Grettir and the goslings

My class read the first chapters of Grettir's saga over the weekend, and we discussed it in class on Monday.  The first thing most of them wanted to talk about was the thing they had read last: the chapter about Grettir's childhood. That is the section of the saga where his father keeps giving him tasks that he considers beneath himself, and he finds very meanspirited ways to express his displeasure. He is told to look after the geese and goslings, and after a few days of this his rage at the insult is so great, he strangles all the goslings and breaks the wings of each goose. My students were pretty darn amazed at this description of Grettir's childhood. But I told them we would have plenty of chances to talk about Grettir´s personality over the next few weeks, and wanted instead to spend some time talking about Grettir's ancestors and how they are described in the beginning section of the saga.

Before class tomorrow, I guess I need to decide what to say about this kind of "vengeance for a slight" mentality that shows up regularly in the sagas and seems to have been accepted by the audience as a normal enough explanation for behavior. In fact it occurs to me that all the books we are reading this semester have characters who react to insults to their personhood in destructive ways.

I think I might actually spend some time talking about the horse that Grettir flays alive, because he dislikes that his father trusts the opinion of the horse about the weather more than Grettir's own weather-sense. Unlike Grettir's father and mother, the horse really fights back, rearing up on her hind legs, slamming Grettir up against the wall, biting him, etc. I get the sense that the horse was not just reacting to the pain, but also that the horse was proud enough to want to stand up for herself, literally.


Jon said…
Do you consider for your students that abusers pass on their abuse to successive generations? Do you relate this to modern behavioral and criminal issues?
Lissy said…
No Jon, not at all. I spoke instead about the fact that in a society where people have from birth a fundamental right to honor, one that is enhanced by highbirth but not denied even the lowest rungs of society, that Grettir's father showed him dishonor. Some of the students were dismayed of course by his behavior, but most of them seemed to understand the idea of personal honor. I expanded on that today in discussing the fact that there were no prisons in medieval Scandinavia, because the nothing had the authority to take away one's personal liberty. I told the student's basically that modern western society has given over rights to honor and rights to freedom that used to be personally held, and given them over to a institutional apparatus. Honor is given by schools, freedom by police, etc. And then today of course we talked about how Grettir's behavior improves so much after his mother shows him the honor of giving him the family sword. Honorable behavior begets honorable behavior, dishonorable behavior does not.
Jon said…
Way cool! The historical context is far more interesting! Thanks for the mini-lecture. I don't suppose you would offer an online version of your classes?

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