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 II, III.ii.
Ynglinga saga, the first saga in Snorri Sturluson’s thirteenth-century chronicle of the kings of Norway (and the one whose first words ‘ ’ give the larger work its name, Heimskringla (HK)), is concerned with the early Scandinavian monarchs that make up the dynasty.2 In outlining each individual king within this genealogy, Snorri draws on the Norwegian skald Þjóðólfr 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 ‘ ’, most likely of Vestfold; rather than eulogizing the living monarch, however, focus is on the preceding twenty-seven generations, thereby ascribing to 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 subversive undercurrent of absurdism. Þjóðólfr 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 expected; Gro 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.
The mythological poem Vǫluspá recounts in some sixty-three stanzas of succinct, elusive Old Norse fornyrðislag verse a holistic mythological cosmology which involves both looking back to the creation of the world and looking forward to the world’s destruction and subsequent rebirth.1 This ambitious subject matter is related by a prophetess or vǫlva who permits our entry into both past and future, describing both in our present moment (in which ‘our’ applies both to the instant of the poem’s performance and the instant of reading the extant manuscript today). Vǫluspá is thus ripe for an exploration of what John Lindow calls ‘mythic time’, particularly in terms of whether its presentation of time could be described as a linear or cyclical arrangement – whether the poem indicates an unbroken chronological progression or gestures towards an infinite set of endings and new beginnings.2 This will involve (chronologically speaking) a detailed close reading of various aspects of Vǫluspá whilst comparing how they support either the linear or the cyclical models, a consideration of what relevance this question has on how we read the poem, and concluding remarks on the nature of this perceived linear/cyclical dichotomy and whether Vǫluspá in some way eludes attempts to place it within such a binary division.