Sagas and space (3): discovering new spaces

Week 3 was entitled Discovering new spaces: geographical and social aspects; memory and space:

This week’s topic will be the social space and the historic landscape in which the Icelandic saga literature is set. Another very interesting facet of space we will hear of is its connection with memory.

Pretty heavy going, with two theoretical dollops, starting with a lecture on the space of literature by Torfi H Tulinius:

  • title borrowed  from French literary theorist and essayist, Maurice Blanchot, who wrote The literary space (1955) – literature is a locus where you encounter and transcend the limits of meaning and understanding; is this a space in the usual sense of the word?
  • Old Norse-Icelandic literature is very much concerned with space (ie how the country was settled; horizontal) and time (ie history; vertical) – these axes intersected in Iceland in the 12th and 13th centuries
  • all space is mental – we do not have immediate access to it, so we have to represent it, in our consciousness and in our cultural artifacts, such as literature
  • there is also space which we neither represent nor experience, but which is nevertheless part of our existence; for example the space of literature which exists in the sagas
  • some of the texts display evidence of fluidity (fluid space, liminal space, spaces of uncertainty) – the nature of the world changes as the character goes from one place to another; also from one time to another; transcending traditional categories, literature as a special place where the limits of language are tested
  • the sagas were a public space, testing the meanings and representations of society, particularly in the liminal times around the settlement of Iceland and conversion to Christianity
  • the space of literature as an alternate space, where things that didn’t happen can happen and where meanings and ideas can be tested

Next, space and memory by Pernilla Hermann (Aarhus):

Memory and space are connected in a variety of ways. Memory is best constructed on the basis of place – space can preserve memory, it can structure memory, and it can trigger memories. Two traditions bring together space and memory:

  • collective and cultural memory – memory places, places that construct and preserve memories; here the focus is on collective identity; places are something external – social groups, cultural symbols, collectively shared, external
  • the art of memory – a rhetorical tradition, where places are mnemonic devices or mnemonic tools; places are constructed in the mind of individuals and are internal. – rhetorical tradition, mnemo-technical device, individually constructed, internal
  • ancient authors distinguished between  natural memory and artificial memory, with artificial memory based on a cultivation of natural memory and two dominant principles:
    • mnemonic places – constructed in the mind of the one who trains his memory; very often architectonic structures such as a theatre or palace
    • mnemonic images – constructions of things that is supposed to be remembered, images of these things to be remembered are placed in various locations in the architectonic structure
  • when you have to recollect your memories you enter the space and go to the various images that you have to remember
  • artificial memory influenced art and literature – the sagas came into being in a transitional culture between orality and writing, and we can expect the people in this culture to have explored and used a rich variety of mnemonic aids
  • how did memory function among the Nordic writers of the 12th and 13th centuries? does Old Norse literature represent artificial memory? is Old Norse literature to some extent structured from mental spaces?

So bring on Emily Lethbridge’s Icelandic Saga Map and accompanying blog, The saga-steads of Iceland: a 21st century pilgrimage. From Emily’s  vid:

  • maps and narratives are age old explanatory systems or frameworks which help us to understand the world and our place in it
  • all stories are maps of a kind, and maps in turn can tell stories; Robert Tally (Spatiality, 2013; Literary cartographies, 2014) : to draw a map is to tell a story
  • from a literary critical perspective mapping as an approach is a means of textural reduction and abstraction, prompting or helping us to ask different questions
  • we organise information on maps in order to see our knowledge in a new way; maps suggest explanations; and while explanations reassure us, they also inspire us to ask more questions and consider more possibilities (Peter Turchi, Maps of the imagination: the writer as cartographer)
  • digital maps can be used to present literary worlds as spaces through which characters move and the places and events in a narrative are set, and also to present the historical worlds in which bodies of literature were produced and transmitted; the medieval Icelandic sagas are fundamentally rooted in the Icelandic landscapes, and many places in them can be identified around the country today
  • mapping the sagas works on two levels; at the narrative level and at the level of presenting and visualising their transmission in space and time
  • at the narrative level, a map displaying places named in any single saga gives all kinds of insights into the literary functions or significance of different kinds of places and spaces inside the landscapes and enhances our understanding of the ‘narrative logistics’, such as the relative distances between places or the progress of journeys made by characters
  • the map highlights the role of the landscape in the transmission of the sagas over time and underlines some of the methodological issues in this kind of literary cartography; hyperlinking places named in the in the sagas to points on the map suggests that the relationship of saga text to modern day landscape is simple, but the correlation between the identification of specific places in the Icelandic landscapes today with those named in the sagas is often far from straightforward
  • landscapes have changed as a result of natural processes, not least volcanic eruptions and the various ensuing consequences of this, and also on account of human intervention of different types; farms have been abandoned, resettled, and place names have been lost or moved around; sometimes the political, ideological, or economic stakes are high with regard to identifying a certain place in the modern day Icelandic landscape as a place in a saga
  • the map is therefore also a resource that tries to highlight these mismatches, ambiguities, or disputes over the identification of saga sites
  • the process of developing the saga map brought into focus the extents to which places in the sagas exemplify what Edward Soja
    calls real and imagined places (Thirdspace, 1996), because of the way that the sagas are at once both history and fiction, ie fictionalized or literary renderings of historical events that are said to have taken place in identifiable local locations
  • one key preoccupation of past scholars investigating the topography of the sagas has been the extent to which local landscapes have been accurately or inaccurately represented by saga authors, but if one accepts that the saga sites around Iceland are both real and imagined places, real and imagined simultaneously, one can begin to better understand the role of the landscape in the transmission of the sagas, and to examine how the sagas have been transmitted via or through the landscapes, as well as being copied in manuscripts
  • this gives us insights into the broader sociocultural functions that the sagas have filled over time; many place names around the country reference the sagas or saga characters but aren’t mentioned specifically in the  texts; these places play a crucial part in the reception of the sagas, and are a part of what might be described as the sagas’ outdoor mode of transmission rather than their indoor mode of transmission, acting as mnemonic triggers for episodes in the sagas; while one was, say, moving through the landscapes, details from the sagas would be brought to mind
  • until recent times this spatial way of reading the sagas was just as important as the reading of the sagas from manuscripts in an indoor domestic setting; the landscape itself is, in fact, just another kind of saga manuscript, and is, in fact, a palimpsest with layers of saga memory and narrative detail built up over and across it over time
  • the possibilities that the Icelandic landscapes have offered over time for reading and rewriting the sagas is one of the reasons for their enduring popularity over time in Iceland, and arguably also one of the most remarkable characteristics as a body of internationally acclaimed literature

New in the glossary: in Icelandic the term ‘saga’ generally means a story told in prose. As a linguistic term it also refers to a large collection of stories from the Icelandic and partially Norwegian Middle Ages, ie ‘saga literature’. The sagas are the most extensive of the three main categories of Old Icelandic literature. The handwritten tradition starts in the 12th century, but most manuscripts date from the late 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.

From the wrap-up:

Saga sites in the concrete Icelandic landscape help to support and create memory. This space related memory can be individual, collective and/or cultural, so space and time are part of different levels. Landscape as described and memorized in the sagas sometimes belongs to different layers of time which becomes clear when the narrator of a saga comments that a certain spot is called this and this today, but it was called differently in those times, or that this place is not inhabited any longer today; older layers of the history of a region may thus become visible and one might call such phenomena palimpsests.

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