Transforming the trolls: the metamorphosis of the troll-woman in 'Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss'

Barraclough, E.R (2008) 'Transforming the trolls: the metamorphosis of the troll-woman in 'Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss'.' Quaestio Insularis, 9. pp. 52-62. ISSN 1745-8676

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Bárðar saga is an intriguing yet puzzling text, which chronicles the life of the blendingr (half-troll, half-giant) Bárðr Dumbsson and his family, from an exposition of his ancestry to the death of his son Gestr on the night of his conversion to Christianity. Beginning with the reign of Dumbr (Bárðr’s troll-king father) in Norway, the saga tracks Bárðr’s settlement at Snæfellsness in Iceland and his self-imposed exile following the disappearance of his daughter Helga. As he retreats into the mountains, Bárðr is cast in a new supernatural mould, embracing his giant heritage in order to become the guardian spirit of the district. Finally, the story turns to his son Gestr and his adventures at the court of King Óláfr Tryggvason. He converts to Christianity at the request of the king, but on the night of his baptism Bárðr appears, accusing Gestr of betraying his pagan ancestors before killing him. Bárðar saga follows many features of structure and plot typical to the Íslendingasögur (family sagas), the genre to which it is assigned, including the protagonists’ settlement of Iceland, district feuds and conversions to Christianity. However, the conventions of this socially realistic genre are fundamentally subverted when a pagan clan of monstrous descent takes centre stage as a set of unlikely protagonists. Consequently, Bárðar saga presents us with numerous difficulties in terms of its generic classification, thematic preoccupations and unusual characterisations. However, its rich manuscript transmission suggests continuing popularity almost to the present day, both in literary circles and in popular culture. Nevertheless, the saga’s unconventional design has baffled modern scholars, who have found it particularly difficult to reconstruct a ‘horizon of expectations’ upon which to base an understanding of the piece This paper is concerned primarily with the characterisation of Helga Bárðardóttir, the enigmatic daughter of Bárðr Dumbsson. It will concentrate on the metamorphosis of the conventional figure of the troll woman, particularly focussing on the saga motif of the love affair between a mortal hero and a giantess. In sagas that feature characters such as trolls in a more conventional form, the figures tend to be presented somewhat two-dimensionally, fulfilling the function of a ‘narrative-vehicle’ for the heroic protagonist in his early rites of passage. Thus, a troll-woman such as Helga would usually be a peripheral and underdeveloped figure in the saga, appearing briefly in the course of the hero’s adventures before disappearing when he continues on to further expeditions or returns to human society. Yet in Bárðar saga, Helga is the focal point of this particular narrative set piece. This seems to be an intentional part of the saga’s wider literary design, in which the shadowy figures who typically act along the dim edges of the saga stage are pushed into the spotlight, forcing more-orthodox protagonists out into the wings of the narrative. In her analysis of the relationships between heroes and giants, Riti Kroesen states, ‘Whether [the hero] goes out to meet the giants in order to serve the community or to serve his own ends […] the sympathies of the original audience must always have been on [his side]’. Yet Bárðar saga entirely overturns the accepted convention that such stories are written to enhance the glory of the heroic protagonist.

Item Type: Article
Divisions: School of Writing, Publishing and the Humanities
Date Deposited: 03 Oct 2022 12:36
Last Modified: 03 Oct 2022 12:36
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