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Between History and Myth

Stories of Harald Fairhair and the Founding of the State

All groups tell stories about their beginnings. Such tales are oft-repeated, finely wrought, and usually much beloved. Among those institutions most in need of an impressive creation account is the state: it’s one of the primary ways states attempt to legitimate themselves. But such founding narratives invite revisionist retellings that modify details of the story in ways that undercut, ironize, and even ridicule the state’s ideal self-representation. Medieval accounts of how Norway was unified by its first king provide a lively, revealing, and wonderfully entertaining example of this process.
Taking the story of how Harald Fairhair unified Norway in the ninth century as its central example, Bruce Lincoln illuminates the way a state’s foundation story blurs the distinction between history and myth and how variant tellings of origin stories provide opportunities for dissidence and subversion as subtle—or not so subtle—modifications are introduced through details of character, incident, and plot structure. Lincoln reveals a pattern whereby texts written in Iceland were more critical and infinitely more subtle than those produced in Norway, reflecting the fact that the former had a dual audience: not just the Norwegian court, but also Icelanders of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, whose ancestors had fled from Harald and founded the only non-monarchic, indeed anti-monarchic, state in medieval Europe.
Between History and Myth will appeal not only to specialists in Scandinavian literature and history but also to anyone interested in memory and narrative.

296 pages | 18 halftones, 12 line drawings, 29 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2014

Geography: Social and Political Geography

History: European History

Medieval Studies

Religion: Comparative Studies and History of Religion


“Through both the thoroughness of its empirical method and the sophistication of its intellectual stance, this wonderful little book demonstrates how and why reading narratives of Norwegian origins can have something to say to us today, about our own worlds, the states that control them, and how we relate to them and their stories.”


“Lincoln has without doubt become one of the most distinguished, prolific and influential historians of religions during the last decades. His oeuvre is renowned for its combination of an exceptional, scrupulous knowledge of various ancient languages and philological elegance together with far-reaching questions and robust humanistic commitments. The reader already familiar with Lincoln’s earlier work will recognise this rare combination in Between History and Myth, his first book solely devoted to Old Norse (Norwegian and Icelandic) material.”


“In a series of interlocked close readings of Old Norse sagas, Lincoln elucidates the formation of the Norwegian state out of local chieftainships by Harald Fairhair during the Viking Age. Lincoln is a reader of enormous range and perception, and his ability to analyze both small detail and the larger context is masterly. But the real subject of the book is the constant mutability of narrative and its interplay with memory, topics of vital importance in so many disciplines today.”

John Lindow, University of California, Berkeley

“In Between History and Myth, Lincoln gives a cogent analysis of medieval Icelandic and Norwegian responses to the myth of the founding of the Norwegian state, transmitted in accounts of Harald Fairhair’s accession to the throne of Norway. While the Norwegian responses emerge as predominantly favorable, the Icelandic ones are negative by comparison. Midway between these two approaches stands Heimskringla, an encyclopedic history of the Norwegian kings attributed to the Icelander Snorri Sturluson (d. 1241), whose relationship with Norway was profoundly ambivalent. With a subtlety worthy of Snorri himself, Lincoln exposes the cunning ambiguity with which Heimskringla, drawing on motifs of Old Norse mythology, presents Harald’s accession as both a glorious event and a disaster, thus functioning as revisionist history in the guise of official history. With its original and fascinating argument, Lincoln’s book will appeal to a general readership as well as to specialists in many fields.”

Rory McTurk, University of Leeds

“Lincoln, a past master of comparative mythology and religion, of semiotics and various expressions of structuralism, here applies his unrivaled skills to a new field, the colorful story of the founding of the Norwegian state in the ninth century. The result is a book that will reshape parts of Old Norse–Icelandic studies and become a classic text in that discipline, but Between History and Myth is so well crafted that it will give pleasure to any reader, not only to academic specialists.”

Joseph Harris, Harvard University

“Lincoln has written a magnificently nuanced and immensely scholarly work on the great Norwegian and Icelandic sagas concerning the origins of the ancient Norwegian state and its unification by Harald Fairhair, also known as ’the Shaggy.’ He brilliantly demonstrates the poetic, virtually ontological, and reverberating potency of the sagas, and their role in the forging of political legitimacy in a historical context where monarchic forces contend against those that imagine a state that rejects the submission that monarchical power demands. This is a study that realizes the great literary and narrative genius of the sagas, filled with anthropological insight, and relevance for contemporary discussions of the nature of the state and its hold over the peoples it commands.”

Bruce Kapferer, author of Legends of People, Myths of State

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. Introduction
2. Gyða
3. Rögnvald the Powerful
4. Snorri Sturluson
5. Commander Guthorm
6. Ragnhild
7. Dofri the Giant
8. Hálfdan the Black
9. Shaggy Harald
10. Ingjald the Wicked
11. Conclusions

Coda: A Reader Reflects

Appendix: Synoptic Tables

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