Kinship is Fascinating

‘Kinship is fascinating. While not all sociologists will agree with that claim, it is nevertheless a sociological observation and not an expression of personal predilection’.[1]  So Jennifer Mason asserts in her article ‘Tangible Affinities’, which seeks to understand why kinship exerts such a powerful fascination for people. 

So much in literature, both medieval and modern, comes down to kinship and Old Norse literature is no exception.  The stories of Old Norse myth and legend are stories about kinship, indeed, as I argue in this book, Kinship in Old Norse Myth and Legend, they are stories in which kinship and narrative are so closely intertwined that it is impossible to speak of one without including the other.  It had never occurred to me, until I read Jennifer Mason, to question why the preoccupation with kinship relations in Old Norse myth and legend seemed so natural to me or to consider that the fascination with kinship which these stories display might demand some sociological explanation.

A fascination with kinship is something we share with the world of Old Norse myth and legend, making it seem tantalisingly familiar.  It often seemed to me as I was researching this book that it was the very relatable nature of family relations in Old Norse myth and legend, the startling mimesis of parent-child interactions, which made them liable to be overlooked by scholarship.  For all their fantastical aspects, the families of the legendary sagas and poems are drawn with compelling detail and remarkable psychological depth. The very ease with which we, as modern readers, can often understand and sympathise with their dilemmas encourages the assumption that these characters are not so different from ourselves.  Guðrún’s destructive grief upon the death of her daughter Svanhildr; Signý’s burning desire to avenge her father Völsungr’s death even at a terrible cost; the eagerness of the sons of Ragnarr loðbrók to surpass their father in feats of heroic renown.  Grief for the untimely death of a child; the lure of revenge; the pressures of measuring up to parental expectations: these are all emotions we can still understand.

Yet it would be wrong to assume that we can simply transplant our own ideas of kinship into the myths and legends of medieval Iceland.  Conceptions of kinship arise from within a culture and cannot be imposed upon it as a structure from without.  To understand kinship in Old Norse myth and legend we must begin from within the kinship stories these myths and legends tell, paying attention not only to what is familiar but to what is unfamiliar as well.  In my book I seek to do just that and what emerges is a more radically unfamiliar conception of Old Norse kinship than we might expect, one which carefully balanced the desires of the individual against the needs of the collective, which was strong enough to endure through even the harshest trials without breaking, and which, by its explication in and through literary means, proves how strongly Old Norse authors would have agreed with Jennifer Mason’s observation: Kinship is fascinating.

[1] Jennifer Mason, ‘Tangible Affinities and the Real Life Fascination of Kinship’, Sociology 42.1 (2008), 29–45 at p. 29.

This guest post was written by Katherine Marie Olley, the VH Galbraith Junior Research Fellow in Medieval Studies at St Hilda’s College, Oxford.

Kinship in Old Norse Myth and Legend
by Katherine Marie Olley
9781843846376, hardcover, £45.50 or $64.35

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