Craig R. Davis

title.none: Quinn, Heslop, and Will, eds., Learning and Understanding (Craig R. Davis)

identifier.other: baj9928.0806.016 08.06.16

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Craig R. Davis, Smith College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Quinn, Judy, Kate Heslop, Tarrin Wills. Learning and Understanding in the Old Norse World. Essays in Honor of Margaret Clunies Ross. Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe, v. 18. Turnhout: Brepols, 2007. Pp. xiv, 456. $111 $111 978-2-503-52580-8. ISBN: 978-2-503-52580-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.06.16

Quinn, Judy, Kate Heslop, Tarrin Wills. Learning and Understanding in the Old Norse World. Essays in Honor of Margaret Clunies Ross. Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe, v. 18. Turnhout: Brepols, 2007. Pp. xiv, 456. $111 $111 978-2-503-52580-8. ISBN: 978-2-503-52580-8.

Reviewed by:

Craig R. Davis
Smith College

Judy Quinn introduces this impressive collection of studies by celebrating one of the most striking features of its honorand's career: her "assiduous desire to understand as fully as possible the complex relationship between Old Norse literature and the society and culture" that produced it, not only during the Viking age (ca. 800- 1100), when many of the Scandinavian myths and some of the poems were first created, but also during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in later medieval Iceland, when these and other forms of Old Norse verbal art were preserved, elaborated, and transformed into the various versions that have survived to us in written form. This more socially contextualized and historically dynamic view of Norse cultural production as a continuum of evolving texts and discourses over six centuries of time is a signal contribution of Professor Clunies Ross.

Five studies illustrate different "Theoretical Frameworks for Understanding Old Norse Literature," beginning with Jürg Glauser's review of contemporary German literary theory on cultural memory in "The Speaking Bodies of Saga Texts." He argues that the physical presence of human beings in space (whether real or imagined, dead or alive) is essential to effective communication, mediating between text and intention. He illustrates this point with the burning of the titular protagonist of Njál's saga, whose radiant corpse "delivers a message, and is itself the medium of that message" to observers in the story like Hjalti Skeggjason, as well as to readers of the saga itself (22). Glauser's interpretation of Njál's corporeal message is a bit disappointing, however: "The old man...thereby triumphs in death over the adversaries on whom he could no longer be revenged in life" (22). In fact, the hero expresses no such desire against these men in the saga at all, even saying that he would rather have lost all his natural sons, if only his beloved foster-son Höskuldr, the man for whom the revenge attack is made, were still alive. The meaning of Njál's death is over-determined by multiple possible interpretations according to competing contextual schemes within the saga itself, which have never been satisfactorily sorted out by critics (cf. the present reviewer's "Cultural Assimilation in Njáls saga," Oral Tradition [1998]). Bodies, it seems, at least mute dead ones like Njál's, may not be as clear and explicit communicators as "mediality theory" would predict.

Vsteinn Ólason returns to this same scene in "The Icelandic Saga as a Kind of Literature with Special Reference to its Representation of Reality." He sees the Íslendingasögur or Icelandic family sagas as a new genre in which hero-tales from an earlier oral tradition coalesced into longer "epic[s] in prose" (45), which were then "intercepted" (46) by various literary forms, in particular, the saint's life and different kinds of historical writing. Vsteinn offers a developmental taxonomy of the saga form through several roughly dateable phases: pre-classical (ca. 1200-80), classical (ca. 1240-1300), and post-classical (ca. 1300-1450). He summarizes their distinctive appeal as follows: "Through the inclusion of details from daily life and through an ambiguous attitude toward heroic morality- identification and admiration conflicting with skepticism--the sagas developed traits that make them appealing to modern tastes and can sometimes be seen as foreshadowing the birth of the novel. In Njál's saga...this development has gone furthest because here the fusion of convention and invention has been most successful, not least because of the balance between mimesis and fantasy in this work" (46), creating a sharply realistic but also symbolically resonant narrative.

In "Political Echoes: Reading Eyrbyggja Saga in Light of Contemporary Conflicts," Torfi H. Tulinius sees an imaginative displacement of thirteenth-century political conflicts between secular chieftains and powerful clerics onto an earlier period in this saga's depiction of the hauntings at Fródá. He concludes that the saga demonstrates the authority of chieftains by showing that their power of legal enforcement extends even to the world of the dead, thus sharply restricting the clergy's cultural jurisdiction to purely ecclesiastical matters.

Lars Lönnroth neatly summarizes "Structuralist Approaches to Saga Literature" from the 1880s through the 1980s by Bth (1885), Heusler (1913), Andersson (1964/1967), Kellogg (1966), Allen (1971), Harris (1972), Clover (1974/1982), Lönnroth (1976), and Danielsson (1986). Even though Lönnroth finds such schematic analyses of plot pattern now rather out of fashion, it seems obvious to him "that sagas are governed not only by a particular style but also by a particular narrative grammar or set of compositional rules different from that of other types of narrative, even though the best of them," as Vsteinn Ólason also stresses, "contain themes, motifs, and stylistic features that are unique or, in some cases, borrowed from foreign literature" (72-73). Two scholars--Byock (1982) and Miller (1990)--have moved the critical focus on the structure of sagas from that of formal art to an increased awareness of their representation of larger patterns of social interaction, especially the progression of feuds.

Diana Whaley discusses the difficulties of "Reconstructing Skaldic Encomia: Discourse Features in Thjódólfr's 'Magnús verses.'" These thirty-eight eclectic stanzas on King Magnús the Good of Norway (r. 1035-46/47) are attributed to Thjódólfr Arnórsson. Whaley develops a rather complex but flexible model to help editors decide which of these verses are "core" and "non-core," and how they might be variously organized in a reconstructed text, by balancing several competing criteria: subject matter, temporal perspective (historical present, simple past, etc.), and other modes of discourse, like first- person narration, second-hand report, praise in the form of rhetorical question, etc. She concludes that we "will never know whether Thjódólfr really composed verses as he squelched through Danish bogs, watched houses burn, or drank salt water, but whenever and wherever composed, they have the spontaneity of lausavísur ['loose' or 'extemporaneous verses']" (99), "multifaceted jewels even if their original setting is lost" (101).

Four scholars discuss the relationship between "Old Norse Myth and Society," with Stefan Brink asking "How Uniform Was the Old Norse Religion?" His answer is "not very" after he surveys the theophoric place names of mainland Scandinavia, which he revealingly charts on several maps. Brink concludes that only a very few gods, and even fewer goddesses, were actually the objects of cult veneration and sacrifice. These are Ódinn, Thórr, Tyr, Njördr, Ullr, Freyr and (probably) Freyja, with "some isolated indications of a cult of Baldr, Forseti, and Frigg" (124-25). The big surprise here is the popularity of Ullr, a god to whom Snorri gives minimal attention in his Edda, but whose cult had a wide distribution similar to that of Freyr in Sweden and Norway. Freyr's cult was especially concentrated in "the Svea-dominated area, with a core around Lake Mälaren" (125), but this god was virtually unknown in Denmark, where Tyr seems to have been honored as much or more than Ódinn. Yet Tyr is entirely absent from surviving Swedish place names. The cults of Ódinn and Thórr had the broadest spread among mainland Norse-speaking communities, with that of the former "found all over Sweden and Denmark, around Viken and in Trøndelag in Norway, but strangely enough never in south- western Norway" (125).

Jens Peter Schjødt attempts to reconstruct the character of the cult of "Ódinn, Warriors, and Death" as evidenced by clusters of motifs apparent in later Icelandic sources. He concludes that warriors were initiated to Ódinn in some dramatic way, during which they were imagined to receive a kind of mantic or numinous knowledge, probably of the life of the dead in the otherworld, since the initiate was believed (at least symbolically) to have died and revived, just as Ódinn himself was thought to have been done during his self-sacrifice on the world-tree. The initiated warrior, now a member of an elite brotherhood of berserkir "berserks" or ulfhednar "wolfskins," thus gained "emotional strength" from confidence in his reception upon death into Valhöll (150). Russell Poole, in "Myth and Ritual in the Háleygjatal of Eyvindr skáldaspillir," traces the cultivation of distinctively pagan myths and rituals along the northern littoral of Norway by the Earls of Hladir from Hálogaland, which he argues was a reaction formation to the spread of Christianity further south. In "Famous Last Words: Monologue and Dialogue in Hamdismál and the Realization of Heroic Tale," John Hines uses both archeological evidence (supplying the floor plans of several longhouses) and a close comparison with the skaldic poem Ragnarsdrápa to reconstruct the tragic situation implied in this early eddic version of the final demise of the legendary Völsungs.

Four studies address "Oral Traditions in Performance and Text." Gísli Sigurdsson argues that there is evidence for an active tradition of oral prose saga in medieval Iceland revealed in the "*The Immanent Saga of Gudmundr ríki," borrowing this adjective from Foley's Immanent Art (1991). Gísli postulates the existence of a fully developed oral narrative about the titular protagonist known to multiple traditional storytellers and their audiences, but never actually performed in its entirety as a definitive account on any one occasion. The asterisk preceding the title of this "saga" is thus a usage borrowed from historical linguists to indicate a reconstructed or hypothetical form that does not appear in the documentary record. Audiences, Gísli argues, would have had a composite impression of the character and career of the historical tenth-century figure Gudmundr the Powerful derived from their various experiences of his story, which saga writers could activate simply by mentioning some of the information they could assume the audience had in their memories of past versions.

These sagas often contain quotations of skaldic poetry, some orally transmitted from the Viking era, but Gudrún Nordal argues in "The Art of Poetry and the Sagas of Icelanders" that the presence of such verses is no indication of an early date for the sagas in which they appear nor the antiquity of the verses themselves. Instead, original "skaldic verse-making and the theorizing of the skaldic art were crucial for the growth of saga writing in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries and fundamental to the building of a bridge between the pagan heritage of the north and Christian learning" (219). She thus proposes a new taxonomy of six saga types based upon how these texts make use of skaldic verse: (1) sagas of court poets (skald's sagas); (2) sagas where the main protagonist is himself a poet; (3) sagas with a strong royal or courtly emphasis; (4) fourteenth-century sagas dominated by specialized or learned themes; (5) sagas set in the Eastfjords or the northeast of Iceland; and (6) sagas where verse is a key part of the narrative without the presence of a principal poet. Nordal concludes that the historical "authenticity of the verse was not of paramount importance to these writers," who used them to introduce "poetic ambiguity" into their work (237). In depicting "Skaldic Poetry and Performance" in prose sagas, Stefanie Würth argues that the saga writers reveal a strong familiarity with Latin Christian hermeneutics and intend these verses to be parsed and interpreted as multivalent literary texts rather than received as immediately accessible products of oral tradition.

Edith Marold asks whether we should consider "Mansöngr--a Phantom Genre?" She concludes that the native Norse term for this kind of love song was modeled on the Latin cantus puellarum, "maiden song," but came to mean specifically a dance ballad "for individual or choral performance" (260). These were unlikely to be written down and could take two forms, the erotic invitation to love (much disapproved of by clerics) and the lover's complaint. Both forms are to be distinguished from skaldic love poetry in literary texts which were not sung, have exclusively male speakers, and appear in very different "literary-sociological" situations (261).

Four studies explore "Vernacular and Latin Theories of Language." In "Poetry, Dwarfs, and Gods: Understanding Alvíssmál," John Lindow argues that the poet dramatizes the difference between knowledge and wisdom through the misnamed interlocutor "All-wise," a "know-it-all" dwarf whose superior command of vocabulary is shown to be inadequate to a wisdom contest even with as intellectually challenged a god as Thórr. Mats Malm notes an interesting contrast in "The Notion of Effeminate Language in Old Norse Literature" between classical rhetoric, which can associate ornate or passionate "high style" with a feminine persona, and the Norse notion that the use of elaborate rhetorical forms is an especially potent and manly mode of discourse. In "Ælfric in Iceland," Kari Ellen Gade shows that foreign handbooks of grammar were well known in Iceland before the composition of The Third Grammatical Treatise, especially works of the Anglo-Saxon abbot Ælfric of Eynsham. Fabrizio D. Raschellà reviews scholarship on "Old Icelandic Grammatical Literature: The Last Two Decades of Research (1983-2005)," a subject revived by Clunies Ross herself in "Skáldskapamál: Snorri Sturluson's Ars Poetica and Medieval Theories of Language" (1987).

The final section, "Prolonged Traditions," alludes explicitly to one of Clunies Ross's most valued works, her two-volume Prolonged Echoes: Old Norse Myths in Medieval Northern Society (1994/1998), in which she discusses the mental world of Scandinavian society in the Viking age and how its mythic paradigms reverberated in the Christian culture of medieval Iceland. In "The 'Discourse of Counsel' and the 'Translated' Riddarasögur," Geraldine Barnes traces the later development of Icelandic prose literature beyond the Middle Ages, showing how the concern with effective authority in the family sagas continued in translations of the Old French Arthurian romances as riddarasögur, "tales of knights," providing exempla of wise and foolish behavior on the part of society's leaders. These knights' sagas remained popular until the nineteenth century, as did a thirteenth-century Norwegian text Konungs skuggsjá, "The King's Mirror," a dialogue between father and son on just conduct, part of a broader European tradition of the Fürstenspiegel, "mirror for magistrates."

In "Vatnsdoela saga: Visions and Versions," Andrew Wawn studies modern responses to this medieval murder story by Sabine Baring-Gould, "perhaps the foremost English scholar of Old Icelandic saga literature in nineteenth-century Britain" (400), Halldór Briem in his "Ingimundur gamli, a solemn and statuesque three-act drama" (414) performed in 1903, and Benjamin Eiríksson, whose 1964 pamphlet attempted to "expose" the saga as a conspiratorial cover-up of the real events it purports to narrate. M. J. Driscoll demonstrates the inherent openness to foreign figures and motifs of the Icelandic ballads known as rímur in "Skanderbeg: An Albanian Hero in Icelandic Clothing."

Anna Hansen concludes the collection with a very welcome bibliography of the honorand's publications from 1970-2006, including subjects beyond the scope of this volume on Australian Aboriginal songs and traditions, as well as some other topics. The book as a whole is quite meticulously edited, but the absence of an index is a disappointment to this reviewer who can foresee its usefulness as a quick reference to the state of the question on many matters of Old Norse literature and culture. As Judy Quinn says in her introduction, this festschrift has given a number of Norse scholars "the opportunity to reflect on the nature of knowledge in medieval Iceland" (5), how it had been generated during an earlier age, how it was understood at the time, how it has been reinterpreted and reassessed since then, a process that is clearly still on-going.