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15.10.10, Lincoln, Between History and Myth

The Medieval Review

15.10.10, Lincoln, Between History and Myth

King Harald Fairhair is well-known for swearing not to have his hair cut or combed until becoming king of all of Norway. Lincoln argues that Harald's "oath sits precisely at the point where the distinction of myth and history breaks down, where the state encounters all that refuses and resists it, and where praise and blame (or, to use a more contemporary vocabulary, propaganda and critique) somehow manage to coexist" (7). This book is Lincoln's follow-up on a "flippant sentence [he] wrote in a moment of weakness" in 2009: "If myth is ideology in narrative form, then scholarship is myth with footnotes" (114). [1] It is an exploration of the concepts of history and myth and of how narratives move between them.

The main part of the book is approximately 125 pages long and organized into an introduction, conclusion, and nine short chapters, each centered on a different person. Each chapter is based on close readings of texts concerning Harald Fairhair. Some of these texts, including Historia Norwegiæ, Ágrip af Nóregs konunga sögum, and Fagrskinna originated in Norway, while others, including Heimskringla and several stories preserved in Flateyarbók, originated in Iceland. Each chapter ends with one or more insights into the relationship between history and myth in Harald Fairhair's story. In order, the chapters are centered on Gyða, Rögnvald the Powerful, Snorri Sturluson, Commander Guthorm, Ragnhild, Dofri the Giant, Hálfdan the Black, Shaggy Harald, and Ingjald the Wicked. Rather than describe each chapter in detail, I have selected three chapters to serve as examples. Then, I provide very brief notes on the remaining chapters.

The first character-centered chapter, chapter 2, focuses on the role of Gyða, who inspires Harald's oath with her response to Harald's attempt to make her his concubine. This story "cast King Harald in a doubly unfavorable light" (18) in the Icelandic sources. In the Norwegian sources, however, her role is downplayed, and the A-Text of Fagrskinna goes so far as "to defend Harald's reputation as a thoroughly honorable man and--who would have guessed?--an early feminist hero" (18). This is the first piece of evidence for Lincoln's argument about the differences between the Icelandic and Norwegian stories of King Harald.

Chapter 4 is centered on Snorri Sturluson and is of interest because it is the only chapter concerned with a person who is not also a character in the stories. The chapter describes Snorri's life as the probable author of Heimskringla to better explain the text itself. Lincoln describes Snorri's "important relations with groups on both sides of the water" and how he "hoped to preserve their favor" (39). Because of his position, Lincoln sees Snorri as attempting to walk a fine line between the two groups. Therefore, he concludes that Heimskringla is "a site where their competing interests met and left their imprint, without either one gaining absolute ascendance" (40).

Chapter 9, "Shaggy Harald," is the penultimate of the character-centered chapters and the only one centered on Harald himself. In Egils saga, Kveld-Úlfr refers to Harald as "Shaggy Harald" because of the unkempt hair resulting from his oath. In this chapter, Lincoln describes the stages in Harald's life as he went from Hálfdan's son and Dofri's foster son to Shaggy Harald and, finally, Harald Fairhair. The last of these transitions is of particular interest; Lincoln suggests that Harald "pacified and improved" his hair and Norway simultaneously (94). This chapter includes a set of pictures of long-haired men such as Blackbeard the Pirate, an unidentified sadhu, Walt Whitman, and Albert Einstein to help make the point that "to stop cutting one's hair for any prolonged length of time is to defy such norms" (88).

The other chapters are similar in structure; in approximately ten pages, each describes its central character and offers insight into historical and mythical aspects of Norway's foundation story. The chapter on Rögnvald the Powerful discusses the identities of his six sons as glory-seekers, accommodating subjects, and emigrants. Commander Guthorm's chapter raises questions about the role of the military in a new state. Ragnhild, Harald's mother (according at least one source), links Harald to the Scyldings. Dofri the Giant, Harald's foster-father, teaches him about being a king and, depending on the source, supports or undermines Harald's claim to the kingship. Hálfdan the Black, Harald's biological father, dies when he falls through the ice on a lake in the symbolic end of the world whose creation by Ymir et al. is described in Gylfaginning. And finally, Ingjald the Wicked sets a precedent for Harald's oath by swearing to increase his realm by a specific amount or die.

Each chapter vividly explores a text and links its conclusions to the relationship between history and myth in the story of Harald Fairhair. The chapters are bracketed by an introduction and a conclusion that link the intervening chapters to the bigger picture, making it clear that the stories taken up in the book are examples that illustrate larger ideas of the roles of history, divided into official and revisionist, and myth in foundation stories. The conclusion is followed by a coda called "A Reader Reflects" containing Lincoln's personal reflections on his work and linking them to his own life. The coda is followed by the acknowledgments and approximately 80 pages of synoptic tables that line up similar passages from the texts Lincoln uses, allowing the reader to examine the similarities of and differences between the texts in detail. The tables include both the original Old Norse or Latin and an English translation. Following the tables are approximately 60 pages of notes, a bibliography, and an index.

By reading these sources carefully and comparing the details of Harald Fairhair's story, Lincoln concludes that stories intended for Norwegian audiences were positive, official histories, while those intended for Icelanders were critical, revisionist histories. Heimskringla, which was intended for both, is described as an "ambiguous, guardedly critical evaluation often advanced by implication and subtext" (108). Lincoln describes the texts from Iceland as "more aggressive and critical in their treatment of Harald's story" and finds that they "call attention to the problematic aspects of the king's state-building project" while "the Norwegian sources either omitted these episodes and details or engaged them in defensive fashion" (107).

One of the Norwegian sources, Fagrskinna, "constitutes an official history" (112) and, as such, glorifies King Harald. Lincoln contrasts this with the Icelandic narratives, which "undercut the state's goals, threatened its control, and wounded its pride" (113). While he classifies the stories as histories, he adds that, as they are polished and improved, the stories "devolve ever further toward myth" (119). This provides the material for an extended discussion of the types of history and how they relate to myth in the book's conclusion.

Between History and Myth marks the addition of Old Norse studies to Lincoln's wide-ranging scholarship. The book is not comprehensive, nor could it be. Near the beginning of the conclusion, Lincoln writes, "At a certain point, however, it becomes apparent that there is no convenient point of closure... Although one surely would like to complete the job, the goal keeps receding, and that is just the point. It seems that narratives meant to stabilize state institutions and secure the political order are themselves profoundly unstable" (104; emphasis in original). Because of his broad interests, Lincoln has been able to analyze the foundation of the Norwegian state as a case study rather than as an end in itself. This book is well-written and should appeal to scholars of Old Norse, people interested in the interplay between history and myth in narratives, and others seeking an interesting read.



1. Bruce Lincoln, Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009); the quote is from page 209.