Ravens and powerpoint sagas

One of the things about that Firefox widget that keeps me from reading livejournal during the day is, I seem to be making it here to post less. But, you know, I seem to be writing a bit more, so I’ll take the tradeoff. And try not to think too hard about the fact that I know perfectly well how to disable said widget, if I really wanted to.

Things found in the course of this week’s research: Odin has two ravens, Hugin (which means “thought”) and Munin (which means “memory”) who travel the wide world and gather news for him every day, and return every night.

I knew that much. But last week I came upon these lines in particular in the Eddas:

Hugin and Munin
Fly every day
Over the great earth.
I fear for Hugin
That he may not return,
Yet more am I anxious for Munin.

Gave me the shivers, that did.

I did not get the shivers from this power point summary of Njál’s Saga (part 1 and part 2). It’s merely painful, yet I couldn’t seem to stop reading; nothing like powerpoint to leech all the power and force out of a great work of literature. The summary is part of an undergraduate course, and as such perhaps is truly needed–but still, it’s not as if it’s a lower level course.

Part of what’s fascinating, though, is the not-so-subtle biases that come through when you try to boil things down to powerpoint. Especially regarding Hallgerd and the bowstring incident. Hallgerd is “viscious,” according to the bullet points, while Bergthora, her rival, is merely “courageous” if “harsh-natured”–even though in the actual text I can’t particularly see evidence that Bergthora is all that much better than Hallgerd. It’s not as if both women don’t for a time dedicate themselves to killing off the servants in one another’s households, after all. But in her final scenes, Bergthora chooses to die by her husband’s side, and I think readers remember that, and forget the rest.

Even as I write this I’m realizing that both women are remembered, in the end, for their husbands’ deaths, and not for their own lives. I wonder what they would have to say about that?

It’s interesting, watching my reactions and relationship to this story change. When I first read Njála, my initial reaction to Hallgerd really was along the lines of “What is that woman’s problem?” But I found Hallgerd compelling, too, and so I began searching for more information about her online.

Perhaps because I searched on the “translated” form Hallgerd rather than on Hallgerður, the first few hits were undergraduate course papers such as this one. And in those papers young, callow men blithely went around condemning Hallgerd, while somehow finding more nobility in male characters who were every bit as bloody and ruthless as she was–only more directly so. Quoting the paper above: “How are a woman’s killings different from those of her servants or Skarp-Hedin? Whose killing is worse? … when Skarp-Hedin commits a murder, at least he is risking his own life during the process. However, what makes a woman’s crime worse is how they involve others in matters they should settle on their own. Nobody should have to risk their life for corrupt acts they don’t believe in; especially while the one giving the orders is safe at home doing absolutely nothing to help their cause.”

Settle on their own how? I somehow doubt most Viking women were taught to use sword and halberd with the same skill as the men they would seek vengeance upon. Which leaves, what? Poison and stabbing men in their sleep? I somehow doubt that would be seen as any more noble.

Listening to these men (boys?) give their one-sided analyses, I gained a lot more sympathy for Hallgerd, and for all the women of the sagas. It became clear to me that the women of the sagas were being condemned to a greater degree than the men because they were exercising their power in different ways. Contemporary men were failing to understand that of course if you’re denied direct power you’ll make use of indirect power–of any power you can get hold of. In a way, not much has changed; women to this day are still accused of being viscious schemers when, denied direct power, they find other ways to exercise power instead.

Here’s another blithe condemnation, from the first Amazon spotlight review of the Magnusson translation: “The ‘thief-eyed’ Hallgerd Long-Legs refuses [to give Gunnar locks of her hair] because he had slapped her once, and so he goes to his doom muttering that each person chooses his or her fame. True to his prophecy, Hallgerd is the ultimate type of the treacherous and spiteful wife.” Simplistic, anyone?

And, given how understated the sagas often are, why does it so rarely occur to anyone to wonder just how hard that slap might have been? There’s more than one story here.

I have a lot more sympathy for Hallgerd these days. I don’t like her, exactly, but I do–respect her? Not sure that’s quite the right, either–or maybe it’s just too simple, too. I think Hallgerd’s more complex than much of the commentary makes her seem. Remembering my own initially simplistic reaction to her makes me a little uncomfortable now.

And I’m much more aware that the sagas themselves were all written down by men these days, too. I wonder more and more what sort of stories the women would tell, had they had a chance to write their versions in turn.

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