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Quinn, Judy and Emily Lethbridge, eds, Creating the Medieval Saga: Versions, Variability and Editorial Interpretations of Old Norse Saga Literature.

Quinn, Judy and Emily Lethbridge, eds, Creating the Medieval Saga: Versions, Variability and Editorial Interpretations of Old Norse Saga Literature (The Viking Collection, 18), Copenhagen, University Press of Southern Denmark, 2010; cloth; pp. 337; 11 b/w figures; R.R.P. DKK375.00; ISBN 9788776745325.

Creating the Medieval Saga is the honed edge of Old Norse philology. Its contributors are among the finest medievalists currently active in the editing of Icelandic saga material, from Margaret Clunies Ross (editor of the sweeping 'Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages' project), to M. J. Driscoll of the Arnamagnaean Institute, Copenhagen, and Gudrun Nordal (the Arni Magnusson Institute, Reykjavik), to Judith Jesch (whose work has defined the study of runic inscriptions). The symposium at which these ideas were first presented drew together an impressive depth of Old Norse expertise, and the resulting volume is a stimulating, historically grounded yet forward-looking hoard of ideas for the future of saga editions.

Although technically devoid of sectional division, the volume is, as editor Judy Quinn indicates, arranged in three parts. The first three essays concern 'methodological approaches to editing Old Norse texts' (p. 27), and include Odd Einar Haugen's 'Stitching the text together: Documentary and eclectic editions in Old Norse philology', Karl G. Johansson's 'Texts and editions in the computer age', and Driscoll's 'Thoughts on philology, old and new'. The first part of Haugen's chapter, taken in conjunction with the central section of Quinn's 'Introduction', provides a valuable primer for those unfamiliar with the arcane practices of philology. Haugen delineates (in terms of his own minting) two primary types of edition: the 'eclectic', in which many texts of a work are brought together to construct a hypothetical original; and the 'documentary' which focuses more upon individual extant manuscripts. The former approach was typical of nineteenth-century saga editions, while recent work has tended towards the 'documentary' under the influence of New Philology. This concern with editorial practices of the past and the interrogation of merits and flaws in both Old and New Philology are central themes of the book, and Haugen--in common with many of the contributors --refuses the easy route of denigration of the old.

Quinn's second section presents case studies in 'the preservation and editing' of individual sagas. Co-editor Emily Lethbridge's 'Gisla saga Surssonar: Textual variation, editorial constructions and critical interpretations' is a beautifully organized example, displaying an evident depth of research--the product of Lethbridge's doctoral thesis. Like the preceding chapter by Pordur Ingi Gucjonsson, Lethbridge examines the three major redactions of this famous family saga. Of particular interest is her discussion of the proverb 'the counsels of women are cold' (p. 147). Both wording and speaker vary between manuscripts--with important implications for the interpretation of a phrase held to be emblematic of Norse attitudes towards women.

In the following chapter, Jesch examines Orkneyinga saga, a generically conglomerate saga with which she has intimate acquaintance. Rather than adopting a 'New' or 'Old' philological approach, Jesch takes a leaf out of both books. She examines the changes in emphasis and structure that occurred over many redactions, concluding that a probable initial emphasis on historical compilation gave way in time to a smoother narrative in which earlier historical 'references' were substantially excised. The chapter demonstrates well the complexities of the manuscripts upon which many saga editions are based, for there is no complete version of Orkneyinga saga, only early fragments and older, yet still incomplete versions.

In 'Rewriting history: The fourteenth-century versions of Sturlunga saga', Nordal explores a quite different genre of saga, the manuscripts of which give variant interpretations of the tumultuous political events of a century earlier. Clunies Ross, like Jesch, has deep knowledge of the saga material she discusses: the 'Verse and prose in Egils saga Skallagn'mssonar'. As those familiar with Clunies Ross's work might expect, the chapter is admirably detailed and rigorous (complete with tables demonstrating variations between the three major redactions). This is no article for undergraduates, but likely only to be undertaken by those exploring prosimetrum saga editions, or with a specific interest in the poetry of Egils saga.

Heslop's article on 'Grettisfaersla and Grettis saga' offers something like light relief from the intricacies of skaldic poetry, focusing instead upon the 'alarmingly obscene' and 'roughly versified rigmarole' that is Grettisfaersla. This poem of c. 400 lines has received almost no scholarly attention since its 1960 rediscovery, quite probably because it defies notions of what saga poetry should be. The potentially intriguing topic is, however, undermined by the lack of quotation from this little-known poem. It seems necessary to have read Grettisfaesla first, and this essay more properly forms a companion piece to the English translation Heslop published in 2006.

The final 'section' explores 'the creation of the medieval saga from different temporal points of view' (p. 35). In 'pulir as tradition-bearers and prototype saga-tellers', Russell Poole examines the meanings of the rarely attested term, pulir. Although Poole's study spans centuries and accumulates an impressive range of examples, the essay is weakened by the absence of any clear argument (perhaps because Poole recognizes that conjecture about saga origins is inevitably flimsy at best).

Andrew Wawn finishes the volume with a ground-breaking translation of 'Ulfs saga Uggasonar'. As a first translation and publication of this fornaldarsaga, it cannot but be commended. However, I have reservations: firstly, the bulk of the 'introduction' concerns Ulfs saga only peripherally; secondly, the translation is based on a single manuscript--evidently not the earliest extant manuscript--and no explanation is given for the choice. Nor is any variation between manuscripts discussed. Thus Wawn's translation runs contrary to many of the points raised by earlier chapters.

Overall, despite the range in chronological and thematic focus, the conclusions and suggestions that arise from this volume are remarkably consistent. The 'deceptively neat narratives' (p. 14) that earlier editors typically constructed from multiple and fragmentary saga witnesses are exposed as 'editorial creations' (p. 19). The authors consider examples of such editorial intervention while yet accepting a need for saga editions accessible to the non-expert reader. With the future firmly in view, this is not a volume focused on the failings of the past--instead, contributors pose recommendations or suggestions for editorial practices of the future.

Carol Hoggart

Schools of Humanities and English and Cultural Studies

The University of Western Australia
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Author:Hoggart, Carol
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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