If I remember correctly, Þórr did not wear tight spandex and dance about on stage waving his hammer.* The Norse mythological cosmos was not made up of different dimensional ‘bubbles’, and saga scholars were chained to their desks in dusty old offices, not trekking around the Icelandic wilderness in a battered old Landover. In fact, I thought academics discussed metre and metaphors, not smells and sign language. Yet these quirky papers set the tone for what was to be an inspiring 15th International Saga Conference (University of Aarhus, 5th-11th August): pushing the boundaries, thinking outside of the box, and engaging in a discourse beyond that of the medieval saga.
Of course, the traditional Old Norse super-heroes were there in full force: John Mckinnell, Margaret Clunies Ross, Lars Lönnroth, Ted Andersson, John Lindow, Judith Jesch, Sverre Bagge, Mathew Driscoll, Pernille Hermann and Carolyne Larrington to name but a few of the world-leading experts of the Scandinavian scholarly community who gathered together to show-case their most recent research and inspire awe (…or strike terror?) into the hearts of aspiring young scholars. With over 330 participants attending five parallel sessions running over five days, Aarhus not only boasted faultless organisation and smooth-running, but was by far the biggest Saga Conference yet.** It’s success is a testament to all those involved in Old Norse studies, proving that the medieval Scandinavian world is as popular as ever. Of course, old ideas were revisited, but many were given a new twist: Terry Gunnell’s paper combining archaeological evidence, place-name theory and literature forced listeners to reconsider the idea of a Norse ‘pantheon’, whilst Guðrún Nordal brought the sagas to life as she explored the very real links between saga-patron, audience and character.
Yet it was not always the Stephen Hawkings and Robert Winstons of the Norse scholarly community who stole the show. A whole host of papers by independent scholars and PhD students presented some extraordinarily well-researched and occasionally radical ideas, often approached from unusual angles. Amongst them, Arngrímur Vídalín’s scientific map with the y-axis draugr and x-axis narrative periphery memorably springs to mind, as does Emily Lethbridge’s (perhaps more convincing argument) that the sagas should not be read chronologically but according to landscape. Sarah Lütje’s project exploring the performance and reception of the Edda involved Japanese manga and Viking metal, whilst Leszek Gardela’s high-gore content paper dazzled (or, in some cases, mildly nauseated) members of the audience with graphic drawings of decapitated Vikings. One word: awesome.
It was great to see such diversity of papers and, whilst the dichotomy between old and new scholarly practice was sometimes marked, more often than not the boundaries were blurred. Those well-known academics who we revere and love epitomised traditional academia at its very best, but at the same time a new body of scholars with new approaches, broader ways of thinking and a sense of adventure emerged from the mists. It is this combination of old and new, of established and experimental, that allowed such dynamism and discourse to take place. The Saga Conference was an exciting and intellectually stimulating event, thoroughly enjoyed by all who attended — although, of course, I’m sure the specially brewed ‘Saga Ale’, and bountiful wine at the final Conference Dinner helped somewhat…….
*this was actually a video-clip: unfortunately, no scholar dressed up as Þórr-in-spandex.
**special thanks to the organisers Pernille Hermann, Jens Peter Schjødt, Ulla Loumand and the fantastic student helpers.