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  • The Foster Mother's Language: Anti-representation, Pseudo-feminization, and Other Consequences of a Mistake of Gender Charm in Heiðarvíga saga
  • Robin Waugh

In the aftermath of the famous battle on the heath in Heiðarvíga saga, a very unusual mistake of identification takes place: "Ok er þeir ríða út eptir heraði, ætla menn, at konur ríði" (309) ["Those who saw them (Barði Guðmundarson, the protagonist of the saga's main feud, and his band of allies) as they rode north through the district thought they were women" (4: 120)]. 1 The saga implies that these riders have taken advantage of the mistaken impressions of them in order to elude contact with enemies and escape from hostile territory undetected. But many of these riders are wounded, some severely, and presumably blood and other signs of their injuries would normally be visible. For this reason and others the mistake seems unlikely: a reader might well suspect that the band's appearance has been disguised. In fact, the consequences of this particular masquerade are so far-reaching that I am surprised that no critic has dealt with it in detail before. [End Page 307]

This mistake of gender episode is part, I would argue, of a larger symbolic pattern of uncanny images of women that runs through much of Old Norse literature, including Laxdœla saga, Njáls saga, Finnboga saga, Kormáks saga, and Heiðarvíga saga. The pattern gathers together fundamental Old Icelandic concepts of revenge, battle, gender, and sharp-sightedness and also, in several of these works, relies upon the specific motif of a character receiving inheritance from a foster mother. These various elements join up most particularly and strikingly in Heiðarvíga saga. I focus on this saga not only because it is relatively neglected but also because readers may notice in it a tendency for the traditional man-woman binary to break down at moments of crisis, as if the typical settings in the sagas for such crises could be represented (at least to modern audiences) as the "fertile borderlands, ... the liminal spaces ..., the sites of constant movement and change, the loc[i] of syncretist intermingling and hybrid interfusions of self and other" that Susan Sanford Friedman identifies in examples of postcolonial literature (19). In such settings and at moments of crisis that are characteristic to the sagas, the usual methods of identifying oneself and others can betray themselves as merely longstanding prejudices that are perhaps in the end too reductive to mean very much (Friedman 19). In my chosen sagas, this breakdown of the normal means of identification is so individual that many of the current theories concerning the traditional gender binary that dominates these works, including the revisionist definitions of femininity and masculinity that Carol J. Clover has put forward (and despite the fact that such theories have articulated a number of important distinctions between Old Norse society and the societies of northern and western Europe more generally), need further revision toward the possibility that some attitudes on view in the sagas indicate a remarkable tendency toward anti-representation—a short-circuiting of the usual identifying process (among other things). 2 My conclusion [End Page 308] is that the "to-and-fro-ness" (Friedman 143) that occurs at characteristic moments of identity crisis in the sagas reconfigures the issue of gender as a ghostly figure, 3 and the resulting instability of standard identifications that are based on gender binarity "constitute[...]" a previously under-recognized "propelling force in [the] narrative[s]" (144) of these, and likely other Old Icelandic works as well. In the sagas I examine here, this force manifests itself through magic-knowing foster mothers, rebellious wives, and (occasionally fallible) attributes of sharp sight inherited from female forebearers (Friedman 143-4, 153; Bhabha 1).

Of course any upset of the traditional gender binary raises disquieting doubts about humanity's habit of employing gender as a viable step in the process of identifying and recognizing others, and the lucky escape in Heiðarvíga saga is unique in its self-conscious highlighting of a moment when men supposedly take on feminine aspects. Similar getaways are...


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pp. 307-364
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