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Recent Scholarship

Grønlie, Sîan E. 2017. The Saint and the Saga Hero: Hagiography and Early Icelandic Literature. Studies in Old Norse Literature. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer. ISBN 9781843844815. 318 pages.

§1. Sîan E. Grønlie's erudite book—which mostly, though not exclusively, focuses on the first century of saga writing in the 1200s—is rooted in the author's longstanding work, both as a scholar and translator, on the Christian side of medieval Icelandic literary culture. This "foreign" side has not always been as fashionable among scholars as the Norse/Germanic aspects of the saga tradition, but Grønlie's study amply shows that we cannot fully understand or appreciate the complexity of the saga tradition without knowledge of the profound impact that learned texts had on literature rooted in indigenous narratives, and vice versa.

§2. The book begins with a brief overview of the nature of hagiography, which, as Grønlie emphasizes, was a popular genre in medieval Europe, and then moves on to the infancy and development of saga writing in Iceland. From the outset, Grønlie pushes against the idea, popular in older scholarship, that the sagas developed through a straightforward process from clumsy imitations of saints' lives to the sophisticated Íslendingasögur (Sagas of Icelanders), which then began to deteriorate after c. 1300. She rightly emphasizes that people did not stop writing and consuming hagiography once sagas took off, and that it remained present and relevant alongside this new form. She shows, moreover, that issues that are central to saints' lives turn up in sagas in a myriad ways, which also works to highlight the artistry of sagas purportedly written after 1300.

§3. The first chapter of Grønlie's book explores Oddr Snorrason's Latin saga of Óláfr Tryggvason. It explains how Oddr—who was working within the hagiographic tradition—struggled to synthesize this genre's quintessential tropes with narratives that center on a Viking king who uses violence, often fatal, to convert his subjects. However, other aspects of Oddr's text show how he successfully draws on many traditionally Norse story elements, values and virtues, integrating them into Óláfr's saga. In Grønlie's analysis, Oddr appears as a radical author whose literary experiments heralded a whole new tradition of long prose narratives which were able to accommodate a vast array of structures and hero types, as well as moral preoccupations central to hagiography.

§4. The book then turns to Íslendingasögur, homing in on individual characters and episodes most relevant to the overall argument. Grønlie shows how each saga under discussion engages with aspects of devotional genres in a distinctive way. Some authors, who were presumably writing at the behest of a particular sponsor, use hagiographic motifs to establish the authority of their family or the ruling class more generally in spiritual affairs. Others grapple with the heritage of Icelanders as descendants of the Norse settlers of Iceland, who, although they were pagans, nevertheless had admirable qualities. In a particularly inspiring chapter, Gísli Súrsson's character in the eponymous saga is read as eremitic—his lonely story set in the Icelandic wilderness rather than an Egyptian desert. Gísli's inner turmoil, startlingly explored through his dreams, is illuminated through its connection to a trope from visionary literature, namely the soul's struggle to choose between good and evil. The dream women are cast as angels and devils, outward projections of Gísli's own assessments of his deeds. Many other saga characters are given a similar treatment—an approach that illuminates the ways in which their trajectories and behaviors are in dialogue with Christian literature.

§5. I found Grønlie's readings sensitive and convincing overall, as well as generally complimentary to—rather than at odds with—many previous interpretations of the particular sagas or episodes analyzed. Her book hugely enriches our understanding of these texts' literary contexts, while highlighting their sophistication and their authors' creativity. In this context, it was refreshing to see generic outliers or hybrids and "late" sagas dated to the allegedly decadent period (e.g., Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss) analyzed alongside "classical" texts long considered the pinnacles of saga writing; this approach highlights what these sagas have in common and emphasizes the sophistication of the former group of sagas.

§6. The two types of literature under discussion here, hagiography and saga, are ideologically at odds with each other; as Grønlie argues, the former aligns itself with the status quo, while the latter provides authors with ample scope for powerfully contrasting opinions and moral ambiguity. Given these apparently contradictory qualities, the connections between these types of literature are certainly worth elucidating. One of the most significant aspects of this book's argument is its claims for a movement away from viewing Icelandic literary history as linear—developing from Latin vitae to sagas in one direction only—or as a matter of identifying sources "borrowed" between texts. Instead, it advocates a three-dimensional model in which texts interact with one another in a wide variety of different configurations, regardless of genre. This argument is very much in line with developments in other subfields of Norse literature, and polysystem theory, developed by Itamar Evan-Zohar and recently employed by scholars of legendary sagas and Norse romances, is used effectively throughout the book to explain the fluidity and hybridity of the Íslendingasögur and their interactions with hagiography. Íslendingasögur appear here as operating within a multidimensional genre which constantly renews itself; its authors are steeped in Christian narratives and thought, and in their writing, they ingeniously fuse learned and indigenous tradition. They engage not just with lexes and motifs from hagiography and related genres (e.g. visions of Hell or ghosts), but, more importantly, with thematic concerns that were fundamental for medieval Christians: saintly behavior, spiritual conflict, sin, guilt, salvation, redemption, and damnation.

§7. In an otherwise highly impressive and up-to-date study, it was surprising to see so little discussion of female characters. There were, after all, many female saints' lives written in medieval Iceland, and female characters in the Íslendingasögur are numerous and complex. Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir's religious conversion and repentant tears in old age merit a few lines, Gísli's dream women are compared to biblical figures, and Marian intercessory motifs are mentioned briefly, but women are otherwise conspicuously absent from this book. The book's relative silence on women may be because the research in this area yielded fewer relevant connections between the two genres under discussion, but if this was the case, perhaps it would have been worth unpacking why, or, alternatively, explaining that this topic simply lay beyond the study's perimeters. But setting aside this quibble, this fine book presents cutting-edge and sophisticated scholarship in a clear and brilliantly structured manner, and it is a must-read for specialists in Old Norse-Icelandic literature as well as medievalists interested in theoretical approaches to the intersections of indigenous writing and Latin culture. It is the second offering in Boydell & Brewer's new series, Studies in Old Norse literature; along with Sif Ríkharðsdóttir's book on emotion and Haki Antonsson's on damnation and salvation, these accomplished monographs inaugurate what will hopefully be a long line of innovative, distinguished works dedicated to medieval Scandinavian literature and culture.

Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir
Yale University

Published 19–Jan 2021