The Big Splash: End-Rhyme and Innovation in Medieval Scandinavian Poetics

By Layher, William | Scandinavian Studies, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

The Big Splash: End-Rhyme and Innovation in Medieval Scandinavian Poetics


Layher, William, Scandinavian Studies


WHEN THE MATIERE DE BRETAGNE began to appear in Old Norse translation during the reign of King Hakon Hakonarsson of Norway (d. 1262), the Old French sources underwent a process of literary as well as stylistic transformation. Among the sagas attributed to Hakon's patronage are Tristrams saga ok Isondar, Parcevals saga, Erex saga, Ivens saga, Mottuls saga (a translation of Le Mantel mautaillie), and some lais by Marie de France transmitted under the title Strengleikar. The scholarship has long noted that the sens of the epics was adjusted slightly in the saga translations: that the structure of Ivens saga and Erex saga has been stripped of all traces of the two-fold path that accentuates the imperfect progress of the hero towards his rehabilitation, that Erex saga is almost completely devoid of courtly love, that the Grail in Parcevals saga is not what Chretien makes it out to be, and that the Round Table--a powerful metaphor of the Arthurian world--was not at all well known in the North. (1) Because many of the riddarasogur survive only in late-medieval Icelandic copies, it cannot be established whether these alterations were part of the original translations in thirteenth century Norway or whether Icelandic copyists working in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries interpolated them into the sagas. (2) The most significant discontinuity between the matiere de Bretagne and the Norse translations, however, concerns the issue of literary form. Whereas the romans courtois were written in rhyming couplets of Old French verse, the translations were written in prose, as all other sagas to that date had been. (3) More than forty years would pass after Hakon's death before the final untranslated aspect of the romans courtois, the rhyming couplet, made its debut in the North.

The next wave of literary innovation swept across the Norwegian royal court shortly after Hakon Hakonarsson's youngest son Magnus took the throne in 1299. With the translation of the Eufemiavisor in the early years of the fourteenth century--Herr Ivan Lejonriddaren in 1303, Hertig Fredrik af Normandie in 1308 (or perhaps earlier, the manuscripts do not agree on the dating), and Flores och Blanzeflor in 1312--came the first use of narrative end-rhyme in the medieval Scandinavian tradition. The epics were translated into Old Swedish rhyming verse at the behest of their patron, Eufemia, the German-born queen of Norway. (4) Is it likely that the translation into Old Swedish instead of Old Norse, the language of Eufemia's court, bears some connection to the engagement of Eufemia's daughter Ingebjorg to duke Erik Magnusson of VAstergotland, prince of Sweden. Perhaps the epics were meant as gifts for Erik, to sustain his interest in a Swedish liaison during the long and occasionally problematic engagement to Ingebjorg, which finally culminated in a wedding in 1312. (5)

Much has been written about the content, sources and analogues of the Eufemiavisor, but less well understood is the vehicle that delivered these epics to their audience--that is, the end-rhymed couplet, its development and use in Sweden, and its status in the medieval Scandinavian tradition. (6) If the field of astronomy explains the origins of the universe by referring to the Big Bang, the common terra for the massive explosion at the dawn of time that created the cosmos in an instant, then the Eufemiavisor mark the corresponding phenomenon in medieval Scandinavian poetics--the sudden arrival of narrative end-rhyme, the Big Splash. The analogy of the Big Splash is an apt characterization for the unprecedented appearance of the end-rhymed Eufemiavisor, for several reasons: first, because it was caused by a specific, discrete incident whose epicenter--Oslo, early fourteenth century--is easily located; second, because we are able to follow the spread of the ripples through subsequent decades of medieval Norse letters, as the Eufemiavisor were followed by end-rhymed chronicles in Old Swedish, the rimur in Iceland in the latter decades of the fourteenth century, and other texts from across the medieval Norse spectrum; and lastly, because the Big Splash presupposes that knittelvers was a foreign entity, an intruder into the Norse tradition that fell from some other point of origin. …

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