PhD Research Proposal

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Personal Transformation in Medieval Scandinavian Literature: Three Case Studies

"In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas corpora" (I intend to speak of forms changed into new entities) -- Ovid, Metamorphoses

The literature of early medieval Scandinavia reflects a world in transition: Oral culture is giving way to written; regional autonomy to nations governed by kings; and widespread conversion to Christianity, to name just a few. These are macro-level transitions, but underlying and contributing to them are myriad stories of individual and personal transformation.

My proposed thesis will take a micro-level, case study approach to explore the theme of transformation in medieval Scandinavian literature, focusing on three different types of personal transformation that occur with some degree of frequency in the sagas, and potentially in other types of tangential literature: Becoming an adult, becoming a ruler, and becoming a Christian.

In medieval Scandinavian studies, there is no shortage of research and writing on religious conversion, or on narratives about kings and rulers. The transition between childhood and adulthood is somewhat underrepresented, but has attracted recent scholarship (ref). Taken individually, none of these topics would be promising for a dissertation-length project. However, considering them together under the lens of "transformation" would allow for comparative analysis of themes, language, and processes that might otherwise remain obscure. It would also allow for a more interdisciplinary approach, grounded in literary analysis, but drawing from psychology, anthropology, and history of religions.

The case study approach presents the additional possibility of adapting one or more of the case studies independently, for publication in a journal or presentation at an academic conference during the course of the doctoral program.

Becoming an Adult

The transition from childhood to adulthood is a near universal phenomenon, well attested across the sagas, and particularly so in family and legendary sagas (Larrington). Recent scholarship has placed considerable focus on the legal age (Callow, Lewis-Simpson) and rites of passage (Danielli, Haggerty, Schjodt) by which this transformation occurs, or the distinctive characteristics that separate childhood and adolescence from adulthood (Hansen, Ross).

Along with Hansen, my thesis presumes the existence of "a children's world and an adults' world," distinct from one another (ref), and will examine the processes by which characters in the sagas (and possibly poetry?) move from one to another, navigating social expectations, changes of age and status, critical decisions, rites of passage, and interpersonal relationships. Grettis Saga and Egil's Saga have frequently been deemed "coming of age" stories for their respective male protagonists, while Laxdaela Saga and Njal's Saga afford the opportunity to examine female characters (Guðrún and Hallgerd) transitioning to adulthood.

In particular, I'm interested in questions of recognition and regression. Does a saga character recognize, internally, a specific point at which he or she has transformed into an adult? What role, if any, do ritual and ceremony play in the public recognition of that transformation? Are there instances where personal and public recognition of transformation are not aligned? After the transformation to adulthood is recognized, does the individual ever revert back to behavior associated with childhood? Conversely, are there instances where an individual exhibits adult behavior or skill prior to the actual transformation? How long is the transformative process, and what are the significant catalysts?

Approaching the texts through the lens of modern psychological or anthropological analysis could also prove fruitful in understanding the transformative process in medieval Scandinavian literature. However, this should be done with caution, recognizing that Erikson's stage theory or Van Gennep's rites of passage applied over-zealously to a text written by an anonymous author in the 13th century are not likely to give extensive insight into the mind of an actual 10th century Icelandic teenager. Rather, it is my hope that these interdisciplinary approaches might supplement a critical literary analysis, and point in the direction of common perceptions about transformation in the culture which produced and transmitted the stories.

Becoming a Ruler

While the above transformation is near-universal, the process of becoming a ruler--specifically, a reigning King or Queen (footnote: discuss Queens and Queenship in Medieval Europe, Duggan, 1997)--is by nature a selective transformation experienced by a relative few. From the 19th century, the great debate surrounding medieval Germanic and Scandinavian Kingship has been about the sacral nature of the office(ref - varying definitions of sacral kingship in McTurk article, also Sundqvist's "Religious Ruler Ideology"). Recent scholarship has focused on the appropriate methodology used to support claims about royal ideologies, with some scholars (Ross, Sundqvist) calling for a text-centric approach that is limited in its conclusions to what can be self-supported within the available sources, and skeptical of broad generalizations that do not take into account gender biases, regional variances, and editorial uses of earlier texts, among other concerns. Other scholars (Schjodt, Nygaard) have expressed more confidence in using the comparitive study of religions and sociological models to draw cautious conclusions where textual sources are limited.

In my own research, I aim to seek a methodological middle ground, which considers multidisciplinary approaches and models, but does not rely on them to speak where the texts and sources do not.

Whether under the traditional heading of sacral kingship or the more recent religious ruler ideology, the bulk of scholarship has focused on the static qualities or functions or the ruler, while little attention has been given to the process by which a non-ruler becomes a ruler. The very notion of sacral kingship presumes that rulers are "born and not made." However, this seems rather at odds with the narratives found in Heimskringla and the Volsunga Saga, where kings often must go to great lengths to gain (and then keep) their crowns.

My questions for this section are similar to those in the preceding section: Does public recognition of the ruler generally align with self-recognition, and what happens when this is not the case? Jens Peter Schodt has written on the rituals that may have been associated with kingly coronation, but the texual evidence for such rituals is scant, and in any case it may be argued that a coronation ritual merely recognizes a transformation that has already occured, or one in process, and does not initiate or conclude the transformation (footnote - although it may play a part in effecting it, and likely the subject of the coronation hoped it would conclude it). If not a coronation ritual, are there common narrative features that mark the beginning or conclusion of a royal transformation? To what extent to stories of royal ascension reflect the biases of their authorial context?

I have limited my definition of "Ruler" to reigning Kings and Queens, but it might be helpful in the course of research to explore comparisons with other types of governmental authority figures (i.e. goðar, law-speakers, regents, etc.).

Becoming a Christian

Arthur Nock, the noted historian of religions and Gifford Lecturer at Aberdeen in 1939 and 1946, defined conversion as "the re-orientation of the soul of an individual, his deliberate turning from indifference or from an earlier form of piety to another (ref)." Discussions of conversion in Scandinavia often take Nock's definition as a starting point, although recent scholarship has expanded its scope in significant ways.

Sawyer, Sawyer, and Wood distinguish between individual conversion narratives and those that involve nations or large numbers of individuals--what has been called "acculturation" or "Christianization." (ref) Grønlie speaks of conversion as a process rather than a fixed turning point for the individual, and views conversion narratives themselves as a part of the process, appropriated by their writers to both construct and conceal aspects of the events they describe (ref). Abram acknowledges that while Norse conversion narratives are neither first-hand accounts from the mind of the convert, nor reliable and objective historical documents, they may still point to the aims and expectations of what conversion meant to the cultures that produced them. Abram also advocates a closer examination of skaldic verse embedded in prose narratives, which may represent earlier, first-hand conversion experiences (ref).

As stated above, my emphasis will not be on macro-level conversion, which has been thoroughly researched in the past few decades (ref Antonsson and others), but rather on narratives of individual conversion. In particular, I'm interested in Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar from Heimskringla, Njal's Saga, and Hallfreðar saga vandræðaskálds in particular for its so-called "conversion verses." While Abram has written about both of these narratives from the perspective of religious experience, my proposed contribution is to evaluate them in the larger framework of transformation experiences, comparing religious transformation with the other types of transformation described above.

Two modern interdisciplinary approaches are worth considering in this category of transformation: In the field of conversion psychology, Lewis Rambo's model for conversion takes into account the multiplicity of contextual factors in which transformation occurs (ref). Rambo also views conversion as an extended, multi-stage process with room for regression, public consequences and recognition, and deconversion. This nuanced approach might be used to parallel and validate conclusions drawn a literary-critical analysis of Norse conversion narratives.

Finally, anthropologist David Koester has collected first-hand written accounts of the modern Icelandic fermingin, or confirmation ritual, spanning several generations (ref). While the confirmation process does not correspond directly to either conversion or coming of age, it overlaps in several ways with both of these types of tranformation (footnote, examples). I would like to compare the linguistic features and content of Old Norse and Modern Icelandic narratives to see where they converge and diverge, and what appropriately qualified conclusions might be drawn from the textual analysis of historically-culturally connected texts (footnote, different from Schodt and comparative religion).

Personal Statement

It is customary and often expected for a mid-career minister in my denomination to pursue doctoral studies, and this has also been my own desire and intention since my undergraduate years. However, the typical vocational program offered in my country for this purpose, the Doctor of Ministry (D. Min) degree, normally does not allow for the sort of sustained, focused, research that most interests me, nor the use of medieval literary sources. Several colleagues and mentors have pointed out that a research-based PhD through a UK University would be ideally suited to my academic inclinations. Professor Iain Torrence, whom I knew from my time at Princeton Theological Seminary, encouraged me to apply to the Center for Scandinavian Studies.

In my vocation as a Presbyterian minister, I have a vested interest in the processes and rituals by which those in my community experience growth, maturity, and transformation. I often find that in studying narratives and cultures that are geographically and chronologically removed from my own, fresh perspectives and insights present themselves in regard to my present work and context, far more so than if I were to focus directly upon them.

Long before I was a minister, however, I was an avid enthusiast for the academic study of Northern European mythologies, literatures, and languages. In my undergraduate program, I studied the Arthurian legend and its literary evolution. As a secondary-school English teacher, I studied Old English in order to better teach my students Beowulf. In my Master of Divinity program, I studied Icelandic Sagas in order to understand Pre-Christian religious traditions and culture.

My proposed research project, which examines personal transformation in medieval Scandinavian literature, will allow me to bring together my undergraduate studies in literature as well as my graduate degrees in education and divinity, all of which are concerned with personal transformation. It also sits comfortably at the intersection of my personal, academic, and professional interests, and will prove useful to my congregation, which will be my primary funding source for completion of the program.

Several factors make Aberdeen University and the Centre for Scandinavian Studies the ideal institution for me to pursue this research. Among them are a stated commitment to an interdisciplinary approach, a unique focus on early medieval Scandinavian context, and a geographic centrality among Scandinavian points of interest. Dr. Hannah Burrows' expertise in Norse language, texts and legal sources will be valuable resources, and her thoughtful, attentive approach as an advisor has been commended by several students currently under her supervision. Finally, Aberdeen's willingness to accommodate my need for part-time and distance study is essential, and greatly appreciated.

Primary Sources

  • Bayerschmidt, Carl F., and Lee M. Hollander, translators. Njáls Saga. Wordsworth Editions Ltd., 1998.
  • Byock, Jesse L., translator. The Saga of the Volsungs. Penguin Classics, 2000.
  • Kunz, Keneva, translator. “The Saga of the People of Laxardal.” The Sagas of Icelanders, Penguin Classics, 2001, pp. 270–421.
  • Larrington, Carolyne, translator. The Poetic Edda. Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Scudder, Bernard, translator. The Saga of Grettir the Strong. Penguin, 2005.
  • Scudder, Bernard, translator. "Egils Saga." The Sagas of Icelanders, Penguin Classics, 2001, pp. 3-184.
  • Sturluson, Snorri. Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway. Translated by L. M. Hollander, University of Texas Press for the American-Scandinavian Foundation, 2005.
  • Whaley, Diana, translator. “The Saga of Hallfred Troublesome-Poet.” Sagas of Warrior Poets, Penguin Classics, 2002.

Secondary Sources

  • Abram, Christopher. “Modeling Religious Experience in Old Norse Conversion Narratives: The Case of Óláfr Tryggvason and Hallfreðr Vandræðaskáld.” Speculum, vol. 90, no. 1, 2015, pp. 114–157.
  • Antonsson, Haki. "Traditions of Conversion in Medieval Scandinavia: A Synthesis." Saga-Book, vol. 34, 2010, pp. 25-74.
  • Callow, Chris. "Transitions to Adulthood in Early Icelandic Society," Children, Childhood and Society, S. Crawford & G. Shepherd, editors, Oxford, 2007, pp. 45-55.
  • Danielli, Mary. “Initiation Ceremonial from Norse Literature.” Folklore, vol. 56, no. 2, 1945, pp. 229–245.
  • Grønlie, Sian. “Conversion Narrative and Christian Identity: 'How Christianity Came to Iceland'.” Medium Ævum, vol. 86, no. 1, 2017, pp. 123–146.
  • Haggerty, James. "Initiation Rituals in Old Norse Texts and their Relationship to Finno-Karelian Bear Cult Rituals." Unpublished master's thesis, University of Oslo, 2014.
  • Hansen, Anna. "Representation of Children in Early Icelandic Society." Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sydney, 2006.
  • Hansen, Anna. "Fosterage and dependency in medieval Iceland and its significance in Gísla Saga", Youth and Age in the Medieval North, Shannon Lewis-Simpson, editor. Leiden: Brill, 2008, pp. 73-86.
  • Koester, David. “Icelandic Confirmation Ritual In Cultural-Historical Perspective.” Scandinavian Studies, vol. 67, no. 4, 1995, pp. 476–515.
  • Lewis-Simpson, Shannon. "The challenges of quantifying youth and age in the medieval north", Youth and Age in the Medieval North, Shannon Lewis-Simpson, editor. Leiden: Brill, 2008, pp. 1-16.
  • Larrington, Carolyne. "Awkward adolescents: Male maturation in norse literature", Youth and Age in the Medieval North, Shannon Lewis-Simpson, editor. Leiden: Brill, 2008, pp. 151-166.
  • McTurk, Rory. "Scandinavian Sacral Kingship Revisited." Saga-Book, vol. 24, 1994, pp. 19-32.
  • Nygaard, Simon. "Sacral rulers in pre-Christian Scandinavia: The possibilities of typological comparisons within the paradigm of cultural evolution." Temenos, vol. 52, 2016, pp. 9-35.
  • Percivall, Nic. "Teenage angst: The structures and boundaries of adolescence in twelfth-and thirteenth-century Iceland", Youth and Age in the Medieval North, Shannon Lewis-Simpson, editor. Leiden: Brill, 2008, pp. 127-150.
  • Ross, Margaret Clunies. ‘From Iceland to Norway: Essential Rites of Passage for an Early Icelandic Skald’, Alvíssmál, vol. 9, 1999, pp. 55–72
  • Ross, Margaret Clunies. “Royal Ideology in Early Scandinavia: A Theory Versus the Texts.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 113, no. 1, 2014, pp. 18–33.
  • Schjødt, Jens Peter. Initiation between Two Worlds: Structure and Symbolism in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religion. Victor Hansen, translator. Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2008.
  • Schjødt, Jens Peter. “Ideology of the Ruler in Pre-Christian Scandinavia: Mythic and Ritual Relations.” Viking and Medieval Scandinavia, vol. 6, 2010, pp. 161–194.
  • Sundqvist, Olof. "Religious Ruler Ideology in Pre-Christian Scandinavia : A Contextual Approach." More than Mythology : Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre-Christian Religions, 2012, pp. 225–262,
  • Rambo, Lewis R. Understanding Religious Conversion. Yale University Press, 1993.

Fun Quotes / Inspiration

“I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” – Lewis Carroll from Alice in Wonderland

"Most people in America, when they are exposed to the Christian faith, are not being transformed. They take one step into the door, and the journey ends . . . Yet in many ways a focus on spiritual formation fits what a new generation is really seeking. Transformation is a process, a journey, not a one-time decision.” ― David Kinnaman, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity... and Why It Matters

"few things have more transformative power than people and stories.” ― Shane Claiborne

"Oh king, eh, very nice. An' how'd you get that, eh? ― Monty Python: Quest for the Holy Grail


  • SW: 1,947 words - (341 intro & thesis; 486 historiography; 667 chapter breakdown; 152 conclusion; 301 why aberdeen)
  • JH: 950 words - (305 intro & thesis; 388 themes & historiography; 101 methodology; 153 impact)