In the last few decades, numerous scholars have written about women in medieval Scandinavia; most of their efforts are concerned with literary portrayals of female characters, since information about women’s lives that is directly factual—unmediated by texts—is hard to come by. Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir’s stated justification for yet another book about women in Old Norse literature is that previous studies [End Page 160] have, for the most part, limited themselves to female characters in one genre of sagas—the Íslendigasögur or Icelandic family sagas, which in our time have risen to a position of special prominence for reasons having more to do with modern criteria of literary excellence and significance than with medieval criteria. Friðriksdóttir expands the investigation of female characters to include other genres that were considered important in medieval Iceland—the kings’ saga, legendary saga, and chivalric saga genres; much to her credit, she includes the greatly-neglected genre of the samtíðarsögur (contemporary sagas) too.
In this book, the content of each chapter often spans several genres, for the book is organized thematically, its five chapter divisions being ‘Women Speaking,’ ‘Women and Magic,’ ‘Monstrous Women,’ ‘Royal and Aristocratic Women,’ and ‘The Female Ruler.’ Many genres involve women resorting to magic as a way of circumventing male authority. Monstrous women, however—giantesses and female ogres—occur mostly in the legendary sagas. Friðriksdóttir’s analysis shows how these imaginary female creatures, and the imaginary magical powers sometimes imputed to human women, function significantly by providing a marked contrast to the sort of feminine deportment that would have been considered normal and socially acceptable in medieval Iceland.
For all the breadth in the scope of this book, many sagas that might have been interesting to include in it are absent. The chivalric saga genre includes adaptations of Arthurian romances (for example Parcevals saga, derived from Chrétien’s Perceval) as well as other chivalric tales that do not take place in an Arthurian milieu; Friðriksdóttir barely mentions the Arthurian sagas in passing, though the endnotes and bibliography make it clear that she is well aware of their existence and of the scholarship that has been devoted to pan-European Arthurian literature. For example, the author frequently gives credit to Carolyne Larrington for her study King Arthur’s Enchantresses: Morgan and Her Sisters in Arthurian Tradition, which Friðriksdóttir frequently finds helpful for the conceptual framework it provides concerning women’s use of magic. For reasons never explained by Friðriksdóttir, she largely avoids the Arthurian sagas and instead, when dealing with the chivalric saga genre, focuses on tales of chivalry with non-Arthurian settings. Perhaps Friðriksdóttir assumes an Arthurian saga’s depiction of female characters, because of its adherence to its French source-texts, would not reveal anything of significance about Icelandic attitudes; such an assumption would be debatable, though. Often when a work of medieval Icelandic literature comes into being through adaptation from a foreign source, the changes that occur in the process of adaptation reveal most pointedly how Icelandic literary taste and cultural values differ from those of the foreign source-text. As it is, however, readers will find in this book only a few brief comments on Möttuls saga (the Icelandic version of the comical story of a chastity-test involving a magic cloak at King Arthur’s court) and little more that is Arthurian.
As one might expect from an author for whom English is a second language, awkward locutions creep into Friðriksdóttir’s prose. Careful editing might have eliminated infelicities such as ‘Similar hints of tabooed sexuality is [sic] hinted at’ (p. 11). The writing style found in Women in Old Norse Literature, never remarkably [End Page 161] sparkling, is at best adequate in communicating Jóhanna’s ideas. The book’s endnotes and bibliography provide a wealth of useful information; the index, however, is frustrating, more complete...