This was not my first conference. But it was the first time that I went to a conference of this size and importance, and when I registered for it, I was as excited about it as my 17-year-old self before her first festival. And in many ways, the Saga Conference was like a festival: seeing the people live who you normally only listen to (musically or in articles); getting to know new people, new approaches, new countries; sleeping less than is good for you; and going home tired but happy and full of fresh memories.
Two years ago, I went to Aarhus for a summer school, and on the first day it simply felt good to be back. It was good that we had some time to settle in, because the next day we were thrown into registration and a reception, and I found myself not only talking to graduate students from other universities and countries, but also to such eminent scholars as John Lindow. And that was only the beginning.
The next day, Lars Lönnroth opened the conference, recounting its history, and calling us to battle. In his opinion, scholars of Old Norse are becoming to comfortable in their positions and friendly with each other, there are no fights, no controversies anymore. But we have to be controversial, we have to disagree, to survive in a world that does not value the arts and humanities in general (let alone something as odd and specialised as Old Norse!), a world in which the pursuit of knowledge has to be profitable.
And there were some controversies and disagreements – and in fact I myself disagreed with several papers I went to – but I never got the impression that hostilities arose. I have heard different stories from other fields, where people regularly fall out with each other over a drink. The Norse world does not seem to be like that, or at least I – certainly one of the youngest and most inexperienced attendees – did not see it. But for me, the young scholar freshly come to the field, this friendliness and the warm welcome I was met with made settling into that quite intimidating experience much easier than it could have been.
Personally I think that this is what could make the Old Norse world stronger than other areas in the humanities. Whether you find yourself talking to one of the most well-known scholars on the bus, or dancing with someone you have quoted in your dissertation after the conference dinner, whether you email someone for a reference or an article or
drink that one final pint of Saga Brew with some great scholar (and probably neither of you should have had that drink) – people are interested, mostly open-minded and just genuinely nice. Everyone I spoke to showed interest in my project, and that support is invaluable for a newcomer like me, because it gives me courage and makes me look forward to the next three years. And to the next Saga Conference in 2015.
What will happen there? I do not know. But I know that I will want to give a paper. Then I will see if people will meet me with the same friendliness and interest they showed me now, before ever having heard any of my strange ideas. Or if support and controversy are mutually exclusive.
The 16th International Saga Conference will be held in Zurich in 2015; the theme is “Sagas and Space”.