Interview conducted via e-mail by Joseph S. Hopkins over spring and summer 2017.
For Mimisbrunnr.info's 14th Six Questions interview, we interview American academic Alexander Sager. Sager is department head of the University of Georgia's (UGA) Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies, and an associate professor of German. Among other courses relating to German language, culture, and literature, Sager teaches a variety of classes relating to the ancient Germanic peoples, including the school's recently introduced course on the topic of Norse myth. Sager also played a notable role in Mimisbrunnr.info's formation: he was Ár Var Alda: the Ancient Germanic Studies Society at UGA's faculty sponsor (and that of its precursors), which eventually developed into the present site.
1. Where did you grow up?
In Toledo, Ohio.
2. Can you remember when you first encountered Norse mythology or, more generally, Germanic mythology? And what was the context?
I don’t recall anything before junior high school, only the dimmest recollections of mythology books around the house. The first formative experience in junior high school was watching The Hobbit, the 1977 animated musical version by Rankin/Bass. That was my introduction to what I would broadly call—to use a Tolkienish formulation—the “Myth of the North.” Myth in a positive sense, of course. It had a profound effect on me, that little movie. I have the vivid recollection that it was screened in the church (I attended a Catholic school). That would not actually have been the case, of course, but that’s how I remember it—audience sitting in the pews, with the screen set up before the altar. My mind conflated the experience of watching The Hobbit for the first time with being in church! That gives you a sense of the impact it had on me; I was very Catholic-pious at the time. From there I got into Tolkien’s books. All of them, which I read over and over. I made the connection to Norse mythology proper through Tolkien, specifically through the story of Turin Turambar in The Silmarillion, for which Tolkien borrowed heavily from the Saga of the Volsungs. But that was already quite a bit later, in college.
The other formative moment came in a high school course on early European history. It was taught by the German teacher. I wasn’t taking German then, but rather Latin. The German teacher taught the European history courses. I took ancient and medieval history before modern European history (in fact, I don’t believe there was any modern European history in high school). The part that fascinated me the most was the Barbarian invasions of the Roman empire. I still have very sharp images of the teacher drawing a map of Europe on the board and then writing the names of the Germanic tribes—Angles, Saxons, Goths, Franks, Alemanni, Langobards, Burgundians, Vandals—with arrows showing their migration routes. Those were powerfully magical and evocative names!
The precise analytical breakdown of my fascination with that history is complex, and very important for the scholarly path I would later take. On the one hand, I’m of Germanic heritage. My mother is British (from Liverpool), my father of German immigrant background. I identified very strongly with my mother at the time, to the point of British affectations in accent and word-spelling. With this background, you might think my “historical sympathies” or my identification would lie with the Germanic tribes. But that was not actually the case. The reason had to do with Latin class. By the time of the history course, I had already taken two years of Latin. The Latin teacher did far more than simply teach Latin. With great learning, patience and kindness, as well as infinite jest, he gave his young charges a kind of intellectual citizenship in the Classical world. So when I first learned about the European north, I did so through what you might call the eyes of a Roman. I mean that quite specifically. True to the old humanistic educational model, we spent second year of Latin class translating Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars. That text entered very deeply into my consciousness. Like Caesar, I saw the Celts and Germanic peoples as barbarian primitives. I was happy when the Romans defeated Vercingetorix and put Ariovistus to flight. But I also saw that peaceful relations and meaningful cultural encounters were possible between Romans and the northern peoples—Caesar describes numerous cases of cooperation and alliances, of barbarians acting “reasonably.” It was not until much later that I understood the self-serving, tendentious nature of this account.
This mixed perspective conditioned my scholarly pathway in a decisive way. When I came to study the Germanic and German middle ages, I always retained a special interest in the cultural encounter of the northern European world with the Classical cultures of the Mediterranean. The Germanic peoples that interested me most were those who Romanized most heavily: the Goths and the Franks. Despite my British heritage, I ultimately came to be more drawn to the developments on the European Continent than in the Anglo-Saxon-Celtic world. My interest in Things Properly Norse came very late. For me, the Norse world is the final manifestation of events, peoples, and perspectives that take their origin centuries back in the heroic Germanic age.
3. What is your academic background in Germanic studies? What courses do you teach on the topic of ancient Germanic studies?
My undergraduate degrees were in history (major) and German (minor). In the course of the history major I took numerous courses on European history from antiquity to present, in which things Germanic and German played a part. I began to study the German language quite late, when I was 21 and already towards the end of my major. But I rapidly became totally devoted to it, achieved advanced fluency in a fairly short period of time, and decided that I would apply to graduate programs in German, rather than in history. I wanted a program of study in which the language itself was the object of study. If I had gone into the field of history, the language would have been a tool, not a focus. In my graduate studies, I became interested in the historical development of the German language and took courses in historical linguistics, Old High German language and literature, Middle High German language and literature, and Old Norse language. And yet I did not decide to become a linguist; I was more attracted to literary-cultural interpretation than to linguistic phenomena. So I wrote my dissertation in the field of Middle High German literature.
4. What was your earliest work on the topic of Germanic mythology?
If you mean research, I’ve never actually written anything on Germanic mythology per se. My main fields of research are 13th century Arthurian narrative and medieval courtly poetry. This is a literature that, culturally speaking, looks not northward, but rather west and south to the Latinate and Romance-speaking world. However, I also work on 9th century Old Saxon biblical literature, which is actually quite close to Germanic mythology because it was composed for a Germanic people that had recently been converted from paganism. As many scholars have argued, Old Saxon biblical literature shows many elements of “accommodation” to a pagan view of the world, including perhaps to specific pagan gods and practices. My research doesn’t directly explore the pagan legacy, but rather deals with connections to contemporaneous Christian theological writings. Still, late Germanic paganism is palpably in the background of my analysis.
Germanic mythology has always played a role in my teaching. I offer an undergraduate course called “Germania,” which you yourself took. This course explores the culture and literature of the Continental Germanic peoples from the Classical world to Charlemagne. We devote several weeks to paganism, including some mythology. I’ve taught courses on the Germanic heroic epic The Nibelungenlied, in which I devote some time to the Nordic Nibelung tradition, which—unlike the “Christianized” German poem—is explicitly pagan. Last semester, I finally taught an undergraduate course devoted entirely to Norse/Viking mythology, in which the Eddas and sagas were the main reading. It was very rewarding.
5. Which scholars had the greatest influence on your work? Why?
In teaching mythology, I’ve simply availed myself of the main handbooks, most importantly Jan de Vries’s Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte, an amazing resource that should have been translated into English long ago. This book places Norse mythology in the context of the ancient pagan Germanic religions, historically understood. Georges Dumézil of course, for questions having to do with the really “deep” cultural-historical roots. On the Eddic texts, Ursula Dronke. Klaus von See on the “heroic” Germanic worldview.
In my research on Old Saxon literature, the most important scholar for me is Harald Haferland, who has restored to plausibility the old thesis that the Heliand was composed by a Saxon “scop” (a skald, more or less) firmly based in the old pagan-heroic, oral-formulaic verse tradition. What undermined this argument before, beginning in the 1960s, was evidence that the Heliand was influenced by medieval biblical exegesis. Since this evidence has proven to be undeniable, a large number of scholars came to believe that the poem was written by a churchman with a primary Christian-monastic education seeking to imitate old Germanic-heroic poetry. Consequently, these scholars have downplayed the “pagan connection” and stressed the Christian orthodoxy of the poem. What Haferland has made probable is that the Heliand was the work of a traditional Saxon scop—i.e., a layman whose “Sitz im Leben” was the Saxon warrior aristocracy—consulting with a team of monks on the theology. This refocuses the scholarly discussion on the “Germanic” quality of the poem to a certain extent, which was in danger of falling out of view.
6. What research are you currently conducting that relates to ancient Germanic studies? What do you hope to work on related to the field in the future?
So far I’ve had one article published on the Genesis B, one of three Old Saxon poems on Old Testament subjects in the same alliterative-verse tradition as the Heliand. I’ve just submitted another essay on the second poem, which deals with the story of Cain and Abel. The third poem relates the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the flight of Lot. Right now I’m doing background research on that poem and hope to write an article on it next year. All this is in addition to my “non-Germanic” work on Arthurian romance and courtly love poetry.
Joseph S. Hopkins would like to thank Alexander Sager for his participation.