Our final MEMSA seminar of the year will take place on Tuesday, 8 December at the World Heritage Visitors Centre at 6 pm. We chatted with the latest speaker Tom Spray to discuss his research, seminar, and topics of interest. His forthcoming seminar is titled ‘The King of the North: Frithiof the Bold and Hereditary Degradation’.
Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from?
I actually grew up in County Durham, over in the dales by Hamsterley Forest. My family moved up to Dunblane in Scotland when I was fourteen. The rest of my time has been spent in Hamburg and Reykjavík, so I have been moving in northern circles most of my life.
What brought you to Durham?
It was at the recommendation of my M.A. tutor at Nottingham, who had fond memories of doing his Ph.D. in Old Norse here. I already knew Durham from my childhood.
What do you love most about the medieval/early Modern period?
Once you begin to look into the period in detail you realise how incomplete and simplistic most of our modern notions of this broad and fascinating period really are.
The best thing about studying the medieval period is getting to pick apart that bizarre construction which is the notion of the backward ‘Dark Ages’ of Europe. I find Medievalism, or how people construct their own ideas of the past, to be a fascinating concept. Once you begin to look into the period in detail you realise how incomplete and simplistic most of our modern notions of this broad and fascinating period really are.
What does your research focus on?
My research is on the earliest translations of the Icelandic sagas (or Íslendingasögur) into English. The first complete translations appeared in the middle of the nineteenth century, at a time when public tastes were driven by right-wing intellectual phenomena such as comparative philology, social Darwinism, and the first notions of Aryan science. My theory is that the choices of which sagas to translate, the way they were presented, and how they were adapted and adopted afterwards were all influenced by Romantic-Nationalist discourse.
What led you to your area of interest?
Volcanic eruptions and getting to visit saga sites as part of your job is enough to keep you interested.
I decided I was going to study Old Norse sagas back during my undergraduate degree in Glasgow, but the interest in Medievalism and the reception of the Viking Age really came from working with the extensive Icelandic literature archive of Eiríkur Benedikz (1907-1988) during my Masters. I also spent my summer months as a tour guide in Iceland, which I did for six years. Volcanic eruptions and getting to visit saga sites as part of your job is enough to keep you interested.
What do you plan to focus on with your seminar?
The seminar is actually going to be on the very first Icelandic saga to be translated into English: George Stephens’ 1839 translation of Friðþjofs saga hins frœkna, or as he called it The Saga of Frithiof the Bold. It is actually one of the fornaldarsögur (‘sagas of ancient times’) and these days does not really enjoy a lot of popularity. Yet in the Victorian times it went through four separate translations in 55 years. I am going to look at the original Old Norse text to find some possible reasons for its popularity.
If you were not in academia, what would you be doing?
I would probably be out in Iceland, showing people around the saga sites. I am more of an outdoor person than my time spent in archives would suggest.
Do you have a favourite medieval/early Modern text?
The epic tale of blood feud and Viking Age values that is Njáls saga – in my mind the finest of the Icelandic sagas.
Join us on Tuesday, 8 December for Tom’s seminar. Tea and biscuits will be provided from 5:40 pm, with the lecture beginning at the usual time at 6 pm. The seminar will be followed by our MEMSA Christmas party, which will take place in Williams Library, St Chad’s College from 6:45 pm. All are welcome.