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The Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Sagas (1180-1280).

The Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Sagas (1180-1280. By THEODORE M. ANDERSSON. Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press. 2006. 248 pp. 30.49[pounds sterling]. ISBN 978-0-8014-4408-1.

In this invaluable contribution to Icelandic saga studies, Theodore M. Andersson proposes a text-based chronology of the development of saga literature. In a powerful restatement of the centrality of oral traditions to the beginnings of saga composition, he sets out his chronology based on two trajectories: the movement from a 'quasi-folkloristic gathering of tradition to an increasingly focused literary composition', and from 'somewhat scattered biographical form [...] to [...] [a] narrative controlled by an ever more dominant authorial point of view' (p. 2).Unsurprisingly, this chronology confirms the place of early Olaf sagas at the beginning, and culminates in Njals saga. The oral prehistory of the sagas is ultimately irrecoverable, but few would disagree with Andersson's claim, compellingly set out here, that short narratives in oral form were at first rather clumsily incorporated into longer structures, in such texts as Odd Snorrason's Saga of Olaf Tryggvason or The Legendary Saga. The primary substances of oral tradition with saga potential are said to be biography, ghost stories, genealogies, family traditions, fights, lawsuits, and place names. The three dominant modes in which these subjects are treated are the biographical, the regional, or chronicle, and the feud story. From these three frameworks--structure, substance, and mode--saga authors could develop their art, gradually abandoning the constraints of traditional models in favour of what Andersson calls 'a drama of ideas', the ultimate sophistication in saga writing, and represented above all by Njals saga. In my view Andersson is right to claim that there is no oral precursor of a saga which is an exact or even near equivalent of the work as we have it.

Establishing a chronology by using literary criteria naturally involves a good deal of literary analysis of individual texts, and this forms the very welcome basis of Andersson's book. While it seems unlikely that anyone would take serious issue with the chronology itself, Andersson's judgements on individual sagas are arguable. Eyrbyggja saga has never had a good press in Andersson's work, and here it is called 'a somewhat faceless story' composed in 'lifeless style' (p. 153).But some critics have admired it. Hrafnkels saga is said to have 'weak motivation' (p. 178) because the chieftain Thorgeir is improbably tempted to go against his self-interest in helping an old man get compensation for his murdered son. In the saga, Thorgeir's brother ostensibly tries to persuade him by means of what Andersson rightly calls 'a contrived metaphor' (p. 178)--Thorgeir has a pain in his foot, the old man grieves for his son; Thorgeir should therefore be able to understand what the oldman is going through. But in fact, this 'contrived metaphor' does not convince Thorgeir, who has as much contempt for it as Andersson himself has (Thorgeir agrees to help only when his brother threatens to leave him--a very striking and significant motive). But the very fact that one is drawn to engage with Andersson's saga criticism is a great strength of this book--there has never been enough committed, opinionated (in the most positive sense), intelligent, informed, and personal close reading of saga texts. The Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Sagas is a fine platform for such analysis, and Andersson is here an excellent proponent of it. It is also easily the best account to date of the origins of saga narrative.


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Author:O'Donoghue, Heather
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2008
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