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

Amy C. Mulligan, "Egill Skallagrímsson as Gorilla/Guerilla Hero: Strategies of Mastery and Deformation in Medieval Iceland"

In the influential Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Houston Baker argues that early-20th c. African-American writers and performers inverted and re-formed the terms and images of blackface minstrelsy, subversively mastering those forms for their own purposes. While Baker focuses on the Harlem Renaissance, his theorization of the mastery of form and dynamic de-formation (or perhaps re-formation) also pertains greatly to medieval Icelandic literary heroes, and can be used to help elicit the very nuanced medieval Icelandic strategies of corporeal depiction and behavior embodied by a most non-normative figure, the saga hero Egill Skallagrímsson. I argue that Egill constitutes a figure that, per Baker, is both “gorilla” and “guerilla” – he aggressively asserts his presence, and with machismo, defends his territory, yet he also operates through masks and resists decoding. In this paper I will discuss the ways in which the author of Egils saga demonstrates a mastery of the discourse of de-formation and uses that language and body of images as an enabling and empowering discourse. Moving to a more universal position, in conclusion I will also consider the ways that contemporary critical discourse on constructions of race and ethnicity can allow us to frame medieval Scandinavian studies in innovative ways, and pose questions that will generate dialogue among scholars and students within and beyond medieval Scandinavian studies.


Last modified: Oct. 13, 2009
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