The Saga of Saga Conferences

Vid den internationella sagakonferens som ägde rum i Aarhus 2012 ombads jag att hålla ett lagom lättsamt keynote speech om sagakonferensernas historia, och resultatet blev nedanstående tal, nu endast lätt reviderat. Först hade jag ingen tanke på att publicera det, eftersom det i hög grad har karaktär av tillfällighetsdiktning för en begränsad grupp av experter på fornisländsk filologi och litteraturhistoria. Men efterhand har så många kolleger bett att få läsa min text, att jag till slut gått med på att sända ut den via min Eddablogg. Håll till godo!




Forty-one years have passed since the first international saga conference started in Edinburgh in 1971 at the instigation of the well-known Icelandic scholar Hermann Pálsson (1921–2003), and since I happen to be one of the few surviving veterans from those days, the organisers have asked me to tell you something about the origin and history of these saga conferences. The problem is, however, that the truth is difficult to find, because the history of the saga conferences has already been transformed into myth and heroic legend. Told as a fornaldarsaga the story would perhaps look somewhat like the following.




A man called Hermann, the son of Páll, was known as Hermann hin fróði Pálsson. He was a learned man and lived in Edinaborg in Skotlandi where he told sagas about vikings to the British. He was a short stocky man, exceedingly generous, more talkative than others, well liked by everybody who met him, especially when drinking beer and telling sagas, but he had many ideas of his own. Some of these ideas were not well liked by the lords of Vikingafélag or the rulers of saga fræði  in Reykjavík, Kaupmannahöfn, Uppsölum, Lundunaborg, or Oxenford, so Hermann was rarely invited to thing meetings in these places.


           Hermann then decided to set up a thing meeting of his own, a large Allsherjarthing in Edinaborg. He sent out invitations to many wise men and women of learning, and even to unwise people less well spoken of: wild berserks, blámenn, völur and shield maidens who dwelled in unknown and faraway countries such as Vínland, Garðaríki, Serkland, Bláland, Reiðgotaland and other lands that were never considered to be true and genuine countries by the earls and Viking lords of the North, lands where people did not even know what a runestone or an Arnamagnæan vellum manuscript looked like. Hermann asked them all to come and talk in Edinaborg about ”the sagas and western literary tradition”, a subject so weird that nobody had heard of it before, and some of the fróðir men in the district said that this was a subject fit only for trolls and the Midgard Serpent.


           Many guests sailed to Edinaborg that summer and set up their tents. From the dark dungeons of Vínland  came Theodoricus Monachus Andersson and his berserks, fostered at Harvard in hard games and witchcraft such as black seiðr and oral-formulaic theory. From the caves of Saxland and the swamps of Svithioð hið mikla  came men of bad luck who spread false tidings and told lying sagas in which they accused skalds and saga-writers  of having learned their málfræði from Roman books and their art of storytelling from riddarasögur in Frakklandi.  Some particularly weird witchmasters and útilegumenn with unheard names such as Steblin-Kamenskij, Gurevich and Meletinskij even tried to escape from the Gulags of Garðaríki  in order to spread their godless fræði  about synthetic truth, unconscious authorship, structuralist models and other monstrosities emerging from Jötunheim, but these men were stopped by their own Soviet rulers and prevented from sailing to Edinaborg. Some people said that this was a great loss, while others said that it was a lucky thing that they were stopped in time.


           Hermann welcomed all his guests, and the Allsherjarthing started. Soon it had turned into a huge senna or mannjafnadr with much shouting, namecalling and ð-poems. Battles were fought and many brave warriors, not to speak of trolls and berserks,  were carried by valkyries  to Valhöll that summer with their heads chopped off. When the Allsherjarthing was over, the bloodshed ended and all the dead had been disposed of,  the survivors who could still stand up and speak agreed that this had been a remarkable meeting, more memorable than the battles of Brávellir or Hjörungavágr, worthy of being eulogized in the most complicated skaldic meters until the coming of Ragnarök. Hermann was elected Earl of Edinaborg, and his guests decided to meet again and battle at regular intervalls in some country, a different one each time. And so they did for many years.


           But as time passed by the meetings became more peaceful and the battles less bloody than before. The people who came, even the trolls and the útilegumenn, no longer wanted to chop off the heads of their enemies but rather drink beer and eat pork in their company or even sverjask í fostbræðralag.  Earl Hermann of Edinaborg became everyone’s favorite and his ideas were no longer considered weird but wise and almost saintly. After his death miracles were said to have occurred at his burial mound. The Heritage of Hermann, the Allsherjarthing, had now become a highly respected meetingplace, attended no longer by trolls, berserks and úgæfumenn but only by the noblest lords and ladies of Sagaland. And here we end Hermans saga Pálssonar.




Having now come to the end of my fornaldarsaga,  I will try to squeeze a few precious drops of historical truth out of this mythical-heroic text. What is clear is that the saga conferences were indeed instigated in Edinburgh by Hermann Pálsson and he did it at a time when there was a great deal of controversy within the field of Old Norse philology. The long conflict between Iceland and Denmark about the Arnamagnæan manuscripts in Copenhagen, the famous Håndskriftssagen, had just recently been settled in Iceland’s favor, but it was still a sensitive issue for many Danish and Icelandic scholars, who regarded these manuscripts as the very basis and essence of Old Norse philology. There were, however, also new conflicts that concerned various new trends and theories in saga scholarship that had originated outside the traditional academic centers of Old Norse philology and represented a challenge to the prevailing paradigm within these centers. I am referring to theories like structuralism, oral-formulaic theory and various new ideas about  European and Christian influence on Old Norse literature, often looked upon with a certain amount of suspicion by the academic establishment of Norse philology. Partly as a result of these new developments, Old Norse studies began to attract more interest in non-Scandinavian countries such as the United States, Australia and Russia and among students not only of Old Norse philology but also of comparative literature, cultural history, archeology, anthropology, folklore and religion. Suddenly, the study of  Icelandic sagas and other Norse texts was about to become rejuvenated and hip and popular among new sorts of people. So Hermann Pálsson managed to start the saga conferences at exactly the right time. And the first conferences in Edinburgh, Reykjavik, Oslo and Munich became a battleground for younger scholars with controversial ideas and for their older opponents within the philological establishment.


                Within a couple of decades, however, the new trends and paradigms had become accepted and established as alternatives to the more traditional forms of philological research. As for myself, I welcomed this development. As a young student of Icelandic sagas in Uppsala during the fifties and sixties, I  had felt that the prevailing Old Norse philology was too confining, too provincial and nationalistic,  too much concerned with the minute details of palæography and manuscript studies. I had felt that it was time to widen the perspective considerably. A conference theme such as the one chosen by Hermann Pálsson, ”The Sagas and Western Literary Tradition”, suited me perfectly, and it evidently suited many other younger scholars, particularly scholars outside Scandinavia. As a result of the first saga conference, the scholarly discussion became more open, intense and unpredictable, new and fruitful areas of research were explored, Old Norse studies flourished and attracted during the seventies more international attention than it had for many years. On the other hand, and this was decidedly a deplorable side effect, the more traditional philologists began to feel, and with some justification, that their concern with language, manuscript studies and the establishment of reliable texts was becoming marginalized or even neglected.


                But as the feuds between older and newer forms of scholarship subsided, and the saga conferences became more peaceful than they once were, the young Turks who had once been eager to storm the barricades, began to grow older and more appreciative of more traditional Old Norse scholarship. The new theoretical models and new interpretations of comparative literature, anthropology or religious studies had produced many new and interesting results but also quite a lot of dubious interpretations, not to say pure nonsense, without any firm basis in the language or the most reliable sources.  We gradually came to realise that our new paradigms would not function without the help and support of good solid philology. We also gradually discovered that there was a new generation of philologists, less traditional and nationalistic than the older one, philologists who did not confine their study to texts which they considered to be truly Icelandic, Norse or Germanic but were also willing to consider these texts from a more general European or universal perspective. Some philologists had in fact began to study previously neglected Old Norse translations of French and Latin texts and found them interesting also for the understanding of indigenous saga literature.


                Eventually, some of the younger philologists also began to identify themselves as ”new philologists”  with a new approach to the medieval manuscripts. They were no longer primarily interested in reconstructing the author’s ”original” text by comparing manuscripts and establishing a stemma – a difficult and often fruitless endeavour – but tried to interpret each manuscript on its own terms, thereby shifting the attention away from the conception of the text to its  reception  – away from the nebulous figure that we call ”the author” to the users, the readers and the adaptors. This change has created new possibilities for the historian and the literary scholar, whose interpretations no longer had to be based on uncertain speculations about the intentions of a presumed ”author” but could instead be based on the actual function of a specific manuscript at a specific time and place.


                At the latest saga conferencei n Uppsala in 2009 the Old Norse philologists had finally come back in force and were again quite successful in defending manuscript studies as the very basis of Old Norse scholasrship. Among the new and exceedingly important philological projects presented at that conference was the large new edition of skaldic poetry, which combines close analysis of manuscripts and linguistic problems with literary interpretation on a high intellectual level. And the most applauded and often quoted statement at the Uppsala conference was pronounced by Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir in her wonderful keynote lecture about Philology as a Core Component of Old Norse Studies. What Svanhildur said was, as many of you will remember: ”Verily I say unto you: Those medievalists who deny themselves the opportunity to work with manuscripts are losing out on one of the greatest pleasures they can have with their clothes on.” I can only wish that somebody like Svanhildur had told me that when I started my studies of Icelandic sagas as an angry young man in the late fifties.


                So it would seem that the history of saga conferences starts with big battles and a departure from traditional philology but it ends peacefully with a return to philology, although not as traditional as it once was. But does this mean that everything is now fine and dandy in the most perfect of all possible worlds? Unfortunately not, because saga studies and Old Norse studies are today threatened by a much greater threat than the one that loomed over the first saga conference in 1971.  The threat this time comes from educational authorities and from politicians who no longer consider Old Norse studies important or relevant to the modern world. Positions in Icelandic, Old Norse and medieval studies are today rapidly being abolished, cut down and transformed into someting else at universities all over Scandinavia, as well as in Britain, the United States and Germany.   


                So what can we do to defend our field and guarantee the survival of the saga conferences? Must we resign ourselves to the fate of being the last representatives of an oldfashioned humanistic subject, destined to die in the long run?


                No, certainly not. I think we CAN do something, and that something is to become controversial again, as Hermann Pálsson was in 1971, when he organised the first international saga conference and invited a lot of scholars with heretical and unorthodox ideas, unknown scholars from many different countries. We shouldn’t be afraid of feuds and controversies, not even of attempts to turn the clock back to the time of the Grimm brothers and other 19th century scholars by promoting so-called ”retrospective” methods in order to arrive at truly ”Nordic” or ”Germanic” texts. We should rather be afraid of becoming too peaceful, too satisfied and too comfortable. Because it is always the controversies that breed innovation in any academic subject, and innovation is the stimulus that  academic subjects need in order to survive and live up again. Perhaps even the politicians will be persuaded that our subject is worth defending if we show that we are actually willing to fight for it.


                So verily I say unto you: Don’t deny yourself the pleasures of philology and manuscript studies, but you should also sometimes leave your study in order to go out and fight, attacking established ideas and authorities. And with these words I wish you a very happy saga conference with a lot of feuding, controversy and battles in the best saga style.

                                                                    LARS LÖNNROTH








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