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The Sagas and the Worst Film Ever Made

By Yoav Tirosh

How can one connect Ljósvetninga saga to The Room? Perhaps in the editing. 

Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 The Room is often referred to as the “Citizen Kane of Bad Movies”. No summary would do this film justice – you need to see it to believe it – but in short, it is a drama about Johnny, a hard-working banker who is up for a promotion, and how his fiancée Lisa (or, as he insists on calling her, his “future wife”) and his best friend Mark start a steamy affair. The movie culminates in Johnny’s birthday party, where the affair is exposed with dire consequences. The film’s notoriety comes from its genuinely terrible script, directing, set design, camera work and acting. It’s so bad that you don’t need to be a film critic to understand why. It’s so bad, it’s good.

The film’s popularity plays out in nightly screening in cinemas around the world, where members of the audience are instructed to shout comments at the film “correcting” its camera work, actors and script, and questioning its logic and ethics.

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Anyone who has read an Icelandic saga knows that this movie’s plot sounds nothing like the sagas. First, there are no farmers fighting in it. Second, there is a disturbing lack of genealogies provided by the narrative. Finally, there is virtually no scene that takes place in Norway.

Nevertheless, in a recent book chapter I argue that comparing this movie to the reception of the sagas can teach us a lot about the role of an editor of medieval texts.

The medieval Ljósvetninga saga (The Saga of the People of Light-Lake) is a saga about a bunch of farmers fighting over control of the area south of Akureyri, the larger neighbor of the now more famous (thanks to the Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams’ Eurovision movie) Húsavík. The saga’s main character is the flamboyant Guðmundr inn ríki who is the subject of what these days would be considered queerphobic slurs. Following Guðmundr’s death, his somewhat more macho son (who has a comical tendency to fall off horses) takes over the family farm and family feuds. This is a family saga par excellence, with a very straightforward narrative and not too much beating about the bush.

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The saga has many things going for it (it has by far the wittiest of lines of all the saga, though they are often uncomfortably offensive), but one thing going against it; it has two versions. For those unacquainted with saga scholarship, this could seem like a good thing: More versions to be read, more fun to be had! But unfortunately, the saga fell victim to the 20th century Freeprose-Bookprose debate over whether the sagas were composed by oral tradition or by proto-modern authors. The two versions of Ljósvetninga saga made it one of the major battlegrounds between the two schools of thought.

The Freeprose school – who believed that the sagas were composed orally – saw the two versions as the smoking gun proving that different saga traditions co-existed. The Bookprose school – believing the sagas were composed by skilled and inventive authors – argued that the two versions were a result of one author expanding the work of another, better one. This debate has long since died out, but its consequences are still strongly felt in saga scholarship. The definitive Íslenzk fornrit edition of Ljósvetninga saga, released in the midst of this debate by Bookprose editor Björn Sigfússon, stripped it of its uniqueness and then abandoned it and left it an empty shell.

This harsh intervention in the saga’s integrity caused it to be neglected and misunderstood by Old Norse scholarship to this day. One example that hits particularly close to home is a recent article by my friend and academic collaborator Dr. Simon Nygaard. This article deals with Þorgeirr Ljósvetningagoði – a major character in Ljósvetninga saga’s first chapters – the saga is awarded only a brief mention and even this is done in a footnote. I have nobody to blame for this but myself for failing to convey the saga’s importance to my cohort.

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The gist of my argument is that The Room’s screenings, where the audience shouts obscenities at the film, is comparable to the editions of Ljósvetninga saga, where the editors took far-reaching privileges with the text. In The Room the audience cries at the screen whenever the camera loses focus, shouts “who the f**k are you??” whenever a character appears in the film without explanation, or screams “because you‘re a woman!” whenever a misogynistic statement is uttered to the character Lisa. The license that the editors took with Ljósvetninga saga is connected with their notion of what a proper Icelandic saga should look like: they rejected some manuscripts and preferred others based on their taste rather than the copyists’ accuracy, removed entire episodes from the text, added misleading chapter titles where there are none and downplayed the difference between the saga’s two versions.

The saga’s editions are essentially the editors silently shouting at the medieval and post-medieval manuscripts, trying to correct what does not need to be corrected. If everybody loved the sagas for what they are and not for what they thought they should be, the world would be a better place.

Dr. Yoav Tirosh is an independent scholar and an external member of CVM (Center for Vikingetid og Middelalder) at Aarhus University. He creates comics about Iceland and Vikings and is looking for an academic position (so please hire him). You can learn more about his comics on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.

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To read more about this topic, see Yoav’s article “Tearing a Text Apart – Audience Participation and Authorial Intent in Ljósvetninga saga and Tommy Wiseau’s The Room” on Academia.edu

Click here to read more from Yoav Tirosh

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