Interview with Alex Wilson

Our final seminar will be on March 14 and will be led by Alex Wilson, speaking about ‘Othering the Other: Social Cognition in Two Icelandic Sagas’. As usual, tea and biscuits from 17:40 with the seminar starting at 18:00. 

Below we chatted to Alex about York, Grettis, legality and outlawry! 

Tell us a bit about yourself, where are you from?

I grew up in Fulford, near York—our school was just down the road from one of the slightly less famous battlefields that shaped the events of 1066—but I’ve spent eight of the last nine years living in Durham.

What brought you to Durham?

A favourite teacher recommended that I should apply to study here, and I liked it enough to stick around. Originally I had planned to specialise in modern literature, but halfway through my undergraduate course I became interested in medieval texts through discovering Old Norse and Old English literature.

Abraham_Ortelius-Islandia-ca_1590What is your favourite thing about the medieval/early modern period?

The fascinating rise and fall of the Icelandic Free State, which rejected royal oversight for most of its existence and which somehow survived for around three hundred years without a head-of-state or any standing government. It’s a wonder it lasted that long, given how unstable the social structure was as a result of having no government, but it inspired a wonderful body of literature in the sagas that it produced.

What does your research focus on?

I work on ideas of community and identity in Old Norse–Icelandic saga literature, with a particular focus on the concepts of legality and outlawry. I’m currently in the latter stages of writing up my thesis, which analyses how Old Norse outlaw narratives commentate on and critique the socio-political contexts of their protagonists. Some scholars have surprisingly argued that these texts have no political dimension at all, and I think this claim needs to be addressed.

What do you plan to focus on in your seminar?

I’ll be talking about the psychological concept of social cognition, which, in the most basic sense, seeks to understand how people make sense of other people, and thereby construct social norms. It’s similar to the more familiar concepts of normativity and otherness, but social cognition develops those ideas into a more complex model of inter-personal perception. In the course of the seminar, I’ll analyse key scenes from two sagas, Fóstbrœðra saga and Droplaugarsona saga, to demonstrate how some marginalised saga figures distort conventional social schema in order to give themselves an advantage in taking revenge on their more powerful adversaries.

If you were not in academia, what would you be doing?

Not too sure, but I’d hope it would still involve plenty of reading and writing.

Do you have a favourite medieval/early modern text?FordGrettir2

It would have to be a saga, and if I have to pick just one, I’ll go for Grettis saga. Grettir Ásmundarson was the longest-surviving outlaw in the history of medieval Iceland, and his saga reflects this; it’s mostly made up of episodes set during his twenty-year period of outlawry, all of which are characterised by Grettir’s larger-than-life presence. It’s by no means the most intricate or sophisticated saga—although it certainly demonstrates those qualities within individual episodes—but it’s full of supernatural conflicts, intricate psychological explorations, and bawdy, often carnivalesque humour. I’d highly recommend it.

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