The Power of the Women in Njáls saga
Hallgerd, Bergthora and Queen Gunnhild
Monday, February 5, 2018, at 16.30
The power of women in Njála might be said to emanate from their own being, if we believe that the saga provides a consistent picture of womanhood as opposed to the masculine. But the different powers of the two sexes are relativized as they are pitted against one another, causing the gender issue to be blurred and curiously modern, even postmodern. Far from using the word ‘power’ in Michel Foucault’s sense, i.e. as dominance, I am using it in the positive sense of a directed purpose to install the individual in a meaningful search for freedom and independence, a search she constructs in response to and in opposition to and in defiance of the men. Hence gender becomes blurred and the borderline between women and men is crossed, and the crossing is preempted and previsioned in the character of Njal who possesses feminine and masculine features that together make up his ‘identity’, or lack of determinate identity, an absence of definable substance or essence that makes him, interestingly, akin to modern or modernist characters. The shifting gender identities make up a pivotal aspect of the singular dynamic of the saga, ironically causing the plot to undermine itself, as the women actively counteract Fate and Determination by engaging in a series of free plots of their own. Hallgerd’s ‘inciting’ the killing of Thord, Skarphedin’s foster-father, is much more than inciting, and transcends her possible role as a ‘woman inciter’ since it leads more or less directly to the culmination of a plot that is not the saga’s but her own, namely her refusal to give Gunnar two locks of her hair so that he can make a string for his bow. Hair becomes a potent symbol of the shifts of power concomitant with the gender shift, for hair, traditionally a feminine attribute, expands its significance through being either given or withheld, and at the same time it becomes detached from linguistic determinacy or determination, as we see it precisely in Njal whose gender is composite or perhaps non-existent, as he transcends even the postmodern ‘transgender’. Sources such as Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity and Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror may be helpful in illuminating these processes in the saga.
Jørgen Veisland is associate professor of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Gdansk in Poland. He is the author of Drama and repetition. Time in selected plays by Henrik Ibsen, Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett (2009) and Depression and Utopia. A study of selected works by John Steinbeck (2010).
The talk will be delivered in English. All are welcome to attend.