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23.02.09 Lassen, Oldtidssagaernes verden

23.02.09 Lassen, Oldtidssagaernes verden

Throughout the twentieth century the medieval Icelandic fornaldarsögur (variously called tales of olden times, legendary sagas, romances) were treated both editorially and commercially as poor cousins of the sagas of Icelanders or family sagas, which were promoted as true to Icelandic character if not always to the historical facts--secular; composed from a cool middle distance and an exterior vantage point on characters; laconic; grim; in a word, realistic. The Íslenzk fornrit editorial project from the 1930s, still ongoing, favored the charter narrative of the settlement era (Landnámabók) and the family sagas in a scholarly undertaking as much driven by nationalism as by scholarly interests in the best of Icelandic storytelling. In the latter part of the century, however, the legendary sagas were recognized as not some frivolous entertainment form that scorned the rigor of the family sagas and assumed florid improbabilities into narratives set in the wider world beyond Iceland, and even before the settlement, but were most likely written by the same monastically trained authors and at about the same time, beginning in thetwelfth century. Further, the volume of this literary production nearly matched that of the more “serious” sagas, was widely appreciated as a genre by its readership and audiences, had its own none-too-neatly-circumscribed generic criteria, and, far from thoughtless, made a very conscious comment both on Icelandic society and its preoccupation with family ties at the expense of the individual, and on its own literary conventions. Fresh impetus to scholarship was created by Guðni Jónsson’s unannotated four-volume edition of selected sagas in 1950. Some better-known titles here are Arrow-Odd’s Saga, Gautrek’s Saga, The Saga of Bosi and Herraud, and The Saga of Egil and Asmund.

The subsequent revision in scholarly perspective in the latter half of the last century is conclusively summarized in Annette Lassen’s study of what are essentially adventure tales. It is a book for a Danish readership, with attention to the later reception, translation, and legacy of the legendary sagas in Denmark. While it does not argue specific points of scholarship as might a sharply focused study of a single saga, it paints a broad-brush portrait of the genre as a whole and situates it in Icelandic society and the greater literary context, while also allowing for the author’s personal interest in such topics as the society depicted in the legendary sagas, family, gender roles, and marriage.

The introduction establishes that these sagas are centrifugal, not concerned with settlement and domesticity but with the post-viking life abroad. The gallery of characters includes kings and serving girls, queens and dragons, gods, trolls, giants, warrior maidens, berserks, seers--all the figures that Tolkien returned to our attention and that dominate our entertainment screens today. Fantasy is paired with historical legend, just as in formal matters Nordic storytelling is influenced by continental European narrative, courtly romances in the French vernacular that marked about ten sagas. This alone ties the sagas more evidently to their period of composition and lessens the impression of a traditional story-telling genre with deep roots in a cultural past.

Lassen begins with a demarcation of the legendary saga as genre; it proves to be less a traditional form than one subject to manipulation and even explicit comment by its authors. Although the earliest manuscripts of the 29 sagas and numerous shorter tales are from the thirteenth century, these professedly historical tales (many set in the period 700-1000 CE) are no longer judged to be late-comers, and thus inferior variations on the family sagas, but largely contemporary with them. We should also recall that even these latter do not exclude the paranormal. Objectives in the geographically wide-ranging legendary sagas are centered on the hero’s acquisition of wealth, prestige, and power through individual martial activity and through overcoming the monstrous, the magical, and the feminine. Emotional perception on the part of the public is pushed toward the poles of comedy and tragedy, giving the legendary sagas a loose sense of generic homogeneity and a concern with the tensions between blood and marriage relations, in the latter cases with echoes of heroic, as distinct from mythological, Edda poetry. Only acts, including speech acts, reveal emotions; there is no authorial analysis of character or comment on motivation.

Lassen then turns to her first major topic: a deeper analysis of the the literary background of the legendary sagas. Traditional early Germanic verse on the lives of heroes is the surest origin, although the evidence is slim. Parallels with the later Niebelungenlied are, however, evident. European courtly literature had a vogue, one expression of which was royal patronage of translations into Norse. Explicit reference to source matter is nonetheless rare. Influences include the work of authors in Latin such as Saxo Grammaticus, but also Dudo of St. Quentin and Paul the Deacon. Access to Latin texts is guaranteed by their compilers’ monastic training; the presence of these European manuscripts in Iceland is more striking. This varied literary background naturally had an effect on the degree of fixity in the parameters of the legendary saga genre. Discussion of the survival of the genre, with manuscripts from well-to-do social environments as the chief evidence, follows; questions of revival are reserved for the concluding chapters. Lassen turns then to subgroups of legendary sagas and their relative age. Patronage is an important matter and ascriptions of comments to highly placed figures gives an indication of how these works were viewed: amusing certainly, but not totally discredited as history. Saga historicity and just where the line might be drawn between fact and fabrication are of special concern to the author.

A welcome chapter is devoted to style and literary technique, matters often overlooked in earlier scholarship as a consequence of the overall judgment that these works were of lesser worth. A useful list of recurrent topoi is found on page 71. Although written as prose, with intercalated verse in some works, the legendary sagas have many ties with the heroic poetry of the Edda, especially as regards the conflicts of interest that derive from family allegiances and royal marriages. Lassen’s most praiseworthy contribution to saga studies is found in the latter half of the volume. Under the general heading “The society of the legendary sagas,” the author reviews in turn the treatment of family, the centrifugal force of both the knightly ethic and Germanic heroism, and a sequence of sex and gender topics: reputation centered on masculinity, failed masculinity (unmanly men), maiden kings and female warriors, marriage as a dueling ground and the condition of conflicted interests, recourse to magic to promote or oppose the foregoing, and, lastly, what can be assumed as the religious foundation for this literary world. Here individual sagas are discussed in greater detail and there is a sharper sense of authorial engagement. Some of the more “revisionist” observations follow.

In contrast to the family sagas’ concern for family and the collective, the legendary sagas’ focus is on the relatively well-born individual hero in a wide variety of settings. The influence of French romances in no way lessens the hard-edged masculinity of the Nordic hero but does portray a more cultured court life. Romantic love is played down in the adaptations: no Tristan and Yseult here! Passion is suspect, a societal threat perhaps. Masculinity, taken for granted rather than defined, lies exclusively with honor, martial competence, and readiness to act. This aspect can be pushed in some sagas toward the grotesque, proof that the authors viewed the matter with some slight but grim irony. Male defamation finds less expression than in the family sagas, since community concerns count for less. Women assuming male roles, whether as engaged militant mothers, warrior maids, or standoffish queens, are interesting fantasies that conclude with a return to male- but not necessarily patriarchal-run social norms. Still, the question of gender roles has been raised. A darker tone is met in tales of marital conflict, often the result of arranged dynastic marriages. Vengeance is a principal theme and there are few survivors. The hero must also face the paranormal, in the form of berserks, trolls, giants, revenants, magically endowed warriors. This, however, is less complicated than relations with humans. Interestingly, the notion of vikings as raiders has been largely discredited and these are seen as essentially criminal groups. Magic often has a xenophobic cast, with Sámi women as the archetypal sorceresses, Europe’s first femmes fatales. Seeresses and elves may be better disposed toward the hero. Unsurprisingly, the presence of the old gods is more marked in the legendary sagas than elsewhere, save in Eddic and skaldic verse. These gods are seen as fixed entities, although deception may be a built-in characteristic, as evidenced by Odin. The belief in an inescapable personal destiny is comparable to that sensed in the background of the sagas of Icelanders.

A concluding section deals with the survival of legendary saga matter and ethos to the present: Tolkien, Game of Thrones, superheroes generally. Lassen summarizes individual saga plots and their outstanding features in a long section toward the book’s close (135-197). Appendices deal with editions of the Icelandic originals (at which point readers meet the sagas under their original Icelandic titles), an overview of the most relevant manuscripts, saga translations into Danish, and secondary literature. There is no index. The author has published a comparable book on the sagas of Icelanders, also in Danish. Readers familiar with the entire medieval saga production are likely to have reading competency in Danish, yet there is a wider general readership that would welcome a comprehensive study of this quality in other more widely read languages. Lassen’s major accomplishments are to establish the integrity of the fornaldarsögar as a greatly appreciated literary genre, to note the shift in interest from Icelandic family drama to less fraught individual heroic exploits, and to draw attention to the presence of women as fully fashioned agents with an interest in their own destinies, although their adventures generally conclude with their containment in a familiar male world.