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

Oren Falk, "La sagesse sauvage: Towards a Structural Analysis of the Icelandic Sagas"

Structuralism had its heyday in the 1960s, only to be superannuated by poststructuralist methods — themselves now long in the tooth. It may seem that nothing new could be derived from applying this antiquated methodology to the reading of texts as closely pored over as the Icelandic sagas. Quite the contrary, this paper argues, structural analysis can still offer much untapped insight into how the sagas should be read. In particular, a structuralist reading offers a new direction in which to move the age-old debate about the sagas as literary or historical texts. This debate has stalled for the past two decades; the placeholder concept “Saga Iceland” has uneasily been assumed to correspond to Icelanders’ actual historical experience, though it allows little purchase for querying the mechanisms or minutiae of such correspondence.

My paper proceeds from the claim that all narratives, qua narratives, share certain architectonic features. Fictional or factual, medieval or modern, all operate on two levels: a readily accessible ‘surface,’ where the plot unfolds as the audience’s eyes or ears decode the text (e.g., Snow White’s stepmother persecutes her), and an inferred ‘depth,’ which the audience reconstruct to supply this plot with a coherent context (e.g., in Snow White, serial monogamy is the sexual norm). All elements of a text participate simultaneously in its narrative surface and in its depth; but, because surface and depth obey different internal logics, individual elements may usually be classified as dictated primarily by the exigencies of one or the other. The prime directive of surface structure is to ensure readability — to capture and hold the attention of the audience. In contrast, the prime directive shaping the depths is to ensure intelligibility — to pattern the text in a way that would enhance its cohesion and enable the audience’s inferential forays.

Many depth structures are possible; Snow White’s, for instance, is that of a fairy tale. The Family and Contemporary Sagas, in contrast, obey the depth logic of mimesis. The aesthetic conventions at the surface of the text are subtle enough not to disrupt the realism of the depth structure: plot elements like the truculent ójafnaðarmaðr, the whetting woman or the heroic dying speech may enhance narrative coloratura, but flying dragons, magic rings or giant-strength girdles — which would strain verisimilitude, even if they might enhance the text’s entertainment potential — only rarely occur.

By tracing this structural distinction, we may discern which elements of a saga would have functioned primarily to gratify the aesthetic pleasures of readability and which would have primarily bolstered cohesion and intelligibility. The former may be safely classified as pure literary flourishes; the latter, while not immediately assimilable to real fact, contribute at least to the realism of fiction. And verisimilitude, if it is to win acceptance, must somewhat resemble verity. We thus arrive back at a version of “Saga Iceland,” but in a more nuanced and discriminating form, founded on better reasoned — and structuralist — principles of textual analysis.


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