Friday, March 13, 2009

Old Norse-Iceland Lit

I've been plowing through Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Critical Guide ed. Carol Clover and John Lindow. The edition I have is the second printing in 2005 of this originally 1985 work. This printing was done by U of Toronto Press in association with The Medieval Academy's MART series.

A few years back I asked Favorite Spouse to buy me some Old Norsey related materials for Christmas and birthdays and such in an effort to patch deficiencies in my knowledge of things early medieval. This guide was one of the things she got her hands on and it regrettably has been staring at me from my bookcase ever since. Finally, I got round to reading it. And let me recommend it!

There are only a few chapters:

Mythology and Mythography by John Lindow
Eddic Poetry by Joe Harris
Skaldic Poetry by Roberta Frank
Kings' Sagas by Theodore M. Anderson
Icelandic Family Sagas by Carol J. Clover
Norse-Romance by Marianne Kalinke

Each contribution is followed by a detaild bibliography. I say above that I plowed through it because like plowing, it was hard but worthwhile work. I'm no expert in either Norse language or literature. With some patience I can read Old Norse, and I know and have taught some bits of mythology, eddas, etc. But I certainly do not have the field under my belt. In other words, I know just enough to have been able to follow most of the discussions in the book. The Norse-Romances were but a whisper carried on the wind to me, so that chapter was entirely new to me and very informative too.

One of the things that struck me though, was how much more slowly the field seems to advance in contrast to other early medieval fields. The book was originally in 1985 and supposedly this printing updated the bibliography. But I have to say that overall there were precious few additions in the 20 years between the two printings. Further, so many of the major positions and works mentioned in the course of the various discussions were early 20th century, few of the major positions dated to after the 1950s (in fact, at the moment I can not recall a single one dating to the post 50s period). Seems to me to be a field that could be fruitful to a student or 20.

At any rate, I'm not in a position to offer a real review. Still, I found the book useful for outlining the major positions in the field of Old Norse lit and giving the basic bibliography to look into various questions and issues. One weakness though is that it included no discussion of religious literature: homilies, commentaries, hagiography etc; and other than the Romances, offered no discussion of translations: not from Latin, Old English, or other vernacular. Yet we know there were plenty of both. And while not technically "literature", a chapter on language would have been helpful too (though with index and bibliography the thing clocks in at 386 pages already! Suppose the ol' print process can't do everything!). And admittedly the preface acknowledges that many a subfield is necessarily omitted.

So I learned a great deal, didn't understand or grasp a great deal more, and am glad I read it. One reviewer of the original made nice noises about the book being destined to be a classic on every bookshelf of those who work in Old Norse and adjacent fields. And there I have to agree. Kudos to the Favorite Spouse! In fact, I've used just today in updating a paper I'm writing. So it is a good one to have to hand.

So now the interactive question: outside Anglo-Saxon studies, what are the standard bibliographic books (books that give overviews) in other early medieval fields?


tenthmedieval said...

The New Cambridge Medieval History is intended to have this kind of function, but its authors weren't held to it as far as I can tell, and it would have been even huger if it had. When I have something like that sort of question to answer I'm afraid I tend to start with the various History Faculty reading lists for undergraduates that know are online. The trouble then is catching up to the expert output, but that would be the same with a printed bibliography.

Mike Drout said...

Dear Larry,

Let me put in a plug for Heather O'Donoghue's superb _Old Norse-Icelandic Literature_. It is, maybe surprisingly, far more up-to-date than the other book, and she does a great job of pointing out where the controversies are in contemporary ON studies. Also, there's a good section on the influence of ON in later literatures.
My only quibble is that she doesn't use the work of Gisli Sigur∂sson, which I think really challenges some of the things she says about Hrafenkel's Saga, but overall it's a great, readable, thorough and reasonable book to use to prep for teaching some ON material.

theswain said...

Thanks Jonathan!

Mike: I have O'Donoghue on my to get list, just haven't gotten it yet. Good to know that it's solid, I'll move it up the list!