30th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies
Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 27-28, 2010

Paul Acker, "New Directions in Icelandic Ballad Studies"

In is 1982 book-length study, Vésteinn Ólason addressed the major philological questions regarding Icelandic ballads, principally their origins. First collected and preserved in seventeenth-century manuscripts, could these ballads be considered medieval, and if so, when and from where did they first reach Iceland? Vésteinn argued the case in detail for each of the 110 ballads that had just been given their first modern edition by Jón Helgason. Along the way, Vésteinn pointed toward some possible new directions for ballad study, such as a closer, more comprehensive linguistic analysis of the Danish element in ballad language, especially, I might add, of the seventeenth-century literary translations of Danish ballads that were preserved alongside the putative oral-traditional ones. Other kinds of new approaches, such as those incorporating postmodern theoretical concerns, had yet to be envisioned.

Aðalheiður Guðmundsdóttir recently undertook a psychoanalytic and cultural approach to a related genre, Icelandic folktales. Tracing the eventually effective clerical prohibitions against dancing in the eighteenth century, she argues that the dances of elves and of the huldufolk (hidden folk) in Icelandic folktales represent a return of the repressed scene of communal dancing. To emulate this approach with respect to ballads, one might first note that historically, much communal dancing would have been accompanied by the singing of ballads. The ballads themselves often make reference to dancing and sometimes to its potentially subversive nature. In Elenar ljóð (Elen’s Song), the main character asks permission to go to a vaka, an all-night entertainment whose prominent feature would have been dancing. Her father refuses permission on the grounds that Elen would be stared at by fools (þig kann margur dárinn sjá), adding that her absent mother would never have behaved in such a way. Elen airily dismisses the imputation, stating that fools will behave as they must (Fari dárinn sem hann kann), and then she goes off to the dance. There she sings so loudly that she attracts the attention not just of (presumably) the gawking Icelandic locals, but also of a monstrous suitor, a nykur or creature of the deep, who abducts her, tying her to his horse. When she asks for a rest, he says he will grant it if she vows to wed him, at which she makes, again, an utterly nonplussed refusal, saying “Eg því ekki nenni”; that is, she does not just say no but rather something like “I can’t be bothered.” But in so doing she accidentally names the creature, since nennir is an alternate word for nykur, which makes him magically vanish. Other Scandinavian versions of the ballad often end badly for the heroine, but in the Icelandic version, Elen refuses any responsibility for the bad actions of aggressive males. In a more misognynistic version, she would be punished, but the Icelandic ballads are known for often adopting a woman’s voice and indeed were often sung by women. In this version, a woman’s words have the power to make her abductor disappear.

By contrast, the most famous Icelandic Ballad, Ólafur lijurós, follows a typical male quest pattern and is saturated with distrust for female sexuality. In my paper I will read its psychosexual subtext against that of Elenar ljóð.


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