12.12.07, Kalinke, The Arthur of the North

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Sif Rikhardsdottir

The Medieval Review 12.12.07

Kalinke, Marianne E.. The Arthur of the North: The Arthurian Legend in the Norse and Rus' Realms. Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, 5. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011. Pp. ix, 223. ISBN: 978-0-7083-2353-3.

Reviewed by:
Sif Rikhardsdottir
University of Iceland

Marianne E. Kalinke's edition of The Arthur of the North: The Arthurian Legend in the Norse and Rus' Realms is a very welcome addition to the series on "Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages." The volume provides a much-needed overview and insight into the Nordic tradition of Arthurian literature and thus situates the often marginalized literature of the North in the larger context of the pan-European transmission of Arthurian materials. As is to be expected from the editor, a leading authority on the subject of Arthurian literature in the North, the volume reveals both breadth of material and critical insight into the complexities of the Nordic Arthurian heritage. The volume covers a broad geographical area and spans several centuries, from the late twelfth century until the twentieth century. It reaches across the production of Arthurian material in Norse, the context of that production, and--significantly in a volume of this kind--its reception, both medieval and post-medieval.

The transmission of Arthurian material is set within the context of Hákon Hákonarson's reign in Norway (1217-1263), during which much of the extant Arthurian literature was translated. Yet, as Kalinke points out in the introduction and in greater detail in chapter one, the earliest transmission of Arthurian matter took place in Iceland in the translation of Prophetiae Merlini from Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae, which is thought to have been translated around 1200 and was apparently known widely. The Historia itself was translated shortly thereafter, also in Iceland. It is quite probable that the matière de Bretagne preceded this in some form or another, possibly through oral sources. The last of the direct transmission of the French courtly material also took place outside the reign of King Hákon Hákonarson as Queen Eufemia, wife of King Hákon's grandson, Hákon Magnússon (r. 1299-1319), had Chrétien de Troyes' Yvain translated into Old Swedish at the beginning of the fourteenth century.

Kalinke notes that the Norse heritage differs from that of the Continent in that the imported Arthurian material did not inspire local production of Arthurian romance; instead authors appropriated its themes, motifs, and ideas, merging them with existing forms to create an indigenous genre of romance. The translations were nevertheless profoundly influential as they generated a new hybrid corpus of literary matter that authors drew on for centuries afterwards. This volume consists of ten chapters, beginning with Kalinke's chapter on "The Introduction of the Arthurian Legend in Scandinavia" and ending with Susana Torres Prieto's chapter on "Arthurian Literature in East Slavic." The question of borders, i.e. geographical (as in Scandinavian territory) or linguistic (Norse), is thus met with a dismissal of a kind as well as a suggestion of a transnationalism that lies at the core of Arthurian literature. Demarcations of this kind in fact always pose a problem. The inclusion of the (perchance surprising) chapter on East Slavic transmission suggests a cultural affinity that extends beyond the traditional Scandinavian border and welcomes the intercultural dialogue that characterizes Arthurian transmission.

In the first chapter Kalinke puts the transmission of the Arthurian material in the context of pre-existing local literary production in Iceland, the shift that occurred with the conversion to Christianity in Iceland (in 1000), and the written culture that followed. While most of the translation activity occurred at or in connection with the court of King Hákon Hákonarson, the great majority of the texts have only been preserved in later Icelandic manuscripts, many of which postdate their original translations by several centuries. Kalinke duly notes the complexities involved in negotiating the often substantial amount of time between the presumed original translation activity and the actual manuscript versions that have come down to us. Beyond the early introduction of Geoffrey's historiography, the great majority of the Arthurian translations were presumably commissioned by King Hákon as part of an apparent concerted effort to import and introduce French literary material at his court. The second chapter discusses the complications of source material and manuscript preservation. Kalinke notes that the transmission of the Arthurian material comprised a "twofold cultural transfer" (22), namely the introduction of the courtly romance and the introduction of metrical narrative. Yet, significantly, the majority of translations reveal a process of formal acculturation where the verse of the original is transformed into prose (except in Merlínússpá, which is composed in the traditional Eddic meter of fornyrðislag, and the later translations for Queen Eufemia, which are written in rhyming knittelvers). This is a field in which more work needs to be done, particularly as the translations can be considered witnesses to an extensive (and now partially lost) tradition of Arthurian historiography and romance.

The introductory material completed, the next five chapters explore the various text branches of the Arthurian legend in Scandinavia. Stefanie Gropper (see also Stefanie Würth) discusses Breta sögur (Historia) and Merlínússpá (Prophetiae Merlini) with a particular emphasis on their manuscript histories, translations and context. Gropper argues convincingly that the impulse to translate Geoffrey's Historia may have been related to a general historiographic interest in Iceland, revealing an effort to link Iceland and its leading families to the Trojan dynasty through connections between the Norwegian dynasty and British royal history, particularly in the Hauksbók redaction (50). In the next chapter Geraldine Barnes examines the transmission of the Tristan legend. The Tristan transmission is notable as there are multiple versions of the legend preserved; a thirteenth-century translation of Thomas' Tristan called Tristrams saga ok Ísöndar, a later Icelandic redaction entitled Saga af Tristram ok Ísodd, and finally a fourteenth- or fifteenth-century ballad, Tristrams kvæði. The latter Icelandic romance has been subject to extensive critical deliberations, particularly in terms of its relationship to the early translation, its function (a parody, or a complementary or independent reworking), and its relation to the indigenous production of romance in late medieval Iceland. Despite the existence of the later redaction and the ballad, Barnes notes that by the time of their composition "all trace of Arthur had vanished from the Tristan legend in the North" (74).

In chapter five, Carolyne Larrington gives a thorough and comprehensive overview of the Norse translations of the Arthurian lais, noting their context, production, possible translators, manuscript transmission, content, and recent critical approaches. Contrary to the other Arthurian material, which has survived almost exclusively in later Icelandic manuscripts, the collection of lais titled Strengleikar (a collection of Marie de France's lais along with several others) has been preserved in a single manuscript, Uppsala, University Library Codex De la Gardie 4-7. As Larrington notes, this uniquely preserved manuscript dating from 1250 or 1270 is therefore of great importance for the transmission of Arthurian material from French (and/or Anglo-Norman) into Norse. To this are added Möttuls saga (a translation of the French Lai du cort mantel) and Skikkjurímur (a ballad version of Möttuls saga). Claudia Bornhold follows Larrington with an elucidation of the three extant Norse translations of Chrétien de Troyes' romances: Ívens saga (Yvain ou le Chevalier au Lion), Erex saga (Erec et Enide), and Parcevals saga (Perceval ou le Conte du Graal) along with Valvens þáttr (the Tale of Gawain), which is preserved separately. It is generally assumed that the translation of Yvain took place during the reign of King Hákon. Bornhold similarly situates Parcevals saga within the "courtly milieu of thirteenth-century Norway" and states that the text preserves the "didactic intentions of the Norwegian translator, whose unique style is well preserved in this saga" (101). Erex saga, on the other hand, raises more questions in terms of dating. The style and delivery place the text, according to Bornhold, more within the "socio-cultural background and literary tradition of medieval Iceland" (100). All three texts show evidence of abridgement and modifications that are common to all the translated materials, and reveal the translators' and later redactors' efforts to adapt the texts to their new cultural context. Chapter seven is centered on the later transmission of Arthurian material into Swedish. The term Eufemiavisor encompasses a trio of romances translated at the behest of Queen Eufemia. William Layher notes that the Old Swedish translations differ from the earlier corpus of Norse renditions as they were translated into verse, as opposed to prose, and suggests that they were intended for the Swedish nobleman Erik Magnusson in honor of his betrothal to Ingebjörg, Hákon and Eufemia's daughter and only child (130).

The remaining three chapters explore the traces of Arthurian motifs and themes in the indigenous literature, the transmission and reception of Arthurian material in the post-medieval period, and finally the Arthurian literature in East Slavic. In her essay on the Arthurian influences on Icelandic literature, Kalinke notes that the Saga af Tristram ok Ísodd is "paradigmatic for the type of transformation that occurred when the literary conventions of a courtly culture encountered those obtaining in the Sagas of Icelanders" (145). Drawing on Karen A. Lurkhur's doctoral thesis on the reception of the Tristan legend (2008), she suggests that the focal point in the adapted version shifts from the love affair of the Anglo-Norman tradition to the homosocial relationship of the male characters in a manner reminiscent of the Sagas of Icelanders (148). In the following chapter Matthew J. Driscoll emphasizes the fact that the matière de Bretagne continued to be popular beyond the immediate medieval context as is evidenced by the transmission of romance materials "well into the modern era" (168). Driscoll's essay provides an overview of the popular ballad tradition, which flourished in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and notes that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the transmission of Arthurian material to the North shifted to Germany in the form of chapbooks (Volksbücher) that spread through Danish into Icelandic. The volume ends with Susana Torres Prieto's essay, which extends the boundaries linguistically and geographically to include the "East Slavic" region, a term Prieto admits needs some clarification. The final chapter thus draws attention to the cultural affinities and overlaps of marginal and border territories in the larger context of Arthurian transmission.

The Arthur of the North is comprehensive, informative, and accessible to students in the field. It contains a useful introduction for the non-Norse scholar, who may be unaware of the extensive spread and influence of Arthurian literature in Scandinavia and the wealth of Arthurian material to be found in Icelandic manuscripts, along with in-depth articles on the various aspects of Arthurian transmission across Scandinavia. The separate bibliographies at the end of each chapter by necessity lead to some overlapping, but are useful for the selective reader and for the reader interested in a particular subject. The volume further contains a short general bibliography, a list of manuscripts cited and a useful index. The volume will be of great value in the classroom on any Arthurian topic as well as a general introduction and overview of Arthur in the North.

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Sif Rikhardsdottir

University of Iceland