Abstract: The domestication of anxiety – Handling contingency in medieval Icelandic literature

Medieval Icelandic literature, saga literature in particular, is often said to be composed along predefined structural and thematic patterns, which would reflect the actual nature of society in the medieval North. Saga scholarship has tried to demonstrate how the observing of certain rules in society and politics, or their breaking, would entail a predictable outcomeand predictability, after all, seems desirable. However, closer inspection highlights a peculiar ambiguity and even ambivalence: the behavior of many saga characters, and thus their implied impact on society both within and beyond the narrative, seems to be triggered by a deep-rooted feeling of uncertainty rather than any manmade regulations. This uncertainty becomes apparent in social interaction but is even more significant in the confrontation of man and nature: many events turn out differently than what the saga characters (or the recipient) expected, often due to simple but relentless natural conditions, so much so that at a certain point narration itself seems to become unreliable, with the only rule being unpredictability. Arguably, this contingent state of being entails a high degree of anxiety among saga characters, resulting in actionism as well as paralyzation, but it may also reveal how medieval Icelandic society itself was goverened by anxiety: saga literature attempts to tame this unsettling feeling through narration, but this domestication, at the same time, inevitably entails the cultivation of anxiety. This indelible ambivalence of hope and fear in human existence, as displayed in and through saga literature, is at the core of my research project.


Dr. phil. habil. Jan Alexander van Nahl

University of Iceland, Faculty of Icelandic and Comparative Cultural Studies

Associate Professor for Medieval Icelandic Literature

Migration, Language, Culture and Discourse

Projects in this cluster cover a wide range of topics, including social integration, national isolationism, cultural identity, xenophobia, racism, etc.