On fate

I'm working, in my head at least, on a talk about the Saga of the Faeroe Islands, specifically on the character of Thrand Göteskegg. He's such a contrast to Sigmund, the hero of the saga. Unlike many other sagas, this one is structured along the lines of a hero and anti-hero, and one of the distinguishing features in this saga between the hero and anti-hero is the degree to which fate controls their lives. Thrand is in good social standing throughout his life, and uses his own authority and power to maintain his prestige and power. Sigmund's life is much more dramatic, going from the lows of being a homeless beggar to being the king's favorite, to being murdered on the beach, all of his life being governed by luck and fate. The funny thing about the saga though, at least in the context of Flateyarbók, is that there seems to be more narrative attention on Thrand. The saga begins and ends with him, so my students have often argued he is the main character, even though he is also the anti-hero. One could fit it into the ambiguous moral world of the Viking and early medieval period, and say that a man who takes matters into his own hands, and champions Faeroese independence, cannot be an anti-hero. But Sigmund is clearly the hero, not only in his looks and athletic prowess, but perhaps more so in the degree to which his life is dictated by fate. Like Achilles, he is a favorite of the gods, and they battle over how his life with unfold, either good or bad, it seems to me.

All this has got me thinking about my own life, and whether or not I would say it has been dictated by fate or luck or my own doing and choices. The bio I used to have up, when I worked at Berkeley, emphasized that I have had a very lucky life, and especially in the fact that I got the job at the Smithsonian, working on the international millennium Viking exhibition counts as lucky. Especially because it was a clerical error that got me the fellowship to George Washington University, whereby I got the internship and eventual job at the Smithsonian. Had it not been for another student with the same last name applying to the same program at the same time, I would not have been mistakenly offered a fellowship (by the department, who wanted an experienced anthropology student, whereas the administration clearly thought someone with a Magne cum laude degree from Berkeley deserved a fellowship, regardless of my lack of anthropological theory). So I always thought my life was more or less controlled by fate.

But I think there was a moment when I broke away from the path laid out for me, when I decided not to follow the obvious "all signs point in this direction." That was in 2003, when Reykjanesbær announced that they were buying Gunnar's ship, and I was working with them on lending them pieces from the Smithsonian exhibition. That would have been a good time to move to Iceland, a good time to apply to graduate school there, get a PhD in Icelandic literature at the best university in the world for such a degree. Instead, I moved back to California.

Now, I don't regret that, especially not because it led to my wonderful son Palmer being born. But I think I was supposed to give him siblings--he used to talk about having a sister living in another country--and that never happened nor is it going to happen. That feeling of loss over something that one never had is perhaps to me the strongest indication that at some point in time, I made a choice that took me somewhere I was not necessarily supposed to go.

Thrand made that choice, when he agreed to help exact vengeance on his own kin even though nothing compelled him to do so. And Sigmund made that choice, when he kept wearing a pagan king's gift, even though he had strong indications he should not. So well, I suppose there wouldn't be any stories, or any sagas, if everyone just followed the obvious, simple and appropriate path ahead of them. Even heroes take matters into their own hands, and swim against the stream, instead of patiently allowing the flow of life to carry them.

The hero is the one fated to be the hero and who follows that destiny. Most though take detours of some sort or another, and sometimes, those detours can get you killed. Especially if you are laying exhausted on the beach with a huge gold bracelet around your arm.


Unknown said…
I believe and God only knows, that you are exactly were you are meant to be and you took all the decisions that you were meant to take, through your life, that got you to this point.

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