(BN 7) Johansson, Karl G. & Else Mundal: Riddarasǫgur

(BN 7) Johansson, Karl G. & Else Mundal: Riddarasǫgur

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The Translation of European Court Culture in Medieval Scandinavia


Chivalric literature was introduced to the North early in the thirteenth century. We know that Tristrams saga ok Ísondar was translated into Old Norse in the year 1226 by a certain Brother Robert, and in the prologue where the translator names himself, he claims that he did the translation at the request of King Hákon Hákonarson.

In four other translations, Elíss saga, Ívens saga, Mottuls saga and Strengleikar, it is said that the work was done at the kings request. It has been a matter of discussion whether references to the king can be trusted or should be taken as literary clichés. References to authorities are in many cases false. However, if such references stem from translations in the king’s own time and in his milieu, they are most likely reliable, since it would be an insult to honour the king for something he had not done. It cannot be proven that references to King Hákon are original and stem from the king’s own time in these five works, but the only surviving manuscript of Strengleikar, Uppsala, De la Gardie 4–7 fol, was probably written only a few years after the king’s death, and the mentioning of the translator as Brother Robert in Tristrams saga ok Ísondar and as Abbot Robert in Elíss saga  who in all likelihood is the same man as Brother Robert after his promotion to Abbot – do also indicate that the prologue with the reference to King Hákon is original. This little detail with the titles indicates at least that the prologues were written in the time of Robert, the translator. The direct references to the king in the prologues of these translations, as well as what we know about the milieu in the Norwegian court in King Hákon’s time from other sources, indicate that the king himself and the circles around him were the driving forces behind the introduction of chivalric literature to the North.

We do not know for certain that Tristrams saga ok Ísondar was the first saga to be translated, but if the king himself took a very active interest in the work, as the references to him indicate, it is not likely that the translations started much earlier. In 1226, when Tristrams saga was translated, the king was still a young man of around 21 or 22 years old, and it is not likely that he would have taken the initiative to have foreign literature translated much earlier. To what degree chivalric literature was known among the cultural elite before the translation took place is hard to say, but such literature was certainly not completely unknown, since the contact between the literary milieus in the North and those on the continent and in England was close.

The European chivalric literature may have been known both in Norway and in Iceland before the time of the first translations, and we cannot exclude the possibility that some early translations were done in Iceland. However, early in the thirteenth century the Norwegian court seems to have been the milieu that promoted the introduction of this popular European genre more than others and was the milieu from which it spread to other literary centres in the North. Iceland, which in spite of its remote situation and small population had the most productive literary milieus in the Scandinavian-speaking world, gradually took over as the leading milieu for cultivating this translated literature and transmitting it to posterity, and several of the chivalric texts that were first translated in Norway exist only in Icelandic manuscripts. In Iceland, strangely enough, chivalric sagas became a productive genre far outside the chivalric culture. Partly using translated chivalric sagas as models, the Icelanders started to compose a sort of chivalric saga genre of their own, a strange mix of the translated sagas and the domestic genre the fornaldarsogur.

The popularity of chivalric literature in the North shows that people living in the northern countries were very interested in the outside world and open to literary impulses from abroad. This did not come as something new with the translations of chivalric texts, mostly from Old French, early in the thirteenth century. The stories told in most of the heroic Eddic poems take place on the continent. The legends of saints from the first centuries of Christianity and later from the continent and the British Isles were among the first texts to be translated and became popular also outside the setting of the Church. Pseudo-historical texts, such as Veraldar saga, Trójumanna saga, Breta sogur, and Romverja saga, are translations from Latin and as a group are older than the translated chivalric sagas. They are, however, sometimes seen in close connection with each other, and show the same interest in the outside world and the common European history of which people in the North also wanted to be a part. The translation of the pseudo-historical works seems, however, mainly to have taken place in Iceland, whereas the translation of chivalric literature took place mainly in Norway.

To get a good picture of the chivalric literature and how it functioned in the northern countries it is necessary to know the chivalric culture in the countries where this culture developed and to try to understand why the literature that was created as part of this culture had such a great appeal in the northern countries in spite of the fact that there were great cultural differences between the two regions of Europe. It is also necessary to know the culture around the court of King Hákon Hákonarson, and his policy and attitude to Europe in order to understand why he and the people around him were so eager to have chivalric literature translated into Old Norse. The background for the latest development of chivalric literature in the North, the Icelandic indigenous riddarasogur, is the Icelandic society in the late Middle Ages. An insight into the Icelandic culture in this period, when the fantastic and heroic fornaldarsogur and rímur  rhymed texts often telling the same type of stories as the fornaldarsogur  had become the most popular genres, is necessary to understand the genre’s latest stage of development that deprived it of most of the hallmarks of genuine chivalric literature.

Several of the articles of the present book discuss what happened during the process of translation. Others focus on the chivalric culture in the regions of Europe where this culture developed, or on how this chivalric literature functioned, or was meant to function, in the North, and others again on the development of the genre in the Nordic culture and the spread from the circles around the Norwegian court.