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.

Series Foreword

This series is dedicated to the empirical study of oral traditions in their historical contexts. The rigorous methods of investigation developed by Milman Parry and Albert Lord, as documented in Lord’s The Singer of Tales (Harvard University Press 1960; Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature 24. Second edition 2000, with an Introduction [vii-xxix] by Stephen Mitchell and Gregory Nagy) serve as a model for the books included in the series.

As the second volume in the series, Gísli Sigurðsson’s The Medieval Icelandic Saga and Oral Tradition: A Discourse on Method extends the fields of inquiry temporally, geographically and linguistically to include the Old Icelandic prose sagas. Both Milman Parry and Albert Lord foresaw that our understanding of these older northern European materials would one day be mediated by their findings. Explaining why a Classicist would find it necessary to immerse himself in a living tradition of epic singing, Milman Parry wrote:

My purpose in undertaking the study of this poetry was as follows. My Homeric studies […] have from the beginning shown me that Homeric poetry, and indeed all early Greek poetry, is oral, and so can be properly understood, criticized, and edited only when we have a complete knowledge of the processes of oral poetry; this is also true for other early poetries such as Anglo-Saxon, French, or Norse, to the extent they are oral. [emphasis added]

“To the extent they are oral” had, as Parry no doubt knew, long been a matter of debate for scholars of Old Norse literature. Tackling this point directly, Gísli Sigurðsson examines in this book questions at the heart of orality in Old Icelandic: How did the lawspeakers, embodying traditional Norse reliance on orality, regard the new written culture? How do we best understand characters, genealogies and events that appear in several sagas between which a written link cannot be established? Based on our understanding of oral tradition in a cross-cultural context, can we reconstruct the mental map with which the sagas about the Vínland voyages are likely to have provided their audiences? Through his answers to these and other critical questions, Gísli Sigurðsson adds significantly to the growing body of evidence demonstrating that the role of orality in Old Norse is both recoverable and necessary for the understanding of the sagas, just as Parry predicted.

Stephen Mitchell and Gregory Nagy
Curators, Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature