So, I’ve been very quiet this week because I was busy being at the FIFTEENTH INTERNATIONAL SAGA CONFERENCE here in Aarhus.
As a rule I don’t consider conferences very travelblogworthy but since my adventures over the last five days haven’t entailed much else, I figured I’d better do my best to make the conference sound exciting. So here are my FIVE FAVOURITE PAPERS of the conference, one for each day.
We can take it for granted of course that the best papers were by my noble supervisees, so out of courtesy to other participants, I have excluded these from my rundown.
DAY 7, Monday 6th August
Christine Schott introduced me to the scribal activities of Tómas Arason, scribe of one of our main early manuscripts of rímur (on which more anon). As well as copying all these poems, right, Tómas writes all these comments in the margins. Sometimes they’re just stuff like ‘vont er skrif því veikt er blek’ (‘the writing’s rubbish because the ink’s weak’), but he also has loads of proverbs, which I really liked. It’s great when you get these little slices of life appearing around the edge of literary fantasy; they remain pithy, wry, and true; but at the same time unselfconsciously transport you into another culture–its preoccupations; its materiality; its humour. I should know more proverbs than I do. So here, for your edification, are some of Tómas’s words of wisdom (lifted, with adaptation and thanks, from Christine’s MA thesis):
Oft veldur lítil þúfa þungu hlassi
Often a little turf-tuft tips a heavy cartload
Fátt sér á kinn hvað í brjósti býr
What dwells in the breast shows little on the cheek
Ýmist er best gott eður létt
Good and easy are best by turns
Skíts er von úr rassi
Shit’s to be expected from an arse
Oft bítur það gramur, sem gæskur sparir
Anger often eats what kindness doesn’t share
Seint er heimskan að snotra
It takes a long time to make a fool wise
Við rangan staf má styðjast, ei við öngvan
You can lean on a crooked stave, but not on nothing
Leiðinlega er skrifað lífið gott
Good lives are boring to write
Auðsén er saur annars nefs en ekki á sjálfs síns
Dirt’s obvious on another’s nose but not on your own
‘Ei skal bogna’, kvað karl, og skeit standandi
‘Never shall I bend’, said a man, and shat standing up
Don’t think I’ll have too much trouble finding opportunities to use those…
DAY 8, Tuesday August 7th
Today there was a session by a bunch of people running a project on the various manuscripts of Njáls saga (that’s ‘nyowls saga’). I liked it for its form, which was lots of pithy presentations rather than a few big ones, and its content, which included cool stuff about linguistics, manuscripts, techy stuff–and pictures in a memorable nineteenth-century incarnation of the saga. Also, they have been disproportionately nice about that article I was banging on about last year, and invited me to their Njálu partý (that’s Icelandic for Njáls saga party) later in the conference! Woo! AND, unlike in Njáls saga, no-one tried to burn our accommodation down while we were in it. Winner!
DAY 9, Wednesday August 8th
This was excursion day, where we got to go on trips to see cool old stuff. And lots of cool old stuff there was, and I had some interesting scholarly conversations too. But CHECK THIS OUT!
Okay, it’s not actually a paper. And it might look like the polystyrene box which the packed lunches came in. But it’s actually a THERMAL FUTURE BOX! Is that a thermal future-box, or a thermal-future box? I don’t know. But maybe if you open it, you find the FUTURE! Or even the THERMAL FUTURE!
DAY 10, Thursday August 9th
Today there were POSTER SESSIONS, which they have a lot of in the hard sciences but not much in the humanities. Instead of waffling on for twenty minutes in front of people, folk make big posters describing their research. You read them and then chat with the authors about their posters. I thought this was cool. I was particularly excited by Tilly Watson’s project to study the medieval manuscript fragments of Norway and Sweden (and Finland). Most medieval manuscripts in Continental Scandinavia were cut up after the Reformation for use in book-binding, so now people mostly just have these vast hoards of fragments which they’ve found when rebinding early modern books. But we can still use them to see what people were reading, and where they were learning their handwriting from. And maybe even use spacy software to scan the fragments and then to try and spot fragments which were once joined together. The project’s hoping to find out more about where Scandinavia was getting its literacy from, when Scandinavians got into writing manuscripts in the eleventh century. Cool!
DAY 11, Friday August 10th
Whew, LAST DAY! Already by Tuesday I was finishing the day with my head all full of half-finished thoughts and nascent plans, so I was TIRED by Friday. My favourite thing on Friday was the plenary lecture by Matthew Driscoll, which was about rímur. Right through the Middle Ages, anyone who’s anyone in Europe writes in verse: only Latinists and losers write in prose. Then in the early modern period Cervantes and his ilk get going and before long people are writing prose narratives all over the shop; and by the nineteenth century the decline of the Western narrative art into the obese, word-processed novels which lurch their way into your Amazon basket every Christmas is already nigh. Of course, Iceland does it differently (oh, and Wales and Ireland, but the conference wasn’t about them). Icelanders totally lead the field for vernacular prose narrative through the Middle Ages, and then suddenly around the late fourteenth century, verse narrative takes off, and before long everyone’s composing these enormous, arcane poems called rímur. These rhyme (as the name suggests) but also sustain the tradition rules of alliteration. They’re totally neglected and I’ve had my eye on doing something with them ever since I read about them as an undergrad, but they’re really hard to read and I still don’t think my Icelandic’s really up to it; but maybe the time is coming…
The thing I liked best about Matthew’s paper was that he enjoined everyone to go off and compose ríma stanzas, so during the conference dinner I composed my FIRST EVER ríma stanza (with some help from passing friends), about the argument my two table-neighbours were having over dinner.
Unnur munnar austur bjó;
út fór baunstöng vestan.
Konan orðum krullhaus sló:
kvað hún texta mestan.
The Unnur [=woman] of the mouth dwelt in the East;
Bean-Pole travelled from the West.
The woman walloped Curly-Cranium with her words:
she uttered the greatest text.
It’s a pretty terrible stanza, but it’s grammatical (I think) and it’s metrical, and that, as any serious poet will tell you, is the main thing. I’m very excited! If you’re hideously unlucky, I will actually start doing this travelblogue in ríma form.
Various of my friends also composed stanzas, in English and Icelandic, and we also did a Faroese circle dance. With a proper Faroese person and everything! (Admittedly reading the ballad off his i-phone, but still…) I trust my associates wouldn’t mind me quoting their ríma stanza on the occasion (this time in a different ríma metre). As you can see, I had a bit of trouble reading (and, er, understanding) the first line–I did ask what it said at the time but forgot (sorry!). Can létti be an adverb? Emendations/retranslations in the comments box please!
Leiðir fótinn létti(?) nótan lærdóms glósum
Stígum rauðan dans á rósum
raustin hljómi í Árósum.
The note on the glosses of learning leads the foot lightly(?);
we tread the red dance in a ring.
The voice rings in Aarhus.