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Looking for the Northern Lights in Medieval Iceland, finding Jane Austen

By Ármann Jakobsson

Every expert in Old Norse literature and ‘viking culture’ (as it is sometimes called) has received the question: ‘How did the vikings feel about the Northern Lights?’ or ‘Do the Sagas of Icelanders mention the Northern Lights’. It may vary; we also get asked if earthquakes and volcanic eruptions dominate the mindset of the saga authors. The short answer to that is: Probably not.

Since the sagas were composed in Iceland in the Late Middle Ages, mostly the 13th and 14th centuries, their authors had ample opportunity to regard the Northern Lights, earthquakes were certainly a part of their life and most would have witnessed a volcanic eruption or two. But did they have a huge impact on saga writing?

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In the age of climate catastrophe, or rather an increased awareness of the catastrophic development that began a while ago, people also turn to medieval Northern literature for an awareness of natural phenomena. Presumably medieval Northerners had a kind of a connection with nature. But it was never their chosen literary topic. Once a television producer asked me for a sentence in medieval Icelandic literature that illustrated the relief vikings felt after a hard sea voyage. No such sentence can be found and my response that they probably felt land voyages were much more arduous was clearly disappointing.

Although nature gets an occasional mention in sagas, it is not their theme. The saga authors were surrounded by volcanoes and Northern Lights but chose not to write about them. What did they write about instead? Their neighbours. When Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice says: “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn“, he is closer to capturing the saga spirit better than many a lofty idea about a stern viking culture enduring against an unrelenting landscape.

In fact, thinking of Jane Austen is in general more useful for an understanding of the sagas of Icelanders, primarily since saga authors spent more time gazing at their neighbours than gazing at the Northern Lights. The sagas are concerned with social conflicts between petty magnates that will seem trivial to the modern eye. The Nordic spirit reflected in them is quite mundane. Some saga themes are:

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1) which husband or lover a particular noblewoman had the strongest feelings for,

2) is another fine lady actually happy when she laughs, and

3) how can an old man find the lust for life after his son has drowned?

The disputes concern stranded whales, the cutting of woods and jibes about the quality of a man‘s beard. People are no less obsessed with their social standing than the families in the novels of Jane Austen. The pre-occupation with how people are perceived by their neighbours dominates these texts. There may be a volcano or two in the background but why would this be included in the story? To the saga authors it is far more interesting whether the heroine can remarry or whether two quarrelling magnates can eventually become friends again.

The saga authors were masters of the minute. They did not need eruptions or plagues to generate good stories. The story of a failed marriage could end with the protagonists watching three children act it out and mention the reason for its failure that everyone else has hitherto carefully avoided mentioning (yes, it was a form of impotence). After a dramatic confrontation at parliament, all the disputing parties storm off. But the scene is not over. Instead the readers are treated to the supporting characters, who were not a part of the quarrel, debating quietly what to do with the huge pile of settlement money that had been raised to resolve the dispute. They decided to keep it safe in case it was needed next year.

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Ármann Jakobsson is professor in mediaeval Icelandic literature at the University of Iceland. Click here to view his university page or his Academia.edu page, or follow him on Twitter @ArmannJa

Top Image: Northern Lights – Budir, Iceland. Photo by Giuseppe Milo / Flickr

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