12.06.11, Ghosh, Kings' Sagas and Norwegian History

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Patricia Pires Boulhosa

The Medieval Review 12.06.11

Ghosh, Shami. Kings' Sagas and Norwegian History: Problems and Perspectives. The Northern World. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, n.v., 2011. Pp. 253. ISBN: 978-90-40-20989-3.

Reviewed by:
Patricia Pires Boulhosa
Cambridge University

One of the objectives of Kings' Sagas and Norwegian History is to present a critical review of scholarship on some important matters concerning the study of the kings' sagas: concepts of history and truth, literary and political influences (among others), the reliability of the skaldic verses embedded in the sagas (and the sagas themselves), and their value as historical sources. This is a Herculean work and Sami Ghosh's book speaks not only of his stamina, but also of his knowledge and generosity. His engagement with the scholarship is never half-hearted and his criticism always constructive.

The book focuses on the sagas of the Norwegian kings of the past, especially the "vernacular compendia"--Morkinskinna, Fagrskinna, and Heimskringla--and the "Norwegian synoptics"--Ágrip af Nóregs konungasǫgum, Historia Norwegie, and Historia de Antiquitate regum Norwagensiu. Sagas about contemporary kings and the "hagiographic texts on the Óláfrs, the more or less legendary material of Skjǫldunga saga and Knýtlinga saga...and the Latin histories of the Danish kings" (11) are excluded, although some are mentioned when relevant. This constraint is justifiable not only in terms of control of the source material, but also because Ghosh is particularly interested in the uses of the past in the sagas, which he aptly discusses at the closing of the book (Chapter 4).

A great part of the book is dedicated to skaldic verse (Chapter 2), which is traditionally regarded as a more reliable source of Scandinavian history in the period 950-1050, a premise that Ghosh scrutinizes over 70 pages, focusing on the reliability and usefulness of the verse as a historical source, and discussing a number of important questions: their date of composition, textual variability, the function of poetry, the role of the skald in Iceland and the Norwegian court, political motivation, and notions of historical truth held by skalds and saga writers. Of particular importance, it seems to me, is the discussion of the need to understand the poetry within its most immediate context, the prose. For Ghosh not only acknowledges that an "empirical difference in terminology used across different poems" (39) demands scrutiny of the vocabulary and variability of skaldic verse, but also that this "should be combined with an examination of the use of similar terminology in the prose context of the verse" (40). Our understanding of the poetry is, in Ghosh's happy expression, "dependent on the mediation of the prose works in which the verses are (or are not) contained" (41).

One of the questions which arises from this scrutiny of prose and verse is the stability of skaldic verse, which Ghosh discusses at length, attempting to understand how questions of stability, authenticity and transmission interact, as well as tackling the thorny issue of dating the composition of the verse. It is worth quoting Ghosh's proposition in full:

"I do not suggest here that all purportedly old skaldic verse was actually created in the twelfth or the thirteenth century; what I propose is that while ancient poems did exist and were transmitted up to the period when the sagas began to be written, the bearers of this transmission--twelfth- and thirteenth-century scribes and saga authors, as well as poets and storytellers of these and preceding generations--were capable of altering ancient verse without necessarily making it appear modern to their contemporaries, or to us. In other words, even if we accept that there were ancient skaldic poems about kings, what we actually have might have been changed in a number of ways over the generations between composition and written record, and there is no reliable way of ascertaining which parts of a poem genuinely date from the purported time of composition" (59).

This is not a desperate stance, as Ghosh is able to show how his proposal of focusing on the verse within its prose context may compel us "to ask how the authors of the prose understood the verse, and what the possibilities are that their comprehension and explanation of the verse, and perhaps even the very prose context in which it is embedded, might reach back in time to approach the age of the poets themselves" (65).

Ghosh also discusses how the relation between verse and prose developed. Were the verses accompanied by narratives at the moment of composition? If such narratives existed at early stages, were they "stable"? How were they transmitted? Ghosh's own suggestion is that the development of an accompanying narrative to the verses was very gradual--the verse not requiring contextualization at the point of composition--but that when this kind of narrative started emerging, it "would have been changed depending on the interpretations of the verse of individual poets or storytellers" (84). Saga authors put together verses and stories they heard and read in different ways, and thus divergences between extant narratives may attest to the diversity of the narrative tradition drawn on by them (86). In this way, Ghosh gives a sharper focus to the question of the independence of the verse from the prose, as something we must strive to understand before we make claims about the historical accuracy of one or the other.

Chapter 3 is devoted to non-Scandinavian sources of the kings' sagas and their potential influences. Ghosh defines influence as "the ways in which saga authors might have learnt to view the past and structure their narratives from a knowledge of non-native texts, without necessarily including any actual material from those sources in their works" (111). This may seem too broad a definition but it is aptly so, especially as it allows Ghosh to move away from simply spotting parallel episodes in non-native sources and the sagas, and rather to discuss, for example, confluences between concepts of historical consciousness (133).

Chapter 4 also works as a conclusion, in which Ghosh brings together some of his main topics of discussion (for example, the extensive use of verse in the Icelandic works compared to the Norwegian ones may reveal different concepts of history), concentrating on the motivation for the writing of the kings' sagas and the possible differences between the Icelanders' and Norwegians' "sense of the past." Here Ghosh reminds us that kings' sagas might have been composed for the kings (that is, formally or informally commissioned by the Norwegian royal court, or intended for that audience). Ghosh believes that over-emphasis on the Icelandic context has been detrimental to the understanding of the potential Norwegian audience of the sagas and its influence on their production (187), something that should be noted for future research. The book finishes with considerations of the generic classification of the sagas and a pledge "for an expansion in our conception of the cultural horizons of the audience and authors with regard to the various modes of writing about the past in medieval Iceland" (198). In view of the previous argument about the potential Norwegian audience of the kings' sagas, Ghosh's pledge may seem paradoxical, but it makes sense to claim for inclusiveness before a full understanding of specific genre differences is reached, and, at any rate, Ghosh seems here to refer to the artificial division between fictional and historical works rather than traditional literary saga genres (Íslendingasögur, konungasögur, etc.).

I have deliberately avoided mentioning specific scholars in this review, in fear of not doing justice to Ghosh's encompassing criticism by selecting just a few. I hope this will not lead to the assumption that Ghosh claims to be the originator of all the ideas highlighted here, as he always identifies the scholars whose theories he has built from. Kings' Sagas and Norwegian History is a remarkable book for the extensive discussion of contemporary (post-1985) scholarship and the insights it builds from them. There are very few minor things with which one might disagree. For example, the supposed date of composition of the kings' sagas, especially of the Icelandic compendia and the Norwegian synopses, would have profited, I think, from a contrasting analysis of the dates of writing of the manuscripts. However, Ghosh himself acknowledges that he followed "the overwhelming trend of the scholarship" by referring to "individual texts and to their authors," while being fully aware that each manuscript is "primarily, reflective of both the political context and the historical consciousness of the time in which it was produced, and only secondarily of the putative time of authorship of the individual texts it contains" (197). It would perhaps have been possible to raise this question at the beginning of the book, at the point at which the source material was being presented. But this reflects my own inclinations and does not in any way detract from the highest level of generous and sensitive scholarship in this book.

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Patricia Pires Boulhosa

Cambridge University