Zombies of the Frozen North: White Walkers and Old Norse Revenants

Like many fans across the worldthis wintereach snowfall increased my anticipation for the return and final season of HBO’s fantasy television series, Game of Thrones, the popular film adaption of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. As a medievalist who enjoys medievalism, I am especially intrigued by successful modern adaptions of medieval themes and concepts, particularly when it comes to representations of the monstrous.

In Game of Thrones, one of the most terrifying of the fantastic creatures on Westeros are the frost-bearing White Walkers (also called Others), who come with winter and bring with them an undead horde of icy zombies (called wights). The show’s opening scene masterfully features these horrifying monsters, and introduces the audience to the shadowy specters who haunt the frigid North, growing stronger every season. Martin describes his wintry revenants in the prologue, when two men of the Night’s Watch come upon a group of White Walkers:

White Walkers from season 3 of HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ (2013).

“A shadow emerged from the dark of the wood. It stood in front of Royce. Tall, it was, and gaunt and hard as old bones, with flesh pale as milk. Its armor seemed to change color as it moved; here it was white as new-fallen snow, there black as shadow, everywhere dappled with the deep grey-green of the trees. The patterns ran like moonlight on water with every step it took” (Martin 7).

The White Walkers are characterized in A Game of Thrones (Martin’s first novel in the series, which HBO’s corresponding show adopted as its title) by their haunting eyes and the freezing cold that accompanies their approach:

“The Other halted. Will saw its eyes; blue, deeper and bluer than any human eyes, a blue that burned like ice. They fixed on the longsword trembling on high, watched the moonlight running cold along the metal. For a heartbeat he dared to hope. They emerged silently from the shadows, twins at first. Three of them…four…five…Ser Waymar [Royce] may have felt the cold that came with them, but never saw them, never heard them” (Martin 7-8).

Night King, leader of the White Walkers, from season 7 of HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ (2017).

After the White Walkers kill Ser Waymar Royce, his companion—Will—comes to investigate his corpse, and discovers yet another horror in his own captain:

“Royce’s body lay facedown in the snow, one arm outflung. The thick sable cloak had been slashed in a dozen places. Lying dead like that, you saw how young he was. A boy. He found what was left of the sword a few feet away, the end splintered and twisted like a tree struck by lightning. Will knelt, looked around warily, and snatched it up. The broken sword would be his proof….

Will rose. Ser Waymar Royce stood over him. His fine cloths were a tatter, his face a ruin. A shard from his sword transfixed the blind white pupil of his left eye. The right eye was open. The pupil burned blue. It saw” (Martin 8).

Undead wights from season 6 of HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ (2016).

These monsters (and their zombie horde) envelop the series, and the build up to the final battle for the soul of Westeros, between the living and dead, looms ever-present throughout the series and has all but come to fruition.

Like many aspects of Martin’s fantasy world, his modern monstrosities resemble medieval ones. Although also reminiscent of the monstrous
Wendigo, his White Walkers share distinct characteristics with Old Norse-Icelandic depictions of revenants, generally from the fornaldarsǫgur, “sagas of olden times,” which depict a posthumous pre-Christian medieval culture that is undoubtedly the basis for Martin’s wildlings (also called free folk) and various peoples north of the Wall. Some terms for revenants in Old Norse Icelandic include haugbúi (“mound-dweller”), draugr (“revenant”) and aptrgangr (“again-walker”). The latter term explicitly describes revenants as “walkers” (gangr), corresponding directly to the second element in Martin’s own White Walkers.

‘Draugr’ by Josh Burns (2016).

Grettis saga is the saga, which most famously contains Old Norse revenants. Grettis saga is the story of a mighty warrior named Grettir, who slays a variety of monsters throughout the saga, until he becomes something of a monster himself, exiled to a cave and the object of heroic slaughter. In this saga, Grettir meets two revenants; the first is Kárr “the Old”—a haugbúi “mound-dweller” that haunts his own grave and the surrounding island (similar to the zombified Angantyr from Hervarar saga Heiðreks and Þráinn from Hrómundar saga Gripssonar). Grettir’s friend Auðunn tells him about the revenant, Kárr:

“‘Out on the headland stands a grave-mound,’ said Auðunn. ‘In it was laid Kárr the Old, Þorfinn’s father. At first, father and son owned a single farm on the island, but after Kárr died her returned from the dead and started walking, so much so that in end he drove away all those farmers who owned lands here’” (Byock 51).

When Grettir enters the Kárr’s barrow he discovers both a foul reek and a terrifying image. After disturbing the treasure hoard in the barrow, the revenant rises up and attacks Grettir, only to be put to rest by decapitation:

‘Kárr the Old seizes Grettir’ by Henry Justice Ford (1901).

“Grettir then descended into the mound. It was dark inside, and not altogether sweet-smelling. He had to feel around to get an idea of what was inside. He found some horse bones, and next bumped into the back-posts of a seat. He realized that a man was sitting there in the chair. There was a pile of gold and silver all mixed together. There was also a chest full of silver under the man’s feet. Grettir took all the treasure and carried it to the rope, but as he was making his way out of the mound something strong grabbed hold of him. He let go of the treasure and turned to resist. A fierce fight began, and everything in their path was broken as the mound-dweller attacked with fury. For a long time Grettir tried to give way. Finally he realized there would be no chance of winning if he continued just to shield himself. Now neither spared himself, and they shoved each other until they came to where the horse bones were. There they struggled for a long time, with each at times falling to his knee. But in the end the mound-dweller fell backwards with a great crash, and with that noise Auðunn dropped the ropes and ran away, assuming that Grettir had been killed. Grettir now drew the sword Jǫkull’s-gift and struck at the mound-dweller’s neck. He cut off the head and placed the head against Kárr’s buttocks” (Byock 52).

Kárr “the Old” is identified as a haugbúi “mound-dweller” in Grettis saga, and has a more direct influence on another fantasy author’s work, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. On Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, barrow-wights haunt certain old graves, and the hobbits stumble upon a haunted barrow in the chapter eight of The Fellowship of the Ring, “Fog on the Barrow-Downs.” Description of the barrow-wight (which has since become a common translation for haugbúi in English), reflects a close affinity to Old Norse-Icelandic mound-dwellers, such as Kárr. When the hobbits are in the barrow-wight’s burial mound, they are put under a spell and “round the corner a long arm was groping” (Tolkien 169), which causes Frodo at first to consider only his own escape and survival. However, eventually he decides to help his companions, put to sleep by the barrow-wight’s incantation:

‘Under the Spell of the Barrow-wight’ by Ted Nasmith (1987).

“the courage that had been awoken in him was now too strong: he could not leave his friends so easily. He wavered, groping in his pocket, and then fought with himself again; and as he did so the arm crept nearer. Suddenly resolve hardened in him, and he seized a short sword that lay beside him, and kneeling he stooped low over the bodies of his companions. With what strength he had he hewed the crawling arm near the wrist, and the hand broke off; but at the same moment the sword splintered up to the hilt. There was a shriek and the light vanished. In the dark, there was a snarling noise” (Tolkien 160-161).

Kárr “the Old” is not the only revenant in Grettis saga. The second specter, Glámr, is the protagonist’s most fearsome monstrous opponent. Glámr is described as explicitly anti-Christian, and when he dies in a snowstorm, his body seems to move about, preventing him from being buried at a church and receiving last rites from the local priest. Soon Glámr starts haunting, especially in the heart of winter—at Yuletide—the winter solstice celebration often associated with Christmas:

“A little later people became aware that Glámr was not lying there quietly. He became a scourge to the local people. Many lost their senses when they saw him, some of them never recovering. Immediately after Yule, some people thought they saw Glámr inside the farmhouse. They were terribly frightened, and many of them fled the farm. Then Glámr took to riding the house in the evenings, so that the roof was nearly broken. Then he started walking about, both day and night. Men scarcely dared to go up the valley, even when they had reason to dos o. For the people in the district it seemed as if a terrible misfortune had descended upon them” (Byock 95).

Glámr is identified as a draugr “revenant” (popularized by their appropriation in the video game Skyrim), and continuities between Glámr and Grendel have long been observed by scholars. This has encouraged some critics to consider Beowulf and Grettis saga to be analogues, especially the reference to the leoht unfæger “ugly light” (Beowulf 727) in Grendel’s eyes—comparable to Glámr’s—and similar action sequences in each respective fight between the heroic protagonists and their monstrous antagonists.

Draugr from the video game ‘Skyrim’ (2011).

In Grettis saga, when Grettir first encounters Glámr, he glimpses only the revenant’s head peeking through the door, “when the door opened, Grettir saw the creature stick its head in. It seemed to Grettir to be large and horribly deformed, with strangely oversized features” (Byock 100). Their subsequent battle is detailed in the saga:

“Glámr now wanted to get out of the house, but Grettir held onto him. Grettir braced his feet wherever he could find a footing, but still Glámr was able to drag him across the hall. They struggled violently, because the slave intended to drag Grettir from the hall. As difficult as it was to fight Glámr inside, Grettir saw that it would be worse dealing with him outside the house. For this reason he put all his strength into preventing Glámr from getting out” (Byock 101).

After an unsuspecting misdirection by Grettir, Glámr is finally able to pull Grettir out of the hall and into the night, where the fight continues:

“Outside it was bright in the moonlight, with gaps here and there in the cloud cover. On and off, the moon shone through. Just as Glámr fell, the clouds moved, revealing the moon. Glámr stared up at the light, and Grettir later said that this sight was the only one that had ever scared him. Exhaustion and the sight of Glamr’s threatening eyes now took their toll, and Grettir’s strength left him. Unable to draw his sword, he lay between life and death. Because Glámr had more evil power in himself that most of the other walking dead, he said: ‘You have shown much determination, Grettir, in finding me. And it would be expected that you would receive only ill fortune from me’” (Byock 101-102).

‘Grettir and Glámr’ by Didrik Jon Kristofersson (1998).

Glámr then places a curse up Grettir that he will become diminished and fall into outlawry and exile, saying:

“‘Most of what you do will now turn against you, bringing bad luck and no joy. You will be made an outlaw, forced to live in the wilds and to live alone. And further, I lay this curse on you: these eyes will always be within your sight, and you will find it difficult to be alone. This will drag you to your death’” (Byock 102).

As with Kárr, Grettir ends Glámr’s haunting by beheading the monster, for after his curse “the powerlessness that had gripped Grettir slid away. He drew his sword and cut off Glámr’s head, placing it against his buttocks” (Byock 102). However, Grettir’s encounter with Glámr causes him to fear the dark ever after—and a number of elements of Glámr’s characterization are reflected in the White Walkers, especially his moving corpse, terrifying eyes and preference for haunting during the dead of winter.

Although Glámr resembles Martin’s White Walkers, perhaps the closest parallel from Old Norse-Icelandic saga literature can be observed in the final battle in Hrólfs saga kraka, which serves also as the source for the “Battle of Five Armies” in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. In Hrólfs saga kraka, King Hrólfr and his warriors are pitted against Skuld’s monstrous horde, composed of “elves, norns and countless other vile creatures” (Byock 71). During the battle, which also occurs during Yule, the slain rise again as revenants that resemble the armies of Martin’s White Walkers and their zombie wights.

‘Hrólfr’s Last Stand’ by Louis Moe (1898).

“Men fell dead across each other in front of him [Bǫðvar Bjarki], until both his shoulders were covered with blood. Corpses were heaped high all around him, and he behaved as though overcome with madness. However many of Hjǫvard’s and Skuld’s men he and Hrólfr’s champions killed, their enemies ranks, remarkably, never diminished. It was as though Hrólfr’s men were having no effect, and they thought they had never come upon so strange an occurrence. Bǫðvar said, ‘Deep are the ranks of Skuld’s army. I suspect that the dead are wandering about. They rise up again to fight against us and it becomes difficult to fight with ghosts [draugar]. As many limbs as we cleave, shield we split, helmets and mail coats as we hew apart, and war leaders we cut down, the encounters with the dead are the grimmest” (Byock 76).

The image of a zombie horde is featured somewhat regularly in modern zombie-apocalypse literature, such as George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), Paul Anderson’s Resident Evil (2002), and AMC’s Walking Dead (2010). Nevertheless, both their terrible gaze and association with winter sets Martin’s White Walkers apart from the rest of the herd, and draws on medieval lore and legend in order to create a monster that speaks both to the past and the present.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Texts and Translations:

Byock, Jesse. The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki. London, UK: Penguin Books, 1998.

—. Grettir’s Saga. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Chadwick, Nora K. Stories and Ballads of the Far Past. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1921.

Martin, George R. R. A Game of Thrones. New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group, 2011.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Rings. New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group, 1954.

Further Reading:

Chadwick, Nora K. “Norse Ghosts: A Study in the draugr and the haugbui.Folklore 57.2 (1946): 50-65.

—. “Norse Ghosts II: A Study in the draugr and the haugbui.Folklore 57.3 (1946): 106-127.

Fjalldal, Magnús. The Long Arm of Coincidence: The Frustrated Connection between Beowulf and Grettis saga. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Jakobsson, Ármann. “The Fearless Vampire Killers: A Note about the Icelandic Draugr and Demonic Contamination in Grettis saga.” Folkore 120.3 (2009): 307-316.

—.  “Vampires and Watchmen: Categorizing the Mediaeval Icelandic Undead.” JEGP 110.3 (2011): 281-300

Keyworth, David. “The Aetiology of Vampires and Revenants: Theological Debate and Popular Belief.” Journal of Religious History 34.2 (2010), 158-173.

—. Troublesome Corpses: Vampires & Revenants—from Antiquity to the PresentDesert Island eBooks, 2013.

Orchard, Andy. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

Stern, Elizabeth. Legends of the Dead in Medieval and Modern Iceland (Supernatural). University of California, Los Angeles: ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1987.

Skin-changers: Werewolves in the Medieval and Modern Imagination

This Halloween, I’d like to talk about werewolves, one of the classic monsters whose image helps to characterize this—my favorite—holiday.

Werewolves, while sometimes overshadowed by the more frequent and high-profile appearance of other monsters such as vampires and zombies in popular literature, have a mythology that has endured for millennia and still finds a way to haunt our cultural imagination. When they have appeared in popular literature, werewolves often do so in the context of a prescribed, age-old struggle between their kind and vampires. Werewolf-vampire racial animosity is dramatized in the film series Underworld (2003), which injects an unlikely love story into the ancient war between these monstrous groups. This conflict has since become a regular feature of modern vampire films, such as in Van Helsing (2004) and What We Do in the Shadows (2014), and in TV series such as Twilight (2008) and True Blood (2008). Penny Dreadful (2014), a show which delights in Victorian monstrosities, also nods to this tradition when two werewolf characters (Ethan and Kaetenay) are forced to battle a gang of vampires, while Hemlock Grove (2013) alternatively features both a werewolf named Peter and a vampyric upir named Roman who share mutual respect and admiration.

Vampire leader Viktor (Bill Nighy) battles werewolf in Len Wiseman’s ‘Underworld’ (2004).

Generally whenever we see werewolves in modern popular literature, it is in this shared context, which is also true of the the TV series Being Human (2011); however, werewolves have (in a few cases) been given center stage. The classic and most obvious examples are the films An American Werewolf in London (1981) and An American Werewolf in Paris (1997).

More recently, in Harry Potter and the of Azkaban (2004), Remus Lupin, who is one of the wizard professors at Hogwartz and also a werewolf, is a main protagonists in the film, despite that vampires feature nowhere in the series and are rarely mentioned even in J. K. Rowling’s novels. For Teen Wolf (2011), a TV series focused on a teenage boy’s struggle with lycanthropy, the absence  of vampires is a point of pride. Often werewolves have been gendered male, but the TV series Bitten (2014) challenges this stereotype by centering the plot on a female werewolf protagonist and her struggles within a werewolf patriarchy. Unfortunately, and counterproductively, the series is plagued by a consistent hyper-sexualization of her character in a manner all too familiar from the modern vampire craze. I’d like to believe this inconsistent and contradictory messaging might have contributed to the show’s discontinuation in 2016, but somehow I doubt it.

Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) transforming into a werewolf in Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ (2004).

Today, we will discuss skin-changing and werewolfism in the medieval literary traditions of Northern Europe, primarily as contained in the context of the Old Norse fornaldarsǫgur. We will also consider how lycanthropy in the Old Norse Hrólfs saga kraka and Vǫlsunga saga inform certain instances of skin-changers in modern literature, especially in the fantasy worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin.

Numerous academic blogs have explored the topic of lycanthropy, usually—and unsurprisingly—around this same time of year. In fact, the website Sententiae Antiquae has, in years passed, written a blog series on werewolves in the classical tradition, including blogs on Petronius’ werewolf story from Satyricon (62), Pliny the Elder’s emphasis on clothing and description of werewolf superstitions in his Natural History (8.80-4), and an overview of classical lycanthropy producing a list of sources including, Herodotus’ Histories, Plato’s Republic, Pausanias’ Geography of Greece, anonymous Greek Medical Treatises on the Treatment of Lycanthropy, St. Augustine of Hippo’s City of God, and the 11th century medieval Latin poem, Poemata 9.841, by a monk named Michael Psellus (which is notably influenced by Greek medical treatises). These blogs have tended to focus especially on classical superstitions, such as nakedness being a prerequisite for transformation and the belief that a wolf’s gaze could paralyze humans.

Miniature of wolves and (below) the man paralyzed by their gaze from the ‘Rochester Bestiary’ in BL, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, f. 29r.

The British Library has also composed a blog on lycanthropy in the context of the influence of classical werewolf mythology on later medieval literature. This blog references classical werewolf stereotypes primarily derived from Pliny’s description of versipelles ‘skin-changers’ (his term for werewolves) in Natural History, and then moves to consider especially Bisclavret, the famous Breton lay by Marie de France, and Gerald of Wales’ description of an Irish folktale concerning lycanthropy in his Topographica Hibernica, both of which present a very positive image of a werewolf, complete with the capacity for human understanding and compassion.

Two werewolves and the priest from Gerald of Wales’ ‘Topographica Hibernica’ in BL Royal MS 13 B. viii, f. 18r.

However, as mentioned earlier, werewolves appear also in the vernacular traditions of medieval Scandinavia, and this blog aims to expand the web-conversation surrounding versipelles ‘skin-changers’ in medieval literature to include examples from Old Norse saga prose literature, which contain numerous references to humans transforming into various beasts, usually wolves or bears.

This Old Norse tradition of skin-changers contributes directly to Tolkien’s character of Beorn, the werebear from The Hobbit (1937). Gandalf describes Beorn in chapter VII “Queer Lodgings” when Thorin and his company are traveling through the Misty Mountains:

“He [Beorn] is a skin-changer. He changes his skin: sometimes he is a huge black bear, sometimes he is a great strong black-haired man with huge arms and a great beard. I cannot tell you much more, though that ought to be enough. Some say that he is a bear descended from the great and ancient bears of the mountains that lived there before the giants came. Other say that he is a man descended from the first men who lived before Smaug or the other dragons came into this part of the world, and before the goblins came into the hills out of the North. I cannot say, though I fancy the last is the true tale. He is not the sort of person to ask questions of. At any rate he is under no enchantment but his own.”

Gandalf (Ian Mckellen) speaks with Beorn in bear-form in Peter Jackson’s ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ (2013).

Beorn, like his namesake Bjǫrn (a hero from Hrólfs saga kraka), transforms physically from man to bear—though Bjǫrn’s transformations are the product of a curse by his evil stepmother, Queen Hvít, as opposed to Beorn who seems in full control of his metamorphoses in The Hobbit. Jesse Byock’s The Saga of the King Hrolf Kraki reads:

“She [Hvít] then struck him [Bjǫrn] with her wolfskin gloves, telling him to become a cave bear, grim and savage: ‘You will eat no food other than your own father’s livestock and, in feeding yourself, you will kill more than has ever been observed before. You will never be released from the spell, and your awareness of this disgrace will be more dreadful to you than no remembrance at all.’ Then Bjorn disappeared, and no one knew what had become of him…. Next to be told is that the king’s cattle were being killed in large numbers by a grey bear, large and fierce. One evening it happened that Bera, the freeman’s daughter, saw the savage bear. It approached her unthreateningly. She thought she recognized in the bear the eyes of Bjorn, the king’s son, and so she did not run away. The beast then moved away from her, but she followed it all the way until it came to a cave. When she entered the cave, a man was standing there” (37).

This passage describes the power of the queen’s curse to physically transform Bjǫrn, which leads ultimately to his death at the hands of his own father and his warriors. However, it also emphasizes that, while Bjǫrn is dangerous to the livestock, he retains his humanity and at night transforms back into a man.

Beorn in bear-form in ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’ by Justin Gerard (2009).

The character of Bǫðvar Bjarki, son of Bjǫrn (who too shares characteristics and some parallel achievements with Beorn from The Hobbit), also from Hrólfs saga kraka, trances and in doing so is able to inhabit the mind of a bear and control its actions. This is particularly crucial during the saga’s climactic battle between the monstrous army of Hjǫvard and Skuld and the forces of King Hrólf.

The ability to enter into and take over an animal’s consciousness, as a form of shape-shifting through meditation, appears also in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (1991)—and corresponding HBO series Game of Thrones (2011)in the contexts of characters called ‘wargs’ who possess this distinct ability. This group includes a number of those in the Stark family (whose family sigil is appropriately a direwolf). In Martin’s series, characters described as wargs are always from the wintry North, and regularly use their possessed animals to battle their enemies, as in Hrólfs saga kraka.

Robb Stark and his direwolf Grey Wind confront a captured Jaime Lannister in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ (2011).

The Old Norse Vǫlsunga saga, more famous for its dragon and dwarf (namely, Fáfnir and Regin) than its werewolves, does nevertheless have a section in which Sigmundr and Sinfjǫtli specifically wear wolf-pelts in order to transform themselves into wolves and roam the wilderness together in wolf-form. Jesse Byock’s The Saga of the Volsungs reads:

‘One time, they went again to the forest to get themselves some riches, and they found a house. Inside it were two sleeping men, with thick gold rings. A spell had been cast upon them: wolfskins hung over them in the house and only every tenth day could they shed the skins. They were the sons of kings. Sigmund and Sinfjotli put the skins on and could not get them off. And the weird power was there as before; they howled like wolves, both understanding the sounds’ (44).

This passage describes the ability to ‘skin-change’ into a wolf by literally wearing a wolf’s skin. This version of ‘skin-changing’ is picked up and adapted in two of Martin’s fictional works: his short story “In the Lost Lands” (1982) and his novella The Skin-Trade (1988).

Illustration of Grey Alys from George R. R. Martin’s ‘In the Lost Lands’ (1982).

In Martin’s short story, a character named Boyce travels into the formidable ‘Lost Lands’ to the north, which constitute an endless frozen wilderness, with a witch named Grey Alys (who borrows heavily from mythology of Freya, especially with regard to her cloak of feathers).

I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t yet and might be interested in reading this text, except to say that lycanthropy appears initially as a physical transformation, but by the end we learn that wearing the skin of a werewolf can produce the same metamorphosis for those whom the transformation isn’t biological.

Cover of George R. R. Martin’s ‘The Skin Trade’ (1988).

Similarly, in his later novella, The Skin-Trade, Martin establishes a world in which both biology and werewolf skin-wearing can result in lycanthropy. Werewolf fans may be happy to learn that The Skin-Trade is currently ‘in development’ by Cinemax under the direction of scriptwriter Kalinda Vazquez, who has written for other TV series such as Prison Break (2005) and Once Upon a Time (2011). However, particularly because there is currently no clear sense as to when Cinemax and Vazquez will have their version of The Skin-Trade ready for the silver screen, it may still be a while before there is a werewolf series to rival HBO’s True Blood or AMC’s The Walking Dead.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame


Online Resources:

Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (8.80-4)
Petronius’ Satyricon (62)
Marie de France’s Bisclavret 
Gerald of Wales’ Topographica Hibernica
Hrólfs saga kraka

Vǫlsunga saga

Old Norse Saga Translations:

  • Byock, Jesse. The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki. London, England: Penguin Books, 1998.
  • Byock, Jesse. The Saga of the Volsungs. London, England: Penguin Books, 1999.

The Book of Sir John Mandeville and William Langland’s Piers Plowman: An Unlikely Pair?

When first “published” in the fourteenth-century, William Langland’s Piers Plowman and the Mandeville-author’s The Book of Sir John Mandeville, each in their own right, went viral. As the number of extant manuscripts for both works suggests,[1] they took the English nation by storm in the early decades of their reception history, not as instantaneous explosions that quickly fizzle out like a modern day cat video, but as longstanding bestsellers that deeply influenced the course of England’s intellectual and social history. The organizers of the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt, for example, cite Piers in the famous Letters of John Ball.[2] A copy of Mandeville, scholars enjoy noting, was consulted by Christopher Columbus before his voyages, and the text served as a source of inspiration for many explorers in the so-called Age of Exploration. Indeed, great minds read, used, and cited these texts to various ends for centuries, but rarely, it seems, together. Except, that is, among their earliest readers, at least some of whom saw a natural affinity between them.

Given their coterminous popularity in late medieval England, it seems statistically probable that some, and quite possibly many, avid readers of Middle English would encounter, or at least know about both of these texts. While that surmise might sound less than startling, the idea of these two works occupying space in the same book often elicits surprise in conversations about my work. In fact, Piers and Mandeville circulated together in five known manuscript copies. The original discovery of that information by one of my own undergraduate professors, Anne Middleton, effects just such a response as she remarks that Piers’ “most frequent companion must be rather surprising” (105).[3] This discovery forms the basis of my book project, “Reading Beyond the Borders: Literary Geography and the shared reception of Piers Plowman and The Book of Sir John Mandeville,” in which I examine all five manuscripts in order to uncover this textual pairing’s early reception history. For, to the modern reader tied to culturally specific notions of genre and modern methodologies of reading, Piers and Mandeville can indeed appear to make little sense together. However, when read from the perspective of a medieval reader (to the extent that that is possible in 2017), these two works become much more obvious travel companions.

Sir John Mandeville leaving for his journey. This image comes from the only Piers-Mandeville manuscript with a cycle of illustrations. Piers, however, is not illustrated in this book. London, British Library MS Harley 3954, f.1r.

On the surface level, this pairing shares some key narrative features: their narrators, both English, go on pilgrimage with a didactic mission. David Benson also identifies their common purpose as vernacular forms of “public writing” meant to deliver Latinate, clerical learning to a wide lay and religious audience.[4] Dig deeper, and even more thematic connections emerge: both works explore what it means to be English within the large expanse of global Christendom. The very concept of nationhood itself comes under scrutiny as both narrators delve into the ethics of kingship and enter into dialogue with non-Christians.[5] Both works, moreover, present their own progressive and inclusive versions of universal history, apocalypticism, and salvation (with the egregious exception of Mandeville’s severe anti-Semitism). Likewise, because Piers, a dream vision, and Mandeville, a travel narrative, fold innumerable source texts into their own writing, neither one is confined by the constraints of their primary genres. These connections comprise a mere sampling of the many important issues raised when reading Piers and Mandeville in dialogue with each other, rather than as stand alone texts.

Interestingly, medieval scribes and readers themselves brought many of these concerns to my attention. For, in each of the five manuscripts, they repurpose their copies of the Piers-Mandeville pairing according to their own, often polemical, ends. By anthologizing, revising, annotating, editing, illustrating, rubricating, and otherwise designing every detail of their books, they published and/or read their copies of the Piers-Mandeville pairing in unique, individualized manuscript contexts. Additionally, the varied regional, vocational, and personal backgrounds of these readerships color their reader responses, especially in relation to the specific types of political and ecclesiastical corruption they each prioritize. Ultimately, what is perhaps more surprising than the pairing’s codicological companionship is the relevance of its audience’s responses to recent literary studies in the current age of globalization. These readers, in fact, follow the navigation of two English narrators across national and cultural boundaries, interrogating corrupt and stable governments, the value of public institutions, and the need for interfaith dialogue and cultural exchange.

Thus, rather than comprising two unrelated, isolated events in literary history, these two longstanding bestsellers, influencers of major historical events and movements, jointly stimulated the minds of their shared audiences. This book, therefore, demonstrates that these texts’ lasting impacts on social and intellectual history were not exclusive of each other, and neither was their relevance to the medieval readers who read them as ideal companion pieces.

Karrie Fuller
University of Notre Dame/St. Mary’s College

[1] There are nearly sixty manuscripts of Piers Plowman, and, internationally, around three hundred for The Book of Sir John Mandeville. The most popular Middle English version, known as the Defective text, numbers forty-four. A variation of this version is in each of the manuscripts examined for this project.

[2] For just one of many important studies on this topic, see Steven Justice, Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

[3] Anne Middleton, “The Audience and Public of Piers Plowman,” Middle English Alliterative Poetry and its Literary Background, ed. David Lawton (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1982), 101-123, 147-154.

[4] David Benson, Public Piers Plowman: Modern Scholarship and Late Medieval English Culture (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004).

[5] There is a large body of literature on what the concept of “nation” [natio in Latin, “nacioun” in Middle English] meant in the Middle Ages. For an introduction to the subject, see Kathy Lavezzo’s edited volume, Imagining a Medieval English Nation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).