NORTHERN LITERATURE: The Eddas and Sagas

“Quid enim Hinieldus cum Christo?” Alcuin asks this famous question of the bishop of Lindisfarne after receiving news of the monks’ interest in hearing pagan stories, accompanied by the harp, during mealtimes. “Let the words of God be read at dinner. It is proper for a reader to be heard there, not a harpist, the discourse of the fathers, not the song of the heathens. What has Ingeld to do with Christ? Your house is narrow and cannot contain both.” This course will engage Alcuin’s question by examining the literature of the pre-Christian and early Christian north, a body of mythology, poetry, and prose which, in partial answer to Alcuin’s question, had such a formative influence on subsequent Christian writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Sigrid Undset, W. H. Auden, George Mackay Brown and others. We will read both the prose and poetic Eddas—those repositories of Norse mythology, cosmogony, and heroic legend. We will familiarize ourselves with two of the most memorable characters in the Icelandic saga: the pious and unyielding Hrafnkel (“Frey’s Godi”) and the quintessential moody, violent Viking, Egil.  Finally, we will immerse ourselves in one of the neglected classics of Western literature, the masterful Njal’s Saga.

Class begins on Wednesday March 6th, at 5pm Pacific (8pm Eastern), and continues for EIGHT Wednesdays. NO CLASS on March 27th, due to Holy Week.

Balder the Beautiful is dead, is dead. 
And through the misty air 
Passed the mournful cry 
Of sunward sailing cranes.  

In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis recounts his childhood introduction to northern literature through his reading of these lines of Longfellow’s Tenger’s Drapa, a poetic retelling of the death of the Norse god Balder, the fair-haired beloved son of Odin and Frigg. Lewis famously describes his reaction as one of “Northernness”: “I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky. I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale and remote) and then . . . found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.” Sigrid Undset experienced something similar after reading Njal’s Saga at the age of ten; Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown’s conversion to Catholicism came about primarily not only through his reading of Newman and T.S. Eliot, but through his introduction to the Orkneyinga Saga. The debt Tolkien owes to Germanic Literature can hardly be overstated. 

For Tolkien, the literature of “Northernness” conveys both “unyielding heroism” and a “sense of impending doom.” What is it about these qualities of northern literature which resonate in the imaginations of modern Christian writers? In attempting to answer such questions, this course will introduce students to a rich, influential, and varied body of literature all-too-frequently neglected in the Catholic and Great Books educational tradition.

Texts:

The Poetic Edda, translated by Carolyne Larrington

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Oxford University Press; Second edition (September 1, 2014)

  • Language ‏ : ‎ English

  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 384 pages

  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0199675341

  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0199675340

The Prose Edda, edited by Jesse Byock

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Penguin Classics; Illustrated edition (January 31, 2006)

  • Language ‏ : ‎ English

  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 304 pages

  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0140447555

  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0140447552

Sagas of Icelanders, edited by Robert Kellogg

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Penguin Classics; 59821st edition (March 1, 2001)

  • Language ‏ : ‎ English

  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 848 pages

  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0141000031

  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0141000039

Njal’s Saga, edited Robert Cook

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Penguin Classics; Revised ed. edition (May 28, 2002)

  • Language ‏ : ‎ English

  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 384 pages

  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0140447695

  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0140447699

 

 

 

Suggested Syllabus of Readings and Discussions: Subject to change*

Week I: What is so "northern" about the Norse mythology? Tolkien and the "godlauss" North
Reading: Scanned handout of Tolkien's unpublished lecture on the Elder (Poetic) Edda

Week II: Knowledge and Wisdom in Poetic Edda
Reading: Selections from the Poetic Edda

Week III: "Baldr the Beautiful is Dead": The Prose Edda and the Twilight of the Gods
Reading: Selections from the Prose Edda 

Week IV: Narrative artistry and the virtuous Viking 
Reading: The Saga of Hrafnkel, Frey’s Godi 

Week V: Egil and his saga: How does he fare as a saga hero?
Reading: Egil’s Saga

Week VI: Friendship, Satisfaction, and the Limits of the Law
Reading: Njal’s Saga, Part I

Week VII: Saga Justice
Reading: Njal’s Saga, Part II


Week VIII: The Northern Legacy
Reading: Njal’s Saga, Part III

 

 

 

About Instructor

Amy Fahey

Amy Fahey teaches literature at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire. She holds a B.A. in English Literature and Christian Studies from Hillsdale College; an M.Phil. in Mediaeval Literature from the University of St. Andrews; and an M. A. and PhD. in English and American Literature from Washington University in St. Louis. Dr. Fahey has written and lectured on Chaucer, Shakespeare, Joyce Kilmer, Sigrid Undset, Flannery O’Connor, and other medieval and modern writers. Her work has appeared in The Catholic Herald, The St. Austin Review, The Catholic Thing, Crisis Magazine, Columbia Magazine, and elsewhere. Her essay, “Clipping an Angel’s Wings: Science, Poetry, and the Late Romantics,” is forthcoming in English Romantic Poets, Volume II: Keats, Shelley, and Byron (Ignatius, 2024), and her essay “Sigrid Undset: Novelist of Mercy,” will appear in Women of the Catholic Imagination (Word on Fire, 2024).

1 Course

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Course Includes

  • 8 Lessons
  • Course Certificate