Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Arthur, King of Iceland

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Arthur, King of Iceland

Article excerpt

"I was in Norway, be it noted, that Arthurian romance was I first welcomed into the Scandinavian North in the early thirteenth century" (Schlauch 1934, 10). Thus wrote Margaret Schlauch, whose magisterial Romance in Iceland, published eight decades ago, remains the authoritative introduction to the elusive genre of romance. The Arthur of literature first came to Iceland, however, with Breta sogur, the translation of the Historia regum Britanniae, around the year 1200. The Latin source of the Icelandic translation is unknown, but in many respects, it diverged strikingly from the extant versions of the Historia--and precisely in those aspects that were to be popularized by romance.

Geoffrey of Monmouth reports in the Historia regum Britanniae that Arthur "ciassem suam direxit in Islandiam eamque debellato populo subiugauit" ["took his fleet to Iceland, where he defeated the natives and conquered their land" (Reeve and Wright 2007, 204-5)]. In the Roman de Brut, its author Wace elaborates on Arthur's conquest of Iceland. Over the course of twenty verses, Wace reports that there was none like Arthur for military might, and therefore, the kings of Orkney, Gotland, and Wenelande feared that Arthur might attack their islands too. Therefore, they travel to Iceland, bringing him many of their possessions; they give him hostages and become his men (Weiss 2002, 9708-27). Peace is established, and Arthur then returns to England.

Wace's Brut, completed in 1155, was the first vernacular translation of the Historia regum Britanniae. The second translation occurred around 1200 in Iceland and is known as Breta sogur. It presumably was preceded, however, by the separate rendering of the Historic's "Prophetiae Merlini" in verse, in the so-called fornyrdislag stanzas used in the prophetic Eddie poem Voluspa, "The Prophecy of the Seeress." Merlinusspa, as the translation is known, was composed around 1200 by Gunnlaugr Leifsson (d. 1218 or 1219), a monk in the Benedictine monastery of Pingeyrar in northern Iceland, a monastery noted for the production of historiography (Turville-Petre 1953,190-202). To judge by some of the deviations of Merlinusspa from the "Prophetiae," Gunnlaugr knew the Historia, for his translation contains additions incorporated into the poem from other parts of the Historia (Turville-Petre 1953, 202; Eysteinsson 1953-1955, 98-103). It is not unlikely that Gunnlaugr also translated Breta sogur, possibly in tandem with or as a follow-up to Merlinusspa. Even if Gunnlaugr himself was not the translator, a monastery like Pingeyrar, which was noted for producing Latin historiography, would have had the expertise to render Geoffrey's Historia into Icelandic. (1)

Breta sogur is extant in two redactions: the one is transmitted in the manuscript AM 544 4to, the so-called Hauksbok, named after its compiler and redactor, Haukr Erlendsson; the other redaction is in AM 573 4to. Breta sogur in Hauksbok is a heavily redacted and abbreviated version of the translation; it was produced in the period 1302-1310 (Stefan Karlsson 2000, 306-7, 309). The manuscript AM 573 4to was written in the period 1330-1370. This redaction of Breta sogur has not suffered the editorial incursions and reduction of text evident in Hauksbok. Although the text in AM 573 4to cannot be said to represent the translator's own rendering, it nonetheless approximates that of the original translation. Whereas Breta sogur in Hauksbok has been edited (Jon Sigurdsson 1849; Finnur Jonsson and Eirikur Jonsson 1892-1896), the AM 573 4to redaction is accessible only in manuscript. The following study of Breta sogur is based on the redaction in AM 573 4to. (2)

Breta sogur refers twice to Merlinusspa. The first time, corresponding to the end of Part IV of the Historia, the translator writes that Merlin then began his prophecies about the lives of the kings to come in the poem "er Merlins spa heitir er orti Gunnlaugr munkr Leifs son ok kunna margir menn pat kuaedi" [that is called Merlinusspa, which Gunnlaugr Leifsson composed, and many people know that poem]. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.