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ABSTRACT: This article addresses the question of the relationship between the sagas about early Icelanders (
Íslendingasögur) and the European novel tradition. Bakhtin’s concept of the chronotope is used to describe the world of these sagas which is characterized by uncertainty of identities. Todorov’s concepts of
RÉSUMÉ: Cet article tente de comprendre les sagas des Islandais (
Íslendingasögur) dans le contexte de l’histoire du roman en Europe. Le concept bakthinien du chronotope permet de décrire le monde de ces sagas comme caractérisé par l’indétermination des identités. Les catégories Is it legitimate to view the sagas about early Icelanders, or Íslendingasögur, as an early manifestation of the European novel?
For Harris the sagas are
Though Vésteinn Ólason admits there is some basis for the comparison between the sagas about early Icelanders and the novel, he chooses to highlight their differences
a distinctive and, in certain respects, unique literary genre. For all the features they share with other categories of narrative there are a number of important differences relating ultimately to the special historical and cultural circumstances out of which the
It is of course impossible to disagree that these sagas are the fruit of
There is no consensus on when to date the beginnings of the novel as such. Many look to the realist novels of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England and France
There is also a debate on how to define the novel, turning not least on whether or not romance and fantasy belong to the genre or whether narratives that do not show some degree of realism should be excluded
Íslendingasögur are quite similar, despite some differences, to what we know about the times in which they were written. On the other, things happen in the sagas that modern readers would qualify as fantastic or supernatural.
In the following pages, this quality of the world of the sagas about early Icelanders will be discussed in light of two separate approaches to the novel. In an earlier and briefer section, I will explore to what extent the concept of the
We know enough about the early development of narrative literature in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Iceland to see how an image of the period of Settlement and Conversion was progressively constructed before the advent of the sagas about early Icelanders
These texts developed a constructed image of the past, a
chansons de geste, for example, is similar to that of the sagas about early Icelanders in the fact that it is based on the mental construction of a historical period two to three centuries older. It differs from the chronotope of the sagas however, because the latter are more embedded in reality, both natural—heroes of the sagas about early Icelanders do not slice their enemies’ hauberks with one blow of their swords—and social—the saga heroes are more involved in complex social relations than a Roland or a Guillaume d’Orange.
The time and settings of the sagas about early Icelanders are Iceland and countries to which Icelanders were likely to travel in the period from the ninth to the eleventh century, i.e. from the Settlement to the Conversion. These times and places constitute their specific chronotope which has a certain number of properties. One of them is that the social and physical world of these sagas is more or less identical to that of their original authors and audience. This probably has quite a lot to do with the fact that these sagas present themselves as history, even though their historical truth is disputable
But the chronotope of the
Íslendingasögur is also foundational. Iceland is being settled and the basic social and power relations within it are being established. The settlers had a certain position within the society they came from. They did not necessarily retain that position when they came to Iceland. Indeed, settling in a new country creates basic uncertainty about social status, which is another aspect of the ambiguity in the sagas about early Icelanders and their chronotope. This can surely be related to a feature of thirteenth-century society in Iceland. The changes happening in the first half of the century, at the same time as the first Íslendingasögur were being written, made it quite likely that a sort of a
Uncertain identities of both the social and metaphysical kind are quite at the heart of the saga of another poet, Egil Skallagrimsson. The identity of the sons of Hildirid, whether they are bastards or legitimate heirs, is the basic uncertainty at the root of Thorolf Kveldulfsson’s undoing, they affirming their legitimacy, he denying it. Later in the saga, the denial of the legitimacy of Asgerd, Egil’s wife, is the source of the main conflict between Egil and King Eirik blood-axe, who denies what Egil affirms. In both cases, doubt is being cast on social identity.
A similar observation could be made about religious and moral identity. Egil is prime-signed, i.e. not quite a Christian and not quite a pagan. The author plays continuously and consistently throughout the saga on this ambiguity, among other things in his wedding to Asgerd, his brother’s widow, something a pagan is allowed to do and not a Christian
But there is another side to this play with ambiguous identity that so characterizes the saga of Egil: identity is also always being affirmed. The saga as a whole can be read as establishing the social identity of the descendants of Skallagrim. The equals of Norwegian aristocrats, they have left the country because they haven’t been able to submit to the new authority of the king. In Iceland, they themselves claim authority over the region of Borgarfjörður, defending this claim when it is challenged by Steinar in the last part of the saga.
Similarly, Egil’s religious identity is finally established at the end of the saga, after its ambiguities have been played out. Indeed, the whole point of the story of Egil’s bones being found under the altar of the church at Mosfell and buried again on the edge of the cemetery, is to establish his correct theological status. He is not a pagan. That is why his bones are taken from the burial mound he is first laid to rest in, and moved to a Christian cemetery when the country is converted. However, he is not quite a Christian, and certainly not a saint, as saints are the only people entitled to being buried under the altar. His correct place is at the edge of the cemetery where babies are buried who have only received the shorter baptism because they died before a priest could baptize them properly. This is prescribed in the law-book Grágás. Incidentally, the term
Another property of the chronotope of the sagas about early Icelanders by which it also has a special relationship to uncertain identities is their portrayal of the supernatural. As has already been said, despite their perceived realism, the sagas present characters and events that do not fit into modern views of reality. This seems to be a problem, unless we relate it to another stream in the history of the novel which runs parallel to the realist stream, namely the fantastic, which yields a literature in the nineteenth century that Tzvetan Todorov studied in his influential 1975 book on the subject. This literature is quite different from the realist canon though its roots reach far back in literary history
Todorov distinguishes between what he calls
It is this hesitation which is interesting to relate to the
This fight and the events leading up to it—chapters 32 through 35—are in many ways exceptional in the saga. To begin with it serves as a break in the story of Grettir’s life: the narrative leaves him for two chapters for the first time since he entered the saga, in order to present the characters and set the stage. Secondly, though it is far from Grettir’s only clash with the supernatural, it is the one which receives the most elaborate treatment. Thirdly, this elaboration has a twofold effect, on the one hand it creates uncertainty and raises questions about Glám’s status, both before and after his death and haunting of the valley, and on the other it progressively shifts from being the collective experience of a community to the private experience of the individual, Grettir. This brings us to the fourth aspect of this episode which gives it special importance within the saga: Glám lays a curse upon Grettir which will be the cause of all his subsequent misfortunes. This curse is the explicit answer to the question that underlies the whole of the saga: why did a man who had all it takes to be a hero make such a mess of his life, ending it as an outlaw? In other words an interest is taken in a person’s experience as an individual.
There are three aspects which make this episode especially relevant to the question of the saga’s relationship to the novel: 1. the elaborate way in which the narrative outlines Glám’s supernatural status; 2. the progressive individuation of the point of view on the supernatural; 3. how this experience of the supernatural is closely linked to the problematic status of this individual, which is what the saga is about.
Before discussing each of these aspects, a brief summary of the four chapters is necessary (
Now the story returns to Grettir, who is looking for a heroic deed to accomplish. He hears of the events and decides to go despite warnings that it can only bring him misfortune. The first night he is there, nothing happens, the second nothing seems to happen either, until Thorhall and Grettir discover that Grettir’s horse’s back has been broken. The third night Glám arrives. He is huge and truly monstrous and Grettir and he fight in the night, first inside the house until they are carried outside where Glám falls on his back with Grettir on top. The wind blows a cloud away from the moon and Glám’s face is illuminated, Grettir stares into his eyes and is paralyzed by what he sees. Glám then lays a curse on Grettir, saying that he will not become any stronger than he is now, even though he has only attained half the strength he was supposed to, also that from that moment on all his deeds will turn out badly for him and finally that Glám’s eyes will haunt him for the rest of his life making him unable to stay alone at night. After this, Grettir regains his strength and cuts the ghost’s head off, placing it by its buttocks before burning the cadaver and burying its ashes where nobody ever passes.
If we begin by looking at Glám’s status as a supernatural being, what principally characterizes the part of the episode until Grettir becomes involved is that the narrator delays being explicit about Glám’s nature. Instead he uses a technique that involves giving clues as to what Glám is. These clues are inconclusive and sometimes contradictory and therefore entertain uncertainty about his status as a being.
The first sign that something is out of the ordinary is the disquiet Glám inspires in people. Even the sheep herd together when they hear Glám’s deep voice (
There are other signs however that seem to indicate that Glám is not just a being from the pre-Christian world and that what happens must be understood in the context of a Christian dialectic between Holy and Unholy. Glám is being moved to a cemetery and the supernatural heaviness can therefore be interpreted as an intervention from some force which does not want Glám’s body to be laid to rest in hallowed ground where it can do no harm
Until the very end of the episode, there is constant indecision concerning Glám’s status. Some signs suggest that he is a pagan survival in this transitional period, others that he is diabolical. Hermann Pálsson has drawn attention to the close parallels between the Glám episode and the account, in the bishop’s saga
Through the different stages of the narration it would thus have dawned upon the medieval audience of the saga that Glám’s status is that of a non-baptised being, marginally supernatural, which has been possessed, after its death, by an evil spirit. This evil spirit is not the local ghost who haunted the valley before Glám’s arrival, but one who is capable of having a far-ranging effect on an individual’s life. It seems reasonable to connect him to the boy who makes Grettir lose his temper later on in the saga, when he is submitting himself to the ordeal that would have proven his innocence in the crime he is accused of. The boy, the saga says, was thought to be an evil spirit sent for Grettir’s misfortune (
How are we to understand this dialectic between paganism, the diabolical and Christianity? I believe it can be useful to take a look at what was happening concerning attitudes to the supernatural during this period. In his book on
In his work on the fantastic in twelfth- and thirteenth-century French literature and its links to the development of novelistic discourse, Francis Dubost has taken Le Goff’s categories and shown that many works from this period willingly entertain uncertainty about the nature of the supernatural their heroes are confronted with. Is the marvel, be it Breton or other, just that and nothing else or can it be subsumed under either of the two Christian categories, the divine or the diabolical? He distinguishes between two types of medieval narrative. In one type the supernatural is taken for granted as an aspect of the world in which the narrative takes place. He calls this simply
The works studied by Dubost have a clear tendency to formulate this questioning of the supernatural, not from the point of view of the community or society, but from the point of view of the individual. It is he who is trying to understand the nature of what he is confronted with
le fantastique médiéval,
Thus the medieval
This is clearly what is happening in the Glám episode. The events are persistently presented from the point of view of those who perceive them, but aren’t sure of what to make of them. This uncanniness comes to its climax when Grettir looks into the eyes of the monster. It is possible to show in detail how the narrative becomes increasingly focalized on Grettir as it proceeds. At the end, no one but he looks the ghost in the eye and this experience is the key to his tragic fate, the saga tells us, but also the key to his personality.
This resonates with the historian Peter Brown’s article from 1975 on
a dramatic shift in the borderline between the subjective and the objective
Encounter with the supernatural is a key to the deeper layers of the soul in other sagas than
The second link between the supernatural and conflict between father and son in Egil’s Saga, is when Skallagrim himself dies. Father and son have had an unfriendly exchange earlier the same day. Egil has neglected to give his father the silver King Athelstan awarded Skallagrim in compensation for the loss of Egil’s older brother Thorolf. Now, Egil has made light of his father’s request for what is due to him. After they separate, Skallagrim takes a chest of silver he owns and sinks it into a bog before returning home to die, sitting in an upright position with his eyes open. When Egil comes home, he must dispose of his father’s body. He goes into the room, taking care not to be caught in his dead father’s gaze, lays the body down, closes its eyes and has a hole made in the wall, so that it won’t be carried out through the door
This account has a direct parallel in
Elsewhere, I have shown how the theme of dead fathers permeates
Going back to Todorov’s concepts of
There is something terribly unsettling about deadly conflict between fathers and sons. That is why it is the stuff of both myths and tragedies. It also seems to be that of at least three of the sagas about early Icelanders. We have seen it in
In a late episode of the saga, Grettir is uncharacteristically lenient in his dealings with an opponent. Grettir has already been an outlaw for a number of years and is now in hiding in the mountains of the Dalir area in western Iceland, preying on travelers and the smaller farmers in the area. The young man’s name is Thorodd and he is son to the powerful chieftain Snorri goði, the main character of
This is far from being the most well-known passage of the saga, but there are many noteworthy aspects to it. First of all, Grettir is quite frank about his feelings. This is the first time he admits to fear of a real person and not a supernatural figure or of Glám’s gaze which has haunted him ever since their encounter. Secondly, Grettir shows considerable self-restraint, a quality that he has too little of. As King Olaf says on the occasion of the failed ordeal, Grettir’s inability to control himself is at the root of his ill fortune
It is no coincidence that he calls Snorri
Margr er dulinn at sér.
Grettir’s admission that he fears Thorfinn’s father can be understood in light of Grettir’s childhood conflicts with his father. He shows time and again that he does not fear his father. Using the language of proverbs, Grettir places himself on an equal footing with Ásmundr. Indeed he shows considerably more verbal skills than his father. Also, he has no qualms over inflicting physical pain on him when he scratches his back so fiercely with the wool comb that it bleeds
This brings us back to the issue of self-restraint. One of Sigmund Freud’s discoveries was that in order to learn to control its behaviour, the child must go through a period in which it experiences intense fear of punishment by a third party, outside of the mother-child dyad. This is usually the father or someone occupying his structural place. This fear takes the form of castration anxiety because it is experienced—and also repressed—in the same period that the child is discovering the physical difference between the sexes. The child perceives the mother’s less obvious genitalia as an absence of penis and assumes the father has castrated her. Experiencing this fear is an essential part of becoming a socialized human being, of acquiring mastery over one’s desires and undergoing the laws of human society. Neurotics experience a characteristic ambivalence towards sexual difference, while perverts tend to deny it
The Lacanian spin to this is that submitting to the arbitrariness of the Law also precedes the entry into the world of language, i.e. Saussure’s famous arbitrariness of the linguistic sign. The signifier is imposed on meaning by the force of the paternal instance. It is a
As beings endowed with language, but also with both consciousness and an Unconscious, we are engaged in a life-long struggle with meaning. We are constantly reacting to the way language imposes its will on us, either by submitting to it or by refusing it, or, as the poet does, by hacking away at it, playing with it, provoking it, undermining the supremacy of the Name-of-the-Father over us
The term to
We now come to the episode’s place in the saga. This is the period in the saga when Grettir is closing the circle. The years of roaming around the country are over. They were inaugurated by his fight with Glám and are now coming to an end. He will shortly return to his mother and then go on to Drangey, where he will meet his death. Interestingly, the episode just before this one is Grettir’s fight with the troll woman in Bárðardalr. Many scholars have remarked on the parallels between this episode and that of the fight with Glám. Both take place inside a farm, which is being subjected to intense damage. In both cases Grettir waits inside until the monster invades the house and in both cases he manages to prevail, though the opponents are manifestly stronger than he is. However, there is a difference in how he disposes of his two foes. Glám has his head cut off and placed between his buttocks. In Bárðardalr, it is the troll-woman’s arm which is cut off.
The two episodes seem to be in dialogue with each other; if we pay attention to their differences as well as to the circumstances in which they appear, we might reach a better understanding about what the saga is telling us about Grettir and his fate. In the troll-woman episode, Grettir’s ability to rid human dwellings of malevolent supernatural creatures is re-affirmed. He is thanked for it, among others by a priest. He also engages in his only love affair in the saga and fathers a child. As already has been said, he shows unaccustomed restraint in the episode we have studied which takes place immediately afterwards.
The Glám episode on the contrary is Grettir’s major traumatic experience. Even though he prevails, the
draugr has laid a curse upon him which has changed him. He cannot be alone at night, because he is assailed by horrific visions and he has a much shorter temper. As he admits to his uncle afterwards, he has more trouble containing himself and feels more strongly about anything that might be perceived as an offence
By his own admission, this is the only horrific sight that has ever affected him. It incapacitates him so that he cannot brandish his sword and he feels almost as if he is lying between the world of men and that of the dead. The text thus tells us that this is an individual experience of the supernatural and also that it is the individual experiencing himself. In addition, it is a profoundly traumatic episode, which will relegate Grettir to a psychic stage of fear of the dark, being at the mercy of hallucinations, losing his autonomy because he craves company.
Russell Poole has written that:
Glám’s role in the scheme of the narrative could be formulated as that of overdetermining characteristics of Grettir that have already manifested themselves in the hero’s heritage and upbringing
During their struggle, they end up outside, Grettir lying on top of Glám. It is then that the moon shines on the monster’s face and Grettir sees his gaze. What horrors does Grettir see in Glám’s eyes? A death threat, obviously, but from whom? It is here that I think that the Lacanian approach is useful. What does Grettir do to the body of the
draugr after he has recomposed himself? By cutting his head off and putting it
við þjó honum,
Of course there is a folkloristic reading of this episode. As in many other Icelandic stories, and probably those of other countries, doing this is a way to keep the evil spirit contained. This does not however exclude other interpretations and I would argue that Grettir is treating Glám’s body like a signifier, transforming it to give it a meaning, possibly the deeper meaning of his life. He is taking away the seat of the horrific eyes in which he sees himself close to Hel, and the mouth which has cast on him the spell of his tragic destiny. The head is the seat of phallic power, the power of language and also of castration. It is the terrible unspeakable force of the paternal instance, a power which psychoanalysis tells us we acknowledge in our submission to laws and rules, notably those of language, but of which we also repress our knowledge.
Grettir is taking this sign and putting it somewhere else, in the cleft between the legs, the crotch. By lying on top of Glám, he was in a way casting him as a female, or more precisely as the phallic mother. By putting the sign of the father back where it wasn’t, i.e. between the legs, he is symbolically denying castration.
Very much in line with the Lacanian approach, this play on the signifier can also be seen in the way the name of Grettir’s father, Ásmundr, comes back (gengr aptr) in the name of the revenant (
Significantly, both of these displaced fragments resurface around the same time in the saga. Mention has already been made of the paternal signifier used to characterize Snorri goði:
hærukarlinn faðir þinn.
The dialectic relationship between fragmenting the name of the father and making it whole again is therefore one of the ways in which fiction is engendered in the saga. There are several more examples of this in the saga, especially in the story of Grettir’s ancestor, Önund tréfótr,
the most able-bodied one-legged man in days of yore
In psychoanalytic terms, Grettir’s tragedy is that of the denial of castration, and therefore of the refusal to submit to the law. It is quite remarkable that medieval Iceland’s most famous and popular outlaw saga should link together in such an intricate way his outlawry, the trauma of his encounter with the supernatural and his story as an individual.
For the South African novelist, André Brink, what defines the novel from its inception is its deep engagement with language. The play of language in
By applying Dubost’s inspired approach to what he calls
le fantastique médiéval
The use of Bakthin’s concept of the chronotope makes intelligible why this type of exploration is particularly noticeable in the sagas about early Icelanders, compared to other Old Icelandic genres. The thirteenth-century authors and audience of the sagas are going through a period of change and redefinition of society. The literary representation of the period in which it originated, socially, politically, and spiritually, is an
is essentially to do with hesitation and uncertainty