Ursula Dronke: Enlightening scholar of medieval literature


Ursula Dronke was a brilliant, vital, and impressive representative of a world that seems to be fast disappearing from our grasp: a scholarship girl who, from a luminous sense of their intrinsic value, dedicated her life to difficult works of the human imagination; she was still publishing in her 90th year.

Born Ursula Miriam Brown in Sunderland, she moved to Newcastle when she was four, and went to the local (state) Church High School, from which she won the Mary Ewart Scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford, to read English. There she encountered the literature that was to become her triumphant field of scholarship: Icelandic and Old Norse. She was the preeminent editor, translator, and interpreter of the Edda, the anthology of Icelandic poetry originally gathered in medieval times, and she established scrupulous versions of some of the most obscure manuscripts, providing parallel translations in which the poems come to life for so many writers and readers today.

Before Oxford, she began studying in Tours, France, where she excelled: the professor was so pleased with one of her essays, he read it out to the class. It was entirely characteristic of Dronke's brimming sense of life that she missed this triumph because it was a beautiful day and she'd gone swimming. The war interrupted these studies, and she returned just in time to England and Somerville College, from where she was seconded to the Board of Trade for three years. In l945, on her return to Somerville, she was appointed as a college lecturer. A colleague who attended her lectures remembers that she was "one of the most enthusiastic and brightest spots of the entire faculty... she could show, more than anyone I'd heard, how stories have their own funny momentum in the way they develop." Acumen, economy of expression and sparkling delivery were gifts that continued in her old age.

J R R Tolkien was her first supervisor, and she remembered him with great affection; he was followed by another vivid Oxford personality, Gabriel Turville-Petre, who was celebrated for his Merlin-like appearance (his trousers held up with a tie), and who had continued the faculty's distinctive involvement with the branch of medieval literature filled with tales of the Norse gods and conveyed in the rhythmic prosody of the Scandinavian scalds. Turville-Petre's wife, Joan, also an Icelandic and Old Norse scholar, was a tutor at Somerville, and became a friend.

Combining aesthetic sensitivity with ferocious attention to detail, Dronke brought out her edition of Thorgil's Saga in l952; the long literary introduction was an innovation at the time – philologists did not yet discuss poetic content or expression. Her magnificent edition of the Poetic Edda began with The Heroic Poems (l969) and was followed by the second (The Mythological Poems) in l997. In these volumes, painstaking philology elucidates some fiendishly complex material, while aesthetic aspects are illuminated by Dronke's subtle contextual and literary commentary and introductions, in which she reflects, for example, on the interwoven voices in the famously elusive poem "Voluspa". As one of her students Heather O'Donoghue has written: "[the poem] had been a challenge; Ursula restored it as a work of art."

In l959, she met her husband, Peter Dronke, recently arrived in Oxford from New Zealand as a Commonwealth Scholar, with whom she shared a deep love of music, theatre, the arts, an interest in the presence of women in the literature of the past, and a commitment to socialist principles. They were married the following year. When Peter was appointed to a chair in Medieval Latin in Cambridge, the family, now increased by the birth of their daughter, Cressida, moved there, and for a time, Dronke was a pioneer in the now familiar commuting life of the star academic couple. From l970-73, she became Head of Scandivanian Studies in Munich, until Oxford unfroze the Vigfusson Readership in Icelandic and she was given a professorial fellowship at Linacre College; she went back and forth to Oxford until her retirement in l988.

Dronke and Peter collaborated on essays on classical and Scandinavian myth. They also began a life together in which their shared loves played a central part; they spent the summers in Brittany, where Dronke relished the tranquility that allowed her to work and the round of concerts put on in the neighbouring towns and villages. Many of her interests, and her pleasure in them, flow into the volume of her collected essays, Myth and Fiction in Early Norse Lands (l996). It took a great deal to crush her high spirits, but a friend remembers taking a famous misanthropist to lunch with her. He came from Vicenza, and Dronke began waxing enthusiastically about the beauty of the town. "Ah, but beneath the exterior," declared the guest, "It is all rotten." Dronke was taken aback, but unconvinced.

In l988, the Icelandic government gave Dronke the Order of the White Falcon. As infirmities began to vex her, she remained ever cheerful, annoyed to be curtailed in her activities, but never querulous. Last year, she celebrated her 90th birthday with the appearance of the third volume, the continuation of the Mythological Poems. Many scholars gathered to honour her; former students have posts – and Chairs – in all the departments in the world of Icelandic literature. The influence of her scholarship extends, however, far beyond university enclaves: though researchers and screenwriters never acknowledge the scholarly sources they use, Viking lore for better or worse has enjoyed, since the success of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, a vigorous afterlife in popular culture – in epic films, graphic novels, role-playing and computer games.

Ursula Dronke was a great scholar, a sensitive writer and a much-loved teacher. She is survived by her husband, Peter Dronke, their daughter, Cressida, and two grandchildren, Gabriel and Lara.

Marina Warner

Ursula Dronke, medievalist and author: born Sunderland 3 November 1920; married 1960 Peter Dronke (one daughter); died Cambridge 8 March 2012.

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