03.04.14, Tulinius, The Matter of the North

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Jenny Jochens

The Medieval Review baj9928.0304.014


Tulinius, Torfi H. Eldevik, Randi C., trans.. The Matter of the North: The Rise of Literary Fiction in Thirteenth-Century Iceland. Series: The Viking Collection Studies in Northern Civilization. Odense: Odense University Press, 2002. Pp. 340. ISBN: 87-7838-537-7.

Reviewed by:
Jenny Jochens

This excellent English translation of Torfi Tulinius' French work from 1995 -- originally a doctoral dissertation under the direction of Régis Boyer -- will finally enable Torfi's often brilliant and provocative ideas to circulate fully within the discourse of Old Norse scholars.

In 1921 H.G. Leach coined the term "the matter of the North" to identify the subject matter of the co-called Legendary Sagas, a sub-genre within the medieval Icelandic saga literature. Patterned on Jean Bodel's expression of the three "matters" of Rome, France, and Britain treated in French romances, like these, the Legendary Sagas described the ancient and often mythical past pertinent to the Nordic world prior to the settlement of Iceland. Treating six narratives in this group in depth (chosen from a canon of about thirty), Torfi does indeed provide an important study of this often-neglected genre. His reading of Hrólf saga Gautrekssonar, for example -- frequently dismissed as a mere bridal-quest romance -- adds a new shine to this amusing and well-crafted text.

But Torfi's purpose is larger than the legendary sagas. It can, of course, be argued that "the matter of the North" is the subject of nearly all Old Norse literature. Torfi's subtitle, "the rise of literary fiction in thirteenth century Iceland," is, therefore, more significant than his main title. He has changed the text itself very little from the French original, but he has clarified his thesis in the translation of the title by eliminating the quotation marks around the "Matière du Nord" and dropping sagas légendaries from the subtitle. His texts function primarily as a wedge to pry open and explain "the Icelandic miracle," the virtual explosion of fiction in the thirteenth century that resulted not only in the legendary sagas, but also in the kings' sagas, the sagas of the Icelanders, and the contemporary sagas, just to mention the most prominent genres. Torfi ranges over this entire corpus with great mastery, adding acute analyses of Jómsvíkinga saga and Egils saga to his chosen legendary sagas in pursuing the development of fiction.

Following a theory worked out by scholars from other types of literature, Torfi argues that the authors of both the legendary sagas and the sagas of Icelanders were less interested in the material they seemed to find in history, but more concerned with the political, social, and economic problems of their own society, transposing these issues into the past but developing them more freely the further the chronological setting was removed from their own. Noting that the legendary sagas deal with inheritance, marriage of women, concubines, generational conflicts, associations among men and relationships with the Norwegian king, Torfi mines the contemporary sagas for similar concerns -- mainly from the complex known as Sturlunga saga. He discovers that these problems also dominate the narratives that clearly portray the social discourse of the thirteenth century and he concludes that the authors handled their present problems by submitting them to fictional treatment in both the legendary narratives and the sagas of Icelanders.

Two further ideas inspire Torfi's interpretation of his chosen texts. Despite the ambivalent attitudes of most Icelanders toward the Norwegian king, Torfi argues that at least the aristocracy was fascinated with monarchy which they were willing to serve in Norway, conveniently located at a safe distance from Iceland. From their frequent travels there and further on to the Continent, Icelandic chieftains had become impressed by the splendor of the emerging European monarchies and were seduced by courtly life, articulated in literature and in behavior. Eager to emulate these ideas upon their return to the North, they served for a while at the court of the Norwegian king. Here French courtly romances were being translated into Old Norse prose and read out aloud for entertainment. Eventually returning to Iceland, they created small "courts" of their own and surrounded themselves not only with the necessary bodyguards but also with men recruited from the class of wealthy farmers just below themselves -- the baendr -- who served them in other ways as well. Their duties in turn included entertaining the chieftains by reciting tales of their forefathers that constituted the oral beginnings of many of the legendary sagas. In other words, Torfi argues that fiction emerged as the result of a conscious effort by Icelandic chieftains to imitate the courtly life they had encountered in France. Since the subject matter of the legendary sagas corresponded best to the French stories, it would follow that this genre, normally considered to have arisen after the sagas of Icelanders, actually preceded them, a key concept in this work.

Torfi's other idea stems from his conviction that thirteenth-century Icelanders, having been exposed to Christianity for several generations, were so permeated with Christian culture that it is meaningful to search the legendary sagas for Christian concepts such as intent, redemption, catharsis, and absolution in characters who are embedded in pagan culture. It is equally appropriate to identify Christian literary forms such as vita and exemplum, and to anticipate typology and prefiguration in the narratological scheme that produce parallels within these texts reflective of the correspondences between the Old and New Testaments.

In the first third of the book Torfi presents his chosen texts, provides a useful overview of the theoretical framework he intends to use, and tackles the thorny problem of the dating of the legendary sagas. Because of his preoccupation with the rise of fiction he is most interested in those narratives normally considered to be the oldest. He thus chooses five texts from the sub-group known as the heroic sagas, narratives that treat historical figures and events known also known from Anglo-Saxon and German sources (Hervarar saga ok Heidreks, Hálfs saga ok Hálfsrekka, Ragnars saga lodbrókar, Tháttr af Ragnarssonum, and Völsunga saga). In order to determine how the legendary genre developed over time he adds two younger texts from the sub-genre known as the sagas of adventure (Örvar-Odds saga and Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar). To pursue the rise of fiction in other genres he adds Jómsvíkinga saga, and Egils saga. The former is often classified with the kings' sagas and second is one of the best known of the sagas of Icelanders (also known as the Family sagas). For each of his texts Torfi provides a history of the manuscript(s), the probable date of composition, and -- awkwardly placed in the back of the book after the bibliography -- a synopsis of the contents. Well read in Continental theory for which he provides a good overview, Torfi is perhaps most influenced by the semiotician A. J. Greimas. Although the oldest manuscripts date to the fourteenth century, the genre is normally ascribed to the late thirteenth century. Torfi argues for dating them to the early part of the century, proposing that the genre might have emerged slowly from the prose found in certain Eddic lays, an idea he has borrowed from Anne Holtsmark and which he develops further. He seeks to convince his readers that some legendary sagas may have been in existence, if not by 1180, probably by 1200, and most certainly by 1230.

In the second part Torfi applies the tools of literary theory to his chosen legendary sagas. For each text he provides a three-fold analysis, that is, a division based on themes, an analysis of the structural principles, and finally a search for meaning in light of the social conditions in the authors' thirteenth-century Iceland. Convinced that everything in a text makes sense, Torfi demonstrates great ingenuity -- at times too great -- in establishing such meaning. Among the four heroic narratives, Hervarar saga ok Heidreks is given the most detailed and the most sophisticated analysis. Dominated by the themes of intentionality and treachery, his reading of Völsunga saga is the most successful. Within the genre of the sagas of adventure, Torfi finds that his two examples turn from social to political issues as they focus on knights and depict the ideal king.

Similar problems were treated in other genres of Icelandic literature, as Torfi shows in his third section. Leaving the legendary sagas but retaining the contemporary sagas as a basis for determining the authors' preoccupation, Torfi now turns to two other genres, the kings' sagas exemplified in Jómsvíkinga saga and the sagas of Icelanders in Egils saga. The former is of special interest to Torfi because of its early dating (first third of thirteenth century) and its rich component of fictionality. Torfi reads the narrative as the interaction between king, chieftains, and bÏndr during the tenth century. This problem is of great interest for the Icelandic aristocracy because this class virtually came into being at the time of writing. Wealthy farmers strove to enter the hereditary nobility through advantageous marriages and royal service.

In the longest chapter Torfi turns to the sagas of Icelanders, wishing to read them as fictional treatment of the past but nonetheless influenced by contemporary concerns. Since these issues are not treated as openly as in the legendary sagas, greater ingenuity is required to uncover them. Torfi suggests a reading of these prose narratives in a way similar to which a skaldic stanza has to be deconstructed and reassembled to allow full comprehension of the poetic content. Applying this technique to Egils saga with great perspicacity, he is able to identify a semantic web of themes, names, nicknames, numbers, and words that in turn enable him to interpret the political, social, and even personal meaning of the saga. Most will agree with Torfi's political reading of Egill as an astute and stubborn individual who, although against an unjust king, was willing to collaborate with a monarch with whom he agreed. In his social interpretation Torfi uncovers Egill's troubled relationship not only with the Norwegian king, but also with his own father and perhaps his brother to the extent that he may have wished to kill them both. Attempting to strengthen his argument that some legendary sagas may predate the sagas of Icelanders, Torfi points to several cases of similarities between Hervarar saga and Egils saga. Such intertextuality would suggest that by 1230 Snorri Sturluson, the presumed author of Egils saga, would have known at least a version of the legendary saga when he wrote his own work.

Torfi's most striking interpretation is found in his reading of Egils saga as evidence of Snorri's subjectivity. He identifies a number of Christian features in form and content in the pagan hero. Much is made of the fact that Snorri himself refused to engage in battle against his own brothers in 1236 on the grounds that the time was too close to Easter. In 1224 one of the Icelandic bishops had introduced regulations promulgating the Fourth Lateran Council's enforcement of penance and private confession and the withholding of the Easter communion to people who did not comply. Torfi sees Snorri as a man who was deeply concerned about the salvation of his soul, who was troubled by guilt over an earlier attack (in 1228 and 1229) against his brother and nephew (of whom he may also have been jealous), who may have interpreted the death of his only legitimate son in 1231 as God's punishment, and who was now seeking forgiveness by not fighting in the Easter season.

Writing with verve and conviction, Torfi at first dazzles his readers by the brilliance of his ideas. A second reading may be more sobering. Even the most sympathetic reader may often agree with Torfi's admission that some interpretations are "a bit far-fetched" (the similarities between the long hair of the pagan Áslaug and the Christian Agnes, for example; 124) or "far-fetched and unlikely" (the convoluted significance of the southerly wind; 264). Some readers my have trouble seeing the typological implications of Hei_rek's travels and marriages. Did Egill really wish for his brother's death? Do the similarities between Hei_rek and Egill amount to intertextuality? These questions are meant less as criticism than as suggestions of the kind of discussion Torfi' book will engender.

Torfi has used this translation to rectify the mistakes pointed out by reviewers of his French original, but not all. As a functioning shield maiden, Hervfr is not married to Ormarr who is her foster father (314). More important given the emphasis placed on Snorri«s Christian consciousness, it would have behooved Torfi now to rectify Snorri's marital career, at least in a footnote. Although estranged from his wife Herdís, Snorri had never arranged a divorce. Since she was alive until 1233, he could not have "intended to marry" Solveig in 1224, a woman who became the bride of his nephew Sturla. Nor did he "marry" her first cousin Hallveig shortly after (283; see also 242), but he lived with this woman in sexual and financial concubinage from 1224 until her death in 1241. The Icelandic clergy had stressed marital fidelity since the end of the twelfth century, and Snorri's marital behavior does not match his alleged piety of refusing fighting his brother and nephew in 1236. The source, Sturlunga saga, does not allow a determination of how close to Easter this event occurred, and the justification sounds more like a sarcastic comment by Snorri who notoriously shunned armed conflict. The bibliography has been brought up to date, but an index would still have been useful.

The translation needs special comment. As far as I know, this is the first major translation by Randi Eldevik, herself an Old Norse scholar. She has produced a smooth, exact, and elegant translation, replete with felicitous expressions ("trailblazing effort," 215; "shamming illness," 257). At times she finds more appropriate expressions than provided in the original (a saga author will "nudge" rather than "guide" the reader (139, French ed. 125). Torfi's "cadets" become logically "younger sons and byblows" (184, French ed. 165). I have found her nodding only once; "on the way home from Norway" should be "back in Norway" (289; de retour en Norvège, French ed. 259). I take "kinship" (204) to be a typo for "kingship" (royauté, Fr. ed. 183). These a minor blemishes, however, and both author and translator are to be congratulated for their work.

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Jenny Jochens