Category Archives: What I’m Reading This Month

Njal’s Saga: Literature and Leadership

By Stan Pelkey

In mid-January, during the last few days my two children were home for winter break, my son and I began to watch the first season of Vikings (Michael Hirst, 2013–2018) on Amazon Prime’s streaming video service. We’d watched The Last Kingdom on BBC America in 2015, and we’re huge fans of Game of Thrones, so Vikings seemed like a promising choice, given our preferences for epic storytelling on television.

Now this post is not a review of Vikings, which I do enjoy very much. I may post such a review later. Watching the program, however, motivated me to go back to my bookshelf of medieval European literature (yes, that’s a real thing in my office at home), which I collected while working on my MA in European History, and I began reading the great Icelandic prose text, Njal’s Saga.

What began as an exercise in “how well did Hirst capture the sense of historical Viking society, culture, and attitudes?” (with some collateral “ah, there’s a bit of Tolkien!” thrown in) quickly morphed into an exploration of historical “mentalities” embedded in literature, a practice that was central to my training as a historian. And then my reading became the basis for this, my third blog post on literature and leadership.

Njal’s Saga is long enough and dense enough and has a large enough cast of characters that I may mine its riches over several posts this year. (As a comparison, think of the size and narrative style of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, rather than his The Hobbit.) What I wish to focus on first is the importance—for a leader or would-be leader—of surrounding oneself with people of good character, being willing to find common ground, and using compromise as a tool for crafting the common good.

The events of Njal’s Saga take place roughly a century after the events depicted in the first four seasons of Vikings (i.e., the late 900s rather than the 800s). The first half of the saga focuses on four significant, recurring figures: the half-brothers, Hoskuld and Hrut; and the friends Gunnar and Njal. In each of those pairings, the latter individual is a wise man with powerful spiritual gifts who serves as a trusted advisor to the former man. Hoskuld and Gunnar rise to levels of great wealth and power by exhibiting the character traits that the Saga consistently celebrates in men: strength of arms (whether one is a farmer, trader, or lawyer); shrewdness; a core even-temperedness; reliability and loyalty toward friends; and ruthlessness toward enemies. (I think one could argue that these are also the character traits of Ragnar in Vikings, at least during the first two seasons, and perhaps even more so of his eldest son, Bjorn.  Likewise, John Snow and Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones also demonstrate those characteristics, and one might argue that the lack of shrewdness was precisely the reason that the Stark men played the game of thrones so poorly.)


Hrut likewise rises to prominence and rightfully gains his place of power and influence beside his half-brother after spending time trading and fighting abroad and demonstrating those same character traits just enumerated. He’s motivated to go abroad, in part, because he is told early in the Saga that while his brother is a famous leader, he is unknown. In this way, Hrut’s rise from beneath his brother’s shadow could have been a model for the long narrative arc in Vikings in which Rollo continuously wrestles with his place and reputation in relation to his more skillful and successful brother, Ragnar.

Early in Njal’s Saga, Hoskuld’s family and Gunnar’s family are nearly swept into violent conflict. Hrut, however, urges his brother to resolve their dispute with gifts and pledges of friendship rather than by single combat, which he knows Hoskuld will lose. Hrut’s wisdom in pursuing a face-saving compromise between the two families is rewarded richly when Gunnar falls in love with Hoskuld’s daughter, Hallgerd – now widowed twice and a landowner in her own right. Through the subsequent marriage of Hallgerd and Gunnar—which Gunnar would not have contemplated but for the willingness of Hoskuld to settle their earlier dispute peacefully— the two families become bound by both promises of friendship and by blood.

In contrast to the valiant Hoskuld and Gunnar and the wise Hrut and Njal, the saga continuously introduces a cast of minor, villainous, and often short-lived male characters regularly referred to as “scoundrels.” Unlike the valiant and wise leaders, these characters are led easily into trouble; lead others into misfortunate with poor and even malicious advice; lie, even to their allies; and mouth off.

As the first of these “scoundrels” are introduced, the saga moves into a peculiar phase in which Gunnar’s family and household are, for several years, pitted against the family and household of his friend Njal. The conflict begins with an underlying jealousy between Hallgerd (Gunnar’s wife) and Bergthora (Njal’s wife), and the two women use the scoundrels in their respective husbands’ households to needle each other. Over a series of chapters, there is a cycle of tit-for-tat murders between the two families, starting with household slaves, then moving up the social scale from freemen, to minor kinsmen, and finally to close and important kinsmen. With each cycle of violence, more fighters are forced to take part in the respective revenge killings (to ensure numerical advantages for the “winning” side), until the spiraling cycles of violence and vengeance threaten to suck both households into open warfare.

With each cycle of violence, Njal and Gunnar also agree to pay appropriate compensation to each other (in keeping with Viking law) in order contain the threat of open warfare and to maintain their personal friendship. They make these decisions despite the bitterness of their wives and the seething anger of their respective collections of hot-tempered sons. Again, the leadership displayed by Njal and Gunnar is embodied first and foremost in a willingness to find an appropriate compromise that is consistent with their “institutional” policies / procedures / safeguards rather than allowing disagreements between their clichés or camps to spiral out of control – which would only benefit their mutual enemies. Real leaders are often tasked with holding the line for peace in the face of opposition from even one’s closest friends and relatives. By maintaining the common ground despite opposition within their own camps, Njal and Gunnar hold their alliance together, and after the cycles of violence subside, the two families find genuine peace and are ready to work together again to mutually protect each other from both the ravages of famine and the threats of far worse regional opponents.

This leads me to my second observation: leaders must be sure to have a close circle of confidents and advisors who are of good character themselves. Hoskuld and Gunnar have that in their primary advisors – Hrut and Njal – and Gunnar also has a brother, Kolskegg, who is valiant and trustworthy. But why are there so many men of poor character in their households? One has to assume that some of this is simply a function of the need for a certain level of man power to run their farms, manage their flocks, and look after their logging and fishing enterprises. (Of course, their presence also serves a fundamental literary function, driving the plot forward.) But it is clear from the narrative that Hoskuld, Gunnar, and Njal do not seek the advice of such men. Contrarily, their chief enemies, who are not men of noble character, do turn to the unscrupulous characters in their households for advice – which leads to terrible consequences.

Gunnar for his part goes further: his is not simply a passive avoidance of the advice of the “scoundrels” in his inner circle; Gunnar also actively urges those men to stay out of trouble and to avoid being led astray by the scheming of the jealous Hallgerd. Nevertheless, neither Gunnar nor Njal resort to micromanaging the behavior of every single person in their households. This would be impossible to do and is not the best use of any leader’s time or energy. Thus, if they cannot avoid all problems caused by the actions and decisions of the people who work for them, they are at least ready to contain the impact of the potential crises caused by those other men. That being said, even good leaders reach limits with the scoundrels in their midst, as when Hrut finally kills in single combat one scoundrel, Thjostolf, who keeps getting his niece Hallgerd into trouble with her first two husbands.

Now I’m certainly not advocating that we settle modern leadership / organizational problems by turning to violence. Far from it. But in reading this literature as a study in human ideas and behavior and of leadership ideals and ethical systems, some of which appear to have remained remarkably stable for the past millennium, we can distill several timeless prescriptions: Good leaders will minimize risks to their organization to begin with by developing cadres of folks of good character— and note, these are not simply those one most enjoys or gets along with best—who serve as primary advisors and agents. Furthermore, when conflict emerges, whether within the organization or between one’s organization and another, a good leader will seek and hold the common ground for the common good for as long as possible (which will likely be longer than most people want). But finally, a good leader must be willing to be decisive when circumstances call for it and to act to protect others in the organization from the malicious influence of “scoundrels”. The alternative is becoming trapped in a spiraling cycle of internal and external conflict and recriminations that can derail the mission of the organization and ultimately tear it apart.


What I’ve Been Reading (November)

Cameron Pyke, Benjamin Britten and Russia (Boydell Press, 2016).

This exceptionally well-written and well-researched study by Cameron Pyke (Dulwich College and University of London) explores many of the ways Benjamin Britten engaged with Russian composers, musicians, and literature against the backdrop of Anglo-Soviet cultural and political relationships, particularly from the 1930s through the early 1970s.

Pyke organizes the book thematically, but there is a broad chronological shape to the whole. The first four chapters are devoted to Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky, the Russian composers whose music most appealed to Britten. Pyke’s nuanced discussion of Britten’s changing and problematic relationship with Stravinsky is welcome and provides an additional context for understanding why Shostakovich became so important to Britten. The fifth chapter focuses on Britten’s visits to the Soviet Union in the 1960s and early 1970s. Chapter six considers Pushkin’s influence on Britten and the composer’s engagement with Russian performance styles. The final chapter returns to Britten and Shostakovich, focusing on their friendship in later life and their concerns regarding war and death.

To build his case, Pyke draws thoroughly from journals, letters by Benjamin Britten and others, new interviews with people who knew both Britten and Shostakovich or were involved with Britten’s trips to the Soviet Union, reviews of performances, and Britten’s library of scores. Pyke’s use of these sources is convincing; taken together, they support  his contextual and interpretive points. Furthermore, Pyke’s insightful analysis of Britten’s compositions, complete with many notated examples, highlights the composer’s preoccupations in light of the quartet of featured Russian figures he stresses in the first four chapters of the book. Indeed, Pyke’s discussions of the music of both Britten and Shostakovich throughout the study are high points in this exceptional book.

I highly recommend Pyke’s Benjamin Britten and Russia. It is one of the best studies of music I have read in quite some time.

Stan Pelkey

November 18, 2016

What I’ve Been Reading (September)

Paul S. Boyer’s American History: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2012).

I have read a number of books from Oxford’s “Very Short Introduction” series, including Kathryn Kalinak’s on Film Music, John Polkinghorne’s on Quantum Theory, and several on world religions and ethics. Paul Boyer’s American History did not disappoint. It is the perfect refresher on US history, and I found the chapters on the colonial period, the revolutionary era, the early republic, and the Civil War particularly valuable. It was also interesting to read the final chapter, which traced American history from the early years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency to the present—an era that overlaps completely with my own life. To see (and feel) this period treated as “history”—and to observe my own emotive reaction to this experience—was fascinating, but I also found Boyer’s linkages of events, trends, causes and effects over those four decades convincing and his assessments compelling. One of the final chapter’s subsections, “Historic Election; Uncertain Future,” which covers the presidency of Mr. Obama, also gave more flesh to the idea of the “long shadow of 9/11” and left me contemplating—not for the first time—that the growth, prosperity, and relative peace of the 1990s (years when I attended graduate school, began my career, and celebrated the birth or my children)—rather than the conflict, economic insecurity (real or only perceived), and rancorous partisanship so prevalent since 2000—may be the aberration in post-1970s American society (and history).

Stan Pelkey

October 1, 2016




What I’ve Been Reading: A Review of “Meaning and Interpretation of Music in Cinema”


David Neumeyer, Meaning and Interpretation of Music in Cinema (Indiana University Press, 2015).
David Neumeyer (University of Texas at Austin) expands his significant contribution to film music studies with this magisterial volume, which is in three parts. In the first part, Neumeyer deploys a series of close readings of numerous film scenes to demonstrate that the sound track as a whole—dialogue, music, and sound effects (99)—is the proper object of study. This commitment is grounded in “vococentrism”: human voices dominate the sound track, just as human faces do the image track (100) (Vococentrism is obvious whenever music gives way to dialogue; without the human voice and human agency, neither film image nor film music would make sense.) Music supports film narrative, but editing and mixing, synchronization of sound and image, acoustical fidelity, and excessive expressiveness shape how one hears and interprets film music.
In part 2, Neumeyer crafts a series of close readings of Casablanca that utilize concepts outlined in part 1; the closing pages, in which Neumeyer considers sound effects, dialogue, and music in the final minutes of Casablanca, provide an outstanding example of what his consistent attention to the sound track as a whole can reveal about incredibly nuanced meaning in film.
Finally, in part 3, Neumeyer explores sound tracks that include J. S. Bach’s C Major Prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, or the prelude from his Cello Suite in G Major. He considers ideas about the domestic, nostalgia, and the pastoral embodied in these excerpts. Here he addresses the ideas of topic and troping while exploring how these musical excerpts embody a range of ideas about the domestic, nostalgia, and the pastoral. When characters on screen perform these pieces by Bach, simplistic oppositions between the diegetic and nondiegetic and empathetic and nonempathetic break down.
Throughout the book, Neumeyer summarizes and draws upon a vast body of critical work in film and film music studies and offers ways to understand scholars’ differently nuanced ideas about film and film music as a cohesive body of analytical and critical approaches. Numerous photographic stills and notated musical examples reinforce his arguments.
Highly recommended.


Review by Stan Pelkey (April 6, 2016)

What I Have Been Reading This Month… and Then Some (December)

I love books. I have been collecting them since my teens, and I have a lot of them now, both at home and in my office at the University. It has gotten expensive to move my library, which is one reason I’m looking forward to putting down roots in Tallahassee. Before our most recent cross-country move, I tried to downsize, mostly books related to my teaching that I figured I would not need again. The risk, as I see it, however, is letting go of a friend you might need again.

Case in point: in 1993, while I was still a student living in Kentucky, I purchased An Ocean Apart: The Relationship Between Britain and America in the Twentieth Century by David Dimbleby and David Reynolds. I know it was 1993 because I write the date I buy a book on its inside cover. I also date when I read (and reread) books. Yes, I know, that may seem very strange, but I like to keep a record of what I am reading and have read, and the purchase dates help me trace in my own mind what topics were of most interest to me at different stages of my life.

I have been reading An Ocean Apart this week for an article I am writing on a British television show from the 1960s. It is a very good book, if a bit dated now (it was published in 1988, before the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union – both critical components of the story told by the two Davids). Nevertheless, it is still an excellent read and provides a very thorough analysis of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States throughout the last century. I was aware that there had been highs and lows in the “special relationship,” but Dimbleby and Reynolds provide a richly detailed overview of just how volatile that relationship has sometimes been, both at the level of the governments and political elites, and among the citizenry of the two countries. Their generous quotation from letters, memoires, newspapers, and declassified government documents brings their historical overview to life. Their analysis is balanced, and they do not hold back on their assessment of both personal and professional conflicts on both sides of the Atlantic. It is especially fascinating to consider how very human emotions and reactions among American and British leaders to each other actually influenced the shape of the relationship and ultimately global politics.

I originally purchased An Ocean Apart because of my general interest in British history, which stretched back long before my teaching career began. I finally read it this month because of a particular article I am writing. But reading the book has also reinforced a number of leadership principles about which I have been reflecting for several years now. Obviously, there have been lessons to learn (or review) as I have read about British prime ministers and American presidents in World War II and the Cold War, but the clear examples of the relationships among economics, politics, policy, and culture that Dimbleby and Reynolds highlight are especially valuable to me as I have immersed myself in recent years in issues of organizational mission, budgets, and cash flow. There are never unlimited resources, and this shapes the destiny of each individual, every family, every organization—large and small—all educational and performance organizations, and even entire nation-states. I know, dear readers, that insight is achingly commonsensical, except that our contemporary political discourse—not to mention many conversations I have heard on three campuses as a faculty member—seem to unfold in an environment where that commonsensical insight regularly is ignored or misunderstood.

A key component, then, of leadership at any level and in any organization will be helping to define priorities and clarifying how missions and values will shape budgets and expenditures.

The bottom line: Books are heavy, and money does not grow on trees.