15.09.32, Barnes, The Bookish Riddarasögur

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Molly Jacobs

The Medieval Review 15.09.32

Barnes, Geraldine. The Bookish Riddarasögur: Writing Romance in Late Mediaeval Iceland. The Viking Collection. Copenhagen: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2014. pp. 211. ISBN: 9788776747916 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Molly Jacobs
University of California, Berkeley

When writing about the scholarly treatment of the original Icelandic romances, it is commonplace to begin with how they have been ignored, even maligned, for much of the last century of Old Norse studies. The romances, or riddarasögur [sagas of knights], have indeed been dismissed as inferior compared to the "realistic" Icelandic family sagas, or derivative of the French and German romances that made their way to Scandinavia in the thirteenth century, despite the fact that the original romances remained the most popular literary genre in Iceland well into the modern period. In addition to negative scholarly attitudes, the popularity of the romances has proved an additional hurdle to study, as it has produced a large, complex manuscript tradition. While the field has grown much more open towards work on texts that have not been the traditional focus of Old Norse scholarship, there is still not a great deal of scholarship that takes the riddarasögur as objects worthy of study in their own right.

The Bookish Riddarasögur serves as an excellent beginning for the reintegration of the original Icelandic romances into serious study of medieval Icelandic literary culture, and also provides a compelling argument for including Icelandic romance within broader studies of medieval learned culture. Geraldine Barnes, who has been one of the major figures in the push to take the translated and original Icelandic romances seriously, turns scholarly tradition on its head by arguing that the Icelandic romances stand out from their continental and insular counterparts in their use of encyclopedic and historiographical material, suggesting that "their authors, and, by implication, their audiences, were familiar with both learned tradition and traditional lore and accustomed to moving back and forth between them in creative literary composition" (10-11). This "learned tradition" is what is referred to in the book's title, and some might object to the rather generous scope of the term "bookish," which encompasses a broad range of material from geography to depictions of Constantinople to the use of knowledge itself. But beyond simply pointing out the inclusion of this material, Barnes asserts that "bookish" material functions "as a form of commentary on the action and as keys to further dimensions of meaning beyond the surface level of the text" (28).

The book is divided into five chapters, with an introduction and conclusion. Each chapter is dedicated to a particular theme, which is investigated through close reading of three or more riddarasögur. Over a dozen riddarasögur in all are used, some of them in multiple chapters, which makes for a fairly comprehensive, though not complete, engagement with the corpus of original Icelandic romance. The use of multiple sagas gives a nice overview as to how the different riddarasögur (and perhaps authors; the riddarasögur are almost entirely anonymous) approach a particular concept, though occasionally results in thematic fragmentation within the chapters. Technical discussions such as manuscript traditions or genre disputes are largely downplayed or relegated to the footnotes, which is likely to make the book more welcoming to those who are less familiar with the Old Norse literary tradition. Though quotations are not normalized, all are translated, making the book accessible to advanced students and scholars in Old Norse and other fields.

Chapter one, "Mapping and Measuring the World," deals with the application of learned geography, such as the division of the world into partes and the moral valence attached to particular cardinal directions, in the descriptions of travels in the riddarasögur. It also addresses Icelandic authors' own efforts to fit Scandinavia into Christian geography, given traditional negative associations with the north. This is accomplished, Barnes demonstrates, in one instance with a re-centering of world geography, in others through the motif of translatio studii or translatio imperii. The chapter concludes with an examination of Vilhjálms saga sjóðs, its "parodic" (46) approach to the romance narrative and to the employment of learned material indicating an audience familiar enough with both literary genres to enjoy such a project.

Chapter two, "The Boundaries of Knowledge," addresses the theme of knowledge itself. It covers three sagas that deal with the dangers of curiosity when pride is involved, which is contrasted with the drive for knowledge through which one may gain a better understanding of God. In this chapter Barnes briefly touches on cognitive and intellectual processes of knowing, but sadly spends little time here. Chapter three, "The March of History," explores the use of the classical past to shape the interpretation of saga narrative. This occurs in a variety of ways, such as saga characters using the weapons or armor of legendary figures, the representation and description of historical figures on shields, or references to the Christian understanding of history. These elements provide, according to Barnes, "an interpretative key and a morally instructive perspective on the business of the present" (112).

Chapters four and five ("Defending Christendom" and "Sailing to Byzantium") address what might be seen as a more traditional concern of romance, the role of Christianity. It is in these chapters that the difference between Icelandic romance and other European literatures is most apparent. Chapter four investigates the portrayal of militant Christianity, finding that, while Christian-Muslim conflicts are present in many of these sagas, they are typically "subsumed into the larger concerns of the work" (114). Chapter five addresses the depiction of Constantinople in Icelandic romance, which Barnes asserts is radically different from typical portrayals in continental romance, where it is characterized as being "riddled with treachery and ruthlessness" (148). In the riddarasögur, however, Constantinople is consistently portrayed as "the capital of Christendom and as a source of worldly wealth and status" (152-3). Paired with this distinctive laudatory view is specific knowledge of the city itself, indicating Icelandic familiarity with written or oral travel accounts of Constantinople.

Finally, there is a concluding chapter that considers the possible authors and audience for the romances, for which we have little evidence. Barnes suggests that the authors were part of a small, educated group who wrote for each other as much as for their patrons, forming a vibrant literary culture where "narratives, authors and scribes [were] in lively dialogue with each other" (183). Barnes concludes that, in addition to being widely popular for their dramatic tales, the original Icelandic romances "reflect the world view of an educated person of the Middle Ages, the traditions of learning embedded within them betokening writers, readers and listeners of a comparable level of schooling" (183).

The Bookish Riddarasögur succeeds ably in its stated goal of demonstrating the key role that "bookish" material plays in the Icelandic tradition of romance, revealing the genre to be far more than the shallow, escapist fantasies it has so frequently been characterized as. A major strength of the work is its engagement with recent areas of interest in medieval studies, including media studies, memory, space, and monster studies, demonstrating even more directions in which research on the riddarasögur can be taken. There are only minor quibbles to be made. The lack of an index was at times frustrating, though the book is otherwise well-produced, as is the case with volumes in the Viking Collection. The major arguments of each chapter are at times overshadowed by long synopses of the sagas under discussion which is, however, a necessary evil as the texts are largely unfamiliar, and frequently inaccessible, to scholars of both Icelandic literature and medieval romance. The enormous scope of the book also means that some topics get short shrift, which the author is aware of (191). As such, the book serves as a call to further research and an indication of the wealth of possibilities that the Icelandic romances hold for future scholars. As herald of a new direction for study of the riddarasögur, this book is exciting indeed.

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