Hymiskviða (The Lay of Hymir) is preserved in two manuscripts: The Codex Regius [R] of the Poetic Edda (GKS 2365 4to), dated 1250-1300; and AM 748 I 4to [A], dated 1300-1325. All 39 stanzas are found in both manuscripts. The two manuscripts are closely related, of similar quality, and obviously derive from a common prototype. The text of R is traditionally preferred, but there is no doubt that A frequently offers a better text. Many errors are common to both manuscripts, and must therefore derive from the prototype. A looseness of structure in two places has led some scholars to postulate lacunae in the prototype (see notes to stanzas 20, 24), but there is no physical evidence that the poem, as we have it, is less than complete.
Hymiskviða is generally believed to have been composed in Iceland as late as the 11th or 12th century, despite its genuine "naively heathen spirit" (Hollander, p. 83). However, Jónas Kristjánsson has recently observed that "there seems to be no reason why [Hymiskviða] should not be assigned to a pre-Christian date, say the late tenth century" (Eddas & Sagas, p. 39).
Hymiskviða is neither mentioned nor directly quoted in Snorri's Prose Edda, although much of the material is retold there (obviously from other sources). Remarkably, Snorri seems not to have been familiar with the "cauldron quest" myth, which is the main story of the poem. In Gylfaginning 48 he relates a substantially different version of the story of Thor's fishing expedition with Hymir, without any mention of the cauldron, which in the poem is Thor's reason for visiting Hymir in the first place. Thor's visit to Egill, and the subsequent lameness of one of his goats (stanzas 7, 37, 38), is in Snorri's Edda associated with another myth, that of Thor's visit to Útgarða-Loki (Gylfaginning 44).
The form of Hymiskviða is strictly epic. Narrative:Dialogue ratio is 75:25. The meter is a rather regular fornyrðislag, with short lines. The poetic diction differs from other Eddaic poems by reason of the unusually many kennings employed, a characteristic typically associated with Skaldic, not Eddaic poetry. Þrymskviða, a structurally not dissimilar and only slightly shorter poem, contains three kennings, all of them Þórr-kennings of the kinship-type. A quick count of Hymiskviða turns up no less than thirty kennings, more than a third of which are Þórr-kennings and giant-kennings. The two kennings for the World Serpent are to be expected, but what is most surprising here is the number of "rare" kennings for ordinary things like head and beard. There are only four head-kennings to be found in the complete Eddaic corpus, and three of them are found in Hymiskviða (19, 23, 31). The beard-kenning in Hymiskviða 10 is the only such known kenning in the complete poetic corpus, Skaldic as well as Eddaic. Furthermore, in this poem, we find kennings for ship, captain, kettle, cup, whale, and, possibly, for goat and winter as well.
The unusual abundance of kennings (and a handful of other similar poetic circumlocutions) has led some scholars to make assumptions about the age of the poem, but such a criterion is hardly valid. The question isn't when? but rather why? One possibility is that the poet was influenced by a now lost dróttkvætt poem of the same type as Þórsdrápa and Haustlöng, both of which tell tales of Þórr's quests, and teem with kennings. Another possibility is that the poet was simply in a playful mood, as shown by the frequent over-the-top exaggerations, in which case many of the kennings may have been meant to add a comic aspect to the whole. Passages like bað hlunngota / hafra dróttinn / áttrunn apa / utar færa "the lord of goats asked the uncle of apes to row the dock-horse further out" may have sounded quite hilarious to an audience of the 11th century. And surely the head-kenning háfjall skarar "summit of the hair" is nothing short of parody, when it is used of the head of the Midgard Serpent.
The only noticeable metrical peculiarity of Hymiskviða is the frequency with which pronouns are made to carry the alliterative staves (see below). Some, not all, of these may be meant to carry special emphasis. The stave is carried by an auxillary verb in one line (10:2 varð síðbúinn), and by áðr twice (12:7 en áðr í tvau ; 15:6 áðr sofa gengi). Line 14:2 is substantially overlong: hugr vel þá er hann sá. (Bugge "solved" this by transporting the unwanted syllables into the next line and assuming triple resolution: hugr vel þá / er hann sá gýgjar græti, which simply creates a new anomaly).
Hymiskviða is one of three Eddaic poems which actually relate an extended myth (as opposed to the poems which merely cite them), the other two being Skírnismál and Þrymskviða. All three describe visits to Giant-world (Jötunheimar). Skírnismál relates the myth of the quest for a bride (Gerðr Gymisdóttir), Hymiskviða tells the tale of a quest for an item belonging to a giant (Hymir's cauldron), while Þrymskviða is concerned with the recovery of Thor's hammer. However, Hymiskviða differs from the other two. While the cauldron quest is a central motif, which frames the poetic narrative, it also incorporates other myths (or mythemes), the most important of which is the myth of "Thor's Fishing Trip". There is also a distinct possibility that the poet knew a myth, not referred to elsewhere, relating to Týr's giant parentage.
Hymiskviða is thus not as purely epic in structure as its closest relative, Þrymskviða. Its narrative is composite, even episodic, enumerating eight of Þórr's exploits/feats, which are carefully linked and embedded in a framing story (stanzas 1-6 and 39). The story of Þórr's goats (stanzas 7 and 37-8) seems almost accidental, and is very loosely connected with the rest of the poem. The eight separate "episodes" are as follows (and it should be noted that in the first and sixth Þórr relies on the help of Týr's mother to accomplish his tasks):