From Ancient Rocks to Literary Criticism

Professor of Scandinavian and Folklore Stephen A. Mitchell

When Professor of Scandinavian and Folklore Stephen A. Mitchell travelled to Europe one year hoping to learn about medieval culture, he found that all of his hopes had been blown up into 1000 little bits--literally.

The professor, who studies the literature and cultural history of Scandinavia, had hoped to analyze a 1000-year-old runestone, inscribed with ancient writing. However, when he arrived at the field where the rock was located, Mitchell discovered that a local farmer had destroyed his key to the past. "A farmer had loaded a couple of sticks of dynamite onto the runestone and turned it into rubble," Mitchell says. "All medieval historians are frustrated trying to reconstruct a world about which we know very little."

Despite that setback, Mitchell still travels to Scandinavia as often as he can to do field research, the aim of which is to analyze folklore theory and the history of that genre in Northern Europe, he says. "My life is split in two halves, but there is a synergism between them," says Mitchell, who just received tenure from Harvard after eight years of teaching here.

'Transmission and Transmutation'

"A lot of the work I've done focuses on the transmission and transmutation of texts across cultural and genre boundaries--what happens as tales evolve and in what ways are they affected," says Mitchell.


Mitchell's forthcoming book Icelandic Legendary Sagas considers the evolution of some 30 Norse epics from prose texts into ballads. In this text, the literature expert examines the function of the poetic ballad in medieval society and the impact the genre had on society at the time, he says.

"It's an attempt to trace the cultural and literary history of that world," Mitchell says. "Some of [that history] is entirely ignored."

For example, according to Mitchell, nineteenth century composer Richard Wagner's opera "The Ring Cycle" is an artistic effort which owes some of its inspiration to Icelandic sagas, such as Beowulf. "There are aspects of that tale that go back at least a millenium," says Mitchell.

He says the book will take a new approach to analysis of Norse poetry by following the narrative text of an individual ballad as its characteristics alter over time. In this way, he will discover how the plot has or has not remained faithful to the original poetic form, as well as examining the narrative's changing impact on society.

"In a sense, [the book's focus] is an explanation of what tradition means," Mitchell says. "To what extent does communality play a role in tradition?"

The manuscript for Icelandic Legendary Sagas should reach the editor by early next year, the author says.

Swedish Roles

Despite his current focus on Norse literature, Mitchell also says he wishes researchers would pay more attention to Swedish literary tradition, in hopes that academics might attempt to "restore the balance" between emphasis on Norse mythology and Swedish literature.

"Literary history has tended to turn its back on what was happening outside of Iceland in the Middle Ages," he says.

People already tend to know only about the works of Henrik Ibsen, August Strindbert and Kaut Hamsun, but there is still room for study, Mitchell says. "Along with Ibsen, [Strindberg's work] is the most over-researched area of my field, although there are nuggets yet to be discovered."