Centre for Medieval Studies Lecture Series

Tim W. Machan

“Stories That Make Things Real”

Thursday, January 10, 2019, at 16.30
Lögberg 101

Tim W. Machan

The impact of medieval Norse literature on later English literature and culture is a story well-told by McKinnell, McTurk, Wawn, Clunies Ross, Jón Helgason, and others. This talk seeks, then, not to rehearse, much less try to expand on, this well-established story. Instead, it positions literary activity and its representations in relation to the other ways by which an Anglo-Scandinavian memory was fashioned beginning in the early modern period and continuing into the nineteenth century. These include travelogues, ethnography, mythography, historiography, assessments of morality, and language studies. Since stories and fictional figures can be more easily epitomized and remembered than social or psychological abstractions, they can function more readily as decontextualized tropes — mnemonics that operate irrespectively of any historical specifics. Early English ethnographers’ cultivation of an Asiatic Óðinn did just this. What adds to the explanatory and emotive force of a myth like this one, or Snorri’s much re-used account of Þόrr spending a night in the giant Skrýmir’s mitten, is that it can take along with it less obvious memories of racial and ethnic identity. It is not coincidental, then, that the greatest impact of medieval Nordic literature on English literature, and so on discussions of the connections between them, should be post-medieval, when such broader cultural memories were themselves being actively constructed in the formation of the United Kingdom.

The talk will open with a discussion of competing Nordic and English uses of Scandinavian mythology — specifically of English appropriation of the Poetic Edda to help in the reconstruction of putatively lost Anglo-Saxon myths. It will then consider how the sagas provided nineteenth-century travelers with the inspiration to visit Iceland and to talk about the details of the lost medieval world that they could find there. In effect, the Edda, mapped by the sagas, inspired trips to the English past. The final portion of the lecture will turn to William Morris as an illustration of the ways in which literature could substantiate memories of an Anglo-Scandinavian past.

Tim W. Machan (PhD, Wisconsin, 1984) is Professor of English and a Fellow of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame. Focusing on Norse, Latin, and French as well as English, his research and teaching explore the interplay physical documents, multilingualism, and cultural memory.

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