The Medieval Review 13.05.02

Andersson, Theodore M. The Partisan Muse in the Early Icelandic Sagas (1200–1250). Islandica, LV. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Library, 2012. Pp. x, 227. $65.00. ISBN: 978-0-935995-14-5. . .

Reviewed by:

Jonas Wellendorf
University of California, Berkeley

In 1964, Andersson published a monograph entitled The Problem of Icelandic Saga Origins: A Historical Survey. The origins of the saga, broadly speaking, and its subsequent development have been the dominant theme in a number of Andersson's subsequent books, including his most recent, which is under review here.

The problems associated with the saga literature are wide reaching, fascinating, and complex. Andersson approaches them from various angles as he searches for the oral saga and seeks to describe the evolution of its written progeny. Andersson believes in the oral saga, but he is no fundamentalist and, throughout extensive sections of The Partisan Muse in Early Icelandic sagas (1200–1250), he explores links between various sagas. In doing so, he uses the methodology most readily associated with the Icelandic school of saga studies, although his aim is somewhat different. His central point is that the early sagas (i.e. those that can be dated between 1200 and 1250) "interact with one another on political and literary matters" (vi). He also argues that saga writing first blossomed around 1215–1220, at a time when the relations between Norway and Iceland were particularly troubled, and that this is reflected in the early sagas. As in his previous (2006) book, The Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Sagas (1180–1280), Andersson fruitfully combines discussion of the Kings' sagas and the Sagas of Icelanders--two genres that are still too often considered separately. In the first chapter, he also draws heavily on sagas from the Sturlunga complex.

The book contains seven chapters followed by an epilogue. Six of these chapters have been published as articles in journals (between 1994 and 2009) and are here presented in slightly updated versions, with the exception of Chapter 6, which has been more extensively reworked. I had already read some of these articles in their original form, but rereading them was both rewarding and pleasurable. Andersson initially warns that readers will find the detailed exposition of the texts somewhat trying (vii). In the hands of other scholars, the detailed expositions found in The Partisan Muse are likely to have proved exhausting for many readers, but Andersson's lucid style of writing, clear formulation of points, and focus on the central arguments make for an enjoyable read. The painstaking discussion of the hypothetical *Hlaðajarla saga in Chapter 3 was the only section where I found my patience tested.

The first two chapters deal with the oral prehistory of the secular sagas on Icelandic topics (i.e. sagas of Icelanders and sagas of the Sturlunga compilations) and the Kings' sagas, respectively. Chapter 1--which I found the most intriguing of the two and, overall, the most thought-provoking chapter in the book--makes a strong case for the existence of oral sagas of substantial length. Andersson briefly reviews scholarly debate about the oral saga, focusing on Carol Clover's seminal claim, advanced in the article "The Long Prose Form" (1986), that the sagas, although based on traditional material, were never realized as full-length oral sagas. At the oral stage, Clover argued, only shorter segments or episodes of sagas would have been told, while the complete saga would have remained unrealized and "immanent," until it was written down.

A problem with Clover's theory of the immanent saga, as Andersson sees it, is that it does not explain the "extraordinary plotting of the sagas" (8). Andersson's solution to this problem is to suggest that the plotting already took place at the oral stage, which, in itself, supports an argument for the existence of oral sagas of significant length. To demonstrate this, he presents three sagas from the Sturlunga collection (Sturlu saga, Guðmundar saga dýra, and Þorgils saga ok Hafliða). The last mentioned was written around 100 years after the events it describes, and is the most "saga like" of the three (i.e. its style conforms to that of the sagas of Icelanders). The first two of these sagas, on the other hand, were written roughly 50 years after the events they describe and are less 'saga like'. It would therefore seem, Andersson argues, that oral tradition requires more than 50 years, but less than 100 years, to mature and acquire the form and depth we see in the sagas of Icelanders. Crucial to Andersson's argument is the fact that all three of these sagas are so early that it is unlikely that Þorgils saga (or the two other sagas for that matter) were patterned on written sagas of Icelanders. The artistic form of Þorgils saga is therefore best explained as having already developed in oral tradition.

The third chapter, "The first written sagas of Kings and Chieftains," is a combination of two originally separate articles. In it, Andersson first discusses the chronological relationship of the so-called Oldest saga of St. Óláfr and Oddr munkr's Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar. Through a detailed comparison of episodes from the two sagas that appear to be related in one way or the other, Andersson concludes that primacy should be granted to Oddr munkr, although he concedes that "the correspondences can, and no doubt will, be argued in the opposite sense" (64). The main point of this section of the chapter, however, is not Oddr's precedence, but the broader implications of this primacy--namely, that the impetus for the writing of biographical kings' sagas would have come from Iceland (more precisely, the Northern monastery of Þingeyrar), rather than Norway. Oddr's saga of Óláfr Tryggvason should, accordingly, not be seen "as an Icelandic response to Norwegian celebration of St Óláfr…but as the true inception of king's saga writing in Iceland" (65).

The second part of the chapter is more speculative and concerns the conjectured *Hlaðajarla saga (or a putative sequel to this hypothetical saga). Briefly, Andersson argues that this elusive work covered the period from Earl Hákon gamli (in the days of Haraldr hárfagri) to the death of Einarr þambarskelfir (in the reign of Haraldr harðráði). Focusing on the political fortunes of the earls rather than the kings, the saga would have been "anti-royalist," "pro-regional," and "an opposition saga" (80). The authors of Morkinskinna and Fagrskinna would have drawn on this saga and this would then explain the pro-Þrœndalǫg bias of parts of these texts. Finally, Andersson suggests that *Hlaðajarla saga was written at Oddi in Southern Iceland in the early part of the 13th century (between 1211 and 1220). The composition of the saga would then coincide with Earl Skúli's ascendance to power in Norway--not as king, but as earl.

I find Andersson's image of a political *Hlaðajarla saga attractive, particularly in combination with the proposed dating of the text. Andersson's suggestion also answers a key question about the sources of the first part of Morkinskinna in a very convenient way. Admittedly, the thesis remains speculative, but it is much more fruitful than the alternative, which is to resign ourselves to ignorance of the early phase of saga writing. The chapter is long enough as it is (the longest in the book), but the subject of early sagas dealing with earls would have merited a discussion of Hákonar saga Ívarssonar. Not only is this saga much neglected, but the protagonist also belongs to the family of the earls of Hlaðir, it predates Morkinskinna and Hemskringla, and it is fairly certain that the author of Heimskringla drew on it and that the author of Morkinskinna did not. Hákonar saga Ívarssonar thus intersects with the themes discussed by Andersson in multiple ways, and also has a great advantage over *Hlaðajarla saga in that it is preserved, albeit fragmentarily (the most recent treatment of this text appears to be Andersson's discussion in the introduction to his and Kari Ellen Gade's translation of Morkinskinna [2000], pp. 15–20).

In Chapter 4, "Sources and attitudes in Óláfs saga helga in Heimskringla," Andersson surveys a good number of longer stories from Heimskringla's saga about St Óláfr, including those concerning the efforts to get Óláfr a Swedish princess in marriage, the blinded petty king Hrœrekr, and the story of Ásbjǫrn Selsbani, among others. Common to these stories is a conspicuous absence of skaldic stanzas, and Andersson's first aim is to show that oral stories about the Norwegian king also circulated without being tied to skaldic stanzas. He singles out a number of named Icelanders who take part in the stories and argues that these named individuals were responsible for carrying the stories to Iceland (a premise being that these stories do indeed have a historical root). These longer accounts are, therefore, "strictly Icelandic" (111). In his conclusion, Andersson argues that this Icelandic transmission has colored the attitude to kingship expressed in Óláfs saga to the extent that the theme of Óláfr's political conflict with the Norwegian magnates, the red thread of the saga, is seen as "an Icelandic hypothesis" (116) with a clear anti-royalist thrust.

In Chapter 5, Andersson begins by arguing that the image which Morkinskinna (now usually dated ca. 1220) conveys of the Norwegian kings who reigned between 1030 and 1130 was considerably colored by the political and mercantile tensions between the Icelanders and the Norwegians in the early 13th century. He goes on to show how "Heimskringla represents a royalist readjustment" of Morkinskinna (121). The argument is convincingly supported, mainly through a comparison of what Morkinskinna and Heimskringla--which is known to have used Morkinskinna as a source--have to say on various kings. Finally, he discusses Egils saga's attitude toward Norwegian kingship. This saga aligns more closely with the critical attitude of Morkinskinna, so Andersson tends to date Egils saga to the same period as Morkinskinna.

In the last two chapters, Andersson turns to the early sagas of Icelanders. In "Domestic policy in Northern Iceland,' the focus is on the early sagas that take place in and around Eyjafjörður in Northern Iceland: Víga-Glúms saga, Reykdœla saga, and Ljósvetninga saga. Andersson dates them early indeed: for Víga-Glúms saga he proposes ca. 1215 as the year of composition, and the 1220s for the two other. Víga-Glúms saga and Reykdœla saga both relate the same incident, and this raises the question of what sort of relationship exists between the two. Andersson carefully reviews the literature on the subject before arguing that Reykdœla saga relies on Víga-Glúms saga. He goes on to suggest that "Reykdœla saga might be considered a polemical response to the political perspective that unfolds in Víga-Glúms saga" (166). As far as Ljósvetninga saga is concerned, Andersson argues that it betrays a distinct regionalism, probably inspired by the lost *Hlaðajarla saga. "Warrior poets in the northwest," the final chapter, discusses Fóstbrœðra saga and Gísla saga and argues that they illustrate a development from an old style, where actions are chronicled, to a new style in which the effects of actions on the characters are also portrayed.

Andersson knows the sagas as do few others. His arguments and careful summaries of the various texts should be of interest to seasoned saga readers and novices alike. Together, the chapters add up to a well-argued and interesting contribution to saga studies. The volume is published in the distinguished Islandica series and the series/publisher is particularly to be commended for making all volumes published in this series since 2008 (including The Political Muse and future volumes) freely available online. Hardcopies can be purchased for a reasonable price. This will definitely ensure a very wide readership and rapid impact on the field.