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21.05.14 Lavender, Long Lives of Short Sagas

The Medieval Review

21.05.14 Lavender, Long Lives of Short Sagas


The most famous Old Norse sagas, such as Njals saga or Laxdæla saga, tell grounded stories of families that take place mere centuries before their composition. Another group of sagas, though, tell stories of legendary eras that are distant even to their composers. These fornaldarsögur are less studied, but still rich in cultural knowledge. Philip Lavender's new book unpacks this knowledge by focusing on one fornaldarsaga entitled Illuga saga Gríðarfóstra.

Lavender begins with a welcome summary of Illuga saga and by directing the reader to his edition and translation of it on vsnrweb-publications.org.uk. The saga tells of a man named Illugi who goes on a voyage across the sea. After an unexpected landfall on the way home, Illugi's rival demands that he find fire. Illugi ventures into a cave where he encounters Gríður, a ferocious trollwoman, and Hildur, her beautiful daughter. Gríður challenges Illugi to a truth-telling test (which, as Lavender eventually shows, is a traditional trope), and presents her daughter as a reward for his candor. This, however, seems to be another test: Illugi and Hildur have sex that night, but Gríður interrupts them three times to threaten Illugi's life. When Illugi shows no fear, Gríður says that he has broken a curse, and that she and her daughter are free to return home with Illugi. Before they depart, though, Gríður kills Illugi's rival, in a strange reversion to troll-like behaviour that Lavender examines later. Illugi marries Hildur, and all is well.

My summary here is shorter than Lavender's, since I am only including what is necessary to understand this review. However, I am only omitting Illugi's background, the origin of the curse, and one final test. It really is a short saga, as Lavender says in his subtitle.

Illuga saga, though not exactly famous in English-language saga studies, has received some scholarly investigation into its origins, and Lavender's first chapter concerns itself with summarizing and evaluating these. Lavender concludes that the saga's origins are ultimately unknowable, though he does identify a Faroese ballad as the most promising candidate for a source. Chapter Two is an in-depth survey of the saga's manuscript history, with analysis about what each stem of transmission means for the saga's reception over the centuries, as well as discussion of the manuscripts' historical owners, where known. Chapter Three combines the interests of the first two chapters by examining intertexts and analogues to better understand the saga's context. Chapter Four looks at the saga's female characters and speculates whether its audience would have found them hateful, funny, or empowering, comparing them to other heroines from Old Norse and even Middle English literature. The final two chapters leave the medieval period and move into the seventeenth century and beyond, first scrutinizing how early modern Scandinavian historians used fornaldarsögur to bolster their national histories (and simultaneously canonize fornaldarsögur as a genre), and then how post-medieval poets took inspiration from Illugi's story. In this last chapter, Lavender manages to uncover a misattribution: an Illugi ballad previously ascribed to the seventeenth-century parson Árni Jónsson turns out to have been written by eighteenth-century poet Árni Böðvarsson. Lavender also looks at poems by Einar Steingrímsson, Davið Jónsson, Eiríkur Pálsson, Jón Jónatansson, and Jón Ólafsson.

These chapters certainly cover diverse subject material, moving from manuscript history to literary interpretation, and also moving from the medieval to modern time periods. Some readers might be left feeling that the book is not really unified, but other readers would be glad to focus on a chapter that matches their interests. Those looking for manuscript history can delve into the richness of the second and fifth chapters, while those interested in a new reading of Illuga saga will find it in greater concentration in the fourth chapter. That said, there is a little bit of everything in every chapter, and Lavender wisely does not see manuscript history and literary analysis as separate. On pages 85 and 86, for example, he uses psychoanalytic theory to detect a commonality between Illuga saga and other texts in a particular manuscript: for both Illugi and the hero of Tíodéls saga, the bedroom is the site of the recovery of their identity and their victory over their trials.

In terms of the book's exegesis of its primary source, the moment that impressed me the most was Lavender's explanation of Gríður's violent behaviour after the curse was broken. When I encounter such inconsistencies, in medieval texts or otherwise, I usually just consider them as errors on the part of the authors, scribes or editors. Lavender acknowledges this possibility, but he also points to other Old Norse sources where monstrous people were cured of a curse over time, rather than right at once. This is characteristic of Lavender's problem-solving approach that structures other chapters, as well, but Lavender is always clear that some things cannot be known for certain.

Even with such diverse chapters, a book-length study on such a short saga, and one that is not particularly famous, surely provokes questions about whether its own length is justified. Lavender confronts these questions both implicitly and explicitly. For starters, the fact that the book covers the saga's reception and adaptations into the nineteenth century certainly broadens its relevance. Even as far as medieval sagas go, Lavender makes a great point at the end of his introduction, on page 20, when he says "Popular and beloved sagas have a habit of confirming the beliefs that we hold about sagas and pre-modern Iceland as a whole. Studying a less popular saga can thus play a role in helping us become more aware of the current assumptions which undergird our use of texts and our subjective assessments of value as regards them." And in reading Lavender's book, I did, in fact, reflect on some things that have a bearing on other works of Old Norse literature. One of those things was humour in the sagas and Edda. Humour is a theme throughout Chapter Four, but Lavender closes the chapter by noting that humour in Old Norse literature is not studied as often as humour in other medieval literatures, and when it is, it is discussed with regards to specific texts (such as Þrymskviða) and not in a general way, which is something that I had never noticed. In discussing this, Lavender calls on the incongruity theory of humour, and in doing so, suggests avenues and difficulties for a potential study of humour in Old Norse.

The genre of fornaldarsögur as a whole is another area where Lavender is able to shed light through the constricted prism of Illuga saga. The genre is traditionally defined as stories with fantastical elements with Scandinavian origins (as opposed to translated Continental romances, known as riddarsögur, or "knights' sagas"). Lavender both explains and interrogates this definition. For early modern and Enlightenment-era scholars such as Guðmundur Ólafsson (about whose life Lavender gives plenty of details), fornaldarsögur are helpful historical sources that prove the noble history of Sweden and other Nordic countries. These early scholars note the fantastical elements only to dismiss them as unimportant to the nationalist project. Lavender points out the ideological bias behind this attitude towards the fantastic, but also cautions against applying our contemporary scientific standards to medieval texts, or even to the early Enlightenment reception of those texts. It is only in the nineteenth century, Lavender argues, that scholars question the value of what we now call fornaldarsögur as direct and truthful historical sources. It is this more scientific approach to history that sections off fornaldarsögur from sagas perceived as being more realistic. Lavender charts this intellectual history through examples of the changing reception to Illuga saga. The saga serves as a measuring stick that reveals a shifting attitude towards an entire genre.

Even with its technical-sounding codicology, Lavender's book helps its readers along with an easy-to-read style. Twenty figures and sixteen tables simplify the task of comparing multiple sources. Lavender includes not only full literal translations of all the quotations he uses, but also inserts explanations of the kennings used in the poetry in a non-intrusive way. It has two appendices, each with an excerpt from early (one eighteenth-century and one nineteenth-century) historiographical sources that Lavender discusses at length.

Lavender's book is helpful to anyone studying or researching humour or monstrous women in Old Norse literature, anyone investigating fornaldarsögur, or anyone interested in the early editions and historiography around Old Norse sagas. And, clearly, if Illuga saga is a part of your research, you now have an invaluable source.