Sagas and the wider world of mediaeval literature

17th-century image from Egils Saga

There’s an episode of Frasier wherein Frasier and Niles go out for dinner at a restaurant where everything is almost perfect — except for one, small detail (I forget which) that they can nitpick. Daphne says, ‘Ah, just the way you like it.’ Sometimes documentaries can be that way, especially when the interviewees include, amongst some very good scholars, ordinary people.

I just watched a very interesting documentary by Dr Janina Ramirez called The Viking Sagas (you may recall my blogging about another of her Viking docs before). It is about the culture of Iceland where the sagas were born and mostly follows the Laxdaela Saga to tell us more. A couple of things niggled me — one being the typical, ‘Nice cuddly pagans who are close to nature vs. institutionalised Christians from abroad’ sort of thing that ignores nuance in both belief systems (and, in this case, the origins and history of the term pagan). We’ll put that to the side, though.

At one point, one of the Icelanders interviewed — I missed reading whether he was an actual scholar or simply an Icelandic storyteller/writer — said that the thing that makes the sagas different from the rest of European literature at the time is that the rest of Europe is telling very ‘Christian’ stories, where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. In the sagas, on the other hand, a guy can do some terrible stuff, be a real a-hole, and prosper in the end.

He’s right about the sagas, and I would (mostly) grant the point he is trying to make, which is that the Icelandic sagas have a level/form of verisimilitude not always apparent in other mediaeval European literature.

However, to typify said literature as ‘good things for the good’-style literature which is, almost inevitably, Christian, is to miss out on what’s going on in a lot of that literature and, in some cases, its classical antecedents.

First, ‘good things for the good’ as typical mediaeval literature. Is this a fair assessment of more southerly European literature in the Central and High Middle Ages? (Recalling that sagas were usually written down in the 1200s, even if they may reflect history of the 800s and 900s.) Certainly, sometimes. Percival finds the Grail, for example. In the much earlier Beowulf (ca. 800?), the title hero kills Grendel, Grendel’s Mom, and a dragon (but still gets killed in the end). But wait. Isn’t there more to Beowulf? Yes! Beowulf’s ‘success’ (‘good things for the good’) is inversely proportionate to his level of reliance on external aid — perhaps the ‘Christian’ story here is to rely on god-given abilities, not things of the world.

Yet in the originally-titled Alliterative Morte Arthur, Gawain, best of knights, dies almost at the beginning of the climactic battle. Sigfried is slaughtered in The Nibelungenlied, as we have seen, and, as we have also seen, a lot of ‘good men’ are needlessly butchered in the second half. Bad things can happen to good men. What about good things happening to bad men? Ramirez’s Icelander may have me there; mind you, don’t you sometimes think that King Mark of Cornwall ultimately gets what he wants? And, really, Mordred vs. Arthur doesn’t really end up good for anyone, but Mordred’s penultimate prosperity is better for him than Arthur, isn’t it? I’m sure there’s a lay or two of Marie de France where the ‘bad guy’ (aka jealous husband) wins.

I’d have to have read a lot more to make a better case, I admit. But these are what come to mind.

Second, ‘good things for the good’ as typically Christian. This idea is not peculiar to Christianity and is, in fact, denied by the theologian who lies at the centre of western mediaeval Christian thought, Augustine of Hippo, in his massive City of God. We cannot leave it there, though, for we must admit that his contemporary Orosius believed in it, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle certainly believed that bad things (such as the French) were visited upon the English for their sins. So there is a stream of Christian thought that affirms this teaching, even if Augustine or John Cassian or Jesus (it rains on the just and the unjust alike) denies it.

But Graeco-Roman pagans seemed to agree with it, too. The evil of abandoning the old gods, they would say, has caused all of our troubles. The Christians to the lion! (What, all of them to one lion? asks Tertullian.) Odysseus constantly gets into trouble because his sailors do ‘bad’ things (that is, contravene the commands of the gods). One could go on.

When we typify southern European literature of the Middle Ages as ‘Christian’, we forget that its authors are very often very much also immersed in the world of ‘pagan’ thought, be it pagan philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, or pagan poets such Homer, Virgil, and Ovid. And so, although these influences create a literature that is the literature of once ‘Christian’ Europe, not all of the forces governing this literature are Christian. (On this last point, see C S Lewis, The Discarded Image.)

That said, there is something about the Icelandic sagas. There are somehow different. I like them. I also like classical literature alongside Beowulf, The Nibelungenlied, and Arthurian romances. Go and try a saga or two. There’s a handy, affordable collection by Oxford World’s Classics called Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas.

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