Narratives of possession : reading for saga authorship

Gislason, Kari (2003) Narratives of possession : reading for saga authorship. PhD thesis, University of Queensland.

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Abstract

The aim of this thesis is to show how character analysis can be used to approach conceptions of saga authorship in medieval Iceland. The idea of possession is a metaphor that is adopted early in the thesis, and is used to describe Icelandic sagas as works in which traditional material is subtly interpreted by medieval authors. For example, we can say that if authors claim greater possession of the sagas, they interpret, and not merely record, the sagas' historical information. On the other hand, tradition holds onto its possession of the narrative whenever it is not possible for an author to develop his own creative and historical interests. The metaphor of possession also underpins the character analysis in the thesis, which is based on the idea that saga authors used characters as a vehicle by which to possess saga narratives and so develop their own historical interests. The idea of possession signals the kinds of problems of authorship study which are addressed here, in particular, the question of the authors' sense of saga writing as an act either of preservation or of creation. While, in that sense, the thesis represents an additional voice in a long-standing debate about the saga writers' relation to their source materials, I argue against a clear-cut distinction between creative and non-creative authors, and focus instead on the wide variation in authorial control over saga materials. This variation suggests that saga authorship is a multi-functional activity, or one which co-exists with tradition. Further, by emphasising characterisation as a method, I am adding to the weight of scholarship that seeks to understand the sagas in terms of their literary effects.

The Introduction and chapter one lay out the theoretical scope of this thesis. My aim in these first two sections is to inform the reader of the type of critical questions that arise when authorship is approached in relation to characterisation, and to suggest an interpretive framework with which to approach these questions. In the Introduction this aim manifests as a brief discussion of the application of the term "authorship" to the medieval Icelandic corpus, a definition of the scope of this study, and an introduction to the connections, made throughout this thesis, between saga authors, the sagas' narrative style, and the style of characterisation in the sagas. Chapter one is a far more detailed discussion of our ability to make these connections. In particular, the chapter develops the definition of the analytical term "secondary authorship" that I introduce in order to delineate the type of characterisation that is of most interest in this thesis.

"Secondary authorship" is a literary term that aims to sharpen our approach to saga authors' relationship to their characters by focusing on characters who make representations about the events of the saga. The term refers to any instance in which characters behave in a manner that resembles the creativity, interpretation, and understanding associated with authorship more generally. Character analysis cannot, however, be divorced from socio-historical approaches to the saga corpus. Most importantly, the sagas themselves are socio-historical representations that claim some degree of truth value. This claim that the sagas make by implication about their historicity is the starting point of a discussion of authorship in medieval Iceland. Therefore, at the beginning of chapter one I discuss some of the approaches to the social context of saga writing. This discussion serves as an introduction to both the culture of saga writing in medieval Iceland and to the nature of the sagas' historical perspective, and reflects my sense that literary interpretations of the sagas cannot be isolated from the historical discourses that frame them. The chapter also discusses possession, which, as I note above, is used alongside the concept of secondary authorship to describe the saga authors' relationship with the stories and characters of the past. At the close of chapter one, I offer a preliminary list the various functions of saga authorship, and give some examples of secondary authorship. From this point I am able to tie my argument about secondary authorship to specific examples from the sagas.

Chapter two examines the effect of family obligations and domestic points of view in the depiction of characters' choices and conception of themselves. The examples that are given in that chapter - from Gisla saga Súrssonar and Íslendinga saga - are the first of a number of textual analyses that demonstrate the application of the concepts of secondary authorship and possession of saga narratives. The relationship between narratives about national and domestic matters shows how authorial creativity in the area of kinship obligation provides the basis for the saga's development of historical themes. Thus, the two major case studies given in chapter two tie authorial engagement with characters to the most influential social institution in early and medieval Iceland, the family.

The remaining chapters represent similar attempts to relate authorial possession of saga characters to central socio-historical themes in the sagas, such as the settlement process in early Iceland and its influence on the development of regional political life (chapter three). Likewise, the strong authorial interest in an Icelander's journey to Norway in Heimskringla is presented as evidence of the author's use of a saga character to express an Icelandic interpretation of Norwegian history and to promote a sense that Iceland shared the ownership of regal history with Norway (chapter four). In that authorial engagement with the Icelander abroad, we witness saga characterisation being used as a basis for historical interpretation and the means by which foreign traditions and influence, not least the narratives of royal lives and of the Christianisation, are claimed as part of medieval Icelanders' self-conception.

While saga authors observe the conventions of saga narration, characters are often subtly positioned as the authors' interpretive mirrors, especially clear than when they act as secondary authors. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Brennu- Njáls saga, which contains many characters who voice the author's claim to interpret the past. Even Hrútr Herjólfsson, through his remarkable perception of events and his conspicuous comments about them, acts as a secondary author by enabling the author to emphasise the importance of the disposition of characters. In Laxdœla saga and Þorgils saga ok Hafliða, authorial interest in characters' perception is matched by the thematising of learning, from the inception of knowledge as prophecy or advice to complete understanding by saga characters (chapter six). In Þorgils saga skarða, a character's inner development from an excessively ambitious and politically ruthless youth to a Christian leader killed by his kinsman allows the author to shape a political life into a lesson about leadership and the community's ability to moderate and contain the behaviour of extraordinary individuals. The portrayal draws on methods of characterisation that we can identify in Grettis saga Ásmundarson, Fóstbrœðra saga, and Orkneyinga saga. A comparison of the characterisation of figures with intense political or military ambitions suggests that saga authors were interested in the community's ability to balance their strength and ability with a degree of social moderation.

The discussion of these sagas shows that character study can be used to analyse how the saga authors added their own voice to the voices passed down to medieval Icelanders in traditional narratives. Authorial engagement with characters allowed inherited traditions about early Norway and Iceland and records of thirteenth century events to be transformed into sophisticated historical works with highly creative elements. Through secondary authorship, saga authors took joint-possession of narratives and contested the power of tradition in setting the interpretive framework of a saga.

Impact and interest:

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ID Code: 71879
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Refereed: No
Subjects: Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > LANGUAGES COMMUNICATION AND CULTURE (200000) > LITERARY STUDIES (200500)
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Creative Industries Faculty
Past > Schools > School of Media, Entertainment & Creative Arts
Institution: University of Queensland
Deposited On: 21 May 2014 22:12
Last Modified: 21 May 2014 22:12

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