Discourse in Old Norse Literature
ERIC SHANE BRYAN
Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about your exciting new book Discourse in Old Norse Literature! Can you please begin by giving us an overview of this work?
Anyone who reads the Old Norse literature will notice that it is full of rich dialogue, especially the Íslendingasögur, the Icelandic Family Sagas. Despite how important dialogue is to the sagas, it’s been a long time, over eight decades, since anyone had dedicated a book-length study to discourse in Old Norse literature, so it was really time to take a deep look at how discourse works in Old Norse literature. This book argues that saga writers were masters of depicting dialogue that depends heavily upon context to communicate meaning. For instance, if you think about sarcasm which is such a feature of modern discourse, the only way we can identify sarcasm when we’re speaking to one another is understanding the context in which something is uttered. We would say that sarcasm is an example of indirectness in speech because words being said don’t match up with the meaning we are trying to communicate. We need the context to pick up on the real meaning. Linguists have built an entire subfield of study based on this idea, called pragmatics, by which they try to observe the mechanisms by which context contributes to meaning. I argue in this book not only that medieval saga writers are aware of these fundamental aspects of language but also that the way medieval northern literature employs these ideas changes rather dramatically as the North experiences the three great cultural developments of the medieval period: Christianization, Nation-making, and the move from an oral to a literate society.
Did anything in your research surprise you? Were there some dialogues that meant something completely different from what you first assumed?
Yes, in fact you could say that the entire working hypotheses with which I started were almost the opposite of what I found. I had expected to see the uses of pragmatic principles—those appeals to context in order to make meaning—would become increasingly complex and sophisticated as the cultural world in the North became increasingly globalized and influenced by technologies of writing, but in fact, you almost see the opposite phenomenon. There appears to be a kind of pragmatic levelling that takes place, where the complexities and nuance of discourse in Old Norse seems to wane as time passes. I think there are several causes, but perhaps the prime mover was the changeover from an oral society to a literate one. This is a development that can’t really be understood by quantifying what percentage of a population did or didn’t know how to read. At some point through the literalization process, fundamental expectations about how to communicate self-worth and identity began to change. I think that change impacted the way that people used language in the medieval North.
Your work considers that speakers rely on cultural, situational and interpersonal context to communicate their meaning, something that is still very true today. Do you think this is more relevant today and will your study help readers realise that this way of communicating is nothing new but has in fact been common since medieval times?
I’d like to think it will, yes, but there’s more to it than just feeling a connection with the past. I believe that Old Norse literature captures one of the great moments in the history of human linguistic development, when the relationship between context and communicating meaning are, in a way, in crisis. Because of those big cultural developments I mentioned before—religious change, the introduction of the technology of writing, and the realization of the nation-state—language users were having to reimagine how context and meaning related to one another. While it’s true that language is always changing all the time, there are only a very few of those great, transformative moments throughout history. Old Norse literature captures one of those transformative times. I think we are living through another of them right now. To a large extent, the motivating forces are of a similar kind: globalization, the introduction of new communicative technologies, and the re-evaluation of the individual’s and small-communities’ relationship to state governments.
Now, I don’t discuss the modern world in my book, but I do hope that readers will be able to see some points of contact between our world and the literature I discuss.
Have you always been interested in literature from the medieval North?
No, actually. In fact, I came very close to studying Appalachian folklore in graduate school. I grew up in the American South, which in some ways is about as different a place from the medieval North as you can find. At a young age, I was heavily influenced by Southern writers like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, and Robert Penn Warren. That led me to study psychology, then folklore, and finally medieval literature.
For me, the study of literature has never really been about my enjoyment of reading (although of course I do very much enjoy it). I was mainly driven by a desire to understand changing systems of religious belief and the ways that storytelling influences our understanding of the world around us. I eventually came to realize that it was going to be too difficult for me to get those answers in literature that was too close to home, so I went in search for those answers elsewhere. What amazed me most about studying medieval literature, and Old Norse literature in particular, was just how constant the human condition really is, and just how completely and complexly the narratives of the medieval North depicted the human experience. It’s true of many other ancient and medieval literary corpuses as well, but Old Norse literature was the place where that realization came home to me.
The language aspect of studying Old Norse literature was just an added bonus. I love puzzles of all kinds, so studying literature in another language is like unlocking a puzzle box to find the heart of humanity inside. Looking for ways to solve that puzzle eventually led me to the study of discourse.
You include a wide body of Old Norse materials, do you have any favourites and if so, why?
Yes, certainly. I’d have to say my absolute favourite is Laxdœla saga, the Saga of the People of Laxárdal. I think what I love most about it is the emotional complexity you find in it. The story builds up to this rivalry between two formally good friends, Kjártan and Bolli. They’re both in love with the same woman, Guðrún. Bolli has married her but it seems pretty clear that Guðrún would really rather with Kjártan (and at the same she hates him for it). Guðrún’s bitterness drives her to coerce Bolli into attacking Kjártan. Bolli kills him but only because Kjártan refused to fight. After it’s all over, Bolli gathers up Kjártan’s body and holds him for a moment, and all of the intimacy of their past relationship, of Guðrún’s love and hatred, and of all the good and bad decisions leading up to that moment pour down on Bolli’s head. You won’t find a more powerful moment in any literature from any era or place.
But it’s really the dialogues in Laxdœla saga that opens up all that complexity for me.
Tell us about your cover, what does it depict?
This is a painting by the nineteenth century Swedish painter August Malmström. It’s an illustration of a scene in another great saga, Brennu-Njáls saga, the Saga of Burnt-Njáll (you can guess that things do not turn out well for Njáll in the end). The image is very kinetic to me, showing both the physical and verbal components of self-worth, which is something I spend a lot of time discussing in the book. The characters are clearly having a verbal confrontation, while some have drawn their weapons and are prepared to fight. I love the expressive eyes of the spectators, and the posture of the two principal figures is fraught with tension—one figure moving forward and the other with a hand outstretched to stop him. There is Njáll in the background—he was known for being beardless—calm and observant as he always is, not given to fits of passion like the others are, watching the whole thing unfold.
We’ve seen a growth in recent studies focused on Old Norse literature, why do you think that is?
I’m sure part of it has to do with popular depictions of “the Vikings” and Norse gods in television shows and movies (I’m a big fan of the new show Loki), along with a continued interest in fantasy literature, but I think there’s something deeper to it as well. I think scholars and students of literature are beginning to realize that the Old Norse-Icelandic literary corpus has a lot to offer the study of the medieval world in general. It is a vast corpus, diverse, and richly connected with literature and culture of the greater medieval world. I think young scholars and literary analysts are beginning to realize how much it has to offer.
What’s next for you?
I have a few projects in the works. Continuing the study of discourse in medieval sources, I’m putting together an edited collection on how discourse reflects diversity in the medieval world. The goal of volume will be to demonstrate ways that discourse differs (or remains similar) across cultural, linguistic, and socio-economic boundaries, and hopefully to get a bigger picture of discourse usage in the larger landscape. Old Norse will be represented, along with Old English and other medieval vernacular languages, but I’d really like to stretch the study to the global medieval world.
My next book project will be a little different. It will pick up on those questions of the function of narrative in the pre-modern and modern world. The goal will be, first, to observe just how dependent we are on narrative (similar to the old idea of homo narrans, or ‘storytelling humans’) to process and understand the meaning of the world around us, and, second, to consider how the technology and communication booms of the last century and a half have influenced our reliance upon narrative as a maker of meaning.
We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. Sadly we’re all still living and working through a pandemic, one consequence of which has been the shift of conferences from in-person to online. Have you been taking part in virtual conferences? What have been your experiences?
I have taken part in virtual conference, yes, and I’m really of two minds on the subject. One of the positives is that we are able to connect across distance and sometimes even financial boundaries that may have been prohibitive before virtual conferences. For example, I was able to see a lecture given by an old mentor of mine that I certainly would not have seen otherwise. I think it’s also been a benefit to scholars—especially those in graduate school and others who may not have the funding to travel to on-site conferences—who are now able to attend conferences online. I think we have to recognize that it’s been a real benefit in those ways, despite the unfortunate circumstances that have driven us to virtual conferences. I also think we need to commend those conference organizers who have been able to pivot to the online format despite all of the difficulties of doing so. We all owe them a debt of gratitude for their efforts.
On the other hand, I think we also have to acknowledge the real limitations of the online format. The truth is, most of the real value in going to a conference is in the impromptu conversations and meetings that take place—discussions after the session is over or last-minute meetings over drinks or coffee. Those conversations are not just about networking and socializing either, although I think both of those things are important; it’s really in those meetings that the newest and freshest ideas are shared and mulled over with colleagues. I think a lot of that has been lost in the online format.. . . but I must confess that I’m a bit old fashioned. Sometimes, I even write on the blackboard in my classroom.
ERIC SHANE BRYAN
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ERIC SHANE BRYAN is Associate Professor of English at Missouri University of Science and Technology.
Images: August Malmström, illustration of Njáls saga, ca. 1895-1900. Photographed by Cecilia Heisser of the National Museum, Sweden.