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Reconstructing Old Norse Oral Tradition

Stephen Mitchell

The written residue of oral tradition from the medieval Nordic worldencompasses a wide variety of pan-national genres, including charms,legends, and genealogical lore, but modern scholarly attention has generallyfocused on two areas: the prose (and often prosimetrical) Icelandic sagasand traditional poetry in its two dominant forms, eddic and scaldic.Many factors play into this somewhat restricted image of whatconstituted oral tradition in the hyperborean Middle Ages—obviously,manuscript preservation and the issue of what materials have come down tous are key elements, but so too are, among others, the effects of earlymodern nation-building, nineteenth-century nationalism, and contemporaryaesthetic tastes. Certainly one important aspect of the emphasis on sagaliterature is the broad appeal the Icelandic sagas hold for modern audiences,a fascination easily apprehended in that they are characteristically complexnarratives exhibiting sophisticated literary portraiture and realisticallydetailed events. The topics of the sagas vary from historical, legendary,religious, and contemporary themes to the completely fantastic, and as suchthey offer an inclusive and panoramic view of medieval Nordic cultural life,narrative imagination, and attitudes toward the past and the heroic. Whetherthese marvelous medieval texts are to be seen as reflections of a vibrantoral culture absorbing and codifying elements of the world around theirauthors, or merely reflexes of written texts borrowed from abroad, or some compromise between the two extremes, borrowing freely fromavailable foreign models but also incorporating much native tradition, hashistorically dominated perceptions and scholarly debates about the sagas(Andersson 1964), and although occasionally new models emerge (Lönnroth1976), it is clear that the weight of the nativist—anti-nativist argumentsremains a powerful influence on academic treatments of the topic. Eddicpoetry principally concerns itself with mythological and heroic themes,whereas scaldic verse tends toward praise, memorial, and occasional poetry,but it should be noted that scaldic panegyrics also take up, for example Christian religious themes. The frequently noted performance contexts of such poetry have played a particularly prominent role in discussions of oralcomposition and delivery of such works in medieval Scandinavia.

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