An unusual article recently appeared in the magazine of the Royal Statistical Society and American Statistical Association.
It featured web-like diagrams of lines connecting nodes, a hallmark of research that analyzes networks. But each node, rather than being a plain dot, was the head of a burly, red-bearded Viking sporting a horned hat, his tresses blowing in the wind.
This whimsical-seeming piece of scholarship went on to describe the social network of more than 1,500 characters in the Icelandic Sagas, epic tales about the colonization of Iceland around a thousand years ago that were first written down a few hundred years after that. It was the work of a pair of statistical physicists, Ralph Kenna of University of Coventry in the UK and his graduate student Pádraig Mac Carron, now at Oxford, who are applying the tools of their trade to works of epic literature, legend, and myth.
For this particular analysis, they painstakingly recorded the relationship of every settler in 18 sagas. The resulting web of interactions helped shed light on theories humanities scholars have been discussing for years, and even picked up on some previously unnoticed patterns.
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The story of how Kenna and Mac Carron got here begins with the Irish tale of the cattle-raid of Cooley, or the Táin Bó Cúailnge. That yarn tells how the warrior-queen Medb of Connacht rallies an army to steal a fine bull from Ulster, and how youthful Cúchulainn, an Ulster folk hero, stands against her. Complete with a maiden prophet with three pupils in each eye, wild chariot rides, and an enormous cast of characters, it’s a story to grip anyone’s imagination.
It’s a story that Kenna and Mac Carron, who are both Irish, have known since childhood.
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The Táin, which comes to us in pieces from many different manuscripts, the oldest nearly 1,000 years old, is considered literature rather than historical account. But it might still encode, in a way statistics can reveal, information about the society that produced it. Math might also help classify tales in a new way, quantitatively, in addition to the usual qualitative classifications.
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Siccing a pattern-finding program on a novel might uncover meaningless patterns, or ones so obvious that a high school freshman could see them. But Tim Tangherlini, a folklorist and professor at UCLA who hosted a 2010 National Endowment for the Humanities meeting on network analysis, sees potential. “There are a lot of latent patterns in this material that you can’t discern overtly. You can do it very well as a trained reader — by developing ways of thinking about the material that let us see latent patterns — but we have a very hard time articulating it.” Algorithms could help make those patterns visible. In the case of social networks, they can reveal which people are the most connected or powerful, as well as how densely connected the network is and the average distance between any two people, qualities that vary depending on the type of group.
For instance, research suggests that real social networks have different properties than fictional ones. The idea of seeing where epics — which are certainly not all fact, but perhaps not all fiction — fell on that spectrum appealed to Kenna.
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What Kenna and Mac Carron found was that the epics fell between the real networks and the fictional ones. The network in The Iliad is relatively realistic, and Beowulf’s also has realistic aspects, with the exception of the connections to Beowulf himself. That chimed with the idea from the humanities that he, unlike some others in the story, may not have existed. The Táin’s network was more artificial. Interestingly, however, they found that a lot of the Táin’s unreality was concentrated in just a few, grotesquely over-connected characters. When they theorized that some of those characters might actually be amalgams — for instance, that some of the times the queen of Connacht is said to speak to someone, it might be a messenger speaking for her instead — the network began to look more realistic.
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They had unwittingly stumbled onto patterns that tied into theories humanities scholars had been discussing for years. The sagas are thought to have been written using actual genealogical information, says Tangherlini — in fact, many of the Icelandic sagas are classified as “family sagas,” and they may have been written to cement a family’s glorious past — so it makes sense that their social networks are very realistic.
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At a broader level, comparing social networks in these old stories to those in more recent fiction may help reveal deeper truths about what literature has meant to people through the ages. “Great literature might have been more representative of society in the past,” says Birkett. “There’s a big difference between a realistic representation of social networks and a realistic representation of life, or the human condition … I don’t think you could write a modern novel that accurately represented social groups [the way the sagas do], because there would be too many characters.” Mac Carron echoes that sentiment. “Njal’s Saga has something like an average of four new characters every page,” he says. “Whereas in modern fiction, I think they do try to make sure you can keep track of everyone, with the exception of maybe Game of Thrones.” Even in Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings — which Mac Carron and Kenna analyzed to compare with the sagas — the networks are nowhere near as vast. That density of characters, and the realism of their networks, suggest a different purpose for literature than might be the case now — the creation of portraits of societies, rather than portraits of individuals.