Saga Studies and a little stream of consciousness…

As Kisha mentioned in her last post, the call for papers for Kalamazoo’s 2012 meeting has gone out, and the New England Saga Society (NESS) is sponsoring a wide-reaching panel on “Saga Studies.” We’re looking for papers taking a variety of approaches to the study of medieval Icelandic literature, or on the metacritical questions of “saga studies” as a discipline. Any and all paper proposals are welcome–Andy Pfrenger is the contact person for the panel this year, so proposals should be sent to him at . NESS is also going to seek panels at a handful of regional conferences in the coming year, and I’ll put that information up as it becomes available.


In a related story, I received an e-mail yesterday from a student who took a course on the Icelandic sagas with me a while back.  She had a couple of questions concerning something we debated in class that semester, and it’s got me thinking about the place of the sagas in literary studies–and specifically in English departments.

The original debate got started because of a write-up included on the back of the 2000 edition of Penguin’s The Sagas of  Icelanders. There are three blurbs provided, from Nicholas Howe, Milan Kundera, and Tim Page. Page’s comment is not terribly illuminating, suggesting that the sagas are monolithic and inscrutable: a “literary Stonehenge,” as he poetically but unhelpfully puts it. Howe is somewhat histrionic, arguing that “if the millennium of Leif Eiriksson’s voyage to Vinland gives us nothing beyond The Sagas of Icelanders, it will be worth celebrating.”

The comment that provoked us was Milan Kundera’s, which I’ll reproduce in its entirety:

We will never fully comprehend the significance of the fact that the first grand, enormous body of prose composed in a European national language sprang from the genius of a very small nation, perhaps the smallest in Europe. Although the glory of the Sagas is indisputable, their literary influence would have been much greater if they had been written in the language of one of the major nations; and we would have regarded the Sagas as an anticipation or even the foundation of the European novel.

As it happens, I agree with Kundera’s gist–I could quibble with some of his phrasing (particularly about “anticipating the European novel”), but he’s absolutely right that the sagas are remarkable for their similarities to the art form of the novel as it is understood in the modern day. But Kundera also acknowledges the isolation of the sagas–geographically and linguistically. It’s their isolation that caused me some trouble–a student in class pointed out Kundera’s blurb and asked, “so why are we studying these as part of English literature?”

I gave a probably-way-too-long answer about the Germanic/Scandinavian world England was a part of in in the 9th-11th centuries, why a country which was ostensibly split with a “Danelaw” section was participating in a literary and linguistic exchange with saga-age Icelandic and Norse peoples, etc. It turned out, however, that the question was actually much more basic and (from the student’s perspective) fundamental than that–she was asking why there was a course called “sagas of the Icelanders” available in an English department.

Well, the very short answer to that was “because I proposed it and the University said yes.” But the question is entirely valid–and as it happens, there was a NESS-sponsored panel which addressed this very topic at Kalamazoo three years ago. The participants in that panel spoke eloquently and passionately about the increasingly important relationship between saga studies and Literature departments as a result of the ongoing loss of Germanic Linguistics and World Literature as areas of study in the modern American university. As has happened with other courses and subjects (History of the English Language comes to mind), the English departments have stepped into the breach and are keeping these subjects available. Obviously, it’s a great shame that these fields are being lost, but I think it’s all to the good of English departments to be offering as wide a set of courses as their faculties can manage to sustain. It’s good for the students, but it’s also good for the faculty, since it forces us to constantly re-evaluate and re-interpret our work in light of new approaches and new ideas.

I’m entirely comfortable with the idea of reading both inside and outside of a single “tradition” to seek a wider context for the work we do. I worry about the limits being placed on study in the modern college–limits created in part by disciplinary divisions (and “interdisciplinarity” is still, in the majority of cases, an ideal rather than an institutional practice), partly by the myopia of individual scholars (and I am certainly guilty of this–after all, we choose our areas of study precisely because they are endlessly fascinating to us), and partly by the specialization required to reach professorial status. Staying committed to medieval studies as a broader area of study is my way of trying to keep my horizons as wide as possible. Bringing sagas into an English class seems like a very small problem indeed when my classes could be enriched by actuarial science, research-driven reproduction of physical objects, scientific history, music, art, paleography, cookery, zoology, and a dozen other fields of work–if only I had the time and the capacity to study them all.

Hmm. That’s a bit more stream-of-consciousness-y than I usually like to get, but there you go. I’ll try for linear coherence next time…



Filed under Conferences, Professional stuff, Sagas

4 responses to “Saga Studies and a little stream of consciousness…

  1. Kisha Tracy

    I include Anglo-Norman for the very same reasons we should be including the sagas – yet I haven’t included them. Now I want to. I’m curious. What saga (probably excerpt) would you recommend including in a British Literature I course?

    • jpsexton

      The usual choice for a saga in a survey is Hrafnkels saga Freysgoði–it’s quite short by saga standards, but it includes a full-fledged feud, a lawsuit, a confiscation court, several well-drawn characters, a rather exciting chase through swampy grasslands, two killings, and a horse with semi-magical powers of communication. There are a few others that make for a great introduction to the saga world (Egils saga and Gisli saga are pretty much can’t-miss, in my experience), but Hrafnkels saga is much more manageable in its entirety.

      If you’re looking for something with a direct connection to England (and thereby more easily justified), the early part of Egil Skallagrimsson’s life includes long passages set in England…

  2. Josh Eyler

    Instead of linear coherence in your next post, might I suggest some good, old fashioned textual chaos? Chaucer would be proud.

    • jpsexton

      I tried writing a syllabus in which totally random textual connections would be generated by a theoretically finite number of texts, but I ended up with a self-replicating Mandeville Set and a smug-looking butterfly kept printing out on the back of each page. From here on in I’m sticking with Prime Movers and formal causes…

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