For the next several months, I will be going through Gylfaginning, the second segment of the Prose Edda. I'm going to retell the stories, add in any segments that I can find from other versions of the same stories, and explain any obscure references that may come up. It is my hope that this will serve to simplify that which is unclear to the English speaking student of the work. My primary source will be Anthony Faulkes's excellent translation of the work, which is the only one that contains the Edda in its entirety.
Gylfaginning begins with King Gylfi, who is mythologically the first king of Sweden, and the earliest recorded king in Scandinavia. Historically, it should be noted that the first true known king of Sweden is Eric the Victorious, CA 970. In appreciation for some unspecified entertainment, Gylfi gave a "vagrant woman" one plough-land (the amount of land one team could plow in a day and night), little knowing that she was more than a common entertainer. In fact, her name was Gefjun, and she had been sent by Odin to acquire lands for the Æsir. The story is retold from her perspective in Heimskringla 5, along with the following verse (13) from Ragnarsdrápa:
Gefjun dragged from Gylfi,
gladly, a sea-ring homeland,
Denmark’s addition, so that
the draught-beasts were steaming.
With eight orbs of the forehead
the oxen, in front of
the plundered isle, wide-pastured,
paced; and four heads also.
Ragnarsdrápa is the chief surviving work of the first known skald, Bragi Boddason, also known as Bragi the Old, who appears to have been producing poetry during the early half of the ninth century. It is a shield poem, describing the images on a shield legendarily belonging to Ragnar Loðbrók, but most likely belonging to another Ragnar. Enough of his work survives that Bragi's existence is not in question, but there are indications that the Norse god Bragi was a deification of the poet.
Gefjun apparently had had four sons with an unnamed giant, which she turned into oxen and hitched to the plow, then proceeded to remove a large portion of land from Sweden entirely, moving it into the Kattegat, which is the body of water separating Sweden from Denmark. This new island was called Sjælland, or Zealand, and the hole left behind became Mälaren, or Lake Mälar. There she settled in Lejre, marrying Skjöldr Óðinsson.
King Gylfi was understandably surprised by this, and by the powers displayed by the Æsir, being no mean magician himself. He thus set off to the lands of the "Æsir-people" in disguise, hoping to learn if it was the people themselves who were such great magicians, or if it was the power of their gods. He made himself appear as an old man, and assumed the name Gangleri, completely unaware that this was one of Odin's own bynames. The Æsir of course identified him instantly, and decided to trick Gylfi right back.
When Gylfi arrived in Asgard, he was confronted by a hall so high he couldn't see over it. Its roof was tiled in gilded shields. Interestingly enough, Asgard is only attested thrice outside of Snorri's writings, once in Hymiskviða 7, once in Þrymskviða 18, and once in a Skaldic poem by Þórbjörn dísarskáld from the 10th century, none of which describe it. Valhalla, on the other hand, is described in Grímnismál 8 as "gold-bright." As he entered, he saw a man juggling seven knives. The man took his assumed name and request for a night's lodging, and led him to the king. This is an example of the hospitality that was so important in Norse culture. The climate was harsh, and being without shelter was dangerous, so the culture took up hospitality as an obligation, to facilitate travel. As he passed through, Gylfi saw many rooms and people entertaining themselves with drinking, gaming, and fighting. He then quoted Hávamál 1:
All the doorways, before one enters,
should be looked around,
should be spied out;
it can't be known for certain where enemies are sitting
in the hall ahead.
He was taken before three thrones, "one above the other," each with an occupant. He was introduced: in the lowest throne was the king, called High, in the next was a man called Just-as-high, while the top one was called Third. All three, in fact, were Odin himself. The king graciously gave him leave to eat and drink his fill, and Gylfi asked if there was someone he could question there. With a quotation whose reference has been lost, High invited him to begin his questioning.
So run the first two chapters of Gylfaginning. These two chapters provide the beginning of the frame which Snorri uses in order to humanize the Æsir. With this frame, he establishes his story in a point in "history" at which the Æsir have just moved north from Asia, according to the scenario he created in the Prologue and in Heimskringla's Ynglinga Saga. As discussed in my previous articles, this frame allows Snorri to present the mythology in a way which bypasses Church criticism. Interestingly enough, this framework parallels that of Vafþrúðnismál, in which Odin makes a somewhat similar journey to the jötunn Vafþrúðnir in order to exchange information. Just as in the poem, High indicates that this will be a contest of knowledge, but through Gylfaginning it is only Gylfi who asks the questions, rather than the deadly contest in the Poetic Edda, and so I left that challenge from High, "he would not get out unscathed unless he was more learned," out of my retelling.
Larrington, Carolyne. The Poetic Edda. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Simek, Rudolf. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1984.
Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Translated by Anthony Faulkes. London: Everyman, 1987.
Sturluson, Snorri, and A. Faulkes. Edda: Prologue and Gylfaginning, 1982. http://ci.nii.ac.jp/ncid/BA31073363.