Martin Chase

title.none: McTurk, ed., Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture (Martin Chase)

identifier.other: baj9928.0510.006 05.10.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Martin Chase, Fordham University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: McTurk, Rory, ed. A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture. Series: Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture, vol. 31. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Pp. xiii, 567. $149.95 (hb). ISBN: 0-631-23502-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.10.06

McTurk, Rory, ed. A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture. Series: Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture, vol. 31. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Pp. xiii, 567. $149.95 (hb). ISBN: 0-631-23502-7.

Reviewed by:

Martin Chase
Fordham University

The list of contributors to this substantial volume is long, but it will be of interest:

"Archaeology of Economy and Society" (Orri Vésteinsson) "Christian Biography" (Margaret Cormack) "Christian Poetry" (Katrina Attwood) "Continuity? The Icelandic Sagas in Post-Medieval Times" (Jón Karl Helgason) "Eddic Poetry" (Terry Gunnell) "Family Sagas" (Vésteinn Ólson) "Geography and Travel" (Judith Jesch) "Historical Background: Iceland 870-1400" (Helgi Þorláksson) "Historiography and Pseudo-History" (Stefanie Würth) "Language" (Michael Barnes) "Late Prose Fiction (lygisögur)" (Matthew Driscoll) "Late Secular Poetry" (Shaun Hughes) "Laws" (Gudmund Sandvik and Jön Viðar Sigurðsson) "Manuscripts and Palaeography" (Guðvarður Már Gunnlaugsson) "Metre and Metrics" (Russell Poole) "Orality and Literacy in the Sagas of Icelanders" (Gísli Sigurðsson) "Pagan Myth and Religion" (Peter Orton) "The Post-Medieval Reception of Old Norse and Old Icelandic Literature" (Andrew Wawn) "Prose of Christian Instruction" (Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir) "Rhetoric and Style" (Þórir Óskarsson) "Romance (Translated riddarasögur)" (Jürg Glauser) "Royal Biography" (Ármann Jakobsson) "Runes" (Patrick Larsson) "Sagas of Contemporary History (Sturlunga saga): Texts and Research" (Úlfar Bragason) "Sagas of Icelandic Prehistory (fornaldarsögur)" (Torfi H. Tulinius) "Short Prose Narrative (Þáttr)" (Elizabeth Ashman Rowe and Joseph Harris) "Skaldic Poetry" (Diana Whaley) "Social Institutions" (Gunnar Karlsson) "Women in Old Norse Poetry and Sagas" (Judy Quinn).

Publishers continue to offer more popular literature on sagas and Vikings than the most fanatic enthusiast could keep up with, and there is likewise no dearth of scholarly guides. The great litteraturhistorier of the early twentieth century are still worth consulting, and more recently such works as Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Critical Guide (eds. Carol Clover and John Lindow, 1985, repr. 2005), Íslenzk bókmenntasaga, 1-2 (ed. Vésteinn Ólason, 1992-3), Jónas Kristjánsson's Eddas and Sagas (trans. Peter Foote, 1997), and Old Icelandic Literature and Society (ed. Margaret Clunies Ross, 2000) have appeared. In the area of history and culture there are surveys such as The Viking Achievement (Peter Foote and David Wilson, 1970, repr. 1980, 1990), and The Cambridge History of Scandinavia, 1 (ed. Knut Helle, 2003). The translation and reprinting of these works attest to their continuing usefulness. Eight of the contributors to the Blackwell Companion have also written chapters for other collaborative volumes, and many of the chapters in this book have parallels in one or more of the others. Given that its cost is likely to make even librarians think twice, it is reasonable to question how much more useful another handbook really will be.

The chapters that form the heart of this volume, notably the contributions by Orri Vésteinsson, Jón Karl Helgason, Helgi Þorláksson, Gudmund Sandvik/Jón Viðar Sigurðsson, Andrew Wawn, and Gunnar Karlsson, make it clear that Rory McTurk's goals for the Blackwell Companion are not precisely the same as those of its predecessors. The book is a companion to "literature and culture," and these articles, all dealing in one way or another with culture criticism, provide context and focus for those on literature. Since most readers are not likely to read the book through from cover to cover (as the editor optimistically recommends), it might have been better to set apart these key chapters in an introductory section. As it stands, the chapters of the book are organized alphabetically by title. It thus begins happily enough with "Archaeology of Economy and Society," but the placement of "Women in Old Norse Poetry and Sagas" at the end makes the chapter look like an obligatory postscript. The avoidance of thematic organization is not unconsidered: it reflects the underlying suggestion that we need to rethink traditional literary taxonomies, and that cultural and historical contexts are inseparable from literary interpretation. Nevertheless, it is frustrating to find "Christian Poetry," "Eddic Poetry," "Late Secular Poetry," and "Metre and Metrics" discontiguously scattered throughout the volume; the same is true for chapters dealing with various kinds of prose narratives.

The articles dealing with culture and history attempt to show how the conclusions scholars have drawn about medieval Icelandic and Scandinavian society have been influenced by their own situations. They suggest that some assumptions have been skewed by the perspectives of the times in which they were formed and that new data (or at least new insights) can help recast them in a truer light. They repeatedly challenge, from many points of view, the idea that the great "family sagas" bear witness to a "Golden Age" in Icelandic history and culture. Analysis of the evolution of Icelandic culture in these articles makes it possible for the chapters on literary topics to show how the canon of Old Norse-Icelandic literature was formed and to suggest ways in which it might be reconsidered.

Orri Vésteinsson surveys the history of Viking archaeology and comments that archaeologists of the "Viking Period" and scholars of "Old Norse" literature and history have had little to do with each other in the past half-century. Advances in archaeology call into question many of the theories of the nineteenth-century pioneers of "Old Norse studies," and there is a need for new interdisciplinary collaboration. He provides three examples of how archaeological evidence challenges traditionally held ideas about nobility, affluence, and freedom in "saga times": The lack of any material signs of a nobility suggests that the Norwegian colonists of the North Atlantic came from the middle of the social scale and were not exiled noblemen; they experienced an initial period of relative poverty followed by slow economic growth up to the thirteenth century, rather than an original period of prosperity followed by gradual and steady decline; and the majority of medieval Icelanders, who lived as feudal peasants, were "not politically free in anything but the most technical sense" (19).

Helgi Þórlaksson's chapter on the historical background of medieval Iceland focuses on social history. It complements the chapter on archaeology and is a good example of the kind of interdisciplinary work Orri Vésteinsson recommends. It is unfortunate that these two chapters do not contain references to one another. All the chapters in the volume are provided with an encyclopedia-style "see also" list of cross-references at the end, but they are often too numerous and undiscriminating to be useful. If all of the contributors had read all of the articles (admittedly much to ask), they could have provided relevant and helpful references to one another. Two authors, Diana Whaley and Vésteinn Ólason, have apparently done this, and the results make one wish that the others had.

The chapters on "Laws" and "Social Institutions" are another complementary pair. Gudmund Sandvik and Jón Viðar Sigurðsson deal with Scandinavian as well as Icelandic law, and emphasize the continuity of European legal tradition: their suggestion that the famous Nordic motto at lõgum skal land várt byggja ("by law shall our land be built up") is really a calque on civitas fundaretur legibus (from Pomponius, as quoted in Justinian's Digest) is telling of their approach. They point out the need for a study of the transfer of legal and religious ideas and terminology into the Nordic languages. Gunnar Karlsson looks at the Icelandic legal system as it was actually practiced and observes that the modern view of it is somewhat idealized. The Alþing is remarkable for its longevity as a means of governance, but it "was not a unique event and a great novelty" (509). He also observes that medieval Iceland was not democratic in the modern sense: the lack of a central government meant that there was nothing to keep local chieftains from becoming tyrants (515).

Jón Karl Helgason and Andrew Wawn both write about the post-medieval life of Old Norse literature. It is once again disconcerting to find these closely-related essays separated by 250 pages. Indeed, their themes are so similar that they might have collaborated on a single chapter. Jón Karl Helgason analyzes two twentieth-century surveys of the impact of the sagas on the lives of Icelanders and concludes, not surprisingly, that the "Golden Age" of the sagas was used in the early twentieth century to propagandize the idea of a new Golden Age of Icelandic independence. He also notes the reaction to this centered around Halldór Laxness a generation later. Andrew Wawn focuses on romantic nationalism in Scandinavia. He mentions in passing that "Herder's valorization of Naturpoesie helped to define the philosophical and philological way ahead" (328-9), but a fuller treatment of the influence of romantic philosophers (Schelling, to name but one) on nineteenth-century Old Norse studies would be welcome. There has recently been a new burst of activity in this area on the philosophical side of the disciplinary divide, and it is time for a response from the literary scholars and historians. Wawn makes a good case for the relevance of reception studies, rightly pointing out that "the shipwrecks of one generation provide sea-marks for the next" (335), a comment which would make a fitting inscription for the flyleaf of the Blackwell Companion.

These contributions help to show why certain genres and periods have been emphasized and others ignored in the development of the canon of Old Norse-Icelandic literature, and in light of this, other chapters urge us to take a fresh look at the corpus and modify our idea of how we view it. The term "Icelandic sagas," in popular usage refers to the Íslendinga sögur or "Family Sagas," the foundation myths set in the period between the settlement of Iceland and the coming of Christianity. These works were composed in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and are thus contemporary with most surviving Old Norse-Icelandic literature. The articles mentioned above and others in the volume attempt to explain how this relatively modest body of texts came to be regarded as the canon of medieval Icelandic literature, and suggest why its boundaries should be widened.

Matthew Driscoll makes the strongest appeal for a revisionist approach. He argues convincingly that the lygisögur were more popular in Iceland than the Íslendinga sögur from the time of their composition up to the nationalist propaganda movement of the twentieth century (a period of 500 years), and (somewhat less convincingly) that they "are as finely wrought as anything written in Icelandic in the same, or arguably any, period, and every bit as worthy of our attention" (198). Jürg Glausner describes the reorientation emerging in the study of romance in medieval Iceland. He claims that the romances are important as the source of the "self-reflective approach to writing and . . . the conditions of the origin of fiction and its possibilities" that has characterized Icelandic literature ever since (385). Úlfar Bragason writes eloquently, as he has elsewhere, of the importance of Sturlunga saga as a medium of cultural memory, and Torfi Tulinius sets the fornaldarsögur in the context of European literary trends. The contributions of Vésteinn Ólason and Gísli Sigurðsson are acknowledged distillations of their admired monographs on the same topics. Ármann Jakobsson, writing on kings' sagas, shows how these sagas reflect the concerns of their courtly audience and argues that they prepared the way for the Icelandic acceptance of the Norwegian monarchy much later. The chapter on þættir by Elizabeth Ashman Rowe and Joseph Harris, emphasizes, as Rowe has elsewhere, the codicological context of these works and shows how consideration of this is important for understanding both the þættir and the larger works into which they have been inserted.

Shaun Hughes's article on "Late Secular Poetry" immediately follows Matthew Driscoll's on "Late Prose Fiction," in a fortunate instance of the coincidence of alphabetical order and thematic organization. Like Driscoll, Hughes is a champion of post-"Golden Age" literature. He would extend the late Middle Ages in Iceland up to 1700, and argues that the period from 1300-1700 was a time of literary vigor and innovation rather than of decline. He claims that later poetry has not been appreciated because it privileges form more than content--a strange assertion when one thinks of the skaldic poetry of the earlier period. Nevertheless, his discussions of "The rímur," "The sagnadansar and the vikivaki," and "Minor Genres" encourage appreciation of these neglected genres and make one want to read more. It is unfortunate that there is not a chapter on late religious poetry, as well. Katrina Attwood's article brings us up to date on the great Christian poetry of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but there is no reference to the "Gejstlig digtning" that fills the last hundred pages of Finnur Jónsson's Skjaldedigtning, and the bibliography lacks references to scholarship on the late medieval period (notably Jón Helgason's Íslenzk miðaldakvæði and Hans Schottmann's Die Isländische Mariendichtung).

Terry Gunnell discusses the performance context of Eddic poetry, suggesting that the poems in ljóðaháttr have their roots in pagan rituals. He goes too far in dismissing Christianity's influence on Eddic poetry, but he gives examples of how Eddic poetry can give us living insight into the "non-scholastic general world-view" of Scandinavia in the early Middle Ages. Peter Orton apologizes for his "rather superficial" treatment of "Pagan Myth and Religion." This chapter might have complemented Gunnell's, but it lacks the nuance and contextualization that otherwise characterizes the volume, and the bibliography is not up-to-date (names like DuBois, Schjødt, Meulengracht Sørensen, and Lönnroth are conspicuously absent).

Patrick Larsson examines runic inscriptions as literary documents and shows how the inscriptions can be of more than philological interest. His claim that they are "original documents" (unlike manuscripts, which are always copies) is belied by his citation of the same verse found on two different rune stones (412-13). Russell Poole nods to both Europeanism and nationalism by contrasting the common Germanic origin of Icelandic meters with the diversity of innovation found only in Iceland; and Diana Whaley's mini-anthology offers a preview of the forthcoming Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages.

This Blackwell Companion lives up to the publisher's aim for the series: "to provide new perspectives and positions on contexts and on canonical and post-canonical texts, orientating the beginning student in new fields of study and providing the experienced undergraduate and new graduate with current and new directions, as pioneered and developed by leading scholars in the field." This is as true of the articles there has been space to mention here as of those there has not. The contributors present a quintessence of recent scholarship and suggest directions for future research: graduate students take note.

While the volume's impressive substance will make it a standard reference work; its form could be tidier. More attention could have been paid to bibliography: some authors provide useful comprehensive bibliographies (up to 110 entries), while others give little more than a cursory list of works cited (as few as 25). Three books published a year before this one are listed as "forthcoming." The alphabetizing of Icelandic names in the index is inconsistent: "Jónasson, Hermann," but "Jónas Hallgrímsson;" "Halldór Laxness," but "Nordal, Sigurður." It would be churlish to cite examples, but there are occasional clashes of idioms and registers for the reader to stumble over: the editor might have given better assistance to those not writing in their mother tongues.