Ringing Changes

On Old Norse-Icelandic mál in Kormáks saga

  • William Sayers


The Old Norse-Icelandic word mál, variously “measure, speech, poetry, case, matter,” is strategically called on at various points throughout Kormáks saga. Its diverse significations all bear on the life of the warrior-poet, who is himself characterized as precipitous by nature. He achieves in his poetry what eludes him in life and love: moderation (hóf), the midway point in measures of all kinds. Subject to comparisons with other males in the saga, mocked in his masculinity by an insolent servant, and cursed by a sorceress, he does not attain the body of his beloved Steingerðr but succeeds in recreating her in ideal form in skaldic poetry. Away from Iceland on Viking expeditions, he finds an equilibrium that was denied him in Icelandic society. The overall judgment of the Christian author is of a successful career in art yet one limited in life by an impulsive character, curse (this, too, a kind of mál), the judgement of others – in all, a pagan destiny. In significant ways Kormákr prefigures the Iceland of the thirteenth century.