Course: The Medieval Icelandic Sagas
Length: 6 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: University of Iceland/edX
Instructor: Hjalti Snær Ægisson, Beth Rogers
The Medieval Icelandic Sagas is an introductory course on the single most characteristic literary genre of Medieval Iceland. Mainly written in the 13th century, the Icelandic Sagas are comprised of roughly 40 texts of varying length.
In this course, you will learn about three Sagas, written at different times, with the aim of giving an overview of the writing period and the genre as a whole. These are Eyrbyggja Saga, Njáls Saga and Grettis Saga. We will explore the landscape and archaeology of Iceland to see how they can add to our understanding of the Sagas as well as take an in-depth look at the most memorable characters from the Sagas.
Short version: Terrific course for anyone interested in story structure, medieval history, contemporary research of medieval sources, or manuscripts. Presentation is sometimes a bit awkward, but the content – and the podcasts – more than make up for it.
I seem to be the only person on earth who’s never read anything based on Norse mythology: No, I haven’t read Neil Gaiman, or even LoTR (so sue me; I’ve always been anti-cool). Shame on me, considering my father’s Scandinavian background (my aunts taught me a couple of words of Swedish and a few recipes: Vetebröd, which I made every Christmas until a few years ago, mandel kakor, and kroppkakor, a potato-meat dumpling I never could get myself to even taste, it looked so gross). But beyond “Babette’s Feast” and “Sophie’s World” I’ve never been particularly interested in the details of Scandinavian culture. So this was all new to me. Well, ok, I knew about Thor and a little about Vikings, but that’s about it.
What really worked for me in this course was the multi-dimensional approach: the sagas as literature, as metaphors for Icelandic events, as sociocultural apologias, and as physical manuscripts. The purposes of the stories, the themes in various times, and the social forces affecting their popularity and remembrance all came into play. For a six-week course, they packed in a great deal, yet the reading was surprisingly limited. While we were, of course, free to read the sagas discussed in their entirety, the course focused on specific sections as exemplars of various points; individual chapters or short groups of chapters were the only assigned reading.
Each week included brief video lectures, written material (often in graphic layout), one or two interviews with an academic with particular expertise in the issues being examined, and a few ungraded “knowledge checks”. Graded material included and a weekly quiz for weeks 1-5 (totaling 40% of the final grade), the final exam (30% of the final), and three Peer Assessments, one every other week (30% of the final grade). I’m always a little anxious about peer assessments, but these were relatively simple and the grading criteria were open-ended and thus forgiving. I found the first one particularly helpful in getting the material organized in my head for better retention; the third one was basically a fun exercise.
And yes, since there were a lot of unfamiliar names, and since this was material I want to retain long-term, I used Cerego, so I’ll be getting questions about “Handing Grettir Around” periodically over the next year (you’ll have to take the course to see why that’s such a delightfully amusing prospect). This was particularly helpful when the final exam rolled around, since I’d been seeing the material at various intervals all along.
A special treat that I almost missed entirely: As a supplement to the course material, the two instructors recorded a podcast at the end of each week. I wish one of these had been available at the beginning; where in the lectures and interview, Hjalti seemed well-meaning but stern and a bit stiff (partly due to “I must appear academic” syndrome, I’d guess, and partly due to the read-lecture-to-camera that so few profs can pull off), in the podcasts he and Beth came across as real people, and delightful, fun people at that. Because manuscripts are of particular interest to me, I found the W2 episode most helpful with course material, but later episodes were great fun, featured saga/Viking re-enactors, musicians, craftspeople, and a host of off-the-cuff topics (such as reactions when people hear Beth’s dissertation is on dairy products in Scandinavian literature. Turns out, skyr is pretty interesting, and I wish Iceland luck in promoting it as a substitute for Greek yogurt (if they can produce a fat-free, sugar-free, 80-calorie, 12-grams-of-protein, fruity version for under $1 a serving, I’m in). I discovered the podcasts a bit late, only after Week 2, and they made a huge difference in my perception of the course as a whole.
I wish there had been a “preview podcast” available from the start in the course material; I think I would have had an easier time with Week 1, a general introduction to Icelandic sagas. I found this week to be the most difficult, probably because I had no background to rely on. I briefly considered giving up at some point, but I really wanted to get to W2, which focused on manuscripts. I had more background here and was able to get a better footing. From there I was hooked, through weeks on the role of landscape in the sagas, how women were portrayed, the depictions of paganism and the Church and the importance of the conflict during conversion, and the supernatural in the sagas.
The forums were active and well-supported, with questions suggested for each week. I asked a few outside questions (some of them clearly outside the course material). When it worked, it was great: I asked about the “missing rubric” mentioned in a lecture, and Beth went out of her way to bring Robert, the resident manuscript expert, to the boards; I ended up with a lovely example. The course also had a Facebook page, but since I gave up on Facebook way way back when they decided they could manage my feed better than I could (and have no desire to start again, given the disclosures of recent weeks), I missed out on that.
I greatly enjoyed all of it. I feel like I’ve made new friends with poor, misunderstood Grettir, with the merciful Þorbjörg, the chieftain’s wife who saved him from hanging; with Flosi, who avenged the death of Hildigunnur’s husband when she whetted him with the bloody and then suffered from enormous guilt and pain; with Thorgeir, the pagan chieftain who lay under a skin blanket at Alþingi for a day and a half before agreeing to the Christianization of Iceland, then threw his pagan statues into Goðafoss, the waterfall of the gods. I loved learning about things like the Gráskinna, the “ gray skin” manuscript with the sealskin cover that, through subtle changes, makes Hallgerður more sympathetic to the reader; about the contemporary researchers like Jesse Byock, who excavated Mosfell in search of clues about Egils saga, and Emily Lethbridge whose SagaMap plots locations from the different sagas.
I’ll miss them all, and I’m glad I got to know just a little bit about Old Norse, Iceland, and their sagas. And, of course, I can revisit them any time, just by opening a window.