Icelanders, who have a deep appreciation for irony, have a saying that anyone who achieves notoriety in their marginal society has become “world famous in Iceland.” Non-Icelanders also can aspire to this distinction, and if you find yourself the subject of an article, accompanied by your picture, in the Icelandic daily newspaper, then the label may apply to you.
This is what happened to me at the very end of my three-week stay in Reykjavik last summer. I had returned to Iceland after a hiatus of six years, this time as the faculty adviser for the May-term course in Intensive Modern Icelandic, cosponsored by GSD and the Sigurdur Nordal Institute in Iceland. To advertise the course, a colleague in Iceland arranged for a reporter to interview me. Although I was rather anxious, because I set myself the task of answering the interviewer’s questions in Icelandic, I found the entire experience to be a great pleasure. The interviewer was interested in the course, to be sure, but also asked me about my long relationship with Iceland in my teaching and research, which gave me the opportunity to wax eloquent (in English) about my passion for medieval Icelandic language and literature.
My involvement with Iceland and Icelandic began when I was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin. I had good friends in Sweden, had studied Swedish, had lived in Sweden, and was sure that my future career would focus on Swedish and modern Scandinavian literature. But in my senior year I took a course in Old Icelandic, and I was hooked! I have spent the last 30 years studying and teaching students about the delights of Old Icelandic language and medieval Icelandic literature and culture.What exactly attracted me to Old Icelandic literature in the first place was the sly, ironical sense of humor I found in the wonderful stories in the reader we used in 1963—and which I still use today—E.V. Gordon’s Introduction to Old Norse.
The Icelanders’ sense of irony is embodied in the notion of being “world famous in Iceland” and in my favorite story from The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, one of the “giants” of medieval storytelling, although a marginal figure to most medievalists not specializing in Old Icelandic. Briefly, the tale relates how Thor, the mighty muscle-man and otherwise invincible giant-killer of the Norse gods, encounters a giant named Utgarda-Loki. The giant successfully employs magical illusions to trick Thor into thinking that Thor and his companions have been defeated in competitions they undertake to earn the hospitality of the giants. By means of this stratagem, Utgarda-Loki saves himself and the other giants from otherwise certain death. The humiliation is underscored by Utgarda-Loki’s commentary, which puts down the god and emphasizes how puny and impotent he is, compared to Utgarda-Loki and his mates.
Thor is convinced that his reputation among the gods and giants is ruined—until Utgarda-Loki explains, once the gods are safely outside his castle, that in reality Thor has accomplished a number of cosmic feats, including drinking so much of the sea that the ebb tides are created and wrestling successfully against Old Age, disguised as an old woman named Elli (“old age” in Icelandic). The reason Thor has not understood the illusions is that he is not a poet and therefore cannot decipher the metaphors used by Utgarda-Loki. The point surely is that the power of the wordsmith is mightier than mere physical strength and that the underdog has a chance if he uses his wits.
The medieval Icelanders on the margins of continental Europe were mighty wordsmiths and produced a corpus of prose stories in the form of sagas that may surpass that of any other medieval culture. The greatest of these prose works, such as Njal’s Saga, are simply awe-inspiring masterpieces of storytelling. They are rich in unforgettable character portraits, in highly dramatic scenes, in humor and in tragedy. The ironic humor that peppers the tales these 13th-century Icelanders wrote about their ancestors—those great Viking-Age heroes who discovered and settled Iceland from Norway and the British Isles—may be viewed against the backdrop of an inevitable historical development in which the heroes and the society in which they lived and performed their roles faced destruction, as in the “Ragnarok” of Norse mythology. In 1262, for better or for worse, Iceland became part of the Norwegian North Atlantic empire.
As readers in the 21st century, we are isolated from the thoughts and feelings of those storytellers and their audience. So how do I bridge this chasm and attempt to understand and teach the sagas? With learning, with passion, and with deep appreciation for irony and the Icelandic storytelling tradition—that is my formula.
GSD and the Sigurdur Nordal Institute of the University of Iceland offer a six-week summer course in modern Icelandic. See page 19 for details.
Kaaren Grimstad (Ph.D.,Harvard U) is an expert on medieval Icelandic literature and culture. Her courses include Old Norse language, Scandinavian mythology, Icelandic sagas, eddic poetry, and advanced Swedish. She has edited two Old Norse texts, one a translation of a Latin textbook in theology and the other a popular medieval saga. She now is engaged in discourse analysis of dialogues in Icelandic sagas.