The Medieval Icelandic Saga and Oral Tradition: A Discourse on Method

  Sigurðsson, Gísli. 2004. The Medieval Icelandic Saga and Oral Tradition: A Discourse on Method. Trans. Nicholas Jones. Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature 2. Cambridge, MA: Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature.

3. Conclusions to Part I

As described in the Introduction, the debate about oral tradition and the Icelandic sagas under the opposing labels of ‘freeprose’ and ‘bookprose’ came to a dead-end since the methods and ideas available proved unable to shed new light on the problems. All discussion of oral tradition in ancient times and the oral background to the sagas was based on a) direct information in the texts on storytelling and poetry performance and other references to orality, and b) research into the structure and style of the sagas. Both approaches were unsatisfactory, since a) the descriptions in the sources failed to answer the questions people wanted to ask, and b) the structural characteristics and formulaic phrases that people believed were restricted to works in oral preservation could, in fact, occur equally in works produced with a pen at a writing desk. Thus the methods available proved inadequate for their purposes, and here things ground to a halt.

Rather than continue wrangling over their oral origins, scholars turned their attention to the importance of Latin learning in the writing of the sagas. The example was taken above of how Latin learning manifests itself in Snorri’s Edda, with the conclusion that this alone was not enough to explain the salient features of the work; for purposes of exemplification, Snorri’s treatment of his mythological material was considered in an attempt to decide whether it was more likely that a) he knew both mythological verses and myths in prose form, or b) his only sources were poems, from which he constructed his own versions of myths. From a comparison between Snorri’s prose account of the god Þórr’s fishing expedition with the giant Hymir and the verses presented by Snorri relating to this tale, it emerged that Snorri’s account was better explained as an independent ‘saga’ than as a synthesis based on the verses. This means that Snorri’s account can be treated as evidence of the existence of myths in oral tradition at the time he was writing. The widespread scholarly view that, when writing his mythology, Snorri was constructing a source book based only on ancient verses is therefore unsound. It thus seems more reasonable to proceed on the basis that oral tradition provided him with both verses and stories about the gods he talks about in his text.

The next point considered was the influence of Latin culture on particular saga motifs, general ideology, and the structural techniques used in the creation of written works. It was concluded that motifs and learned concepts from abroad were capable of entering the saga tradition at the oral stage without their having any major impact on its form. However, things are different when it comes to the techniques used to construct longer texts, i.e. sagas longer than we may suppose might have been performed as single entities at an oral stage. Thus the general conclusion is that theories centered around the belief that Latin learning exerted a large-scale influence on the material and ideological frameworks of the written sagas are based on an underestimation of the aesthetic potential of the art of oral storytelling; the main features of the sagas sprang from native soil, from the oral tradition that people were still thoroughly familiar with when they created and listened to the written sagas. However, in the writing of the sagas people had the benefit of the experience and knowledge that had built up within the Latin culture of the Church on how to create extended, coherent stories in written language. It was only by adopting and adapting such techniques that it became possible to present material from the oral tradition in a new artistic form—that of writing.

If we are to breathe new life into the discussion of oral tradition in Iceland in the 12th and 13th centuries, it is necessary to reconsider certain basic principles in light of the findings of field studies into modern oral traditions. These studies have supplied crucial new information on a) how oral tradition shapes the administrative and social structures of oral societies; b) the effects of the introduction of writing on oral societies; c) the flexibility and adaptability of oral texts to prevailing conditions each time they are produced; d) the distribution of individual stories and poems in oral tradition; e) the artistic possibilities and aesthetics of texts in oral tradition; and f) the problems of capturing oral art forms in written language.

Armed with the findings of field studies of this kind it becomes possible to ask questions about oral tradition in ancient times in light of oral tradition as we know it today. The first aspect to be considered, in Chapter 1, was the role of the lawspeakers, who are universally acknowledged to have preserved the law by memory up to the time when it was written down. It was shown that our modern preconception that writing inevitably represents a cultural advance provides a deeply misleading basis on which to consider the position of the lawspeakers at the beginning of the age of writing. The generally held view that the lawspeakers welcomed writing with open arms, for instance, is entirely without foundation, let alone the equally common view that at least some of the law must have been consigned to writing prior to the compilation of Hafliðaskrá in 1117-8 (with an exception for the tithe laws). From the sources it appears possible to distinguish two types of lawspeakers in the first decades of writing: on the one hand, men of humble background with some kind of connection to the Church and, on the other, men from distinguished families related to secular chieftains. There is even reason to suppose that the Church made it its policy to remove custody over the law from the memories of the lawspeakers (who thereby lost their power to adjudicate in disputes concerning the correct letter of the law) and have it recorded in book form that then took over this right, with the bishop’s book at Skálholt taking precedence in cases of textual discrepancy. A powerful dynasty of lawspeakers, Gunnarr the Wise and his descendants, which appears not to have adopted writing in the 12th century, loses its influence and falls into oblivion among people of the 13th century, who, judging from the evidence of genealogies compiled in this period, display little interest in tracing links to this family.

The position of lawspeaker fell under the control of clerics associated with the Haukdœlir family, a control that was not challenged until the secular chieftains acquired a literate representative in the person of Snorri Sturluson. Judging from the writings ascribed to him, Snorri was fully at home in the oral heritage of stories and poems, and it is not improbable that oral knowledge of the law went hand in hand with other kinds of oral learning and the rhetorical use of language implicit in oral poetry. From this point on, representatives of the Sturlungar and Haukdœlir alternated in the post of lawspeaker for the remainder of the 13th century. Thus it appears that oral tradition represented a powerful and independent force within a political struggle, opposed to the new technique of writing, which was becoming ever more prevalent as the 12th century progressed. In the nature of things, it is only the written documents that have survived and in these the part of churchmen in national affairs of the 11th and 12th centuries is probably presented as greater than it really was at a time when, however little is said of them in younger sources, orally educated lawspeakers must still have exercised considerable influence at the assemblies and courts of Iceland.

Chapter 2 turned to an investigation of the breadth and scope of the oral poetic tradition in the 13th century through an examination of the verses quoted for purposes of exemplification in Óláfr hvítaskáld Þórðarson’s Third Grammatical Treatise. By considering where the poets cited by Óláfr came from and when they lived, it becomes possible to build up a picture of the literary horizons of a man of the mid-13th century possessed of a secure background in both the oral, secular culture of his kinsmen and the Latin learning of the Church. It appears that Óláfr was familiar with the court poets used in the writings of his uncle Snorri Sturluson (together with verses by these same skalds that are not preserved in books), but not with the poets of the sagas of Icelanders other than those from his own region of western Iceland (and even here with the interesting exception of Gunnlaugr ormstunga). From his own immediate neighborhood, however, Óláfr was also familiar with works by some otherwise little known poets of later times. Judging from his examples, Óláfr does not appear to have known much about poets from other parts of the country, other than the north, in the area around Eyjafjörður, where his uncle had settled earlier in the century and established an impressive power base. It is also notable that the majority of Óláfr’s examples are not found in other written sources, indicating that he probably acquired much of his knowledge of poetry from oral tradition rather than books. Broadly, it seems that, out of the mixed and heterogeneous bag of poets that scholars have previously categorized merely as Norwegian or Icelandic skalds from all periods of Icelandic history, and mostly known from other sources, the particular groups of poets that Óláfr was familiar with were restricted to a) ancient poets whose reputations were established at the courts of Scandinavia, b) court poets and itinerant poets from the north of Iceland, generally those known from the works of Snorri Sturluson and Morkinskinna, c) neighbors of Óláfr from the west of Iceland, and d) nationally known figures from Óláfr’s own times.

Before we can start drawing conclusions from these findings, it is right to qualify things by saying that Óláfr would hardly have used examples from all the poets he knew, whether for aesthetic reasons, or from lack of space, or because he needed particularly specialized examples to illustrate the stylistic and rhetorical concepts he was trying to exemplify. But even allowing for this, Óláfr’s examples strongly suggest that his knowledge of material from oral tradition was localized and that the country as a whole did not constitute a single cultural area as regards the distribution of stories and poems about Icelandic people and events. The choice of examples may also indicate that the focus of the Icelandic skaldic tradition lay in the courts of continental Scandinavia, which provided the skalds with a continuous platform for plying their trade at the oral stage, rather than among the chieftains of Iceland or at the Alþingi, where people met only once a year to thrash out their disputes and legal cases. However much we may suspect that a learned and literate man like Óláfr Þórðarson would indeed have possessed a good general overview of poetical practice in Iceland, the fact remains that the verse examples in his Treatise give us no grounds for thinking so.

The overall conclusion from this discussion is that oral knowledge of the law was an important factor in the power politics of Iceland up to the time when the Church started to extend its influence over society. This knowledge would often have been accompanied by training in the oral arts of storytelling and poetry. A case in point would be the Sturlungar, who were sufficiently knowledgeable in the law to carry out the functions of lawspeaker (once book culture had taken over an important part in the preservation of the laws), but at the same time numbered among them some of the greatest experts in oral poetry and other forms of oral lore, notably Snorri Sturluson, Styrmir Kárason (from their intellectual circle if not directly related), and Óláfr and Sturla Þórðarson. These men had the benefit of book learning and employed it to transfer the oral heritage they had grown up with into written form. This heritage included stories and poems about the Norse gods and a variety of other poetry, either preserved at the cultural center of the Icelandic skalds at the court of Norway or that people knew from their own homes and surroundings and had learned from friends, neighbors, or close relatives. The book learning of these men and others living in the same cultural environment, and in particular the examples of structured narratives that they found in books imported from abroad, enabled them to bring order to the enormous and diverse corpus of oral lore and shape it into large-scale written sagas and works of scholarship.

The Introduction and the research in the first part of this study have all revolved to a large extent around the same basic question: What means do we have available for discussing oral tradition in ancient Iceland, its nature and its part in the creation of written works, without having to employ the direct approaches that hitherto dominated such discussions? The course taken here has been to look for ideas to modern-day field studies of oral societies, not in the belief that it is possible to equate conditions from various modern societies directly with medieval society in Iceland, but in order to formulate new questions to which we can then seek answers in our own sources by the use of conventional textual analysis.

Part II goes on to consider what happens when questions of this sort are applied to the sagas themselves; in particular, how prevalent scholarly attitudes to oral tradition and the origins of the sagas have determined the kinds of subjects scholars have chosen to research, their interpretation of the mutual relations among the sagas, and the constructions they have put on characters, genealogies, and incidents that occur in more than one saga. As in part I, the central questions to be tackled are what difference it makes to our attitudes to features such as these if we make allowance for an oral tradition behind the texts, and whether positing such a tradition provides us with more convincing ways of explaining connections between sagas than the traditional methods of literary relations and verbal borrowing.