Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

"Undir Ilmondum Laufum OK Nysprungnum Blomstrum": Sensual Pleasure in Old Norse Arthurian Romance

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

"Undir Ilmondum Laufum OK Nysprungnum Blomstrum": Sensual Pleasure in Old Norse Arthurian Romance

Article excerpt

Tristrams saga begins with a young man who wants to go to court. Having acquired as much wealth and fame as he could at home, Kanelangres, who will become Tristram's father, sets his sights higher: the court of England, which is renowned for its wealth, its pleasures, and the prowess and courtliness of its members. After preparing himself appropriately, Kanelangres sets out with a company of men for Tintajol, where they are greeted warmly and with honor. During their stay, King Markis decides to have a feast to celebrate a holiday. He invites all the nobles in the land and undertakes lavish preparations. We are told that:

safnadiz saman allr sa foldi i Kornbretalandi i einum skogi hja stoduvatni nokkuru. bar varu fagrir vellir ok vidir, slettir, pryddir fogrum grosum ok blomasamligum. En fyrir sakir jaess, at stacdr jaessi var hinn lystiligasti sakir margfaldrar skemtanar, pa let Markis kongr a peim vollum par setja ok skipa storum landtjoldum, gulum ok graenum, blam ok raudum, ok rikuliga bununt, gylldum ok gullsaumudum, undir ilmondum laufum ok nysprungnum blomstrum. (Jorgensen 1999,32)

the entire crowd gathered together in Cornwall in a forest and beside a lake. There were beautiful fields, spacious and flat, adorned with fine herbs in bloom. Because this place was the most delightful due to its many pleasures, King Markis had large tents set up and furnished in yellow and green, blue and red--and richly decorated, gilded and embroidered with golden thread--under fragrant foliage and bursting blossoms. (Jorgensen 1999, 33)

The scene is vividly descriptive, of both natural features and the manmade structures found among them. The language is the elaborate prose typical of translated romance, characterized by alliteration and strings of adjectives (Kalinke 1977). The descriptive elements pile up, the language itself adding to the image of lushness and luxury. Also noteworthy in this scene is the attention to elements designed to engage the senses. There are bright colors to catch the eye, a pleasing arrangement of forest and field and lake, and herbs and flowers to perfume the air. This is, of course, the setting for a feast, so we might also imagine further sensory engagement in the "dyrustar vistir" (Jorgensen 1999,32) ["choicest foods" (Jorgensen 1999,33)] that the saga tells us Markis provides for his guests. This episode is indicative of a broader tendency in the Old Norse translated romances: they emphasize sensory engagement--and in particular, sensual pleasure--in ways that Old Norse sagas of other genres rarely do.

For anyone acquainted with Icelandic sagas, the scene from Tristrams saga is somewhat starding. The Islendingasogur and konungasogur--the Icelandic family sagas and the kings' sagas, respectively--typically feature a spare style, characterized by parataxis and minimal description. When the narrative does pause to describe something, it is generally to introduce an important character or to create narrative tension, rather than to set a scene, as in the example above. (1) French and German romances, however, delight in vivid detail, with elaborate descriptions of people and settings that were so commonplace as to become tropes. (2) The Old Norse translations of these romances fall somewhere between the extremes of their source texts and the Islendingasogur. Medieval translations did not simply consist of word-for-word substitutions, but employed a variety of strategies whereby a text was made intelligible to a new audience through means of acculturation (Copeland 1991). (3) Romances translated into Old Norse display strategies such as providing short explanations of unfamiliar concepts, restructuring texts according to native principles, and emphasizing or de-emphasizing certain aspects of the stories, such as battles and internal monologues, respectively, and changing verse to prose. Given the amount of acculturation these texts have undergone, it is noteworthy that so much sensory description has been retained. …

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