20.01.07 Grønlie, The Saint and the Saga Hero

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Shami Ghosh

The Medieval Review 20.01.07

Grønlie, Siân E. The Saint and the Saga Hero: Hagiography and Early Icelandic Literature. Studies in Old Norse Literature. Woodbridge UK: D.S. Brewer, 2017. pp. xii, 306. ISBN: 978-1-84384-481-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Shami Ghosh
University of Toronto

Most of the earliest extant narrative texts from medieval Iceland are lives of saints, written in Latin or Old Icelandic, or translated from Latin sources into Old Icelandic. Conventional wisdom (expressed perhaps most cogently in Gabriel Turville-Petre’s Origins of Icelandic Literature of 1953) has it that these narratives provided the necessary training in literary production that then blossomed in the native Old Icelandic sagas; the Old Icelandic hagiographic texts have mostly been given attention as part of a quest for origins (the Latin hagiographies produced in Scandinavia have received even less attention). Siân Grønlie’s book has a different approach: she seeks here to compare saints’ lives and sagas of Icelanders (often known in North America as family sagas; Grønlie also looks at a few examples of other saga types), examining how the narrative patterns of the sagas relate to those of hagiographic texts (themselves of a much greater variety than the notion of a single genre of hagiography might suggest), and how the “creative interplay” (ix) between these types of texts influenced literary production in medieval Iceland.

The first chapter of this book surveys the landscape of hagiography in medieval Iceland, both in Latin and the vernacular. After briefly surveying the main early medieval genres of hagiography--the acts of the apostles, narratives of early martyrs, and the lives of the confessors--Grønlie describes the many forms of saints’ lives extant from Iceland, mainly from the twelfth century. As elsewhere in Europe from the central middle ages, the royal or aristocratic saint was a prominent early form of hagiography here, discussed more fully in chapter two with the example of Oddr Snorrason’s life of the Norwegian king Óláfr Tryggvason, dating to the last decade of the twelfth century. Of a similar vintage are the sermons on various apostles contained in the Old Icelandic Homily Book, and two other early manuscripts containing translations of lives of apostles and of parts of Gregory the Great’s Dialogues. Predating these texts in the time of composition, but surviving only in later manuscripts, are early works of skaldic poetry on St Óláfr Haraldsson; it is impossible to be sure whether or how much these eleventh-century works were altered by the time they reached parchment in the early thirteenth century. The first lives of native saints were also written in the early thirteenth century, roughly contemporaneous with the first secular sagas. (I have not here enumerated all the extant hagiographic narratives from this or later periods, as Grønlie very helpfully does.)

The writing of saints’ lives in the vernacular (and the translation of Latin lives into the vernacular) continued throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, alongside the writing of secular sagas, and Grønlie is right to insist that writing hagiography was “a mainstream literary activity” (23), with texts produced at the same centres (such as the Benedictine monastery of Munkaþverá) where secular sagas were also written, and most likely for the same audiences and patrons. Saints, like saga heroes, were public figures, and in their lives “the heroic vocabulary of honour, courage and glory is appropriated” (8) as the saint, like the hero, faces death. Unlike the hero, the saint is supported by and acts for God; but, as has been demonstrated before for other medieval literatures, saints and heroes have much in common, and Grønlie is right to reject strict genre boundaries either within the categories of saga or hagiography, or even between them, suggesting instead in a felicitous phrase that we should “think of medieval texts as participating in genres [rather] than as belonging to them” (25). Thus sagas should not be seen as evolving out of hagiography: both kinds of texts exerted a mutual influence on each other.

Grønlie’s second chapter, on Oddr Snorrason’s account of Óláfr Tryggvason, tackles a text that is manifestly difficult to squeeze into any sort of genre definition: Óláfr was a king, a Christian, a ruler who converted people to Christianity, a warrior who is said to have survived what appeared to be his death and lived on as a desert saint. Although never canonised, he is presented in much Icelandic literature as an important predecessor of the later Norwegian king Óláfr Haraldsson who was indeed made a saint, and Oddr (and later writers after him, drawing on his work), depict him as a great Christian hero, whose violence was primarily in the service of mission, whose exploits were seen as signs of divine grace. Here the secular, bellicose hero is explicitly made “saint-like”, even though his biographer cannot provide miracles or relics, the normal tropes of sanctity in most hagiographic texts.

While there could be some relatively comprehensible justification for seeing Óláfr as a Christian hero, this is simply not possible with regard to the protagonists of the next two texts Grønlie studies in chapter three, Egils saga, and Hrafnkels saga, from the early and late thirteenth century respectively. Egil is one of the great saga heroes: brave, uncouth, poetic, crude, generous, brutal, loyal, selfish, violent, elegiac--the contradictions could be multiplied at will, which makes him such a fascinating character, and one of the most richly studied of the saga corpus. He was not, however, Christian, and was by any definition emphatically unsaintly; and his role-model is Odin, not Christ. Nevertheless, both in terms of structure and specific scenes, there are many points of comparison, though the direction of the character’s growth obviously takes opposing directions (e.g. sanctity, learning Scripture, performing miracles; heroism, composing secular verse, killing people). The presence of echoes of Gregory’s Dialogues are convincingly demonstrated in Grønlie’s reading, as is a parallel to Christ’s miraculous healing of Jairus’s daughter when Egil heals the daughter of a farmer through the power of his words carved as runes. This last is crucial, for just as the saint’s power ultimately lies in the Word, so Egil’s power is also ultimately imbued in his ability, as a skaldic poet, with words.

I pass over here the equally compelling reading of Hrafnkels saga, noting only Grønlie’s conclusion to this chapter that in both sagas, the authors’ creative interaction with hagiography (far more complex than simple borrowing or “inheritance” of some sort) is likely to have been entirely conscious, which leaves open the question as to their attitude towards and their audience’s reactions with respect to the Christian notions of death and the afterlife, a topic she examines in her next chapter on three sagas set during the time of conversion, which event is depicted in all three: Vatnsdæla saga, Njals saga,and Eyrbyggja saga. Her close readings of all three texts are able to demonstrate both numerous comparanda with hagiographic works, but also that these secular sagas are equally fundamentally concerned with one of the key aspects of hagiographic texts: the fate of the soul in the afterlife. Each of these sagas has a focus on a different element of the topic of mission and conversion, but in each case the interest is in the “noble heathen” or recent convert rather than on the missionary (whose sanctity might indeed be more questionable than that of the “noble heathen”).

In chapter five, Grønlie turns to three sagas that, because of the stories they tell, interact with quite different tropes of hagiography.Gísla saga is the story of an outlaw, and though he is very much a secular hero (he is outlawed for a murder, and is caught up in a complex web of incestuous relationships and violence), as in the narratives of desert saints, his outlawry is used as means of turning inwards into the psychology of an individual outside normal human society and how his inner reserves help him to overcome his plight. Flóamanna saga, the narrative of a man stranded on Greenland and suffering from hunger, thirst, and cold, is more obviously comparable with saints’ lives, as the protagonist is a Christian who must here demonstrate, in the face of considerable hardship that includes temptation by a pagan god/devil, his Christian fortitude. Yet the saga does not end with sanctity or even salvation: back in Iceland, Þorgils loses his children and engages in feud in the ordinary way. Yet at the end of his life, he repents after killing a man, and the saga as a whole, Grønlie suggests, “mediates […] between Þorgils as hero and Þorgils as saint, Þorgils as powerful chieftain and Þorgils as suffering martyr” (196). Finally, Bárðar saga is a narrative of conversion, depicting first the supernatural pagan peoples of Iceland before the coming of Christianity, and then the moment of conversion--but with it also, and unusually, the loss of valued and valuable traditions and local identity. The absolute positive of the confessor’s life is here rather tested by the ambiguity surrounding the first convert; the saga author here, as with the other two narratives discussed in the chapter, plays productively with hagiographic expectations to create a more complex and often troubling narrative.

The last substantive chapter of this book turns away from individual texts whose protagonists’ lives can be read in comparison with saints’ lives, and examines a number of narratives in which the two holy royals--Óláfr Tryggvason and Óláfr Haraldsson--figure as mediators or helpers in one way or another. Here too, the roles of these kings are shown to have been influenced by hagiographic tropes; but the texts are more complex in their moral ambiguity than are most hagiographies. This chapter leads to and supports Grønlie’s conclusion that the Icelandic sagas must be read as part of a generic continuity, and indeed as a part of a European literary continuity, rather than in generic and Icelandic isolation. This is thus an important contribution not only to the interpretation of the individual texts analysed, but also to the study of medieval Iceland and its literature more generally, which for too long have been viewed as representing some sort of “pure” heritage largely untouched by Europe and, in the case of the sagas, by specifically Christian genres and tropes--even though the presence of the latter has long been acknowledged, the demonstration of the intermingling of the blood and breath of the sagas with these “foreign” bodies has rarely--perhaps never--been accomplished as convincingly and over such a number of texts as Grønlie manages.

Throughout the book she does an excellent job of demonstrating “interference” from hagiography on the sagas, a term she draws from polysystem theory as manifest in the work of Itamar Even-Zohar, who argues that such “interference” is to be expected between central literatures (which in this case would be hagiography) and those that are peripheral (here the sagas). She concludes, however, that the term “interference” (which she has used throughout) might not be quite appropriate, and the relationship between saga and saint’s life might be better understood “in terms of dialogue, interdependence, active and willing engagement on the part of the sagas with one of the central narrative genres of the Christian Middle Ages” (264). This indeed seems to me what her study has demonstrated throughout, and I can agree wholeheartedly that the sagas “are able to engage both compellingly and critically with some of the central narratives of medieval Christianity” (264), though I am less certain that this is necessarily because these sagas are “peripheral”. The terminology of “central” and “peripheral” is not one that I am particularly comfortable with: central and peripheral to whom? There is no sense I get, from the corpus of Icelandic literature, that the Icelandic sagas were in any sense peripheral to Icelandic culture, nor that the genres they represent were. The argument that hagiography is “central” and the principal local form of secular narrative (here sagas; in other contexts one could adduce heroic epic or courtly romance) “peripheral” accepts the dominance in the cultural sphere of the clerical attitude, but this acceptance is, I would argue, misplaced, and not just in the Scandinavian context. Hagiographic texts were, to be sure, central for the religious; secular narratives were probably equally central to the believing laity: what counted as centre and periphery is very much a matter of perspective. That there was thus “interference” in both directions--the clergy were not, after all, completely divorced from the secular world--is likely, and indeed what Grønlie seems to argue in her book. While I find her readings of texts and the overarching arguments entirely compelling and surely a very significant contribution to the study of the Icelandic sagas and Old Norse literature more generally, I am less certain about the use of these kinds of categories, and indeed the application of polysystem theory to these readings. I wonder--based on her concluding remarks about “interference”, but even more on the fact that apart from the regular occurrence of that word and the more occasional use of centre and periphery, polysystem theory doesn’t seem to have a huge role in most of this book beyond the introduction and conclusion--whether Grønlie herself is as convinced of the necessity of this theory as an interpretive paradigm for producing such convincing readings of this complex literature as she has done.

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