The Wilderness of Dragons: The reception of dragons in thirteenth century Iceland
By Robert E. Cutrer
Master’s Thesis, University of Iceland, 2012
Introduction: Throughout history, the dragon has always dwelt prominently within the hierarchy of monsters. In thirteenth century Iceland, however, the dragon consists of more than the mere imagining of man; it is a creature that is imbued with centuries of history, biology, theology, and mythology synthesized into an oftentimes wholly logical and other times completely fantastical beast. By tracing the aspects of the dragon not only through its mythic past but also through historical, encyclopedic, and archaeological sources an image arises reflecting all of the forces at work in thirteenth century Iceland; additionally, analyzing the methodology and patterns within the dragon-slayings will show the influence of foreign romances and their synthesis into the cultural motif of the Icelandic dragon.
For the motif “dragon” to be comprehensible, the idea must be mutually intelligible within the audience. Kathryn Hume notes, “For supernatural beings to be effective in stories, they must be part of a tradition the audience knows and to which it is conditioned to respond.” The idea of the inherent value of the word is addressed by M. M. Bakhtin who writes, “It is not a neutral word of language, not as free from the aspirations and evaluations of others.” The mutual intelligibility of word-images in essential for the texts to be understood. Joyce Tally Lionarons observes, “… we do not not know what a dragon is either. When the word enters actual usage it is not semantically empty…In order to understand the meaning of the word-image ‘dragon’ in medieval literature it is therefore necessary to reconstruct from each individual text both the internal and external questions to which the dragon is an answer.” The majority of scholarship on dragons, however, tends to focus either on studies of an individual dragon—exemplified in the studies of Fáfnir—or in a structuralist approach to trace the dragon back to its origins. Both of these approaches are important, but the shared word-image ‘dragon’ must also be investigated within the epoch of contemporary literature to further elucidate the intentions and adaptations of authors. In works with a clear intention, such as Þiðreks saga af Bern and Þáttr af Ragnars sonum, analysis reveals patterns and uses that can be used to elucidate dragons within more nebulous texts, such as Brennu-Njáls saga.