Interview with William Ian Miller

William Ian Miller is a Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School. He has written on a wide variety of subjects, including about human concepts and emotions such as courage and revenge. In 1990 he wrote the groundbreaking book Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland. He has continued his work on Icelandic sagas, and in 2008 released a new book entitled Audun and the Polar Bear: Luck, Law, and Largesse in a Medieval Tale of Risky Business. We interviewed Professor Miller by email:

1. The story of Audun and the Polar Bear is not as well known as other Icelandic sagas such as Njal’s Saga or Egil’s Saga. Why did you want to write a book about it?

It is a perfect jewel of a story. I had taught it for years in my class on Bloodfeuds in the Law School because it appeared in the Penguin collection along with Hrafnkel’s saga. Each year it seemed I had a harder time getting through all the issues the story raised: the strategic brilliance of the action, the intelligence of the actors, the insights in gives into their theories of economic value, the poetic narrative economy of the tale, within the time limits I allowed myself for an 8 page story. It began to fill two lectures, then three, then four, so I figured, why not a book? It really is among the best of any short stories in world lit.

2. The premise of the story in Audun and the Polar Bear – where a poor Icelander buys a polar bear in Greenland then goes on a journey to give it to the King of Denmark – might sound far-fetched to modern readers, but you explain the author has made sure that the story would be at least historically plausible. Why would this have been important for the author and his medieval audience?

The story wants to play it both ways: it wants to suggest that it is fairy-tale-like, but really without any magic or otherworldly interventions at all. It is a story about the sophistication of the actors (all of whom make the best of the opportunities the others provide them). The people in this story made their own luck. There is a lot of bunkum out there about the brooding ominipresence of Fate in the sagas. It is there, to be sure, but what stands out in the sagas is the practical decision making of the characters. The story makes sure the good luck Audun experiences is earned. I am reminded of the way Beowulf puts it when he is talking about his 7-day swimming match with Breca, during which he killed 9 niceras, sea serpents, who I must admit I have always had a soft spot for: “Wyrd oft nereð unfægne eorl, þonne his ellen deah. (vv. 572-3) (Wyrd often saves the unfated to die man, when his courage avails him). We have the same sentiment: Wyrd helps those who help themselves. Or you make your own luck. The story writer makes sure to embed all the action in his world. Ships need crews, mothers need to be funded for three years before you can leave Iceland, polar bears will exhaust your funds feeding and transporting them, pious pilgrimages to Rome are as likely to destroy your health as help your spirit. Audun doesn’t buy a ticket for a lottery and sit back and wait for the drawing. He buys a polar bear with everything he has, and manages to brave the most dangerous man in their world to give it to that man’s arch enemy. But the story is brutally honest about where Audun really stands: he is a minor side show for the kings of Norway and Denmark. They make good use of this Icelander on a mission, to compete with each other as to who is the most generous.

3. Luck is an important theme, not just in the story of Audun and the Polar Bear, but in many other works of medieval Icelandic literature. is their difference in how medieval Icelanders perceived what it meant to be lucky than how we might see it today?

This is not easy to answer briefly but I will just note a few matters. Much of what I said in the previous question applies here. Audun is said by the narrator and a couple of characters in the story to be lucky. The word they use for luck is a form of our word “give” which makes for a nice richness in a tale that is about the complex ins and outs of gift exchange. I would say that our sense of luck and luckiness bears enough points of resemblance with theirs that there would be nothing counterintuitive in their notions. In many ways invoking it is a kind of boilerplate, a way of talking, but it also works its own magic. When some calls you a lucky man or an unlucky man in a saga those declarations bear some uncanny causal force with ensuring the truth of the description.

Luck means winning in the face of long odds (or a continued run of little wins, with the probability of the length of the run being remote), but it need not mean that it is just random. We only hear of this one adventure of Audun’s. After the story he retires from taking longshots, and opts for a life of more predictable returns on his investment. I bet the true sign of him being a lucky man is he knew exactly when NOT to press his luck. The luckiest thing that happens in this story is that Audun survives his encounter with Harald Hardradi. He lucked out by catching the ruthless man on a good day, but Audun mostly made Harald’s day by showing guts, determination, and charm.

4. You have already written several important books on medieval Iceland and its literature, including Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland. How did you become interested in working in this field?

Pure accident. I went to grad school in modern French history. I was so miserable in my first year of grad school that I blamed it on French history. I shifted to the English department. Old English was a requirement, and 15 lines into the Battle of Maldon my life changed, to say nothing of the effect the Wanderer, and Wulf and Eadwacer had on me. Good-bye Wordsworth, Stevens, though not Frost. I was knocked off my feet. There was an Icelander in the class, an undergrad; he says to me (because I was by far the person most into the class): ‘you think this is good? Try Njal’s saga.’ I had never heard of it. I took him up on it, bought a copy of the Magnusson/Pálsson translation and no sooner had Skarpheðinn appeared than I felt like Paul knocked off his horse. I signed up for Old Norse the next term. I still have never lost my passion for that saga in particular, but for the whole genre. The sagas, especially given my special interests in the social, and in the politics of face-to-face encounter, are considerably smarter sociologically and psychologically than academic work in these areas. The strategic intelligence that imbues the best of them matches up with Thucydides.

5. Finally, now that you have completed this book, what new areas of research are you working on now?

As you might know I take extended journeys away from the sagas, though to my mind it is the sagas are what sent me off on these wild goose chases. They figure at some level in everything I write, whether that be on various emotions, or on courage, or on pretense, and surely when on the lex talionis. I presently am just beginning a collection of essays on the theme of “losing it.” It is too early to tell whether it will amount to anything, because, well, I fear I am losing it. It will deal with aspects of mental decline of getting older, and the elusiveness of wisdom that is supposed to make up for the fact you can no longer remember any names, or come up with the mot juste. It will deal with taking oneself out of the game, or being pushed out of the game. One essay will directly treat of the saga ritual of old men taking to bed when they can no longer take revenge. I would still like to get out two saga books before I slump in a chair in front of reruns of old Packer games, one on Hrafnkel’s saga, and one on Njála.

We thank Professor Miller for answering our questions.

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