King Cnut, the Warrior Poet, and the Dragon: Constructing Reality through Myth

Activity: Talk or presentation typesInvited talk


Dragons are rare within the Íslendingasögur (Icelandic family sagas), a genre of Old Norse saga usually associated with a constructed historical realism. The appearance of a dragon in Bjarnar saga Hítdælakappa, therefore, is one of its more remarkable features. In the tale, our hero, Bjorn, finds himself at sea as a member of the peripatetic English court of King Cnut the Great (1016-1035) when the creature attacks. In that moment, only the Icelander proves brave enough to defend the king and strong enough to slay the monster. It is a striking moment, and clearly a fabrication. Yet, this paper proposes, this does not render the passage devoid of historical value to the study of cultural memory and narrative construction in the saga corpus.

After introducing the literary tradition of the Icelandic sagas and locating Bjarnar saga, the warrior-poet Bjorn, and Bjorn’s dragon slaying within that framework, this paper will examine three specific elements of the tale. First, its historical context within the reign of Cnut. Second, the archetypal trope of the king as gift-giver, rewarding the hero’s labours. Third, the binary nature of the narrative, in which Bjorn’s exotic adventures outside of Iceland give way to the mundane realism of feud and legal paradigms once he returns home. In so doing, I will seek to identify which elements of the tale may speak to cultural memory of historical realities and societal values, those that suggest the transmission of a pre-existing narrative, and those that can be attributed to authorial invention.
Period22 Feb 2019
Event titleFlinders English and Creative Writing Seminar Series
Event typeSeminar
Degree of RecognitionLocal