Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
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Fracture and Containment in the Icelandic Skalds’ Sagas

William Sayers

Prosimetrum is a term rarely used in the context of Old Norse-Icelandic literature, although there do exist combinations of prose and verse that meet the fundamental criteria for such categorization, the Norwegian kings’sagas being perhaps the best known example. The working premise of earlier scholars in approaching such sagas seems to have been that the distinction between verse and prose as we identify them would, in general terms, have been valid for poets and saga authors, patrons and public in the early medieval North. However, the culturally relevant criteria for distinguishing between the two, beyond what we might call the formal ones, e.g. the presence of meter, are a matter in which there is less assurance of a shared view.

In exploring the circumstances under which prose and verse are conjoined or juxtaposed in Old Norse literature, one can scarcely disregard the Icelandic works that go under our designation of skalds’sagas, that is, sagas with poets as protagonists, since these works display not only the melding of prose and verse that we find in the kings’sagas and occasionally in the family sagas but also recreate the personalities and lives of poets who were capable–in these fictions–of arresting the forward flow of ‘prosaic’events by the composition and delivery of extemporaneous verse. Generally speaking, the prose saga incorporates the poets’ verse as direct speech in such fashion that the stanzas may appear the more formally rigorous, but the dominant medium of prose encompasses and envelops both the poetic life and its creations. In distinction to verse, prose imposes a dynamic linear narrative, geared to comprehension in sequence and realized through less heavily marked discourse than verse. The "story," the ground against which the verse is displayed, also creates a mainstream ethical environment for judgment of the saga principals.

Both media, prose and verse, are shot through with unhistorical elements. In the case of the verse, we may or may not always be able to identify spurious later ascriptions, but biography in the prose is perhaps even more difficult to assess. On the level of detail, we have concluded that some incidents in the prose narrative are derived from verses not always correctly understood. The verse, often intrinsically polysemous (through word-play, allusion, kennings, etc.), is then further overdetermined by the bracketing prose, but not always, for our generation, usefully so. The result is a house of mirrors: the subjective world of the verse may, on balance, be more authentic, even historical, than the pose of objectivity and historicity adopted by the surrounding prose.

The resulting alternation between poets’actions and poets’words, between authorial prose and protagonist poetry has been introduced and briefly discussed here in order to set the stage for the exploration of other kinds of division and divisiveness in the poets’ sagas and for an inquiry as to which ideological ends they might serve. For the poets’sagas we still lack a comprehensive statement on the criteria that determined the relevance of story-telling matter: what particular selection of the myriad detail of reality was judged to further the ends of such narratives. However, similarities in character, plot structure, the repertory of motifs, and what will be seen as the overreaching ideological objectives of these works do suggest a recognized sub-genre, or perhaps a dominant model, copied with variations (Bragg, forthcoming). In this category I place the stories of the poets Kormak, Gunnlaug, and Hallfred, of Thord and Bjorn from the latter's saga, and Thormod from Fóstbrœdra saga. Sections in other family sagas display affinities with these works through the deployment of versifying characters, such as Thorarinn svarti and Bjorn Ásbrandsson in Eyrbyggja saga. Egils saga Skallagrímssonar naturally deserves consideration in this context, but the author, generally judged to be Snorri Sturluson, provides such pointed comment on other skáldasögur as concerns the role of poetry and the poet in society that separate treatment is dictated.1

It will be argued in the following that the poets’ sagas are characterized by contrast, often effected through fracture effects, to a greater degree than the family sagas generally, not simply in the alternation of prose and verse but in their conceptions of the poetic personality and the poet’s social agency, of deviant and normative behavior, in compositional strategies, and in tone. What is realized as effects of contrast for the saga audience typically entails controversy and divisiveness for the saga principals. I contend that, although saga authors in retrospect identified skaldic verse as one of the glories of the Icelandic Free State, they also saw it as a threat to the immediate social ecology. Poetry’s potential for public ill is allegorized in both the temperament and the life of the poet type, and the sagas’ multiple, often trivial or unnecessary, conflicts are consonant with his potential for destabilization. In the case of the family sagas, one scholarly perspective is to see in them an appreciation of early Icelandic society’s tolerance for feud, within the context of other jural processes then available for conflict resolution, but also see a desire for feud’s eventual extirpation when passions had run their course, retaliatory costs become too high, and the original cast passed from the scene. I propose that the poets’ sagas are, in ideological terms, similarly about containment but that it is effected through dichotomies that splinter and disempower.

My thesis of containment for ideological ends, to be achieved through purposeful, thematically relevant contrasts as well as subtler paradoxes and ambiguities, will be tested in only two areas: the temperament and behavior of the poets and the tone of discourse, both between principals and from saga to audience. The saga protagonists from the tenth and early eleventh centuries are multifaceted–poets, fighters, wits, raiders and traders–but they also have personalities shot through with contradiction and ambiguity. Approaching them through the combination of biographical prose, the skalds’ own verses, and spurious later compositions, we have a further refracted view of this fissuring.

Key descriptors of personality are often introduced early in the sagas through the technique of narrativization, that is, the epithets that guide our understanding of the poets are not in the narrator’s voice but are community-assigned nicknames or are delivered in judgmental scenes between protagonists and their fellows, who are their superiors in pragmatic civics, if not ethics. Kormak is judged impetuous. Gunnlaug is called indecisive and snake-tongued; Hallfred, malicious, temperamental, the difficult skald. Enthusiastic but irresolute, Kormak, Hallfred, and Thormod court young women but inexplicably stop short of marriage, while Bjorn and Gunnlaug allow circumstance to intervene. But they then persist in jealousy and bitterness, their stoic posturing infused with self-pity.

Poets’relations with their communities seldom run smoothly, and they are prone to take bad advice. They are short-tempered and impatient, like Kormak in his inability to manage a magically endowed sword or to allow a sorceress to complete a protective charm on his behalf. Or their lives, caught at an adolescent stage, often appear to lack a larger purpose, like a string of lausavísur, `loose’or occasional verse, without connecting prose. Abroad, they wander from one court to another in self-promotion, seeking patrons and audiences for their encomiastic verse, until drawn into the Norwegian royal sphere, where the value attached to their art may offset other negative qualities and a para-paternal discipline impose an order otherwise lacking. A bored juvenile delinquent, Thormod courts the nearest girl at home, even reassigning his earlier verses, and abroad is at loose ends until given the assignment by King Olaf to avenge Thorgeir, which reactivates his tie of blood-brothership with the deceased. But only seldom, and then for the larger objectives of the narrative, as in Hallfred's relationship with King Olaf and the new Christian faith, are the poets content to remain under royal patronage.

The irritability and irresolution of the artistic personality and its uneasy interface with surrounding social reality are generative of poetry, occasional verse in the literal sense that it is not simply comment on events and sentiments but is itself an active expression of the poet’s social agency. In contrast to the memorializing verse that we find in the kings’ sagas, for example, the purportedly impromptu stanzas of the poets’ sagas are speech acts of courting, defamation, or self-advancement that are intended to affect and modify surrounding reality. The verses do not encapsulate the moment so much as give it its edge. For the saga public (at least the modern one), the shift in discourse mode, at the interstices in the prosimetrum, may be demanding but it has a comparable confrontational effect in the poets’ own social environment. It is destabilizing in formal discursive terms but no less so through content, as it drives various wedges into the community and engineers displacements in the honor system. This is not to deny the ‘lyric’dimension of this verse, in which narcissism finds expression in the poet’s poses of stoic heroism or longing when separated from his beloved by circumstance and often by the fact of her assumedly unhappy marriage to another.

These and other aspects of internal irreconciliation in the poetic personality and in the external promotion of conflict have been noted in earlier studies of these works. Rather than pursue them, I here call attention to a different kind of splintering, to the division of the poet type into several figures in a single saga or into separate personae depending on locality. Such division may also be seen as a means to authorial control. The protagonist often has an antagonist who suggests an alter ego, a man who is also both poet and fighter, at times a better man by conventional standards, as the decisive and generous Bersi is in relation to the vacillating Kormak, or a worse one, as is Thorvald in the same saga, but typically a man more successfully integrated into his social circumstances. This brother may also be the deceiver and betrayer. Gunnlaug has Hrafn, Bjorn has Thord. While in Thormod’s case, this doppelgänger is a non-poetic, A-type personality with questionable ethics, all man of action but still the poet’s foster-brother, the twin is usually cast as the poet's rival and husband of the woman whom the poet has earlier made the object of his verses. This leads, in my view, to the curious ménage à trois effects of these sagas. Armed duels with rivals generate physical wounds, and verbal and artistic rivalry social wounds, but these are rarely fatal, although symbolic impairment may occur in both cases. Sisters may be offered in compensation to resolve disputes. Despite the armed duels, contention between men reaches its height in its most stylized form, in alternating poems with the ratchet effect of feud. This endows these events of contention with a ludic dimension (in exclusively masculine terms), which is of course not foreign to skaldic verse itself. With the two rivals so similar in abilities, the rival is an exteriorization of the poet’s own incompleteness. Foregrounded, the amatory and poetic rivals seem more fully a couple than either man and the woman, and the rival is no less a prerequisite than the beloved for poetic art. The woman, not truly loved until lost, is a shared middle ground between the two antagonists, until the irresolution of circumstances may prompt her, like Steingerd, to disown one husband or choose to stay with a second, even when she is finally released by other males in her life to join the poet.

Masculinity, as a criterion of gender adequacy, and its relevance to personal honor are of prime concern to the medieval Icelander. The skalds’ sagas also raise the issue of gender stability. Although the sagas of the Icelanders exhibit many purposeful and forceful women, including those who cross-dress and cross the gender border, there is also a hint of feminization in the portraits of some poets, a kind of emotional cross-dressing.

Another dimension of the splintered, refracted effect, within and without, is the contrast between the poet at home in Iceland and abroad. The Icelander’s performance as warrior in Norway, the Baltic, and the British Isles is unquestioningly recognized by contemporaries. This is familiar from the family sagas. Through counterpoint, it establishes that the poet suffers no deficiency in the sphere of conventional gender adequacy, despite his irresolution in marriage matters, once away from his community. The poet’s peripatetic movement is cast in a positive light, as he seeks out the greatest men of the time, although there may be a degree of tension attending this new-found ambition and his efforts to gain a hearing for his praise poems. But generally the poet is successful abroad when he had been frustrated at home, is confident when he had been vacillating, and is an effective warrior and king’s man when he had been an ineffectual player on the domestic scene. His problems are not exported and thus their exclusive relevance to Iceland is underlined. The man who had been an idiosyncratic, decentered misfit at home moves, once abroad, toward a universal male realization, and becomes the man of his verses. There is a double perspective and standard at work here, as if the saga were saying: in the domestic context the man admittedly has problems, but these are overshadowed by his exceptional qualities, more fully recognized once the scene is an international one. What is flawed in Iceland is still superior to the run of the mill abroad. The poet is a cultural ambassador but lacks an equivalent social function at home.

One aspect of the ambiguous Icelandic view of Norwegian royal power in the thirteenth century, with its promise of stability and cultural incorporation in Europe but threat to independence, is realized narratively and retrojected into the saga age in accounts in which the individual Icelander, his poetic art and other talents, are so prized by the king that his full incorporation as courtier and soldier seems assured, yet he is compelled to return to Iceland. Thirteenth-century Norwegian expansionism is here symbolically recast as an even earlier royal desire to appropriate individual Icelandic human resources. As in the family sagas, the Norwegian king, often the physical match for the outstanding Icelander who visits him, is superior in his knowledge of men, informed by the accumulated wisdom of his royal office. This allows him to distinguish men of luck and to foresee whether the Icelander’s desired return to Iceland will be to his or his community’s advantage. Positive and negative are balanced out in equations such as the legal claim that gifts Hallfred had won from the Norwegian king be surrendered in Iceland as compensation for satiric verse. And if the poet chooses to stay with the king? His verses, now focussed on royalty, no longer undermine Icelandic social order (seducing unmarried females, defaming adult males) but instead promote the Norwegian kingship. Yet the long-term threat to Iceland may be no less, since the strengthened ruler will, in time, turn his acquisitive gaze to the island.

In two important ways the destiny of the poetic personality is also extra-Icelandic. To grasp the significance of this we must return to saga beginnings, the inchoate narrative stage of suggestion that precedes the moment when the poet’s key descriptor–impatient, difficult, snake-tongue– is assigned. The history of Norwegian contacts with the remainder of Europe and Iceland’s particular ethnogenesis made the Celtic lands prime candidates to embody alterity, although in many narratives the world of the Saami to the north is similarly exploited. Kormak bears an Irish name and is described as dark-haired and -eyed; like Hallfred, Thormod has curly dark hair, plus a speech impediment, and has a dysfunctional right arm from an old injury. Gunnlaug is characterized by light chestnut hair, dark eyes, an ugly nose. These aberrations from the ethnically homogeneous west Norse are the physical homologues of differences in personality from the mainstream. Medieval Icelandic men of letters seem to have anticipated J. W. Croker's comments on the Irish: "restless yet indolent, shrewd and indiscreet, impetuous, impatient, and improvident, instinctively brave, thoughtlessly generous, quick to resent and forgive offences, to form and renounce friendships." Flaws of personality may also be exteriorized in wounds that heal poorly, disfigure or disable.

While the poets’ greatest successes in life (as distinct from the afterlife of their work) are abroad rather than at home, it is perhaps even more striking that they are not fated to die in Iceland (Bjorn from Hitardal the one exception). Kormak is killed in a struggle with a Scottish blótrisi `sacrifice-giant’who has strong associations with the Irish bachlach figure that appears when a failed king is fated to die. Hallfred perishes in the Irish Sea and is buried in the Hebrides. Bjorn Asbrandsson, the Breidavik Champion, ends his days as a respected but not entirely secure leader among the overseas Irish in Irland it mikla, the Greater Ireland that lay somewhere in the North Atlantic. Thormod falls in battle in Norway at Sticklastad near Trondheim when just returned from Sweden; Gunnlaug is treacherously killed in a duel near the Norwegian-Swedish border. Not only is the poet's destiny to die abroad and thus in death as in life not be fully integrated into his native land, the poet leaves no legitimate progeny. (Hallfred has a son born abroad of a foreign wife.) In the poets’ biographies generally, the hints at extra-Icelandic origins, the acclaim abroad, and the solitary destinies are, from the domestic Icelandic perspective, statements on alterity and non-incorporation. Even poetry, the true and legitimate offspring, is taken into another author’s ‘family,’offered a disciplined but nurturing home in the saga prose. These foreign destinies are often prepared by the poet not having been an active landowner and manager in life, not having sought a social and political life more active than that occasioned by his jealousy and defamatory verse, and the ensuing judicial duels or court cases, which only rarely, it should be noted, are so consequential as to generate socially encompassing, conventional feud as we know it from the family sagas. The contention between Bjorn and Thord is an exception. This saga has the most explicit discussion of the dangers in the circulation of defamatory verse and merits brief individual treatment.

The escalation in the animosity between Bjorn and Thord, centered on Oddny, who is married to the latter but will father the former’s son, provides a register of Icelandic insult. After Thord had been mocked for a trivial hunting accident, a critical stage is reached in Chapter 16 when the motif of bestiality enters the war of words. This marks the first involvement of the community, whose men did not want the verses spread about. Here it will be illustrative to provide an excerpt from the saga that displays the ratchet effect of feud, the role of the community as arbiter before law and in common gossip, the everyday realia that form the stuff of scurrilous art, the touchy honor of t he protagonists, and so on–all densely intertwined in the narrative, which is here picked up in media res, after Thord has been bitten by a seal he was trying to dispatch.

Now it is to be told that Bjorn’s farmhand Thorgeir spoke to him one evening, saying that they did not have as much hay as was needed for the animals he had to care for, and he asked Bjorn to go and look at the fodder to see whether he thought it would last. Bjorn did as he was asked. They went off and came to the byres, and Thorgeir stepped in first because he knew the way better. But a cow had borne a calf, and Thorgeir tripped over the calf as it lay on the floor, and cursed. Bjorn told him to throw the calf up into the stall, but Thorgeir said that the lower the devil lay the better, and would not touch it. Then Bjorn picked up the calf from the floor and threw it into the stall.

Home they went then, and Thorgeir told his friends how Bjorn had picked up the calf from the floor and thrown it up into the stall, "but I wouldn’t touch it."

There were guests there who heard Thorgeir’s story. And not much later these same people visited Thord at Hitarnes and told him this. He spoke, saying that Bjorn had got enough people, both men and women, to see to such things so that there should be no need for him to act as midwife to the cows, and he spoke a verse.

Why must you, O mighty
Mud-dweller, keep casting
(though a seal has scratched me)
scorn on my wounding?
You’ll be sorry, soldier
At sight of shield shaking,
You clutched a twisted calf beneath
A cow’s tail, dung-encrusted.

People thought it wise that this verse should not be spread about, but it was not kept secret, and it came to Bjorn’s ears. He thought it a malicious verse, and he was not willing to let it rest. . . . [In the ensuing court case, Thord is fined for the verse.] Bjorn proposed to the Law Council that either of them who recited anything in the hearing of the other should forefeit his immunity. Those whose task it was to judge approved that, and it was considered more likely then that they would bespatter each other less with foul language, and with that they went home. Then things could be considered quiet.

It is further related that something appeared on Thord’s harbour mark which hardly seemed a token of friendship. It represented two men, one of them with a black hat on his head. They were standing bent over, one facing the other’s back. It seemed to be an indecent encounter, and people said that the position of neither standing figure was good, and yet that of the one in front was worse. Then Bjorn spoke a verse:

Here stand the helmsmen
Of harbour landing-places,
. . . . .
[two perhaps indecent lines omitted]
suited is the stalwart
spear-pointer for this work.
The weapon-wielders’s anger
weighs on Thord foremost.

(The Saga of Bjorn, Champion of the Hitardal People, Chs 16-17)

The poets of the sagas seldom have recourse to law, as if preferring to fight their battles with their own mode of discourse. When they do, they opt for the judicial duel, not argumentation in the courts. But here, sexual defamation, which was covered by Icelandic law, leads to a first court settlement, which is, however, not detailed in the saga. It is noteworthy that the community’s concern for "bespattering with foul language" (which accurately reflects the Icelandic idiom) defty picks up the very image of work in the stable that gave rise to the verses.

Matters go from bad to worse when the ‘pole of defamation’ is erected on Thord's property, depicting him as the passive partner in an act of sodomy, violated in his bodily integrity. This ancillary art form that furthers the poets’ contention also becomes the object of satirical verse (verse glossing the pole, as prose glosses verse), but now more than the censure of the community, which might be thought the mouthpiece of the sagaman, accompanies events. The cultural tradition itself intervenes and what was likely the most scabrous portion of the verses has been excised from the saga as we have it. Thus, the later, doubly conservative editorial tradition is seen to share the values of the earlier community, although modern scholarship judges it to have been in the interests of descendants of the principals that such censorship was practised. Again Bjorn will not settle out of court, as this would be tantamount to an admission of wrong-doing, and the penalty is consequentially higher.

After two years of peace, the next stage in the escalating strife results from the intervention of two outsiders from Norway, who are described in the negative terms often used of poets. As always, Norwegian engagement in the affairs of Icelanders, even though it be in the form of favors or gifts, has dire consequences on the domestic front. An ambush is mounted against Bjorn, and the voice of reason and caution, conditioned by premonition and partisanship, is assigned by the sagaman to Bjorn’s foster-sister, Thorhild. Although insulting verse will continue to be crafted, the saga has moved into the arena of conventional feud, since the satire is no longer commensurate with such concrete events as killings. At this point, the judgment of the larger community is recalled in a novel inversion of the type scene of the mannjafnadr, the debate between two men on the relative merits of two others not present. But here the question is whose verses were the more successfully defamatory. This moment in the saga is further marked by the uncommon deviation from simple chronological advance, events told as they happen. The retrospective moment is to recall verses that Bjorn had composed about Thord’s conception, which is attributed to his mother’s consumption of a beached fish. In the Icelandic value system, with its concern for legitimate and well-born descent, such an insult appears more serious than that of being made out as the victim of sodomy. At this point, the insulting verses are not being delivered by one man to another, but are being released to the community, and it is the community that passes judgment on the antisocial function of this poetry. This moment in the saga also bears comparison with the children’s play-acting in Gunnlaugs saga, when they take on the roles of the poet and Hrafn.

To return to more general concerns and conclude this discussion of the social agency of the poet type, the most positive but not necessarily most interesting portrayals of poets are the two mature Bjorns, but even they, otherwise champions, cannot achieve integration; one is forced out by Snorri, the other is attacked in an armed clash by his son from an adulterous affair, although the boy is not initially aware of their kinship. Perhaps the same individual is being referenced in two slightly different saga traditions and locales, further evidence of splintering.

A second area in which to explore contrast is tone. This is closely allied in the poets’ sagas to the content and objectives of the verse, and to its patron/patroness who has status as both subject and object. Skaldic conventions seem to have made the long praise poem normative, with the lausavísur detailing the events of personal life as a significant and, as history has shown, more memorable ancillary form. But whatever contrast might obtain between encomium and the poet’s vaunting of personal success in arms, both are in sharp distinction to verse composed to court a young woman or defame a rival. Simple possession of the beloved would, of course, make both erotic and defamatory poetry superfluous. The tone of the former is on the cool side of intimate, part of the idealization of the young subject, and usually relatively chaste, but with a rich and more sensual subtext available through the kennings. But the sexual content and scurrility of the defamatory verse is blatant. Sexual activity is not the true subject; rather, sexuality is exploited as a larger metaphorical field in which to comment on gender adequacy. Both erotic and defamatory verse are in further distinction to the praise of great men in that they seek not to promote the status quo but, in the eyes of critics and as confirmed by the law texts, seek to undermine social structures. Honor is the stake here. A young woman who was courted or seduced before marriage by a poet’s verse impeded the plans of the senior males in her family for her future marriage and its socio-economic consequences, and made them out as less than effective masters in their own house. Parodic and satiric verse, moving its tone to the low range of body functions and obscenity, divested a man of his honor through its assertions and further jeopardized him by obliging him to react publicly or suffer further disgrace when his fecklessness was seen to confirm the poet’s charge. But reaction, unless he too had competence in versifying, meant a commitment of material resources to punitive action, with possible far-reaching effects. The student of human nature may wonder whether the praise poems were not less effective in strengthening a Norwegian ruler’s hold (as distinct from his image of himself) than erotic and libellous poems circulating throughout the Icelandic countryside in changing the fortunes of lesser men.

Although we continue to explore the interface of prose and verse, from our scholarly perspective we are sufficiently familiar with the toggle effect that we no longer find the poets’ sagas an exotic genre of narrative. This may also have been the case in earlier public discourse, story-telling, recitation, and extemporaneous versifying in the north, but there was a distinct social comfort level for some kinds of verse. We are familiar with, if perhaps not fully convinced by, the notion of Indo-European antecedents for poetry in a two-part function: praise and censure of the military and political leader. Yet in skaldic verse the critical function, with little exception, has been limited to individual peers, professional and amatory rivals of the poet. Despite this restriction in range, the socially destabilizing potential of verse was still a matter for concern. Traditional deviance theory claims that in periods when social order is perceived to be under threat of change or dissolution, aberrancy is identified and made culpable, and an institutional apparatus is developed and deployed for its suppression. The short-term societal benefit is not so much in meeting the often innocuous menace as in the reaffirmation within the larger community of social values and social unity effected by a common purpose, even that of persecution. Erotic verse that jeopardized the marriage prospects of dependent women and defamatory verse that questioned manhood deviate from an ideal and responsible censorious role for poetry that would have had a strengthened social fabric as its objective.

The social irresponsibility of tenth- and eleventh-century skalds can scarcely be charged with the dysfunctions of the Icelandic state in the thirteenth-century Age of the Sturlungs, but it is to this period of social stress and rapid change that we owe the sagas of the Icelanders and the poets’ sagas. Just as feud or relations with Norway are treated in other groups of narratives, the disruptive potential and socially irresponsible personal indulgence of courting and slanderous verse are cast as a whipping boy for other abuses of power on a far greater scale. Situated in an ideal past, the sagas still provide all the pleasures and thrills of amorous verse and the Schadenfreude of satire and defamation, but in ways that show the anti-social menace to be ultimately containable and thus, for Iceland’s longer-term prospects, without consequence, without descent save in poetry that has the capacity to transcend its origins. On the analogy of the ‘maiden warrior’ (in Carol Clover’s term) who, through incitation or gender-switching into physical action in the masculine sphere, assumes social responsibility when males are absent, reluctant, or inadequate to the duties of vengeance or rightful claim, early Icelandic literature symbolically filled the void left by the absence of effective executive authority that gave early Icelandic society its special cachet and fatal flaw. The skalds’ sagas are engaged in policing the past, a ritual apotropaic act whose complex and more spiritual than material benefits were to accrue to the troubled present. In their combination of individual virtuoso verse and community-voiced judgmental prose, they offer the reconciliation in art and in the past that was judged difficult to achieve in society and in the present. Thus, where the poet has abandoned his role as responsible censor in favor of erotic advancement and personal peeves, the enveloping fiction of the poets’ sagas and its directed readings of the verse take up the duty of social comment and correction, just as within these fictions it is a Scandinavian ruler, his patronage and counsel, that discipline the poet, get him to ‘shape up', turn malicious wit into inventive eulogy. The sagas impose narrative order and celebrate the Icelandic past at the same time as they counter, through the exposure of long-term inconsequentiality, the socially destabilizing effects of erotic and defamatory verse, the downside of a poetry that were better engaged in Ares than Eros, and in the praise of kings than of farmgirls. But this is, of course, only a literary solution, more symptomatic than curative.

As I hope to have shown, the saga treatment inverts causality so that the socially divisive effects of the poet’s verse are given an antecedent in unreconciled elements of personality and in the vagaries of personal life history. In the mixture of verse and prose, in the splintered and divisive phenomena of the poetic temperament and poet’s social agency, the poet’s deeds at home and abroad, the extra-Icelandic destiny that mirrors his alteric origins, the sub-genre of the skalds’ sagas indulges in contrastive and oppositional effects, plus ironies, ambiguities and paradoxes, with the objective–the final contrast–of effectively containing a social threat while also preserving and celebrating the past. The poets’ sagas offer a troubled but ultimately controlled ground against which to view and appreciate the collective accomplishment of skaldic poetry.

The skalds’ sagas are about why poetry gets composed, not how, and about the way it works in a community, not how it is comprehended, intellectually and emotionally, by individuals. The various kinds of splintering effects, reflecting lack of stability within the poetic personality and engagement in socially destabilizing, marginally tolerated poetic forms, may also have had a destabilizing effect on the saga’s public, heightening its awareness of these problematics. But in the end the poets’ egocentric lausavísur or occasional verses are permitted to rise above their creators’ troubled and otherwise often domestically inconsequential lives and, like the medieval Icelander abroad, are projected as Iceland at its best. The ambivalence toward an art form which gave individual esthetic pleasure but had potentially serious social consequences seems to have been easily borne in the Iceland of the thirteenth century, perhaps accompanied by an indulgent irony: at a certain temporal distance, the bad old days and good old days tend to merge. But the perspective is not simply elegiac, and censure is not absent. Like sentimental and tolerant attitudes toward the Icelandic land spirits and unrepentant pagans (among whom some are poets), or toward those who held to the old pre-Christian heroic ethos, the Icelanders of the Christian age of saga-writing both condemned the poets in their personal, lyric mode and cherished them. The occasional verses, spur-of-the-moment, ironically prove the most long-lasting. Despite their menace to social order, the Icelanders loved the poets, warts and all; or let us say warts, chestnut hair, dark complexion and eyes, ugly noses, Irish names and all.


1 See the Works Cited for standard editions of the sagas and competent modern English translations. On Snorri, see Sayers 1995. Return.

Works Cited

Bjarnar saga Hítadœlkampa. In Borgfirdinga sögur. Eds. Sigurdur Nordal and Gudni Jónsson. Íslenzk fornrit, 3. Reykjavík: Hid íslenzka fornritafélag, 1938.

-----, The Saga of Bjorn, Champion of the Hitardal People. Trans. Alison Finlay. In The Complete Sagas of Icelanders including 49 tales. Gen. ed. Vidar Hreinsson, editorial team Robert Cook et al. Intro. by Robert Kellogg. 5 vols. Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997. Vol. 1.

Bragg, Lois. Oedipus borealis: The Aberrant Body in Old Icelandic Myth and Literature. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP. Forthcoming.

Clover, Carol J. "Maiden Warriors and Other Sons." Journal of English and Germanic Philology 85 (1986): 35-49.

Croker, John Wilson. A Sketch of the State of Ireland, Past and Present. 2nd ed. London: James Carpenter, 1808.

Eyrbyggja saga. Eds. Einar Ól. Sveinsson and Matthías Thórdarson. Íslenzk fornrit, 4. Reykjavík: Hid íslenzka fornritafélag, 1935.

----, The Saga of the People of Eyri. Trans. Judy Quinn. In The Complete Sagas of Icelanders. Vol. 5.

Fóstbrœdra saga. In Vestfirdinga sögur. Eds Björn K. Thórólfsson and Gudni Jónsson. Íslenzk fornrit, 6. Reykjavík: Hid íslenzka fornritafélag, 1943.

-----, The Saga of the Sworn Brothers. Trans. Martin S. Regal. In The Complete Sagas of Icelanders. Vol. 2.

Gunnlaugs saga ormstunga. In Vatnsdœla saga. Ed. Einar Ól. Sveinsson. Íslenzk fornrit, 8. Reykjavík: Hid íslenzka fornritafélag, 1939.

-----, The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue. Trans. Katrina C. Attwood. In The Complete Sagas of Icelanders. Vol. 1.

Hallfredar saga. In Vatnsdœla saga. Ed. Einar Ól. Sveinsson. Íslenzk fornrit, 8. Reykjavík: Hid íslenzka fornritafélag, 1939.

-----, The Saga of Hallfred the Troublesome Poet. Trans. Diana Whaley. In The Complete Sagas of Icelanders. Vol. 1.

Kormáks saga. In Vatnsdœla saga. Ed. Einar Ól. Sveinsson. Íslenzk fornrit, 8. Reykjavík: Hid íslenzka fornritafélag, 1939.

-----, Kormak’s Saga. Trans. Rory McTurk. In The Complete Sagas of Icelanders. Vol. 1.

Sayers, William. "Poetry and Social Agency in Egils saga Skallagrímssonar." Scripta Islandica 46 (1995): 29-62.












Updated 12/09/03