Teaching sagas to kids from China

Berkeley, as a major university on the Pacific Rim, is a very popular choice for high-achieving students from Asia, especially from South Korea, Japan, and China. Although none of them come to Berkeley to major in my home department of Scandinavian Languages and Literatures, many of them do end up taking courses in the department. This is especially the case for Scandinavian 5, which is an introduction to Scandinavian literature in translations, because it fulfills a University requirement to take a Reading and Composition course. I have been teaching Scandinavian 5 fairly consistently for the last 7 years, that is, whenever I was in Berkeley and not living in Iceland, and I have always had at least two or three international students in my class from an Asian country, in addition to the many other students of Asian ancestry who come to Berkeley as residents of California. In a class of 17 students, only two or three were typically Caucasian, and I think I only had one student ever that was of Scandinavian heritage in Scandinavian 5. 

I was always therefore a bit hesitant to assign only readings from the Old Icelandic sagas, even though that is my area of specialty. I usually included more modern works from Scandinavia, assuming they would be more accessible. But this summer, I finally decided to just teach the sagas, and nothing else. For one class, I assigned sagas that had a lot to do with ships and travel: Orkneyinga saga, the Vinland Sagas, the saga of the Faroe Islanders, and Grettir's saga. I had taught all of those sagas before, though never together, but still I felt comfortable with it.

For the other course I taught this summer, I went more out on a limb. In addition to Gisla saga and the Saga of Erik the Red, I included two sagas I had never taught before: Gunnlaugs saga Serpent Tongue and Laxdaela saga. The unifying theme of this selection was marriage, and I called the class Marriage in Cold Climes. The students and I got pretty into the theme and the readings, and it was very interesting.

But I must say, we never did come up with a satisfactory understanding of Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir. We talked about it a lot, but the students were never compassionate to her plight as they were to say Gísli. This goes for the female students as well as the male students. Even when I managed to convince the students of Kjartan's responsibility in spurring the unfolding feud, Guðrún remained reprehensible to the students.

I didn't know how to explain to them that it is not only possible, but also rather believable, that Guðrún could simultaneously love Kjartan dearly and still be absolutely unable to forgive him. The students are young, and they want to believe that love forgives all things and overcomes all things. Most of them also come from a background where the good of the family and society comes before the ego of the person. Guðrún fails on both of these counts therefore to be the kind of person my students could empathize with. But as a divorced woman in my 40s, I sympathized with Guðrún, and with her feeling that Kjartan had done her many great wrongs, all of which showed a fundamental lack of respect for who she was.

As it turns out, my first shaky attempt to teach Laxdaela saga for Scandinavian 5 is also my last attempt to do so. I am leaving Berkeley, and joining the faculty at Pacific Lutheran University. There the student body makeup is very different, and I imagine most of the students I teach will be of Scandinavian descent. Whether or not they will sympathize with Guðrún however remains to be seen. 


Jono said…
How exciting for you! I went to a small Scandinavian influenced college in the Midwest (many decades ago) and would have loved to learn more about the sagas. Being a little cooler and damper may make you feel more at home :)

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