- Popular Romance in Iceland: The Women, Worldviews, and Manuscript Witnesses of Nítíða sagaby Sheryl McDonald Werronen
Sheryl McDonald Werronen's Popular Romance in Icelandis the most detailed and thorough investigation of any Icelandic romance, and perhaps of any Icelandic saga, published to date. Nítíða sagais an Icelandic romance, a category until recently disdained by many scholars, but, as this book shows, the saga is among the most intriguing of its kind and deserves the increasing attention scholars have devoted to it and related texts. McDonald Werronen, who published a translation and normalized edition of Nítíða sagain 2009, meticulously covers almost every facet of the saga and presents a comprehensive picture of its narrative building blocks, its most important intertextual links, the characters and their relationships—particularly the unusually strong emphasis on women, female friendship, and possibly lesbianism—the saga's conception of space and geography, the narrator's voice, and its manuscript preservation.
The book begins at an unusual point of departure, not at the "beginning," in a traditional sense, that is, where and when the saga might have been written and what sources and narrative goals inspired its author. Rather, it begins by looking at the saga's different manifestations in manuscripts copied several hundred years after the saga's original composition in the late medieval period. Nítíða sagais preserved in a formidable number of manuscripts and fragments dating from the fifteenth to the twentieth century, around half of which are from the 1800s, and, as this analysis shows, different scribes expanded or condensed episodes, replaced individual words, or revised passages, depending on their own interests. The reader is introduced to the variation in the saga's texts through the ages via three case studies of books copied in the late seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. These manuscripts' provenance and finer points of lexical variation are analyzed in great detail and nuance, yielding conclusions that tell us much about Icelandic scribal practices and cultural attitudes in (parts of) Iceland. Information about textual variation also appears throughout the book, where pertinent; it often [End Page 419]produces illuminating insights into the oldest extant text, which seems to have been less socially conservative than some of the younger ones. McDonald Werronen spends a good deal of space defending her choice to analyze the younger manuscripts, a decision that is very much in line with current scholarly trends. There is also a substantial amount of data about post-medieval manuscripts presented in this chapter that will be useful to others working in this field. Scholars interested in medieval literature will not discover much about the oldest manuscripts' place in the context of fifteenth-and sixteenth-century manuscript culture (although the fragmentary nature of the oldest manuscripts is, of course, an obstacle), but specialists in later Icelandic manuscript studies in particular will find this chapter both fascinating and useful. Less specialized readers would perhaps have benefitted from a more basic introduction to the nature of Icelandic manuscript culture as a preamble, and a brief overview of what sorts of texts Nítíða sagatends to get copied with. They would also probably need to save this chapter for last, since understanding the discussion about variation in the redactor's presentation of plot elements will depend on the reader's knowledge of the saga itself—which is covered in the remaining chapters.
Moving from textual variance to Nítíða saga's place in late medieval literary culture, the second chapter examines textual relationships between the saga and other works, namely, the Icelandic romance genre (also referred to as indigenous/native romances or riddarasögur) and some of its most characteristic traits. One of these features is the recurring appearance of motifs deriving from foreign tradition; thus, Nítíða's magical stones also appear in other romances, but the saga employs the motif in an ingenious way...