

Midgardsormr is the fabled Norse serpent, which is large and long enough to encompass the whole earth. And in this case the serpent is disguised as a big gray cat. Long story -- you can read the whole thing if you like.  Norse mythology is interesting -- it may be the only western cosmology to build finitude into the heart of eternity. And the upshot of the Gylfaginning is that, even with this complexity, their whole world of explanatory stories may itself be, in their own telling, just a dream.

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