A Critical Companion to Old Norse Literary Genre, from our Studies in Old Norse Literature series is a comprehensive guide to a crucial aspect of Old Norse literature. We thank the editors for this interview where they provide further insight into their work.
How did the Critical Companion come about?
CL: It was just over three years ago. Sif and I had just started our new series ‘Studies in Old Norse Literature’ for Boydell and Brewer, and Caroline Palmer suggested that it would be good to have a purposely commissioned collection of some sort in the series. I thought of conversations I’d had with Max in the past, and of the important ‘round-table’ discussion of genre in relation to the legendary sagas held at the Durham Saga Conference in 2006, and published in the journal Viking and Medieval Scandinavia. And, apart from Max’s own chapter in a recent Companion to the Sagas, that was all there seemed to be on this vital topic in Old Norse literature. So I spoke to Sif ….
SR: ….. and from then on there was no going back! The basic framework, themes and topics were plotted out during a very productive train ride from Birmingham to King’s Cross and celebrated with apéritifs with Caroline Palmer at St Pancras station. We still have the scribbled-on piece of paper with the early brainstorming of the book and it is lovely to see how it has moved from those early ideas into a fully-fledged volume. Then we got in touch with Max who jumped at the idea very eagerly …
MB: Indeed! I was asked to join Carolyne and Sif while I was in Iceland to give a talk exactly about generic hybridity in saga literature. The invitation could hardly have been more timely! Then Sif came up with the idea of arranging a workshop involving our contributors to give all of us the opportunity to start thinking about the general topic from a variety of angles represented in the book structure. I suggested that we should have our workshop in Venice, so we spent two most enjoyable days in April 2018 sharing views on genre and discussing general questions.
How did you arrive at the tripartite structure of the book?
SR: We wanted to address the notion of ‘genre’ as a critical term as well as a means of engaging with the Old Norse literary heritage. Generic categorisations have been very influential in dictating how we perceive Old Norse literary history, so we wanted to take a critical look at how these generic categories have come about, what their theoretical foundations are and how they impact the way in which we perceive those works. But we wanted the volume to be about Old Norse literature so it was critical that the theoretical engagement with genre would be complemented with an in-depth look at the literary evidence.
MB: The interplay between theory and empirical work is indeed key to approaching such a multifaceted topic not only as far as Old Norse genre is concerned, but also in terms of how medieval vernacular genres as a whole can be dealt with. We thought that having a tripartite structure would allow for a better articulation of the complex discourse on genre as seen from the perspective of Old Norse literary production.
CL: For me, a critical research question, which we hoped would encourage the contributors to think beyond their own favourite texts, was: what generic choices did authors have if they wanted to write about particular themes? The critic Claudio Guillén has defined genre as ‘an invitation to form’. If you want to impart wisdom or relate a saint’s life, or recount a myth, what generic possibilities are there within the literary culture?
What did you find particularly interesting in relation to your individual contribution to the book?
MB: This project has enabled me to broaden the scope of my view on genre to embrace a wider perspective on it as a theoretical issue in medieval studies in general. Moreover, it has drawn my (and hopefully the reader’s) attention to the importance of considering the dynamics involving the development of saga genres and other literary genres.
CL: I don’t normally work with explicitly Christian literature (with the exception of the strange poem Sólarljóð), so it was interesting to consider the history of writing about God and the gods in Old Norse literature, and trace the continuities and ruptures in the treatment of religious belief and the gods in pre-Christian and post-Conversion compositions.
SR: We tend to use generic categorisations as if they are fully coherent and stable (often with some caveats of course) and what surprised me the most in working on my own chapter on hybridity was the extent to which even the most classical works within any given generic group defy the normative standards of that genre. Hybridity turned out to be the norm rather than the exception; it is an essential factor in literary creativity and some of the works that we consider to be literary masterpieces often defy the generic framework within which (or into which) they were written.
How are you going to take forward what you’ve gained from this project into your future research?
CL: I have a book project on eddic poetry in my sights. I’ll be thinking about how we might better understand the different categories in which poets composed within the eddic mode.
MB: I’ve just started working on a book on genres and fictional worlds in saga literature for which the work I did in this project will certainly be of great help.
SR: In many ways the wonderful collaboration across the volume with my co-editors and contributors has helped crystallise some of my own ideas about Norse literary history. More specifically, however, it has made me focus on the role that emotive scripts play in both dictating the generic framework and signalling to readers and audiences the generic context within which they are to understand characters’ behaviours and actions – what I call the ‘horizon of feeling’.
Do you have some final words for the readers?
MB: I think the great variety of topics and the intersection of viewpoints on Old Norse literary genre offered in this book is what really makes this volume useful. Moreover, the very fact that genre is a relevant concept across the whole spectrum of literary studies will hopefully encourage readers who have a more general interest in medieval genre as a theoretical and methodological problem to read and enjoy this multifaceted book.
SR: Given that we use generic categorisations as fundamental criteria when approaching the Old Norse literary heritage I think the volume will be critical in providing scholars, students and those interested in Norse literature with a framework for understanding how those categories came about, what they mean and how they impact how we read these works. Since teaching of Old Norse literature is often based on generic classifications the volume will provide a very useful framework to discuss and analyse those works, giving a more nuanced sense of the extraordinary Old Norse literary heritage and its generic complexity.
CL: There should be something for everyone in this book. In particular, the Critical Companion introduces and explores many less well-known genres and texts, showing that there’s much more to Old Norse literature than the sagas!
MASSIMILIANO BAMPI is Associate Professor of Germanic Philology at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice; CAROLYNE LARRINGTON is Professor of Medieval European Literature at Oxford University and Official Fellow in Medieval English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford; SIF RIKHARDSDOTTIR is Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Iceland and Vice-Chair of the Institute for Research in Literature and Visual Arts.