18.03.03, Rekdal and Doherty, eds., Kings and Warriors in Early North-west Europe

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Alban Gautier

The Medieval Review 18.03.03

Rekdal, Jan Erik and Charles Doherty, eds. Kings and warriors in Early North-West Europe. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2016. pp. 480. ISBN: 978-1-84682-501-9 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Alban Gautier
Université de Caen Normand--Institut universitaire de France
alban.gautier@sfr.fr

This bulky volume (more than 400 pages of actual text, plus another 80 pages of introductory matter, bibliography, and a well-compiled index) includes only eight essays. It means that the authors have been free to develop their ideas and arguments at length, without frustration for them or the reader--a possibility which has become rare indeed in recent edited collections: the editors and publisher must be congratulated for allowing that. The papers are all concerned with the image of kings and warriors, and the representations of their relationships, in literary texts composed (almost exclusively) in vernacular languages of north-western Europe during the Middle Ages. Most essays concentrate on a single language and/or culture: one on Welsh; two on Irish; three on Old Norse; the last two (placed at the centre of the volume) are comparative, and touch upon Irish, Anglo-Saxon and Norse matters.

Marged Haycock's essay is a superb and systematic study of representations of war in Welsh poetry, from the sixth to the thirteenth century. Beyond the heroic ideal, the author explains how all aspects of war were described: justifications for war, its preparation, the "business of battle," the way the enemy was depicted, representations of victory, defeat and peace-making, etc. On the whole, war appears to have been omnipresent in Welsh literary culture, providing it with endless metaphors for all kinds social and even literary interactions.

Charles Doherty and Jan Erik Rekdal contribute two articles on Irish matters. The first one explores the question of increasing royal control of warriors through contradictory themes like war frenzy versus more regulated forms of combat, or the gradual replacement of earlier warrior levies by more stable warbands. The second concentrates on three early medieval poems which show the tension between two ideals of "good death" in the context of Christianization: sudden and glorious death on the battlefield, and conscious death "on the pillow" in old age and even following some sort of monastic profession. Irish poets did not always try to resolve this tension, but aimed to uphold both positions through a common language.

The three papers on Old Norse are by Ian Beuermann, Jon Gunnar Jørgensen and Stefka G. Eriksen. The first and the third are primarily concerned with sagas, the second with skaldic poetry. Beuermann's article deals with the image of king and warrior in Jómsvíkinga saga, Orkneyinga saga and Færeyinga saga: the author proposes to read them in the transformed political context that followed the reign of King Sverrir. Eriksen studies the depiction of warriors' emotions and self-awareness in a corpus of sagas contained in fourteenth-century manuscripts. Jørgensen's chapter on the cult of St Óláfr of Norway demonstrates, through a close study of vocabulary, that representations of that king in skaldic poetry changed radically after his death: in poems supposed to have been composed before 1030, there is not a single example of Óláfr being represented as a Christian monarch, let alone a saint; conversely, all poems composed after his "martyrdom" allude to his religious choice and action. This study is, by the way, a strong vindication of the validity of skaldic poetry (even if transmitted in later sagas) as a reliable source for Viking-age Scandinavia.

The two comparative chapters are probably the most interesting in the book. Ralph O'Connor goes back to the old question of war frenzy, animalization of the warrior and descriptions of shapeshifting in Egils saga, Hrólfs saga kraka and Táin Bó Cúailnge. Representations of some warriors as furious animals may have pointed originally to a kind of marginality, but in many cases literary depictions integrated frenzied warriors in a stable social structure, and their frenzy became more "civilized." But even if there are obvious resemblances between those texts (and with other characters in epics like the Iliad), they should not be read as strict analogues: Irish and Norse animalization and shapeshifting are quite distinct in their forms and aims. For example, Cú Chulainn's and Egill's "spasms" and face transformations may look very similar, but they happen in very different contexts: during battle for the Irish hero, outside battle for the Icelandic one. Fineness of comparison is required if we are to understand the meaning and uses of such depictions.

In the longest article in the collection (73 pages), Morgan Thomas Davies explores "warrior time," that is, the representations and connections which the Irish and Anglo-Saxon literary warriors Beowulf and Cú Chulainn have with past, present and future--in other words, what François Hartog would have called their "regimes of historicity" (even though this concept is not mentioned by the author, who resorts mainly to Heidegger's characterizations). The result of the comparison is striking: in Beowulf (just as in the Iliad), glory, valour and mortality are articulated with a structured existential discourse on human nature and the destiny of heroes; in the Táin, they are more grounded in the present, less concerned with the possibilities past events and data allow for the future. It appears that heroic writing had different tonalities in early medieval Ireland, where it was imbued with a sense of the moment, and in England, where it was more reflexive--some would say, more realistic. One cannot help feeling, after having read this essay, that its author (following Heidegger) bestows greater (moral?) worth on the "Anglo-Saxon" attitude; one may not agree, of course, and by all means the enquiry should be pursued in other heroic and non-heroic literary works. But the comparison, though limited, is fascinating and opens a whole world of questions.

On the whole, reading this volume is not an easy task, and each reader will find this or that paper more or less relevant to their own preoccupations. Some of them are very long, almost book-long, while others are more constrained: but all are scholarly contributions, which require attention and concentration, and which cannot be read cursorily or as introductions to the topics they engage with. Of course, the present reviewer is no exception, and he has been interested and convinced by some contributions more than others, which he has found more laborious, muddled, or weighed down by jargon. But surely, given the variety of approaches and topics covered here, another reviewer would have felt differently.

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