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  • The Ethics of Empire in the Saga of Alexander the Great. A Study Based on MS AM 519a 4to
  • Marianne Kalinke
The Ethics of Empire in the Saga of Alexander the Great. A Study Based on MS AM 519a 4to. By David Ashurst. Studia Islandica, 61. Reykjavík: Bókmennta- og Listafræðastofnun Háskóla Íslands. Háskólaútgáfan, 2009. Pp. 323. ISK 3900.

Alexanders saga is a prose translation of Walter of Châtillon’s metrical Alexandreis, made at the behest of King Magnús Hakonarson, king of Norway (1263–80), and ascribed in several manuscripts to Brandr Jónsson, abbot of the monastery of Þykkvibær in the years 1247–62, and bishop of Hólar, the northern Icelandic see, in the years 1263–64. Although the attribution to Brandr is not universally accepted by scholars, no compelling evidence speaks against this. Throughout the study, David Ashurst studiously avoids the ascription of Alexanders saga to Brandr Jónsson. The saga has been transmitted in only a few manuscripts, yet there is evidence that it was well known in medieval Iceland and had an impact on indigenous literature.

Alexanders saga is one of the five pseudohistorical works that are the subject of Stefanie Würth’s Der “Antikenroman” in der isländischen Literatur des Mittelalters (1998), a study dealing primarily with sources, manuscript transmission, translation into Old Norse-Icelandic, and the transmission and reception of Latin literature in the North. David Ashurst’s book is the first comprehensive literary critical analysis of the work, an investigation of its ethics of empire and the morality of power and prestige as embodied in the advice given to Alexander by Aristotle near the beginning of the saga concerning the proper conduct of a king and warrior and the effect of this on Alexander’s subsequent conduct.

Ashurst’s study of Alexanders saga reveals the virtues of close reading for the interpretation of texts. A number of scholars, notably Lars Lönnroth, have argued that hubris and a loss of moderation are leading motifs in Alexanders saga and that the work is a study in moral degeneration. One of the episodes adduced for this reading of the saga recounts how Alexander, upon arriving in Asia, surveys the landscape before him. He sees “fagra vollo bleika akra stora scoga blomgade vingarðar stercar borgir” (beautiful plains, pale cornfields, large forests, blossoming vineyards, strong cities) and exclaims that he will lay claim to the realm. The phrase bleika akra succinctly transmits “uernantes Cereali gramine campos” in the Alexandreis, and this phrase also occurs in Njáls saga, one of the most famous of Icelandic sagas. Ashurst notes that “people in the English-speaking world are likely to be aware of its [that is, Alexanders saga’s] substance, if at all, chiefly through the discussion of it contained in Lars Lönnroth’s book on Njáls saga [1976]” (p. 144). The same phrase as in Alexanders saga occurs when Gunnarr Hámundarson looks back at the slope near his home with its bleikir akrar and decides not to go into exile but rather face death at home. Lönnroth maintains that both Alexander and Gunnarr are motivated by excessive pride, but Ashurst argues convincingly that Alexander’s claim on the lands he sees expresses neither excessive pride and ambition nor a rejection of Aristotle’s counsel but rather reflects a “rudimentary faith based on a divine promise” (p. 166). He provides compelling evidence that the reference to “pale cornfields” in both Njáls saga and Alexanders saga most likely is not a borrowing by the former from the latter but rather a common phrase, possibly with biblical antecedents, such as in the exhortation in John 4.35 to look on the fields that “albae sunt iam ad messem” (p. 150), the Latin albus corresponding to Icelandic bleikr. The meaning of Gunnarr’s reaction to the pale cornfields is not to be sought in Alexanders saga, especially since the emperor’s claim to what lies before him in Asia Minor “is not, in fact, his first false step down the road that leads to tyranny punishable by death; it is his...


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