Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Britain as Sjonhverfing: Decoding the Landscape in Strengleikar

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Britain as Sjonhverfing: Decoding the Landscape in Strengleikar

Article excerpt

Geitarlanf is an Old Norse translation of Marie de France's lat du Chievrefoil. Only 118 lines long in the original, and covering just under one manuscript page in the Norse, the lai describes a single episode in the long and complicated story of Tristan and Isolde. Banished from the court of King Mark, Tristan hears that the queen plans to ride to Tintagel for Pentecost. He hides in the forest along the route and carves a message on a hazel branch. In the Anglo-Norman text, the exact nature of this message is unclear, (1) but the Old Norse version quotes it in full:

Sva ferr med ocr kvad hann sem viduindil sa er binnz um haeslivid. Medan pessir tveir vidir bua bader saman. pa liva ok bera lauf sitt. En sa er paessa vide skildi hvarn fra odrum. pa deyr haslenn ok pui nest uidvinndillenn ok berr hvarki lauf. nema porna ok firir verdaz baede. Hin frida unnasta min. Sva ok eftir peim haetti ero vit. Ei ma ec lifa on Jain, ok ei pu on min. (Cook and Tveitane 1979, 198) (2)

"It goes with us," he said, "as with the honeysuckle that fastens itself around the hazel tree. As long as these two trees are together they live and produce foliage, but if anyone should separate these trees from each other, the hazel will die and then the honeysuckle, and neither of them will produce foliage; instead, they will both dry up and perish. My beautiful sweetheart, such and in the same way are we. I cannot live without you, nor you without me." (Cook and Tveitane 1979, 199)

The hazel branch functions as both message and metaphor in a telescopic layering of interpretative meaning. Isolde must find, read, and decode the message inscribed upon it; the message then invites her to compare the physical object she holds to the emotional and sexual ties that bind her to Tristan. (3) As Peter Haidu writes: "The stick is a natural sign of itself. The sign, which normally supposes the absence of the signified, here signifies its presence" (2004, 130). The very wood through which Isolde rides becomes a symbol of secret communication and illicit desire. Isolde successfully interprets both message and metaphor, and the resulting meeting between the lovers gives rise to a new text, the lai itself. Geitarlauf demonstrates well the symbolic relationship between the act of traveling through the natural world and that of interpreting the written text. Indeed, this relationship is developed throughout the whole of Strengleikar, the compilation of translated Breton lais in which Geitarlauf is found. In particular, the island of Britain emerges as a key site for such explorations. It will be argued here that the Strengleikar collection demonstrates a sustained interest in the role of Britain as a setting for the romance text, and that travel through the British landscape parallels the process of reading and decoding the romance genre itself.

Consisting of twenty-one prose tales, Strengleikar translates into Old Norse eleven of the lais attributed to Marie de France, as well as six anonymous French poems; a further four of the Old Norse texts have no known origin. The collection is largely preserved within one manuscript, Uppsala University Library, de la Gardie 4-7. (4) The manuscript dates to around the year 1270 and was likely produced in Bergen or the surrounding area. The translation was reputedly commissioned by Hakon Hakonarson, king of Norway, as part of a campaign to import Continental romance texts to his country. Ruling from 1217 to 1263, Hakon developed a keen interest in the life of the Anglo-Norman court and seems to have commissioned the translation of the lais as part of a wider cultural program that included the translation of several romance texts into Norse, as well as the adoption in Norway of English styles of painting, sculpture, and architecture. Such forms of cultural exchange were supported by a mutual reliance on trade and an increasingly close relationship between political and ecclesiastical authorities (Leach 1921; Helle 1968; Kalinke 2011). …

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