09.03.12, Miller, Audun and the Polar Bear

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Oren Falk

The Medieval Review baj9928.0903.012


Miller, William Ian. Audun and the Polar Bear: Luck, Law, and Largesse in a Medieval Tale of Risky Business. Medieval Law and Its Practice. Leiden: Brill, 2008. Pp. xi, 155. ISBN: 9789004168114.

Reviewed by:
Oren Falk
Cornell University

William Ian Miller's books have been growing shorter over the past decade; that's a very good thing. Miller, as perusal of his prolific collection of articles from the 1980s reveals, is a master of the short form. His 2006 Eye for an Eye (Cambridge University Press, 279 pp.) was already much tighter than 2000's The Mystery of Courage (Harvard University Press, 357 pp.), and the present slim volume approximates more closely still to the ideal of his early benchmarks. Medievalists have another reason to rejoice at Audun and the Polar Bear: the book signals, in its author's words, his return, "for the time being at least," from the exploration of timeless existential topics such as affect, body parts, and a galaxy of social foibles, squarely to "Norse matters...to the texts [he] love[s] best" (vii). Miller's game is still transhistorical Big Issues (some of which are signaled in his subtitle), but he takes aim at them, once more, by sighting down the barrel of an exemplary saga.

At the heart of Miller's book is Authunar tháttr vestfirzka (Audun's Story), a short Icelandic tale here presented in a new translation (7-12). The bulk of the book consists of extended, sometimes rhapsodical, commentary on this tale, in two parts: a close textual exegesis (15-67) followed by a series of meditations on themes tapped by the tale (71-146). The second part, in particular, also reads as a high-theoretical intervention in the growing literature on gift exchange, a frank dialogue with Marcel Mauss, Pierre Bourdieu, and their proliferating disciples, to whom Miller openly acknowledges his debt but whom he does not shrink from raking over coals (e.g. 42n6, 51-52n4, 129n24). "[G]ift exchange," Miller apothegmatizes, "is politics by other means" (3). His echo of Clausewitz is more than just a stylish nod. As a good student of the feud, Miller readily picks up on isotropies between giving and receiving trinkets in wrapping paper, on the one hand, and the exchange of blows or shots, on the other: "Feud and revenge [are] a subset of the world of gift-exchange" (133).

Audun's Story, as he notes, is a brilliant case study in how gift exchange works, could work, should work. The eponymous hero, an insignificant Icelander with a keen nose for business ("Audun has a talent [for] making people more creditworthy than they would otherwise be," 25), travels to Greenland, where he hands over his life savings for a polar bear cub, which he takes to Norway. No sooner does Audun land than he announces his intention to give the bear away to Svein, King of Denmark. The only problem: Svein is at war with Harald, King of Norway. Miller draws our attention to the political assumptions of this world, so distant from ours and yet so similar: "no one questions why Audun might want to give a bear to a king. That makes sense. It is the risk involved in giving it to this particular king that does not" (28n1). Audun's present-day counterpart might be the Washington lobbyist who lavishes attentions on community organizers rather than on the captains of industry: a suicidal-seeming misapplication of political protocol.

In a virtuoso display of Chutzpah and brinkmanship, Audun manages to talk his way through the war zone: the grasping Norwegian monarch, more amused than bemused at his audacity, decides to let him go, and he presents his gift to a cordially grateful Svein. Audun later goes on pilgrimage (giving some purchase to readings of his tale as a preachy exemplum, which Miller spends some time dismantling), comes back half dead, then declares his intention to head home to Iceland. Here the story kicks into overdrive: Svein loads Audun with counter- gifts--a ship, a purse, an armring--before allowing him to set sail. In Norway, Harald interrogates Audun about his adventures and the recompense he received from Svein, dismissing every detail with a disdainful "I would have repaid you the same." Only the last of Svein's actual gifts exceed what Harald "can entertain giving even as a thought experiment" (62), and he concedes his rival's greater magnanimity. Audun, however, tactfully turns the tables on him, giving him Svein's armring and acknowledging that "he owes Harald everything[:] 'All the good luck I have comes from you'" (64). Audun finally sails home, to sink comfortably back into anonymity.

Miller's analysis draws out strand after rich strand from this fine yarn. He discusses the peculiarities of the polar bear as a nearly abstract signifier of value (neither the animal's very real appetite, 17n7, nor even its whiteness, 142-46, receive mention in the tale), the economic contact points between homespun cloth and credit cards (23-24), Harald Hardradi's carefully cultivated reputation for cruelty (28-29, 115, 134), the logic behind consistently saying No to kings (43-46, 56-57), risk diversification both secular and spiritual (47- 58), and the politics of deniability (57, 65-66, 90n9), to name a few. Much of this will be familiar (or at least unsurprising) to Norse specialists, perhaps to medievalists more generally, certainly to those who have read Miller before--but then, the author expresses his "fond hope that this essay will be read by [non-]experts," too (6).

It is this hope, presumably, that fuels Miller's prose style, fluid and often chatty, spiked with colloquial contemporary allusions: to stock markets (97), the occasional Steven Spielberg classic (142n1), recent case law on the fate of the ring when an engagement is dissolved (136n6), and that clueless jerk whom Miller dubs "[t]he fearless nerd," who speaks tone-deaf truth to power (44-45). His style does sometimes edge into the impenetrable: "The selfless love that can inform all-consuming worshipful gratitude once mixed with the theological virtue of hope--the function of which was to keep one's faith from crumbling in the face of the one's own and the world's suffering--begins to engender optimistic expectations, which then crystallize into what are powerfully felt as rightful claims on the deity to make good on what one hoped for" (137). (The otiose article in this sentence is one of only two or three dozen minor copyediting errors I spotted, many of which evince nothing worse than an editor's lack of familiarity with Old Norse, e.g. 24n4.) The law professor in Miller also runs amok on occasion, blasting away in a legalese that must mean much to those who speak it (39-41, 109n17).

But Audun and the Polar Bear is a dense book in the far more radical sense that its ratio of stimulating ideas to printed words will stop most readers dead in their tracks, making it a genuine bargain even at nearly $1 per page. Miller's interpretations of Audun's Story and a handful of other short Norse narratives (many from one of the chief manuscripts preserving this tale, Morkinskinna: 34-37, 79-84, 95-98, 100-13) are superlative. Miller again shows himself in this book to be sensitive to every nuance of Iceland's matchless literary corpus--a literature that is "character and strategy all the way down" (76). By the time he pronounces on the tháttr's resolution, "This is sublime" (64), there is neither hyperbole nor bathos in his statement: the reader sees precisely what motivates his rapture and can only concur with his judgment.

When it comes to gift-exchange theory more broadly, Miller's energies may not always be equally well-spent. Some of the fine-tuning may be too fine for any but the connoisseurs to care about; the rate of return on detailing every permutation of regifting and gift- reclamation seems to diminish rather quickly. Other points are open to dispute; Miller's treatment of risk, for instance, struck me as perpetuating too narrowly actuarial a formulation of the concept. But for every such quibble, Miller offers a fistful of other blazing insights, some of which are sure to illuminate. He clarifies the difference between luck as a discontinuous function and fate as a linear curve, distinguishing both from fatalism (73-77); he reveals grace as a doctrine parasitical on gift exchange inasmuch as it is designed to unshackle God from the obligations of reciprocity (117, 123, 135); he turns Pascal's Wager inside-out, advocating sagaworthiness as an alternative path to salvation (49); he shines a light on the habit that one-off gifts to superiors have of hardening into regular exactions (79-84, 124); he notes how the value of both giver and recipient inflects the value of the gift itself (111, 120- 22), explaining why it's better to have stolen relics than to have received them (112); and he underscores the divergent worldviews embodied in English and German modal verbs, the "different, almost opposite ways of understanding the idea of futurity, one emphasizing the will, one seeming to indicate its absence or pointlessness" (73n5).

Miller's Achilles heel has always been the question of the relationship between the texts he so acutely dissects and the historical reality they claim to signify. Miller has been accused of running roughshod over the intricate petals of literary representation in his zeal for inferring anthropological data from the sagas. Audun and the Polar Bear continues to tapdance around this issue: the first chapter is entitled "The Commitment to Plausibility" (15-21). Miller is too shrewd to be caught flatfooted: "All we know," he hedges, "is that the storyteller cared to make us accept the tale as plausible[,] and that he managed to send scholars on wild goose chases to verify the truth of the tale shows how well he succeeded" (20). This is as close as he is willing to come to openly committing himself on the question of historicity. But in less declaratory moments, Miller shows more leg, and reveals a view of the relationship between text and reality that is every bit as subtle and discerning as that of his sharpest literary critics.

When Miller states that Audun's stubbornness "is so consuming [that it can] even cause the cosmos in some uncanny way to defer" (28), he seems to be confusing make-believe foolhardiness with real-world stupidity. Willpower may be all Dorothy needed to return to Kansas and all Audun needs to arrive at his happy ending, but to wish it were has so far proved a rather poor strategy for, say, restoring Bear Stearns to its erstwhile glory. But Miller immediately moves to undercut any sense that he has lost his bearings on reality: in parleying with Audun, "Harald is operating on two levels," on one negotiating for the bear, "on another, he is taking over the narrator's function by filling in parts of the story we were not privy to" (29). Miller never forgets that the characters in this story are not flesh-and-blood people but narrative constructs. Yet the minor handicap of fictitiousness hardly slows them down or undermines their historical veracity: "How could Audun risk talking to Harald the way he does and still let the tale maintain its commitment to plausibility? Audun knows Harald is ruthless, but he also knows"--from reading or hearing other sagas about him--"that there are other aspects of the king's character that make it not outrageously foolish to talk to Harald this way" (33). Characters within one text thus play off tales told about them within that text and outside it, manipulating the responses of audiences (both real and fictional) in ways designed to nudge the universe ever so gingerly in the direction of better conformity with their authors' wishes. The present-day reader must hang onto this dizzying whirligig as best she can, for all "you will see and hear is what the characters in the story see and hear, and unlike Shakespeare they are given no soliloquies. In other words, you will have to discern motive the way you still do today, by watching what people say and do and then imputing reason or unreason...to explain their action" (2). Complicated? Thought provoking? Yes, and more: this comes pretty darn close to sublime.

As he had done with thorsteins tháttr stangarhöggs in his Bloodtaking and Peacemaking (University of Chicago Press, 1990, pp. 51-76), Miller in Audun and the Polar Bear offers a tour de force which catapults a diminutive Icelandic saga to the canonical elevation it deserves. The final lasting reservation this book warrants is thus that it may make Audun's Story nearly unteachable from now on: what remains to be said about this text that Miller has not already said? For better or worse--for better--Miller's is likely to be the last word for a long while on this crafty little tale.

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Oren Falk

Cornell University