Friday, June 15, 2012

David Clark's "Gender, Violence, and the Past in Edda and Saga"

David Clark is Lecturer in the School of English at the University of Leicester. His research focuses on medieval gender and sexuality and the modern reception of medieval literature, and his publications include Between Medieval Men: Male Friendship and Desire in Early Medieval Literature.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Gender, Violence, and the Past in Edda and Saga, and reported the following:
From Page 99:
Rather than continuing to trace individual Eddaic motifs in the sagas, though, we shall now look at exactly how Gísla saga relates to Eddaic verse, since there are certain problems with the way some critics use one to interpret the other, and assume, first that the Eddaic poems have the same motivation as the saga and indeed lend the later text its motivation, and second that the Eddaic poems are a homogeneous body telling a consistent story.

H. M. Heinrichs, for instance, in his study of the relationships between the Niflung legend and the saga goes so far as to see in Gísli’s strophe on his sister’s inconstancy the central impetus for the saga author’s narrative strategy, and he also makes the point that, as in the Sigurðr-legend, a conversation or argument between women determines the fate of men. However, as Heinrichs himself admits, the conflict between the Eddaic antagonists Brynhildr and Guðrún can have been no more than a stimulus for the disastrous conversation between Ásgerðr and Auðr about their pre- and extra-marital affairs, since Ásgerðr does not incite murder, unlike Brynhildr.1

Theodore M. Andersson uses the Eddaic background to support his argument about the identity of Vésteinn’s murderer, stating that, given that Þorgrímr signally refused to become Vésteinn’s blood-brother, he must therefore ‘of necessity be the killer since he has undertaken no obligations toward Vésteinn and is free to do the deed.’2 In the Edda, he points out, Sigurðr is bound to both Gunnarr and Högni, and so they get Gotþormr, who is not so bound, to kill him. Andersson reasons that ‘The foursome in Gísla saga seems clearly to be modeled on the foursome in the legend of Sigurðr, and if blood brotherhood legislates against murder in one case, it seems certain to legislate against murder in the other case’ (22). The problem with this reasoning, of course, is that it ignores the fact that not all the Sigurðr legends are the same. Certainly in Sigurðarkviða in skamma strophe 20, Högni decides that they should get Gotþormr to do the killing because ‘hann var fyr útan / eiða svarna’ [he was outside of the oaths sworn]. However, in the prose passage Frá dauða Sigurðar and the preceding Brot af Sigurðarkviðu, the responsibility is seen as collective: Högni tells Guðrún in Brot strophe 7 that ‘Sundr höfum Sigurð / sverði högginn’ [We have hewn Sigurðr asunder with a sword]. A further logical flaw is that, even if the saga author did know only the version of the legend in which Gotþormr is the killer because he swore no oaths, this does not necessarily imply that he saw Þorgrímr as Vésteinn’s murderer; it could have been part of his design that one of Vésteinn’s blood-brothers killed him, for example, to provide greater justification for Gísli’s retaliation. It does not matter for my argument who actually did the killing: the point is that the text does not make it clear.3 It is thus important to bear in mind not only that there are significant differences between Edda and saga, even when the latter is clearly alluding to the former, but also that the Poetic Edda is not a homogeneous entity and contains differing versions of the Sigurðr legend within itself.

1 See H. M. Heinrichs, ‘Nibelungensage und Gísla Saga’, Beiträge zur deutschen und nordischen Literatur: Festgabe für Leopold Magon zum 70. Geburtstag, 3. April 1957, ed. H. W. Seiffert. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1958, pp. 22–29, at pp. 27–29.

2 Theodore M. Andersson, ‘Some Ambiguities in Gísla saga: A Balance Sheet’, BONIS 1968 (1969), 7–42, at 22.

3 On the vexed question of Vésteinn’s murderer, see further initially, Andersson, ‘Some Ambiguities’, pp. 20–28. It is true as Andersson points out that the shorter version of the saga gives the chapter heading Þorgrímr drap Vésteinn, but this seems likely to be a later scribal addition, as could be the line in the longer redaction which specifies that Þorgrímr killed Vésteinn (Andersson, ‘Some Ambiguities’, p. 21). Certainly, the murderer’s identity is clearly left deliberately unclear in the actual text of the murder scene.
I’m surprised by how well page 99 (and the sentence before and after it) relates conceptually to the book as a whole. At first I thought it would be largely irrelevant, since the two main paragraphs essentially summarize two critics’ arguments (Heinrichs and Andersson) and point out some problems with them. However, they do also address one of the central issues of the book, which is the relationship between the Old Norse poems collected in The Poetic Edda and some key sagas which draw on them. The two critics are also dealing with family strife, treachery, and murder, which are themes which run throughout the book, along with the question of how men’s and women’s actions and fates interrelate. The aspect of the book which I guess the page does not represent is its exploration of male sexuality and its links to violence, and the association of women with revenge in the poems and sagas. Page 99 also only implicitly indicates one of the main contentions of the book, which is that both the Eddaic poems and the sagas present a complex and often conflicting attitude to vengeance and heroism: there is not one unified voice, but rather many conflicting voices, particularly where issues of masculinity are at stake. The page excerpted here is from a chapter which concentrates largely on the saga of Gísli Súrsson, and the book as a whole ranges widely through both the heroic and mythological poems of The Poetic Edda, and both the sagas of Icelanders (or family sagas) and the contemporary sagas. However, Gísla saga is in fact one of my favourite sagas, so I’m glad that page 99 came from this chapter. It is the saga which reworks the Eddaic poems most interestingly, as a proto-detective story with lashings of guilty sex and violence, loyalty and betrayal. Its ambivalent attitude to its hero, who is both admirably heroic and awkwardly outdated in his attitude to revenge, is a good representative of the uneasy relation of past and present and the balance between the impulses to moderation and to violence that are characteristic of some of the most fascinating Old Norse texts.
Learn more about Gender, Violence, and the Past in Edda and Saga at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue