Tuesday, September 19, 2017


I have to admit that in the last couple years of high school I read, nearly back to back, The Communist Manifesto and Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. I never had the guts to tackle Atlas Shrugged. I know what you are thinking....but I promise I was not one of those kids. I have worked through Marxist theory before but never thought to apply it to the Icelandic sagas. This leads to some very interesting theoretical discussions.

Marxism, of course, deals with the class struggle. And reading something like A Tale of Two Cities or Sinclair Upton's The Jungle, a Marxist point of view lends itself extremely well to how the author thought or how the text itself may have been developed. What is so interesting, though, is many of the Íslendingasögur takes place in the so-called Common Wealth era of Iceland's history--a time before government structure. Iceland was more or less settled by independent and free farmers with very little governmental infrastructure. According to Louis Althusser, however, any kind of ideology is an instrument of the state that keeps an individual suppressed. With the development of the Alþingi and the intense legal system (though no executive branch), then could the ideology of keeping the peace have turned into the kind of thing Althusser mentions?

Certainly much of Sturlunga saga lends itself to a Marxist lens. Here, at least, there is a sense of class disparity. Now that I think about it, however, the foundation myth of fleeing Norway from King Harald's tyranny falls into the same category! Nevertheless, a pre-state Iceland that existed long before the industrial revolution throws some wrenches into the Marxist machine. Throughout much of the sagas, however, there is discernment between small farmers, big farmers, outlaws and royalty. The production of the sagas themselves was more often than not overseen by the ecclesiastical class. And its intended audience was originally part of the upper tiers of society. Yet again, the question comes to hand, just how divided was Icelandic society? Even during the Sturlunga Age, as the families of big farmers collected the power, how tangible were the class differences?

Now, I am very aware that to read something with a Marxist theory, the text does not need to have a deliberate class struggle present. The Icelandic sagas, though were pseudo-historical, which means that this power dynamic is extremely important to the reading. I think much more can be said about a Marxist reading of the sagas, especially as manuscripts vary through the centuries. Looking at differences from early writings to late, post-reformation versions, when Iceland left the Common Wealth and entered the world economy through its cod industry can reveal some very interesting differences and insights.

Then again, sometimes the theory just doesn't quite fit.

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