A Viking Pacifist? The Life of St Magnus in Saga, Novel, and Opera
By Carl Phelpstead
Old Norse Made New: Essays on the Post-Medieval Reception of Old Norse Literature and Culture, ed. David Clark and Carl Phelpstead (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2007)
Introduction: The composer Peter Maxwell Davies begins a synopsis of his opera The Martyrdom of St Magnus with the remarkable assertion that “St Magnus [. .] is the Patron Saint of Orkney. He was a Viking pacifist”. Davies goes on to state that “The history of St Magnus is to be read in the Icelandic Orkneyinga saga“, but a reader of that saga might question Davies’s characterization of Magnus as a “Viking pacifist”. This essay explores the transformations St Magnus underwent as the story of his life in Orkneyinga saga was retold in the twentieth century in the novel Magnus by the leading Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown, and then in the opera based on that novel by the eminent British composer, Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934). For these two twentieth-century artists the Norse earl St Magnus is central to a sense of a peculiarly Orcadian identity, yet they also present him as a figure of wider resonance, a particular victim of violence who can stand for all those killed for their beliefs or their desire to make peace. Magnus is universalized in these twentieth-century reworkings by means of typological connections with other victims of violence. In this way, I shall argue, Brown and Davies adopt a more “hagiographical” approach to their saintly subject than does the writer of Orkneyinga saga: they turn Magnus into a more straightforwardly exemplary, and so less complex, character than he is in the saga.
From the second half of the ninth century onwards the islands of Orkney and Shetland formed an earldom owing allegiance to the Norwegian king. The islands passed to Denmark with the union of the Danish and Norwegian crowns in 1380, and did not come under Scottish rule until 1468-69, when the Danish king proved unable to pay a dowry he had secured on the islands. This Norse cultural inheritance has been, and still is, fundamental to the regional identity of Orkney and Shetland. A dialect of Norse, known as Norn, survived in the islands until as late as the eighteenth century, and the English of the islands still retains a high percentage of Norse loanwords. Sir Walter Scott emphasized the Norse identity of Shetland in his historical novel The Pirate (published in 1822), and several modern Orcadian writers have drawn on Viking history and Norse literature in their novels, poetry, and drama. Orcadians and Shetlanders living in London in 1892 founded what is now the Viking Society for Northern Research, the publisher of this volume of essays and sponsor of the conferences at which they were presented.
Vikings settled in, and ruled, many parts of the British Isles and Ireland, but of these areas only the Norse earldom of Orkney has a whole Icelandic saga devoted to its early history. This text, Orkneyinga saga, is the major surviving account of the history of Orkney between the ninth and the late twelfth century. The saga was probably put together with some input from Orcadian informants, and it incorporates a considerable amount of skaldic verse composed in Orkney or by Orcadians. The saga was compiled c.1200, but survives in a revised version made c.1230 and preserved in the late fourteenth-century Icelandic manuscript, Flateyjarbook (MS GKS 1005 fol.).