- Magic and Kingship in Medieval Iceland: The Construction of a Discourse of Political Resistance by Nicolas Meylan
Armann Jakobsson, Nicolas Meylan, medieval Iceland, medieval magic, Icelandic magic, kingship, political magic
Nicolas Meylan’s Magic and Kingship in Medieval Iceland was originally a history of religions dissertation from the University of Chicago. The third volume in a Brepols series, Studies in Viking and Medieval Iceland, the book has much to recommend it: it is an intelligent and well-crafted study with a clear focus, essential for everyone interested in its twin concepts of magic and kingship in the medieval North, and it concentrates on Icelandic sources from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
As Meylan demonstrates in the first two chapters, he has carefully studied the extensive scholarly debate concerning magic in the North, and, no less importantly, he also pays careful attention to the vocabulary and discourse of magic. This is indicative of a new trend in the study of historical paranormal phenomena: no longer are terms and concepts taken for granted. The critical awareness displayed by Meylan is commendable, particularly in a field where scholarly shortcuts are common.
The bulk of the book consists of a close examination of a wide variety of Old Norse narratives, including Íslendingasögur, fornaldarsögur, biskupasögur, and konungasögur. Meylan approaches these narratives with caution, making it abundantly clear that he sees the texts as representations and he finds them interesting as such, rather than getting lost in speculation about their origins or any supposed “reality” reflected in the narratives. I would characterize his approach as functionalistic, in that his primary interest is how magic is utilized. The potential of the approach is well demonstrated in his analysis: we see again and again how magic is significant in the societies presented in the sources. The influence from Foucault is palpable: power is indeed a key concept in Meylan’s analysis and he writes about it in a thoughtful way.
While finding much to admire in Meylan’s illumination of individual saga episodes and cases, I am less ready to embrace his main argument, that “Icelanders of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries used magic to address the increasingly pressing question of how to deal with kings” (197). His case [End Page 247] studies, divided into four classes each represented by a chapter, all contain interesting insights. Meylan is at his strongest on discursive practices surrounding magic whereas there is relatively little discussion of the conceptualization of kingship. In my view the weakest point is the category of “Icelanders,” nowadays often taken for granted, and Meylan, following such noteworthy authorities as Andersson, takes too little note of those who have problematized the concept in the last twenty years or so. This is the volume’s one weak point, which I feel merits further discussion.
There has been no shortage of scholarly arguments from the last century that plead for an Icelandic identity, even national identity, and an Icelandic point of view. I think it is fair to say that more or less every mention of “Íslendingar” in the sagas has been unearthed and carefully scrutinized in the debate. And yet I think it can still be argued that there is little or even no Icelandic belief in an Icelandic identity in these texts, and very few instances even of common feeling. The texts were produced by a large group of people with diverse political interests, and the interests of Iceland as an entity are relatively low on their list of priorities; they may hardly figure at all.
This is an issue not debated in the book and, to my mind, is its main weakness. While “Icelanders” may seem a handy and useful term from the outside, from within Iceland the contradictions and the variety of interests become all too apparent. Even in the twenty-first century, with all its powerful institutions to promote national feeling, there is no single Icelandic point of view except perhaps in the foreign media. It is...