15.05.27, Perkins, The Verses in Eric the Red's Saga

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Adam Oberlin

The Medieval Review 15.05.27

Perkins, Richard. The Verses in Eric the Red's Saga; And Again: Norse Visits to America. The Dorothea Coke Memorial Lecture in Northern Studies, 2009. London: The Viking Society for Northern Research, 2011. pp. 41. ISBN: 9780903521871 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Adam Oberlin
Universiteit Gent/The Linsly School

This slim volume prints an expanded and edited text of Richard Perkin's contribution to the Dorothea Coke Memorial Lecture in Northern Studies, held on March 5, 2009, at University College London by the Viking Society for Northern Research (VSNR), with a modified lecture handout serving as an appendix in the printed version. Most VSNR publications are made available online after several years, including this lecture. A PDF version is accessible via the VSNR Web Publications collection (http://vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/Perkins.pdf) along with sixteen previous lectures in the same series dating back to G.N. Garmonsway in 1964.

Eiríks saga rauða and Grænlendinga saga, the Vinland Sagas, record the voyages and explorations of the Norse to and on the island of Newfoundland and the North American continent. Historically these voyages occurred around the turn of the first millennium CE and the sagas that describe them were composed sometime in the second half of the thirteenth century (Eiríks saga) or between 1200 and the late fourteenth century (Grænlendinga saga). Perkins' topic, the verses in Eiríks saga, comprise three skaldic insertions into the prose narrative of that text and appear in the lecture in reverse order.

The verses (A, B, and C) tell of Þorfinnr karlsefni's undertakings in the country of the unipeds (einfœtingaland), noted by Perkins as a possible connection to medieval Icelanders' understanding of geography, in which Vinland and Africa are linked at their southern extremities, an idea with support in the textual tradition in Iceland and a logical, short leap to Isidore of Seville.

Perkins holds verse C to be a likely riddle with the solution 'pen', as suggested by Ian McDougall in 1997, not employed as a riddle in the saga but repurposed from a riddle in order to pun on the idea of a uniped.

Verse B, the second uttered by Þórhallr the Hunter after calling up tainted whale meat by praying to Thor and making those who ate of it ill, becomes in this analysis also a potential substitute for a verse with another, original purpose, perhaps a whaling song or rowing chant on the division of labor and references to a whaling beach. It is this beach, Furðustrandir, of dubious toponymic authenticity, that Perkins attributes to the composer's desire to stretch distances and bring Vinland closer to Africa.

Verse A is performed in the text within the prose context of Þórhallr carrying fresh water aboard the ship. Perkins suggests that this verse, too, is a maritime chant and offers several suggestive examples from other Norse sources (Njáls saga, Friðþjófs saga, Morkinskinna, and Grettis saga) that resemble bailing chants. The work song argument rests on several lexical references to specific labor and movement in the frame of a complaint, a common trope of such songs, in dróttkvætt meter. After a careful reading of this verse, it is noted that there may even be a connection between níðvísur, with which Verse A shares some lexical connections, and bailing chants.

We are left with a scenario in which the saga author has altered three verses from other sources, including possibly maritime work chants, to fulfill narrative needs and supply evidence for people who likely did not exist. These authenticating verses, two from his own argument via whalers and one from McDougall as an altered riddle, suggest likewise that more of the overall narrative is untrustworthy.

The lecture concludes with general remarks on the state of research, truth and fiction, and several more recent arguments regarding the Norse in America, particularly after the apocryphal millennium anniversary of the year 2000, as well as a call for remaining cognizant of the inevitable unreliability of the written sources. An appendix follows with sections concerning the two Vinland Sagas (mss. and editions, similarities, and differences); descriptions of the locations and contexts for the three verses; the verses in Old Norse and English with accompanying comparative material mentioned in the body of the lecture; notes on a few recent scholarly contributions to the topic; and a short list of archaeological and written sources on the Norse visits to America beyond the Vinland Sagas.

For a pamphlet of this size, The Verses in Eric the Red's Saga provides much to discuss in future work on several subjects, not least the role of other types of song and poetry within the skaldic milieu. While admittedly speculative, the suggestions in this lecture construct a coherent framework upon which a saga author may have built a narrative world that adheres to 'known' quantities in geography, maritime experience, and textual traditions such as riddles. In this way Perkins' lecture manages to reach to the center of many old debates in saga literature and verse; while about the creative use and application of verse, it is also about truth and fiction, and where the line between the two blurs for us and the original audience.

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