The Illusive Window: Insights into an Irish Tale

Written by Deana Davis.

The extent to which written sources can be relied upon has constantly plagued historians in their attempt to recreate and “see” the past. In Ireland’s case, its unique plethora of cycles, or tales, contain pseudo-historical stories that have been fertile ground for such recreation. One such collection of tales, the Ulster Cycle, has famously been called a ‘window on the Iron Age’ by scholar K. Jackson. The world depicted here is full of cattle raiding, head-trophies, and pagan duels. The tales were passed down orally until they were put in writing beginning at the very least in the 7th century c.e. Nativist scholars have believed that scribes preserved the tales in their original form, were ‘mindless conduits,’ (as D. Ó Corráin quipped) and that life in the 1st-4th centuries was easy enough to recreate in the 7th and 8th. However, the introduction of Christianity, literacy, and Latinate culture in the 5th century cannot be so easily ignored. In fact, the very environment that made the transferring of oral tales to paper possible left an indelible influence. Evidence from an episode in the Táin bó Cuailnge will highlight recent scholarship’s argument that Latinate culture and the decline of Ulster in the intervening centuries did not lead to a careful transfer from speech to print, but a contemporary, intelligent reinterpretation with a view of a distant past.

The textual history of the Táin bó Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), part of the Ulster tales, is typical in its fragmentary nature. The manuscripts that contain all or parts of the Táin are of late dates: the late eleventh or early twelfth century manuscript Lebor na hUidre (The Book of the Dun Cow) with Recension I, the later twelfth century Book of Leinster with a Recension II extensive version of the Táin, and the fourteenth century Yellow Book of Lecan containing elements of Recension I. Scholars have shown that the manuscripts work off of a text originating in the 8th century. Nevertheless, the core story of the Tain is believed to originate in the period between the first and the fourth century AD, or in other words, before the coming of Christianity to Ireland, and represent Iron age life. Considering the Táin’s survival in manuscripts written centuries after its origination, I will analyse how the Latinate culture of the scriptorium may have altered the Táin from its oral origins.

First, a brief introduction: the Táin begins when Ailill and Medb, king and queen of Connaught, lead an army into neighbouring Ulster, with the help of the exiled king of Ulster Fergus mac Roich, to capture a prized bull. Along the way, Ailill and Medb suspect Fergus of sympathising with his countrymen. Medb decides to use her feminine wiles to distract Fergus, and the uninformed Ailill sends his charioteer to spy on the lovers, and steal Fergus’ sword as proof. Upon receiving the sword, however, he charitably deduces that Medb’s sole intention is to ‘keep [Fergus’] help on the Táin.’ In the following episode, a concerned Fergus enters Ailill’s tent with Medb to ask about his sword, only to have the king confront him with the affair in a game of fidchell (a type of chess). What could the scribes have changed? The prime evidence of contemporary influence is in the details of how story is presented.

The Latinate culture that arrived with Christianity introduced not only writing, but also knowledge of the Classical authors. Thus, the Táin was written down amidst two cultures; the first, a Christian one, which made use of the Old Testament and drew upon Classical tradition when confronted with the pre-Christian culture, the second, a pagan one. The manuscripts were likely all produced in monastic scriptoria, but the scribes writing them were either Irish filid, a learned class, now sharing training in monasteries with monks, or literati influenced by the filid background and interested in combining pre-Christian Irish tales with the Latinate culture they were already acquainted with.

Though the outline of the Táin likely remained the same upon the innovation of written manuscripts to accompany oral heritage, the presentation of scenes likely developed in writing. An example of such development is the elaborate rhetoric, mostly in the form of dialogues. These dialogues, enhanced with deliberately archaic language, are meant to give a sense of realism set in the past. When Fergus enters Ailill’s tent, a lengthy dialogue takes place, with Medb chiming in, which is used to create an intricate understanding of their relationships. This rhetoric, to would counter J. Carney’s proposition, actually shows influence of Homer rather than Virgil in this instance, since Homer writes conversations between two or more characters, in contrast to Virgil’s soliloquys. The narrative makes use of flowery archaisms, such as ‘có clos ni.’ Though it is usually translated as ‘said,’ it literally means ‘somewhat was heard.’ This phrase is also encountered in a roughly contemporary ninth century In Tenga Bithnua (The Ever-new Tongue). There is also a wide range of metaphors, such as Fergus calling armies ‘spear flock sword flock,’ and Ailill claiming Fergus attempts to act ‘in kingly form/ with fire of dragon/ hiss of snake/ blow of lion.’ The elaborate conversations and metaphors show a ‘literary veneer’ that suggest monastic influence; the ‘lion’ is a case in point. It would hardly be referenced in pre-Christian times before it came to Ireland as the symbol of St. Mark.

In addition, this scene takes place in a tent, or a pavilion, and it has been observed that this imaginative retelling is ‘regarded as an exotic feature.’ This assembly of characters shows similarities with the gathering of the Apostles, Mary and the Virgins around the Lord in Fis Adomnán (The Vision of Adomnán), which appears in Lebor na hUidre alongside the Táin. It is hard to believe that the Táin keeps ‘allusions and traditions preserved with fidelity’ after coming ‘through centuries of oral transmission,’ as Nativist scholars M. Dillon and N. Chadwick have asserted. In addition, hints of scribal ignorance in details of pre-Christian Ireland pervade, as the main characters say variants of ‘I swear the oath of my people,’ rather than naming pagan deities, indicating a Christianised society attempting to recreate a vague idea of the past. This is not surprising, given that the ‘monastic setting’ was ‘nearly unique to Ireland,’ as D. Cróinín stated, and Irish scholarship existed almost exclusively in this setting.

Though it is clear literati compiled the Tain, and in the process influenced its telling, there is doubt as to where they were located. The main conflict in the Táin is between the historical cóiceda of Ulster and Connacht, yet while scholars have indicated a bias towards the mighty Ulster, neither side is shown as particularly heroic. The satirical element in the above episode is the stealing of Fergus’ sword at the expense of sleeping with a woman. When Ailill sees Fergus, he ‘started laughing at him,’ and as Fergus is still seen as an outsider, an Ulsterman, at the same moment Ailill is ‘laughing’ at a shamed Ulster. With regard to Connaught, Medb, the initiator of the cattle raid, is constantly disregarded as simply a woman, Ailill even ‘lay[s] first fault/ straight at women’s/ own sweet swellings.’ This is contrary to previous opinion that the Táin had strong Ulster bias. Perhaps the reason for neither side being shown in the best of light, especially with a sinning queen and a shamed exile, is that, due to political changes, the scribes seem to be situated outside either cóiced and the use of the archaic ‘somewhat was heard’ implies a distancing from the story. Considering the contemporary political decline of Ulster, a proposition can be made that the scribes belonged to the Uí Néill, a túath that conquered Ulaid lands, a people who populated Ulster up to the fifth century. Therefore, we see Ulster, or Ulaid, as historian J. Gantz has stated, ‘for all its splendour…a society in decline.’ The argument for Uí Néill scribes would also explain the knowledge of the region, such as in an episode where Fergus carves a sword from a tree, thus giving ‘Fid Mórthruaille, the Wood of the Great Scabbard’ its name. Apparently, not only did the literati want to copy down an old tale, but they saw an opportunity for propaganda as well.

The Táin bó Cuailnge, in the form of the later manuscripts it has been preserved in, does not accurately or objectively portray prehistoric Irish society as an Iron Age living fossil, as per the traditional view. Instead, the Táin does provide an example of how Irish oral tradition underwent changes under the influence of Latinate culture, with the arrival of Christianity, and changing political realities. The literati of the Táin shone a vague light on some aspects of early Irish culture, but opened a window on their contemporary, early Irish history. It would be a disservice to the scribes to assume otherwise, since the Tain, and the other cycles, rather, reveal the flourishing of a dynamic Irish culture.

Wicked Women: The Stepmother as a Figure of Evil in the Grimms' Fairy Tales

Wicked Women: The Stepmother as a Figure of Evil in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales

Written by Anahit Behrooz.

The recent scholarly resurgence of fairy tales and folklore, and the litany of rewrites, spin offs and adaptations, prompts a reexamination of many of the genre’s characteristics and tropes. The character of the wicked stepmother has gained notoriety as one of the most evil villains to be found in fairy tales, frequently set up as a foil to the innocent and virtuous step daughter whom she mistreats and who ultimately gains victory over her. Indeed, the evil stepmother was the first antagonist to be portrayed in a Disney feature-length film, and since then her terrifying presence remains one of the key features of many fairy tale adaptations. Yet why did this particular figure gain such popularity as a literary villain, and what role specifically did the fairy tales of the Brother Grimm have to play in this? By referencing four specific tales within the Kinder- und Hausmärchen collection – Aschenputtel (Cinderella), Hänsel und Grethel (Hansel and Gretel), Rapunzel and Sneewittchen (Snow White) – this essay sets out to explore these questions: Why did a stepmother provide such a suitable figure of evil? In what ways did the Brothers Grimm set out to emphasise her brutal and malevolent nature? And, finally, whether, despite these strategies of characterisation, the figure of the stepmother in fairy tales arouses any sympathy as a character who is more complex and multi-faceted than a simple, two-dimensional foe.

Firstly let us begin by examining the reasons behind why the stepmother was selected as an appropriate antagonist within the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. The term ‘selected’ is apropos here as, through an examination of the editorial changes made by the brothers throughout their various editions, it becomes clear that the stepmother was not always the original villain of the story. This is not to say that the Brothers Grimm invented the stepmother as a fairy tale antagonist; if we examine earlier versions of the tales, such as Perrault’s Cendrillon, written in 1697 and equivalent to the Grimms’ Aschenputtel, we see that the stepmother is a key character who behaves in the malicious, cruel way that modern readers have come to expect of her. This is not the case for all the tales, however, and a comparison of the Grimms’ original edition and their later editions quickly reveals this: while all the later versions of Sneewittchen – that is, from 1819 onwards – begin by describing a queen who longs for a daughter and dies in childbirth, only to have the father remarry, the 1812 version depicts a queen who longs for a daughter and quickly becomes jealous of her when the child grows and is deemed fairer than her. Thus in the original version, the role famously played by the stepmother is played by Sneewittchen’s real, biological mother. Similarly, in Hänsel und Grethel, it is not until the 1840 edition that the mother who encourages the father to abandon the children in the woods becomes a stepmother. It is therefore evident that the decision to make the stepmother a villainous figure in the tales was a conscious one. What is less clear is why such a selection was made.

Critics have offered various explanations as to this deliberate change: Bruno Bettelheim takes a decidedly psychoanalytical approach in arguing that ‘the typical fairy-tale splitting of the mother into a good (usually dead) mother and an evil stepmother serves the child well – the fantasy of the wicked stepmother not only preserves the good mother intact, it also prevents having to feel guilty about one’s angry wishes about her’. Thus the child is able to compartmentalise and justify their negative reactions to a maternal figure without becoming overwhelmed by what they consider at that stage to be unnatural feelings. Although it is unlikely that the Brothers Grimm would have had a similarly Freudian rationale for making the change, it could be argued that they did not wish to disturb young children with tales of murderous parents, or destroy the ideal of a close family unit: an outsider to the family would be far simpler to villainise. Yet it must be pointed out here that, particularly in the case of their first few editions, the Grimms’ intended audience was not small children, but rather scholars and academics, who would presumably be far less easily horrified by tales of a wicked mother. Perhaps then the key reason for this change was in order to reflect the social reality of the period. Given the high mortality rate for childbearing women, the presence of a stepmother in a family would have been far more common than it is today. Furthermore, older widowed men would often marry much younger women as their second wives, thus radically reducing the age difference between the daughter and the stepmother and creating a dynamic which is open to much of the jealousy and competition seen between the female characters within fairy tales.

We can therefore begin to understand why the figure of the stepmother was vulnerable to appropriation and transformation into an evil character. But what narrative and characterisation strategies did the Brothers Grimm employ in order to emphasise her wicked nature within the tales themselves? One of their most striking strategies is to draw parallels between the character and actions of the stepmother, and other malevolent figures and creatures of folklore. One such example is the stepmothers’ tendency towards cannibalism, which draws direct links between her and the ogres of tales such as Blaubart (Bluebeard). In Sneewittchen, the stepmother demands that the huntsman bring back Sneewittchen’s lungs and liver: ‘Der Koch mußte sie in Salz kochen, und das boshafte Weib aß sie auf und meinte sie hätte Sneewittchen’s Leber und Lungen gegessen‘ (‘The cook was ordered to boil them with salt, and the wicked woman ate them and believed she had eaten Snow White’s liver and lungs’). The jarring simplicity with which this horrific deed is told, combined with the Grimms’ judgement of her as a ‘boshafter Weib‘ (‘wicked woman’) serve to underline the almost unnatural, evil nature of her act. In Hänsel und Grethel meanwhile, the witch in the gingerbread house – who I argue is strongly implied to be the stepmother, given her malevolent attitude towards the children, and the mysteriously convenient death of the stepmother at the end of the tale – cruelly plays on the starvation of the children in order to lure them into her house and eat them. Moreover, she forces Grethel to aid her in her attempts to eat Hänsel, and would have thus made her complicit in the crime if her attempts had succeeded.

There have been many different interpretations of the stepmothers’ urge to cannibalise her stepchildren: it could be argued that the stepmother in Sneewittchen believes that by consuming the girl’s body, she will somehow imbibe her beauty, while Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar defend that the act symbolises an attestation of power, pointing out that by ‘thinking she is devouring her ice-pure enemy, the Queen consumes instead the wild boar’s organs; that is, symbolically speaking, she devours her own beastly rage, and becomes (of course) even more enraged’. I would add that the act of cannibalism is specifically used in this context as it defies all the characteristics normally associated with a maternal figure: one who is nurturing, caring and protective. As Maria Tatar states, ‘cannibalistic female villains withhold food and threaten to turn children into their own source of nourishment, reincorporating them into the bodies that gave birth to them’. Thus by going against their intended maternal natures, these women transform into something monstrous and ogre-like.

Another way in which the Brothers Grimm emphasise the evil nature of the stepmother is through her association with witchcraft. Witches, as evidenced by the large-scale witch-hunts and trials which took place particularly throughout the Europe of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries, were considered to be figures of great terror and misfortune. In the fairy tales, it is the power which the witches wield what sets them apart as characters to be feared. In the majority of the editions of Rapunzel (those from 1837 onwards), the first mention of the stepmother cum witch describes her as ‘[eine]…Zauberin…die große Macht hat, und von aller Welt gefürchetet wurde‘ (‘A witch with great power who was feared by all the world’). By immediately making the second clause follow the first, the Brothers Grimm imply causality. This is to say, the fear with which everyone reacts is a direct cause of her great power. This is also evident in the true parents’ reaction: the father is so frightened by the witch’s presence and her anger that he agrees to give up his own child to her immediately rather than risk her wrath. In Sneewittchen, meanwhile, the queen uses her witchcraft to kill Sneewittchen not only once, but three times, thereby highlighting her great power. Alfred David and Mary Elizabeth David also draw attention to the queen’s reaction to her supposedly successful murder as the glee with which she reacts is more pronounced in the Brothers’ last editions. So, while in the first ones, the reader is simply told, ‘sie freute sich‘ (‘she was pleased’), in editions of 1837, her pleasure has become sadistic: ‘[sie]…lachte überlaut, und sprach »weiß wie Schnee, roth wie Blut, schwarz wie Ebenholz! diesmal können dich die Zwerge nicht wieder erwecken’ (‘she laughed aloud and said: “white as snow, red as blood, black as ebony! This time the dwarfs cannot wake you.”’). By taking pleasure in the evilness of acts brought about by dark magic, the queen reveals herself to be irredeemably wicked.

Furthermore, the way in which this power manifests is noteworthy. The evil stepmothers are not the only beings who have magical abilities in the fairy tales, the virtuous characters can have them too. In Aschenputtel, the eponymous character calls to the birds to help her sort the lentils as her stepmother has ordered, and when her stepmother abandons her at home, she goes to the tree next to her mother’s grave for aid and says: “Bäumchen, rüttel dich und schüttel dich/ wirf Gold und Silber über mich” (‘Little trees, rustle and shake, throw gold and silver over me’). Written in this rhymed form, Aschenputtel’s words becomes almost incantation-like, and the results are certainly magical – they cannot be explained in any rational or scientific way. The profound difference between this type of magic and that of the evil stepmothers is that Aschenputtel’s magic is linked firmly to nature – to the work of the birds and animals and plants. This positive representation of the power of nature is perhaps a reflection of Romantic ideology, and provides a strong contrast to the magic of the stepmothers, which is unexplained, unnatural and dark. Thus, it is not only their link to witchcraft which paints the stepmothers as evil beings, but the way in which they harness and use this power.

What is striking in the tales is how the power the stepmothers have reflects itself in the narrative. Unlike the pure, virtuous protagonists, these women provide much of the narrative drive of the tales and possess a considerable amount of agency in their actions. The main action of Sneewittchen only happens when the stepmother takes a violent dislike to Sneewittchen and acts on it; Aschenputtel lives an uneventful existence until her father remarries; it is the stepmother’s decision in Hänsel und Grethel, firstly to drive them out, and then to attempt to kill them and, it is the actions of the witch in Rapunzel which bring about almost all of the key points of the plot – the taking of the child, locking her in the tower, abandoning her in the wilderness. Gilbert and Gubar argue that the stepmother in Snow White is indeed driven by want of an ‘”unfeminine” life of stories and story-telling’; each of her three attempts on Sneewittchen’s life become three tales or plots which she invents, and through such subversive “story-telling”, she attempts to control the narrative of her own life. Therefore, through their overwhelming influence on the plot of the tales, these women demonstrate again their strength and power, and pit themselves against the fragile, passive heroines.

Although the stepmothers assert their superior power over the young girls they terrorise, they are ultimately vanquished, usually not by the girls themselves (although Hänsel und Grethel is an exception) but rather by men: by the princes who fall in love with and ultimately rescue the heroines. Although throughout the majority of the tale, these women are depicted as strong, dominating characters, they are rendered ultimately powerless in the face of these male figures. I would argue that these endings are in fact indicative of a pervasive trend from the very beginning of the tales: that of the power of the patriarchy in controlling these women’s lives and ultimately contributing to the development of their evil nature. Thus, these fairy tales become part of a patriarchal literary tradition which seeks to undermine powerful and dominant women by presenting them as malignant and associating them to witchcraft and cannibalism. The shift from mother to stepmother as seen through a patriarchal lens also becomes more profound: evil, destructive mothers presented a challenge to patriarchal family values, whereas stepmothers were outsiders and could therefore act as a warning to other women without completely defying patriarchal structures. These depictions of stepmothers were so powerful that even today, we have internalised the narrative of a powerful woman equating to an evil woman.

The ultimate powerlessness of the stepmothers at the hands of men is not only portrayed through their violent endings, it is also depicted in female dependence on male approval throughout the texts. In Sneewittchen, for example, the main conflict revolves around the jealousy between stepmother and daughter surrounding the daughter’s beauty when she begins to mature from a small child. The idea of beauty within the Grimms’ tales is highly gendered; Lori Baker-Sperry and Liz Grauerholz carried out a study by coding references to beauty and physical appearance within the tales, and cross-referencing this with mentions of gender and age. Their findings, rather unsurprisingly, revealed that references to beauty were highest among the female characters and especially amongst the youngest ones. This attitude towards the importance of physical attractiveness in females is presumably indicative of the general social attitude of the time, and goes some way towards explaining the stepmother’s bitterness and jealousy towards the character she naturally sees as a rival. Gilbert and Gubar argue that the voice in the mirror which haunts the stepmother can be seen as the voice of her husband or, I would argue, the voice of any dominant male which ‘rules the Queen’s (and every woman’s) self-evaluation…’. In Aschenputtel we see the darker side of this beauty ideal, where the stepmother encourages her daughters to mutilate their feet in order to fit into the slipper and trick the prince. Particularly for modern readers, this will be uncomfortably reminiscent of the present-day beauty industry, of the plastic-surgery, Photoshop and eating disorders which twist and conform women into the requisite beauty ideal. If this is the world the stepmother is forced into, where she must viciously compete with other women in order to attract and keep men, and therefore status, stability and significance, her resorting to evil in order to maintain her position becomes, if not justifiable, at least understandable. By seeing the stepmother as a victim of patriarchal values, much in the same way the heroines are a victim of her, her character becomes more than the trope of “Wicked Queen” or “Evil Stepmother”, but rather a complex character deserving of the reader’s consideration and sympathy.

In conclusion, the Brothers Grimm played a great part in contributing to the construction of the “evil stepmother” character in fairy tales. Through the editorial changes they made, and their emphasis on the monstrous, cruel and unnatural aspects of her character, they transformed the figure of the stepmother into the ultimate fairy tale villain whose legacy continues to this day. Yet, as feminist critics such as Tatar, Gilbert and Gubar have demonstrated, the stepmother has also become a scapegoat, a terrifying figure who goes against all of the expectations of women and motherhood, but who is nevertheless herself a victim of the situation and the society she finds herself in.


Abate, Michelle Ann, ‘”You Must Kill Her”: The Fact and Fantasy of Filicide in Snow White’, Marvels and Tales, Vol. 26 (2012), pp. 178-203.

Baker-Sperry, Lori and Grauerholz, Liz, ‘The Pervasiveness and Persistence of the Feminine Beauty Ideal in Children’s Fairy Tales’, Gender and Society, 17 (2003), pp. 711-726.

Bettelheim, Bruno, The Uses of Enchantment: The Importance and Meaning of Fairy Tales, (London, 1976).

David, Alfred and  David, Mary Elizabeth, ‘A Literary Approach to the Brothers Grimm’, Journal of the Folklore Institute, 1 (1964), pp. 180-196.

De Blecourt, Willem, Tales of Magic, Tales in Print: On the Genealogy of Fairy Tales and the Brothers Grimm, (Manchester, 2012).

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Gubar, Susan, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Imagination, (London, 2000).

Grimm and Grimm, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, <> ; accessed 28 March 2014.

Haase, Donald, ‘Feminist Fairy-Tale Scholarship: A Critical Survey and Bibliography’, Marvels and Tales, 13 (2000), pp. 15-63.

Robinson, Orrin W., ‘Does Sex Breed Gender: Pronominal Reference in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales’, Marvels and Tales, 21 (2007), pp. 107-123.

Tatar, Maria, The Hard Facts of the Grimm Fairy Tales (Princeton, 1987).

Williams, Christy , ‘Who’s Wicked Now? The Stepmother as Fairy-Tale Heroine’, Marvels and Tales, 24  (2010), pp. 255-271.

Zipes, Jack, The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World, (Houndsmill, 2002).

From Oral to Written Folklore: The Evolution and Reception of the Icelandic Saga

The Icelandic Sagas are more than stories about a heroic age of kings, of trolls and witches, and magical phenomenon unseen by our modern eyes. They offer a complex resource of what early settlers of the island deemed important to their heritage. Since the thirteenth century, scholars have attempted to understand the departure from the oral tradition of storytelling to the more advanced written tradition, attempting in the main, to identify whether or not the sagas were altered with the corresponding advent of Christianity. By the time of the Renaissance, the sagas had become a focus for criticism from learned men of Scandinavia and Denmark. Skepticism towards the written sagas only increased by the end of the eighteenth century. Modern scholars are still stumped by the question of the sagas’ authenticity after the use of letters was introduced in the twelfth century. The question still remains today: how much of the sagas are preserved in their original preliterate wording and content, and can scholars rely on the sagas as historical records?

Before examining the history of the sagas’ narrative format, and the consequential critical historiography in the following centuries later, it is necessary to define the roots and the raison d’être of the Icelandic sagas. The sagas are essentially Viking stories depicting the lives of the early settlers who immigrated to Iceland from Norway sometime in the ninth century, most likely around the year AD874. At this time, Vikings were still enjoying their golden age of prosperity in Northern Europe whilst Christianity and Paganism were in the throes of war for religious supremacy. The island at this time consisted only of a few rural and widely spread out farmsteads with no towns or villages. By the year 1100, about 4,500 farmers lived in Iceland, the majority of the population. Dark, bitterly cold and dull conditions welcomed the early arrivals from Norway, leading W.A. Craigie to conclude that:

“It was a source of pride to recall and recount the names and exploits of the famous men to whom they were related; and an immense quantity of old lore, reaching back into early prehistoric times, was thus carried out to Iceland, and preserved there after it had been forgotten in the place of its origin.”

The sagas had other purposes as well. They provided medieval Icelanders an understand of the world of violence by offering tales about romantic heroes worthy of any Arthurian legend. Popular themes in the sagas included wealth and prestige (such as in the Bandamanna Saga); obligations to others; magical creatures including giants and trolls; the gods of old; genealogical history; societal and familial inter-feuding; tales of distant Norwegian kings and courageous heroes (such as Sigurd the Volsung); and epic travel tales to faraway places like Vinland, as told in the Grœnlendinga Saga. The sagas also provided a binding cultural experience for the few medieval settlers, while also serving as educational and moral guidelines in the new environment. Just as films offer an escape from the trials of our world today, the sagas provided joy and escapism for the listeners and were often recited at weddings, games, and celebratory feasts. Perhaps most significant, the people of the day considered them to be valid histories, therefore worthy of handing down orally from generation to generation. This would later become extremely important for scholars hoping to distinguish between factual history and cultural/personally embroidered fictitious elements.

Between the ninth and eleventh centuries, the sagas were composed orally (this is often referred to as the Saga Age). Poets would string together scenes to speak aloud to eager listeners, just as actors portray different scenes in a play. The word saga translates as ‘something said’, an indication in itself of the long standing oral tradition in Icelandic folklore. There is a personal voice in the narrations, evidenced by the storytellers’ subjective references to local people and regional events. Naming specific natural disasters, for example, created familiarity for listeners, associating them to well-known cultural episodes or to their own eyewitness experiences. As such, the sagas were a private social event within different communities in Iceland. They were a way of preserving a settlement’s own unique cultural past. Stephen P. Leonard views them as a way of ‘ensuring that an awareness of the intimate social cohesion required of a small society was effectively passed on to the next generation’.

However, due to the localised content of the sagas, they became somewhat biased, culturally specific, and highly personalised through collective social memory, which would only faintly remain intact in the written form several centuries later. The facts became less important than the interpretation of them. Although now considered possibly inaccurate as historical records, the sagas serve as an indication as to what sort of values were most important in the medieval Icelandic societies. As historian Barbara Allen recognised, the oral tradition was a selective characterisation of the past, rather than a generalised historical record: in oral epic poetry, the settings for the stories may be the clash of armies and the working out of national destinies, but the focus is always on the individual hero and his exploits.

The emphasis on the mythical and mysterious seemingly ancient past gave the sagas a certain archaic allure. It was as if the sagas were the last remaining relics of a dying age, cast down by generations of storytellers who dedicated themselves to memorising the tales of their forefathers. It was this fascination that kept the stories alive, until finally they were permanently preserved by a generation with ink and parchment. This, consequently, was the point at which the sagas became depersonalised and generalised. The use of letters was introduced to Iceland through the medieval monasteries at some point during the twelfth century. This was evident through the writings of western Icelanders including Snorri Sturluson (AD1179–1241), and Ari Thorgilsson (AD1067–1148). The latter was the author of the Íslendingabók, an account of the history of the island’s settlement. These men did not shun the sagas, but instead fully embraced them as a celebratory piece of heritage, and soon set to work writing them down.

However, these early scribes, as priests in the new ecclesiastical environment, would have understood writing in much the same way as monks scrawling Latin records for the church. They were instructed in the annalistic tradition, a highly impersonal and non-descriptive written format more attuned to historical chronicling. Thus, the sagas, once set down, lost their sense of personal narration and much of their pagan influence. An attempt was made to write them in such a way that they would be both objective and historical, rather than fictitious, dramatic or representative of individual societies. The essential difference was that the individual, the storyteller and the listener no longer mattered conceptually in this early written form.

The spoken versions of the sagas were officially lost once the vellum manuscripts took precedence as collective memory was no longer necessary to preserve the stories. Thus, the original details were often sacrificed in return. By the start of the 1300s, saga writing had come to a sudden end and for nearly two centuries they were left untouched, untold and unread. However, a new era was dawning. The advent and influence of Italian humanism and the growing antiquarian interest of the European Renaissance brought the sagas into the limelight once again. Accompanying the limelight was waves of criticism by new Scandinavian scholars who began questioning the validity of the written forms. The sagas became a major study in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, serving as references for written projects such as the Historia Norwegiæ (c. 1510). They resurfaced amid research to trace the genealogical studies of the Scandinavian and Gothic peoples with scholars finding the sagas particularly useful for mapping the general diasporic trends of the Vikings and their near-ancient predecessors. Sixteenth-century scholars in Denmark were especially intrigued by the sagas and, according to Theodore M. Andersson, considered Iceland an ‘untapped reservoir of Norse history which would serve to supplement Saxon history’. Thus, translation projects started centered in Copenhagen. They including studies by Thormodus Torfæus (AD16361719), whose work would be highly respected for its defense of the oral tradition in a pre-Christianised and pre-literate civilisation. In a world without letters, he believed, the memory had to suffice for retaining knowledge and the early Icelanders made themselves adept at remembering their ancestors through repeated recitation due to lack of a written substitute.

Swedish scholars of the Enlightenment also contributed further theories and studies of the sagas. Olof Rudbeck’s Atlantica (a controversial work spanning from AD1679 to1702) was the first to confidently propose that the sagas had originated in the oral tradition, going so far as to give a full defence of the validity of spoken history beginning with Herodotus – the father of historical practice. This was a groundbreaking contribution to the studies of Icelandic culture for it addressed an early medieval heritage which had little archaeological remains to otherwise speak for it. However, the idea of the spoken tradition in the history of the Icelandic saga began what would be an unrelenting debate for the next several centuries. The sagas themselves were no longer in question, but rather the medium of their genesis: were they verbally composed and then written, or did they come about after letters were introduced? Was there an oral tradition at all? The subsequent historiography became ever more critical in the eighteenth century. In 1755 the notorious Swiss critic Paul Henri Mallet famously wrote ‘Ces annales ne sont pas d’une grande antiquité’ arguing that the sagas came about well after the belief in Odin had ended. Mallet found numerous supporters later in the early Romantic period, including the German historian Christian Friedrich Rühs, who also believed the sagas were written in the late Middle Ages bearing no narrative evidence of a spoken past.

Historical accuracy in the stories is yet another topic for dispute. Some argue in favour of the oral tradition and collective public memory whilst others assert that historical facts could not survive for over 150 years by word of mouth. Many of the leading folklorists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries considered the sagas a potential key to understanding the past, culturally if not historically, and that all myths have some shred of validity which spark the story. The Enlightenment advocated the skepticism towards the historical accuracy of the sagas. Some scholars, including Rühs, began reading the sagas as myths and fiction than as actual dependable records of the past. This later ignited the new interest in Icelandic stories during the era of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. This renewed interest in folklore, and the sagas as they were originally told in the days before ink and parchment, were focused on their literary and entertainment value rather than their historic.

As with all history, the further one gets from the source, the more difficult it is to be assured of verifiable fact. In the twenty first century, theories still differ between how much the sagas suggest an oral tradition steeped in historical accuracy against a written tradition filled with literary elements. Most likely the sagas consist of attributes from both narrative forms. The only evidence which all scholars agree upon is that the sagas were a common European creation of the Middle Ages used to showcase the cultural and social values of a civilization shrouded in a fantastic and perpetual mystery.

Image: Joanídea Sodret


Allen, Barbara, ‘The Personal Point of View in Orally Communicated History’, Western Folklore, 38, (1979), pp. 110-118.

Andersson, Theodore M., The Problem of Icelandic Saga Origins: A Historical Survey (New Haven, 1964).

Byock, Jesse L., ‘Saga Form, Oral Prehistory, and the Icelandic Social Context’, New Literary History, 16 (1984), pp. 153-173.

Chesnutt, Michael, ‘Orality in a NorseIcelandic Perspective’, Oral Tradition, 18 (2004), pp. 197-199.

Craigie, W. A., The Icelandic Sagas (Cambridge, 1913).

Dodsworth, J. B., ‘Review’, The Modern Language Review, 61 (1966), p. 351.

Edwards, Paul and Hermann, Palsson, Legendary Fiction in Medieval Iceland (Reykjavik, 1971).

Leonard, Stephen Pax., Faroese Skjaldur: An Endangered Oral Tradition of the North Atlantic, (Cambridge, 2010).

Myers, Ben, ‘The Icelandic Sagas: Europe’s Most Important Book?’, The Guardian, October 3, 2008, <>.

Niles, John. D., ‘Review’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 108 (2009), pp.378-380.

Orning, Hans Jacob, ‘The Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Sagas (1180-1280)’, Scandinavian Journal of History, 34 (2009), pp. 93-97.

Theatre Review: Waiting for Godot

The Edinburgh Royal Lyceum Theatre’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a triumph, and a fitting celebration of two anniversaries: 60 years since the play’s original production, and 50 years since the Lyceum’s own debut.

Beckett’s existentialist tragicomedy, set against the evening backdrop of only a country road and a tree, follows Estragon (Bill Paterson) and Vladimir (Brian Cox) as they contemplate life while waiting for the mysterious Mr Godot to arrive. The play is cosmetically barren and linguistically repetitive, but deliberately so, and the Lyceum’s production does an excellent job of portraying the terror that lies behind the tranquillity of this landscape.

Though it seems odd to praise stage design in a play where the only guidance on this is ‘A country road. A tree. Evening’, Designer Michael Taylor’s clever usage of a covert ramp makes the abyss that is the play’s setting appear to stretch on endlessly. When this is combined with Lighting Effects Designer Mark Doubleday’s very gradual shifts in lighting, the effect is to reproduce in the audience the characters’ sense that this is a world in which the laws governing time and space have somehow been subverted, and the production is stronger for it.

Also deserving of praise is the costume design. Vladimir and Estragon’s shabby vaudeville actor suits stand in stark contrast to the aristocratic garb of Pozzo (John Bett) and his mackintosh-wearing slave Lucky (Benny Young). This reinforces the play’s classism, which itself feeds into the existential terror about identity and human agency, or the lack thereof, in the play’s world.

Standout among the cast of this production is Brian Cox’s Vladimir. Unsurprisingly to anyone familiar with his work, Cox handles his character’s comic and tragic extremes with subtlety and panache, and the result is a performance that elicits both laughter and pity. Cox’s rendering of Beckett’s lines is so natural that audience members might be fooled into thinking that he is ad-libbing, though this never occurs in the production. Paterson’s Estragon is similarly virtuoso though his timing did sometimes seem slightly off, somewhat breaking the flow of the play’s frequent sections of stichomythia. Pozzo and Lucky are also rendered as a suitably Hegelian duo by Bett and Young. Bett is convincing as both the Pozzo that acts as Lucky’s master and his slave, and Young portrays the extremes of Lucky’s stoicism and emotional outbursts with great gusto.

Overall Mark Thomson’s direction has produced a faithful and enjoyable production of Godot, and one destined to leave audiences pondering the question that Estragon poses at the start of the second act: ‘What do we do, now that we are happy?’

Image: Marko Milosevic

Book Review: All Quite on the Western Front

The centenary of the First World War hangs over the next few years. This anniversary is prompting new academic writing, literature, television and radio, which reflect on the war and the impact it has on us today. Whilst all these mediums shed light on the events of those dreadful four years and their aftermath, it is important to revisit the sources of the time to unearth the realities of the war, and the experiences of those directly involved.

All Quiet on the Western Front, was published in 1928 and is based on the frontline experiences of its author, Erich Maria Remarque. He was conscripted into the German army in 1917 at the age of eighteen. The text was extremely popular when first published, selling over one and a half million copies in 1929. It was also made into an Academy Award winning film in 1930. The novel is a fascinating source that presents the perspective that most British readers are least familiar with – that of the ‘enemy’, the Germans. Remarque begins the novel with a disclaimer of sorts:

This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure… It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.

The text professes the confusing juxtaposition of the extremes of quasi-modern warfare: utter boredom and constant fear of a violent and painful death. The men go from endlessly waiting, smoking, talking and killing millions of lice, to being pushed over the top straight into hand-to-hand combat, fighting to the death with men who mirror them in almost every way apart from their language. Through the exploration of these poles of warfare, the novel encapsulates both terror and tranquillity.

Images in the text veer violently between those of beauty, nature and camaraderie, and those of death, destruction and the immense pity of war. Any reader, at any point in this novel’s existence, will be aware that the Germans lost and were blamed for the war; the allies are seen as the heroes and the Germans generally as a homogenised evil invader. However, All Quiet undermines this by unbinding the blur of ‘evil’ German soldiers into individuals with same hopes, dreams and extreme fear as the opposing armies’. Remarque detaches the common soldiers from those giving the orders, adding perspective and allowing the reader to engage in both sides of the story.

Like much of the literature of the war, All Quiet captures the futility and unpredictability of the conflict. Characters you have got to know through the course of the text are suddenly dead, wounded, or gassed, torn from your imagination as those whom they represent were torn from reality a hundred years ago. Its stark depiction of war made it a censored and publicly burned book following the Nazi’s rise to power in 1933. Nevertheless, it has survived the test of time and still resonates with modern readers. It is a staple of war literature and will remain in the historical literary cannon, I hope, for years to come.

Image: Amanda Slater