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

Bernadine McCreesh, "Good Weather, Bad Weather: the Use of the Natural World in Gísla saga"

In her introduction to The Ecocriticism Reader (University of Georgia Press, 1996), Cheryll Glotfelty defines ecocriticism as “the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment” (p. xviii).  The aspect of the physical environment which is most often studied is the land, including the plants growing on it, and, sometimes, the wild creatures inhabiting it.  In this paper, however, I propose to study medieval Icelanders’ relationship to another aspect of their physical environment: the weather.

According to the Landnámabók and the Íslendingasögur, pre-Conversion Icelanders believed that the weather could be altered by both supernatural beings and humans with supernatural powers.  Winds at sea were thought to be under the control of the pagan gods, while storms and sudden darkness on land were often attributed to witchcraft. 

Although Gísla saga has one example of a witch conjuring up bad weather, the author’s use of the natural world in this saga differs from that of his contemporaries.  The composer of Gísla saga uses descriptions of the weather to emphasise the story-line:  every time a murder is about to be committed, the author depicts a peaceful outdoor scene which contrasts with the violent act which follows.  In addition, the weather itself seems to be against Gísli:  wind and rain foil his attempt to keep his brother-in-law safe, his snow-covered shoes nearly reveal him to be a murderer, and tracks in the frosty grass direct his killers to the spot where he makes his last stand.

I venture to suggest that this depiction of the weather as deceptively calm but ultimately malevolent represents the late thirteenth-century saga-author’s own view of the natural world, a view which was no doubt shared by many of his contemporaries: although he no longer believes the weather to be under the control of ill-intentioned beings, he sees it as a hostile force in its own right, forever waiting to trap the unwary.


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