It’s been over a year since my last post, and I feel awful for having neglected this blog for so long! That does not mean I have neglected the monsters though: in the meantime, I have finished, defended and graduated from my PhD, given several papers and got two articles accepted. I’ve also talked to publishers and will soon start working on the proposal to publish my thesis as a book. And, finally, I have written applications and started working on my new project.
In this project, I want to reassess the so-called ‘post-classical’ Sagas of Icelanders, a sub-genre that has long been neglected by saga scholarship. These texts were judged to be inferior both as literature and history, and as a hybrid genre that obviously displays continental influences, they’ve been declared “un-Icelandic” and degenerate – signs of a decline in taste after Iceland lost its independence to Norway.
I, however, find them fascinating. They perfectly blend fantastic and paranormal elements (the stuff that’s got them such a bad rap) with the social and cultural details I love so much about the Íslendingasögur. They are therefore perfectly suited to the methodology I developed in my thesis: a methodology that blends literary theory with social history, looking at both the paranormal and the social dimensions of the sagas and revealing that they are not separate but closely, inseparably entwined. The project therefore intends to apply this methodology to the ‘post-classical’ sagas, hopefully resulting in some insights into this understudied genre of Icelandic sagas and stimulating scholarship to finally give them the attention they deserve.
For they are interesting for another reason as well. Instead of simply taking both continental and Icelandic traditions and mixing them, instead of simply continuing either of these traditions, they often take things in a different direction. What the preliminary research I have done so far has shown is that one of their main features is their subversiveness. They take the traditions on which they draw and make them their own, turning them into something more than just a sum of their parts. They thus create a story-world unique to them, and one that seems in many ways important to the late-medieval society that produced and transmitted them.
Let’s take for example Kjalnesinga saga. I have argued that it partakes of the outlaw saga tradition, but rather than just continuing this tradition, it subverts key elements of it. For example, the family conflicts so central to Grettis saga, Harðar saga and Gísla saga are here transferred to Búi’s relationships with his lovers who, in the other sagas, tend to be the people most helpful of the outlaw. Instead of the birth family, his foster mother Esja also assumes a special importance, and the saga adds the concern for Ólof’s ‘spoiledness’ after she has had a sexual relationship with someone other than Búi – a new concern that enters medieval thought with the changes in marriage and therefore gender ideologies. These changing ideologies are the particular topic of Víglundar saga, in which different approaches to love and marriage propel the central conflict of the saga – which, in typical family saga fashion, still arises out of fracturing family ties.
Similarly, Hávarðar saga makes the very old and the very young its heroes, and they are the ones who overcome the powerful political agents of the area. Króka-Refs saga plays with the idea of magic: Refr uses technology and engineering to build the contraptions that help him overcome his enemies, but they – less clever than him – think his skills are of an entirely different nature, suspecting him of magic-use. Bárðar saga has a hero who is also a giant/troll and eventually turns into a guardian spirit of the area, and a similar collapse of the hero and the paranormal or monstrous is the main concern of Grettis saga. And Harðar saga shows a subversion of society in itself in the Hólmverjar, a group of criminals and outlaws that has its own set of rules and laws but, due to the anti-social nature of its members, lacks the internal cohesion that would give it stability.
These sagas are therefore clearly playing with the generic conventions of the Íslendingasögur, and it is this subversiveness that makes them so interesting. So far, I have no answer to the question why they subvert genre conventions, and probably also audience expectations. The only thing I can do right now is offer a parallel in contemporary popular culture. Because I haven’t *just* been working these last few months. I’ve also watched a few movies and shows that are similarly concerned with subverting genre conventions and that were particularly interesting because they defy certain expectations.
Take for instance Logan, the ultra-violent final chapter of the Wolverine-story. Hailed as one of the best superhero movies of recent times, it takes its premise from the age and decline of the superpowers of its eponymous hero who has thus become more like Hávarðr: a rapidly aging man who dreams of living out his days on a boat, far away from the concerns of his days of heroism. Simultaneously, the movie blends in elements from other genres, like western and road movies, mixing traditions and transforming them both. The story also subverts the relationship between hero and mentor, as the mentor has become a liability in his old age and requires the now anti-hero to look after him. It is no surprise that, in this grim imagining of the world of superheroes, both end up dead.
Logan also foregrounds family relationships, focusing on Logan’s evolving bond with his daughter Laura. Another recent superhero movies interested in familial relationships is Guardians of the Galaxy II, which explores Peter Quill/Star-Lord’s tie with his father who supposedly becomes the mentor but then turns out to be the villain. In this exploration of varying emotions and Peter’s ultimate choice of being just another ordinary person among a group of friends and chosen family, the film goes against the hypermasculinity of the genre, showing characters who are saving the world while at the same time dealing with their own issues.
So what do these two examples of subversive superhero movies (and others could be mentioned, like Wonder Woman and its female gaze) have to do with the ‘post-classical’ Íslendingasögur? Apart from both taking established story-worlds and shaping, transforming and expanding them in new directions, there is another thing they share. Both are forms of transformative, subversive exploration of genre conventions and audience expectations that occur at the same time as the production and transmission of ‘classical’ forms of the genre. Thus, the subversive aspect of the ‘post-classical’ sagas is even more noteworthy if one considers that the manuscript transmission of ‘classical’ and ‘post-classical’ sagas occurred simultaneously – and sometimes within the same manuscript. Thus, there must have been an ongoing interest in both the tradition and its transformation.
This is basically the same with superhero narratives at the moment: we have subversions, both into the farcical (Deadpool) and the darkly psychological (Logan), while ‘classical’ stories are still being told – and not all of them are particularly good as could be seen in the case of Iron Fist. Guardians of the Galaxy II uses subversive strategies to particularly striking effect, juxtaposing humour and the serious exploration of dysfunctional families, father-son relationships and abandonment. Playing with the motif of the chosen one, which is at the heart of so many superhero stories, and turning it on its head highlights this interest in transformation even more. Thus, the genre seems to have reached a maturity where exploration of motifs and subversion of audience expectations has become possible, and a similar thing seems to have happened in the case of the Sagas of Icelanders. But just as with their simultaneous transmission of ‘classical’ and ‘post-classical’ narratives, there is still a need for the old stories. One can only wonder, however, how what must have been an increasing consciousness of subversive narration among saga audiences affected late-medieval and early-modern Icelanders’ literary tastes. One can only wonder if Iron Fist would have been received more positively before the advent of such powerful shows as Jessica Jones. (Probably not in this particular case)
Anyway, I look forward to seeing where these contemporary genres of popular entertainment are headed (I must find time to binge The Defenders soon), but I’m at least as excited about my new research project and hope to get some funding for it soon. These sagas are amazing, and the field is wide open because hardly anyone has taken them seriously enough to devote much time to them. So I’m also excited to see where this project will lead me, what I will discover, and if I can ultimately contribute to the better understanding of these texts in a way that is productive for saga scholarship as a whole.
And finally, I hope it won’t be another year until I write my next blog post!