The Medieval Review 12.06.30

Lönnroth, Lars. The Academy of Odin: Selected Papers on Old Norse Literature. The Viking Collection Studies in Northern Civilization. Copenhagen: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2011. Pp. 426. 300,00 DKR. 978-87-7674-589-9. . .

Reviewed by:

Emily Lethbridge
Stofnun Árna Magnússonar í íslenskum fræðum

Professor Lars Lönnroth is one of the leading Old Norse scholars of his generation and has one of the most distinctive and vigorous critical voices in Old Norse studies. Lönnroth has researched major topics such as the origins and development of Old Norse literature, Old Norse historiography, and Old Norse mythology. He is the author of one of the few key English-language monographs on Njáls saga, the most highly regarded of the medieval Íslendingasögur or "Sagas of Icelanders" (Lönnroth 1976). Refreshingly, Lönnroth has never been afraid of openly rejecting older theories and approaches, nor of critiquing arguments put forward by his contemporaries--though giving credit where, in his eyes, it is due despite fundamental differences of scholarly opinion (see e.g. Lönnroth's reviews of monographs by Theodore M. Andersson in Speculum 43 [1968] and in Scripta Islandica 57 [2006]).

The Academy of Odin brings together some of Prof. Lönnroth's most important English-language essays on aspects of medieval Icelandic literature: 17 papers have been selected for inclusion in total. For the most part, these pieces have appeared over the past 40 years or so in journals or edited volumes of conference proceedings. In their reprinted form, each paper is supplemented by a brief 'postscript' composed by Lönnroth for the occasion of its republication in this collection. Details concerning the original circumstances of each publication are given; brief mention is made of ensuing scholarly responses to Lönnroth's arguments; relevant publications that have appeared in the interim period are noted.

In the Preface to the volume, Lönnroth states that the articles have not been extensively revised though "a few minor sections" have been omitted "in order to avoid overlap" between articles in the collection, or because the author did not find them "relevant or good enough to be reprinted" (9). Factual errors have been corrected; Lönnroth's prose has been polished in places; the reference system has been "simplified" and "standardized" (9). The original pagination for each piece is given in the book's margins to aid cross-referencing with the first printed versions. The volume concludes with a bibliography of all scholarship cited; an index of texts and authors mentioned; and an index of scholars.

The volume's somewhat lofty-sounding title derives from an article first published by Lönnroth in 1988 and reprinted as the penultimate offering in the present collection, namely "The Academy of Odin: Grundtvig's Political Instrumentalization of Old Norse Mythology" (357-79). In this piece, Lönnroth discusses some of the ways in which Old Norse mythology was used as a "weapon for political agitation" in Danish folk high schools in the 19th and 20th centuries (357). However, Old Norse mythology is by no means the dominant subject-matter of these collected papers, which are arranged thematically rather than in order of their chronological appearance in print. The paper on Grundtvig appears as the second of three in the fifth and final section of the volume, "Reception and Adaptation." It is preceded by an extended attempt at an interpretation of the obscure runic inscriptions on the ninth- century Swedish Rök Stone ("The Riddles of the Rök-Stone: A Structural Approach;" first published in 1977, 279-355 in the present volume), and it follows a brief exploration of Wagner's adaptation of the Eddic poem Baldrs draumar in his opera Siegfried, via Thomas Gray's 1768 rendering "The Descent of Odin--An Ode" ("The Nordic Sublime: the Romantic Rediscovery of Icelandic Myth and Poetry," first published in 1995, 381-91 in the present volume).

The volume thus ends with studies that consider the interpretation, mediation and presentation of Old Norse literature and culture in different media and to different ends. Fittingly, Section I (entitled "Origins") starts at the very beginning with four papers that consider the classic and long-deliberated question of whence Old Norse literature arose ("European Sources..." at 13-23 in the present volume, first published in 1965; "Sponsors...," 25-36, first published 1990-91; "The Transformation of Literary Genres...," 37-43, first published 2003; "The Noble Heathen...," 45-74, first published 1969). Lönnroth has made vital contributions to this debate over the past 40 years writing about genre and terminology for example, and emphasising the extent and importance of foreign and clerical influence on secular saga- writing--thereby countering the nationalistic bias of earlier book- prose "Icelandic School" theories of saga origins. A couple of Lönnroth's pieces on the possible lines of oral and written development that resulted in the sagas' characteristic prosimetric style are reprinted in Section IV of the volume under review, entitled "Edda and Saga as Oral Performance" ("Hjálmarr's Death- Song..." at 191-218, first published in 1971; "The Double Scene..." at 243-76, first published in 1979).

In Sections II and III ("Saga Rhetoric" and "Structure and Ideology"), a number of Lönnroth's analyses of saga style and rhetoric, structure and ideology are reprinted. His piece "Rhetorical Persuasion in the Sagas" (111-109 in the present volume, first published in 1969) must surely be a fixture on bibliographies presented to all students of the sagas. Another area in which Lönnroth has made pioneering contributions is in considering the implications for Old Norse literature of Milman Parry and Albert Lord's oral-formulaic theory; see the papers in Section IV, "Edda and Saga as Oral Performance" of the volume under review.

Since, over the course of his career, Lönnroth has returned several times to these central themes in Old Norse literary history, reading his earlier analyses alongside his later considerations of the same issues is instructive. Places where Lönnroth has refined or revised his own arguments come into focus (compare e.g. Lönnroth's position on secular literacy as formulated in "European Sources..." with that as set out in "Sponsors...," published some 15 years later; both papers are in Section I of the collection as cited above). The volume as a whole thus presents certain insights into the historiography of Old Norse literary history from a wider perspective. On this account, it is something of a pity that Lönnroth's "postscripts" tend to be rather short. More detailed and immediate engagement with scholarship published in the intervening period between each article's first appearance in print, and the publication of this volume, would have been stimulating.

Often, the efforts Lönnroth makes to update relevant secondary literature are rather limited too. While he acknowledges this to some degree in his Preface, it is surprising that none of the studies on medieval Icelandic literary production and society published in the widely-available volume Old Icelandic Literature and Society (ed. Margaret Clunies Ross, 2000) merits a mention, nor those in Russell Poole's volume Skaldsagas: Text, Vocation and Desire in the Icelandic Sagas of Poets (2000) that specifically examine the prosimetric form of the Icelandic sagas, nor is Stephen Mitchell's important monograph Heroic Sagas and Ballads (1991) referenced--though three other articles by him are cited. Numerous recent publications that apply and adapt oral- formulaic theory to Old Norse literature, and publications that fall within the field of reception studies in Old Norse for example, could also have been cited.

In addition, given that a major trend in Old Norse studies in recent years has been towards a more manuscript-orientated and "material philological" approach to Old Norse texts, it is a shame that Lönnroth's 1975 Arkiv för nordisk filologi study on the chapter divisions in Njals saga manuscripts, for example, was not included in the collection. Lönnroth's thoughts on the directions in which Old Norse literary-historical scholarship is heading in this second decade of the 21st century would doubtless have made for thought-provoking reading. Questions such as that of genre and generic classification, for example, are being tackled currently by a number of scholars from a manuscript-based perspective (see e.g. individual studies in the forthcoming volume The Legendary Sagas: Origins and Developments, ed. Armann Jakobsson et al. 2012).

Despite these reservations, it cannot be denied that many of the articles reprinted here are seminal pieces of scholarship and key points of reference for students and scholars working on various aspects of Old Norse literature. It is therefore useful to have these articles published in one easily accessible compendium; the volume is on the whole carefully edited and there are only scattered typos. Whether one merely dips into the volume, or reads it from start to finish, one cannot fail but derive a strong sense of Lönnroth's forceful and highly characteristic voice and his wide-ranging research interests.

Bibliographical references:

Jakobsson, Armann, Annette Lassen and Agneta Ney, eds. The Legendary Sagas: Origins and Developments. ReykjavÍk: University of Iceland Press, forthcoming 2012.

Lönnroth, Lars. "Structural Divisions in the Njala Manuscripts". Arkiv för nordisk filologi 90 (1975): 49-79.

Lönnroth, Lars. Njals saga: A Critical Introduction. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976.

Lönnroth, Lars. Review of The Icelandic Family Saga: An Analytical Reading, by Theodore M. Andersson. Speculum 43 (1968): 115-119.

Lönnroth, Lars. Review of The Growth of the Sagas, by Theodore M. Andersson. Scripta Islandica 57 (2006): 121-130.

Mitchell, Stephen. Heroic Sagas and Ballads. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Poole, Russell, ed. Skaldsagas: Text, Vocation and Desire in the Icelandic Sagas of Poets. Ergänzungsbände zum Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde 27. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2000.

Ross, Margaret Clunies, ed. Old Icelandic Literature and Society. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 42. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.