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

Carl Phelpstead, "Dialogue with Theory: Bakhtinian Directions for Saga Studies"

Although contemporary literary and cultural theory have so far had less impact on Old Norse studies than on many other areas of literary research, a variety of theoretical approaches have informed several of the new directions taken in the field in recent years. This paper begins by considering the value of theory in general for Old Norse studies and some of the potential problems involved in using contemporary theory in studying medieval literature. It then focuses more specifically on one theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin, and examines the impact that his writings on carnival, the grotesque, genre, language use, and literary history have had in work by scholars on Old Norse-Icelandic literature, including the present speaker. The saga lives of Scandinavian rulers who became saints have been particularly prominent among the few Bakhtinian studies of Old Norse to have been published, featuring in the two fullest such studies to date: an article on St Magnús in Orkneyinga saga by Robin Waugh (2003) and the speaker’s own book, Holy Vikings: Saints’ Lives in the Old Icelandic Kings’ Sagas (2007). However, this is certainly not the only, nor necessarily the main, area of saga studies in which Bakhtinian ideas might prove fruitful. Having examined the ways in which a variety of different aspects of Bakhtin’s work have already been taken up by scholars, the paper goes on to outline some possible new directions in which Bakhtinian theory could inform future research on the Icelandic sagas. Among other ideas, this part of the paper considers some possibilities for future work suggested in Rory McTurk’s review of Holy Vikings (in Saga-Book, 2009). Finally, the paper returns to the general issues about the use of theory in the study of Old Norse literature with which it began, arguing that the Bakhtinian concept of dialogism provides a particularly useful framework within which to theorise the use of theory in medieval literary studies.


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