Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Musings on Eyrbyggja saga

As promised in my last blog post, I've decided to post brief reflections after I finish reading a given saga. I was midway through Eyrbyggja saga when I started this particular reading challenge, and I finished it right before the quarter started at Stanford. I had every intention to write about it immediately, but the past six weeks have been a blur (however innervating), and my saga reading and blogging have taken a bit of a nose-dive in the process. With the start of National Academic Writing Month (or #AcWriMo), however, I've vowed to publish at least three times here at In Romaunce (in addition to tying the bow on a couple of projects). And so, without further ado, I'll offer up a few speculative musings on this particular saga.

It's rapidly become a favorite of mine for a few reasons:

1) It's packed to the gills with vengeful draugr. Thorolf Lame-foot, for instance, haunts the hills around Hvamm, causing -- among other things -- cows to "moo" themselves to death. He kills so many livestock (and people, but the text spends far more time describing the cows) that his son Arnkel has him reinterred at a place eventually dubbed Lame-foot hill, and said son builds a wall around the cairn so high that only birds can fly over it. The narrator tells us, at this point, that he rests in peace for the rest of Arnkel's life.

2) It includes perhaps the greatest scatological kenning in the history of kennings: álfrek, which means "elf-frighteners."

3) It includes a seal revenant. And yes. You did read that correctly. The episode is so spectacularly odd that I feel absolutely compelled to share it with you here:
During the winter just before Yule, Thorodd the farmer went out to Nes to fetch his dried fish. There were six men altogether in the ten-oared boat, and they spent the night out there. The same night that Thorodd had left, when the people at Froda came up to the fireside that evening, they saw a seal's head coming up out of the fireplace. One of the servants saw it first when she came in. She took a club that was inside the doorway and struck the seal on the head. But the seal rose up with the blow and reared up towards Thorgunna's bed-curtains. Then one of Thorodd's men went up and started beating the seal, but with every blow it rose up further until its flippers appeared, and then the man fell down unconscious. Everyone else who was present became very frightened.
     Then the boy Kjartan rushed forward and lifted up an iron sledgehammer and brought it down on the seal's head. It was a tremendous blow, but the seal just shook its head and looked around. Kjartan kept going, with blow after blow, and the seal went back down as if he were driving a nail. He kept beating until the seal went so far down that he hammered the floor over its head. And so it went on throughout the winter, with all the revenants fearing Kjartan the most. (Chapter 53). 
4) The fact that everyone (seriously, EVERYONE) is named after Thor. This is fascinating given that the saga begins with Thorolf Moster-beard relocating from Norway to Iceland and, once he settles on the Snaefellsness peninsula, rebuilds the temple to Thor (which he had overseen in his homeland) on Helgafell. This description of a pagan temple is a rarity in Old Norse literature, and the frequency with which Thor is evoked in this saga (mainly through nomenclature) certainly indicates his sustained popularity among this particular group of settlers. But it also makes it damned near impossible to keep everyone straight. Case in point:
He married Astrid, who was the daughter of Hrolf the hersir and the sister of Steinold the Short, and they had three children. Their son was Thorgrim the Godi and their daughter Gerd was married to Thormod the Godi, the son of Odd the Bold . . . . In his old age, Thorolf Moster-beard married a woman named Unn. Some people say she was the daughter of Thorstein the Red, but Ari Thorgilsson the Learned does not count her among his children. Thorolf and Unn had a son named Stein, whom Thorolf dedicated to his friend Thor, calling him Thorstein. The boy matured very quickly. Hallstein Thorolfsson married Osk, the daughter of Thorstein the Red. Their son was also named Thorstein, and he was fostered by Thorolf. Thorolf called him Thorstein Surt (Black) and his own son Thorstein Cod-biter. . . . (Chapter 7)
I rest my case.

5) The tendency of the characters to burst in to magnificently gory skaldic verse. Case in point:
I had to defend myself
against the valkyrie's derision:
the dart-of-wounds was driven,
and the raven delighted in gore.
When the sword of my father's son
rang against helmets in the field,
gashes spurted blood
and wound-streams ran. (Chapter 19.8)
Every time I read a saga, a not-so-small part of me wishes I lived in a world where bursting into opaquely metaphorical poetry was a perfectly normal way of expressing oneself.

All mirth and snark aside,  I plan to keep musing and writing on these aspects in the weeks and months ahead. This saga has, for instance, inspired a deep fascination with the way in which draugr function in Old Icelandic sagas, and once I surface from my current deluge of projects, I vow to do some research to figure out what fellow scholars have said about them. I have a feeling someone has to have done work in this area already, but I was particularly struck by how a draugr's presence seems to parallel/mirror the bloody conflicts that permeate a good deal of the saga's narrative action.

For now though, I want to spend a bit of time musing on the way in which ice functions in the text.
As I read the saga, I found myself fascinated by the persistent presence of ice in the saga, and the role it seems to play in anticipating, facilitating, and ultimately halting, the violence and feuding at the heart of this particular story.

The first significant reference to ice occurs in Chapter 40. Thorodd and Thorgrima Magic-Cheek attempt to thwart Bjorn's affair with Froda because Thorodd fears the dangers of Bjorn's continued association with her:
. . . but when he left to go home that evenings, the sky was overcast and it had started to rain, and he was rather late getting going. By the time he came up to the heath, the weather had turned very cold and there were snowdrifts. It was so dark that he could not see the path in front of him. After that a blizzard blew up with so much force that he could hardly stand up. His clothes, which were soaked through, began to freeze, and he had completely lost his bearings and did not know which way he was going. He came upon a cave jutting out of the land, and went into it to shelter for the night, but it was a cold campsite. (146)
Bjorn spends three miserable days in the cave — even composing an angsty poem about his experience — and decides to spend the rest of the winter at home after the storm abates. By implication then, Thorodd successfully halts Bjorn's pursuit of Thurid (at least for a time), one that would have easily led to feuding had it continued.

Another vivid description of ice occurs in Chapter 45, where a pivotal battle between Steinthor and his men and the Thorbrandssons occur Hofstadir bay, which had frozen over:
Hofstadir bay was completely frozen over right out to Bakki the Greater, so they walked across the ice and on over the isthmus to Vigrafjord, which was also entirely iced over. In that fjord the water ebbed all the way out until it was dry, so that the ice rested on mud at low-tide, and the rocks in the fjord jutted up out of the ice, which was broken up around them. There were a lot of uneven ice floes past the rocks, and powdery snow had fallen over the ice, making it very slippery. (Chapter 45)
The battle that ensues is brutal to say the least, and the narrator describes in detail how the iced-over bay makes for an environment by turns ideal and treacherous. Ice-sheets pushed up near a large rock make for good cover, for instance, but the ice's slipperiness makes for a difficult and slower battle. Interestingly, this battle serves as a follow-up to a major skirmish at Alftafjord. After this battle on the ice, the wounds and deaths from both sides are tallied up and -- given the roughly equal number of wounds and deaths on each side -- a settlement is reached that lasts for as long as Steinthor and Snorri the Godi live. This battle on the ice, by implication, ultimately allows for a crucial truce to occur.  Ice, then, acts in a strange way as an agent of circuitous/indirect peace-making.

Ice plays a final, significant role in Chapter 61, where another frozen bay forces Snorri to hold off on retaliating against Ospak (a marauding Norseman) and his band. But while it prevents Snorri from waging open war, it doesn't prevent him from summoning a supernatural ally, Thrand. Described as a former heathen and shape-shifter, Thrand makes his way through the snowy and icy terrain at a preternaturally fast pace once he receives Snorri's summons, and he proves a pivotal member of the band that eventually defeats Ospak and his men. In this passage, then, treacherous and icy landscapes force Snorri into the role of strategist rather than retaliator, and the waiting Snorri has to do seems to contribute rather directly to his victory.

Moving forward, I'm curious to see how ice and snow are represented in other sagas. The vividness of these rimy landscapes struck me unusual, because the sagas (at least in my current understanding) tend to leave a surprising amount unsaid when it comes to describing the landscapes in which these narratives occur. There's nary a mention of a volcano, for instance, and references to glaciers seem to be relatively few and far between as well. Like the draugr that populate the narrative, these landscapes -- when they are described in any detail -- seem to offer up some kind of tacit commentary on the feuding that takes place upon them. The kind of ice described, after all, is impermanent and seasonal, and so too, the saga narrator implies, are the resolutions and truces that are made in the snow or on the ice. Perhaps the harsh, hibernal setting emphasizes this point (one that the saga makes again and again) — and this possibility leaves me wondering how other saga landscapes might be made to reflect and anticipate the events that take place upon them. On a related note, I'm likewise intrigued by the frequency with which violent encounters take place on or around Yule in this saga (yet another thing to research and explore further), and I wonder whether the linkage is unique to this saga or whether it's part of a broader tradition (and, if it is, what that might signify/suggest). Certainly things to keep investigating in the weeks and months ahead!

Next up on the reading list: Gísla saga and Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss, given that both occur on or near to the Snaefellsness Peninsula as well.

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