Academic journal article Arthuriana

Writing in the Margins: Norse Arthurian Sagas as Palimpsests

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Writing in the Margins: Norse Arthurian Sagas as Palimpsests

Article excerpt

This is a comparative study of three Old Norse translations/adaptations of French romances. The focus is on certain of the modifications made in the Norse romances as part of the process of 'acculturation,' the need to modify texts to align them with the differing assumptions of another cultural context. (NJL)

Just a few years ago Jürg Glauser, concerning the paucity of criticism and scholarship devoted to the riddarasögur, wrote this:

Along with the sagas of Icelandic prehistory (fornaldarsögur) and the lying sagas (lygisögur), the translated riddarasögur are among the narratives of Norwegian and Icelandic literature of the Middle Ages that have attracted least attention in the research community. As translation literature, they have usually been viewed as less interesting than the indigenous genres such as the family sagas or kings' sagas, and since their narrative style was not oriented to the objectivity of the classical saga style, they have at times come near to being held responsible for the alleged decline in the highly developed art of Old Norse narrative. One result of this, among others, is that they have been neglected and little researched. Not even international romance research has taken much notice of the Norse translations of courtly literature, and only recently has a certain reorientation emerged in this field.1

I hope that this essay will help, at least very modestly, to remedy the situation lamented by Glauser, and that more substantial contributions, including the other articles in this issue of Arthuriana and, in particular, The Arthur of the North, will prove invaluable.2

I intend that my title, concerning palimpsests and writing in the margins, be considered at least slightly ironic. I particularly want to avoid implying any marginalization of the Norse Arthurian sagas, and although I will compare and contrast some French and Norse texts, I hope it will be clear that the latter should not be considered merely as evidence used, as has too often been done, to fill lacunae in the Gallic versions. The challenge is daunting, though: how can we discuss, for example, the initial Norwegian translation of a French text when, as Marianne Kalinke points out, the manuscripts we have may represent as many as five degrees of separation: following the French, there is the Norwegian translation, the Norwegian/Icelandic copy, a Norwegian/Icelandic revision, and an Icelandic revision.3

And surely there are even more than five levels of separation, particularly when the extant Icelandic manuscripts are late (seventeenth century or after): just how many generations of manuscript witnesses might have stood in the intervals? With texts such as Tristrams saga ok Ísöndar, where no Norwegian manuscript is extant and the oldest Icelandic manuscript dates from the late seventeenth century, how can we talk about the fidelity of scribes and adaptors? In that particular instance, of course, we are fortunate that we do have some early fragments, which enable us to gauge, at least in regard to a small segment of the text, the later manuscripts' degree of fidelity or infidelity. In other cases, that codicological control is absent.

It is difficult if not impossible (especially for someone whose primary specialization is French, as is mine) to re-read the Norse texts without drawing the French originals, and even-or especially-their lacunae, into the equation. Although unavoidable, the comparison is also justifiable: reading a medieval work without observing the multiple points of contact with other texts is of course contrary to the nature of medieval literary culture. Texts connect with other texts-and those with yet others-at every turn, and the connections make us no less aware of divergences and disparities than of similarities.

In this article, I will comment on three texts-the Swedish Hæ rra Ivan, Tristrams saga ok Ísöndar, and Parcevals saga-with passing mention of one or two others. …

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