«The Fornaldarsögur: Stephen Mitchell’s Contribution Jesse L. Byock The fornaldarsögur (literally, “sagas of antiquity”) have long been ...»
Oral Tradition, 10/2 (1995): 451-457
The Fornaldarsögur: Stephen Mitchell’s Contribution
Jesse L. Byock
The fornaldarsögur (literally, “sagas of antiquity”) have long been relegated to
the status of “poor cousins” within the family of Old Icelandic literature. To a large
degree this downgrading has occurred because the fornaldarsögur are often fantastic
narrations that read very differently from the more sober and worldly íslendingasögur
[family sagas]. Written in the period from roughly the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, the fornaldarsögur, a mixture of tradition and invention, often recount legendary and mythic events from the recesses of Scandinavian folk memory. Sometimes a tale follows its hero or heroes into the supernatural world and also recounts quasi-historical memories of events that can be traced as far back as the migration period. In general, the fornaldarsögur focus on Scandinavia; southern Germanic matters and events are less evident and usually only enter the tales in connection with stories built on, or sharing motifs and traditions with, Eddic material, as they do in the Völsunga saga.
Both the family and the kings’ sagas, as well as other Norse sources, offer a good deal of evidence suggesting that the fornaldarsögur, or similar prose narratives, were told orally by Icelanders both before and after writing became common in the twelfth century.
Sturlu áttr, from the Sturlunga saga compendium (1946), contains a description of such oral storytelling. It records the following tale about Sturla ór arson, who journeyed to Norway in the mid-thirteenth century. Sturla undertook his trip hoping to restore his standing with the king, to whom he had been slandered. As fate would have it, Sturla, though gaining access to the royal ship, found the king displeased with him, and the Icelander was lodged in the forward part of the vessel away from the king (vol. 2:232- 33).
And when the men lay down to sleep, the king’s forecastleman asked who should entertain them. Most remained silent at this. Then he asked: “Sturla the Icelander, will you entertain us?” “You decide,” says Sturla. Then he told Huldar saga, better and more cleverly than any of them who were there had heard before.
Many thronged forward on the deck and wanted to hear it clearly, so that there was a great throng there.
The queen asked, “What is that crowd of men on the foredeck?” A man says, “The men want to hear the saga that the Icelander is telling.” She said, “What saga is that?” He replied, “It’s about a great troll-woman, and it is a good story, and it is being well told.” The king told her to pay no heed to this but to sleep. Sh
The king remained silent. People went to sleep for the night. The following morning there was no wind, and the king’s ship was in the same place. When the men were sitting at table during the day the king sent to Sturla some dishes from his table.
Sturla’s messmates were pleased at this, and said, “Things look better with you here than we thought, if this sort of thing goes on.” When the men had eaten, the queen sent a message to Sturla asking him to come to her and have with him the saga about the troll-woman. Sturla went aft to the quarterdeck then and greeted the king and queen. The king received his greeting shortly but the queen received it well and easily. The queen then asked him to tell that same story that he had told in the evening. He did so, and told the saga for much of the day.
When he had told it, the queen and many others thanked him and understood that he was a knowledgeable and wise man.
Although individuals like Sturla ór arson may have been famed as raconteurs of fantastic stories such as the lost Huldar saga, much remains unclear about the provenance and the transmission of the fornaldarsögur. Even the naming of this group of texts has caused confusion. The term “sagas of antiquity” was coined by the first scholarly editor, presumably because the tales are set mostly in the ancient pre-Viking and early Viking past, that is, from the fifth to the tenth century. What the medieval Icelanders called these sagas is not known, but, in modern times, there have been numerous attempts to name and categorize all or parts of the fornaldarsögur. Groupings have alternately been referred to as “legendary sagas,” “mythical-heroic sagas,” or “legendary fiction,” and other rubrics, such as “Viking romances” and “Viking sagas,” have been proposed.
These latter suggestions reflect the fact that many of the texts deal with Viking forays;
some of them are set in the west, as far away as Ireland, but most take place in the East (including Finland, Bjarmaland, and Gar aríki-Russia).
Stephen A. Mitchell, in Heroic Sagas and Ballads (1991), chooses to stick with the term fornaldarsögur. To this end he delineates (in chapter 2, “Definitions and Assessments”) five traits that contribute to a definition of the texts: grounding in traditional heroic themes, their fabulous nature, inclusion of verse, distinct temporal and spatial frames, and a tendency toward monodimensional figures. Traditionally, scholars in search of ancient mythic and historical information have been the primary investigators of these texts. Such an exploration is a time-honored pursuit. The fornaldarsögur have supplied numerous pieces of information crucial to the unfinished jigsaw puzzle that forms our understanding of early Scandinavia. Mitchell, however, is not seeking still more clues to the earliest cultural and historical past of the northern regions; in fact, his goal is altogether different from an exploration for motifs and sources. Instead, Mitchell sets his sights on opening this large body of often ignored texts to modern narrative inquiry, bringing the hard-won lessons of oral theory to the study of the fornaldarsögur.
He regards the texts as constituting a genre that is the product both of conscious literary innovation and of the medieval Icelanders’ use of traditional, oral narrative forms and techniques. For Mitchell, the fornaldarsögur “are a cultural hybrid, a constellation of (primarily) folkloric and traditional materials and of (secondarily) literary materials, the interpretation of which must depend on the methodological tools of both fields” (43).
Mitchell’s intent in combining these methodological approaches is to shift the focus of the discourse to an analysis of the underlying generative elements, that is, the cultural, social, and narrative forces responsible for the creation and centuries-long maintenance of this Icelandic form of storytelling.
REVIEW ESSAY 453 Mitchell has thus set himself an ambitious task, but in pursuing it he is, to his credit, highly successful. His success is due in a large part to his ability to concentrate on significant social and historical issues while introducing current concepts of narrative structure and oral theory. Mitchell distinguishes his work from earlier studies in several innovative ways. On the social and historical front, he purposely chooses to draw only occasionally on Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum. Similarly, he does not depend on the other more fragmentary attestations to preexisting legendary traditions. Passing over these frequently used sources of events and traditions of the eighth and ninth centuries, Mitchell breaks new ground by exploring the fornaldarsögur within the contextual framework of thirteenth-, fourteenth-, and fifteenth-century Iceland, that is, within the realm of the society and culture that produced and used these texts.
Throughout his book, Mitchell is steadfast in his contention that the fornaldarsögur are best understood in connection with the later period of writing rather than in light of the ancient settings of the stories themselves. Although legendary narratives were popular before the thirteenth century, Mitchell argues that the distinctive nature of the extant texts is a result of their connection with the Icelandic Middle Ages.
At that time—the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries—the island society was experiencing decisive changes. The older order of the Free State was adapting to the constraints of foreign overlordship and perceptions were changing with the importation of new cultural influences. To Mitchell’s list of shifting cultural factors might be added the significant economic and social alterations induced by the large-scale exportation of stockfish that began in the third decade of the fourteenth century.
The introductory section of Heroic Sagas and Ballads reviews the current state of saga studies. The core theoretical issues unfold in four long chapters, followed by an Epilogue and an Appendix. The latter lists the mostly prose fornaldarsögur, linking them with examples of related ballads and rímur (metrical romances). The bibliographical apparatus is extensive, listing translations and editions and then presenting a comprehensive listing of secondary literature. By focusing on the sagas, the first three chapters form the comparative groundwork for the final chapter, which offers a new paradigm for the relationship between the fornaldarsögur and the versified texts. In the past most scholars have argued that transmission between the genres flowed in one direction, from saga to ballad and rímur. Mitchell, however, takes a different view, arguing that “the relationship between the fornaldarsögur and the versified texts cannot be characterized by transmutation in a single direction” (137). He observes that there was considerable movement back and forth between the genres, noting that some of what we regard as fornaldarsögur are in reality prose reworkings of rímur.
Firmly grounded in modern folklore analysis, Mitchell addresses the conviction that in critical scholarship there is no text without context. Stating his goal of exploring the nature of literary transmission in medieval Iceland and the attitudes of the medieval audience, Mitchell, in his introduction, carefully lays out the theoretical background of his study. As a result, his clear and concise assessment of previous theories reaches far beyond the often narrow confines of traditional studies of the late heroic texts. He notes that whereas “the question of orality as a matter of scholarly debate has attached itself more to the íslendingasögur than to other saga genres,” the influence of the orality question “colors virtually every discussion in the area of Old Norse literature, and the issues seem to me to be of the utmost importance in the case of the fornaldarsögur” (6).
454 REVIEW ESSAY The Introduction is a critical reassessment that will serve as a departure point for future analyses of saga story, whether concerning the fornaldarsögur or the family sagas.
Mitchell has the analytical acumen to formulate the issues and the courage to stand up and say what has in the past few years become increasingly clear: we are now at a watershed where we can discern that several idiosyncratic approaches troubling contemporary saga studies are no longer viable. Focusing at first on the more than
seventy years of debate over saga origins, Mitchell distinguishes three groups:
“bookprosists,” who advocate the late written, though mostly indigenous, origin of the sagas; “continentalists,” who embrace a form of bookprose, in which the genesis of the Icelandic texts lies in imported continental Latin/Christian or late vernacular literary models; and “traditionalists,” who believe that the texts originated in a native tradition of well-developed oral storytelling. Once the distinctions are set out, Mitchell refuses to be drawn into rehashing the old arguments about bookprose and freeprose. Instead, he concentrates on evaluating the work of the continental school by applying the critical eye of the comparativist. He astutely observes (4-5) that, like the old bookprosists, the modern Continentalists seem perfectly prepared to leave society out of the equation as well. And in their desire to make the Continentalist case, its adherents threaten to become locked into an arid search for “sources,” whether at the level of the individual motif or of the macrostructure.
Focusing on Carol Clover’s The Medieval Saga (1982) and Marianne Kalinke’s Bridal Quest Romance in Medieval Iceland (1990) as examples of continentalists’ work, Mitchell goes on to say (5) that Source studies by the Continentalists would seem to be an intellectual cul-de-sac. Placed in contexts of this sort, literature begins to lack meaning, other than as a sterile warehouse of motifs and structures with which partisans may ratify such displaced concerns as the glory and influence of medieval France.
Tired of the hodgepodge logic and the aggressive but unconvincing argumentation of the continentalists, Mitchell chooses critical rigor. He rejects the basis of Clover’s review essay, “Icelandic Family Sagas (Íslendingasögur)” in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Critical Guide (1985). Pointing out the contrived nature of Clover’s conclusions, Mitchell notes (5) that her reasoning is often based on a kind of negative analogic argument. The idea that the complex interweaving of saga style could not have developed from traditional oral forms, for example, is based on selectively culled evidence from non-European folk traditions: there are counterexamples from Irish and Serbo-Croatian oral traditions which make the point moot.
Having addressed head-on the outdated continentalist-bookprosist views, Mitchell develops an analytic alternative. In the process he formulates the position (5) of
the century, when he could characterize the saga writers as something like stenographers accurately recording a fixed text word for word from oral narration; if anything, today’s traditionalists probably resemble what his generation would have thought of as bookprosists, namely, believers in an individual saga writer employing inherited oral verse and indigenous traditions in the service of a written text.