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?

Monday, March 09, 2009

Medieval Literature I Didn't Know III.a: Within Again

Over two months ago now I wrote about a great little poem by Letaldus about an English fisherman who gets swallowed by a whale, who escapes by burning his boat in the belly of the beast, but once ashore needs the aid of the townspeople to finally be set free. In his delightful little tale, Letaldus overlays his narration with references to Vergil and comments frequently on Jonah and the typological significance of Jonah and takes Within in the same vein.

Jan M. Ziolkowski has written the most in English on the poem. There are some recent Italian works that I've not seen but will include in the bibliography. But Ziolkowski takes on the typical dismissal of the poem as a delightful, and beautifully done, fable and otherwise little to no attention paid to it. Ziolkowski argues that Letaldus and his audience would have thought this "historical" in some sense: 1) plenty of whale stories around 2) Letaldus treats this story just as he does his other "historical" works 3) Letaldus says at the beginning of the poem that a worthy elder told him this story. Among other reasons, Ziolkowski then believes that Letaldus and his audience would have accepted this as a "true story" and took opportunity to treat it as an "exemplum."

Ziolkowski however considers a possibility that I don't believe anyone else has previously, and then sets it aside. That possibility is that the story Letaldus received might be an oral poem, since he says that an elder reported the tale to him. Ziolkowski dismisses the idea eventually, after noting that other than the possibility that the leonine rhymes that sometimes occur may be an attempted reflection of alliteration but may just as plausibly be rhetorical flourish learned in school. So he thinks that the story itself might be historical or at least reported as historical, is in origin a "fisherman's tale" and Letaldus took it and make a lesson of it, himself also considering itself historical.

I happen to disagree. What I wonder and am thinking about and have done so for some time, is whether we have a Norman Latinization of an Old English literary work. Quite apart from tales with whales, etc, here's the case as I currently think.

1) Letaldus tells us that he got this story from someone else, an elder of great age. Since Letaldus is writing this c. 1000, such an elder would likely have been a young man in the beginning of the English Benedictine Reform. And since part of the story depends on a punning in Old English that a non-speaker of English likely will not get, it isn't a stretch to say that Letaldus' source is an Englishman.

2) The relationship between oral and written traditions is more fluid than I think Ziolkowski allows. Much of the poetry and other types of literature we have in Old English and Anglo-Latin comes to us in written form, but was likely oral in origin. The most famous example well-known to all is Beowulf, but that is not the only example.

3) We also know of some translations of works from Old English to Latin. Two are poetic in nature, Caedmon's Hymn and the Waltharius (recognizing that this may come not from the Old English Waldere but from another Germanic form of the story, nonetheless, as the plethora of works in the Fulk-Gade Bibliography of Alliterative Germanic Verse (think I have that title right) shows that Germanic poetry shared many common elements). Neither truly reflects the Old English or Germanic penchant for alliteration and the latter in fact has been utterly recast into Vergilian hexameters and diction, yet remains at heart a Germanic, originally vernacular poem. So we need not see in Letaldus' treatment of the story evidence of alliteration or other Old English poetic features.

4) We do know as well that the late tenth century in England was producing a number of contacts between England and the continent. In terms of "Frankia", there is linguistic borrowing and influence, translations, and of course the borrowing of Letaldus' sometime opponent, Abbo of Fleury, and of course the influence of the Benedictine Reform on the reform movement spawned in England itself.

5) There is also a growing body of literature obviously composed to teach while entertaining. Some of it was composed early and was pressed back into service such as poems like Genesis A and B, Exodus, Daniel, and the like. Others were somewhat newly composed in the tenth century such as Soul and Body, etc. But there is certainly a growing body of literature, poetry and prose, designed to teach Christian catechism to the faithful. The "Within" story of Letaldus fits into that pattern very, very well.

6) The story's hero is Within. Especially when the fisherman Within answers the question of who is within the whale (Within is within), we see an obvious Old English pun (not the only place where such occurs in the Latin poem, but one of the prominent ones). It is unlikely that Letaldus, not known to have known English, introduced this element, and if this were simply a reporting of a "true" tale it is a feature not known to me from prose.

7) Further along the path of the name, we have several examples of "pun" names in Old English (and other Germanic) literature that are not attested in the historical record. Hondscio from Beowulf, hand-shoe, or glove ends up in Grendel's glove; Widsith, wide-farer, is the narrator of a poem about how he's traveled far and wide....and yet these are not attested as names of real people. And even where we have names of this nature that also appear in the historical record, such as Deor or even Wiglaf, in the poetic literature the name has significance for the theme and development of the story. Within is not recorded so far as I've been able to ascertain as a name of anyone historical, but the name very obviously has importance for the poem, especially for the climax. This fits the pattern of Old English poetry, and there are no such traces of such knowledge in Letaldus' other works.

8) Jonah was well known as a type of Christ and the sermonic elements introduced into the poem drawing attention to Jonah and his sojourn in the whale would also likely be from the source, though Letaldus was more than capable of introducing them. But such lessons in Old English poetry are also known and for those materials composed in the tenth century made rather explicit.

That is the current state of my thinking. I need to spend some time with the poem again, looking at a number of details. But at the moment, it is my belief, and belief it is rather than any thing more substantial, that Letaldus has retold a previously unknown Old English poem.