19.08.03 Sävborg and Bek-Pedersen, Supernatural Encounters in Old Norse Literature and Tradition

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Martin Chase

The Medieval Review 19.08.03

Sävborg, Daniel, and Karen Bek-Pedersen (eds.). Supernatural Encounters in Old Norse Literature and Tradition. Borders, Boundaries, Landscapes 1. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols , 2018. pp. vii, 265. ISBN: 978-2-503-57531-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Martin Chase
Fordham University

This volume is a collection of essays based on presentations at the third gathering of the Old Norse Folklorists Network (Tartu, 2014). It also reflects the fruits of the research projects "Encountering the Otherworld in Medieval Nordic Literature," led by Daniel Sävborg, and "Encounters with the Paranormal in Medieval Iceland," led by Ármann Jakobsson. It is the second volume produced by the Network (Folklore in Old Norse--Old Norse in Folklore appeared in 2014). As such, it reflects much thought and scholarly collaboration over the past few years.

The editors state in the introduction that their goal is to show the diversity of new research in the field, with emphasis on "realistic" genres (perceived by the contemporary audience as "real") rather than "the fantastic" ("thought to be unreal"). The title word "supernatural" was itself a stumbling-block: the editors and the contributors were not able to agree on the appropriate term for their subject. Does "supernatural" mean transcending the positivistic laws of nature (whether as we now understand them, or as they were understood in the original situations of the texts) or does it mean objectively "unreal"--whatever that might mean? If we can agree on the reality of the unconscious, then it might be better to ask what variety of reality we are dealing with, rather than whether we are within the bounds of reality--or whether reality can be regarded as having bounds.

Ármann Jakobsson takes up this question in the volume's opening essay, an engaging discussion of Bergbúa þáttr. He eschews the term "supernatural" in favor of "paranormal," which he understands as connoting a situation within human experience, if not within normality (again, whatever that might be). His approach to the þáttr, which describes an experience in a cave and follows a hero-quest pattern, is subjective. Rather than trying to identify and classify objectively the voice and gleaming eyes the hero and his helper encounter (the approach of many earlier scholars), Ármann asks what kind of experience the author is attempting to describe. His interpretation of this tale loaded with archetypal imagery is insightful and productive until the final lines, where it takes a surprising and discordant turn into theology. After analyzing Bergbúa þáttr as a classic story of a hero's encounter with the unconscious, he concludes that "Þórðr conquers his fear aided by his Christian faith in the transcendence and the immortality of the soul....As we all know...his release is only temporary and the eventual salvation must be a matter of faith to him as it is for all other Christians" (26). There is no explicit mention of any of these claims in the þáttr, and if it has an underlying theological agenda (I can't see it), it needs to be demonstrated. Ármann deals similarly with Bergbúa þáttrin his book The Troll Inside You (2017), but minus the concluding moralizing assertions, and it would be interesting to know which version reflects his most recent thought. This essay will be of interest to many who do not read Icelandic, and a reference to Marvin Taylor's English translation of Bergbua Þáttr in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders would be welcome.

Ármann's essay is followed by Bettina Sommer's folkloristic study of "The Pre-Christian Jól," in which she uses evidence from Scandinavian folk customs to argue that the Scandinavian Jól was a ritual that celebrated and facilitated the transition from one year to the next. Arnold van Gennep, Mircea Eliade, and their followers made a similar case for the observance of the winter solstice in other traditional cultures, and the idea is so convincing as to seem almost self-evident, but Sommer's survey of the scholarly literature shows that this interpretation has not previously been applied to the Nordic Jól. The second part of her argument, that Jól was not a cult of the dead or a fertility festival, as it is often portrayed in post-conversion Old Norse texts, is less convincing. It is not surprising that the dead would figure prominently in a "strong," liminal time, or that fertility should be associated with a New Year celebration. It seems less important to maintain that this happened after Christianity came to the North than to show that Jól was marked by liminality in a variety of ways. The liminality of midwinter is a feature in other essays in the volume (e.g. those by Ármann Jakobsson, Bengt af Klintberg, and Marteinn Helgi Sigurðsson), and the editors might have supplied cross-references.

Cross-references would also be welcome in the four essays dealing with Guðmundar saga biskups. The essays are diverse in their approaches and the questions they ask, but there are points of intersection, and especially since they are the results of a conference, it would be interesting to see some interaction among the authors. On a practical note, there is a need for a consistent, standardized form of citation. Citation of the saga, with its four versions and various editions, is admittedly complex, but the standard critical edition contains all four, and the editors could have imposed its use along with a short title or abbreviation system to be used by all. As it is, the articles use forms of citation so varied that a reader unfamiliar with the subject might not realize that they refer to the same text.

Three authors, af Klintberg, Cormack, and Kuldkepp, discuss Selkollu þáttr, a story embedded in the B and D versions of Guðmundar saga. Again from an editorial point of view, there is too much repetition in the retelling of the þáttr itself. Familiarity with the contents of Selkollu þáttr is needed to follow the discussions, but lengthy summaries by af Klintberg (61-62) and Kuldkepp (109) and a full translation by Cormack (76-79), all in a row, are too much. Perhaps Cormack's complete translation could have preceded all three essays: the reader would then have had it in mind and the other authors could have referred to it. Selkolla ("Seal-head") is a being ("ghost," "troll," "woman") who at times appears with the head of a seal. Seals, wary creatures that can escape into the depths, are sometimes regarded as archetypal symbols of repressed psychic content. It would interesting to apply Ármann Jakobsson's subjective approach to this uncanny figure: what is the experience of those who encounter Selkolla? Is Selkolla real or imaginary? The articles engage the þáttr in a variety of ways. Bengt af Klintberg examines the interplay of folklore and hagiography in the text, for example, in the etymology of the name Selkollu-kleifar ("Sealhead-cliff"), the place haunted by Selkolla. Was the cliff named after the being that haunted it, or did Selkollu-kleifar (a place-name that occurs elsewhere) give the name (and perhaps the attributes?) to the local troll? He makes a good case for the latter.

Margaret Cormack examines the traditions surrounding Selkolla in stories from the Middle Ages up to the twentieth century. Her article includes full translations of folktales printed in the Íslenzkar Þjóðsögur collection as well as the þáttr in Guðmundar saga. She concludes that little can be determined about the form or meaning of the tale before it was recorded in the saga, which transforms it into a moral exemplum, and argues that the more recent versions have their roots in the literary text, which subsequently became a source for a secondary tradition of new oral folktales with a life of their own. Mart Kuldkepp provides a name for this process: "remediation," a theoretical term not yet in the dictionaries that refers to the incorporation or representation of one medium in another medium. One could use this term to say that Cormack shows how a now-lost oral folktale was remediated in a moral exemplum (that was remediated) in a literary saint's life, and from there remediated in new oral tales that eventually were remediated in printed folklore collections.

Kuldkepp likewise regards the þáttr as a remediation of a lost folktale, but from there his investigation diverges: his interest is the remediation of the hagiographical exemplum in Selkolluvísur, a fourteenth-century skaldic poem that was subsequently appended to the tale in the D-version of Guðmundar saga. Kuldkepp's comments on this late, little-studied poem will be of special interest to skaldicists. His complicated theory about the function of the poem in the saga is thought-provoking, but not entirely persuasive: he argues that the remediation of the troll-tale in the saga somewhat lowers the learned tone, but that the subsequent remediation of the þáttr in the elegant, archaizing skaldic poem (which is then remediated in the saga) elevates it again and gives a kind of literary respectability. As he reads it, the þáttrsmacks of superstition and associates Guðmundr with folk heroes like Grettir, while the recasting of the story in skaldic poetry, the "highest" in the hierarchy of vernacular genres, shifts the association to Christian heroes like Óláfr Tryggvason--thus strengthening the case for Guðmundr's canonization.

Kuldkepp's comparison of Guðmundr and Grettir provides a neat segue to Marteinn Helgi Sigurðsson's study, which focuses on these two heroes. Grettis saga, set in the early eleventh century, was composed no earlier than the fourteenth, while the versions of Guðmundr saga, composed in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, chronicle his life straddling the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Though Grettir was born after the conversion of Iceland, the saga reflects elements of traditional religion that associate Grettir with gods like Óðinn and Þórr as well as with the trolls they fight against. Guðmundr, like Grettir, is a marginalized folk hero, and it has been noted that Grettis saga contains material that may have been remediated from Guðmundar saga. Marteinn suggests that the reverse may also be true: traditional material about Grettir may have been used in the composition of Guðmundar saga. He does not claim that there is textual borrowing among the sagas, but he shows how traditions around the two heroes point to a typological relationship: they interact as type and antitype. Were the saga authors consciously appropriating this Christian hermeneutical method?

Arngrímur Vídalín's contribution traces the development of an Icelandic worldview in learned literature. He is especially interested in the contrast between center and periphery: Icelanders, like Englanders, were acutely aware of living on the outer edge of Christendom (with Rome or Jerusalem at the center). He notes that this idea in Old Norse texts has received little attention, seemingly unaware of Lars Boje Mortensen's collection, The Making of Christian Myths in the Periphery of Latin Christendom (2006), which would have been relevant to his study. He surveys medieval Icelandic encyclopedic texts that describe "the Other" as objectively exotic, as well as and chronicles and genealogies that seek to link the peripheral to the central. He acknowledges that "the monster, as the antithesis to us, also resides within us" (160), but his focus is on the geographical Other, so real that it can be pinpointed on a mappamundi. One could ask to what extent these beings fall within the realm of the supernatural--the medieval authors tended to regard them as exotic races that live beyond the (geographical) pale, certainly bizarre, but all part of the variety of creation.

Jan Ragnar Hagland likewise takes an objective approach: his concise article examines the occurrences of the phrase at vekja upp troll ("to conjure up trolls") in Norwegian and Icelandic law codes. Ármann Jakobsson's discussion of this topic in "The Trollish Acts of Þorgrímur the Witch" (Saga-Book, 2008) could have been engaged here. The article provides a handy compendium of legal references from the twelfth century up to the Reformation. The laws regarding trolls leave no doubt as to their perceived reality, and the material presented here paves the way for further study on how trolls were conceptualized, and why it was thought necessary to make laws regarding them. Objectivity and subjectivity are blurred in Miriam Mayburd's "The Materiality of Old Norse Dwarves and Paranormal Ecologies in Fornaldarsögur." As a researcher with the "Encounters with the Paranormal" project, she, too, prefers that term to "supernatural." Her theoretical great-chain-of-being argument associates dwarves with the rocks they inhabit: she sees dwarves and stones as part of the same dynamic organism--the disturbance of which is at one's peril.

The volume ends as it began, with literary analysis of fornaldarsögur. Eldar Heide writes on "The Literary Re-Use of Myths in Þorsteins þáttr bǿjarmagns." His carefully wrought theory is another example of remediation. Þorsteins þáttr is thought to have been composed in the late thirteenth century, but its author clearly delighted in using earlier mythological material in his tale. This material is presumed to come from oral tradition, but there are analogues in medieval texts such as Snorra Edda and Saxo. Heide lists and analyzes previously noted examples of this, and then takes it a step further: he notes two unidentified quasi-mythological stories that he argues likewise must be remediations of traditional oral material. One of them has an analogue in a tale recorded in Íslenzkar Þjóðsögur in the 1840s. It is possible, of course, that material from the text of the þáttr, printed in Rafn's Fornmanna Sögur (1827) was remediated in an oral tradition and thence in Íslenzkar Þjóðsögur, but Heide argues convincingly that both versions are independent remediations of a medieval oral tradition.

Finally, Philip Lavender's article on Illuga saga Gríðarfóstra draws together many of the topics presented in the other essays. The eponymous Gríður is a reclusive, peripheral-dwelling troll who eventually is revealed as the princess Signý under a curse--hence leading to interesting reflections on the troll inside. This widely-ranging saga has been regarded by many as a something of a mess, but Lavender makes a case for its careful and artful composition. He agrees with Davíð Erlingsson that the saga is a remediation of a Faroese ballad, which in itself is remarkable. Inserted into the ballad story is a tale about a female troll, which has usually been considered extrinsic. Lavender argues that it is a meaningful addition and the key to understanding the saga's often-disregarded female characters.

This provocative book will surely be generative of further study (which an index would have facilitated). It addresses many interesting questions and raises as many again--it makes one wish that the contributors could be reconvened for a Q&A session.

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