Kinship and Narrative in Old Norse Literature: Parent-Child Relations in Mythic-Heroic Texts
University of Cambridge
Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Olley, K. M. (2019). Kinship and Narrative in Old Norse Literature: Parent-Child Relations in Mythic-Heroic Texts (Doctoral thesis). https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.37826
The thesis explores the imaginative depiction of parent-child relations in the Poetic Edda, Snorra Edda and the fornaldarsaga corpus, with the aim of illuminating both the role of kinship in shaping Old Norse narrative and the complementary role of narrative in aiding the conceptualisation and characterisation of Old Norse kinship. Informed by the work of anthropologists Marilyn Strathern and Marshall Sahlins, I argue that Old Norse kinship is characterised by ‘mutuality of being’ among kinsmen, whereby kinsmen are co-present in one another and participate intrinsically in each other’s existence (chapter I). The thesis suggests that intergenerational interactions in Old Norse myth and legend are fundamentally characterised by ambivalence, which reveals itself in the hostile encounters frequently depicted between parents and their children. I argue that these creative depictions of kinship allowed authors to explore the different motivations behind this ambivalence, while simultaneously using the ambivalence inherent in parent-child relationships to answer the literary demand for narrative tension. Ambivalence in the father-son relationship is argued to arise from the competitive rivalry between father and son (chapter II), while ambivalence in the father-daughter relationship is motivated by the daughter’s desire to escape her father’s controlling influence and the father’s desire to retain her loyalties even after marriage (chapter III). Maternal ambivalence is closely linked to the mother’s own marginal position in the paternally-dominated lineage, which encouraged her to dote upon the son while neglecting the daughter (chapter IV). An examination of relations between uncles or aunts and their nieces and nephews proves that other kinds of intergenerational relationship were similarly characterised by ambivalence (chapter V). I further argue that the ambivalence which threatens to undermine parent-child relations is balanced by the mutual investment of individual family members in the collective lineage, as expressed in the patronymic naming system, which bound fathers permanently into the identities of their sons and daughters (chapter VI). I suggest that the social recognition of an individual’s place within their larger lineage reinforced this collective identity, encouraging solidarity and mutuality between kinsmen, thereby allowing ambivalences to be overcome. In conclusion, I argue that the root of ambivalence in intergenerational relations is revealed to be their inherent mutability, as kinship roles change and develop, children succeed their parents and kinsmen struggle to reconcile competing loyalties and obligations. I suggest narrative was used as a space in which to explore the ambivalent realities of kinship and I argue for an understanding of kinship as constructed in part through narrative, being made in the telling (chapter VII).
Old Norse, Kinship, Parent-Child Relations, Fornaldarsǫgur, Poetic Edda, Snorra Edda, Narrative Structure, Medieval Family, Maternity, Paternity
The thesis was funded by the Cambridge Arts and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Training Partnership (AHRC DTP) together with Trinity College, Cambridge which granted me an AHRC-Trinity Studentship (2015–2018) [grant number AH/L503897/1].
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This record's DOI: https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.37826
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