Monstrous Families, Familiar Monsters
On the Use of Stories about Outlaw Heroes in the Íslendingasögur
Thursday March 26, 2015, at 16.30
The three main Íslendingasögur about outlaw heroes have long fascinated scholars and readers alike, and the question why medieval Icelanders told tales in which social outsiders play the part of the hero has been the concern of scholarship for a number of years. At the heart of that scholarship has been a preoccupation with the characters and their families, for these families play a prominent role in the texts: Gísli is outlawed for killing one brother-in-law to avenge another; Hörðr does not trust any of his male relatives, and this eventually leads to his downfall; and Grettir’s difficult relationship with his father seems to lead to his reckless and arrogant behaviour later in life. But why are these stories about outlaw heroes so focussed on the relationships between the individual and his kin group?
In this paper, I intend to address this question by looking at the outlaw as a monster. The monster, as a creature that points towards or even embodies meaning beyond itself, lends itself well to such an investigation into social and cultural concerns whose reflection we might see in the literary products of said culture. So far, outlaws have not been included into the corpus of Íslendingasögur monsters, and therefore, the aim of this paper is ultimately twofold: firstly, to establish the outlaw as monstrous based on a revised view of the concept of monstrosity, and secondly, to address the connection with and significance of family trouble in the sagas of Icelandic outlaw heroes.
Rebecca Merkelbach has studied in Tübingen, Dublin and Reykjavík and is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge. Her research focusses on the representation and use of human marginal and monstrous figures in the Íslendingasögur.