Epic and Epoch: Essays on the Interpretation and History of a Genre

By Steven M. Oberhelman; Van Kelly et al. | Go to book overview

Undifferentiation and Violence:
Girard and the Sagas

George S. Tate

Before discussing undifferentiation in the Icelandic family sagas, it may be appropriate to mention, in an article for a volume on epic, that whether the sagas are epics is itself a vexed question. In a fairly recent article, Theodore Andersson writes: "One of the singular features of medieval Icelandic literature is the apparent absence of heroic epic. Whereas West Germanic literature developed an epic of sorts, Biblical epic in both England and Germany, secular epic in the English Beowulf and Waldere and the German Nibelung and Dietrich epics, Iceland never arrived at the epic concept" (Andersson 1986, 1). This statement is true if, to qualify as an epic, a work must be a long, narrative poem. But like Fielding, who in his preface to Joseph Andrews argues that (other features being present) an epic may be in prose,1 many readers of the Icelandic sagas have not held meter to be strictly necessary and have characterized the sagas as "prose epics."

W. P. Ker, the most perceptive early twentieth-century critic of the sagas, speaks of their "weight and solidity" (Ker 1908, 4), their inclusiveness, their emphasis on character, their engagement of the "whole business of life" (17). Acknowledging Homer's superiority, Ker nevertheless defends the northern epic: "The classical reader of the Northern heroics may be frequently disgusted by their failures; he may also be bribed, if not to applaud, at least to continue his study,

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