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  • Magic and Kingship in Medieval Iceland: The Construction of a Discourse of Political Resistance by Nicolas Meylan
  • Hannah Burrows
Meylan, Nicolas, Magic and Kingship in Medieval Iceland: The Construction of a Discourse of Political Resistance (Studies in Viking and Medieval Scandinavia, 3), Turnhout, Brepols, 2014; hardback; pp. x, 233; 1 b/w table; R.R.P. €75.00; ISBN 9782503551579.

Nicolas Meylan's first monograph is intriguingly titled: settled in the late ninth and early tenth centuries, medieval Iceland was famously king-less, administered instead by a chieftaincy and legal system that allows its current parliament, the Alþingi, to claim status as the oldest in the world. Almost as famously, however, Iceland was of interest to a series of Norwegian monarchs, leading to its acceptance of Hákon Hákonarson of Norway as king across the water in 1262–64. This thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century political situation provides the context for Meylan's study, which argues that magic, 'mobilized narratively', gave Icelanders 'the power to rival a king' (p. 4).

Meylan is quick and clear to point out that this magic 'was not put into actual practice but remained a purely textual phenomenon' (p. 4). He is not looking at evidence for rituals, then, but at how magic was used discursively to demonstrate and explore (rather than actually achieve) particular outcomes. As well as providing a review of scholarship and introducing the sources, Chapter 1, 'Theorizing Magic', explains the choice of the Modern English word 'magic' as a convenient umbrella term and defines it inclusively as 'a socially constructed object of knowledge, actualized as a set of discourses that predicates powers and knowledges construed as extraordinary and illegitimate on particular individuals' (p. 18). To counter the risks of anachronism or generalization that these choices entail, Chapter 2 is dedicated to an examination of vernacular words for concepts and phenomena covered by the study, including terms commonly translated as 'magic' or 'witchcraft' such as fjǫlkyngi, fordæða, trolldom, galdr, gandr, and seiðr. This is a very useful survey, though as Meylan notes, the use of these words in Christian-era texts tends to be vague and interchangeable.

Chapters 3 and 4 present two alternative 'discourses' of magic: as invective and as power respectively. Chapter 3 highlights the moral condemnation that accompanies magic, and traces the various social outsiders associated with it. Inside Iceland, Meylan argues that laws against magic favoured the social elite, consolidating and protecting the status quo. Turning to the Norwegian court, he analyses passages from kings' sagas to suggest that magic could be used to explain away failure while 'recod[ing] successful opponents as dangerous and antisocial troublemakers' (pp. 90–91). Chapter 4 tackles the problem that despite the textual opprobriation of pagan magic, there are instances where [End Page 237] forms of magic seem to be used by saga heroes for positive ends. Meylan suggests magic could be seen as a desirable means to power, albeit within a pagan context, in texts like Hávamál, and is redefined as an íþrótt (skill) free of religious connotations in texts like Ynglinga saga and Ǫrvar-Odds saga, in the latter of which it sits comfortably beside explicitly Christian behaviour. Here the argument begins to emerge that 'the foregrounding of magic used to create a new, desirable socio-political order at the expense of powerful leaders […] may reflect the preoccupations of […] the text-producing elite, faced with a social order that did not satisfy them […] and which did not allow them access to […] means such as military force to do something about it' (p. 122).

The scene thus set, Chapters 5 and 6 focus on the key hypothesis that magic gave 'disenfranchised Icelanders' (p. 123) a way of dealing with Norwegian kings. Chapter 5 examines Snorra Edda, Egils saga, and Þorleifs þáttr jarlsskálds. Meylan suggests these texts create circumstances where magic is acceptable — outside Iceland, for one, and when 'the king stops behaving according to custom and law' (p. 154). Chapter 6 analyses the L-version of the saga of native Icelandic St Jón, who resurrects a man wrongfully hanged by the Norwegian king. Meylan draws compelling parallels between the...


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