Saturday, 8 July 2017

"Laughter is the Best Medicine (3)": On absurdist portrayals of Scandinavian kings in "Heimskringla" by Snorri Sturluson (c.1230)

‘…let us sit upon the ground 
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.’1  
– William Shakespeare, Richard IIIII.ii. 

Ynglinga saga, the first saga in Snorri Sturluson’s thirteenth-century chronicle of the kings of Norway (and the one whose first words ‘kringla heimsins give the larger work its name, Heimskringla (HK)), is concerned with the early Scandinavian monarchs that make up the Yngling dynasty.2 In outlining each individual king within this genealogy, Snorri draws on the Norwegian skald Þjóðólfr ór Hvini’s late ninth-century poem Ynglingatal as a historical source. Like the majority of skalds, Þjóðólfr seems to have composed the poem in praise of a contemporaneous king – in this case gnvaldr heiðumhár’, most likely gnvaldr Óláfsson of Vestfold; rather than eulogizing the living monarch, however, Þjóðólfr’s focus is on the preceding twenty-seven generations, thereby ascribing to gnvaldr an extensive and noble heritage. However, as modern readers accustomed to jingoism, propaganda, and the familiar historiographical notion of poets portraying kings in as positive a light as possible, we are struck by Ynglingatal’s subversive undercurrent of absurdismÞjóðólfr mostly limits himself to discussing the circumstances of each king’s death, and yet, especially in the first half of the saga, these are often deaths which are not exactly steeped in nobility, as would be expectedGro Steinsland writes most of the kings die in a rather strange way, without glory, a feature which scholars have found difficult to explain.3 As we read the frequently grotesque or ridiculous events that unfold in Ynglingatal – elaborated upon and retold in Snorri’s Ynglinga saga – we might be surprised by the dearth of stately, solemn reverence of the kind Richard II ascribes to ‘sad stories of the death of kings’ in the epigraph from Shakespeare above. A closer examination of the bleakly humorous fates of these early Scandinavian monarchs as Þjóðólfr and Snorri tell them will lean on an understanding of the power of incongruity in humour, and in particular how this incongruity can produce an effect of pathos in the audience, however absurd the event in question.4 In studying individual instances, we must also discuss what separates these distinct portrayals and why Þjóðólfr and Snorri have treated them the way they have. 
Given the sheer number of kings whose deaths (and occasionally lives) are recounted in Ynglinga sagasometimes rather fleetingly, it is worthwhile noting how the total can be subdivided. Firstly, we might distinguish between the two contrasting modes in which thYngling kings are portrayed: broadly speaking, those of the more distant past, the immediate descendants of the gods, are more often depicted as meeting absurd or ridiculous ends, while those of the recent past (those more closely related to gnvaldr) are presented in a much less comic light. We shall label the first category tragicomic and the second tragic, the former segueing into the latter as the generations roll onIt is important to note, however, that this slippery division – difficult to define formally, since what one reader finds comic another may find tragic, but we shall try nonetheless – is not coterminous with the more obvious binary split in the poem, namely that between the ancient Swedish kings (the first twenty-one listed in Ynglingatal) and the more recent Norwegian immigrant rulers (the remaining six, one of whom is gnvaldr). Where we might expect different lineages to receive different treatment from a poet composing what is in some respects a highly political piece, ending as he does by extolling the virtues of King gnvaldr, the text itself steadfastly refuses to be so easily categorised, as we shall see. 
Erin Michelle Goeres, on the other hand, describes the key dichotomy within Ynglingatal as being that ‘between oral and monumental forms of commemoration’elaborating on how, whilst the Swedish kings section is dominated by ‘complex, riddling kennings’ and the stories that are told about each ruler, the Norwegian kings are commemorated through highly visible graves as opposed to tall tales.5 This dichotomy, whilst of interest, need not trouble us unduly here, save insofar as it indicates that the later accounts tend more towards ostensibly tangible fact’ in comparison to the more stylised, cryptic lyricism of the first stanzas. As Russell Poole says, Icelandic sagas are comprised of an uncertain and shifting blend of Story and History’, and Ynglinga saga is no exception.6 
The first king listed in Ynglingatal is Fjǫlnirborn from the Vanir pantheon of gods, and he is treated almost wholly comically: he is a ruler who dies by drowning in a vat of mead. As not just the first king of the Ynglings but also the son of the fertility god Freyr and the giantess GerðrFjǫlnir is the offspring of an abnormal marriage, a mediating link between the mythical and the historical planes of being, a union between that which is heavenly and that which is chthonic; he is, in short, an illegality on a mythical level.7 Whether it is for this reason that he dies in such an absurd fashion is not especially clear: other gods have been caught up in tragicomic interludes before now, after all. Remnants of the seriousness of his mythic ancestry, and indeed his royal lineage, remain in the portentous words varð framgengt... feigðarorð (HK, 26). There is an apparent discrepancy between this ominous word of doom that has been pronounced upon Fjǫlnir – not to mention Snorri’s declaration that hann var ríkr ok ársæll ok friðsæll (HK, 25), which is about as positive as a medieval king could ask for – and the ignominious manner in which this word of doom is made manifest. That it is mead in which Fjǫlnir drowns may seem to some extent obscured by the complexity of Þjóðólfr’s kenning (svigðis geira vágr vindlauss, HK, 26), but Snorri makes minimal effort to cover up the facts’: namely, that the king went out to urinate one night, slipped, and tumbled into the vat of mead. Martyrdom and nobility are very tricky to read into such a situation. 
Lending itself well to the tragicomic mode of storytelling because of the connection between humorous inebriation and catastrophic folly, alcohol is a relatively common scourge of Nordic kings, later proving fatal in the tales of Agni and Guðrøðr. It is alcohol which seals the fate of Fjǫlnir’s son Sveigðir, too, though in a different fashion: whilst under the influence, he is tricked by a manipulative dwarf into entering a cave from which he never returns. Sveigðir is enticed in when the dwarf asks if he wants to meet Óðinn (dvergrinn stóð í durum ok kallaði á Sveigðibað hann þar inn ganga, ef hann vildi Óðin hitta, HK, 27). As Goeres notes, ‘meeting Óðinn’ is a stock euphemism for death in Old Norse-Icelandic literature, while Poole has also illustrated that dwarves are often associated with death, and as such we may read Sveigðir’s taking up the dwarf’s sinister invitation as patently ridiculous (a more modern equivalent might be agreeing to snuff it or pop one’s clogs at the behest of a stranger in a dark alleyway).8 9 Þjóðólfr makes ilook especially silly that Sveigðir should fall for so transparent a ruse by employing the very same metaphor to describe the fate of the next king – Sveigðir’s son Vanlandi. 
In Vanlandi’s case, it is a ‘vættr vitta (HK, 29) rather than alcohol which allows him to meet with Óðinn (here described as ‘bróður Vilja, HK, 29), marking the first appearance of the other common cause of death among these allegedly great kings – women. Men say there are two unrepresentable things – death and the feminine sex, wrote Hélène Cixous in 1976, though it appears to have been true long before that.10 The curious association in Ynglinga saga and Ynglingatal between women and death evokes, and sometimes invokes, the personification of both in the figure of Hel, an underworld deity and something of a female Hades in terms of her position within the mythology: the act of dying, it would seem, was treated by (exclusively male) Old Norse-Icelandic skalds as being like entering into an embrace with a woman. Several of the Ynglings fall at a woman’s hands, directly or indirectly – Vanlandi leaves his wife Drífa who then pays a witch to kill him; his son Vísburr dies for much the same reason; the brothers Yngvi and Álfr die for love of the same queen; and Agni gets murdered by his new wife Skjálf while Queen Ása gets her page to kill her husband Guðrøðr. Some of these examples are played more comically than others, but all of them see a mighty ruler brought low by someone of apparently lesser standing (the captive daughter of a military enemy forced into wedlock; a witch; a woman’s page-boy), a situation which in the very nature of its disproportions is ripe for either comic or tragic exploration, or some mixture of the two. 
Possibly the most infamous tragicomic king in the Ynglinga saga – and a perfect example of the humour of disproportion – is the unlucky Dagr, he who wages war for the sake of his pet sparrow. There is no profound extolling of Dagr’s virtues in Ynglingatal, but rather an account of his odd behaviour and absurd end: for the sake of the tiniest of things, one of the commonest of birds that one would think easily replaceable, Dagr leads an entire host of warriors into battle. That he is promptly felled by ‘slǫnguþref verðar Sleipnis (HK, 36), a pitchfork meant for stacking hay for horses to eat, is clearly a ludicrous and ignoble death, made more disproportionate still by the reference to one of mythology’s most renowned horses – Óðinn’s steed Sleipnir. On monarchy in general, Bagge states that ‘the king is supposed to be an impressive personality,’ but we are unlikely to be completely won over by Dagr.11 Ynglinga saga enhances Þjóðólfr’s skaldic narrative in some interesting ways: on the one hand, Snorri makes the disproportion yet more marked (it is a lowly slave workman who throws the pitchfork that kills Dagr and lowly farmer who kills the sparrow in the first place), but on the other he attempts to ennoble Dagr by explaining his love for the bird and his ability to communicate with it as an indication of how intelligent he is (‘hann var maðr svá spakr, at hann skildi fugls rǫdd, HK, 35). Bearing in mind that if Snorri, who ‘show[s] some caution about introducing material which cannot be validated because no eyewitness account could be availableis praising this king in such a way – a king who, judging from Þjóðólfr’s account, acted quite excessively and foolishly, even if his excess and folly were born out of a touching fondness for his pet – then it seems he wants to lend Dagr’s tragicomic end ‘a greater solemnity’. 12 13 
Such solemnity comes further into play in the latter half of the Ynglinga saga, as the focus on each king becomes less and less absurd. Alrekr and Eiríkr seem to kill each other out of brotherly competition; the same is true of Yngvi and ÁlfrNeither incident is particularly noble, but nor are they overtly funny. There is no note of humour or impropriety in Snorri’s recount of Haki’s death and funeral rites, closing the chapter instead on the scene of a ship, ablaze, bearing his body out to sea, in what is the saga’s most poignant image thus far; Snorri goes as far as allowing it the dignity of a legendary status, commenting ‘ok var þetta allfrægt lengi síðan (HK, 45). When Aðils is thrown off his horse’s back and dies when his head hits a stone, there is none of the black humour to it we find when Vanlandi is trampled under a mare’s feet (that Vanlandi’s men try and pull his legs free only for the mare to start trampling his head, then vice-versa, feels almost Chaplinesque): instead it is a random incident of genuine horror reinforced by the verb ‘blanda’ being used to describe how the liquid matter of Aðils’ brain mingles, or blends, with the muck of the earth (HK, 59)Ǫnundr, the most popular king in Snorri’s judgement, is killed with his followers in a landslide: again, there is little that is funny about this, in either Snorri’s account or in Þjóðólfr’s. For brevity’s sakehowever, we will concentrate our exploration of ‘sad stories of the death of kings’ on just two: Aun, also known as Ani, and Ingjaldrwhose tales are among the more sombre in Ynglinga saga. 
The story of King Aun establishes two predominant elements of the king’s character: firstly, his powerful devotion to Óðinn, which he expresses, Abraham-like, by sacrificing his sons; and secondly, his extraordinarily long life (echoing another Biblical figure: Methuselah). He is described as ‘vitr (HK, 47) and certainly seems a devout and religious man, a trait generally conspicuous by its absence among the other rulers. Snorri tells us that the sacrifices he offers to Óðinn are explicitly intended to win him long life (Þá gerði hann blót mikit, ok blét til langlífis sér, HK, 48), a prize that is, indeed, granted him. The cycle of sacrificing a new son and gaining a new decade of life continues nine times overwhatever we may think of Aun as parent, it is hard not to be moved by Snorri’s description of his growing frailty, from being carried on a chair to spending his whole time in bed, and eventually to such old age that he has to drink like a baby (sem lébarn, HK, 49). Þjóðólfr, in Ynglingatal, includes the moving detail that, by the end, this ‘kindred-killer’ (‘áttunga rjóðr, HK, 50) was too weak and frail even to hold the horn to his lips to drink. This story is at times pathetic, at times horrifying, but it is in no way comic. 
King Ingjaldr, on the other hand, is cunning rather than wise, a deceitful manipulator of other kings who manages to better his many enemies. It is not that his portrayal is tragic because he is an old man who has made a few mistakes in his time, but rather because of the death and destruction he is happy to sow wherever he goes. He is a Macbeth, not a Lear. Unlike most of the YnglingsIngjaldr is even given an ‘origin story’, his ferocity explained by the wolf heart he was made to eat as a boy. Later in life he massacres numerous other kings and their followers in order to seize their lands, usually while they are guests in his banqueting hall; he signs peace treaties in order to make allies but is perfectly happy to slaughter these same allies when it suits him; and at what looks like it will be the moment of his own death, as the forces of Ívarr inn víðfaðmi bear down on him, he and his daughter get all his followers drunk and burn their own hall down, so that they and all his men are killed – like some latter-day dictator cowering in his bunker, smoking pistol in hand. The trail of devastation he leaves in his wake is legendary – Snorri writes, ‘Þat er sögn manna, at Ingjaldr konungr dræpi tólf konunga, ok sviki alla í griðum (HK, 71). It is not just that Ingjaldr kills kings, but that he does so by breaking oaths, one of the worst crimes a man can commit in Old Norse-Icelandic society. At this stage in proceedings, no audience could mistake the story being told as a lightweight, amusing tale about a foolish king. The contrast is stark. 
The question remains: why the contrast at all? If Ynglingatal is a praise poem composed to boost the ego of gnvaldr heiðumhár by illustrating the nobility of former kings, it seems that Þjóðólfr, in incorporating such ridiculousness, did a remarkably poor job. Possibly worse still, he portrays some of gnvaldr’s predecessors as out-and-out villains. Some scholars – Lonnröth and Bergsveinn among them – have suggested that Ynglingatal is in fact a poem of mockery meant to insult those of a different lineage.14 Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir, on the other hand, argues that the grotesque absurdism that permeates Ynglingatal (and by extension Ynglinga saga) does not necessarily make the kings ridiculous in and of themselves, nor the poem’s treatment of them insulting.15 Though some of these events are distinctly absurd, the majority of the kings who suffer them are not absurd people; save Dagr, the kings usually suffer fates that they cannot avoid, and even in Dagr’s case Snorri softens his incongruous behaviour by explaining his connection to the sparrow as arising out of great wisdom. 
The absurdism of the events that befall the Yngling kings is key to understanding the strange progression of the poem from tragicomic to tragic. Many of the earlier kings in Ynglingatal are not only faceless but powerless, unable to do anything against the fate that waits for them.16 In fourteen of the twenty-one stanzas that comprise the ‘Swedish kings’ section, the auxiliary verb skulu ‘shall, must, is to’ is used in the perfect tense with a verb of dying (‘skyldi of viða (HK, 26) – ‘was to destroy’), conveying just how inexorable these kings’ fates are, how tyrannically fixed they are within the grammatical constraints of the poem that tells them.17 Men of destiny who shaped the kringla heimsins (HK, 9) these are not; very little survives of their deeds, in most cases nothing more than the manner of their death is described and in a few instances even that is glossed over as prosaic sickness, accompanied by the aside that frá honum ekki sagt annat (HK, 32-33). Insignificance is a significant facet of tragicomic humour, bound up as it is with the idea of humour of disproportion; viewed in the right light, with the right audience, and with the emphasis on the right places, the endless tasks of a Tantalus or a Sisyphus could come across as riotously funny, yet we instead remember them as bitterly tragic, since their inability to achieve what they want or to get anywhere with their tasks may resonate with our own lives. It takes the slightest nudge to give a comic situation of futility a much bleaker aspect. 
The distinction, however, is remarkably subtle, and it is in the narrow strip of no man’s land between the modes of the tragic and the comic that we find the elusive phenomenon of the tragicomic and the absurd: humour that reminds us of something deeply affecting or disturbing, and thus brings about a kind of emotional anagnorisis even as it makes us laugh. In Ancient Greece, a conventional theatrical line-up was to present three tragedies alongside at least one satyr play, to make the dishes on offer more palatableBruno Quast, discussing medieval Easter plays’ penchant for seemingly out-of-place comic interludes, calls such a technique apotropaic (that is to say, it has the power to ward off evil) and names the phenomenon as a whole Soteriologie des Lachens – salvation through the power of humour.18 Lastly, in the words of the great Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘carnivalesque laughter… is directed toward something higher – toward a shift of authorities and truths, a shift of world orders. Laughter embraces both poles of change, it deals with the very process of change, with crisis itself’.19 
I suggest that there is something similar at work in the role of absurdism in the portrayal of the Yngling kings – much as Svanhildur suggests in her reading of Ynglingatal, and in line with Guy Halsall’s broader point about humour (‘to say that a passage ... is satirical or ironic is not to denude it of serious content).20 Might we see the ridicule to which the early kings are subjected as merely one part of ‘God’s plenty’, as Dryden described the work of Chaucer (who was also adept at holding farce and tragedy together in the palm of his hand)God’s plenty, after all, contains both humour and horror, the slapstick of men falling into vats of mead and the shock brutality of thousandfold massacres. ‘The kings of the past have been and gone, and some were daft and some were terrifying,’ Þjóðólfr seems to say to his patron, concluding that life is better now under the blue skies of gnvaldr’s rule (‘Þat veitk bazt und blǫum himni (HK, 83), begins the final stanza of Ynglingatal). However, Þjóðólfr relies on the tragicomic mode not simply out of some vague, woolly notion of ‘balance’ common to assumptions about why we find clowns in Shakespearean tragedy, not merely to reinforce a generic statement that both humour and horror exist in the world. Rather, the recitation of genealogy – an act of oral commemoration – is itself made a tragicomic act with the goal of challenging readers and listeners who expect a straightforwardly lamenting paean or perhaps simplistically valorizing rhetoric.21 If the story we encounter is solely tragic or solely comicits mode can be familiar enough to be dull; but if it is playful and bleak, farcical and horrifying, we are forced to pay attention. When telling that which is literally ‘a shift of world orders, it could not be more apt to shift between different modes, from tragic to comic and back again. It might be bleak that a mere pitchfork brought down a king, or it might be funny, depending on the tone required. That Snorri and Þjóðólfr, divided as they are by several centuries, somehow encapsulate both is a testament to the draw of the absurd in storytelling.

1Shakespeare, William, Richard II (eds. Anthony B. Dawson and Paul Edward Yachnin), Oxford University Press, 2011, p213. 
2Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla (ed. Bjarni Aðalbjarnarson), Íslenzk Fornrit XXVI-XXVIII, Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1941-51, p9. 
3Steinsland, Gro, Det hellige bryllup og norrøn kongeideologien analyse av Hierogami-myten i: i Skirnismal, Ynglingatal, Haleygjatal og HyndluljodSolum, 1991, p350. 
4Goeres, Erin Michelle, The Poetics of Commemoration: Skaldic Verse and Social Memory, c.890-1070, Oxford University Press, 2015, p19. 
5Goeres, p26. 
6Poole, Russell, ‘Verses and Prose in Gunnlaugs saga Ormstungu’, in John Tucker (ed.), Sagas of the Icelanders: A Book of Essays, Garland, 1989, pp160–84. 
7Steinsland, p349. 
8Goeres, p35. 
9Poole, Russell, ‘Ormr Steinþórsson and the Snjófríðardrápa’, in Arkiv för nordisk filologi 97 (1982), pp131-2. 
10Cixous, Hélène, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (trans. Keith & Paula Cohen), in Signs 1.4 (1976), p885. 
11Bagge, Sverre, Society and Politics in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, University of California Press, 1991, p131. 
12Whaley, Diana, Heimskringla: An Introduction, Viking Societies for Northern Research, 1991, p133. 
13Goeres, p31. 
14Lonnröth, Lars, ‘Dómaldi’s Death and the Myth of Sacral Kinship’, Structure and Meaning in Old Norse Literature (ed. John Lindow, Lars Lonnröth, and Gerd Wolfgang Weber), Odense University Press, 1986, pp73-93; Bergsveinn Birgisson, ‘Inn i skaldens sinnKognitiveestetiske og historiske skatter i den norrøne skaldediktingen’, University of Bergen, 2007, pp208-24. 
15Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir,‘Dáið þér Ynglinga? Gróteskar hneigðir Þjóðólfs úr Hvini’, Sagnaþing helgað Jónasi Kristjánssynisjötugum 10. Apríl 1994 (ed. Gísli SigurðssonGuðrún Kvaran, and Sigurgeir Steingrímsson), Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1994, pp761-8. 
16Goeres, p27. 
17Goeres, p27; Gordon, E.V. and Taylor, A.R., An Introduction to Old Norse (2nd edn.), Clarendon, 1957, p313. 
18Quast, Bruno, ‘Vom Ritus zum Spiel - Osterspiele von Innsbruck, Wien, Redentin und Erlau’, in Vom Kult zur KunstÖffnungen des rituellen Textes in Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit (ed. Bruno Quast), Tübingen – Basel, 2005, p124. 
19Bakhtin, Mikhail, ‘Characteristics of Genre and Plot Composition in Dostoyevsky’s Works, in Interpretations: Crime and Punishment (ed. Harold Bloom), Infobase, 2009, p38. 
20Halsall, Guy, Introduction: “Don’t Worry, I’ve Got the Key”, in Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (ed. Halsall), Cambridge University Press, 2002, p3. 
21Goeres, p33. 


Primary reading. 
  1. Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla (ed. Bjarni Aðalbjarnarson), Íslenzk Fornrit XXVI-XXVIII, Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1941-51. 
Secondary reading. 
  1. 1. Bakhtin, Mikhail, ‘Characteristics of Genre and Plot Composition in Dostoyevsky’s Works’, in Interpretations: Crime and Punishment (ed. Harold Bloom), Infobase, 2009. 
  1. 2. Bagge, Sverre, Society and Politics in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, University of California Press, 1991. 
  1. 3. Bergsveinn, 'Inn i skaldens sinn: Kognitiveestetiske og historiske skatter i den norrøne 
  2. skaldediktingen’, University of Bergen, 2007.
  1. 4. Cixous, Hélène, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (trans. Keith & Paula Cohen), in Signs 1.4 (1976). 
  1. 5. Gísli Sigurðsson, Guðrún Kvaran & Sigurgeir Steingrímsson (eds.), Sagnaþing helgað 
  2. Jónasi Kristjánssynisjötugum 10. Apríl 1994, Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1994. 
  1. 6. Goeres, Erin Michelle, The Poetics of Commemoration: Skaldic Verse and Social Memory, c.890-1070, Oxford University Press, 2015. 
  1. 7. Gordon, E.V. and Taylor, A.R., An Introduction to Old Norse (2nd edn.), Clarendon, 1957. 
  1. 8. Halsall, Guy (ed.), Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, 2002. 
  1. 9. Lindow, John, Lonnröth, Lars, and Weber, Gerd Wolfgang (eds.), Structure and Meaning in Old Norse Literature, Odense University Press, 1986. 
  1. 10. O’Donoghue, Heather, Skaldic Verse and the Poetics of Saga Narrative, Oxford University Press, 2005. 
  1. 11. Poole, Russell, ‘Ormr Steinþórsson and the Snjófríðardrápa’, in Arkiv för nordisk filologi 97 (1982). 
  1. 12. Quast, Bruno (ed.), Vom Kult zur KunstÖffnungen des rituellen Textes in Mittelalter und Früher
  2. NeuzeitTübingen – Basel, 2005. 
  1. 13. Rosenfeld, Hans-Friedrich, ‘Zu Thjodolfs Ynglingatal Str. 15 und 16, in Zeitschrift für deutsches
  2. Altertum und deutsche Literatur, 86. Bd., H.1, S. Hirzel Verlag, 1955. 
  1. 14. Steinsland, Gro, Det hellige bryllup og norrøn kongeideologien analyse av Hierogami-myten i: i Skirnismal, Ynglingatal, Haleygjatal og HyndluljodSolum, 1991. 
  1. 15. Tucker, John (ed.), Sagas of the Icelanders: A Book of Essays, Garland, 1989. 
  1. 16. Whaley, Diana, Heimskringla: An Introduction, Viking Societies for Northern Research, 1991.

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