Tag Archives: orality and literacy

Njal’s Saga

Not that this book is about Viking fleets, mind you

I recently read the 13th-century literary masterpiece Njal’s Saga — it will prove to be the last piece of Norse literature of this year in which I’ve read more Norse literature than any before. Some call Njal’s Saga the greatest of the Icelandic sagas. It is certainly, at least compared with the others I’ve read, the longest.*

Besides being long — or perhaps because of it — Njal’s Saga is a tale that spans the world of Icelanders at the turn of the Millennium. It has great sweep and great scope. The main characters are all farmers, most of whom are not lords of any variety, but all of whom have some degree of local power and personal, if not vested/legal/judiciary, power.

Like most lengthy mediaeval narratives, this is not a single story.** There is no single, tightened plot with setting, problem, rising tension, climax, resolution, dénouement.*** This helps contribute to the scope of the saga. We have a multitude of Althings (Iceland’s yearly assembly of free, adult males where law was enacted and transacted) spanning most of the lifetime of our title character, Njal, and then beyond. Various people get married, occasionally divorced, more often widowed, remarried, have children, and so forth. Friendships are forged, murders are plotted, revenge is served cold, and compensation made, time and again. People voyage to Norway, the Baltic, Orkney, Scotland (of which Orkney was not then a part), Ireland.

To try and discuss a work with such a vast number of episodes in terms of its ‘plot’ is very difficult. To do so would basically be to retell the entire saga. Therefore, I mention only one, although Gunnar’s Viking expedition, the conversion of Iceland, and the burning of Njal and family are as or more worthy of discussion, the last being the tightest of them all, a saga within the saga that ties a number of threads together and carries the plot forward for the last third of the book.

Instead, to save space, there is a series of murders of retainers/slaves/farmhands on the part of Hallgerd, wife of Gunnar, and Bergthora, wife of Njal, while the menfolk are at the Althing for several summers running. Each year, a wife gets a dependent to murder one of the other family’s dependants, and the next year the murderer is slain in turn. Each year, either Gunnar or Njal makes compensation for the killing, for Gunnar and Njal are great friends. Their wives, it is clear, are not. Eventually, this series of yearly killings escalates until the murderers are Njal’s sons. Hallgerd does not provoke revenge, and the saga moves on.

This bit of the story interests me because it reminds me of how Brunhilde and Kriemhilde’s petty jealousy in the Nibelungenlied (also 12th-13th-century) escalates first to Siegfried’s death and then the slaughter of all of the Nibelungs at Atli’s home, events I discuss here and especially here. The jealousy and envy of women leads to the death and downfall of men. Not a theme I’m willing to see represented in history any more than its inverse about men ruining women, but I do wonder how common it is in other Germanic literature of the Middle Ages.

And what is the main theme that drives Njal’s Saga? Fate. Inevitability. One of the main characters is warned that if he does not leave Iceland after he kills a man, he will die. The day he is meant to disembark, he decides to stay home instead. He is burned to death in his house. Fate seized him. Throughout the saga, Njal has prescient knowledge and tells people, ‘If you do x, y will be the result.’ At one point he tells his friend Gunnar, ‘This is the beginning of your career of killing.’ When his time finally comes, Njal, his wife, and their foster son go and lie down in bed as their house is burned in retaliation for their sons’ crimes. This attitude is summed up by one Icelander who states something to the effect that death is something all men meet.**** It is a prevailing theme in much Old English and Old Norse literature, one which Peter Jackson stole from The Hobbit, as I’ve said.

Njal’s Saga has everything — romance, violence, love, hate, farming, raiding, adventure, war, miracles, fate, doom. Try it out. You won’t be disappointed.

Available on archive.org in the Everyman’s Library translation. Or find the Penguin translation from a local independent bookseller or public library!

*If Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, of which King Harald’s Saga is but a part, counts as a saga, it probably is. Perhaps it counts as a history? I dunno how these genre divisions break down in Norse literature.

**See my first post on Beowulf and The Hobbit.

***Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, says that this is a trait of oral ‘literature’ and has a long hold on storytelling in societies that where literacy is still the domain of but a few.

****Only it was poetic, like ‘a friend’ or ‘a foe’ or ‘a game’, but I was reading on a train and didn’t note the exact quote.

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The Nibelungenlied: History

This is the second post in a series on the Middle High German epic The Nibelungenlied. The first is here.

Theoderic the Great

One of the fun facts about the Nibelung story cycle is that many of the main characters seem to be inspired by real people, great heroes of yore. Here’s a list for your reading pleasure, in chronological order of history (lifted partly from Cyril Edwards):

  • Jormunrek (third husband of Gudrun/Kriemhilde — following Atli/Etzel, not in the Nibelungenlied) = Ermanaric (OE Eormenric), a Gothic ruler in Scythia who, when his land was invaded by a joint force of Alans and Huns, committed suicide in the 370s.
  • Gunther = Gundaharius, a Burgundian ruler killed c. 436 in battle against the Roman general Aetius within the Rhineland territory of the Burgundians whose capital was centred at Borbetomagus, aka Worms, which is Gunther’s capital in the Nibelungenlied.
  • Bloedelin = Bleda, older brother of Attila who murdered him c. 445.
  • Etzel/Atli = Attila the Hun, the ruler of a Hunnish Empire that stretched throughout what is now Germany from somewhere to its East, and who famously invaded both the eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire at different occasions; he died c. 453.
  • Dietrich of Bern = Theoderic the Great, who lived 454-526; he ruled Italy (and a growing powerbase nearby) as king from Ravenna from 488, although he was officially a vassal (for lack of a better, less mediaeval word springing to mind) of the Eastern Emperor.
  • Brunhilde = Brunhild, a Visigothic queen, who was married to the Frankish Merovingian King Sigebert I of Austrasia; involved in various palace intrigues, she was tortured to death in 613.

But what about Siegfried/Sigurd? This is a question of much speculation, as the introduction to Byock’s translation of The Saga of the Volsungs makes clear. There are many ‘heroes’ of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages whose names begin with the ‘Sig-’ prefix. Is any of them our man? Are all of them our man? Is he a complete fiction? Maybe the real hero was the Sigimund of Beowulf, the son of Waels (thus a Waelsing – Volsung?), who slew the dragon and was the most famous person on earth. So maybe the dragon part is true?

As for the actual events of the poems and sagas, they are fiction. The historical persons lived in too varying moments of history to have been able to have done what the stories say. One could possibly wonder if the Norse Gudrun (that version’s Kriemhilde) is inspired by the rumour that Attila was slain in his bed by his young wife (Ildiko/Hildico), but that is all speculation. Instead of finding history in these stories, we see the power of oral storytelling – and apparently the Nibelungenlied is ‘textbook’ oral poetry when compared with Lord and Parry’s work that opened our eyes to the oral nature of Homer.

In the oral culture that sustained this story until its unknown poet of the 1200s in Germany and its similarly unknown recorder (or, I guess, Snorri Sturluson) in the 1200s in Iceland, persons grow together, brief episodes extend, a half-memory becomes a full story, a man of renown becomes a legend. Attila becomes Etzel (Atli in Norse), still a Hun, still a king. He is remembered for his power and ability to command so many men. In the Norse, he is also remembered as being a wolf, hungry and greedy and scheming. In the Nibelungenlied he is remembered as a man of great power, a pagan who can commend the respect even of the Christians around him.

These are residual memories of the impact Attila had on western and central Europe during his brief reign at the head of empire. It is a process we see also in the Roland and Charlemagne of history and their heroic counterparts in romance and epic. I have no doubt that the same is the case with whatever people may have inspired Arthur and Achilles.

My final thought on the Nibelungenlied and history is the fact that these people are all basically Late Antique. Brunhilda dies in 613. Most of them are far earlier, going back to the late 300s, but most are fifth-century figures – and the fifth century is my playing ground, after all. We have characters here who encountered Aetius, who for a time was second only to the emperor, if not more powerful. And Attila even met my dear Leo on one occasion. Late Antiquity, when the western Roman Empire is dismembered and scattered (disiecti membra imperii), is where the later kingdoms and peoples of the Middle Ages, of northern Europe, look back to see themselves emerging and find their greatest heroes.*

That is a thought of note.

*Not subscribing that this is actually what was going on, but that the nascent nation-states of Late Mediaeval and Early Modern Europe – and sometimes their contemporary successors – looked back to this era and saw themselves being born in it.

Beowulf and The Hobbit I: The Epic and the Episodes

Sutton Hoo Helmet

My photo of the famous Sutton Hoo helmet, pre-dating the composition of Beowulf but still awesome

When I was in Grade 13 (‘OAC’) English, I wrote a comparison of The Hobbit and Beowulf. I do not wish to resurface that essay. However, I recently read The Hobbit for the fifth time, and over the summer was my second reading of Beowulf,* so I feel like revisiting the topic.

JRR Tolkien was a scholar of Germanic philology, specialising in mediaeval literatures such as those of the Anglo-Saxon and Norse worlds; his literary interests rarely ranged to the modern or the ancient, equally rarely to the literature of the Romance languages. His was the world of ‘Northernism’, the world of the Edda and the Volsunga Saga, the world of the Ruthwell Cross and Beowulf. I have talked here about how his work on Norse philology led to the production of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun (here and here).

In the realm of Anglo-Saxon philology, Prof. Tolkien’s work included an essay on Beowulf called ‘The Monsters and the Critics’ and a book on Finn and Hengest published postumously with co-author Alan Bliss, Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode, drawing on an episode referred to in Beowulf. It was inevitable that when Tolkien decided to write his adventure novel for boys (as I heard somewhere he thought of The Hobbit) his other life and the other worlds where he dwelt would make themselves felt.

In this first post, ‘The Epic and the Episodes’, I shall turn our attention to Beowulf and The Hobbit and the nature of mediaeval literature. Our other posts shall be ‘The Monsters and the Magic’, and ‘On Hero-Stories’. In each of these blog posts, I shall show us how Tolkien’s fiction was indelibly touched by Beowulf and the wider mediaeval world, yet at the same time, no matter how ‘anti-modernist’ the mead-drinking, Old Norse-speaking, Roman Catholic philologist was, he was in many ways inescapably of his own age.

The Epic and the Episodes

A feature of most pre-modern (and much early modern) narrative literature of any length is its tendency towards episodic storytelling. This is visible in Gilgamesh and Homer, Virgil and — especially — Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. Rather than telling a single, perfectly united story that builds in tension through a series of interrelated crises that are released at the climax and resolved by the denouement, episodic literature tells us a string of stories which often have no bearing upon one another or what comes next.

They are simply interesting tales in and of themselves that happen to be about the same people — even in The Aeneid, one cannot help but wonder what role the magnificent katabasis of Book 6 plays plotwise. Aeneas knows where he must go and what he must do without visiting Anchises, does he not?

If I remember Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy correctly, such episodes are a feature especially of oral literature (and we do not move into something new until we have thoroughly technologised the word). And Beowulf is, at some stratum, oral literature. Like Homer (whose Iliad and Odyssey you should really read, as I argue here and here), the Beowulf poet stands at the end of a long string of oral poets who have been telling these same stories over and over again, each changing things for the audience, each leaving his own artistic stamp. By the time we have it, a pagan tale has been Christianised. This is sometimes called ‘primary epic’.

Beowulf is certainly episodic. Grendel. Beowulf vs. Grendel. Grendel’s Mom. The Dragon. Along the way, we have the tale of Beowulf’s full-armour swimming contest. Now, Grendel through to Grendel’s Mom is part of the same story arc, of the sorrows of Hrothgar and Heorot.  Undeniable. Yet each story is still, in its way, inescapably its own little story. You could (and sometimes do) tell Grendel without his Mom; and often people tell both without the Dragon. The swimming contest is merely incidental detail; it tells us of Beowulf, but does not contribute to the action necessarily.

And so The Hobbit. The unexpected party certainly leads into the road that goes on and on. But then the Trolls. Rivendell. The goblins which lead to the wargs. The eagles as a rescue. Beorn. Mirkwood. Spiders. Elves and escape. Laketown. From Laketown to the death of Smaug. From the death of Smaug to the Battle of the Five Armies. Back again.

These all appear, as we look at them, to be episodes. They are simply the things that happen to our merry band of fourteen-fifteen as they journey to reclaim Erebor from Smaug the Magnificent. The connecting thread seems to be the desire to get to the Lonely Mountain.

But here we see Tolkien is a man of his age. Despite his insistence in the essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’, these mediaeval episodes are connected together by a very modern literary element — the development of the character of Bilbo Baggins, Esq. In said essay, Tolkien rightly proclaims that the main business of stories is telling them. Stories, that is. The main business of stories is not the exploration and development of characters. This, he says, is often forgotten in English literature because our best-known and possibly greatest author was a playwright and poet. But the psyche of Hamlet, an appropriate focus for a play, is not the appropriate focus for a story. A story should focus on the story. On the narrative.

But there we have Bilbo. He starts his journey a very comfortable Englishman — I mean, hobbit, who has no inclination for adventures and is set in his ways with little about him of ingenuity or scheming or burgling. But as the adventure continues, Bilbo emerges as a savvy burglar and even the leader of the party. He schemes and uses his wit to get them out of jam after jam, his prominence really beginning with the spiders but reaching its peak in his dealings with the elf king and the Arkenstone.

Bilbo becomes an extraordinary hobbit.

Beowulf, however, is not the focus of his story. Not as a character, at least. He stands before Hrothgar an accomplished warrior who knows his strengths. He dies beside Wiglaf an accomplished warrior who knows his strengths. He is ever concerned for the well-being of his people. He is always courageous.

Yet do not chastise Beowulf and his poem on this account. Welcome to the world of ancient and mediaeval literature! This is not the point of the story. I believe Tolkien hit Beowulf on the head in ‘The Monsters and the Critics.’ The stories show us the changes, although the changes are never the focus. Beowulf stands before Grendel naked but for his God-given strength. Easily victorious. With a magic sword, he confronts Grendel’s Mom and almost dies. With a war-band and full armour, he meets the dragon and is slain at the moment he saves his people.

The lesson is to trust in the things of God, not the things of the world. This is the timeless about Beowulf, and it is not portrayed through psychology but through the story and through the episodes.

Do not fault Beowulf. It performs its function and produces its own art masterfully.

And so we see how Beowulf and mediaeval literature have left their mark upon The Hobbit at the macro-level, the level of narrative (narratology??). Tolkien writes us an episodic narrative, not unlike Beowulf, but with a modern twist in the growth of Bilbo Baggins as a protagonist and as a hero of small stature.

Next in this series: ‘The Monsters and the Magic’.

*NB: Besides this, I’ve read Gareth Hinds’ graphic novel twice and I’ve seen the film starring Christopher Lambert as well as the film Beowulf and Grendel starring Gerard Butler and the animated cartoon narrated by Derek Jacobi; I’ve also seen the stilt play, and I’ve read the novel Grendel by John Gardner.

Books As Objects: Including Reminiscences of Oxford & London, in Which Places I Saw Books

After two weeks of research in Oxford, I stopped off in London Friday night until my train whisked me back home to Edinburgh last night at 1700. Whilst in London, I spent the night at James’s and Saturday afternoon with Katie, Kai, and Dave. On Saturday morning, James and I walked along the South Bank of the Thames to Lambeth Palace where I went to the fabulous exhibit, ‘Royal Devotion’, about the history of the Book of Common Prayer, whose most popular edition, that of 1662, celebrates 350 years this year (with much less fervour than the KJV of 1611 of last year).

James asked me if I had ever thought of work in the business world. I said I hadn’t, really, except for a couple of small business ideas I’ve had. One was simply to open up a used bookshop. The other was Scriptorium, which would primarily focus on printing using antique or replica printing presses. We’d print books, posters, invitations, business cards, and do it with style, all old-school like. James wanted to know if there is a real difference in old techniques of printing. I said that there is, because, unlike modern litho, older printing actually prints on the page, which gives the printed book a literally different feel (and also a different aesthetic).

To demonstrate this tactile difference between the generations of printed books, I pulled out my 1939 edition of selected Essays by G K Chesterton, published by Collins. I opened it randomly to a page and got James to feel it. You can actually feel where the type pressed the book when it printed the words. You see — printing press. As it turns out, just re-feeling the book now, my 1939 Chesterton Essays is not the most pressed book out there. I have some old sheet music that is more dramatically pressed by far. But it made the point.

James had to leave at Lambeth, necessity drawing him to Jason’s wedding that afternoon. I paid admission to the exhibit, about which I had read in History Today where it was lauded as the best exhibit in London at present. I was very impressed. There were mediaeval breviaries and Books of Hours, as well as early printed missals. A copy of Quignon’s breviary was there as well, a book that stood as the precursor in many ways to Cranmer’s reformed Office. We had early Lutheran liturgies and Queen Mary’s mid-16th-century printing of Sarum on display; copies of every edition of the Prayer Book (1549, 1552, 1558, 1562, 1662 as well as the Scottish 1637) and the developing services, from the first English liturgy (the Litany) to the services of ordination; and there was the first Mohawk Prayer Book, a Diamond Jubilee Prayer Book from 1897, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s own copy of the Coronation service from 1953 as well as from the wedding of Will and Kate last year.

Outside of being testaments to the development of the liturgy over time — which they were, and which a student of liturgy would love to see in detail, from Sarum to Quignon to the Lutherans to Cranmer to his successors to Baxter’s attempts at a Puritan liturgy to New Zealand and North America — these books were objects. Beautiful objects like Richard III’s illuminated Book of Hours or the massive 1662 BCP in pride of place.

They are also useable and used objects. In a Breviary on display, in the Kalendar, Sts Damasus and Silvester had the word papa scratched out from beside their names. Another had two pages open where every saints day was crossed out by black Xs. There were handwritten rubrics by William Laud. There was a pre-1662 Prayer Book full of annotations for the new Prayer Book and sealed by the bishops’ seals. There was a Prayer Book with part cut out and a new prayer written in its place on the facing page. There was a prayer in the very hand of Queen Anne for the monarch’s protection.

Books are objects.

That afternoon with Katie, Kai, and Dave, I saw the treasures on display at the British Library. There was St Cuthbert’s Gospel of John, a manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and a beautiful illuminated Life of St Cuthbert by Bede. There were illuminated manuscripts from around the world — the Golden Haggadah in Hebrew, the intricacies of Islamic geometric illumination, many Bibles and Books of Hours, an illuminated Armenian book of saints’ lives, and a fantastically illuminated Ethiopian copy of Revelation.  Two Wycliffite Bibles were on display, and there, on the back of a birthday card, were the lyrics to ‘A Hard Day’s Night.’

In a digital age, words have ceased being things in our minds. They are not inscribed, not carefully inked, not pressed. With the flash of a finger, the backspace key can eliminate them for eternity. Yet words and literature, poetry and prose, have tended historically to have been preserved from one hand to another, one age to another, in books. And books are objects.

They can be beautiful, as I so happily observed yesterday. And so these exhibits were a fitting close to two weeks of daily work with a manuscript from the 1100s, with a book that a scribe or two (I think at least two based on the variation in hands between start and finish, plus whoever the corrector was) wrote in brown and black ink on the skin of several goats. In red, every new item was announced to the reader. Each important section was set out from the rest with a littera notabilior in red or blue ink, the practice of writing the first letter much larger than the rest (occasionally continued today). I loved it.

Perhaps I shall go on about my love of mediaeval books later, however.

Nonetheless, a book is an object. In an age of Kindles and Kobos, of PDFs and printouts, of archive.org and Google Books, in an age of perfect and terrible cover art, we have an image of the word as unfleshed. To us, the words are unmediated, and we think there is no difference between a PDF and a Kindle or a new Oxford World’s Classic and an old one. But there is. And the objectified reality of the printed book, especially in the beauty of old ones, reminds us who prefer the book daily that all literature and human thought comes to us through a medium of one sort or another.

Therefore, why not make the medium beautiful? Such was the goal of our forebears. For the literature in a book is not like a cheap whore to be tossed aside at the end of reading. It will stay with you forever. It should be mulled over again and again. I have many a time reread ‘On Lying in Bed.’ My greatest enjoyment was in the 1939 Collins edition of Chesterton’s selected Essays that I showed James yesterday morning on the way to Lambeth Palace.