Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Multiform and Life Cycle: An Armenian and a Scandinavian Narrative

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Multiform and Life Cycle: An Armenian and a Scandinavian Narrative

Article excerpt


WHEN APPROACHING The Volsunga Saga and Daredevils of Sassoun, the reader is struck by the similarities between these two heroic tales from two very different cultures. Assuming that one culture has not borrowed heroic tales from the other, the question of just how the two narratives are similar and why quite naturally arises. Scholars in the past have noticed that narratives from a different cultures can often have similar structural and thematic material. In his Morphology of the Folktale, Vladimir Propp describes a range of structural similarities in folk tales in his attempt to describe why they are all similar, yet why they are also all different. He divides magic tales into thirty-one functional elements. Partly as a result of his work, tales containing the same functional elements are often said to be variants of each other. It must be noted, however, that Propp dealt primarily with structural material and not thematic.

In his article "Epische Gesetze der Volksdichtung," Axel Olrik also identifies patterns found in folk narrative, which he calls epic laws of folk narrative. Epic laws of folk narratives further explain why many narratives seem similar. Lord Raglan in The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama draws attention to patterning in the story of the traditional hero. Raglan describes twenty-two structural and thematic patterns in the heroic narratives he has analyzed. Though Raglan has not called this patterning "multiform," it may, nevertheless, be much the same thing that Albert Lord observes in the oral tradition. Any folklore scholar will be familiar with the term variant, a term used to describe the similar structural and thematic relationship between two narratives. The term variant is less useful, however, in any discussion of the relationship among vastly differing heroic traditions. Lord states:

   The two concepts, of course, go together; if one believes in a fixed text,
   then the idea of variants--even the word--indicates a deviation from a
   fixed entity. In one's thinking of the composition of oral traditional
   poetry, the word multiform is more accurate than "variant," because it does
   not give preference or precedent to any one word or set of words to express
   an idea; instead it acknowledges that the idea may exist in several forms.
   (1995: 23)

Lord further states that "tradition is fond of emphasizing basic meanings by expressing them in multiform."

In these two narratives, The Volsunga Saga and Daredevils of Sassoun, both manifest an internal and external multiform. The internal multiform originates within the narrative: each heroic life is similar to its predecessor in structural and thematic material. What is being expressed in the narrative is what it is to be a hero within either the Icelandic or Armenian culture. The external multiform is observed by comparing these two narratives, perhaps, shedding some light on the commonalities of what it means to be a hero in a broader Indo-European context. This article will identify multiform found in these two narratives, both within each heroic tale and among the two narratives. My contention is that The Volsunga Saga was based on an earlier oral epic now lost, but much of the epic structure can still be identified within the text. It is my hope the this article may lend further credence to this position.


The Volsung narrative in Scandinavia derives from in three main sources: a prose variant found in Volsunga saga (The Saga of the Volsungs), a fragmentary poetic variant found in the Poetic Edda, and some prose in Snorri's Edda. (1) The Saga of the Volsungs is believed to have been written some time between 1200 and 1270. It is unknown who wrote the saga, but the compiler cast into prose an epic cycle that survives only in fragments collected in the Poetic Edda. The saga is divided into forty-four chapters by modern editors. For the most part, each chapter is the action of one lay or episode. …

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