Thursday, June 25, 2015

Njal's Saga and South Park

Tom Shippey has a piece in the LRB on Njal's Saga (here).  It's a wonderful piece, but there are priceless lines strangely reminiscent of South Park (I heard these in the voice of Cartman):

This killing was legitimate. Thrain had given serious provocation: he had stood by twice when the Njalssons were called taðskegglingar, ‘little dung-beards’, and though he didn’t say it himself, in sagas rude words are never forgiven. 

So lovely.

Or how about this:

The pile of money is lying on the ground waiting for Hoskuld’s wife’s uncle Flosi to pick it up, when Njal adds a silk cloak to the pile, apparently as a ‘sweetener’, a further gesture of conciliation. It isn’t taken like that. When Flosi arrives, he asks who gave the cloak (why?). No one replies (why not?). He asks again, and laughs (laughing is a bad sign in the saga-world). He asks if they’re afraid to tell him, and when he gets a sharp answer from Skarphedin (‘Who do you think gave it?’), he lets fly the standard insult against Njal, that he can’t grow a beard and so may not be a real man.

This ratcheting-up of tension could have been avoided if a conciliatory answer had been given in the first place. It’s not clear what Flosi’s problem with the cloak is anyway. Some say a silk cloak could have been seen as an effeminate garment, but as Miller points out, Egil Skallagrimsson wore one, and no one called that troll-descended bruiser a ‘girly-man’. 

Thankfully, the critic later moves on to the kind of Emperor's New Clothes sanity so familiar in Kyle and Stan:

A lawyer himself, Miller has trouble with this combination of pettifogging and violence. ‘The problem for a legal system,’ he says, ‘is to keep the perception of tricksterism and actual tricksterism within acceptable bounds so that the law still maintains a certain level of respect.’ Non-lawyers may say that we were hoping for something rather better than that.
 The thing that particularly struck me, though, was the way the analysis places this social structure at a distance, not incomprehensibly remote, but remote in requiring explanation in a society with different values:

Miller’s analyses could make more of matters of honour (which has no status in modern law). Right at the start Hallgerd’s father, seeing his beautiful child, asks his half-brother Hrut what he thinks of her. Hrut says nothing, and Hoskuld asks again: ‘Isn’t she beautiful?’ Hrut says yes, but adds: ‘I cannot imagine how a thief’s eyes have come into our kin.’ Miller notes that Hallgerd’s father’s repetition of the question is tactless – he should have listened to the silence – but seems to think that Hrut might have held back his ‘insult’. I would suggest that in a prickly society, between adult  males, asking a question twice is a challenge that necessitates an equivalent response.
 Several years ago I had to look after my mother in the aftermath of an operation. This turned out to be a professional disaster, since Bill Clegg, the agent I had signed with, had failed to sell the book he had insisted on sending out, and now wanted 100 pages of an ambitious new book within a month. There was no way I could produce this while living with and looking after my mother; it ended badly. (He resigned while she was in intensive care.)  Since I was in a situation where it was impossible to work, though, I ended up watching all 5 seasons of The Wire courtesy of Netflix - and I was immediately struck by the Sophoclean clash between the honour-governed world of the black drug dealers (honour as this is understood in Homer) and the law-governed world of white Baltimore. (Law-governed in the sense that there are rules about the tricks that can be played.)

Matters of honour have no status in modern law... I've spent a couple of decades dealing with people who are comfortable with playing tricks as long as these either fall within what the law allows OR won't lead to a lawsuit  What's been interesting is not the games people play, but the extent to which a culture of honour is wholly incomprehensible.  It's been interesting to see how resistant this blind spot is to even the greatest literature.


Lucy Ferriss said...

Helen, may I be so bold as to recommend my new novel A SISTER TO HONOR? (My title was HONOR, but the commercial-minded publisher changed it.) Tries to take on the culture of honor from two radically different points of view. Happy to send you a copy.

All bet,
Lucy Ferriss

Ian Brown said...

Have you read any Alisdair MacIntyre? He wrote about the incommensurable nature of ethics systems in After Virtue. Your comments on the Wire remind me of his chapters on heroism.