While medieval studies has dramatically expanded its scope and the texts taught as part of its subject over the past few decades, the study of Icelandic saga literature is still a fringe discipline, particularly in North American academe. Rarer still is undergraduate exposure to the sagas, despite their appeal as texts and the rich possibilities they offer to students trained in Anglo-Saxon literature (or at least Beowulf) and familiar with Norse myth and legend through Tolkien or Marvel comics. The insular nature of the culture from which the literature springs is a contributing factor, of course—there is the undeniable ring of truth to Milan Kundera’s assertion that “(a)lthough the glory of the Sagas is indisputable, their literary influence would have been much greater if they had been written in the language of one of the major nations; and we would have regarded the Sagas as an anticipation or even the foundation of the European novel.”Yet this isolation need not, and should not, prevent their inclusion in the literary canon as it is presented to our students. In my experience, the sagas fit well into survey courses on Western, pre-modern, or epic literature, and sustain more detailed inquiry in dedicated courses on Northern European medieval literature and on the sagas as a subject of study in their own right. Unsurprisingly, saga readings can be used to generate discussion and analysis through nearly any critical lens—work on the sagas and gender, law, historicity, disability studies, manuscript studies, formalism, mimetic theory, religious history, ecocriticism, cultural studies, and other topics is ongoing. Of equal or greater value to an undergraduate classroom, the sagas reward careful reading and introduce a type of dispassionate but narratologically rich writing that many students respond to with great enthusiasm.
In what follows, I will briefly examine several possibilities for incorporating the sagas into a survey course before considering the advantages of a full course dedicated to saga literature.
Sexton, J. P. (2012, June). The Icelandic Sagas as a Subject for Undergraduate Study. This Rough Magic, 3(1). http://www.thisroughmagic.org/sexton%20article%202.html.
Virtual Commons Citation
Sexton, John P. (2012). The Icelandic Sagas as a Subject for Undergraduate Study. In English Faculty Publications. Paper 28.
Available at: http://vc.bridgew.edu/english_fac/28