Academic journal article Arthuriana

The Matter of Blár in Tristrams Kvæði

Academic journal article Arthuriana

The Matter of Blár in Tristrams Kvæði

Article excerpt

This article explores the color of the sails on Ísodd the Fair's ship in three of the four versions of Tristrams kvæ ði. Specifically, it discusses Ísodd the Dark's declaration of the sails' color as svört instead of blá in light of what seems to be a semantic overlap between svartr and blár in Old Norse-Icelandic. (NMVD)

The Isolde of the White Hands episode in the Tristan tradition, perhaps best known from Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan, is the classic tale of the wrath of a woman scorned. Isolde of the White Hands, a noblewoman from Brittany, finds herself in the unfortunate situation of being married to Sir Tristan, a man who is in love with another woman. Upon discovery of this fact, Isolde of the White Hands plots her revenge, which ultimately results in the deaths of her husband and his beloved, Queen Isolde. The reader is left to believe that the tragic deaths of these star-crossed lovers are the fault of a jealous and malicious wife. However, through its use of color terms and in particular the color term blár, the Old Norse-Icelandic ballad Tristrams kvæ ði calls this interpretation into question.

Romance was, based on manuscript transmission, the single most popular genre within the corpus of Old Norse-Icelandic literature. Its birth in medieval Iceland is marked by the thirteenth-century translation of Thomas of Britain's Tristan into Norwegian. The prologue of Tristrams saga ok Ísöndar relates that in 1226 King Hákon Hákonarson of Norway (1217-63) commissioned one Brother Robert to translate from French Thomas' Tristan.1 This translation is significant not only because it marks the advent of the romance genre in Iceland, but also because Tristrams saga ok Ísöndar is the only complete extant member of Thomas' Tristan legend.2 The work inspired an Icelandic adaptation composed around 1400, namely the Saga af Tristram ok Ísodd, sometimes referred to as Tristrams saga ok Ísoddar. The saga is much abbreviated and hardly resembles Brother Robert's long, thoughtful, and tragic translation. It has recently been interpreted as a humorous commentary on Arthurian romance-a parody that satirizes the ideals of courtly romance and the types of seemingly ridiculous actions and behaviors it promotes.3 A second native Icelandic variation of Tristrams saga ok Ísöndar takes the form of a ballad, Tristrams kvæ ði, widely considered to be '...one of the most poignantly beautiful ballads in the Icelandic language.'4 The ballad is preserved in four versions (A-D in Svend Grundtvig and Jón Sigurðsson's edition),5 which are found in manuscripts dating from ca. 1670.6

Tristrams kvæ ði has been studied primarily for its impact on later Icelandic Tristan legends, both poetry and prose. An aspect of the ballad that differs from the prose versions is the color of the sails on Ísodd the Fair's ship. As in Thomas' rendition, the ending of the younger Saga af Tristram ok Ísodd relates that Tristram sends for his beloved, Ísodd the Fair, to cure him of a deadly wound and tells his messengers that if she is on board their ship, they are to raise a white sail, but if she is not on board, the sail should be black: '"...þá skal þat mark um yðra ferð, at þér skuluð tjalda svörtu yfir skipunum, ef hún er ekki í ferð, en elligar skulu þér hvítu tjalda"' ['...you shall erect black awnings over the ship if she is not with you, but otherwise you shall erect white awnings'].7 The older version varies slightly, in that their ships should fly white and blue striped sails if she is on the ship but a black one if she is not: '... því Kardín sigldi með hvítum ok blám blankandi seglum, stöfuðum, því Tristram hafði svá beðit hann, til merkis, ef Ísönd kæ mi með honum. En ef Ísönd kæ mi ekki með honum, þá skyldi hann sigla með svörtu segli' [...for Kardín was sailing with gleaming white and blue striped sails, as Tristram had asked him to do as a sign if Ísönd were accompanying him. And if Ísönd were not with him, then he was supposed to sail with a black sail]. …

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