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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

July 20, 2016: VikingStudying: The Sagas



[Earlier this month, I traveled to Iceland for the first time, a nation with recently discovered historical connections to the Americas. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the culture at the heart of those ties, leading up to a special post on a few takeaways from the trip itself!]
On two AmericanStudies contexts for the literary epics that recount the Vikings’ voyages.
Although there are apparently very minor references to it in a couple of historical chronicles from the period (including Ari the Wise’s Book of Icelanders), by far the most overt and extensive contemporary (relatively speaking; within a couple of centuries, at least) documentation of Leif Erikson’s voyage to the Americas is found in two 13th century Icelandic sagas: the Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders. Like all the Icelandic sagas, these prose texts comprise a complex combination of family histories and genealogies, exaggerated epic prose-poems, and detailed historical accounts, and demand the kind of extensive contextualization and nuanced close readings that I’m in no way able to provide in this brief post (as well as specialized literary and cultural knowledge that I don’t have in any case!). But if we view these sagas of exploration through the lens of American literature and culture, a subject about which I have a great deal more to say, they can be provocatively and productively linked to two very distinct texts and contexts.
For one thing, I think the Icelandic sagas have more in common with William Bradford’s Of Plimoth Plantation than we might initially think (and I can feel my late professor Alan Heimert cursing me eternally for this comparison, but we AmericanStudiers must go where the trail takes us). Because Bradford writes his history of the Mayflower Pilgrims and their Plymouth colony in a detached third-person narrative voice, it’s easy at times to forget that he was both an integral part and a leader of the community, and that the book is thus a personal and family history as well as a communal chronicle. Moreover, he is just as subjective in that perspective as is any epic poet, and his treatment of his book’s focal subjects (such as Thomas Morton and his splinter community) just as potentially exaggerated or slanted. None of that means that his history of the Pilgrims’ community, voyage, and settlement is necessarily inaccurate, of course, no more than are the Icelandic sagas—just that his text combines genres and perspectives as fully as do those sagas, a comparison that could help us see all of them as helping create a new form of New World chronicle. (To reiterate, the sagas were written some centuries after the voyages, a key difference from Bradford’s contemporaneous book to be sure.)
It would also be interesting to compare the Icelandic sagas to a 20th century epic poem such as Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage.” To be clear, Hayden’s poem focuses on the horrific and brutal forced voyages of African slaves (and the slave traders and sailors who shared those voyages with them) to the New World, a far different form of Atlantic travel than was Leif Erikson’s journey of exploration. Yet to portray those voyages centuries after they took place, to create out of those histories a literary representation of their experiences and essences, Hayden creates a multi-vocal and multi-genre poem, a work that combines personal and historical accounts with imagined poetic descriptions and images. The result is both something new and something old, a text that feels experimental and innovative and yet one that gets closer (I would argue, and have argued) to the Middle Passage than have many historical analyses. Different as they are in so many ways, it would still be possible to see Hayden’s poem and the Icelandic sagas as two parts of a longstanding and still evolving literary tradition of New World epics.
Next VikingStudying tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other ways you’d analyze the Vikings or Iceland?

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