Human-Animal Transformations in Medieval Icelandic Literature
Tuesday January 12, 2016, at 16.30
A close reading of medieval Icelandic literature reveals how multiple dichotomies – animal/human, wild/domestic, savage/civilized, forest/city, nature/culture – can be mapped onto one another and become mutually destabilized when human and animal characters undergo physical and psychological transformations.
In the sagas, people acquire the ability to change into animals either through consumption of an animal’s flesh or blood, by wearing an animal’s fur or feathers, or via magic. Rather than inhabiting a stable and singular location in the liminal space between animal and human, these characters exhibit a constant oscillation between the two categories. Such a process is described by Deleuze and Guattari: ‘To become animal is to participate in movement, to stake out a path of escape in all its positivity, to cross a threshold, to reach a continuum of intensities’. In a transition from major (the constant) to minor (the variable), all classifications simultaneously deconstruct; when the categories of ‘human’ and ‘animal’ are interrupted, multiple movements are always at work.
Select examples, including the werewolves Sigmundr and Sinfjötli in Völsunga saga, the bear-man Björn in Hrólfs saga kraka, and the dog-king Saurr in Hákonar saga góða, suggest that medieval Icelandic authors and audiences had a nuanced understanding of the complex interconnections between themselves, animals, and their shared environments.
Timothy Bourns holds a master’s degree in Medieval Icelandic Studies. He is currently a Ph.D. student at Oxford University.