14.02.14, Friðriksdóttir, Women in Old Norse Literature

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Craig R. Davis

The Medieval Review 14.02.14

Friðriksdóttir, Jóhanna Katrín. Women in Old Norse Literature: Bodies, Words, and Power. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Pp. xiv, 192. ISBN: 978-0-230-12042-6.

Reviewed by:
Craig R. Davis
Smith College

The primary focus of feminist literary criticism over the past few decades has been on the question of "agency," that is, the autonomy or control authors depict fictional women as having over their own bodies, as well as the power of these characters to influence domestic or political affairs through speech and action. The medieval tradition of Old Norse poetry and prose, preserved mainly in Icelandic manuscripts, provides a full range of variously empowered female figures relevant to such study: young girls and grown women, housewives and queens, "good girls" and pioneer matriarchs, witches and "bitches"--plus goddesses, norns, sybils, valkyries, giantesses, she-beasts, shape-shifters, even manly women and womanly men, cross-dressers and transgendered. In the terms popularized by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), the "performance" of sexual identity is what characters do in Old Norse-Icelandic literature and very few of them are portrayed as oblivious to the gendered implications of their words and deeds. Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir's contribution in this book is to demonstrate the diversity and nuance of the expression of sexual identity in Icelandic secular prose narratives and the multiplicity of situations in which it is brought to bear. Norse women are indeed famously "strong" characters, but not always in the predictable or uncomplicated ways sometimes imagined. Certainly the special attention paid to the Hetzerin "female inciter" of the thirteenth-century Íslendingasögur or Icelandic family sagas needs to be qualified by the many other roles played by women, sometimes the very same characters, in these sagas and other texts, figures that fit neither the stereotype of the ruthless manipulator of men nor that of an oppressed victim of the "patriarchy" (1). Even slave-girls and concubines, like Melkorka in Laxdæla saga, display considerable spine and rational intentionality. Friðriksdóttir takes these multifarious female characters on their own terms, as agents of their own destiny who often express an interior life as complex and full of purpose as male figures and with similarly mixed results. Rather than project our own sometimes over-simple and anachronistic gender expectations upon the supposed freedom or constraint we see in these imaginary women's lives, Friðriksdóttir finds that female characters in this tradition are usually represented as self-aware individuals seeking intelligible goals both for themselves and others within the circumstances in which they find themselves, even when this means manipulating the traditional roles assigned to them by their societies, roles they may twist to their own purposes without stigma, at least as long as those goals are approved by the author of the work in which they appear.

Furthermore, Friðriksdóttir expands the range of texts she considers on this question beyond the classic family sagas to include the more fantastic fornaldarsögur 'sagas of ancient times' and riddarasögur 'knights' sagas', that is, Arthurian or other romances, foreign and domestic, which became popular in a later period. A number of these late medieval romances are not even available in good modern critical editions, so that this reader is especially grateful to the author for her introduction to these understudied texts whose key passages she quotes with her own translations. In short, the author shows that Old Norse-Icelandic literature of all genres, but especially secular prose, undertakes an exploration of what it meant to be female in the Viking diaspora of the North Atlantic and medieval Iceland from the ninth through the fifteenth centuries. This was an insecure world in which many traditional forms of social relationship and religious faith underwent severe strains, yielding a society rather constantly in the process of rethinking itself, one whose folkways were at once upset and intensified in the new Norse homelands. Further instability ensued upon the collapse of the Icelandic Commonwealth in middle of the thirteenth century during and after which most of the sagas were written. These vernacular texts offered an imaginative arena in which old values could be challenged or new ideas tested as Icelandic society became integrated into a European model centered upon the Norwegian monarchy, the Roman Catholic Church and differently conceived norms of class and gender hierarchy.

The author organizes her study typologically, that is, into a comparison of five main female character types that appear prominently in one or more of the genres of Old Norse-Icelandic literature. In Chapter 1, "Women Speaking," Friðriksdóttir challenges the presumed dominance of the female whetter as the quintessential image of women in this tradition, but also ends up confirming the accuracy of its use in the family sagas by recruiting speech-act theory to justify how such inflammatory language is forced upon these characters who are prevented by their gender from acting personally in the defense of their own or their family's honor. Public respect was a core constituent of one's identity and sense of self-worth for both men and women in this intimate face-to-face society, which was a relatively closed system of scarce resources and scarcer honor, where even small slights were felt with lacerating humiliation, as described by William Ian Miller in his Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland (1990). The reputations of male characters--husbands, sons, brothers or other close relatives of the female inciter--are put at risk by the woman's taunts, men whose public image she denigrates in order to stir them to violent action. In these scenes, the men are frequently depicted as reluctant or resentful, as pawns (if not completely passive ones) of their female "significant others"--wives, sisters and, most potently, mothers. So one form of agency that women are consistently shown to enjoy in the world of the family sagas is their power to affirm or deny the masculinity of their menfolk, which they ironically sometimes do by suggesting that these men's mothers should have borne girls rather than boys. In fact, the ability of women to bear children in this kin-based society--a physical aspect of gendered power not purely subject to the social performativity of Butler's thesis--is left unaddressed. The special effectiveness of mothers in motivating their adult sons to dangerous behavior demonstrates that their words are not just "techniques of domestic empowerment," but truly deadly weapons in their own right wielded by females who enjoy some considerable resources of social power in the competition for public dignity between family groups.

In Chapter 2, "Women and Magic," Friðriksdóttir shows how a different kind of speech or mantic performance can be used by women to similarly powerful effect, as well as by marginal males, who are thereby sometimes branded argr "perverted" for compromising their masculine identity through what came to be seen as the gendered female practice of seiðr 'witchcraft'. Sorceresses can be shown acting for mercenary or malicious motives, but it is not their use of magic per se that negatively characterizes these women. For instance, the sybil Þordís in Vatnsdæla saga is represented as a highly admirable figure who undertakes the arbitration of a feud for others, but is forced to employ supernatural means against a recalcitrant chieftain whom she enchants with her magic wand, causing him to forget his belligerence and accept the settlement offered. Another woman raises a storm to prevent her partner from going to a duel. Friðriksdóttir concludes that these women use their magic "to subvert and complicate male practices for maintaining honor" (54), in sharp contrast to the whetters who use their words to reinforce and motivate masculine behavior.

In Chapter 3, "Monstrous Women," Friðriksdóttir discusses the legendary fornaldarsögur, where we encounter giantesses and shape-shifting she-wolves who transgress many social and sexual norms for women. The author believes these monstrous females are used to create an "outlet" (77) or safe space in which to imagine female forms of behavior beyond the normal comfort zone of male authors. In particular, Friðriksdóttir sees she-monsters as simultaneously horrifying and titillating, fantasies of an alternate universe where female aggression and sexual dominance can be entertained, even as it poses "a threat to the hegemonic, enclosed, male self " (11). Unfortunately, such generalizations about the representation of masculine identity in Old Norse-Icelandic texts itself becomes something of a straw man in Friðriksdóttir's analysis, the very kind of over-simplification that she herself taught us to suspect with regard to female stereotypes. Male characters in Norse literature, even kings, heroes, vikings, outlaws and other "tough guys," are rarely shown as securely "hegemonic" in their personal circumstances or "enclosed" and unconflicted in their feelings. Male characters are just as interestingly diverse and variously empowered as are female figures in this tradition. One of the most impressive figures in all the Íslendingasögur, the prescient and well-intentioned Njáll of Njál's saga, cannot grow a beard and is mocked by other characters of both genders for looking as much like a woman as a man. In eddic poetry and prose, the supposedly macho gods of the Vikings are each damaged, handicapped or vulnerable in some serious way, including the "All-Father" Óðinn himself, who is missing an eye and evinces many other weaknesses and liabilities. Tyr has lost his right hand. Even the mighty Thor is not the sharpest tool in the shed and nothing the wise and benevolent Baldr decides ever comes to pass. In fact, except for her brief mention of Freyja's association with magic, Friðriksdóttir pretty much ignores the august goddesses of this tradition, including those depicted in the secular prose narratives recorded in Snorra Edda, the well-known summary of native mythology by Snorri Sturluson (ca. 1179-1241). The author focuses instead on supernatural women who represent a hostile rather than venerable form of the female Other, finding in these figures a projection of male fears about women's power and sexuality, an anxiety relieved by their violent "abjection" and the reassertion of masculine control (77).

In Chapter 4, " Royal and Aristocratic Women," Friðriksdóttir again sees "hints of tabooed sexuality" (11) in the figure of the Norwegian queen Gunnhildr, a more realistically imagined form of the sexually aggressive and controlling female. However, Gunnhildr is something of an exception in this class of character, the author admits, since high-born women are not normally depicted in such a provocative way, but rather as paragons of wisdom, eloquence and benevolence, using their women's words for good, though mostly in the service of royal consorts rather than merely for their own benefit. This is also true of Icelandic leaders like Unnr djúpuðga 'the Deep-Minded', one of the founding settlers of the country and ancestress of many prominent families. Friðriksdóttir concludes that Old Norse-Icelandic literature allows "scope for women to gain some degree of power with social sanction in contexts other than household matters or blood feud" (11-12), but this fact has long been recognized in traditional saga scholarship as well.

More originally, in Chapter 5, "The Female Ruler," the author examines a previously neglected type of woman leader that writers came to endow with a special kind of agency in late native romances, that is, the virginal "shield-maiden" or "maiden-king" who leads men into battle, sails ships and keeps a court as a king would. In some cases, the young woman warrior actually takes on a male name and masculine persona, but most maiden-kings retain an unsullied sexual purity and feminine identity even while defending their realms by violence, at least until they marry and lose sovereignty to husbands, though mostly by their own choice. Friðriksdóttir offers a somewhat conflicted evaluation of these figures. On the one hand, she sees them negatively, as not-so-subtle lessons for young girls about a woman's proper place, sometimes including "disturbing physical and sexual violence against independent women with the purpose of making them subservient" (11). On the other hand, Friðriksdóttir suggests that these fighting girls offer an imaginary escape for women from the traditional confines of their gender, an exciting transgression or appropriation of an exclusively male role, which they are sometimes shown to perform even more successfully than men. These interpretations of the maiden-king's cultural function may seem self-contradictory: how can such figures be simultaneously "regulative" (11) of women's behavior and liberating for female readers? Friðriksdóttir's main contention, we must conclude, seems to be that female figures in these narratives function as a site of competing cultural impulses, intended for a mixed audience of boys and girls, men and women, of different social stations and interests. They are thus multifunctional or conversational texts, variously interpretable in their depiction of the empowerment of women and/or their subordination.

In conclusion, this study has far advanced our understanding of the complexity of Old Norse-Icelandic vernacular prose literature, not only in its characterization of female figures, but also (if only by implication) those of men as well, whose agency could just as usefully be studied and categorized using similar terms of analysis. The volume is handsomely produced and admirably succinct, even though some passages retain the theoretical "baby fat" of their recent life as a DPhil thesis. Here, feminist terms of art, so useful in opening up her study, start to get in the author's way. For example, at the end of Friðriksdóttir's searching and thoughtful chapter on maiden-kings, she returns us to the world of buzzwords: "[O]ne can imagine," we are told, that these narratives are "designed to encourage [young women] to keep to their subservient roles," even as they "reveal what women desire, which, if achieved, would indeed unsettle the patriarchal, hegemonic social order: subjectivity, autonomy, self-determination, access to economic resources, freedom of movement, love and respect in marriage, and even power in the public sphere" (132). A catalogue of such unobjectionable but now rather familiar aspirations at this point in her study seems rather to muffle and obscure the author's point rather than to clarify it, acquiescing in a cloud of generalizations against which she had warned us so persuasively at the outset of her investigation, almost an attempt to have her theoretical cake and eat it. Once again, are we to understand these texts as tools of male repression or as techniques of feminist subversion? How exactly do they teach girls their proper place by supplying a "female imaginary space where women are independent from men and are successful at filling public male roles"? (133). Or is the critic herself now appropriating these texts ahistorically, reading them "against the grain" (132) of their original conception for her own purposes?

Friðriksdóttir is to be thanked for offering saga narratives not solely as engines of social control nor simply as exercises in imaginative empowerment, but rather as open, unpredictable worlds, created by their authors not so much to pursue a predetermined agenda as to entertain and excite reflection on the part of their audiences. Medieval Iceland enjoyed an unusually self-aware culture that did much of its best thinking in just this saga form. Women in Old Norse Literature: Bodies, Words, and Power promises valuable future work on the implications of these sagas for understanding this society in greater depth, especially in how the various roles of both men and women were imagined in the evolving tension between traditional Norse forms of thought and feeling and the "dominant paradigms" of medieval Christian culture.

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Author Biography

Craig R. Davis

Smith College