Friday, 13 May 2011

Viking Week

It's been a good week for Norse and Viking stuff. I've been to see Thor, which was certainly more Marvel comic than Norse myth, but that was predictable. Then, after a very long wait, British television finally gave us a programme on the Icelandic sagas - what took them so long? It was part of a Scandinavian week on BBC 4, involving a very mixed bag of  Jar City, Night Shift, bits of Noggin the Nog, and various other things I didn't see. For those not in the know, Noggin the Nog (that's a picture of him) is a classic series of very simple animated films for children, in which the characters are loosely based on the Lewis chess-pieces, and the stories set in the 'Northlands'. Jar City is a film made some years ago of Arnaldur Indriðason's detective novel Mýrin, and Night Shift is a wonderfully wacky and pretty surreal Icelandic sitcom set in a petrol station (highly recommended).

But back to the sagas. It's great to have a TV programme on sagas, after many many years of waiting, and I am happy to admit that there were several things I liked about The Viking Sagas. The landscapes were great, and beautifully photographed. My esteemed colleague Heather O'Donoghue was earnestly enthusiastic about the literature. I liked the fact that saga-extracts were read out in Modern Icelandic. I also thought it was a good idea to focus on just one saga (Laxdœla saga): that allowed more depth than would otherwise have been possible. But the trouble with watching a programme on a subject about which you are knowledgeable is that it's hard to resist the urge to nitpick... Sorry guys, here goes.

I could just about put up with the title, and the fact that the programme had to end with Tolkien (who may have been influenced by Norse myth, but not so much by the sagas set in Iceland). However I do think neither is worthy of BBC4, though they might have been OK on BBC3. I wasn't impressed by Dr Janina Ramirez (not clear what she is a 'Dr' of) in any way, and was especially irritated by her overdone reaction shots. I didn't like the various errors (the statement that the genetic results showing a large proportion of Icelanders descended from females from the British Isles came from the DNA analysis of old bones, the related misleading statement that 'Aud the Deepminded' was 'British', the strong implication that the days of the week in modern English are derived from the Norse gods, and the strong implication that modern-day practitioners of the Ásatrú are somehow 'remnants'  of the old pre-Christian belief (rather than a modern reinvention). In general there was a bit too much mythology for a programme supposed to be about the sagas and their landscape. And I was completely mystified by the many hanging and revolving names and books... All in all, a curate's egg of a programme which I couldn't help feeling was not fully worthy of BBC4.

The days of the week also cropped up briefly in Thor, in the library scene, and continue to be peddled as evidence for Norse influence on English by the uninformed. The days of the week are complicated and not simply to be reduced in this way, nor do they necessarily all derive from a common Germanic pre-Christian origin. And a programme about Iceland should at the very least mention the fact that Icelandic doesn't have theophoric days of the week... Those who would like to know more are encouraged to read Philip A. Shaw's ‘The Origins of the Theophoric Week in the Germanic Languages’, Early Medieval Europe, 15 (2007), 386-401.

Well, dear reader, forgive me my rant. In the end, though, I feel positive about it all - it's great that there is so much interest.


  1. Dr Janina Ramirez is a Doctor of History of Art, of all things...

  2. Carolyne Larrington19 May 2011 at 16:42

    It wasn't *quite* as bad as I feared, partly of course through the corrective presence of Gísli and Heather, and the lovely scenery, and the modern Icelandic (though it seemed a bizarrely-skewed retelling of Lax-
    dœla, taking for ever over the opening scenes and then whizzing through the revenge sequence, even if the death of Kjartan was quite well done. But why they hired someone who can't even PRONOUNCE Laxdœla is well beyond me.
    Erm ... I'm being retained by The One Show to talk about the origins of the names of the days of the week in a five-minute film. I will certainly look at Phil's article. But I've already trampled on the director's dreams by refusing to allow Freyja to be mentioned. And making clear she is NOT the same as Eostre.

  3. not clear what she is a 'Dr' of

    That question can be answered, as above, but by it hang others, it seems. A rapid websearch asserts, via a History Today article on this very Icelandic subject, that she is Director of the Certificate of Art History at Oxford University. Either the Department of Continuing Education's webpage is badly out of date, Dr Ramirez's CV is badly out of date, or one of them's lying, as I find this not to be the case. She does have an Oxford e-mail address, at Continuing Education indeed, but they don't mention her at all on their site. Her agent's page has further details about her thesis and publications but now I feel the urge to check all the details.

  4. I keep meaning to revamp an old Kazoo paper on Scandinavian day-names into a article. Shaw's paper is great, though I (would) take a different tack, as it seems to me that the importation of the theophoric days names into WGmc has long been seen as a 3rd-4th century thing (which Shaw argues against), though their arrival in NGmc has been usually understood as a much later (Viking Age-ish) importation. In contrast, I would try to argue that (pace Shaw) the importation could have indeed been in the late Roman era, perhaps before there was any useful contrast between 'W" and "N" Gmc, and so the use of the names in Scandinavian context might well date from the late Roman era as well. (There is, after all, plenty of Roman influence banging around Scandinavia.). When Shaw's article popped up, while I did not abandon these views, I did start to wonder if things might be much messier than any of us have been assuming, and whether we might be seeing multiple "layers" of importation; particularly, in Scandinavia, an early importation of theophoric day names being mixed up with influences brought by WGmc-speaking (mostly English, I should think) clergy in the conversion and early medieval periods (there being, after all, plenty of signs of English influence in other cultural areas at these times) .... but I really haven't got down to dealing with the nitty gritty in re-writing the presentation as a paper! Mmm, well, it's on my list ....

    But returning (at length!) to the point made in your post -- yes, obviously these are importation nonetheless, at whatever period (or periods) they may have happened! :)

  5. Carl, I look forward to your views on the days of the week in due course, I'm sure the last word on this has not yet been said.

  6. Carl, I know a place that would be interested in publishing such an article. Just saying.

    Re: the good Dr. Nina, her "publicists" er agents claim she's written a "seminal article" on Codex Amiatinus. Frankly, Amiatinus is a special interest of mine and I hadn't heard of it, but it was published in 2009 and no one I know who works on Amiatinus has heard of it much less called it seminal. No matter....since that doesn't address the question of why she's in the saga show. The answer to that would seem to simply be that in 2010 she did "Treasures of the Anglo-Saxons" for BBC4; thus someone in production said, "Hey, let's use Nina for this saga thing. It's all "Germanic" stuff, she knows that sort of thing." Nice work if you can get it.

  7. Hi

    I saw the rerun of the sagas programme, not realising that it had been broadcast back in 2011. I was appalled and, looking on the net to find others' reactions, was comforted to read these comments. You are all too polite to say so directly, but I suspect the sagas would have found much better advocates among the contributors to this page. Such a shame.

  8. Did you speak at the BBC History Day in Bristol on Saturday?