12.05.09, Anlezark, Myths, Legends, and Heroes

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George Clark

The Medieval Review 12.05.09

Anlezark, Daniel. Myths, Legends, and Heroes: Essays on Old Norse and Old English Literature in Honour of John McKinnell. Toronto Old Norse-Icelandic Series. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011. Pp. vii, 272. ISBN: 978-0-8020-9947-1.

Reviewed by:
George Clark
Queens University, Ontario

This volume honors an admirable scholar whose work has illuminated the fields of Old Norse and Old English literature. We owe John McKinnell deep thanks for his writing, his company, for organizing a series of lectures at the University of Durham and the International Saga Conference held there in 2006, and for welcoming many wandering scholars to his institution over many years. This reviewer will never forget the times he spent in Durham.

The first section of the book, "Transforming Paganism," consists of three papers dealing with the interactions of Christianity and paganism in the Anglo-Saxon world during the second Viking Age, as well as in Scandinavia and northern Germany. Starting with McKinnell's study of the graphic representation of scenes from Scandinavian mythology and folklore, Judith Jesch ("The Norse Gods in England and the Isle of Man") surveys the material and written evidence (including place names and personal names) for the knowledge of the pagan gods in Viking-Age England. She concludes that "actual worship of, or adherence to, the Norse gods was confined to the two most important ones, Odin and his son Thor," although the names of some other gods beings were known and perhaps had parts in narratives (21).

In "Elves and Exorcism..." Rudolf Simek examines a number of amulets with Latin, non-runic inscriptions he and McKinnell did not treat in their work Runes, Magic and Religion: A Sourcebook (2004). The amulets (mostly of lead) were inscribed, folded, and carried by their owners as protection against diseases caused by elves (sometimes both male and female) and seven sisters, elves or demons, identified with different types of fever. One amulet was buried with the body of an eight-year-old boy who apparently died of a fever.

Margaret Clunies Ross ("Images of Norse Cosmology") succinctly demonstrates the impossibility of constructing a graphic image of the pre-Christian Norse cosmology from its various verbal representations in Old Norse texts composed well after the conversion. She shows that modern attempts to diagram the Old Norse cosmos stem from Finnur Magnusson's various graphics despite their complete inadequacy. After two hundred years, scholarship has abandoned Magnusson's imagery, but it persists in the popular imagination when that imagination turns to the mythical north.

The second group of papers has the title "The Uses of Poetry," but John Lindow's "Meeting the Other..." argues that both poetry and prose narrative bid farewell to the pagan era, "Thorstein Sidu- Hallsson's Dream" and "Tale of the Cairn-Dweller." [1] Lindow begins with McKinnell's idea that Old Icelandic texts set in the pre- Christian era but composed by Christians consigned the pagan world- view to the realm of fiction using largely psychological patterns. Both tales include dream visions in which poems play a crucial part. In the narrative of Thorstein's dream, three women, apparently his attendant spirits or fylgur, warn Thorstein that the slave Gilli, whom he had castrated, intends to betray his master. Over three nights, those warnings darken into a prophecy of impeding death. The dream women finally ask where they should go (given Thorstein's doom) and he replies to his son. That son probably had not long to live. Lindow, however, suggests that as Christianity took hold, the belief in attendant spirits or fylgur and their presence diminished. That the warnings of Thorstein's fylgur were in vain hardly implies their popular acceptance was waning: in Old Norse-Icelandic literature, few such warnings avail. Since the events of the tale apparently date to about 1050, Gilli seems to be the last slave in Icelandic legendary history and the only one to be castrated. The story may mark the end of slavery, castration, and paganism in Iceland, but another reading seems possible. Thorstein has the slave gelded to terminate his sexual relationship with a woman--and the only woman in the story is Thorstein's wife, Yngvild. Gilli kills Thorstein, but is disarmed and surrenders. As he is being tortured, Gilli claims he can say something to the lasting discredit of Thorstein's family. At this, Yngvild ends the torture and Gilli dies.

In the "Tale of the Cairn Dweller" another Thorstein, who is married to an abbot's sister, comes home late from a tryst with his mistress and stumbles into a cairn containing the bones of a pagan Icelander and an old sword. He takes the sword home, but that night its owner, also named Thorstein, challenges him in a heroic verse that the Christian Thorstein caps with another verse. The dream-Thorstein commends his rival's riposte and disappears; the Christian Thorstein can never find the cairn again. The pre-Christian past has disappeared (save for the sword), defeated by a Christian's poem.

In the same group of papers, Alison Finlay brilliantly links the wagering or risking of heads in Vafthrudnismal and Egil Skallgrimsson's Hofudlausn. Odin, the god of poetry, visits the old giant Vafthrudnir in his hall with a challenge to a wisdom contest in which the loser will die. Egil Skallagrimsson, poet and devotee of Odin, visits Eirikr Bloodaxe in his royal hall in York and must compose a poem in his enemy's praise that will persuade Eirikr to spare Egil's life. Finlay gives the background of such wisdom contests and praise poems that save a poet's life a concise and learned treatment, but two points seem doubtful. She observes that according to the narrative Egil composed the Hofudlausn the night before its performance in King Eirikr's hall, but the poem begins with a claim that Egil sailed to England with Eirikr's praise as his cargo: not an inconsistency but Egil's shrewdly flattering misrepresentation. Finlay calls Eirikr's approval of the poem "tepid" (105) but Eirikr would want his court to understand that Egil's poem, though well recited, barely does justice to the king's heroic life.

The last paper in this group, Rory McTurk's "Snorra Edda as Menippean Satire," begins with a concise examination of that genre's history and modern accounts of its characteristics. McTurk shows that Snorra Edda has a significant number of those characteristics and traces a possible pathway from the genre's classical roots to Snorri Sturluson in Iceland. As Menippean satire, Snorra Edda could aim (as Lucian did) at the attempts of mortals to claim divine status (compare Snorri's AEsir), and also--if some Icelandic family sagas predated Snorri's Edda--a literary satire on how not to write a family saga.

David Ashurst's "Kings, Bishops, and Laws: The Old Norse-Icelandic Version of 1 Maccabees" begins the group of papers entitled "Literary Histories." Ashurst notes that the main manuscript includes other works concerned with government, empire, Rome, and the relationships between "communities of faith and the powers...that govern them" (134). Ashurst shows that the translator of 1 Maccabees (quite possibly Brandr Jonsson) omitted or modified passages that might offend kings; the translator retained passages upholding separate peoples' right to their own laws (and not, as in 1 Maccabees, religious laws only) while approving changes in the public interest; he also strongly upheld the rights of property owners. Iceland's myth of origin asserts that the original settlers left Norway because King Harald Fairhair claimed all real property as his own and deemed the former owners his tenants. The Icelandic translator of 1 Maccabees thus combined diplomacy and patriotism: no easy task.

Helen Damico's essay, "Grendel's Reign of Terror: From History to Vernacular Epic," develops Simon Keynes' suggestion that the Beowulf poet transformed the history of the second Viking Age into the epic representation of Grendel's twelve-year campaign against the Danes and Heorot. The poet's sources might have included the C text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, John of Worcester, and William of Malmesbury. Damico draws some interesting parallels between the extended raids of the second Viking Age and Grendel's twelve years of attacks on Heorot. Folk-tale analogues to Beowulf, as Damico notes, usually have only two years of attacks, but confining the second Viking age to 1003-1016 (fourteen years) seems arbitrary: the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports raids from the early 980s to Cnut the Great's accession in 1017. Svein Forkbeard, father of Cnut, attacked England in 994 and possibly in 1001 and 1003. Following his campaign of 1013-14, the English accepted Svein as king, but he died suddenly without having been crowned. Cnut withdrew, but returned with powerful allies and reconquered England in 1015-16. Damico accurately remarks that royal councilors--Ethelred's witan and Hrothgar's rice--could not find a way to defeat the enemy. Damico believes fea thingian (line 156b) refers to tribute Grendel would not pay the Danes (as Ethelred did), but the passage asserts Grendel would not negotiate an agreement to pay compensation to the Danes for his killings. The suggestion that the history of the second Viking Age provided the Beowulf poet with a model for an epic treatment of the Grendel episode requires a later date for the poem than seems in fashion now, but the debate continues.

The final group of papers--"Motifs and Themes"--begins with Carolyne Larrington's "Sibling Drama: Laterality in the Heroic Poems of the Edda," whose argument is grounded in the theory of the relationships between siblings and affines (people related by marriage) and a deep knowledge of the poems. Psychology and literary criticism, but not laymen and literary artists, have come only lately to the consideration of these lateral relationships (between siblings and affines) and their significance. We have studied "vertical" relationships, parents and children generation by generation, as in the Icelandic family sagas, but "lateral" relationships endure and shape lives. Larrington writes "the heroic poems [of the Edda] may usefully be characterized as 'sibling drama'..." She opens the paper: "I shall argue that the heroic poems of the Poetic Edda have been compiled in accordance with a chiastic principle, the lacuna [a gap leaving "The Lay of Sigrdrifa" incomplete and omitting both Sigurd's marriage to Gudrun and Gunnar's to Brynhild] notwithstanding, and that the ordering of the poems yields a systematic examination of sibling and affinal relationships in a gender and power politics..." (169). In that politics, Larrington argues, "the interests of the clan group prevail over individual happiness and even personal honour" (169). The chiastic principle is that before the lacuna, fraternal relations hold (even among half-brothers); after it, especially in Sigurd's murder by his sworn brothers and Erpr's by his half-brothers, sibling bonds break.

In "Burning Walnuts: An International Motif in King's Sagas," Joyce Hill traces a curious motif in which protagonists makes up for a lack of firewood by burning walnuts, other nuts, nutshells, nuts and scrap wood, or even nuts and goblets made from expensive wood. The motif may illustrate the protagonist's ingenuity or wealth or heroic disregard of wealth, the spirit of the potlatch. One might note that walnuts with the kernels would make a hot and costly fire, the shells alone less heat at low cost. Hill argues that the most finely wrought use of this literary motif appears in the Morkinskinna manuscript's account of Sigurd Jorsalafari ("traveler to Jerusalem") who impresses the emperor in Constantinople with his extraordinary willingness to disregard wealth. Skaldic poets often praise their patrons for their contempt for wealth and willingness to scatter gold. In the Morkinskinna account, the final touch, the lack of firewood, has been arranged by the empress as a test of Sigurd's willingness to sacrifice wealth for honor. Needless to say, Sigurd passes the test brilliantly.

Maria Elena Ruggerini's paper, "A Just and Riding God: Christ's Movement in The Descent into Hell," notes that the Exeter Book poem, "The Descent into Hell," omits the common heroic motifs of breaking the gates and defeating the devils, to concentrate on the liberation of just souls and joy at deliverance. These omissions create an unusually peaceful harrowing despite the heroic terms describing Christ's setting out as the rethust ealra cyninga who intends to break down the walls of hell, destroy its power, and plunder it. The poem represents no such violent actions, no weapons, and no warriors. Ruggerini insists that when describing God (or Christ) rethe must mean "stern in judgment," not "fierce" (210). But the event, with the non-violent liberation of hell's captives, hardly makes Christ seem "stern." Why does this peaceful version of the harrowing insist on Christ's riding into hell? Ruggerini suggests the influence of Canterbury Benedictional in which a variant question in the hymn Gloria laus et honor sung in Palm Sunday processions asks "who is this king who comes riding here..." (215- 16). But perhaps the poet could not imagine an aetheling ("prince") or cyning ("king") as a pedestrian.

In the final paper, "All at Sea: Beowulf's Marvellous Swimming," the editor, Daniel Anlezark, gives the old question about the hero's swimming or rowing or sailing exploits a wider context than usual. Anlezark begins with line 209a in which a lagucraeftig mon, almost surely Beowulf, leads his company to their ship. Beowulf enters the poem as a skilled and strong seaman. The dying Beowulf asks that his people raise a burial mound on the headlands for him that seafarers in later ages will call "Beowulf's barrow," and the poet confirms that they built a high and broad mound visible to seafarers from far off. The sea and Beowulf's connection with it encircles his life. Anlezark notes the parallels between Beowulf's underwater battles in the Breca episode and the struggle with Grendel's mother, and asserts that both required the hero to hold his breath for an astonishingly long time. During the latter engagement, the poem emphatically states that the roof of Grendel's hall sheltered the hero from the water (lines 1512b-1516a). Before Unferth's challenge, Beowulf offers Hrothgar a brief curriculum vitae including an episode in which he slew troublesome monsters (niceras) at sea, but without claiming he did so in the depths. In his account of the Breca episode, Beowulf must have held his breath for a marvelously long time. The flyting match with Unferth may have allowed some exaggeration on both sides. Nevertheless, Anlezark's claim that Old Norse and other early German traditions of heroes who can hold each other under water for a very long time or swim astonishing distances even in very cold water influenced the Beowulf poet's characterization of his hero seems reasonable.

A quibble over translation: Anlezark renders lines 2806-8 "so that seafarers will call it 'Beowulf's Barrow' when their broad ships drive from afar across the flood's darkness" (226). A correct but ungainly translation might run "so that later on seafarers, those who steer their ships from far away over the darkness of the oceans, will call it 'Beowulf's Barrow.'" In line 2807b (replacing eth with th), tha the means "those who," referring back to seafarers, not "when their [ships]".



1. English translations of these tales can be found in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders including Forty-nine Tales, ed. Vidar Hreinsson (Leifur Eirikson: Reykjavik, 1997), 2:443-44 ("The Tale of the Cairn Dweller"), and 4:463-64 ("Thorstein Sidu-Hallson's Dream").

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Author Biography

George Clark

Queens University, Ontario