Intro to Medieval Studies, Class 2, Norse Sagas, Free Write

(going to do this every Thursday so help me God, and thank to the Most Dangerous Writing App)

Anyone familiar with Marie de France’s Lais, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or Parsifal will recognize narrative elements from the Saga of Hrolf Kraki and the Volsung Saga: the outsider to court who, like a fool, neither knows nor respects the rules of courtesy and the underlying social hierarchies that they sustain, but who reveals himself to be a greater, less self-conscious hero than anyone already lodged in court, like Svipdag and Bodvar in Hrolf; the strange figure who comes from the outside, a man older or at least more imposing than the usual run of men, who arrives to turn a feast to worry and wonder with his uncanny demands, like Bertilak or Odin; and then, birds that enter through windows, assume the forms of humans, and then have sex with humans longing for a mate, like Marie’s Yonec, or any number of stories in Hrolf Kraki and the Volsung Saga about transformations into fierce, forest carnivores — bears or wolves — and the difficulty of living as both human and beast. Even the bear mate material appears in the late vernacular literature of Christian England. Much of this material belongs to still more widespread narrative traditions, like women who interpret dreams correctly, tell the terrible future, and get ignored, a trend we can identify running from Cassandra’s to Pertelote in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale (where Chaucer parodies the tradition by making Pertelote a misreader) to Hilary Clinton herself.

My hunch is that we might want to avoid calling these elements “folkloric,” although I offer this hunch without any strong grounding in the scholarship of folklore. I am more inclined to mark these elements as common narrative elements belonging to generally non-literate forms of transmission. The kinds of narrative, and what they supposedly say about either a people or the purported “deep structures of human thought,” probably matter less than the technologies of transmission, first of all, and secondly, how the spread of these stories say about the supposed ethnic unities of ancient peoples. If these stories can be so widely told, then what matters is the stories, not the “people,” if that makes sense.

Finally, however, I am interested in what drops out from this material as it makes its way into the storytelling in the later medieval continent, in, say, French, Middle English, and Latin. The question of fate remains important, of course; but now fate becomes wrapped up with the philosophical problem of “free will.” Women warriors do not entirely disappear, but they are far more often outliers; eating the flesh or drinking the blood of the powerful no longer grants the eater the power of what they had eaten. As professional, supervised religious monocultures emerge, we get a new notion of the outside, no longer organized simply between the Hall and the Forest: the outside might be a civilization too. We might do well to consider, then, not the “survivals of the ancients” but rather what does not survive, and what social and economic transformations lead to their disappearance and transformations.