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At the end of a long summer's day after a day of toil, workers are heading home. Suddenly, they come across two children, crying pitiably. When they ask what is wrong, there is no response. The children are taken to the authorities and questioned, but no answers are forthcoming; the youngsters do not seem to know any English. Nor will they accept any of the food they are offered, and they continue to cry miserably until – quite by chance – someone brings in some food they do recognize and they are willing to eat. This seems to function as a kind of turning point, for the girl at least. She becomes accepted within the local culture, acquires the language, and thrives in certain respects, though some of the community question her sexual morals. The boy, however, cannot follow his sister in making a new life, and he gives up, wasting away and finally dying. There is one other noteworthy detail: the children had a skin-colour quite different from what was typical in their host community. They were both bright green.
The Green Children
Such, in outline, is the story of the ‘Green Children of Woolpit’, recorded by two independent chroniclers, Abbot Ralph of Coggeshall, a religious house not far from Woolpit, and William of Newburgh in distant Yorkshire, in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The two chroniclers’ accounts roughly concur, both with regard to what happened to these lost children and the children's later account of their original homeland. As just related, the distraught children cannot communicate, cannot eat the unfamiliar food they are offered – until by chance they consume the beans – and the boy dies. The girl, however, thrives and is baptized, according to Ralph. Both indeed are baptized in William's version, but this does not help the boy. The girl learns English and loses her distinctive feature of green-skinnedness. In Ralph of Coggeshall, she goes to the bad: ‘[N]imium lasciva et petulans exstitit’ [Becomes rather wanton and impudent]; in William of Newburgh's account, she marries at some distance away in (King’s) Lynn. Once she (or they) acquire English, the children are able to explain some details about their homeland. They purport to come from a hidden underground land.
Human imagination both produces and is sustained by story, by the narratives of the past and present, and these are in turn fuelled by the environments which give rise to them. Sarah Salih has observed: “We know the medieval, through its extant material culture, in the form of fragments,” and, she adds, “considerable popular interest in the medieval coexists with a lack of precise information about it, so that its image is multiple, fragmentary and visually unclear” (Salih 2009: 22). The ways in which modern culture understands the medieval past – and, as I shall argue – quite a bit of itself are thus shaped by medievalist re-representation of that past, as much as by material survivals from the Middle Ages.
The medieval, thanks very largely to Tolkien, has become a conventional setting for fantasy, offering the benefits of intertextual allusion and an assumed pre-existing familiarity with medieval or pseudo-medieval cultures. It is of course possible to write fantasy set elsewhere, or in the future (at which point it becomes science-fiction) or in a different past period. Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004), for example, is set in 18th-century England, though that is, in technical terms, an intrusion fantasy – in which magic erupts into a historically plausible reality. China Miéville and Neil Gaiman have written intrusion fantasies set in modern London and modern America respectively (e.g. Miéville 1998, 2010; Gaiman 1996, 2001). Immersion fantasies (the mode in which George R.R. Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire is written) are more traditionally imagined: as complete worlds whose difference from modernity has to be marked. Yet the time and space within which the story is set cannot be totally unfamiliar if the author's world-building task is not to be exhausting. Thus, a medieval setting functions as both recognisable and estranged, in part because of its fragmentary survival in our own culture. As Arthur Lindley observes, speaking here of medieval film, but making an argument equally valid for medieval fantasy in other media, “films of the medieval period present their matere in an analogical relation: as type or anti-type of current circumstances, as allegorical representation of them, or as estranged retelling. The distant past may mirror us – we, not it, are the real subject – but it does not lead to us” (Lindley 2014).
In a well-known episode from the Middle High German epic Das Nibelungenlied, two powerful queens, Prünhilt and Kriemhilt, argue fiercely about who has the stronger, braver, and nobler husband. Both women give as good as they get in the argument, and the conflict comes to a head in a contest of social status. Kriemhilt vows to enter the church before Prünhilt – a gesture that would culturally proclaim Kriemhilt to have the higher status. Bedecked in all the splendor of her status and position, Kriemhilt haughtily passes by Prünhilt on her way into the church and says, “du hâst geschendet selbe den dînen schoenen lîp: / wie möhte mannes kebse werden immer künige wîp?” (“You have dishonored yourself and your beautiful body: how could a mistress ever become a king's wife?”). Prünhilt, indignant at the implicature quickly retorts, “Wen hâstu hie verkebset?” (“Whom do you call a mistress?”)
The Quarrel of the Queens episode contains the central turning point for the Nibelung Legend of Middle High German and Old Norse literature. In addition to the Nibelungenlied, this episode appears in three other extant texts from roughly the same period: Þiðreks saga af Bern, Völsunga saga, and Skáldskaparmál. Three of these four versions (I set aside Skáldskaparmál because it offers only an abbreviated account of the quarrel) present dialogues that reflect an intricate interplay between indirectness in speech, such as exhibited in the above verbal exchange, and directness in speech (that is, speech that requires little or no interpretation). Any study of culture and language in the medieval North ought to take into consideration this remarkable story of Sigurðr and the fateful ring. These narratives provide valuable evidence of pragmatic principles because they were clearly well known and often referenced in these regions, and thereby might reflect a widespread understanding of the scene. In addition to the several versions of the narrative considered in this chapter, there are a multitude of instances (some of which will be addressed in later chapters) in which Old Norse-Icelandic literature borrows from or alludes to the Nibelung narrative. It is, simply put, one of the best and most foundational narratives in northern Europe. Having a widely-known, multi-lingual, comparative story such as that of the story of Sigurðr and the ring is clearly an opportunity not to be ignored.
The slaying of Kjartan Óláfsson by his foster-brother and (former) loyal companion, Bolli Þorleiksson, is undoubtedly one of the most famous and moving scenes in Laxdœla saga and, indeed, all of the Icelandic family sagas. Bolli feels he has no choice but to commit the slaying, and yet he immediately feels a deep regret for having done so. After grieving thus, Bolli returns home to find his wife, Guðrún, the real agent behind Bolli’s attack on Kjartan, waiting for him. One of Bolli's men has already told Guðrún about the slaying, so when Bolli arrives, his wife is well aware of what has happened, and Bolli knows it. The exchange between the two promises to be one of the great moments of direct discourse in all of saga literature, so it is rather disconcerting that the various authors, scribes, and copyists from the medieval period to the seventeenth century cannot seem to agree on what, exactly, Guðrún says at this moment. Despite the importance this verbal exchange to the saga – or perhaps because of it – the scene has, according to Jonna Louis-Jensen, “been badly bungled in the manuscript tradition.” The principal manuscript for the saga, Möðruvallabók, appears (quite clearly) to say, “Mikil v[er]ða h[er]mdar v[er]k, ek hefi spunnit tólf álna garn, en þú hefir vegit Kjartan” (“Great are the deeds of vengeance: I have spun twelve ells of yarn, and you have killed Kjartan”). This reading, however, was unsatisfying to Einar Ól. Sveinsson, possibly due to the somewhat awkward hapax legomenon “hermdarverk,” which lead him to appeal to a much later, seventeenthcentury paper manuscript as he was editing the Íslenzk fornrit edition of the saga, producing what has become the standard reading of the line: “Misjëfn verða morginverkin; ek hefi spunnit tólf álna garn, en þú hefir vegit Kjartan” (“Unequal are the morning's labors: I have spun twelve ells of yarn, and you have killed Kjartan”). As Ólafur Halldórsson and others point out, this line is likely a variation on the proverb Drjúg eru morgunverkin (great are the morning's labors). To make matters more interesting, ÍB 225 4to, a seventeenth-century copy of the fourteenth-century Vatnshyrna manuscript, includes a variation of both phrases: “Mickel v[er]ða h[er]nað[ar] v[er]kin, en misjöfn morgen v[er] kin […].”
No comprehensive analysis of pragmatics in Old Norse-Icelandic literature would be complete without consideration of the cutting-out-the-shirt scene from Gísla saga Súrssonar, when Gísli's wife, Auðr, and sister-in-law, Ásgerðr, argue over which of them will be better at cutting out a shirt for Ásgerðr's husband (and Gísli's brother), Þorkell. The two women are working one morning in the dyngja, a part of the Icelandic homestead that would have been almost exclusively occupied by the women of the house, when, thinking themselves alone, they engage in a brief but damaging conversation:
(1a) Ásgerðr: “Veittu mér þat, at þú sker mér skyrtu, Auðr, Þorkatli bónda mínum.”
(1b) Auðr: “Þat kann ek eigi betr en þú,” sagði Auðr, “ok myndir þú eigi mik til biðja, ef þú skyldir skera Vésteini bróður mínum skyrtuna.”
(1c) Ásgerðr: “Eitt er þat sér,” segir Ásgerðr, “ok svá mun mér þykkja nëkkura stund.”
(1d) Auðr: “Lëngu vissa ek þat,” segir Auðr, “hvat við sik var, ok roeðum ekki um fleira.”
(1e) Ásgerðr: “Þat þykki mér eigi brigzl,” sagði Ásgerðr, “þótt mér þykki Vésteinn góðr. Hitt var mér sagt, at þit Þorgrímr hittizk mjëk opt, áðr en þú værir Gísla gefin.”
(1f) Auðr: “Því fylgðu engir mannlestir,” segir Auðr, “því at ek tók engan mann undir Gísla, at því fylgði neinn mannlëstr; ok munu vit nú hætta þessi roeðu.”
(1a) Ásgerðr: “Help me with something: cut out a shirt for me, Auðr, for Þorkell, my husband.”
(1b) Auðr: “I cannot do that better than you, […] and you would not ask me to do that, if you were to cut a shirt for Vésteinn, my brother.”
(1c) Ásgerðr: “That is another thing, […] and so shall it seem to me for a while.”
(1d) Auðr: “I have known about that for a long time, […] what was going on, and we will say no more about it.”
(1e) Ásgerðr: “It doesn't seem shameful to me that I should think well of Vésteinn. I have heard it said that you and Þorgrímr spent quite a lot of time together, before you were married to Gísli.”
(1f) Auðr: “There's no way to find shame in that, […] because I have been with no man other than my husband; therefore, there is not any shame, and we will now stop this conversation.”
This volume contributes to the understanding of the function and development of discourse in the medieval northern world by examining strategies of verbal exchanges in Old Norse literature. As Daniel Sävborg and Theodore M. Andersson have recently pointed out, despite the fact that dialogue makes up a key stylistic component and a significant percentage of saga content, no book-length scholarly work has been ventured on the importance of dialogue in the sagas since 1935. The literary analysis in the following pages addresses this gap in scholarship by attempting to understand the literary value of certain aspects of discourse that have been illuminated in recent years by the adjacent linguistic field of pragmatics. Pragmatics, broadly conceived, recognizesthat speakers rely upon cultural, situational, and interpersonal contexts to communicate meaning. It is often the case that these contexts facilitate an emergent type of meaning that goes beyond the obvious semantic and syntactical components of an utterance. In plainer terms, the words we say often do not match the meaning we intend to communicate: we may hedge, imply, deflect, obscure meaning to save face, or employ sarcasm to register an insult – always relying upon cultural and speech-situational context to communicate our meaning. If, as the study of pragmatics indicates, these linguistic phenomena are systematic, then the literature from any given linguistic community cannot be fully appreciated without also developing a thorough understanding of the pragmatic principles at play in the verbal exchanges therein. This volume argues, first, that Old Norse-Icelandic saga-writers employed a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of pragmatic principles even though Old Norse pragmatic principles may not reflect those evident in the modern world, and second, that the usage and understanding of those principles changed in the North as the cultural, political, and religious landscapes developed over time.
Chapter one of this volume elaborates on the foundational concepts of pragmatics most important to the subsequent analysis. This introductory chapter offers a discussion of the texts under consideration in this book and a deeper rationale for a literary analysis of Old Norse-Icelandic literature grounded in the linguistic study of pragmatics.
One of the early battle scenes in the great medieval Icelandic saga Brennu-Njáls saga pits the brothers Gunnarr and Kolskeggr Hámundarson against a rival group led by a man named Starkaðr, who feels that Gunnarr has insulted him and his family. Despite being heavily outnumbered, Gunnarr and Kolskeggr, who were known for their prowess, overcome the larger force. During the battle, just as Kolskeggr has dispatched one opponent, another fighter named Kolr Egilsson (who is Starkarðr’s nephew) takes a rather cheap shot at Kolskeggr and manages to sink a spear into his thigh. In the act, Kolr drops his shield out of position, which allows Kolskeggr, undaunted by the spear wound, to twist his body so as to bring down his sword deftly upon Kolr's leg, neatly taking it off at the knee. The blow will certainly be fatal, but Kolskeggr – clearly aware that his blade has hit its mark – asks Kolr, “Hvárt nam þik eða eigi?” (“Did that hit you or not?”). Kolr, also quite aware of the situation, replies that he got what he deserved for not having properly shielded himself. Then, perhaps dazed from the blow, Kolr stands for a moment on his remaining leg, gaping at the bloody stump of his thigh, at which point Kolskeggr remarks, “Eigi þarftú á at líta, jafnt er sem þér sýnisk: af er fótrinn” (“You don't have to look at it; it is just as you think: the leg is gone”). In response, Kolr obligingly dies.
This scene in Njáls saga depicts one of the classic moments in the Íslendingasögur and is characteristic of the sagas in its remarkable balance between dialogue, character development, and vivid description of the context of events both leading up to and including the battle. The modern reader – and presumably the medieval audience as well – intuitively understands the meaning Kolskeggr intends by his question. It is clear to us that Kolskeggr does not ask the question, “Did that hit you or not?” because he is seeking information: Kolskeggr stands at most only a few feet from his victim (about the length of his sword); he sees the damage his blade has done; he felt the sword cut through his opponent's leg; he probably has Kolr's blood on his clothes. It is clear, even in translation, that the word choice and grammar of Kolskeggr's utterance do not match the intent with which he speaks. We may rightly say he is taunting, mocking, bantering, or perhaps boasting about his victory over Kolr, but despite the interrogative grammatical mood of his utterance, the one thing Kolskeggr is certainly not doing is asking a question to which he does not know the answer.
In the early chapters of Egils saga Skallagrímssonar, Egill's father, uncle, and grandfather become wrapped up in King Haraldr hárfagri (fairhair) Hálfdanarson's ambition to unify all of Norway under his rule. King Haraldr wants these men to join his retinue because they are known to be strong and capable, but only Egill's uncle, Þórólfr, elects to go to the king. Things do not turn out well. Despite Þórólfr's loyalty, he and the king have a falling out and the king ends up killing Þórólfr in a fierce battle. Not to be discouraged – and likely to determine where lie the allegiances of Þórólfr's family – the king asks Egill's father, Skalla-Grímr, to join his retinue in his brother's stead. Skalla-Grímr responds thus (emphasis added):
“Þat var kunnigt, hversu miklu Þórólfr var framar en ek em at sér gërr um alla hluti, ok bar hann enga gæfu til at þjóna þér, konungr. Nú mun ek ekki taka þat ráð. Eigi mun ek þjóna þér, því at ek veit at ek mun eigi gæfu til bera at veita þér þá þjónustu, sem ek munda vilja ok vert væri. Hygg ek, at mér verði meiri muna vant en Þórólfi.”
(“It [is] well known how much more accomplished Þórólfr was than I am in all things, but he did not have the good-fortune to serve you [properly], king. Now I will not take that course. I will not serve you because I know that I will not have the good fortune to give you service as I would wish and as would be fitting. I think that I would fall short of many of Þórólfr's qualities.”)
Taken out of context, this passage might possibly be read as a polite, even humble refusal to serve the king: Skalla-Grímr appears to be saying that he is not worthy to serve the king and that he must decline the king’s offer because he could not do the king the service he deserves. Indeed, certain markers of politeness – such as the lowering of his own abilities beneath those of his brother's and the suggestion that the king deserves better – contribute to a sense that he is respectfully declining the king’s request. The king, however, is not impressed with Skalla-Grímr's mock politeness and takes the speech as a great insult, which it certainly is. The text states that the king grows silent and his face turns dreyrrauðan, bloodred.
If pragmatics is the study of language usage within specific cultural and speech-situational contexts, then it is reasonable to expect that, as cultural contexts change over time, so the application of pragmatic principles within that changing context may also change. While it may safely be said that all language communities employ pragmatic principles, it does not follow that all communities employ the same principles in the same way. Some language communities may be more prone to indirectness while others place a higher value on directness in speech; strategies of (im)politeness may develop over time due to cultural changes in religion, ethics, or education; and the introduction of new technologies may alter the usage of certain pragmatic principles. This chapter explores how language use in contexts has developed over time in Iceland from the medieval to the post-medieval period by comparing manuscript traditions for four of the verbal exchanges discussed earlier in this volume: one each from Sneglu-Halla þáttr and Gunnlaugs saga Ormstungu that exhibit characteristics of the conflictive principle, and two scenes from Gísla saga Súrssonar that show indications of indirect aggression.
The manuscript traditions of these sagas have a great deal to offer a discussion of the development of pragmatics in Iceland due to the number of witnesses for each saga and the chronological distributions of manuscripts from the medieval to the post-medieval period. These manuscripts can be used to create a timeline of sorts to indicate how principles of pragmatics were used and understood from the earlier medieval period to the later, post-medieval period. Successful consideration of these materials requires the adoption of several important assumptions about manuscripts from the field of material philology. Material philology is grounded, foremost, in the assumption that edited versions of ancient or medieval texts do not give a complete picture of the narrative as it existed in the living tradition. As Judy Quinn and others have pointed out, traditional editorial approaches such as those associated with Karl Lachman tend to attempt to construct an edited text that best represents the supposed original intent of the author.
Possibly the most famous speech act in all of Icelandic literature is the law speaker Þorgeirr Þorkelsson's proclamation that Iceland will convert from the heathen religion of its ancestors to the new religion of Christianity. After spending a mysterious day and night lying under a cloak, Þorgeirr emerges to proclaim that Christianity will be the new religion of the land. In Ari Þorgilsson's Íslendingabók, the earliest account of the Icelandic conversion, Þorgeirr says:
En nú þykkir mér þat ráð […] at vér látim ok eigi þá ráða, es mest vilja í gegn gangask, ok miðlum svá mál á miðli þeira, at hvárirtveggju hafi nakkvat síns máls, ok hëfum allir ein lëg ok einn sið. Þat mon verða satt, es vér slítum í sundr lëgin, at vér monum slíta ok friðinn.
(And now it seems advisable to me […] that we do not let those who most wish to oppose one another succeed, and that we mediate between them, so that each side should have something, and let us all have the same law and the same religion. It will turn out to be true that if we tear asunder the law, we also tear asunder the peace.)
What may be most interesting about this speech is that it is not, in fact, the speech act that converts Iceland to Christianity. Despite any assumptions about what this remarkable speech means or implies, no conversion has yet taken place, nor is it certain at this moment that there ever will be a conversion. Ari is quite clear on the matter, for immediately following Þorgeirr's speech, the narrative continues (emphasis added):
En hann lauk svá máli sínu, at hvárirtveggju játtu því, at allir skyldi ein lëg hafa, þau sem hann réði upp at segja. Þá vas þat mælt í lëgum, at allir men skyldi kristnir vesa ok skírn taka.
(And he concluded his speech in such a way that both sides agreed that everyone should have one law and that they would do whatever he advised. Then it was spoken into law that all men should become Christian and be baptized.)
Here, only after Þorgeirr's famous speech, does Ari give an account of the speech act that converted Iceland to Christianity, but while these brief lines describe the speech act, they do not present the speech itself in direct discourse.
In one of the more amusing moments of Sneglu-Halla þáttr, The Story ofSarcastic-Halli, the ‘sarcastic’ Icelander, Halli, has taken passage on a ship headed for Norway. When they arrive in Norwegian waters, the ship stops for the night at Agðanes before going on to its final destination of Trondheim. As the ship approaches Trondheim the next day, a noblelooking man (who turns out to be King Haraldr Sigurðarson) shouts from the deck of a nearby ship: “Who commands the ship; where did you winter; where did you make landfall; and where did you stay last night?” The rapid-fire questions confuse the other sailors on Halli's ship, even Bárðr, one of the king's men on board, but Halli is able to respond with an equally well-balanced flurry: “We were in Iceland for the winter, and we sailed from Gásir, and Bárðr is our skipper, and we landed at Hitra, and we stayed the night at Agðanes.” The king then asks Halli the quite vulgar question, “Sarð hann yðr eigi Agði?” (“Did Agði not fuck you?”). Halli responds initially by saying “eigi enna” (“not yet”; emphasis added), which may initially appear to be a blunder, since it leaves Halli open to the possibility of ill treatment by Agði in the future. The king jumps at the opening, asking whether Halli has agreed to have sex with Agði later on. Halli, with great dexterity, says that they have no plans for sex in the future because, as he shouts back to the king,
“Þat, herra, […] ef yðr forvitnar at vita, at hann Agði beið at þessu oss tignari manna ok vætti yðvar þangat í kveld.”
(“It was, lord … if you really want to know, that Agði was waiting for nobler men than us, and was expecting your arrival there tonight.”)
It is a wonder Halli does not lose his life on the spot.
Jeffrey Turco has recently done a thorough investigation of the literary and mythic allusions to be found in Sneglu-Halla þáttr, and he points out that this passage shows affinities with an exchange in Völsunga saga between Sinfjötli and Granmarr, said to be Höðbroddr's brother, king over the lands that Sinfjötli has come to attack.
Possibly more than any other aspect of linguistic study, the essential components of pragmatics intuitively resonate with all language users. Even though not everyone knows the terminology to describe the linguistic theory of pragmatics, we all employ pragmatics every day of our lives. From the moment we greet a colleague or friend each morning (Hi, how are you today?) to the evening meal when we need to season our food (Could you possibly pass the salt, dear?), we communicate by means of pragmatics. Our discourses are not just words placed one after the other; they are tapestries woven with the threads of our cultural and interpersonal contexts. This tapestry of language, culture, and relationship does not exist only in the abstract; it is not a philosophical construct; nor is it the product of a lone writer or the erudite few. It is ubiquitous. This book has sought to demonstrate the prevalence and nuance of pragmatic principles in the discourse of Old Norse-Icelandic literature. Not only did saga writers have an ability to present dialogue rich with illocution and implicature, but they also expected their audiences to understand those discourses as well. In itself, evidence of pragmatic principles in Old Norse-Icelandic linguistic communities should not be at all surprising, for, if the recent discoveries in pragmatics are to be trusted, all languages and linguistic communities use pragmatic principles. Thus, if we are to understand a culture's language usage in its entirety, then we must understand its usage of pragmatics. If illocution can only be fully comprehended in specific cultural and speech-situational contexts, then the closer we are to the contexts of a verbal exchange, the more likely we are to understand the fullness of its pragmatic quality. This “closeness” of pragmatics to cultural and interpersonal context stands at the heart of the present study.