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Friday, June 7, 2013

University of Victoria, Home of the 'Vikes': Canadian Society of Medievalists Annual Congress 2013

University of Victoria VikesI'd never been to Victoria before, the furthest west that I'd ever managed was Regina Saskatchewan. If it weren't for my first travel grant I wouldn't have really been able to go. I've also never been to a meeting of the Canadian Society of Medievalists, so all in all, this was a trip of firsts. In fact they were conflicting firsts, because I found my desires to do tourist things and desires to do conference things often were at an impasse. As soon as the plane landed and I saw the mountains and the sea of green in front of me, I am not sure that tourism didn't win. But, I think that, in the end, I got a good dose of both. To other tourists/conference goers to the city of Victoria I highly recommend renting a car if you can, because the University is quite a distance from the downtown. 
Also I can't let the fact that the University of Victoria's sports teams are called the Vikings, and are represented by this lovely horned helmet go unmentioned. It was such a nice backdrop. 
I managed to turn my seminar paper "Alfred the Little: Medievalism, Politics and the Poet Laureate" into a conference paper for this year's meeting of the annual Congress of Medieval Studies. Since it is not about something directly in the medieval time period, this meant I was at the very end of the conference.

I missed much, but the quality of the presentations I saw was higher than at Kalamazoo, only because more people had practiced speaking skills, whereas Kalamazoo has some excellent speakers and some who are new to presenting. But I really enjoyed the papers that I was lucky enough to see. 
Sunday June 2, 2013

9:30 am George Clark - "Placing the past on parchment"

This talk was a really interesting summary of the spacing and textuality of the manuscript of Chronicle A, from around the years of the Battle of Maldon. A clearer picture of Scribes 4 and 5 also developes, with Scribe 5 taking on the character of someone who is really interested in representing history.

10:30 am -12:00 Representations of Monasticism

Jenny Weston - "How 'monastic' is the Monastic book?"

This paper was clearly articulated with an excellent slideshow that showed that some elements which are supposed to be scholastic, are carried over into a percentage of texts used for reading in the monastery in the Netherlands where Jenny Weston is doing her research. She has compiled a database, and is looking at how books were constructed for the monastery, and what that says about the reading habits of monks. However, the chapter titles, the margins that in scholastic books are used for notes, do not carry the same connotations in the books designed for monk usage. In fact only a small percent use these techniques. Mostly the books show that they were meant to be read and re-read, and that the monks were not encouraged to make notes like scholastics were. It was a very interesting paper.

Stephanie Morley - "Whensoever ye be touched;': monastic habits and daily necessities in A Dyurnall for Devoute Soules"

This paper showed that A Dyurnall for Devoute Soules was different from other instructional religious texts, because it advocated a strictly organized routine, mixed with a laissez faire attitude that promoted praying when the mood struck you. The practical nature of the text shows that it was intended not for religious, but for lay people. It was for those people interested in emulating the lives of the religious.

Brandon Alakas - "Shakespeare's Medievalism and the Life Removed: Depictions of Religious in Measure for Measure"

This paper showed that, despite the entrenched demonization of religious in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, Shakespeare often employs sympathetic (though not entirely unflawed) religious characters. These include the Friar in Romeo and Juliet, but it is particularly interesting in Measure for Measure. The paper also proposes that the choice is often of a Friar, because they had varied responsibilities and were apparent in varied places,they had a mixed life, making them ideal for their usage in Shakespeare's dramas.

Monday June 3, 2013

1:30 pm - 3:00 pm Medieval Emotion

Spencer Young - "Avarice and the Emotions in thirteenth century Moral and Pastoral Discourses"

Avarice is an umbrella for quite a number of sinning activity in the thirteenth century. Crimes of usury fell under the heading of avarice. Most interesting where the texts, such as Paraldus, which stated that leaving money you got through usury to your children is still selfish because it does nothing for your soul, and endangers the souls of your children.

Donna Trembinski - "Roland of Cremona's Scholastic Appraisal of Sadness (1229)

In Roland of Cremona's text says that sadness, as an act, is sinful, though it is less sinful in those that are melancholic by nature than in those who have other natures and indulge in sadness. At the UNiversity of Paris, where Roland became a Master after an incident where many of the Masters had left, he is representing an interesting intersection between theology and medicine, since the humours can determine one's mood, and certain moods can be sinful.

Marc Cels - "A Pastoral or Academic Approach to Wrath in Thomas of Ireland's Dictionary of Quotations, the Manipulus florum (1306)?"

The Manipulus florum represented a theory of wrath that treated it more positively than it is treated in many other texts. It recognizes that there is a good and righteous wrath that can be exercised appropriately. This is what separates it from instructional texts for preaching.

3:30 pm - 5:00 pm - Women @ the Edge

Joanne Findon - "'I have loved you for a long time': Fairy Lovers, Liminal Women, and the Female Journey'"

This paper is a small part of a larger project that is looking at women's subjectivity in romantic encounters between this world and the other world in Irish literature. The subject of this paper was specifically about mortal women who meet an other worldly man, and who, since they have sons, have their experience elongated, told over the course of their son's maturation as well. These tales involve women who are already unhappy in some way with their temporal lot. Often the lover comes with a protestation that they, though they were absent, were in love with the subject for a long time. In some ways, though the encounters are often problematic, the wishing of the women has summoned the men to the encounter.

James Weldon - "The Troublesome Monstrosity of the Lady of Sinadoun in Lybeaus Desconus"

In Le Bel Inconnu, the Lady of Sinadoun is monstrous, but when she kisses the hero, her dragon exterior melts away and she is revealed to be beautiful. There are interesting parallels with the like of St. Margaret, who makes the cross inside the dragon, and is released. Both are linked to children and childbirth. This problematizes even further the fact that the body, which the beautiful maiden emerges from, is monstrous, suggesting a monstrosity inherent in women, one that can trace its theoretical roots back to classical ages.

Kenna Olsen - "At the edge no more: Middle English Women's claim of textual space"

This was a really interesting presentation, using a presentation tool I hadn't seen before, This looked at women's engagement in the epistellary tradition, by looking at the letters of three different women from 1156-1537. The letters are all in English, and they are mostly written to request financial aid. What is interesting is that it shows that women were aware of the letter writing tradition and so had some integration in the literary tradition. This is good, because there is a silence  from women about their involvement in the textual world of the Middle Ages. However, there is also evidence that the letters may have been written, at least some of them, by a professional scribe, through dictation.

Tuesday June 4, 2013 Understanding the Medieval

Andrew Klein - "The Rhetoric of Independence: The Wars of Scottish Independence, Then and Now"

For the upcoming Scottish referendum, the SNP has decided to steer clear of any associations with the medieval past to push for a yes vote for Scottish independence in 2014. they don't engage at all with the rhetoric of the past. However, there is a popular adherence to figures like William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and the battle of Bannockburn. The association is being made in any case, so Klein argues that the SNP should embrace an interpretation of the past as a tool, because otherwise they will have no stake in how these nationalistic images are used. I am not sure I agree with the conclusions, but I found this discussion of the political use of the past, and the discussion of the effects of the middle ages on the popular consciousness to correspond the most to my own work, and so it was to me the most interesting presentation. This is no doubt why we are in the same panel.

Noelle Phillips - "Piers Plowman, Popularity, and Pedagogy'

This looked at how studying Piers Plowman, and the tradition of Piers Plowman together in one class can stimulate discussions that will make it more interesting to learners and also will generate discussions about texts that are not as frequently studied. It can also generate modern interest in Piers Plowman.


I can only say that I think it went quite well. People laughed at the appropriate times.

I also went to the banquet, got three free books from the society, and went to the fanciest President's Reception that I have ever been to. I managed to sneak in also a visit to Fort Rodd and Fisgard Lighthouse National Historic Site, Whale Watching, went to Fisherman's Wharf, did the Ghost Walk and visited Craigdarroch Castle. Victoria was lovely.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Power and Danger in the liminal spaces – Outlaws as Waste in Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, Gísli saga Súrsson and Harðar saga og Hólmverja

           Occupying the transitional state between literature and history, the íslendingasögur, sagas of Icelanders or family sagas, tell the tales of Iceland’s early settlers. In-text evidence suggests that they were understood as both history and entertainment both in their oral and textual transmission. The family sagas are of special interest to scholars because of their subject matter, covering the period from the ninth century until approximately the eleventh or twelfth. The Icelandic society of the family sagas is ruled by both honour and the seasons. Personal and family honour makes personal vengeance a matter of course among the Icelandic farmers. A killing begets a killing, resulting in full family feuds. To stem the violence and assure both justice and honour have been given their due, plaintiffs could bring their complaints to local assemblies, or to the island wide assembly called the Althing. At the Althing men, or the Lawspeaker, could make a judgment, and ask the offending party or family to pay a wergild, a payment, for the crime or the death, to compensate the family for the loss of that individual and satisfy honour without more death. Or, at the assembly, the offending party could be outlawed. To be outlawed meant that no one should offer you help, and that people were free to kill you without incurring further penalties themselves. Once you were outlawed, it was up to the plaintiff family to enforce it. There are many instances of outlawry throughout the family sagas, however, according to Anthony Faulkes, Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, Gísli saga Súrsson and Harðar saga og Hólmverja are the only three where outlawry remains a major theme. Grettir, Gísli and Hörðr are three men who “lived and died as outlaws in the Icelandic countryside.” [i] For the peace of the Icelandic society, these men had to be removed. However, as Grettir so aptly says when asked why he happened to be out in the woods, “I cannot avoid everything; I had to be somewhere” (169).[ii] In their lives as outlaws who still reside in Iceland, they carve for themselves societal, physical and mental liminal spaces to inhabit. The outlaw represents the waste of Icelandic society, and occupies the strange liminal space between the civilized and the uncivilized, the settlement and the wild and the human and the monstrous. In these spaces the outlaw is both powerful and dangerous and is subjected to power and danger.
Mary Douglas, in her book Purity and Danger, studied the purification rituals of so-called ‘primitive’ societies, determining that what is considered waste, or dirt, is that which is out of place, that defies our categorization.[iii] Purification is achieved through the removal of that which is considered dangerous. In the Icelandic society of the early Middle Ages, the outlaw was a threat to the stability of the society, and so must be removed. They become what Douglas identifies as an anomaly, which can be ignored, perceived and condemned, or can create a new pattern of reality into which they might fit.[iv] If the outlaw manages to stay outside of the society, he could be safely ignored. However, since “no individual lives in isolation and his scheme will have been partly received from others,” those who have made the individual into an outlaw may seek him out to destroy him, to permanently push him out of the bounds of society through death.[v] The outlaws in Iceland also cannot permanently remove themselves, and so cannot be wholly ignored. The third option is that they create their own reality. The outlaw attempts to create a new reality for himself, but it has destabilizing repercussions on the existing reality, and so is not successful. This unsuccessful existence between an old reality and a new one puts the outlaw into a transitional state. According to Douglas, “danger lies in transitional states, simply because transition is neither one state not the next, it is undefinable. The person who must pass from one to another is himself in danger and emanates danger to others.”[vi] Outlaws, in their status on the outskirts of society, are obviously in danger, outside of the protection of the group and subjected to the elements, but they are dangerous, since they are deprived of the societally sanctioned ways of sustaining themselves. With a sentence of outlawry Iceland has tried to minimize the danger to itself, but while the outlaw persists on the fringes, it is in more danger.
An outlaw who continues to interact with the Icelandic Commonwealth mimics the draugar who pepper their stories, in that they are versions of the living dead. They are waste that has not yet been completely purged from society. The outlaw is, according to the theories of Julia Kristeva, abject. Abjection is that which disturbs “identity, system, order.”[vii] That which is of me, but not me, that I wish to be distinct from me, is the abject. According to Kristeva, “if dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything.”[viii] On the border of the society and of the living, the outlaw represents the ultimate abjection, because their status is ambiguous. Only powerful people can survive on the fringe. For Icelandic society, people who survive on the fringe must possess some worthy qualities, and yet they are also monstrous. They are not players in society’s decisions and yet they are; because of their continued liminal existence, decisions must be made that take them into account. The outlaw is the object, an Other, which the men of Iceland can use as a benchmark to give themselves identity. However, their existence threatens the identity of the others in the sagas, not just because they are a physical and economic threat, but because they too could so readily be subjugated to the fringes. In the outskirts the outlaw proves himself powerful, but is confronted with the whole power of both the solitary wilderness and the Icelandic society he is encroaching.
The texts for Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, Gísli saga Súrsson and Harðar saga og Hólmverja are found several places, though manuscript AM 556 a 4to has a compilation of all three.[ix] Gísli saga was composed first, sometime in the first half of the thirteenth century, during the ‘classical’ period of the composition of family sagas. Both Grettis saga and Harðar saga were most likely written in the fourteenth century, a long time after Iceland was ceded to the Norwegian Crown in 1262-3.[x] They were also composed after the fornaldarsögur (legendary sagas), and riddarsögur (continental romances) were taking over as a prime means of expression in Iceland.[xi] Therefore, there is even less verisimilitude in Harðar saga and particularly Grettis saga than Gísli saga. The elements that modern readers would consider more supernatural help highlight the exclusion and abjection of Grettir, although this also occurs because it is the longest of the sagas, as Grettir supposedly lived longer than any other man in outlawry, so the themes are more fully developed.
In all three sagas the narrator decidedly admires these career outlaws: Grettir is described as “the most valiant man there has been in Iceland” (262) [xii]; likewise, “everyone agreed that [Gísli] was the most valiant of men, and yet he was not in all things a lucky man” (98)[xiii]; Hörðr’s life brought him honour, except for the time he was in outlawry, and he was “in the first rank of outlawed men because of his wisdom and skill with weapons and all kinds of abilities” (97).[xiv] The violence of the society is the source of the contradiction. The society portrayed in these texts both praises justified acts of violence and wanton strength coupled with intelligence, but must also stem the violence so the society does not destroy itself. This contradiction between the amorality of the outlaws, and the crime that must be punished is explained in Kristeva:  
Any crime, because it draws attention to the fragility of the law, is abject, but premeditated crime, cunning murder, hypocritical revenge are even more so because they heighten the display of such fragility. He who denies morality is not abject; there can be grandeur in amorality and even in crime that flaunts its disrespect for the law – rebellious, liberating, and suicidal crime. Abjection, on the other hand, is immoral, sinister, scheming, and shady: a terror that dissembles a hatred that smiles, a passion that uses the body for barter instead of inflaming it, a debtor who sells you up, a friend who stabs you.[xv]

Hörðr’s outlawry is in part caused by feud, and in part caused by having poor stand-ins at the assembly to plead his case. The text makes it clear that Hörðr would not have been outlawed if he could have come to the assembly to speak for himself. Gísli’s outlawry stems the violence that has resulted from a family feud. The violence is foreshadowed at an earlier assembly, where Gestr predicts there will be falling out amongst four men who are kinsmen through a series of marriages. Gísli, trying to counteract bad luck says “I can think of a good thing to do, and that is to bind our friendship with stronger ties, and swear blood-brotherhood between the four of us” (13).[xvi] However, they do not swear the oath, denying themselves the solidity of a compact, or society, to keep them all safe, and all four suffer for it. Grettir’s first crime worthy of outlawry is the death of Skeggi, whom he fought with over a food-bag. For this he is outlawed for three years. The second time he is it is because he, accidentally but because of his monstrous nature, burned a building down with all of its inhabitants inside. All three outlaws have committed crimes worthy of outlawry, though the degrees of their crime reflects the amount of time they ultimately spend in outlawry; three years, fifteen years and very nearly twenty years respectively.
                The pronouncement of outlawry is when they gain their marginal status. Douglas points out that people all over the world are willing to tolerate marginal beings, until they are labeled as marginal.[xvii] Once these men have become outlaws they contaminate all the people that they come in contact with. Thorstein, who has been complicit in the killings Gísli was outlawed for, tells Gísli “warning, if men are trying to kill you, but I will not give you protection that may bring a case against me” (49).[xviii] Grímr offers help to Grettir but wants to avoid sheltering him because “I want to avoid the legal penalty of becoming guilty of harbouring you’” (152).[xix] Eleanor Barraclough, studying the liminal status of Grettir and Gísli, notes that “the description of outlawry found in the Icelandic law code Grágás, which states, … ‘he shall be known as a wolf, as widely as the world is inhabited, and be rejected everywhere and be driven away throughout all the world’” [xx] is different from the more nuanced ‘social exclusion’ in the outlaw sagas, since the men cannot successfully totally exclude themselves from the world.[xxi] There is danger for anyone who helps the three outlaws, just as the outlaws are in danger from them. Therefore people are hesitant to help, but at the same time the outlaws would not survive unless they received support from within the society. As marginal beings they are in danger from within and from without.
                That exclusion from the group, and from the limited amount of safety that comes from associations like kinship ties or worn brotherhood, such as Gísli tries to form, is a severe form of punishment is evidenced by statements in the texts about how difficult it is to be alone. Glámr, the draugr, curses him before his outlawry, foreshadowing his exclusion from society: “you will find it hard to be alone” (121).[xxii] Grettir tries to create a new reality for himself on the margins as part of a new group, with other outlaws, however he finds outlaws as hard to trust as himself, and the text states that “after this Grettir would never take in outlaws, and yet he could hardly bear being alone” (183).[xxiii] Because of his marriage, and because his kinship ties are so integral to his status as an outlaw, Gísli does not try to create a new reality for himself, but is intimately tied to the old one through connections such as his wife Aud. Trying to get Aud to tell them where Gísli is hidden, she is assaulted with her own solitary status: “you can see for yourself,’ he says, ‘how miserable it becomes for you, living in this deserted fiord, and having this happen to you because of Gisli’s bad luck, and never seeing your kinsfolk or their families” (83).[xxiv] The group conveys identity and stability. Not only is it physically difficult to be on the margins, but it is mentally and emotionally dangerous as well.
                Hörðr is different because he is both more and less successful at creating a new, marginal reality. Once he is declared an outlaw Hörðr retreats to Holm, an island. There are:

A hundred and eighty people were on Holm when they were at their maximum and never fewer than in the seventies when they were at their minimum… Nearly all the doubtful characters found their way there and swore oaths to Hörðr and Geir to be loyal and true to them and to each other (65).[xxv]

Hörðr minimizes the abject state of isolation by creating a marginal society. However, this is the reason that he can subsist in outlawry for only three years. In Gísli saga “it is agreed among all wise men that Gisli went longer as an outlaw than any other man, except Grettir son of Asmund” (56).[xxvi] The reason that they can be outlaws for such long periods of time is because they realize the danger that outlaws, people outside the law, pose to them as men. It is the same danger they pose to others. Hörðr is ultimately betrayed by an outlaw, Bollu, who integrates himself into the group, and then leads the men into an ambush in order to reduce his own marginal status, and have his sentence of outlawry commuted. Grettir understands the impulse to reintegrate, and Barraclough notes that “Grettir still has human needs, and his life on the island is punctuated by short-lived attempts to reintegrate himself into society.”[xxvii] Not only are the outlaws subject to danger from the environment and from other outlaws, but even outlaws understand the dangers that outlaws pose.
                Clearly outside the law already, the bonds that they form are not binding like they would be inside the law. The betrayal by other outlaws represents a particular kind of danger for those with a marginal existence, which is that the bonds that hold the Icelandic society together are subject to perversion on the outskirts. As Douglas notes, as marginal beings the greatest danger to the society comes from them: “it seems that if a person has no place in the social system and is therefore a marginal being, all precaution against danger must come from others.”[xxviii] Since they can already be killed with compunction, there are no deterrents to physical violence. But the biggest way that they can destabilize society is economically. Since they have to keep outside the bounds of society, they cannot undertake any tasks, such as farming, that contribute to it, especially if they are going to stay in Iceland. As a large marauding host, Hörðr and the Holm-dwellers represent a considerable threat. Icelandic citizens like Þorsteinn Gullknapp have to give up economic or political status to save their property. Þorsteinn promises to send vagabonds to them, and is then exempt from raiding. In the text Grettir appears to represent as much of an economic drain as all of the Holm-dwellers together. Grettir moves from district to district, “Grettir took from there whatever he wanted and Þorkell dared not object or withhold anything” (166).[xxix] When Grettir and his two companions at last move to Drangey, they eat all of the sheep on the island and won’t let anyone else access the land. This represent a major economic set back for the district, since “they say that there were no fewer than twenty people who had shares in the island and none of them was willing to sell his share to anyone else” (228).[xxx] Grettir devalues the land, and allows his opponent Þorbjǫrn ǫngull to buy the land for cheap, though it will only be of value to him if he can remove Grettir.
                The failure of Hörðr’s alternate reality, of Grettir’s solitary existence, and of Gísli’s attempts to live on the margins is that as marginal beings they are powerful forces for the destabilization of Icelandic society. Hörðr’s marginal society cannot survive, because it lacks the bonds that make up the true Icelandic society, both social and economic. And perhaps it could have subsisted if it did not depend on the existing Icelandic society for the material for subsistence, because it would not have been such a destabilizing force. Gísli never tries to remove himself from society entirely. Therefore, the crime that caused his outlawry continues to be a destabilizing force in Icelandic society. Grettir continues to commit crimes. And though he is able to physically remove himself from society, he is not able mentally, so his abject self continues to destabilize Icelandic society. Grettir nearly survives twenty years in outlawry, and the text promises that is he had, he would have been released from his sentence, and re-integrated. According to Laurence De Looze, it is significant that “Grettir is killed on the eve of being permitted to return to society. A liminal, antisocial figure, Grettir must die as he has lived: an outlaw.”[xxxi] Grettir, Hörðr and Gísli cannot be reintegrated into Icelandic society, because as abject marginal beings, they have become monstrous to the society, even if they are also admired for their ability to live in the liminal spaces.
                Barraclough notes the way that the landscape mirrors Grettir and Gísli’s liminal status. The landscape both demarcates the outlaws as separate, and also emphasizes their unhuman status: “while outlaws were no longer members of society, they were still human and consequently not the natural denizens of the chaotic wilderness.”[xxxii] William Sayers, notes that outlawry means not only excluding the people, but moving them to a “natural periphery, where man was marooned in an unknowable and thus constantly threatening world.”[xxxiii] In the outlaw sagas the outlaws are denizens not just of the margins, but of a marginal Other world. Gísli inhabits the spaces in and above the farmhouses, or in the cliffs and woods around his settlement: “after this he stayed sometimes with Aud in the house in Geirthiofsfiord, and sometimes in a hiding-place north of the river which he had made for himself; he had another hiding-place by the cliffs south of the river, and sometimes he stayed there” (55).[xxxiv] Holm, the dwelling place of Hörðr and his outlawed companions, “has sheer cliffs down to the sea and is as wide as a great cattle-pen” (64).[xxxv] Grettir, the most wide ranging of the outlaws, lives in the marginal spaces of people’s homes, but is also more versed in the liminal spaces, as he is exponentially more other-worldly than Hörðr or Gísli: “Grettir stayed on Fagraskogafiall for a whole winter without any attacks being made on him, even though many lost their property because of him and could do nothing about it, for he had a good fortification and was always good friends with those who lived nearest him” (188).[xxxvi] Grettir makes cave dwellings his home, and hides them from prying eyes. He is instructed in the wild, unforgiveable spaces of Iceland by trolls: “then he went up onto Geitland glacier and made for the south-east along the glacier... it is thought that he was following directions given by Hallmund, for he knew about all sorts of places” (199).[xxxvii] Drangey, the island where Grettir ends his life, is described very much like Holm. Helen Leslie looks at the demarcation of other worlds in the fornaldarsögur and found that, like here, the space is separated by “boundaries involving mists, darkness, forest and frequently cliffs and water.”[xxxviii] These other spaces are places of power for the outlaws. In these spaces they survive when no one else cam, and they are embarking from a relatively safe position to disturb the surrounding Icelandic society. The spaces represent the Other, monstrous power of the outlaws, because they are spaces that normal men cannot easily reach or breach. And yet, they are also monstrous to the outlaws, whose relationship with these spaces is “progressively dysfunctional.”[xxxix] The spaces represent their monstrous side, and so are grating to their human sides, who cannot stand the isolation. Even Grettir has to leave Drangey, disguised as Gestr (stranger, alien, guest), to interact with people that he has long since left behind.
                The weather and the seasons heighten the presence of the Other in the text. In Gísli’s saga “the snow never stayed on the south-west side of Þorgrim’s [burial] mound and it did not freeze there” (43).[xl] In Grettir’s saga the revenants, supernatural enemies, and even formidable human opponents, appear in the dead of winter. Glámr, the most famous of the draugar that Grettir faces, appears in winter to torment the inhabitants of the farm. The landscape adds to the uncanny effect of the Other in the text.
                Kristeva makes the connection between abjection and the dead; “it is the human corpse that occasions the greatest concentration of abjection and fascination.”[xli] They are abject because of our potential to become a corpse; there is an ambiguous line between the living and the dead in a corpse, and between a person and not a person. In the outlaw sagas the dead are omnipresent. Not only do deaths cause the outlawry, but the dead continue to influence the realm of the living. In Gísli saga, Thorgrim and Vesteinn’s mounds are part of the immediate landscape. It is in the presence of these mounds that poetry is recited that reveals to other characters who are guilty parties in elicit deaths. And in the presence of these mounds oaths are made of vengeance for personal and family honour. In Harðar saga and Grettis saga the death physically interact with the main characters:

in the medieval Icelandic culture of the supernatural, one who recrossed the boundary from death to life was called aptrgangr (revenant) or draugr, derived from the Indo-European root dhreugh (harm, deceive). In the draugr, spirit is not breathed into matter so much as material corporeality is retained by the restless spirit.[xlii]

Hörðr and his friend Geir break into Soti’s mound to get treasure and prove their bravery. Soti defends his hoard. Hörðr is the only man who is strong or brave enough to fight Soti. His fight gives him honour, because he fulfills another man’s vows, who was too cowardly to carry them out. Grettir fights so many supernatural creatures he becomes renowned for his revenant fighting abilities. He first fights Kárr in his mound, just as Hörðr does. Later he fights Glámr. The Glámr fight, however, signifies Grettir’s descent. Glámr curses Grettir:
You have become renowned up to now for your deeds, but from now on you will become guilty of crimes and deeds of violence, and nearly everything you do will lead to your misfortune and failure. You will be made outlaw and be compelled always to live in the open on your own. I also lay this upon you that these eyes of mine will be always before your sight, and you will find it hard to be alone and this will bring you to your death (121).[xliii]
By interaction with the dead, and by demonstrating their unique suitability for interacting with the people who have passed the transition to the Other world, the outlaws confirm that they are in an ambiguous state between living and dead, human and monster, where they can communicate with both.
                 All three outlaws have traits that set them apart from the rest of men to begin with. One trait they all share is their ability to prophesize about the future, and their inability to do anything about it. Gísli prophesizes the fallout between him, his brother and his brothers-in-law and sees his own death in a dream: “now the dreams become so much for Gisli, and he becomes so frightened of the dark, that he is afraid to be alone” (88).[xliv] Hörðr is able also to see the future, though his counsels are often ignored: “that will have to come to pass which is fated” (76).[xlv] Grettir also foreshadows his own death. Not surprisingly, this is a trait that they share with draugar: “as in many traditional societies, the Norse dead are thought privy to knowledge not accessible to the living.”[xlvi] The major fault of all three is that they do not possess luck. Faulkes says that gœfueysi can sometimes be translated as lack of good luck or misfortune.[xlvii] Beyond their status as liminal members of society, or being men who are just about to be killed, their status as outlaws compounds an already monstrous person, who could have been good had they had a healthier dose of good luck.
                Gísli sacrifices his servant by giving him his cloak in order that he can get away himself. Even if this is not morally reprehensible, it is a waste of resources. Hörðr kills Helgi Sigurdson at the end of the text so that no one will kill him before his eyes. Grettir’s monstrosity is well noted in the text, as during his two crimes which cause his outlawry, his killing of Skeggi and the burning of Thorir’s sons, Grettir either compares himself to a troll, or is mistaken for one. According to Barraclough, “the ambiguous and often liminal position that the [outlaws] occupy within society is established long before their outlawry, and they are marked out early on both by their prodigious abilities and socially disruptive tendencies.”[xlviii] Even their admirable qualities, such as their prodigious strength or wisdom, put them outside the bounds of regular society and makes them marginal beings. Therefore, the outlaws of the outlaw sagas are Other. According to Straubhaar, within the Icelandic sagas the presence of the Other is to be met with hostility, even though it was not that long ago that they formed, through settlement, what the boundaries of the society were. The Other “deserve whatever they get at our hands.”[xlix]
                It was not that long ago that Iceland was settled by men and families that were successfully removed from Norway as waste, who no longer fit into the social structure due to political upheaval or outlawry, and were able to create a new reality because they were able to completely remove themselves from the old Norwegian reality. The Icelandic society of the ninth to the eleventh century as displayed in the family sagas is perhaps more conscious of their boundaries because they are so relatively new, and because the law is so tenuously enforced, through a system of social bonds. If the outlaws were able to completely remove themselves from the Icelandic society, by relocating, at least temporarily to other places or other occupations, the outlaws stand a chance of reintegration into the society, because they have not lived as monstrous others, destabilizing the community. However, the outlaw sagas depict people who chose, or had to, stay in Iceland for the duration of their outlawry. They can never be reintegrated, and so live on the margins between fully functioning Icelandic humans and the dead Other. In those liminal spaces there is danger, and they are dangerous. But the liminal spaces are also places of power, as by transcending the spaces and abilities of ordinary men, outlaws are more than human – they are powerful. Family sagas are themselves abject to the literary critic and the historian, because of their ambiguous status as neither literature nor history. It is up to the medievalist to re-order the categories, create a new reality that Douglas would be proud of, that takes into account the ambiguous status of the characters of the íslendingasögur.


[i] Anthony Faulkes, ed.. Three Icelandic Outlaw Sagas: The Saga of Gisli, the Saga of Grettir, the Saga of Hord, trans. George Johnston and Anthony Faulkes (London: Everyman, 2001) xv.
[ii] “Eigi má nú við ǫllu sjá; vera varðek nǫkkur” Guðni Jónsson, “Grettis Saga Ásmundarsonar,” Íslenzk Fornrit, volume 7 (ReykjavikL Hið Íslenzja Fornritafélag, 1936) 169. Translations in this text are based on the Anthony Faulkes and George Johnston edition, though some alterations are my own.
[iii] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (New York: Routledge Classics, 2002) 2.
[iv] Douglas 48.
[v] Douglas 48.
[vi] Douglas 119-20.
[vii] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982) 4.
[viii] Kristeva 3.
[ix] Faulkes xvii.
[x] Faulkes xv.
[xi] Faulkes xv.
[xii] “inn vaskasti maðr, er verit hefir á Íslandi”
[xiii] “er þat alsagt, at hann hefir enn mesti hreystimaðr verit, þóat hann væri eigi í ǫllum hlutum gæfumaðr” Gustaf Cederschiöld, “Gísli saga súrssonar,”Altnordische Saga-Bibliothek (Halles: Verlag von Max Niemeyer, 1903) 98.
[xiv] “hann hafa verit í meira lagi af sekum mönnum sakir vizku ok vápnfimi ok allrar atgervi” Þórhallur Vilmundarson ed., “Harðar saga,” Íslenzk Fornrit, volume 13 (Rekyavik: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1991) 98.
[xv] Kristeva 4.
[xvi] “enda sé ek got ráð til þessa, at vér bindum várt vinfengi með meirum fast mæm en áðr, ok sverjumz í fóstbroeðralag fjórir”
[xvii] Douglas 121.
[xviii] “at gera þik varan við, ef men vilja drepa þik; en bjargir veiti ek þér engar, þær er mér megi sakir á gefa”
[xix] “en forðask mun ek lǫg, at verða sekr um brargir við þik”
[xx] This text is recorded in Barraclough: “hann skal svá víða vargr heita, sem víðast er veröld byggð, ok vera hvarvetna rækr ok rekinn um allan heim.”
[xxi] Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough, "Inside Outlawry in Grettis saga Asmundarson and Gisla saga Surssonar: Landscape in the Outlaw Sagas", Scandinavian Studies 82.4 (2010): 366-70.
[xxii] “mun þér þá erfitt þykkja einum at vera”
[xxiii] “eptir þat vildi Grettir aldri við skógarmǫnnum taka, en þó mátti hann varla einn sama vera”
[xxiv] “máttu ok á þat líta, segir hann, hversu óhallkvæmt þé verðr at liggja í eyðiferði þessum, ok hljóta þat af óhǫppum Gísla, ok sjá aldri frændr ok nauðleytamenn”
[xxv] “átta tiger manna annars hundraðs váru íHólmi, þá er flestir váru, en aldri færi en á inum átta tigi, þá er fæstir váru … þangat drifu nær allir óskilamenn ok svörðu eiða þeim Herði ok Geir at vera þeim hollit ok trúir ok hverr þeira öðrum”
[xxvi] “þat komr saman með ǫllum virum mǫnnum, at Gísli hafi lengst allra manna, í sekð gengit, annar en Grettir Asmundarson”
[xxvii] Barraclough 377.
[xxviii] Douglas 121.
[xxix] “hafðu Grettir þaðan slíkt, sem hann vildi, ok þorði Þorkell ekki at at finna eða á at halda”
[xxx] “svá segja men, at eigi ætti færi men í eyjunni en tuttugu, ok vildi engi sinn part ǫðrum selja”
[xxxi] Laurence De Looze, "The outlaw poet, the poetic outlaw; self-consciousness in Grettis saga Asmundarsonar" Arkiv for nordisk filologi 106 (1991): 86.
[xxxii] Barraclough 368.
[xxxiii] William Sayers, "The Alien and the Alienated as Unquiet Dead in the Sagas of the Icelanders." Monster Theory: Reading Culture, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996) 253.
[xxxiv] “eptir þetta er hann stundum í Geirþjófsfirði á boe Auðar, en stundum í fylgsnum fyrir norðan ána, er hann harði gǫrt sér; annat fygsni átti hann við kleifarnar suðr frá garði, ok var hann ýmist”
[xxxv] “er sæbrattr ok viðr sem mikit stöðulgerði”
[xxxvi] “sat Grettir í Fagraskógafjalli svá einn vetr, at honum váru engar atfarar gǫrvarar, en þó misstu þá margir sins fyrir honum ok fengu ekki at gǫrt, því at hann hafð got vígi, en átti jafnan vingott við þá, sem næstir honum váru”
[xxxvii] “þá gekk hann upp á Geitlandsjǫkul ok stefndi á landsuðr eptir jǫklinum … þat ætla men, at hann hafi farit at tilvisan Hallmundar, því at honum hefir verit viða kunnigt”
[xxxviii] Helen Leslie, "Border Crossings: Landscape and the Other World in the Fornaldarsogur", Scripta Islandica 60 (2009) 131.
[xxxix] Barraclough 378.
[xl] “at aldri festi snæ útan sunnan á haugi Þorgrims ok ekki fraus”
[xli] Kristeva 149.
[xlii] Sayers 242.
[xliii] “Þú hefir frægr orðit hér til af verkum þínum, en heðan af munu falla til þin sekðir ok vígaferli, en flest ǫll verk þín snúask þér til ógæu ok hamingjuleysis. Þú munt verða útlægr gǫrr ok hljóta jafnan úti at búa einn samt. Þá legg ek þat á við þik, at þessi augu sé þér jafnan fyrir sjónum, sem ek ber eptir, ok mun þér þá erfitt þykkja einum at vera, ok þat mun þér til dauða draga.”
[xliv] “nú gerðiz svá mikit un drauma Gísla, at hann gerir svá myrkhræddan, at hann þorir hvergi einn saman at vera”
[xlv] “þat mun verða fram at koma, sem ætlat er”
[xlvi] Sayers 242-3.
[xlvii] Faulkes xix.
[xlviii] Barraclough 369.
[xlix] Sandra Ballif Straubhaar, "Nasty, brutish, and large: Cultural difference and otherness in the Figuration of the Trollwomen of the Fornaldar sogur," Scandinavian Studies 73.2 (2001): 118.