Waterways in Icelandic Ballads
Tuesday, March 20, 2018, at 16.30
In a recent collection edited by Anne Scott and Cynthia Kosso, the contributors comment on the multiform uses of water in antique and medieval literature. It is not difficult to imagine many of these: waterways as transportation, as supplies of drinking water, as media for bathing. To cite a comparable instance, in the Swedish ballad “Tore’s Daughters,” some young women are killed and then springs bubble up from beneath their severed heads. Tore is thus moved to consecrate a church on the spot; some may recognize this narrative as basis for Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 film Virgin Spring. The connection between holiness and a clean source of water, whether a spring or a well, is common enough in medieval saintly tales. The Icelandic version of this ballad, however, there is no spring; rather a light is seen over the daughters’ shallow grave. Water seems to be reserved for other uses in Icelandic ballads, mainly as a deadly place where drownings, accidental and homicidal, occur in proportion to the ballads’ other main theme, human relationships of love, whether marital and premarital, illicit or coerced. In this talk I will examine such instances in “The Ballad of Gauti and Magnhild” (an analogue for the Old English poem Deor), in which a woman drowns when a bridge collapses. despite its being made (so the ballad says) of iron; “The Ballad of the Harp” (with a close analogues in the Scottish ballad “Twa Sisters”), in which an envious sister pushes her fair sibling into the sea; “Elen’s Song,” where a creature of the deep tries to abduct the resourceful heroine; Olaf Lilyrose, where the ocean is never quite reached as a destination and “Dialogue between a Mother and Son,” where the drowning motif sneaks in proverbially at the end. Along the way I will comment on bridges in Old Norse literature and on the relevance of ecocritism for this topic.
Paul Acker is a Professor of English at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri, where he teaches Old English and Old Icelandic. He earned his Ph.D. from Brown University and published a version of his dissertation as Revising Oral Theory in 1998. He researched in Iceland on a Fulbright Grant in 1980 and again in 1986, when he helped edit the Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia (1993) with Phillip Pulsiano and Kirsten Wolf. He contributed two saga translations to The Complete Sagas of Icelanders (1997) and co-edited with Carolyne Larrington two collections of essays on The Poetic Edda (2002 and 2013). He is completing a book on dragons, including Icelandic dragons, for Harvard University Press, and he is currently researching a book on Icelandic ballads, with translations into English.
The talk will be delivered in English. All are welcome to attend.