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Immanent Seas, Scribal Havens: Distributed Reading of Formulaic Networks in the Sagas of Icelanders

  • Slavica Ranković (a1)

Abstract

Medieval sagas of Icelanders are considered one of the most significant ‘contributions made by Nordic culture’,1 among ‘the great marvels of world literature […] so timelessly up-to-date’ and characterised by ‘a supreme, undistorted sense of actuality’.2 ‘We will never comprehend’, the famous novelist Milan Kundera said, ‘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 … the glory of the sagas is indisputable’.1,2 What follows is an attempt to make comprehensible some of the aesthetic mechanisms through which the sagas attain their remarkable representational complexity. This is not in order to diminish the glory of the genius that Kundera refers to – the genius of the people and the many geniuses from among the people – but rather to appreciate it even more, as usually results from a deeper understanding of the workings of things.

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1.Gaarder, J. (2000) Praise for the five-volume Complete Sagas of Icelanders. In: Ö. Thorsson (ed.). The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection (London: Penguin), back cover.
2.Hughes, T., in Ö. Thorsson (ed.). The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection (London: Penguin).
3.Danielsson, T. (2006), in T. M. Andersson The Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Saga (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press), p. 5.
4. See Clover, C. J. (1986) The long prose form. Arkiv för nordisk filologi, 101, pp. 1039.
5. I suggest a continuum between content-sensitive and content-insensitive technologies of cultural reproduction as a more fruitful alternative to the problematic and dated distinction between orality and literacy. See Ranković, S. (2010) The oral-written continuum as a space. In: S. Ranković, L. Melve and E. Mundal (eds) Along the Oral-Written Continuum: Types of Texts, Relations and their Implications (Turnhout: Brepols), pp. 3971. Also see S. Ranković and M. Ranković (2012) The talent of the distributed author. In: S. Ranković, I. Brügger Budal, A. Conti, L. Melve and E. Mundal (eds) Modes of Authorship in the Middle Ages (Toronto: PIMS), pp. 52–75.
6. See Ranković, S. (2007) Who is speaking in traditional texts? On the distributed author of the sagas of Icelanders and Serbian epic poetry. New Literary History, 38(2), pp. 239307.
7.Lord, A. B. (2000 [1960]) The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), p. 65.
8. In particular, see Foley, J. M. (1991) Immanent Art: From Structure to Meaning in Traditional Oral Epic (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press).
9.The Saga of Grettir the Strong in Hreinsson, V. (ed.) (1997) The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, vol. II (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing), p. 112.
10.Tulinius, T. H. (2002) The Matter of the North: The Rise of Literary Fiction in Thirteenth-Century Iceland (Odense: Odense University Press), p. 31.
11.Killer-Glum's Saga in Hreinsson, V. (ed.) (1997) The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, vol. II (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing), p. 278.
12.The Saga of the Slayings on the Heath in Hreinsson, V. (ed.) (1997) The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, vol. IV (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing), p. 72.
13.Miller, W. I. (1990) Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p. 193.
14.Jochumsson, M. (1956) Grettisljóð. In: Ljóðmæli, vol. 1 (Reykjavík: Ísafoldarprentsmiðja H. F.), p. 599.
15. Grettir continues to inspire modern Icelandic writers and playwrights (see http://timarit.is/view_page_init.jsp?pageId=1702332&lang=en) and National Geographic Adventure Magazine names the outlaw ‘the medieval Jesse James’, your best tour guide to Iceland (see http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/0208/story.html#story_2).
16.Hamer, A. J. (2008) Grettis saga and the iudicium dei. In: K. Dekker, A. MacDonald and H. Niebaum (eds) Northern Voices: Essays on Old Germanic and Related Topics, Offered to Professor Tette Hofstra (Leuven: Peeters), p. 35, emphasis added.

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Immanent Seas, Scribal Havens: Distributed Reading of Formulaic Networks in the Sagas of Icelanders

  • Slavica Ranković (a1)

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