Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Ljósvetninga saga: Mighty fists and political wheeling and dealing in Eyjafjörður

While I was up north on bovine business over the Easter period, free time between milking sessions were spent pondering and perambulating Ljósvetninga saga, 'The saga of the people of Ljósavatn'. The title of the saga would lead one to expect the action to be located around Ljósavatn which is east of Eyjafjörður, in Þingeyjarsveit, but in fact the central character, the chieftain Guðmundr ríki ('the powerful'), lived at Möðruvellir, which is some 25 kms south of Akureyri, in the Eyjafjörður valley on the eastern side of the Eyjafjarðará river. Ljósvetninga saga has a very different flavour to the sagas I've written about more recently (Egils saga, Laxdæla saga, Harðar saga) and those which are to come in the next few weeks (Eyrbyggja saga, Gísla saga, Fóstbræðra saga...) being much more political in its focus -- and Guðmundr is not a saga 'hero' in the mould of Egill, Kjartan, or Hörðr. In fact, he is not painted in a positive light at all -- the saga narrates his social/political/legal wheeling and dealing with other local or northern chieftains, farmers, and slaves and while he often achieves the ends he wants from conflicts, he does not necessarily come out of these episodes with his honour and local standing enhanced.  

Möðruvellir, with dog
Reading Ljósvetninga saga 'in the landscape' proved to be an experience akin to that of Flóamanna saga (see post from February) in some ways. Other than brief notes detailing where characters live and the occasional outline of a journey from one place to another, there is very little in the saga that links the action to the physical landscape, or sets it tangibly in it. As far as I could establish by talking to a number of local people, the majority of those who live in Eyjafjarðarsveit are not particularly familiar with the saga or with the details of Guðmundr ríki's life and career; nor are the farmsteads/sites in the saga marked with information boards or monuments in the way that those in Mýrar and Dalir are.     

The turf-roofed church at Saurbær today
(Möðruvallafjall behind, the other side of the valley)
There are some highly entertaining scenes in the saga nonetheless. The description of how a certain Þorbjörn Rindill (a somewhat dubious character whom Guðmundr hires to carry out a vengeance mission on his behalf) meets his death is visual in an almost comic-book-like fashion: after eating a quick bowl of rather runny skyr (a kind of yoghurt that was a staple food)...var þar kominn Eilífr ok maðr með honum, -- þar varð fátt af kveðjum --, ok setti þegar kesjuna á Rindil miðjan, en skyrit sprændi ór honum ok upp á Eilíf (Ljósvetninga saga, ed. Björn Sigfússon, Íslenzk fornrit 10 (Reykjavík, 1940), p. 55; 'Eilífr had arrived and there was a man with him -- there weren't many greetings -- and at once he stabbed Rindill in his middle with the spear, and the skyr spurted out of him and onto Eilífr'). Guðmundr is told the news and, furious, he rides to nearby Saurbær where Eilífr and his companion have sought shelter from the old and blind Hlenni inn skakki ('the wry'). 'Are they here, those men of dire deeds, with you Hlenni? Eilífr and his companion?' 'They are here', he says, 'and it doesn´t seem a tragedy to me that Rindill is dead' ('Eru þeir hér, ódáðamennirnir, hjá þér, Hlenni, Eilífr ok förunautr hans?' 'Hér eru þeir,' segir hann, 'ok þykki mér engi harmsaga, þótt Rindill sé dauðr', Ljósvetninga saga, p. 55).

In a later scene, Guðmundr is staying at one of his follower's farmsteads: he takes the highseat, the most prestigious place; another chieftain called Ófeigr Járngerðarson is in the place inside of Guðmundr. When the table is laid for a meal, Ófeigr puts his fist on the table and a perfectly-paced passage of dialogue follows:
     'Hversu mikill þykki þér hnefi sjá, Guðmundr?'
     Hann mælti: 'Víst mikill.' 
     Ófeigr mælti: 'Þat muntu ætla, at afl muni í vera?'
     Guðmundr mælti: 'Ek ætla þat víst.'
     Ófeigr segir: 'Mikit muntu ætla, at högg verði af?'
     Guðmundr segir: 'Stórum mikit.'
     Ófeigr segir: 'Þat muntu ætla, at saka muni?'
     Guðmundr mælti: 'Beinbrot eða bani.'
     Ófeigr svarar: 'Hversu myndi þér sá dauðdagi þykkja?'
     Guðmundr mælti: 'Stórillr, ok eigi mynda ek vilja þann fá.'
     Ófeigr mælti: 'Sittu þá eigi í rúmi mínu.'
     Guðmundr segir: 'Þat skal ok vera,' -- ok settisk öðrum megin
(Ljósvetninga saga, pp. 58-59; 'How big does this fist seem to you, Guðmundr?' He said: 'Certainly large.' Ófeigr said: 'Do you think there is power in it?' Guðmundr said: 'I think that certainly.' Ófeigr says: 'Do you think the blow that might come from it would be strong?' Guðmundr says: 'Very strong.' Ófeigr says: 'What do you think the damage would be?' Guðmundr said: 'Bone-breaking or death.' Ófeigr answers: 'How would a death like that seem to you?' Guðmundr said: 'Very bad, and I would not like to experience it.' Ófeigr said: 'Don´t sit in my seat then.' Guðmundr says: 'It shall be so,' -- and seats himself the on the other side.')

Beyond the challenges of imagining the action of Ljósvetninga saga in the landscape, certain aspects related to its transmission and its modern reception are of interest to me. Firstly, the saga survives in two versions which differ significantly in their length, phrasing, overall organisation or structure, and presentation of events with regard to specific detail. Scholars have debated which version is older/younger, closer to the 'original' etc, but have not reached a consensus. The fact that two such differing versions -- whose textual relationship is not clear -- exist, however, illustrates very well how the concept of an 'original' text is something of an anachronism as far as the medieval Icelandic Íslendingasögur ('sagas of Icelanders') are concerned. The sagas were authored anonymously, and their written composition was a process that involved moulding a great deal of material that must have been passed down orally from generation to generation into a carefully crafted literary whole. When scribes made new copies of individual sagas, they were free to alter the text they were copying from in the manuscript in front of them -- and did so, to varying degrees, in order to improve the style or 'correct' specific details. By examining the variant texts of any one saga, a picture can be built up of how that narrative or story was understood and interpreted by all those who were involved in transmitting it via hand-copied manuscripts, from the medieval period right up until the 19th and even early 20th century. In this way, the sagas are living literature, continuously being adapted and rewritten over time.   

Secondly, Ljósvetninga saga is a nice example of how modern taste or aesthetics have changed over the past 150 years or so of saga scholarship -- and what people have thought makes a 'good' saga. Two 19th-century scholars wrote of Ljósvetninga saga that "owing to the absence of remaniement this work is not disfigured by the monstrous and exaggerated taste for blood, which has quite cumbered some sagas, that may once have been good stories, with aimless ill-told murders ... all [the characters] are finely and firmly limned with a quiet delight and an absence of exaggeration that is admirable indeed. Of all the Sagas, this is the nearest to Njála in style. It is incomparably the best Saga of the North" (Guðbrandur Vigfússon and F. York Powell, Origines Islandicæ vol. II (Oxford, 1905), pp. 349-50). Njála, or Njáls saga, is often described as the 'jewel in the saga crown' -- so this is high praise for Ljósvetninga saga indeed. But since the time of these scholars' verdict, very little has been published on Ljósvetninga saga, and what has been tends to be concerned either with its textual transmission (i.e. the versions and the relationship of surviving manuscript texts to each other), or has used the saga as a source for throwing light on social, political, and legal structures and dynamics in Settlement/Commonwealth times -- at least as far as portrayed by those in the 13th century, when the saga was thought to be written.  
Finally, the more I read the sagas in close succession in situ here in Iceland, and follow up the connections between them physically moving from one place to another and from one region to another, the more I think that the sagas are best understood not as individual, discrete narratives, but as a network of interlinking and overlapping narratives. Characters and individual places in one saga often appear in other sagas; sometimes, specific events described in one saga are reported in one or more other sagas too. It´s interesting to see how the presentation of the same characters and events differs in these cases, according to the objectives of each saga‘s author, or their personal perspective. Ljósvetninga saga is a good example: Guðmundr ríki appears in over 10 other sagas—sometimes in a more positive light than he is portrayed in Ljósvetninga saga. But as William Ian Miller and Thedore Andersson (in the introduction to their 1989 translation of the saga, Law and Literature in Medieval Iceland: Ljósvetninga saga and Valla-Ljóts saga) and Gísli Sigurðsson (in his 2007 article ‘The Immanent Saga of Guðmundr ríki‘, in a volume called Learning and Understanding in the Old Norse World: A Festschrift for Margaret Clunies Ross, ed. Judy Quinn, Kate Heslop, and Tarrin Wills) point out, above and beyond the positive/negative attitudes towards Guðmundr in these sagas, there is a great deal of consistency in his portrayal—and moreover, as Gísli Sigurðsson puts it, ‘many of them [i.e. these sagas] seem to assume a level of prior knowledge of his character on the part of their audiences‘, and also ‚a prior knowledge of his external circumstances‘. Gísli writes also that ‚The tradition in fact offers a many-voiced and varied picture of characters, in all probability because it is based on memories of real people that were the subject of stories for several generations before it occurred to anyone to use them as material for written works of narrative‘.
Guðrún's grave at Helgafell
The past few days I´ve been touring around the Snæfellsnes peninsula on the trail of Eyrbyggja saga sites (post to follow shortly): next stop is the West Fjords (I‘m on my way there right now, on the ferry Baldur which runs between Stykkishólmur, Flatey, and Brjánslækur) and Gísla saga...There‘s a strong link between these two sagas that gives my progression from one to the other here a nice coherence. Gísli Súrsson‘s sister Þórdís–whose first husband was murdered by Gísli—later tried to avenge Gísli‘s death (masterminded in turn by her second husband Börkr, brother of the first husband), at Helgafell which is a central location in Eyrbyggja saga, being the home of Snorri goði (Þórdís‘s son from her first husband) by the time of that saga. Looking back to Laxdæla saga (which I read, travelled, and wrote about in April), Helgafell is the place where Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir ended up (having engineered a 'houseswap‘ with Snorri towards the end of her life) and died...her grave is marked today with a stone (see photo above). Amazing to think, looking at this modern memorial, that Guðrún died and was buried over 1000 years ago...