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Skaldic Verse and the Poetics of Saga Narrative.

Skaldic Verse and the Poetics of Saga Narrative. By Heather O'Donoghue. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2005. viii+255pp. 50 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 978-0-19-926732-3.

Even some Icelanders will admit to skipping the ornate and often cryptic eightline stanzas that punctuate the restrained prose of most Icelandic sagas, but readers who do this miss out not only on some extraordinary verbal art but also on the diverse and subtle effects of the interplay between verse and prose, to which Heather O'Donoghue's illuminating monograph is dedicated.

The brief introduction places Norse-Icelandicprosimetrum of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in a broader Indo-European context, before introducing the two basic modes in which saga authors deploy verse. O'Donoghue opts for the terminology of 'corroborative verses' or 'documentation' for verses on past events introduced by tags such as 'as Sigvatr says', and 'dialogue verses' for those supposedly uttered by protagonists within the action, typically introduced 'then Sigvatr spoke [a verse]' (the term 'dialogue' needs special pleading, since it includes soliloquy). Chapter 1 traces the use of skaldic citation through the kings' sagas, culminating in a sensitive cross-text discussion of the Battle of Stiklarstaoir. The remaining chapters are case studies of family sagas: 'The Community and the Individual in Eyrbyggja Saga',' Speech, Silence and Subjectivity in Gisla Saga', and 'Grettis Saga and the Fictionalization of Biography', rounded off with a contrastive 'Epilogue: Hrafnkels Saga and the Hero without Verse'.

The documentation/dialogue opposition in verse citation maps onto that between the overall narrative modes of historicity and litterarite. Documentation and historicity predominate in the kings' sagas, and dialogue and litterarite in family sagas, but with important crossover, as O'Donoghue's reading of Eyrbyggja saga shows. She finds a partial solution to the tortuousness of this saga's plot by suggesting that the seven 'documentary' verses contribute to an impression of historicity, and structure the narrative by pointing up stages in the development of the community, while the thirty 'dialogue' verses give voice to characters otherwise marginal. The same core ideas then metamorphose into a preoccupation in later chapters with the way that skaldic utterances of the 'dialogue' kind provide exceptions to the impression that 'saga characters behave like "real people"' (p. 8), especially because the claims of extemporization stretch credulity. Further, the verses' capacity for expressing the inner life of saga characters (such as the Viking Ogmundr tr6f6tr 'Wooden-Leg', who vents his frustrations in poetry but not in prose, pp. 184-87) transcends the customary impersonality of the prose, and when no interlocutor is there to hear the verse it breaks through the constraints of external focalization.

Poetry is also importantly seen by O'Donoghue as conferring a special status on saga characters (who may or may not be recognized by others as speaking in verse), even when alienated from society, such as the eponymous Gish in his outlawry or Grettir, who as vicious brat and later as doomed outlaw communicates in proverbs and skaldic verse, and strikes up his best relationships with those on a similar verbal level. Poetry may not empower the characters within the diegesis (the narrated events), but it gives them domination of the narrative, often speaking not so much to fellow characters but 'over their heads' to the audience of the saga. Although this is particularly evident in outlaw stories, there are valuable insights here that are more widely applicable.

Just as (dust jacket apart) the volume has the traditional Oxford University Press look, the overall approach is one of classic literary criticism, fruitfully aided by narratological concepts; secondary literature is somewhat patchily cited (none on Hrafnkels saga) and not wholly up to date. There is fine observation and richly suggestive ideas, but, for instance, the perceptive close reading of Gisla saga becomes somewhat slow-paced and relentless, as well as over-allusive (there is no warning that the first Gish mentioned is not the eponymous hero, p. 144; cf. abrupt introductions elsewhere, e.g. of 'the Bjarkamdl', p. 69). A more streamlined analysis, and a more purposeful Chapter 1, would have allowed space for further testing and development of leading ideas, such as the fertile notion of verses as 'the discourse of the heroic past' (p. 232). This clearly works for Gisla saga, but given the baseline conservatism of skaldic style, and its persistence into and beyond the thirteenth century, exactly how and for what (intradiegetic or extradiegetic) audience does the poetry have heroic associations? (And consideration of audience and its likely cultural and ethical values is sparse in the volume overall.)

There is a scatter of minor slips, e.g. 'gunwhale' (p. 30), hind for bond (p. 50), homum for honum (p. 56), 'tactiturn' (p. 97), sunni for sunnu (p. 108), and letum for Warn (p. 158), and some (unintended?) duplication, e.g. of a comment on Oddmjor (p. 31). The difficult verse texts mainly, and prudently, follow the Islensk fornrit editions, but in the translations kennings are handled somewhat inconsistently, and occasionally implausibly, e.g. 'goddess of the hall-spear' for 'woman' (p. 177), and one could quibble over 'candle' rather than '(sun-)beam' for geisli (p. 57), 'I have to' rather than 'had to' for vard ek (p. 205), and so on.

To conclude, this book is not the first or last word on the role of skaldic poetry in Icelandic prosimetrum (its communicative potential is, for one thing, underplayed), but it is a thoughtful, revealing study that opens the way for further work.

Newcastle University Diana Whaley
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Title Annotation:Skaldic Verse and the Poetics of Saga Narrative
Author:Whaley, Diana
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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