May 15, 2018
I employ three streams in my research program: Anglo-Saxon Literature,Middle English Literature, and Old Icelandic Literature. I was embarking on an analysis of several Middle English romances, when I realized I just could not wait to write up a paper I had delivered at the 2017 saga conference at University of Zürich. This article was one of those “drop everything else” projects.
The Old Icelandic sagas hold a unique place in literary history. They are one of the very few great national bodies of literature that are not as well known to general audiences. The pool of critics who study them remains relatively small, so there are gaps in the critical history compared to other writers, for instance Shakespeare, who is widely known to general audiences. In the case of the sagas, I noticed a gap in the examination of the several episodes of child abandonment that occur in them, which I examined in my article "Language, Landscape, and Maternal Space: Child Exposure in Some Sagas of Icelanders." Almost all studies of these episodes took a historical approach rather than one that employed literary analysis, and I found I could link feminist approaches with eco-critical ones, particularly in my examination of The Tale of Thorstein Bull’s Leg.
Historical records from Iceland that deal with the saga period, roughly 830-1300, seem to confirm that some infants were exposed to die in this early settlement period, because raising a child would often be difficult-to-impossible in a climate that barely supports subsistence farming. In the sagas, which are not historical accounts of events, heads of families occasionally decide that infants will be left outside to die for non-economic reasons. For instance, when the hero of The Tale of Thorstein Bull’s Leg is born, his uncle, the head of the family decides that the boy will be left to die apparently because the child is born out of wedlock. But of course any such justification does nothing to alleviate the extreme emotions that these kinds of stories often elicit, and it must be significant that each child abandonment story in the sagas resolves into a foundling story: the child left outside is found by members of another household, raised, and usually goes on to have a distinguished life.
Much of my work in Old Icelandic has looked at the idea of finding glimpses of an exclusively feminine language in the sagas, and my “aha” moment with regard to child abandonment stories came when I found I could connect details of these stories to Julia Kristeva’s ideas concerning the acquisition of language by infants through their mothers. Not only does The Tale of Thorstein Bull’s Leg feature a story of an exposed child who goes on to make his career through exploitation of his special gift for language, but there are also parallel accounts of similar adventures by foundlings in, for example, The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal, and The Saga of the Jomsvikings. Details in these tales also suggest that part of an exposed child’s unusual abilities come from a kind of absorption of the landscape that took place while the infant was exposed to the elements, so I found I could use recent ecocritical ideas in my analyses of these stories as well.
My study of The Tale of Thorstein Bull’s Leg quickly grew into a larger project. I have presented a paper at a Northern Landscape conference in Orkney in Scotland concerning language, landscape, and child abandonment in The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal, and I am presenting on the same subject in The Saga of the Jomsvikings in Rekjavik, Iceland, this August. I am really excited about presenting this material there. This work on the sagas has led to a new research path of inquiry for me. While writing the article that appeared in Exemplaria proved to be one of the most gratifying writing tasks I have ever attempted, so far, I hope that the new kinds of critical analysis that the sagas of Icelanders are attracting will cause even more audiences to read and re-read these compelling works.
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