- The Academy of Odin: Selected Papers on Old Norse Literature by Lars Lönnroth
Professor Lars Lönnroth has been working and publishing in the field of Old Norse literature for almost fifty years, and has always been influential and provocative. This volume collects seventeen of his previously published essays, selected by Lönnroth himself, from different stages of his long and broad-ranging career. They represent the diverse areas in which he has worked: Sagas of Icelanders to kings' sagas, eddic poetry to reception studies, and, in the longest single contribution to the volume, the 78-page 'The Riddles of the Rök Stone: A Structural Approach' (1977), runology. The book is divided into five sections: 'Origins', 'Saga Rhetoric', 'Structure and Ideology', 'Edda and Saga as Oral Performance', and 'Reception and Adaptation', with articles organized thematically rather than chronologically. As the preface explains, each essay is reprinted largely in its original form, and usefully, the page numbering and divisions of the originals are given in the margins. A postscript following each article provides an update on relevant scholarly investigation since its publication, but, given the always stimulating and sometimes controversial nature of Lönnroth's contributions, it is a shame these postscripts are not longer and fuller.
Re-reading some of Lönnroth's earlier works, one is reminded how pioneering and different they were in their day, and one realizes just how many of his methodologies and ideas have now become tenets of the field or have contributed much to its advancement. His essay 'Rhetorical Persuasion in the Sagas', from 1969, for example, still holds as a model for reading the sagas, while his insistence upon looking to clerical and learned circles for the authorship and sponsorship of early Icelandic writing has moderated [End Page 272] the temptation to view the medieval Icelandic saga writer as 'an artistic layman, inventing and creating, pen in hand, all by himself in some remote farmhouse' (p. 20). Questions of patronage and authorship still vex scholars and Lönnroth has continued to shape answers to them. Through the inclusion of a later article on a similar theme, 'Sponsors, Writers and Readers of Early Norse Literature' (1990-91), it is fascinating to see how he refined and developed his thinking. Though juxtaposing older material with newer rather than revising or prioritizing more recent articles means that some material is inevitably repeated, seems dated, or even contradicts ideas presented elsewhere in the volume, it compensates for the brevity of the postscripts, for Lönnroth is incisive and interesting in summarizing the work of others and clearly relishes the debate.
While Lönnroth is willing to revise his ideas, some things are invariable throughout the collection: his distinctive, lucid voice ('few things can make us more certain that a character is a raving maniac than a discreet hint from the narrator that he was "somewhat difficult to deal with when things did not go his way"' (p. 87)); his knowledge of the wider medieval contexts of and influences on Old Norse literature; the dexterity with which he engages with relevant theories and criticism; the steady drive of his arguments; his groundedness in textual evidence and close readings; his attention to detail. For example, 'Ideology and Structure in Heimskringla', in fact first published in the first series of Parergon in 1976, contains a reading full of subtlety and complexity of a passage termed the Friðgerðarsaga episode, as it is portrayed in Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla compared with the version of the slightly earlier Legendary saga of Óláfr the Saint. We see how Snorri's narrative 'quite clearly appeals to anti-royalist and anti-Norwegian sentiments in the audience', yet ultimately 'steer[s] the audience ... to a more appreciative view of feudal kingship' (p. 158). The dreams and literary craftsmanship of Sverrir Sigurðarson of Norway (reigned 1177-1202), 'contested king and renegade priest', are brought vividly to life in...