Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

From News to Narrative: Escape Tales in Medieval Iceland

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

From News to Narrative: Escape Tales in Medieval Iceland

Article excerpt

Spurou menu pa a hverju sumri tioendi landa pessa i milli, ok var pat sidan i minni fart ok haft eptir til frasagna. (At that time, people got news every summer between these countries [Iceland and Norway], and that was committed to memory and became the basis for stories.)

--Separate Saga of Saint Olaf (Bjarni Adalbjarnarson 1941-1951, 422)

North Americans who came of age in the mid-twentieth century grew up in a culture of escape stories, beginning with the childhood reading of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (escape from pirates) and Kidnapped (escape from Redcoats). That reading was soon reinforced by national legends, outlaws escaping from posses with expert trackers, settlers escaping from Indians, and Indians escaping from the U.S. Army. The experience of World War II expanded the range by adding tales of escape from POW camps, submarines maintaining perfect silence in the deep to escape the attention of destroyers patrolling above, and isolated warships hoping to elude detection by reconnaissance aircraft likely to give their location away to pursuing squadrons. Frontiers and foreign shores were by no means prerequisite to this kind of story because there was also a steady supply of dramatic prison breaks on the home front. All these narratives were an odd combination of coded history, legend, and fiction.

Curiously, twelfth- and thirteenth-century Icelanders also came of age in a literary culture saturated by escape stories. Two of the best-known sagas, Gisla saga and Grettis saga, tell the stories of heroic figures who elude their pursuers for many years, only to succumb in the end. A number of such stories, located in Iceland, turn into tales of heroic last stands. (1) Rather different are the stories of Icelanders who incur the anger of the Norwegian king and are either imprisoned or held hostage by him. They normally survive and are the stuff of genuine escape narratives. They belong in the context of the larger myth of Icelandic distinction and success in foreign parts.

We will begin not with an Icelander but with a pretender to the Norwegian throne who claimed to be the son of King Magnus berfoettr (bare legs) (d. 1103) and who is known to history as Sigurdr slembir or slembidjakn (sham deacon). His story is told in Morkinskinna (ca. 1220) and Heimskringla III (ca. 1230), with some differences despite the fact that the author of the Heimskringla version made direct use of Morkinskinna. (2) The latter tells us that Sigurdr was fostered in southern Norway but later became exceptionally well-traveled. His royal aspirations inspired him to kill the reigning monarch Haraldr gilli or gillikristr (servant of Christ) in 1136, but the people refused to accept him as a successor.

The adventurous part of his story is set a little earlier when he approaches King Haraldr and asks to be acknowledged as his brother. Largely because of the opposition of Haraldr's advisers, the request is turned down, and Sigurdr himself is detained. It is at this point that the escape drama is inserted (Armann Jakobsson and Pordur Ingi Guoonsson 2011, 175-6). In Morkinskinna, the captive is bound hand and foot and is placed in a boat, but he suspects foul play and devises a plan. Claiming a need to urinate, he asks to be taken to the gunwale. Two guards untie his hands, though not his feet, and stand on either side of him. He seizes each with a free hand and plunges them overboard, then dives in himself and, in the confusion, makes his escape to land before his captors, who are somewhat tipsy, can react.

Heimskringla (Bjarni Adalbjarnarson 1941-1951,299) tells the story a little differently. Here, the captive is not bound hand and foot, and the urination fiction is abandoned, so it is not quite clear why he is allowed to approach the gunwale. The guards do not merely stand by his sides but hold onto his clothes. Sigurdr nonetheless pitches them overboard and makes his escape. …

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