Trolls, Jötnar and other Others: Monsters at the 16th Saga Conference

I have recently been feeling marginal, or marginalised, in my own field. After a harsh Q&A in April and a devastating peer review that I received a few days before I left for Germany in July, I had been gaining the impression that my work was useless and wrong, or at least that others thought that there was an inherent flaw in my approach. On both occasions, I was able to argue against it. I know what I have read, and what I have thought and thought about. I know that I am not the first medievalist who tries to approach monstrosity in medieval literature from a non-medieval (i.e. non-Isidorean, non-learned) direction that takes into account that there is more than one literary tradition in medieval Europe. Certainly, the learned and the vernacular always intersected: in the Icelandic sagas, one can clearly trace learned and courtly influence on the “native” literature. However, at least at this early stage, I cannot look at all three of them together, so I have to choose one.

So I chose to look at the vernacular, “native”, secular side of these texts. And I chose to approach them from the point of view of monster theory, while at the same time adapting this theory and developing a scale or spectrum of monstrosity. Others before me (Asma 2009, McLennan 2009, Shildrick 2002) have argued that there are degrees of monstrosity. The clearest example of such an argument is perhaps this:

“In place of a morality of principles and rules that speaks to a clear-cut set of binaries setting out the good and the evil, the self and the other, normal and abnormal, the permissible and the prohibited, I turn away from such normative ethics to embrace instead the ambiguity and unpredictability of an openness towards the monstrous other. [My aim is] to contest the binary that opposes the monstrous to the normal.” (Margrit Shildrick, Embodying the Monster, 2002, p. 3)

Still, one of my peer reviewers said that “trolls are trolls”, in spite of this word being used to refer to all sorts of paranormally-connoted, threatening, disrupting others (like witches and sorcerers, berserkers, an outlaw, revenants) as well as the ethnically other mountain-dwellers that we tend to associate with Scandinavian folklore. The word is flexible enough to accommodate the modern usage as well, again referring to disruptive people who threaten the stability of an online community.

I wish this person had attended Ármann Jakobsson’s paper at the conference. Entitled “Troll Space”, it explored the place of trolls as others in saga texts, considering examples from the contemporary sagas as well as from Bergbúa þáttr. Ármann examined the fear and wonder inspired by these characters, thus assuming a more classically medievalist reading of monstrous otherness than my own. However, these examples, according to Ármann, are only individual dots in a more fluid concept, a mental “troll space”, in which different types of trolls take on different roles and inhabit different places. Thus, trolls in literature become the externalisation of a psychic concept, showing us that trolls are not all the same trolls, but each troll has to be regarded in their own right to understand what “troll space” really entails. I look forward to reading the book Ármann is working on at the moment.

Among some other interesting papers that I did not take enough notes on for a more detailed account were Sean Lawing’s exploration of references to the burial of body parts in legal texts (gruesome and thorough!) and Heidi Støa’s discussion of artifical bodies in Old Norse literature. Apparently there are golem-like animated humanised revenant-ish creatures in Þorleifs þáttr jarlaskálds! I really should read this story!
Two interesting papers by Þórhallur Eyþórsson and Kirsi Kanerva explored different aspects of Grettir’s fight with Glámr, and the idea of both physio-spiritual penetrability as well as empathy hierarchy employed in the narration of the scene gave me things to think about.

Sarah Künzler is an old friend of mine, so I’ve known that she is brilliant for several years. However, her paper again proved it, and not just to me who did not need to be convinced. Investigating the depiction of heroic, courtly and monstrous bodies in Sigurðar saga þögla, she argued that the saga subverts not only the bodies but also the readers’ expectations on what courtly and non-courtly should be like, thus breaking down the binary between nature and culture, the court and the wild, the human and the non-human. This, according to Sarah, is not necessarily a general tendency of the riddarasögur, but does show that they are far less stereotypical and “boring”, far more varied and subversive than a lot of previous scholarship has thought them to be. And again we could here see an example of non-binary thinking in a medieval texts.

Arngrímur Vídalín’s tracing of blámenn in the Icelandic literary tradition seemed to point in a similar direction. Blámenn, literally “blue men”, can appear as neutrally or even positively depicted champions as well as in the role of vicious opponents. As such, they share similarities and characteristics with berserkers, and their colour connects them with revenants who are sometimes described as “blár sem hel”, “blue as Hel(l)”. Thus, again, we can see a nuanced, non-binary depiction of characters that should appear to be simple rather than complex.

My own paper went okay, I guess, at least I heard from some of the rather few people who attended it that it was interesting. It is now on my academia.edu profile for those who are interested. It is the most theoretical thing I have written to date, and I wish I had had a bit more discussion afterwards, so comments are very welcome!

There was another high number of interesting papers on Wednesday. Roderick Dale explored the patters (or rather, the lack thereof) in the naming of berserkers in the sagas. While giving an interesting overview, I wish this paper had gone a bit further, although I cannot really pin down where I would have liked it to go. Also, there are some characters who I would clearly read as berserkers without them being called such, and their names often fall within the larger pattern discussed here as well. However, I do agree with Roderick that we have to look at these figures on a text-by-text basis rather than coming up with generalisations.
Oren Falk’s discussion of boyhood (rather than childhood or male adolescent, on which a lot has been written already) in the Íslendingasögur and contemporary sagas was particularly interesting to my chapter on outlaws and their families, and reminded me of things that I have to think about, and texts that I have to read, as for example Bjarnar saga Hítdælakappa.
Marion Poilvez’ discussion of outlaws and kings opened up another spectrum, this time one of legal adherence, with outlaws on one and kings on the other extreme. In between, characters seem to be able to move, and in some cases there seems to be a mutual influence. This in particular I find a very interesting idea, although again, one has to look at individual texts rather than general patterns. For example, some kings like Óláfr Haraldsson are not “contaminated” by an outlaw’s presence, whereas Eiríkr Bloodax is exiled himself after his dealings with Egill. Egill, however, is not like other outlaws (the heroes of the so called “outlaw sagas”), so I wonder what we can make of this. I am looking forward to hearing more from Marion!

Finally, Ingunn Ásdísardóttir presented a fascinating new reading of the jötnar (often called “giants” in translations) of Old Norse mythology. She proposes to “get inside their heads”, so to speak, to turn the mythological accounts that are all biased on the perspective of gods and humans on their heads and try to recover their perspective. She argues that the perceived enmity between the gods and the jötnar is not as strong as it has been made out to be, that there is more fluidity between them, and that we should maybe conceive of them more in terms of competition than of oppositions. Again, the binary structures that have dominated our thinking for too long are being broken down here, and while Ingunn’s approach is certainly a dangerous and difficult one (and one that will bring her a lot of opposition, especially among older scholars), I am intrigued and excited to see this project develop.

The thing that I am most excited about after this conference, however, is the fact that we have founded a new network: The Old Norse Network of Otherness (ONNO), as it is currently called. We all felt that there is not enough collaboration between us, that we all work on similar ideas (the breaking-down of binaries, the development of spectrums and continuities, the de-marginalisation of otherness in a field that often seems to be behind the developments of the humanities more generally) but work on them alone, only discovering the overlap when we meet every few years to exchange our ideas. Such exchange, however, is vital for scholarship. Without it, the field will never change. I hope that this new network will enable such an exchange, that it will inspire us all and bring us closer together, connecting us across the boundaries of countries and divisions of genre. Eventually, I hope to be able to organise a workshop, maybe even here in Cambridge, who knows.

This conference was excellent, thought-provoking, fun, strenuous, tiring, fantastic. I am still exhausted and excited at the same time, and I can’t wait to see what will come of the conversations and meetings we had in the past week. One thing I know for certain though: I feel much less marginalised, much less excluded, and I am ready to face the critics again head-on.

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