Audun and the Polar Bear

Luck, Law, and Largesse in a Medieval Tale of Risky Business


Audun’s Story is the tale of an Icelandic farmhand who buys a polar bear in Greenland for no other reason than to give it to the Danish king, half a world away. It can justly be listed among the finest pieces of short fiction in world literature. Terse in the best saga style, it spins a story of complex competitive social action, revealing the cool wit and finely-calibrated reticence of its three main characters: Audun, Harald Hardradi, and King Svein. The tale should have much to engage legal and cultural historians, anthropologists, economists, philosophers, and students of literature. The story’s treatment of gift-exchange is worthy of the fine anthropological and historical writing on gift-exchange; its treatment of face-to-face interaction a match for Erving Goffman.

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William Ian Miller is Professor of Law at the University of Michigan. In addition to books on the bloodfeud in the Icelandic sagas and on the lex talionis, he has also published several books on the risks, miseries and triumphs of routine social interaction, among which are The Anatomy of Disgust (1997), The Mystery of Courage (2000), and Faking It (2003).
“...Miller er í hópi útvalinna fræðimanna sem næmast auga hafa fyrir frumtexta og túlkun hans, og kunna að miðla hugsun sinni þannig að lærðum jafnt sem leikum opnast nýjar dyr... Bókin ber með sér ástríðu fyrir íslenskum miðaldabókmenntum, fyrir samspili texta og samfélags, fyrir kenjum og kostum mannlegrar hegðunar, fyrir margræði tjáningarinnar, fyrir heiðri einstaklingsins og fyrir kaldhæðni valdsins. ... Hér er skólabókardæmi um hvernig stuttur og afmarkaður texti getur þjónað sem umræðuvettvangur fyrir þemu sem hafa mun almennara gildi... Mesta syndin væri að fara á mis við [Miller]; bókinn er görsemi." ["Miller belongs to a group of chosen scholars who have the most sensitive eye for an original text and its interpretation, and he knows how to deliver his thought so that new doors open to scholar and general reader alike ... The book shows a passion for Icelandic medieval literature, for the interrelation of text and society, for the vagaries of human behavior, for the ambiguities of expression, for distinctly drawn individuals and for the cold irony of power ... Here is a textbook example of how a short and sharply framed text can serve as a platform for discussion of themes that have wide-ranging significance... it would be the greatest of sins to miss out on Miller; the book is a treasure."] - Viðar Pálsson, in: Saga (Tímarit Sögufélags) XLIX: 1 (2011) 175-186
“Miller's analysis draws out strand after rich strand from this fine yarn … Miller's interpretations of Audun's Story and a handful of other short Norse narratives .. are superlative. Miller again shows himself in this book to be sensitive to every nuance of Iceland's matchless literary corpus--a literature that is "character and strategy all the way down" (76). By the time he pronounces on the tháttr's resolution, "This is sublime" (64), there is neither hyperbole nor bathos in his statement: the reader sees precisely what motivates his rapture and can only concur with his judgment… Complicated? Thought provoking? Yes, and more: this comes pretty darn close to sublime ... For better or worse--for better--Miller's is likely to be the last word for a long while on this crafty little tale.” - Oren Falk, in: The Medieval Review, 11 March 2009
“…[Miller’s] reading of the Audun episode is one of the most extensive I have seen of such a small narrative and it is inspiring how confi¬dently he allows himself ample time and space for it… Miller is much concerned with social rules and tends to demystify concepts such as luck … without ever sounding banal or reductionist. Indeed one of his main goals seems to be to allow the narrative to keep its charm when treated very thoroughly. And he is extremely thorough, although never unnecessarily so… Although it will probably not attract as big as an audience as Miller’s previous books owing to its Old Norse theme, those who are not put off will reap the rewards. And those already involved in Old Norse can welcome Miller’s impressive return to a field he never really left.” - Ármann Jakobsson, in: Saga Book of the Viking Society, vol. XXXIV, 2010
“…Audun and the Polar Bear is an excellent book that shows how a deep knowledge of folk culture can explain a literary text. It should be read by anyone with an interest in the study of folklore and literature, folk law, folk custom, or medieval Iceland and Scandinavia.” - David Elton Gay, in: Journal of Folklore Research Reviews, March 23, 2010
“The book should amply succeed in its objective—to interest a readership both within saga studies and in the wider fields of legal and cultural history, anthropology, economic ethnography, sociology, and philosophy. The þáttr at its centre should with Miller’s advocacy acquire the wider audience it deserves; it of course needs no advertisement where saga aficionados are concerned. … In sum, we can be grateful to Miller for his acumen, his learning, his tenacity, and (all-important) his clarity in demonstrating that so apparently simple a story can accommodate such a wealth of meaning.” - Russell Poole, in: Scandinavian-Canadian Studies, 20 (2011) 120-123

The Story of Audum from the Westfjords (Audun’s Story)

Part One The Close Commentary

The Commitment to Plausibility
Helping Thorir and Buying the Bear
Dealing with King Harald
Giving the Bear to Svein: The Interests in the Bear
Saying No to Kings
Eggs in One Basket and Market Value
Rome: Self-Impoverishment and Self-Confidence
Repaying the Bear
Back to Harald: The Yielding of Accounts

Part Two Extended Themes

Audun’s Luck
Richness and Risk
Gaming the System: Gift-Ref
Regiving and Reclaiming Gifts
Gifts Upward: Repaying by Receiving and Funny money
Of Free and Closing Gifts
Coda: The Whiteness of the Bear

The book is meant to interest those outside saga studies and mean to engage legal and cultural historians, anthropologists, social theorists, economists, and even philosophers.
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