Centre for Medieval Studies Lecture Series 2016–2017

Shaun F. D. Hughes

‘The Never-Ending Story’

Saga Writing from Ari Þorgilsson to Bergsveinn Birgisson

Thursday, March 16, 2017, at 16.30
Oddi 101

shaun-hughes-2
Shaun F. D. Hughes

For much of the twentieth century, scholarship on the Íslendingasögur was focused largely on arguing that these works were fiction rather than history. Now that a consensus seems to have been reached that this is in fact the case, perhaps the time has come to reconsider the sagas again as history, not “History” as contemporary historians understand it, but “Saga” as it was understood in the thirteenth and subsequent centuries. Such re-evaluation consists of two parts. The first is to analyse the writing of sögur in the light of recent French scholarship on the writing of “Histoire” which addresses such questions as “what does it mean to create the past” and “why does one ‘construct’ history?” Scholars drawn upon here include: Catherine Croizy-Naquet, Écrire l’histoire romaine au début du xiiie siècle (1999); Aimé Petit, L’anachronisme dans les romans antiques du xiie siècle (2002); Francine Mora-Lebrun, “Metre en romanz” (2008); and Pierre Courroux, L’Écriture de l’histoire dans les chroniques françaises (2016).

But there is a major difference between French “histoire” and Icelandic “Saga.” Saga-writing did not come to a halt in the 14th century as some literary histories suggest, but continues down to the present as witness the appearance of Geirmundar saga heljarskinns in 2015. The period of Icelandic history before the conversion to Christianity in the year 1000, I argue, was imagined as a collective “subcreation” in Tolkien’s sense as developed in his essay “On Fairy-stories.” Nor is this a modern phenomenon. I would argue that this collective subcreation is already very much evident in the thirteenth century when the classical family sagas were composed. This subcreation or secondary World, the world of pre-Christian Iceland, like Middle-earth or Westeros, is a consistent imaginative world, into which Icelandic authors of the thirteenth century and later could insert their narratives.

The fifteenth-century Víglundar saga og Ketilríðar and Gunnars saga Keldugnúpsfífls are given a place in the prestigious Íslensk fornrit series even though the latter involves characters found nowhere else. Guðni Jónsson was sufficiently far-sighted to include in his Íslendingasagnaútgáfan edition Ármanns saga ok Þorsteins gála, Ásmundar saga Atlasonar, Helga saga Hallvarðssonar, Illuga saga Tagldarbana, Þjóstólfs saga hamramma, and Þorsteins saga Geirnefjufóstra but his precedent has been ignored by subsequent editors. As Halldór Kiljan Laxness noted back in 1945, the Íslendingasögur are more a reflection of the time they were written rather than the time they were writing about. Even the earliest sagas are unreliable as a record of settlement Iceland. Therefore I argue that we should open up the canon to include all sögur and in the process open up our understanding how of the past continued to live in the present for successive generations of Icelanders, and why this past continued to be so immediate that they never ceased writing about it.

Shaun F. D. Hughes (Ph.D., University of Washington, 1972) is Professor of English at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, where he is Director of Literary Studies and former Director of English Language and Linguistics (2010-2016). He also serves as Director of Medieval and Renaissance Studies in the School of Interdisciplinary Studies, College of Liberal Arts. His research areas include Old Norse and early Modern Icelandic Studies.

The talk will be delivered in English. All are welcome to attend.