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  • Thou Fearful Guest: Addressing the Past in Four Tales in Flateyjarbók by Merrill Kaplan
  • Kirsten Wolf
Merrill Kaplan. Thou Fearful Guest: Addressing the Past in Four Tales in Flateyjarbók. Folklore Fellows’ Communications 301. Helsinki, Finland: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 2011. Pp. 236.

Merrill Kaplan’s Thou Fearful Guest is an engaging and valuable contribution to the study of the Old Norse-Icelandic short narratives known as þættir. More specifically, it examines four short narratives in Flateyjarbók, which was written in two stages from 1387 to 1394 by Jón Þórðarson and Magnús Þórhallsson for Jón Hákonarson, a farmer in Víðidalstunga. All four narratives are found in the first stage of the production of the codex and appear in Jón Þórðarson’s rendition of Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar and Óláfs saga helga. Common to the narratives is that they tell of a mysterious, old, Odin-like man, who shows up unannounced at the court of the king and engages in a conversation with the king about the deeds of heroes and kings of the pagan age. In Kaplan’s words: “[T]he tales that are the subject of this study are about the past in the present, an anxiety-provoking condition, but they are disingenuous about their depiction of that condition” (p. 24). The four narratives are interdependent, and, as Kaplan points out, previous scholarship on them has generally separated them from each other and from the sagas in which they appear in Flateyjarbók; in contrast, her study “wrestles with the question of their meaning [End Page 245] as a group in the context of one compilation” (p. 28). Only two of the four narratives are designated as þættir: Nornagests þáttr and Tóka þáttr Tókasonar. In both of these, the centuries-old pagan guest receives baptism and dies in peace at the king’s court. The two others are not recognized as þættir in the generic sense. One is the so-called “Ǫgvaldsnes episode,” and the other has no commonly agreed-upon name, but was labeled by Sigurður Nordal as “Odin kom til Olaf.” In these, the stranger appears in the guise of Odin and disappears mysteriously. Tóka þáttr Tókasonar and “Odin kom til Olaf” are preserved only in Flateyjarbók.

Following a lengthy prologue, the study is divided into three sections: “Boundaries” (chapters 1 and 2), “Witnesses” (chapters 3, 4, and 5), and “Echoes” (chapters 6 and 7). Central to the discussion is the notion of irruption: “not the rupture or symptomatic textual discontinuity of deconstructionist criticism” but “the thing out of place, the event like the incursion of a supernatural being in legend without which the legend would not exist” (p. 16). Chapter 1, “Time and Narrative,” considers the matter of temporal (dis)order in the four narratives in light of Ari Þorgilsson’s Íslendingabók, which “shares their concern with the ordering of time as a crucial foundational act” (p. 41). As Kaplan points out, “[w]e tend to operate in the tradition of Augustine when we think about time, and this is not always appropriate” (p. 61). She argues that “at least two systems for imposing order on the material of the past were in use in the time these texts were committed to parchment. One is the well-known chronological, typological, Augustinian scheme. Another strategy is the serial embedding of narrative levels and the exploitation of embedding in the thematic realm that have been explored here” (p. 61). Chapter 2, “Unwelcome at the Threshold,” examines the metaphor of the guest (gestr) in order to gain an understanding of what associations Flateyjarbók’s readers or listeners may have had with the word. In chapter 3, “Corpus and History,” Kaplan discusses the relationship of the four narratives with history and its literary modes, arguing that “[t]hese stories of superannuated and supernatural guests are not simple historia or simple fabula. They are not verisimilar by our standards and very possibly not verisimilar by normal medieval standards, but they show deep interest in access to the past, source value, and truth both inner and outer” (p. 109). Chapter 4, “Interrogating the...


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