This book is a well-written and well-edited, fresh, and inspiring contribution to the debates on “otherness” and alterity that are gaining popularity in various literary and cultural disciplines. It aims to rectify the traditional view of Old Norse literature and culture as consisting of binaries, by focusing on various types of ambiguities and alterities demonstrated by and in Old Norse literary and manuscript culture. The Old Norse Network of Otherness (ONNO) was established at the 16th International Saga Conference at the University of Zurich in 2015 and the book includes a selection of papers presented by members of this network at the 23rd International Medieval Congress in Leeds in 2017.
The Introduction to the book gives an elegant survey of recent trends in “otherness” scholarship and positions the book itself in juxtaposition to postmodern theory with its critique of totalization, and postcolonial theory with its tendency to reinforce and not dismantle the imperial discourse of “othering.” The book relates to seminal texts within the Old Norse field, such as Margaret Clunies Ross’s work on the “mixed modes” of saga literature, Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir’s studies on the role of women, and recent work on gender, queer studies, and race in Old Norse research.
The book encompasses eight articles which are grouped in three sections according to the theme and the general trends of how the contributors define “otherness.” Section I includes three articles which focus on various monstrous creatures. Gwendolyne Knight investigates whether the “shapeshifter” existed as a distinct analytical category within Old Norse literature. She starts off by discussing the Old Norse words used in connection with shapeshifting, such as hamr, hugr, hamingja, and fylgja, and goes on to illustrate the difference between metamorphosis and doubling, between “virtuosic” and “guardian” transformations, and between changing form and acquiring of “skin.” She points out that Old Norse literary representations of shapeshifting need to be seen alongside other European literary traditions, where the motif was also very popular. The article demonstrates that the motif of shapeshifting was very common and the language use in Old Norse is relatively consistent. However, the motif is realized in such a plurality of ways that precludes any sort of “tradition of shapeshifting.” A line of thought that could have been explored a bit further is the significance of the Christian connotations of the terms studied, as well as the centrality of metamorphosis and transformation in Christian thought. In her Metamorphosis and Identity, Bynum demonstrates that Christian medieval culture was obsessed with the topics of change, hybridity, and metamorphosis. Knight’s conclusion may thus be seen as a further nuancing of Bynum’s thesis based on Old Norse texts about shapeshifting.
Minjie Su continues the investigation of the shapeshifting and werewolf motif by focusing on the Old Norse Bisclaretz ljóð. Her close analysis of the story leads her to the conclusion that “a werewolf manifests different sides of his nature when interacting with different people; how a werewolf behaves seems to be affected by how the others behave towards him” (54). Su argues then that a werewolf may thus be seen as a riddle, and even as a kenning, which is also a metamorphic expression that contains an original core, but often refers to something that is not communicated directly. As in my comment on the previous article, the implications of the argument could have been even clearer if the author had kept in mind the Christian context ofBisclaretz ljóð. Kennings are compound expressions with metaphorical meaning, but they have very specific structures and complex referential systems often alluding to pre-Christian mythology. In medieval Christian culture allegorical multi-level reading was the main form of reading, and metamorphosis was a central cultural and theological motif. Regarding shapeshifting not only as a kenning, but also as a broader metaphor or allegory, would have elucidated the multilayeredrness of Old Norse literature even further.
In the third article of this first section, Tom Grant and Jonathan Y. H. Hui focus on the figure of Goðmundr of Glæsisvellir, an ancient Scandinavian hero who features in many fornaldarsögur, one Icelandic riddarasaga, and even in one þáttr from Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar in Flateyjarbók. By analyzing how Goðmundr populates the different literary universes, the authors argue that his adaptability, flexibility, and mutability is unique in the Old Norse literary system. He ranges from being a malevolent heathen, to a benign heathen, to having affiliation to characters with wolf-names, to being an accessory character participating in various genealogical contexts. They conclude that Goðmundr’s “most consistent quality across this range of texts is his inconsistency,” as he moves between “humans and giants, Christians and heathens, and myths and legends” (95). One question that emerges is whether all the texts studied existed simultaneously and whether people would have been aware of the variety of Goðmundr’s personalities demonstrated here. In other words, does this variety have implications for the development and/or the flexibility of the literary culture, or does it also reveal a varied understanding of “otherness” in the same cultural context?
In Section II, the authors turn to another type of alterities, namely generic “oddities” in the literary material, and actual narrative gaps caused by lacunae in the manuscripts. In her article, Rebecca Merkelbach approaches the so-called “post-classical” Íslendingasögur, not in the traditional way which encompasses comparison with the classical sagas or other genres which have been seen as of lesser quality, but by studying them as adequate responses to their own cultural context. The article is an invitation to reconsider the canon and appreciate to a greater degree what earlier scholars have considered as qualitatively worse and more marginal texts and genres. Merkelbach reads the literary peculiarities of the genre (for example the way monstrosity is represented), and especially of Svarfdæla saga, which she uses as a case study, as a dimension of both the individual and the social. Her analysis of the saga convincingly demonstrates that marginal sagas and genres do deserve to break free from the narrow definition of genres and “to become official business” (123).
In the next article, Joanne Shortt Butler turns to yet another type of “marginalities,” namely, actual lacunae in manuscripts. She discusses how lacunae condition the way in which we read medieval texts, or how the preservation of a saga affects our interaction with it. She investigates an overlooked saga, namely Heiðarvíga saga, which is not preserved as a whole in any single manuscript. She demonstrates the importance of lacunae by drawing on various theories about gaps and absences, such as narratology, cognitive theory, history of punctuation, and absence theory. By studying how intended gaps influence the way we perceive a narrative, an archive, or a collection, Butler argues that also unintended gaps, such as lacunae in manuscripts, should be seen as a reality with potential, and not only as a reason for frustration. Gaps should not be ignored, nor given excessive attention, but just “minded” as part of what we have preserved.
In Section III, the attention turns to social and political marginality and interconnectedness. Roderick W. McDonald studies references to Spain and the Iberian Peninsula in Old Norse literature. Spain is represented as a seat of high honor, chivalry, and culture, as well as a nation of heathens, or a land of fabulous wealth (Jacobsland). The references appear in a range of texts belonging to the genres of historiography and translated and indigenous romances. A major question is whether these are seen as contradictory ideologies, or whether they are part of a coherent whole, and what does this say about the Old Norse world? McDonald interprets the varied representations of Iberia as “ruptures that reflect cultural conditions and social anxieties” (181). Earlier representations are not as developed as later ones and they are more positive, while later ones are more embedded in medieval geographical knowledge, but also represent Iberia as a context tightly connected to Islamic North Africa, or the land of monstrous characters. Such inconsistencies are seen as socially constructive and representative of the “negotiated oppositional practices of the courtly consolidation of late medieval Norway, in the context of changing economies and geopolitics across contemporary continental Europe” (183).
In the next article, Csete Katona discusses cultural interactions between Vikings, Slavs, and Turks, when it comes to everyday habits and religious customs. The customs of these groups are recorded by contemporary Muslim and Byzantine authors. The article gives a good overview of the complex connections and the numerous ethnic groups that populated “the area along the ‘Eastern Road’ (austrvegr), i.e. the region stretching from Poland through Byzantium to the edge of the Muslim world” (189). Katona is interested in discussing tendencies of cultural transfer but acknowledges also that there are many similarities in the various customs of the Norse, Slavic, and Turkic cultures (polytheism, embeddedness in nature, sacrifice of animals and/or humans), turning the area into “a cultural melting pot” (195) where variations of cultural practices were developed independently of the ethnicity of the performers. Katona argues that the Scandinavians who settled along the “Eastern Road” adopted and integrated various cultural practices from the Slavic and Turkic traditions, mainly due to a high level of pragmatism and a need to adapt to the local natural environment.
The final article in the collection by Arngrímur Vídalín addresses the very timely discourse of proto-racism triggered by the “Black Lives Matter” movement and other public discourses about race--did racism exist before the term was established in the nineteenth century? Arngrímur’s answer is, unfortunately, a convincing yes. He draws upon work in the cognitive sciences that shows that the human mind works with stereotypes and that racial essentialism has an evolutionistic function and emerges in a wide range of cultures. Thus, even though the term “race” was established in the nineteenth century, it is neither anachronistic nor politically charged to discuss the concept in connection with medieval culture. By investigating how Blámenn are described in Old Norse sources, Arngrímur shows that they were considered monstrous and were marginalized and dehumanized on the basis of pre-racial thought.
The book as a whole has an exceptional potential and many strengths that turn it into an important and inspiring contribution to the general debate about “otherness.” One main strength of the book is that it investigates “otherness” and alterities on various levels. Section I focuses on marginal creatures of literary universes. Section II links marginality in the texts to marginality in the literary genres and in the manuscripts. In Section III the focus is lifted to a social level by discussing what the literary representation of marginal groups in fiction can tell us about attitudes to otherness and marginalities in Old Norse society. This link between the narrative, the literary, the material, and the social is much appreciated by this reviewer as it demonstrates the importance of studying all aspects of medieval literary material as connected. The book demonstrates how ideas of “otherness” are essential to cultural production and interpretation on numerous levels.
The book as a whole demonstrates excellently how modern discourses (such as Black Lives Matter, #metoo, east-west conflict, Islamophobia or other forms of religious intolerance) open up the medieval material and make us see potentially new sides of medieval culture. Further, the study of medieval material helps us increase our insight into the evolutionary and historical roots of such thinking. Even though the above-mentioned movements are contemporary, studying similar tensions in the past is not anachronistic and political, but rather leads to a deeper understanding of some of our own social, cultural, and religious crises.
Related to that: the book achieves its aim to break down the dichotomy between the self and the other. As pointed out by Ármann Jakobsson in his concluding remarks, the meetings with “the other” during the journey of life very often encompass meetings with oneself, one’s own double: “a troll is a mirror in which to behold our own identity and re-establish our sense of self” (239). In a similar way, recent scholarship on the Self shows that the self is anything but a stable entity--the self is a constant movement between margins and a constant process of traveling, navigating, stabilizing the “otherness” we all contain within us. The book certainly inspires at least my interest in the marginal creatures and social spaces, the texts “in between,” in the past and the present, in order to achieve a better understanding of ourselves, our own culture and time.