published 25/03/2012 at 15:39 BST by Heather O'Donoghue
Inspirational teacher of Old Norse literature specialising in the sagas and poetry of medieval Iceland
Ursula Dronke, who has died aged 91, was an inspirational scholar and teacher of Old Norse literature, and a specialist in the sagas and poetry of medieval Iceland. In 1969, she published the first volume of her monumental edition of the Poetic Edda, 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.
As Vigfússon reader in Old Icelandic literature and antiquities at Oxford University from 1976 to 1988, Ursula supervised many graduate students and I was privileged to be one of them; the vast majority have gone on to teach Old Norse-Icelandic at universities around the world. Her students loved her because of the total commitment and loyalty she showed them: their difficulties were hers too, and she rejoiced in their success.
Ursula Brown was born in Sunderland. When she was four, the family moved to Newcastle, where her father was a lecturer at the university. She attended Church High school there and, in 1939, went to Tours University as a visiting student in French language and literature. The outbreak of the second world war cut short her studies, and 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. Cressida was a source of immense pride to Ursula and one of the great joys of her life.
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.
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. Each one demonstrates, as one reviewer put it, "the palpable enthusiasm of a fine scholar and teacher". 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 knowledgable 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.
She is survived by Peter, Cressida and her two grandchildren.
Ursula Miriam Dronke, scholar of Old Norse-Icelandic, born 3 November 1920; died 8 March 2012
published 25/03/2012 at 15:39 BST by Heather O'Donoghue