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From Saga to Romance: The Use of Monsters in Old Norse Literature

Author(s): Kathryn Hume


Source: Studies in Philology, Vol. 77, No. 1 (Winter, 1980), pp. 1-25
Published by: University of North Carolina Press
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STUDIES IN PHILOLOGY

Volume LXXVII JANUARY, 1980 Number i

From Saga to Romance:


The Use of Monsters in
Old Norse Literature
by KathrynHume

Islendingasogur are easy to differentiate from fornaldar-, lygi-,


and riddarasbgur.Their settings are local and detailed; they
focus on society rather than on stereotyped freelance heroes;
and, above all, they are relatively realistic, while the others
indulge lavishly in monsters and magic accessories.
T n HEREare exceptions to the foregoing characterizationof saga
types. Grettis saga, though classical, is rich in folktale ele-
ments. BarYarsagaSnaefellsass,
Fl6amannasaga,Gull-pdrissaga,
and Svarfdcelasaga are all family sagas, although labeled "post-classi-
cal," and downgraded accordingly. Eyrbyggja saga's literary reputa-
tion has suffered less than might be expected, because the haunt-
ings were once thought to preserve pagan lore. As long as Njdla and
Egils saga remain our standard of comparison, however, the char-
acterization is basically accurate. Implicit also is a value judgment: the
family sagas' focus on social conflict suits modern predilections in a
way that giants and dragons do not. But the Icelandic audience of the
fourteenth and fifteenth centuries clearly felt very differently, and we
need to cultivate more understanding of the monsters and marvels
they enjoyed. After all, writers stopped producing family sagas, but

1
2 Monsters in Old Norse Literature
churned out romances without check. Because the supernatural ele-
ment is one of the most prominent differences between classical saga
and romance, an analysis of its role may yield a better understanding
of the change in taste.
Supernatural elements in sagas have received scholarly attention as
indices of pagan belief and ritual,' as folklore,2 as evidence of mythic
patterns of thought,3 and as proof of Icelandic awareness of Euro-
pean learned traditions.4 To survey all such manifestations of the
supernatural would require an immense book.5 I propose to con-
centrate on a narrow range of supernatural phenomena, those I
call "fictional." Medieval Icelanders would have known people who
claimed second sight; some may even have known "witches" and
"wizards." Saga use of easily rationalized magic-true dreams, rune
spells, weather magic, and the like-and of uncanny folk cannot
therefore safely be distinguished from realism. But we can presume
that neither the authors nor the audience had seen dragons, giants,

' See Mary Danielli, "Initiation Ceremonial from Norse Literature," Folk-Lore, LVI
(1945), 229-45; A. Margaret Arent, "The Heroic Pattem: Old Germanic Helmets, Beo-
wulf, and Grettis saga," in Old Norse Literatureand Mythology: A Symposium, ed. Edgar C.
Polome (Austin, 1969), pp. 130-99; Nora K. Chadwick, "Norse Ghosts (A Study in the
Draugr and the Haugbiii)," Folk-Lore,LVII (1946), 50-65, 106-27; H. R. Ellis Davidson,
"Hostile Magic in the Icelandic Sagas," in The Witch Figure, ed. Venetia Newall (Lon-
don, 1973), pp. 20-41; and Carl F. Bayerschmidt, "The Element of the Supernatural in
the Sagas of Icelanders," in Scandinavian Studies: Essays Presented to Dr. Henry Goddard
Leach on the Occasion of His Eighty-fifth Birthday, ed. Carl F. Bayerschmidt and Eric J.
Friis (Seattle, 1965), pp. 39-53.
2 Marlene Ciklamini, "Grettir and Ketill Haengr, the Giant-Killers," Arv, XXII (1966),
136-55; H. R. Ellis, "Fostering by Giants in Old Norse Saga Literature," MiE, X (1941),
70-85; Jacqueline Simpson, "Otherworld Adventures in an Icelandic Saga," Folklore,
LXXVII (1966), 1-20. Also relevant are many studies of the monsters in Beowulf, be-
cause the analogues cited are primarily Norse. Two particularly useful to the study of
the sagas themselves are Nora K. Chadwick, "The Monsters and Beowulf," in The
Anglo-Saxons: Studies in SomeAspects of TheirHistory and Culture Presentedto BruceDickins,
ed. Peter Clemoes (London, 1959); and G. V. Smithers, "The Making of Beowulf'
(lecture published by the University of Durham, England, 1961).
3 See John L. Greenway, "The Wisdom of Njal: The Representation of Reality in the
Family Sagas," Mosaic, IV (1970), 15-26, and his talk "The Paradigms of Heroism,"
delivered at the Second International Saga Conference, Reykjavik, 1973.
4 The borrowed supematural is explored by Dag Stromback in "Some Remarks on

Learned and Novelistic Elements in the Icelandic Sagas," in Nordica et Anglica: Studies
in Honor of Stefdn Einarsson, ed. Allan H. Orrick (The Hague, 1967), pp. 140-7.
5 For lists of such creatures' appearances, see Inger M. Boberg, Motif-Index of Early
IcelandicLiterature,Bibliotheca Arnamagnaeana xxvii (Copenhagen, 1966). All the stories
featuring giants have been well analyzed by Marlene Hiedewohl Ciklamini in "The
Giants in Germanic Mythology" (Dissertation, Yale University, 1961).
Kathryn Hume 3
or draugar. And it is this sort of fictional monster that most concerns
me, for the uses made of such creatures and beings imply at least
partial answers to two major questions: (1) Why is such supernatural
material-with a few exceptions-so trivial and artistically uninter-
esting in most of Icelandic literature? (2) Why did "realistic" family
sagas cease to be written, while marvel-laden romances flourished?
We may lament that an original and sophisticated literary form
should give way to a formulaic and naive one and wish that focus on
varied and complex people had not yielded to a taste for faceless
superheroes and monsters. But we cannot fully understand Islendin-
gasdgur unless we can make sense of their relations to the fornaldar-,
lygi-, and riddarasogur-and the uses these forms make of monsters
is one key to the relationship.

I. HOW MONSTERS WERE USED

Whether giant or dwarf, dragon or draugr, the supernatural crea-


tures function as foils for the hero, and in the sagas, the hero's
confrontation with a monster follows one of four patterns: (i) The
monster exists to test the protagonist and to affirm his status as
professional hero. (2) The monster preys upon society, thus letting
the hero put his strength to the service of others. (3) The supernatural
being serves as a comic or ironic device for reducing exaggerated
heroes to more human stature. (4) The monster forms part of a
deliberate comment on the nature of heroism. This last use invites
critical reflection from the audience, as well as naive, immediate
excitement. Once we recognize the monsters' various possible func-
tions, we can more easily understand an author's artistic success or
failure in a particular instance.
In the first category-the monster's testing and defining of the
hero-the monster's function is to prove inferior to the hero. This
may be done indirectly, as when a giant or giantess shows the hero
favor despite the disparity in size.6 Normally, however, the size of
such giants is so threatening that an audience prefers to see them as
enemies and wants the hero to kill them. Ketill haengr's first giant
fight is typical.

6
Giant folk befriend humans in Sorla saga sterka, Hjalm,bs saga ok Olvis, Kjalnesinga
saga, Jokuls Pdttr Bziasonar, Ketils saga hxngs, Hdlfdanar saga Bronuf6stra, and Orvar-
Odds saga, to name only some.
4 Monsters in Old Norse Literature
Hann snyr heim til skalans, en Ketill undan ok nemr stab at hurbarbaki
me6 reidda oxina. En er Surtr kemr at skalanum, verbr hann at lIta i
dyrunum har6la mjok ok rekr fyrst inn hofubit ok her5arnar.Ketill hoggr
pa a halsinn meb oxinni. Hun song hatt vib, er hun snei6 af honum
hofubit. Fell jotunninn pa dau&r a skalagolfit. par hl6o Ketill ferju
sina ok f6r heim um haustit.7
As Mary Danielli and A. Margaret Arent have argued, many such
combats, especially when they take place apart from society and es-
pecially when the opponents are draugar, bears, and berserks, are
remnants of initiation rituals. Such ordeals result in the boy's becom-
ing a man or the man's becoming an extraordinary being. Grettir's
struggle with Karr inn gamli clearly embodies this initiatory element.
Often, in such a one-to-one encounter with the dead or with a
dragon, the hero particularly wants that creature's possessions or
some part thereof, a sword, for instance. That weapon once individu-
ated its previous owner. By winning it, the hero can hope further to
distinguish himself from the mass of men. Hor&r (of HarYarsaga ok
Holmverja), Hr6mundr Gripsson, Gestr (in BfirYarsaga Snxfellsass),
and Asmundr (of Egils saga ok Asmundar) all win the draugr's treasure.
Little is made of the dragon's hoard in Sigur5ar saga kogla and
Konrfi5s saga, but in Saxo's History (Book II), we see how a hoard
gives meaning to a fight. Frode, son of Haddingus, is short of cash.
Well, draca sceal on hlawe, Ifrod, fraxtwumwlanc (Anglo-Saxon Maxims
II, 26-7), as he knows, and the young king needs to pay his men, so
he fights the monster. In Volsunga saga, acquisition of the hoard defi-
nitely establishes Sigur&r as hero, although it also lays the foun-
dation for his undoing.
Individuation and proving one's mettle are naturally part of any
monster fight, but they take second place to exploration of the hero's
relationship to society in my second category of supernatural func-

7
Fornaldar sogur Nor5urlanda, ed. Guini J6nsson, Islendingasagnadtgafan,
4 vols. (Akureyri, 1954), II, 156. Translation: "He [the giant Surtr] heads home to the
hail, but Ketill is there before him and takes his position behind the door, his ax poised.
When Surtr comes to the hall, he has to bend very low at the door, and sticks his head
and shoulders in first. Ketill strikes then at the neck with his ax. It sings aloud as it cuts
off Surtr's head. The giant falls dead on the hall floor. Then Ketill loads his ship, and
goes home that autumn." An equally typical, flat dragon fight appears in Sorla saga
sterka (FSN, III, 383). For an analysis of a dragon fight in terms of standard motifs and
literary strengths and weaknesses, see Marina Mundt's account of the dragon fight in
Ragnars saga in "Omkring dragekampen i Ragnars saga lo5br6kar," Arv, XXVII (1971),
121-40.
Kathryn Hume 5
tions. Because the fight arises in a social context, much more rides
on the outcome. In the shorthand of symbols, a maiden chained to a
nearby rock adds significance to a dragon fight because her life is in
the balance, too. Most Icelandic giant and dragon stories fail to make
anything of this social potential. One of Ketill haengr's giants liked
human flesh, but we do not see the social repercussions of this taste,
whereas in Beowulf, Grendel's man-eating is vividly conceived of as a
threat to the entire social fabric.8 We rarely see towns victimized by
dragons. Aside from Volsunga saga, only Hr6lfs saga krakamakes much
of an attempt. Hr6lfr's famous court is made a mockery by the annual
depredations of a monster; the society is thereby threatened. Indeed,
the faulty heroism of a society that cannot save itself from a monster
is underscored by the less than heroic behavior in the hall: the king's
heroes bait and torment a helpless boy who offers neither threat nor
challenge. With draugar, however, saga authors were more sensitive
to the social potentialities, possibly because of the similarity between
such mound-dwellers and humans. P6r6lfr baegif6tr in Eyrbyggja
saga is a good example of a draugr whose actions have fairly wide-
spread social consequences, and Arnkell's temporary success in lay-
ing him helps establish Arnkell's position as a worthy district leader.
Grettir's fight with Glamr is the most renowned example of this kind
of fight.
Cutting the hero down to size should be recognized as a third
possible function for the supernatural being. Though little used, this
option is a welcome change from naive and underdeveloped monster
fights. In Orvar-Oddssaga, the hero grows less human and less credible
as his adventures unfold, because the author must fill three hundred
years with heroic activity. Sensibly, he chose to interrupt the naturally
inflationary trend by subjecting the hero to a winter with the giants.
To them, Oddr appears to be a tiny and puny child, although they
recognize his wit. When he returns to the normal world, we can start
off as if afresh, for the comic contrasts have deflated and humanized
him. Grettir, too, is scaled down by his contact with two quasi-giant
families. His all-too-human boredom with P6rir's daughters in a
glacier paradise betrays an amusing but ordinary weakness. His he-
roic stand with Hallmundr also reduces the superhero: Grettir kills
six men, but Hallmundr kills a dozen. Since such friendly giants often
8 I discuss the social meaning of Grendel in "The Concept of the Hall in Old English
Poetry," Anglo-Saxon England, III (1974), 63-74.
6 Monstersin OldNorseLiterature
live in families, we also have a chance to see the hero in a domes-
tic situation-admittedly a bit skewed-that gives us a perspective
on him usually lacking in the more naive romance sagas. On a differ-
ent plane, the same cutting-down operation is performed on p6rr
by Utgar6a-Loki in the account of P6rr's visit and his treatment
as a puny weakling.
The fourth function for supernatural creatures is admittedly differ-
ent in kind from the others. The author introduces critical distance
between the audience and the monster fight for the purpose of en-
couraging an intellectual, as well as an emotional, response. In at
least two sagas, the supernatural is used-consciously and delib-
erately-to make thematic points, and such usage suggests disbelief
in the historical reality and even the existence of such supernatural
beings.
The ghosts of Fr6bd in Eyrbyggja saga do not fit a simple pattern
of heroic self-definition. Snorri gobi is asked for advice on how to
handle the multiple ghosts. Snorri had been instrumental in causing
Arnkell's death; so, as a leader, he is under obligation to prove that he
is no less a protector of the people than Arnkell had been, for Arnkell
laid the draugr Por6lfr baegif6tr. Snorri does not try to fight the
revenants-the typical heroic procedure. Instead, he advises using
legal procedures and Christian exorcism. Thematically, the author is
commenting on old ways versus new, as he also does in his use of the
two-berserks story, where Snorri's reliance on unheroic cunning is
more effective than the devices of men used to heroic solutions relying
on physical strength. The striking characteristics of the Fr65d epi-
sode are the author's zestful multiplication of ghosts and the sense of
humor shown in his handling of the Hebridean woman. These dis-
tancing characteristics are at odds with the common assumption that
this is a serious antiquarian reconstruction of the pagan past. Instead,
the episode seems more a jeu d'esprit designed to illustrate the quali-
ties needed for successful leadership, now that the age of heroes is
past.
The author of Grettis saga does not introduce an ironic distance, but
rather institutes a critical inquiry into the nature of heroism by alter-
nating fantastic adventures (in which Grettir succeeds) with problems
from everyday life (with which Grettir cannot cope).9 Grettir's in-

9 For a discussion of the author's analysis of heroism, see my "The Thematic Design
of Grettis saga," JEGP, LXXIII(1974), 469-86.
Kathryn Hume 7
ability to find any place where he can live the heroic life as a socially
accepted hero strongly suggests that the author considered the tradi-
tional denizens of fornaldarsbgurand lygisbgur unreal. Given the au-
thor's Christian assumptions, and given Grettir's inability to fit into
society, the ultimate judgment passed on the fornaldarsaga style of
adventure is negative. The white and black world where beleaguered
men fight off monsters is not available. The author recognizes the
excitement and attractiveness of such stories-and in the Glamr and
Sandhaugar trolls episodes, he has written outstanding examples-
but ultimately these lack substantive relationship to everyday prob-
lems. Similarly, he tests and finds wanting the European style of
romance heroism in the Spesarpattr. An audience may regret his re-
jection of these glittering literary concepts of heroism, and to some
extent the distance created is nostalgic rather than ironic. But within
the framework of the saga, he forces both legendary and romance
concepts of the hero to give way to the Christian and the everyday.
The latter norms do not include monsters.
Unless there are other functions I have overlooked, monsters are
used to define a man as hero (both in the abstract and in relation to
society), to define a hero as man (through comic deflation), and to
comment on the nature of heroism. An author could vary the tone of
his story by his choice of monster, but its basic function was un-
affected by outer shape.

II. WHAT MAKES MONSTERS ARTISTICALLY EFFECTIVE?

When viewing the multiplication of monsters in late medieval Ice-


landic literature, and the poor literature that figures them, one tends
to assume that the fault lies in the use of the supernatural. Our
modern preference for realism reinforces this assumption. Glamr,
Fafnir, and Bruisi should dispel that belief, as should acquaintance
with Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or the lais of Marie de
France. The failure is one of artistic imagination, not of material. Very
simple means of improving the encounters with monsters were at
hand; some authors saw their potentialities and exploited them. More
complex solutions were also available. To see how the supernatural in
the sagas could have been made more effective, let me discuss works
whose authors succeeded in bringing the monsters to life.
We have seen how flat a job the author of Ketils saga hxngs did on a
giant fight. He has so trivialized the clash that he even adds another
8 Monsters in Old Norse Literature
giant fight to the same chapter. Far more effective is the contest be-
tween Ormr St6r6lfsson and Briusi in Orms P&ttr St6r6lfssonar. The
hero does not just stumble onto Bruisi and Bruisi's mother; he seeks
them out for vengeance because Bruisihad tortured and killed Ormr's
sworn brother Asbjorn. The fight is therefore not a meaningless exer-
cise, but a personal satisfaction, an individual crisis (the author uses it
to strengthen Ormr in Christianity), and the basis for well-founded
fear. Like Ormr, we realize that losing to Briusi will not merely mean
death, but also lingering torment. Brusi is an effective character be-
cause we know him: we have seen him in action against Asbjorn. We
have seen the cave and its fittings. From MengloS, Briusi's half-
sister, we learn of antagonisms within this troll family that give it the
substance of reality. The opponent who pops up in a hero's path as if
pulled from a hat cannot intrigue us or win our attention. He can only
fulfill his technical function of confirming the hero's status, a function
equally well fulfilled by a berserk, a bear, a powerful dwarf, a dragon
or draugr, an outlaw, or even just another human champion. Bruisi,
however, has status as an individual. Our concern for the outcome is
greater because our knowledge is greater.
Sorli, in Sorla saga sterka, dispatches a shapeshifterldragon in short
order. The romance heroes kill most such monsters offhandedly, as if
to do so were a routine and trivial chore. Few details of these fights
are given, aside from the repeated insistence that the soft underbelly
is the vulnerable spot. The dragons are usually voiceless, and the
heroes are not significantly individualized by these contests. R. W.
Chambers berates the Beowulf-poet for giving us a dragon when he
could have given us Ingeld's inner conflict between troth and ven-
geance and the subsequent fight, which is only alluded to in Beowulf.
That hypothetical tale, he feels, should not have been exchanged for
"a wilderness of dragons." J. R. R. Tolkien cites this remark of Cham-
bers and, in reply, points out that "a man might well exchange for
one good dragon what he would not sell for a wilderness."'10 These
fornaldar-, lygi-, and riddarasagadragons comprise the "wilderness of
dragons" which Chambers would have traded for one good saga
about Ingeld. He would have come off better in such an exchange, for
most of these late medieval dragons are not much good.

10 J. R. R. Tolkien, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," Proceedingsof the British
Academy, XXII (1936), 245-95, quotations from pp. 252-3.
Kathryn Hume 9
Tolkien goes on to point out that "in northern literature there are
only two [dragons] that are significant . . . the dragon of the Volsungs,
Fafnir, and Beowulf's bane." The author of Vblsunga saga (and of
course the author of Fuifnismasl) towers over Norse contemporaries in
the development of a dragon's artistic potential. Not only is the hoard
meaningful, but so is Fafnir as a character. The difference between
the Fafnir fight and the many less effective ones lies primarily in the
conversation between Sigurbr and Fafnir while Fafnir is dying.
Much as in the exchange between Grettir and Glamr, there is a dry,
analytic quality to the dying adversary's comments that chills us. The
range of knowledge assumed and alluded to in their tense words
gives a mysterious tone to the scene. We feel that more is going on
than we fully comprehend-an effective device for heightening our
sense of the confrontation's significance. We learn that there is a body
of dragon lore a hero knows, such as the rule that he not give his
name to his foe. We are impressed by the immense and detailed
reaches of Fiafnir's wisdom. Without being told, he knows SigurSr's
background and childhood and comments with psychological acuity
that it is surprising Sigur&r should have grown up brave and
confident, since he has been deprived of father and kin. Fafnir is
sensitive to verbal nuances: HeiptyrYi tekr tu hvetvetna vbvier ek
mxli,'1 he remarks judiciously after Sigur5r's defensive outburst.
He demonstrates his primordial nature by indicating knowledge of
sacred lore, information concerning the Norns and the end of the
world. He also knows, without being told, who is ultimately respon-
sible for his death. Given his range of knowledge and sensitivity to
human motives, we have every reason to accept Fafnir's word con-
cerning the fatal effect of his gold and are forced thereby to reassess
Sigurbr's heroic stance. Yes, everyone must die someday, but we
wonder if that is an adequate response in view of the trail of destruc-
tion and disorder we know will follow Fafnir's treasure.
Draugar fare somewhat better artistically than most types of mon-
ster, perhaps because their previous lives give them a known char-
acter. Some we have known before they died. Although not easy to
live with then, they were nonetheless ordinary eccentrics and bullies
whom death has endowed with the power to make cattle gore each
other, to ride roofs until the buildings collapse, to cause members of

II The Saga of the Volsungs, ed. and tr. R. G. Finch (London, 1965), p. 31.
10 Monsters in Old Norse Literature
the family to fall ill and die, and to carry out physical assault. They
exercise this power, no longer bound by the restraints of society. Even
a beloved sworn brother is transformed into an enemy by death's
metamorphosis. In Egils saga ok Asmundar, Asmundr enters the tomb
alive with his dead sworn brother, but leaves it three days later, after
beheading the corpse, for the corpse walks at nights. It ate the hawk
and the horse, and finally attacked Asmundr himself. Apparently the
feeling prevailed that little good in this world survived the inevitable
transformation.
Grettir's fights with the powers of darkness tell us much about
what makes such confrontations meaningful and moving. Glamr, for
instance, is not simply a random monster living in a particular dis-
trict. We learn how a previous spook killed shepherds, how Glamr
took on the sheep-herding job, completely contemptuous of ghosts.
We know how he behaves and looks, even that his breath stinks. We
see his swollen, discolored corpse and note its refusal to be hauled to
consecrated ground. That Glamr, transformed, should ride houses
we are well prepared to believe. That Grettir might even do so, too,
should he be killed in the fight, seems a horrid possibility.
Because of such a background, we realize that his context is more
than a trial of strength. The excitement of the wrestling bout is real,
but more exciting by far is the conversation carried out in the eerie
half-moment of Grettir's powerlessness and Glamr's near-death. The
exchange is not as casual as that of Gestr in Bar5ar saga Snafellsiss;
nor is it simply a bitter curse. What Glamr says is all the more chilling
for its detached, analytic tone and its apparent mildness. We realize
the force of what he has said only as the story develops. The odd
moment of suspended animation they share, the eye-to-eye confron-
tation, the similarity in strength and wrestling ability, all prepare us
to see Glamr as Grettir's symbolic double, or his shadow, perhaps as
the temptation of strength-to use strength for private ends and
gratifications, to use it to harm the society that has cast him out. As
Grettir's luck deserts him, he comes to resemble Glamr more and
more. Glamr is what Grettir needs: a monster whose destruction all
will welcome. Grettir defines himself by his feats of strength; without
Glamr and his ilk, Grettir has no socially acceptable use for his power
and no other role society recognizes as valuable. Because we know
how much Grettir wants social acceptance, we feel the force of Glamr's
opening comment:
Kathryn Hume 11

Mikit kapp hefir pJ a lagit ... at finna mik, en pat mun eigi undarligt
Jykkja, t6 at !i1 hlj6tirekki mikit happ af m6r.12
Any hero whose specialty is deeds of strength, rather than cunning,
or sanctity, or other social virtue, has the potential for doing damage
to society rather than serving it. Those that have power to hurt and
will do none are rare. In Grettla, Volsunga saga, and Hrolfs saga kraka
we find recognition of this dark side of strength. Such awareness,
embedded in an heroic story, automatically raises that story above
the naive heroics of the more stereotyped tales of adventure. When
the author takes this recognition one step further, we get studies of
flawed heroism, of men whose strength is only imperfectly socialized.
Egill and Starka&r are such men.13
One simple way of improving the supernatural element in most
sagas is to develop the hero and his adversary. Most of these fights
are unimaginatively handled. The abstract quality of heroism-like
a saint's sanctity-is established by marvels. The individual dimen-
sions of growth, fear mastered, and bravery are lacking. Even if the
author prefers fearless heroes, he can give them character, strengths
and weaknesses, desires and distresses, as does Grettla's author. Even
if the hero is relatively faceless, as is Sigurbr, the monster can be
endowed with a thinking mind and a speaking voice. It takes very
little of such detail to create good supernatural episodes.
For still better effect, the author can work to develop a context for
his monster fight. The context can be personal: Glimr's significance is
heightened by his placement in Grettir's career. He is the summa-
tion of Grettir's successes, the catalyst for future changes toward the
worse. Context can also be social. Establishing heroism as an abstract
virtue is ultimately sterile, whereas showing what it is good for, letting
us rejoice when everyday people are beneficiaries, can be affecting.
The context can also be traditional or mythical. Fafnir's form and
history place him in a world with the gods. Most saga monsters lack
roots. They appear, but have no kin or history, and share only generic

12 Grettis saga Asmundarsonar, in Islenzk Fomrit, ed. Gubni J6nsson (Reykjavik,


1936), VII, 121. Translation: "You've put a great deal of effort . . . into finding me, but
it should be no surprise that you will get no great luck from me."
13 Such dark heroism, or heroes who are half good and half harmful, is explored by
Kaaren Grimstad, "The Giant as a Heroic Model: The Case of Egill and Starkabr,"
Scandinavian Studies,XLVIII (1976), 284-98, where the undesirable qualities of the hero
are associated with qualities pertaining to giants.
12 Monsters in Old Norse Literature
likenesses. Several kinds of giant are dark and wear skins; most drag-
ons have soft underbellies. Such a minimal context is better than
none for helping form our expectations and channel our responses,
but knowledge of either the hero or the monster as a figure in other
tales or in mythic tradition increases the strength and sureness of our
involvement.
Allegory is yet another way of giving monsters meaning. If we
turn to other European literatures, we see this solution with some
frequency. In Spenser's Faerie Queene, Book 1, the dragon may not be
a sparkling and complex personality, but he comes alive as a repre-
sentation of Satan, sin, and the human tendency toward sin which
the hero must overcome to achieve holiness. Political allegory would
also have been possible for Icelandic writers, but if that form was
tried at all, it would seem to be in the "realistic" family sagas whose
tenth- and eleventh-century actions may reflect thirteenth-century
events. Besides the elaboration of character and context, however,
only two other ways of giving the monsters significance seem to have
been tried. The first, that found in Eyrbyggjasaga and Grettla, is to use
them as part of an implicit comment on the nature of heroism and
social order. The second is to invoke possible symbolic resonances.
This last possibility is the one most often attempted. Although de-
veloped to only a limited extent, the potential for more is present.
Psychological symbolism such as one finds in folktales and dreams
is surprisingly absent. The man-eating giant is an universal figure in
folktales aiid the narrative forms derived from them. He takes on
many possible symbolic overtones: Freudian Chronos-father threat-
ening to devour his children; the world of adult authority seen from a
child's perspective; the Jungian destructive forces of the unconscious
threatening to engulf the ego; and various natural forces in mythic
guise. The cyclopslike episode in Hr6lfs saga Gautrekssonar,where the
band of men is imprisoned in the giant's dwelling while he kills them
one or two at a time, may embody remnants of such infantile terrors,
but in Norse handling, man-eating is an incidental characteristic of
some giants and trolls, not the chief issue for a hero. More common
are the giants who share the more or less divine power of the giants
battled by P6rr in poetry. Such mythic stature is implied of the
giant member of the landvxttir seen by Haraldr Gormsson's warlock
in Oldfssaga Tryggvasonar(Chapter 33), although those vxttir may owe
something to the beasts of the Evangelists. In the giants of Glaesisvel-
lir, seen for instance in porsteins bdttr bxjarmagns, we have be-
Kathryn Hume 13
ings who, like Celtic faeries, bear the fading trappings of a former
divinity. The most characteristic coloring for Norse giants, however,
is social rather than psychological or mythical. Most saga giants live
in the same world as men, eat the same foods, and can interbreed-
but they remain outside of human civilization, rather like later ijo-6-
saga outlaws. Their strength and size demand their separateness, for
in close contact, they make man feel small and insecure, and this
separation is reinforced by the frequent attribution of evil or demonic
qualities to the giants. But size and strength are also qualities that
characterize most heroes. Heroes, too, will make ordinary men feel
insecure unless their energies are very obviously expended in the
service of those weaker than themselves. Giants give the hero an
opportunity to exercise his strength acceptably, but they also embody
its destructive aspects and warn of what the strong hero may be if he
fails to subordinate his gift to the service of mankind.
Draugar are strong, but strength is secondary to their distorted
human vices. They embody the nightmarish, shadow side of society,
the ruthless elements that are normally repressed. Draugar, like their
human counterparts, the berserks, are avaricious, bloodthirsty, and
totally self-centered. They resemble heroes in their strength and can
be distinguished mainly by the lack of that socialization which pre-
vents heroes from abusing those weaker than themselves. Sometimes
the draugar are "shadows" of the hero, as is Orvar-Oddr's evil genius,
Ogmundr.14 The draugar have achieved a measure of individuation,
as is suggested in their unique grave-holdings, and they are deter-
mined to cling to these accessories, even as the heroes are determined
to win the artifacts by which they may further individualize them-
selves. The portrayal of draugar reflects the society's subliminal
awareness of its own weaknesses: desire for gold and love of special
objects, bloodthirstiness, selfishness, and belief in physical strength
as a trait valued for itself rather than for what it can do for society.
The impulse toward an unyielding will, which we see in such monsters

14
PaIsson and Edwards note this hero versus shadow or double relationship in
LegendaryFiction in Medieval Iceland, Studia Islandica, XXX (Reykjavik, 1971), 58. The
number of adversaries who are connected to the dead may be greater than first sup-
posed. Nora K. Chadwick points out (in "The Monsters and Beowulf," p. 182) that
draugar "frequently have names beginning with Ag-, Og-." Characters like the cham-
pion Agnarr fought by BoWvarrbjarki, and Ogmundr, enemy of Orvar-Oddr, are not
explicitly revenants, but their fearsomeness and troll-like characteristics cause Chad-
wick to lump them together as variants of "the draugr Agnarr," the male monster
fought by one generation after another of Gautar princes or Halogaland rulers.
14 Monsters in Old Norse Literature
as well as in heroes, is all very fine, but leads to tragic social con-
sequences. It can be tolerated in the never-never land of monsters,
but causes only trouble in a social situation-as, for instance, when
Gunnarr Hamundarson's grave chant fans the flames of the feud in
Njala. In the draugar, we see these negative sides of normal social
traits and ideals.
In giants and draugar,we find representatives of asocial forces which
threaten society. They are externalizations of those human impulses
natural in a fight-prone society, but destructive to its better parts-
love of gold, desire for uniqueness, readiness to resort to superior
strength. In nonhuman monsters, we see a related nexus of con-
cerns. Actual animals, untouched by the supernatural, are fought
as a physical threat. Their significance is primarily as a test of strength
and courage, as an initiation rite. At one remove in fantasy, such
animals become were-animals. Implicit in the concept of shapeshift-
ing is the recognition that man may take on animal qualities- strength,
but with it ferocity-as happens to were-bears and were-wolves. On
occasion, these qualities are controlled: Bo6ivarr bjarki is a were-
bear, but uses this supernatural power to serve his lord and resorts to
it only when fighting against other supernatural forces. It is simply
part of his special equipment as a hero. When serving as a hero's
adversary, such shapeshifters may occasionally imply that valued
qualities can also be dangerous to society.
In dragons, as in draugar, we see heroic traits and associations, not
as man wishes to embody them, but in distorted and destructive
form. Strength is present, but whereas that is the primary attribute of
giants, in many dragons strength is subordinated to love of gold. In
Hdlfdanarsaga Eysteinssonar, Vblsungasaga, and Ektorssaga, humans or
dwarfs turn themselves into dragons to guard and enjoy their gold. It
is incorrect to assert that heroes, by fighting dragons, are allegorically
fighting avarice in themselves. The stories lack that kind of psycho-
logical dimension. Rather, the values of an heroic code are tested most
meaningfully when set against its own weaknesses. Naturally the
heroes embody the positive values of their social codes; equally natu-
rally, the attitudes and faults most inimical to the code are implicit in
their adversaries.
The sagas' preoccupation with strength and gold gives their heroes
a worldly orientation. Muscle dies. Precious goods may go to the
grave, but not beyond, and may indeed be seized by some other
hero. While being enjoyed, however, strength and gold confer an
Kathryn Hume 15
heroic identity, and the adventures they figure in provide the hero
with his chance for the relative immortality of heroic story. The draugar,
by combining strength with avarice, bloodthirstiness, and death, sug-
gest the shadow side of heroic aspirations, the inherent weaknesses
of a code that exalts the individual man rather than the social good.
The dragon, again linked to gold, power, and a world vaguely "other,"
is a step closer to impersonal, cosmic disorder, violence, and
death. Such symbolic resonances remain submerged, their potential
barely tapped. Although, as I shall demonstrate later, there are ideo-
logical obstacles to making this symbolism more explicit, its presence
reinforces my belief that the saga authors' use of the supernatural
suffered from a failure of artistic imagination, not from faulty ma-
terial. We tend to blame the use of the supernatural in romances for
their poor quality as literature. Quality and fantasy, however, are
not necessarily related to each other inversely. The use of the super-
natural does not, in itself, spell the death of great literature.

III. WHY IS THE SUPERNATURAL USUALLY SO ARTISTICALLY


INEFFECTIVE IN SAGAS?

For supernatural beings to be effective in stories, they must be part


of a tradition the audience knows and to which it is conditioned to
respond. Or they must be superlatively conceived. Few Westerners
respond to the demons of Hindu stories or to the nonhuman beings
in Japanese Noh drama. Little or no inner tension can develop in an
audience that has no expectations.
The supernatural in any kind of saga is one of three types: im-
ported, adapted, or native. Imported supernatural elements often
remain rootless, and hence artistically superficial. The flying carpet in
Sigrgar5s saga frcekna is simply a gimmick. Shifting shape by using
a magic powder that will work in anybody's hands makes shape-
shifting less threatening than it is when exercised by someone known
to be hamramr. A wizard or individual with that inherent ability has a
power denied to normal mortals, a power that constitutes a threat
because we and normal story characters cannot aspire to it, yet can be
victimized by it. Imported supernatural material has the value of
novelty, but is unlikely to stir an audience deeply.
Foreign monsters can be domesticated, in which case their ability to
rouse and govern response is limited only by the author's skill. As
Dag Stromback (n. 4, above) showed, the gandrei;Yin Njdla takes a
16 Monsters in Old Norse Literature
prophetic dream from Gregory's Dialogues and retells it with local
color. Instead of being monks about to die, those named for death are
participants in the burning of Njall. Cyclopes are recast as more ordi-
nary giants in SigurYar saga fogla. The eclectic Ektors saga, amid
adventures involving lions, black elves, wolves, camels, and giants,
mentions three serpentine monsters, one of which came into being
when a black berserk turned himself into a snake to guard his gold.
Another of these scaly brutes acquires spurious traditionality when
we are told that the hero must guard against this dying adversary's
blood and venom. His evasive strategy is original-he swims up-
stream while the fatal effluvia drift down-but the hero's problem is
the more gripping because it also faced Sigurbr when he fought
Faifnir.The Njdla author showed his usual flair when adapting a for-
eign element; the other two examples are only adequate, but show
some grasp of the artistic problems.
The native tradition is ultimately pre-Christian, and the context in
which it makes best sense is naturally enough a non-Christian one.
Because a pagan mythic outlook influences not just the traditional
monsters but the family sagas as well, its most relevant features are
worth mentioning. Northrop Frye writes, "A mythological universe
is a vision of reality in terms of human concerns and hopes and
anxieties."
Mythologies begin with creation myths, and creationmyths are of two main
types, depending on whether man is looking up or down from his middle
earth when he is constructingit. If we look down, we see the cycle of animal
and plant life, and creationmyths suggested by this would most naturallybe
sexual ones, focusing eventually on some kind of earth-mother, the womb
and tomb of all living things. If we look up, we see, not differentforms of life
emerging, but the same sun rising in the east ... a world made, not born,
and made by a conscious and planning intelligence. Such a myth tends to be
associatedwith a sky-father,who goes about his mysterious business without
nursing his children.15
To judge from the data Snorri gives us, Norse mythology cannot be
pigeonholed under either rubric. It contains elements of both, though
whether this is a natural combination (as Georges Dumezil would
have it) or an historical intermingling of two traditions, we cannot

15 The Secular Scripture:A Study of the Structureof Romance (Cambridge, Mass., 1976),
pp. 14, 112-3.
Kathryn Hume 17
say.16 The /Esir are sky divinities, and they are responsible for some
conscious creative acts in the building of the universe. Other steps in
creation "just happen," and the symbolism of those is that of earth
mythologies: beings born of the sweat of a primordial giant, a cosmic
cow who nourishes that giant, a man licked out of the ice by the cow,
and the like. The Vanir, living in uneasy treaty with the /Esir, are
linked to earth and fertility worship. The frost-giants figure in the
earth-oriented parts of the creation story and are connected to such
forces as frost and fire, the boundlessness of the ocean, and the
inexorability of old age and death (in the Ltgar6a-Loki episode). Hos-
tilities between Esir and giants continue, and the Esir will be
unsuccessful. In mythological terms, the universe reflects this battle
between forces of order and of elemental chaos. It is not love that
moves the sun and all the stars (as Dante lyrically asserts), but strife.
The sun flees across the sky from cosmic wolves; the firmament was
made from the disjecta membra of a murdered giant. Strife is also
the basis for the family saga plots and for some fornaldarsogur. This
concern differentiates them strikingly from romance heroic-success
stories.
Most earth religions deny importance to the individual; the genera-
tions must continue, but there is no need to leave a name for one's
sons if paternity is not linked to patriarchy. Nor is there much stress
on an afterlife. Within a sky mythology, man, not woman, resembles
the creator and must seek to define himself. If the IEsir's behavior in
the contest with Utgar6a-Loki is any index to their values, then we
should note that the ways in which they and their followers thought
it worthwhile to excel were all physical: running, eating, drinking,
lifting, wrestling, and-by extrapolation-fighting. A view of hu-
manity and the universe cast in such exclusively physical terms is
unlikely to be optimistic. The body dies. Man can shape his conduct
to satisfy his own sense of what is fitting, but he has no assurance
that death bravely faced will have any reward except the good opin-
ion of others. Valholl offers an afterlife, but one apparently endur-
ing only until Ragnarok. That the cosmic picture is heavily down-
ward and earth-oriented is clear from the description of Yggdrasill.

16
Dumezil denies that the earth and sky divinities were ever separate. See his De
nordiske Guder: Grundtrxk af den skandinaviske Religion (orig. French, 1959; Danish,
Odense, 1969).
18 Monsters in Old Norse Literature
Traditionally, a world tree unites sky, earth, and the world below.
Were Asgarbr in the branches and Niflheimr in the roots, the con-
figuration would be normal. Instead, mysterious beasts devour the
branches, while the gods, their enemies the giants, and the land of
Niflheimr are each linked to a tree root (the IEsir's being distin-
guished as d himni). Mibgar6r is apparently located on this same
"plane." Snorri's account is not consistent, but at least sometimes
gives the impression that man, gods, giants, and the dead are all at
the root/earth level.
To argue that the pagan mythic universe exerted any influence past
A.D. 1ooo, we need first to see what evidence there is of its preserva-
tion. Part of the evidence is purely inferential. No national conversion
to Christianity produces instant remolding of the mind's categories
and beliefs, especially when undertaken by fiat rather than personal
conviction. Indeed, Christianity must be recast in the local idiom
before it can hope to have much influence. An example famous
among anthropologists is that of Swan River in Africa, where the
natives first called Holy Communion a dance; dancing was sacred in
their culture, and only through the sacred they knew could they hope
to conceptualize the sacred that was foreign to them. We see some of
the crudities of early Christianity in Hall of Slba's power-politics
bargain for the support of the Archangel Michael (Njdla, Chapter
loo). For two or three generations, at least, knowledge of old legends
would have been common. By the time Snorri compiled his Edda,
men were evidently ignorant of paganism's formal structure and of
the stories about the gods needed to enjoy the old poetry. This does
not mean that all contact with paganism was dead, however. Were
there no surviving beliefs, superstitions, and practices left, Snorri
would not have needed to be defensive about offering instruction
in it. His wariness, and the evident interest in pre-Christian society
shown by the sagas, both suggest that not all ties with the past had
been severed.
Eddic lays and traditional tales would foster some knowledge about
the past and its mythic outlook. The Volsunga saga author immerses
us in a world with no hopeful future in this life or the next, a world
of fate and misfortune. Forces for evil are present, but no correspond-
ing powers of good. Hr6lfs saga kraka, although more cheerful in
its adventures, is similarly bottom-heavy in its mythic universe. Both
these stories have a pre-Christian tradition stretching back to the
sixth century.
Kathryn Hume 19

Given the disputed origins of the family sagas, one cannot build a
safe argument upon their beginnings, but one can ask where they got
their common plot structure, their common pattern of beginning and
ending,17 and their focus on the social mechanics of feud and political
disorder. The uniformity of these features seems best explained as a
legacy of some kind of native oral tradition. How far back it goes we
have no way of pinpointing, but certainly into times when an essen-
tially pagan mythic outlook would have been no novelty.
I am suggesting that in many family saga stories, at least, a pagan
mythic concept of a downward-oriented world lingered long after
Christianity was established. I am not, however, implying that the
Christian outlook was excluded until late. The folktale pattern of
hero at peace, hero undergoing tests and performing feats, and hero
achieving a new equilibrium works well in any mythic orientation.
Let his success be strictly worldly and we have a story consonant with
either pagan or Christian outlook; let his concerns be moral, or his
rewards include a hint of heaven, and the story becomes actively
Christian. In Europe, this folktale structure served as the basis for the
standard short romance, and in Iceland the structure produced lygi-,
riddara-, and some fornaldarsdgur.'8With or without reference to the
Christian mythic universe, these romance stories coexist with the
family sagas throughout the period in which they both were written.
The romances were not artistically developed, but they continued to
be written even after the family sagas ceased to be produced. We
lament the passing of the greater form and wonder why the romances
should have remained relatively unsophisticated.
One probable reason is suggested by the way the supernatural

17 See T. M. Andersson's analysis of the family saga plot structure in The Icelandic

Family Saga (Cambridge, Mass., 1967). I have discussed patterns of commencement


and closure in "Beginnings and Endings in the Icelandic Family Sagas," MLR, LXVIII
(1973), 593-606.
18 This standard pattern for heroic endeavor is analyzed with reference to myth by
Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series, No. 17, 2nd ed.
(Princeton, 1968); with reference to psychological patterns by Erich Neumann, The
Origins and History of Consciousness (orig. German, 1949; tr. R. F. C. Hull), Bollingen
Series, No. 42 (Princeton, 1970); with reference to folktale by Vladimir Propp, Mor-
phology of the Folktale (orig. Russian, 1928; tr. Laurence Scott [Austin, 19681);with refer-
ence to romances by Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957), pp. i86-2o6;
and with reference to popular medieval and modern literature in my "Romance: A
Perdurable Pattern," CE, XXXVI (1974), 129-46. The most thorough discussion of the
Icelandic embodiments of this pattern is Margaret Schlauch's Romance in Iceland
(Princeton, 1934).
20 Monsters in Old Norse Literature
beings function in these two contexts. The various beings and wights
did not transpose well from the fundamentally tragic, downward
mythic universe of the pre-Christian world to the fairytale romances
with their guaranteed happy ending. Most European romances as-
sume a balance between demonic and divine that favors the higher,
divine powers. The hero may descend to the world of the demonic,
but he cannot be cut off from God when all he need do is say a prayer.
He cannot be tragically killed: if he dies, he may even attain martyr-
dom. Usually he wins his way back to the everyday world, spiritually
improved. The forces of consciousness and rational order, and-in
a Christian context-of religious orthodoxy and assurance of heaven
are guaranteed triumph. European authors had to struggle with this
same problem of making the terrors of romance adventure gripping.
If God's aid can be had for the asking, monsters lose their power. Dif-
ferent modifications were tried. Multiplication of monsters was one:
Sir Torrent of Portingale's five giants and three dragons are as inef-
fectual as the many berserks, giants, and monsters of Ektors saga.
Tolkien is right that a wilderness of dragons cannot begin to mea-
sure up to a single good one. Setting the adventure in an exotic
land was another ploy: orientalizing the romance was tried in France
(Clomades), as well as in lygisogur like Sigragaras saga frcekna. The
results are rarely inspiring, for the mythic universe that makes some
of the tales of the Arabian Nights so great was yet again different. The
Christian mythic universe lends itself to good romance, but not, ex-
cept in rare instances, to stories of strength, riches, and external
monsters. Its assumptions predispose it to the inner field of moral
struggle and psychological problems. Adventure of a physical sort
usually works best in Christian contexts when invested with allegori-
cal significance, as in The Faerie Queene and Parzival, or with psycho-
logical or philosophical meaning, as in Yvain. Readers may be dis-
tracted from the relative weakness of the demonic in the Christian
universe if the author introduces irony, or unexplained mystery, or if
he concentrates on man's own capacity for evil without reference to
wicked fairytale creatures. But these solutions did not catch on in
Northern literature. 19
Despite the aesthetic shortcomings of such monsters used in ro-
mance, whether foreign, adapted, or native, the supernatural was

19Thatthey did not is surprising.In the familysagas, the social consequences of evil
are traced, and the evil is squarely attached to human beings, not externalizedand
Kathryn Hume 21

more or less demanded by the romance form, for such hero-centered


works tend to produce suprahuman heroes and hence need equally
unusual adversaries for the heroes to prove that heroism. When mon-
sters appear in the family sagas, they generally do so in a condensed,
symbolic fashion meant to call attention to a focal figure. Grettir faces
a fully supernatural opponent in Karr inn gamli, but more human
heroes deal with rationalized versions of the supernatural-berserks
and bears instead of draugar and dragons.20 Viga-Glumr starts his
career with a berserk; Gunnarr Hamundarson fights a viking who
uses a magic halberd. These heroes go on to have social careers. They
are not just giant-killers, but they are allowed to establish their worth
by means of this conventional ploy.
Within the classical family sagas, we are more likely to find men
who take the stage, and even rivet our attention, but not as members
of a separate and exalted breed labeled hero. They may be introduced
in the middle of their lives, without reference to youthful exploits, or
their exploits may be purely human. Olafr pa wins our interest in
Laxdcelasaga, but through anagnorisis, not agon. Kjartan's ducking con-
test with King Olafr may carry faint echoes of descent to the under-
world, or of baptism, but the deed is fully explicable in human terms.
These are no longer heroes in the archetypal sense, even though at-
tractive and competent. They are men and need no monsters to de-
fine them as such. The presence of a complex social community in
family sagas militates against the wholesale use of monsters. The
fewer story characters of an ordinary sort who see and affirm the
presence of a monster, the less likely a later audience is to feel twinges
of skepticism or to abrogate its suspension of disbelief. Similarly, the
archetypal hero is less plausible if the people around him have the air
of substantial reality. In family sagas, where the social organism out-
weighs the individual, the archetypal hero and his monsters are un-
suitable and can be presented only in heavily modified forms such as
we see in Grettla.

projected onto monsters. But relatively little is done with the psychological roots of
evil, and this is what is demanded by many good romances. The social presentation of
evil (as opposed to projecting it outside of society) is discussed by Thomas Bredsdorff,
Kaos og Kaerlighed(Copenhagen, 1971), especially in connection with Grettis saga.
20 Analyses of berserks and vikings as foils for the hero are offered by Kaaren Grim-
stad in "A Comic Role of the Viking in the Family Sagas," in Studies for Einar Haugen
(The Hague, 1972), pp. 243-52; and Marlene Ciklamini in "The Literary Mold of the
H6lmgmnguma5r,"SS, XXXVII (1965), 117-38.
22 Monsters in Old Norse Literature
IV. THE SHIFT IN TASTE FROM SAGA TO ROMANCE

There is no tidy evolution from saga to romance, nor is there any


sudden shift. As the account of the Reykjaholar wedding (which took
place in A.D. 1119) attests, a taste for lygisogur is as old as or older
than any of the family sagas. Nor is there a steady, measurable decline
in the skill with which the supernatural is presented. Most of the
sagas I praise for effective use of monsters were written in the thir-
teenth century, but they are too few and their methods of achiev-
ing success are too varied to establish a pattern. Nonetheless, late
family sagas figure increasing numbers of marvels (Bdr;Yarsaga
Snxfellsdss, Kjalnesingasaga, Finnboga saga ramma), and at some point
family sagas ceased to be written, although they continued to be
popular as entertainment. What were the family sagas failing to pro-
vide their audiences, and what did the fantastic sagas offer that
seemed worth having, let alone more desirable than the vitality and
complexity of the Islendingasogur?
One contributing factor was probably the mythic orientation of
many of the family sagas. The higher mythic world is absent to a
degree not seen in other Christian medieval literature, and very little
reassurance about the meaning of life and experience is offered to the
reader. The hero, if there is a clear-cut central figure, often finds
himself caught up in a movement over which he has no control. He
can be well-intentioned or not, but the result is usually the same: he
is killed, and only in rare instances can this death be seen as a martyr-
dom, as Njall's is. If the hero lives out his natural life, as Egill does,
we can attribute this not to virtue rewarded, but merely to chance and
luck, for Egill is as unreasonable and cantankerous as many saga
villains. Though the saga plot ends with the social equilibrium re-
stored, we are offered no assurance of lasting peace and do not expect
it. Continuation of society is assumed, but so are flux and misfortune.
The generations will continue, but the individual may be casually
snuffed out at any point in his life. He may win fame for his part in a
famous or infamous event or ensure a place in the memory of man by
leaving verses, but otherwise he is simply a link in a genealogy, and
his state after death-like Gunnarr Hamundarson's-may leave us
very far from reassured. Only occasionally is the hero's death given
Christian meaning, as is Njall's or Gu&rdn's (in Laxdcela).
Another factor in the shift was probably the political changes that
made the experiences depicted in the family sagas unreal to later
Kathryn Hume 23
Icelandic audiences. That Christianity was well established in Iceland
when the sagas were written I do not dispute. Acceptance of a creed
and faithful observance of its rules, however, do not change un-
conscious assumptions or social patterns overnight, or indeed over
several generations. Christianity did nothing to mitigate the violence
of the period after A.D. mooo;indeed, Sigurbur Nordal argues that it
undermined the restraining influence of drengskaprwithout imposing
its own standards forcefully enough to make a positive change in
behavior.21 Ultimately, royal and ecclesiastical authority became well
enough established to help prevent civil strife, in part by giving the
judicial process the necessary executive power to enforce rulings and
not leave to plaintiffs the problem of securing justice. Once this shift
occurred, the role of the individual vis-a-vis the law displayed in the
family sagas would no longer reflect anything resembling actual prac-
tice. A society that had given up individual responsibility for securing
justice would not find saga solutions to problems plausible or prac-
tical, any more than they are to a modern audience. And yet these
now-unreal solutions were not effectively distanced; the patterns of
genealogy and history opening and closing most sagas insisted on the
immediacy of the relationship between plot and audience, rather than
disguising it. Family saga stories might continue to be enjoyed, but
largely as traditional entertainment. They ceased to be realistic com-
mentary on the nature of social experience and were enjoyed for their
patterns of heroism and for their excitement-the same elements
that made lygisiogurentertaining. To a fifteenth-century audience, the
kinds of heroism in both may have seemed almost equally unreal.
Increasing lack of agreement with contemporary social patterns
probably discouraged family saga writing, but would not have af-
fected the production of the distanced and implausible romances.
The positive outlook they project is also more consonant with Chris-
tianity than is the negative world of a story like Volsunga saga or Egils
saga. Christianity's heaven orientation encouraged both saints' lives
and romances because they assure the individual of his own potential
for achieving higher spiritual status. The spiritual improvement may
be minimal and the chief improvements secular, but if worldly prog-
ress is carried out according to the accepted pattern, it passes for
moral virtue.

21 IslenzkMenning I (Reykjavik, 1942), esp. p. 326.


24 Monsters in Old Norse Literature
That the romances remained crude, never developing the thematic,
philosophical, or allegorical sophistication of Continental romance,
is partly attributable to audience taste. (In England, too, audience
preference for action over character and idea is responsible for En-
glish medieval romance's having achieved only fitful greatness.) The
nature of the common supernatural beings, however, also discour-
aged such developments. These traditional creatures-giants, drag-
ons, draugar-were good material for adventures. They even had the
potential for thematic complexity, given the gold! strength/ violence /
death idea-complex associated with dragons and draugar,and strength
with giants. Although these associations lie near the surface in the
stories with a negative pre-Christian ideology, or in stories exhibiting
awareness of the two mythologies, the associations are submerged
in the Christian romances. The emphasis such monstrous adversaries
demand on physical adventure, violence, strength, and gold would
have been improper as long as these material and physical qualities
are lauded. What had been a potent sublayer in the better fornaldarsio-
gur and in some Islendingasogurcould not, as time went on, be handled
in detail without undermining the adventures themselves, for in a
Christian context, the goals of the heroes might have to be condemned.
Viewed theologically, the eagerness of many heroes to lay hands on
the dragon's treasure is cupiditas. The artistic potential for the devel-
opment of Icelandic romance lay in a pagan nexus of ideas; to have
brought this out in the open would have made greater romances
possible, but might have made the form unacceptable.
Clearly many other factors influence the transition from family to
lying saga and romance. The use of supernatural beings is only a
suggestive feature, to be considered along with many others when
isolating some of the reasons for the shift. The literary power of some
monsters in certain Islendinga- and fornaldarsogur is understandable
when we recognize their affinity with the tragic and negative uni-
verse not wholly lost in those stories. Their painful lack of literary
power in the romances is less puzzling when we recognize the trivial-
izing effect of a positive, upward-oriented mythic universe.
As the government of Iceland came to follow European patterns
more closely, the family sagas would have been less able to interpret
social reality for later audiences. What was still a possible form of
action, even as late as the thirteenth century, would not have been at
all realistic to later listeners. At the same time, the family sagas'
allegiance to the realm of the possible kept them from offering the
Kathryn Hume 25
usual benefits of nonrealism: escape, reassurance, and new patterns
of order with which to interpret experience. The romance-patterned
stories offer all three of these benefits of fantasy. Escape is obvious:
their heroes are often royal, superhumanly successful against larger-
than-life antagonists. They offer wish-fulfillment and gratify day-
dreams. Reassurance is also clearly offered: insofar as one identifies
with such heroes, one is encouraged to expect the possibility of suc-
cess. The romances, whatever their faults, did offer a new way of
viewing experience, one more in accord with popular Christianity.
It is our misfortune that the traditional supernatural beings and
creatures should have proved so inextricably bound to a materialistic
idea-complex that the genius of the Icelandic literary mind could not
create from them romances of a caliber to match that of the family
sagas. But then, had the creatures been less vitally characteristic of
their own world, we should not enjoy the powers they do possess in
Grettla or Volsunga saga, Eyrbyggjasaga, or Hr6lfs saga kraka.2

The Pennsylvania State University

22 lwould like to thank many friends for criticism and suggestions, especially
VilhjMXmnurT. Bjarnar,T. M. Andersson, CarolClover, Foster W. Blaisdell, and Marina
Mundt.