- The Bookish Riddarasögur: Writing Romance in Late Medieval Icelandby Geraldine Barnes
For quite some time, the riddarasögur, both translated and indigenous, were the ugly ducklings of saga literature. Not only were these sagas regarded as maladroit translations and imitations of foreign material, but they were also dismissed as inferior to the Icelandic sagas. Negative scholarly assessments are easily found.
Nevertheless, the change in scholarly interest over the past decades has turned the ugly ducklings into swans, acknowledging the intentional intellectual contribution of Icelandic authors and Norse redactors, drawing on a variety sources, imitating, combining, and re-inventing the riddarasögur. An abundance of manuscripts, resulting in rather complex manuscript traditions, reflects the popularity of these sagas. Much work lies ahead when it comes to the riddarasögur, perhaps in particular with regard to the late-medieval Icelandic romances, sometimes referred to as lygisögur(lying sagas), both in medieval sagas and by scholars. It is, however, possible that the "lying" should be understood as "creative," "fictitious," or "imaginative" rather than "untrue." These late medieval Icelandic romances are indeed narratives that draw on fiction and on the translations of French courtly romances, but they frequently incorporate knowledge from medieval encyclopedic and historiographical traditions.
The learned material integrated in the Icelandic riddarasöguris reflected in the title of Geraldine Barnes's remarkable monograph, as well as in the individual titles of its five chapters. The BookishRiddarasögur sets out to examine the "multiple and varied ways in which learned literature infiltrated the landscape of late medieval Icelandic saga narrative and its ways of ordering the world" (p. 28). As these "strands of learned discourse" are incorporated into the sagas, they serve "as a form of commentary on the action" as well as "keys to further dimensions of meaning beyond the surface level of the text" (p. 28). Through close readings of sixteen sagas, some accessible in editions and translations, others quite unknown [End Page 416]and neither easily accessible nor translated, Barnes showcases the genre, the potential of the Icelandic riddarasögurto incorporate a learned element, and the skills and knowledge of Icelandic authors and audiences. The riddarasögurexamined in her study use material from Pliny, Vincent de Beauvais, and Isidore de Séville, as well as a wide selection of other learned works. Citations are presented unnormalized with translations, and more painstaking discussions of genre and manuscript have been placed in the footnotes. The audience for the book encompasses Norse scholars and advanced students as well as scholars unfamiliar with Norse literature.
Each of the five chapters is dedicated to a theme tied to learning and knowledge. Through close readings, Barnes offers a comprehensive investigation of a selection of Icelandic riddarasögurand the interplay of romance and various aspects of learning. The selection and number of sources used in each chapter varies.
The first chapter, "Mapping and Measuring the World," addresses cosmographical traditions, their application in the description of travels in the riddarasögur, and efforts made to readjust common negative associations toward the North. Barnes demonstrates that a "comparable counter cosmography" to the one usually found in Continental sources is presented in Nítíða saga, displaying an intellectually superior North. Furthermore, the translatio imperiiis altered and redirected toward the North in Victors saga ok Blávus, whereas Vilhjálms saga sjóðs, Barnes argues, was intended for an audience appreciative of its "comic intertextuality" (p. 52)—and a South ruled by a northern hero.
Chapter 2 examines the theme of knowledge and displays the dangers of curiosity and knowledge abused. The argument is primarily built on Dínus saga drambláta, where the source of the hero's misfortunes is a desire for knowledge based on lust and pride.
The use of the classical past in shaping the riddarasögur's narrative is explored in chapter 3. In the sagas examined, Barnes shows how various verbal and visual images of the past serve as not only inspirations, but as...