18.10.24, Rigby, Boston 1086-1225

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David Roffe

The Medieval Review 18.10.25

Rikhardsdottir, Sif. Emotion in Old Norse Literature: Translations, Voices, Contexts . Studies in Old Norse Literature. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2017. pp. 213. ISBN: 978-1-84384-470-9 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Melissa Elmes
Lindenwood University
MElmes@lindenwood.edu

The subject of emotion in premodern history and culture has enjoyed a rapid rise in critical interest and corresponding scholarship since at least the publication of Barbara Rosenwein's Anger's Past in 1998, although as Sif Rikhardsdottir points out in her introduction this critical attention has not to date extended enough to the subject of literary emotionality (14). Recent efforts to bring literary studies into the critical discourse on medieval emotions include the 2015 collection of essays on Emotions in Medieval Arthurian Literature edited by Frank Brandsma, Carolyne Larrington and Corinne Saunders (to which Rikhardsdottir contributes a chapter) and the 2016 essay collection Love, History and Emotion in Chaucer and Shakespeare: Troilus and Criseyde and Troilus and Cressida edited by Andrew James Johnson, Russell West-Pavlov and Elisabeth Kempf (in particular, the essays by Stephanie Trigg and David Wallace). These efforts focus primarily on the romance genre in the English and French traditions.

In Old Norse/Icelandic studies there is, actually, a small but strong critical corpus on literary emotion; however, much of the scholarship to date on emotions in Old Norse/Icelandic (hereafter, ONI) texts has focused on the sagas and, within these studies, emphasis has been placed on the relative impassivity of saga characters--that is, the avoidance of emotion, rather than its narrative presence and function. Where emotions have been centered in such studies, they are centered in isolation and studied as individual categories--such as anger, laughter, and grief. Sif Rikhardsdottir's Emotion in Old Norse Literature: Translations, Voices, Contexts by contrast examines the full, rich range of emotions in medieval ONI texts. This monograph brings together the history of emotions, various genre traditions of ONI literary studies, literary and cultural transmission, and narrative studies in a tour de force interdisciplinary examination of literary emotionality that is equal parts stand-alone argument, intervention, and invitation. Obviously, this monograph is a must-read for scholars in Old Norse/Icelandic studies, particularly those working on the sagas, romances, and Eddic poetry, and for scholars in the history of emotions; however, those working in romance studies, Arthurian literary studies, gender studies, and literary and cultural transmission will find much here to consider, while those with a general interest in medieval literature and culture will also find this a fascinating study.

The essential argument of this book is that the literary representation of emotion depends upon the development of an emotive script that is keyed to a particular set of societal expectations, and that that script in turn dictates through context (literary, historical, and/or cultural in nature) how the audience of a text interprets the emotions involved, both historically and in modern readership. Beginning with an Introduction that provides a brief overview of the history of emotions as a field of study, Rikhardsdottir moves into a discussion of the literary representation of emotion, identifying the traditionally-held view of fundamental difference between ONI sagas and romances as being grounded in a misunderstanding of how writers in these genres stage and express emotion. Rather, Rikhardsdottir locates in both genres a recognizable manipulation of emotional gestures for literary purpose--that is, a signposting of behavioral codes tied to literary convention, more so than actual social practice, that enables readers to infuse a given narrative space with emotional importance. This manipulation of emotional gestures constitutes emotive scripting which, in turn, readers must decode and activate in order to access the emotion in a given scene. Following this explanation of the concept of the emotional script, the rest of the book is organized into chapters spanning three categories of literature: the translated romances, the sagas, and the indigenous romances--that show precisely how the emotive scripts work in each genre, and across the ONI literary corpus overall.

Chapter 1 examines two of the continental romances that were brought to Norway in the thirteenth century: Chrétien de Troyes's Yvain (Ívens saga) and Thomas de Bretagne's Tristran(Tristrams saga ok Ísöndar). Building on her earlier study of how these and other continental romances were altered in translation in order to render them accessible and enjoyable for a Scandinavian audience (Medieval Translations and Cultural Discourse: The Movement of Texts in England, France and Scandinavia (2012)) Rikhardsdottir turns her attention here specifically to how the emotive script of fin'amor, informed by the systems of feudal allegiance and court life in France, is adjusted for the Norse audience; in particular, through the "general and overall reduction in emotional vocabulary" (34) and the emphasis on more strategically Norse approaches to the enhancement of sentiment, for instance through alliteration "to highlight dramatic moments in their source texts" (49) and the use of nouns, to generalize, in place of the verbs, which personalize, emotion in the French source text (50). The continental romances were thus translated to provide a spareness of emotion words that required contextualized deciphering of each emotional space in the narrative in keeping, as Rikhardsdottir shows in the next few chapters, with Scandinavian audience preferences as evidenced in their indigenous literary tradition.

In chapter 2, the discussion turns to Egils saga Skallagrímssonar and a consideration of how emotional interiority is achieved in a text that generally lacks emotive vocalization or a physical display of internal emotions in the characters, like most of the sagas. In such texts, Rikhardsdottir argues, "the scarcity of emotion words has the effect of making the emotive range of each emotion broader or more complex" (64), thus requiring the audience to read carefully into each such word's use in order to determine how it should be interpreted. Emotive intensity in this and other sagas is not found in the frequency or variety of emotion words employed, but rather in the contexts in which those words appear and how those contexts are signposted by the writer and interpreted by the reader.

Chapter 3 extends this discussion into a consideration of the poetic vocalization of interior sentiments within longer prose narratives, focusing on the laments in Egils saga Skallagrímssonar and Guðrúnarkviða in fyrsta (The First Lay of Guðrún) to highlight how complex emotive scripting is. The analysis demonstrates that verse forms do not necessarily indicate emotive vocality, any more than prose forms prevent it; rather, it is essential that the reader located the emotive script embedded within a text and examine it within its narrative structure in order to arrive at an understanding of how to decipher and interpret the emotional weight of a scene.

From this examination of the complexity of emotive script in narrative structures incorporating multiple literary forms, Rikhardsdottir shifts in chapter 4 to an examination of how the public masking of emotion often yields emotive interiority once the emotive script is determined and deciphered in Brennu-Njáls saga and Laxdœla saga. This chapter also emphasizes the understanding of behavioral codes, and by extension, emotive scripts, as being deeply gendered, and the importance of such codes and scripts to a conceptualization of masculinity and femininity in the ONI narratives, even--perhaps, especially--when they are translated from other cultures, such as the continental romances.

Chapter 5 concludes the study with an examination of the indigenous romance tradition, focusing on Sigurðar saga þõgla as a representative tale in the riddarasögur (knight's stories) tradition to show that while the indigenous romance genre is a rapacious category with myriad narrative goals, it relies on "the emotive script provided by the generic framework of the romance and the particular adaptation of that script to the author's nrrative objectives" (146). In the case of maiden-king narratives like Sigurðar saga þõgla, for example, that focus is on the interrogation of gendered categorizations and female autonomy and subjectivity through emotive scripts appropriated from a variety of literary contexts--legendary and continental material, taming-of-the-shrew narratives, and chivalric adventure--and amalgamated to "query social complexities of the present" rather than to "enact a lingering past" (173). There is therefore evidence in these later indigenous works of the influence of some of the earlier continental transmissions, and of a deepening complexity both in the expectations of, and on, the reader as decoder of the emotive scripts they produce.

Focusing as she does throughout this study on a theory of literary emotive scripts tied to particular contexts--cultural, historical, generic, in nature--Rikhardsdottir makes a very welcome intervention into ONI literary studies by bringing sagas and romances together rather than examining them as separate genres, by further blurring the boundaries between poetry and prose to show how the poetic vocalization of emotions within a prose text can provide space for a heretofore largely-unremarked emotive interiority in ONI literature, particularly in the sagas, and by examining continental and indigenous romances for their affinities in terms of emotional scripting. This comparative approach provides a blueprint for how ONI literary studies can contribute in important ways to cross-cultural, cross-temporal, and cross-genre interdisciplinary fields like the history of emotions, despite historically being more insular in nature, and heralds an exciting new era for comparative literary historians.

This book displays the hallmarks of Rikhardsdottir's scholarship--a clear, fluid, straightforward writing style and rigorous, comprehensive critical apparatus. Specialists familiar with her other work will not be surprised at the extent and thorough nature of her notes, but it is non-specialists who stand to gain the most from her attention to both primary and secondary source materials and the careful way she knits these together into expansive footnotes that show clear relationships and possibilities for further study. As is this publisher's policy all material from primary sources is presented in the original language and also English translation, however materials from secondary sources that do not appear in translation are also summarized and contextualized in the body of the argument wherever possible rather than simply listed in the footnote, permitting those who do not read Scandinavian languages to access the salient points of those secondary works not readily available to an English-speaking audience. This approach widens the book's possible audience; in fact, it is an invitation, a door opened into a field that has historically been difficult to access due to linguistic constraints. Having shown decisively that ONI literature has an important role to play in the study of literary emotionality, Rikhardsdottir also generously provides through her footnotes a syllabus that is no less than a full introduction to ONI literary studies. This approach demonstrates both the author's generosity and a clear awareness of audience, given the book's publication in a commercial press series, however scholarly in nature. I wish all scholars were this thoughtful and considered in their approach to building a book that not only is critically rigorous and exhibits all that is best in medieval literary studies, but also is so eminently accessible and enjoyable to read for specialist and general public, alike.

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