18.05.06, Werronen, Popular Romance in Iceland

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Bev Thurber

The Medieval Review 18.05.06

Werronenm, Sheryl McDonald. Popular Romance in Iceland: The Women, Worldviews, and Manuscript Witnesses of Nítíða saga. Crossing Boundaries, 5. Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press, 2016. pp. 271. ISBN: 978-90-8964-795-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Bev Thurber
Independent Scholar

Nítída saga is an extremely interesting saga that has not been studied extensively. The character it is named for, Nítída, is a young woman who is described as a meykóngur (maiden-king) and the sole ruler of France. The saga follows her adventures as she eludes suitors with the help of friends and magical stones whose powers include the ability to transport her directly home after she is abducted. She eventually marries one of her suitors, and the saga ends with the new couple ruling France together.

This saga is most easily classified as a maiden-king or bridal-quest romance, but its plot does not follow the standard trajectory. As McDonald Werronen notes, it "challenges the norms of Icelandic romance" by being centered on Nítída and her methods of avoiding marriage rather than on her suitors' adventures in wooing her (17). Despite its oddness, its survival in sixty-five manuscripts plus rímur suggests that it was one of the most popular sagas (27). It was probably written down in the fourteenth century (11), although few of the surviving manuscripts date to before 1550 (19).

McDonald Werronen focuses on the story transmitted in prose manuscripts in her study, which consists of an introduction, six main chapters, a conclusion, and an appendix containing an edition and translation of Nítída saga. The main chapters are divided into two sets: the first three chapters discuss various contextual aspects of the saga, and the second three discuss the characters. The three chapters that make up the first part of the book are clearly separate and roughly equal in length. The topics they cover are very broad, but McDonald Werronen makes them manageable by beginning with general statements, and then focusing on particular details. The chapters in the second part of the book fit together more closely, with the first providing a backdrop for the second and third.

The first main chapter, "Manuscript Witnesses," describes the vast undertaking of sorting out the textual history of the saga and the constraints McDonald Werronen applied to give the chapter a reasonable scope. After a general discussion of the sixty-five prose manuscripts, McDonald Werronen focuses exclusively on the versions of the saga presented in three early modern or modern manuscripts: Reykjavík, Landsbókasafn-Háskólabókasafn Íslands MSS JS 166 fol. and Lbs 3841 8vo, and London, British Library, MS Add. 4860.

The second chapter, "Intertextuality," describes the relationships between Nítída saga and other sagas, especially Nikulás saga leikara and Clári saga. The factors considered include shared motifs and vocabulary. Special attention is paid to Nítída's náttúrusteinar, which McDonald Werronen translates as "magic stones" (48) and "supernatural stone[s]" (243). These stones are among the most interesting features of the saga; they are crucial to Nítída's ability to elude her suitors.

The third chapter, "Setting the Scene," rounds out the first part of the book by discussing the geography of the saga. Nítída saga, like other Icelandic romances, takes place outside of Iceland in places that are real and imagined. McDonald Werronen classifies the places as real (e.g., France), semi-real (e.g., Serkland, which is not quite identifiable but seems realistic), and imaginary (e.g., Visio, the magical island where Nítída obtains her náttúrusteinar. On a larger scale, McDonald Werronen discusses how the spatial awareness shown in the saga relates to medieval ideas about geography and culture.

In chapter 4, the longest of the book, McDonald Werronen begins by arguing that Nítída is the hero of the saga and discusses the implications of this for how the saga fits into the medieval literary tradition. The title, "The Hero and her Rivals," gives away the main conclusion, that Nítída is indeed the hero of her own saga. The chapter goes on to discuss the numerous characters classified as "villains of the romance" (152). The most interesting of these seems to be the dwarf, who plays a pivotal role in the saga despite his anonymity; among other things, his actions and their effects support McDonald Werronen's identification of Nítída as the hero of the saga (165-167).

Chapters 5 and 6, which discuss the roles of minor characters and the narrator, respectively, are short follow-ups to chapter 4. The main focus of chapter 5 is on the women other than Nítída, who McDonald Werronen argues support Nítída and enhance her "character in terms of power, influence, and audience sympathy" (192). In the discussion of the narrator in chapter 6, McDonald Werronen focuses on the first-person interjections scattered throughout the saga. She fits her analysis of them into other studies of the narrative voice in medieval Icelandic literature.

The normalized modern Icelandic text and English translation at the end are valuable contributions in their own right. The edition is based on that of Loth [1], who used two manuscripts, Reykjavík, Stofnun Árna Magnússonar í íslenskum frædum, MS AM 529 4to and MS AM 537 4to. It does not include the variants found in the other sixty-three manuscripts that preserve the saga. The translation is reasonably literal, preserving, for example, the variations in verb tense that are common in the sagas but sometimes jarring to modern readers. I looked for a description of how the text was developed, given the numerous manuscripts and their variations. I found some of it in footnotes in the introduction and the edition; a complete account is available in the earlier version published in Leeds Studies in English, which is freely available in the journal's online archive [2].

The book is generally put together and edited well. I noted a few typographical errors: breifly for briefly (38), an extraneous comma after Sverrir Tómasson (202), principle for principal (218), and prepars for prepares (238). Overall, the book fills a previously empty and important niche by providing a thorough discussion of a saga that is quite interesting but has not yet been studied in detail. The six main chapters provide general summaries of broad topics and detail a few important points. They make clear the importance and magnitude of the task of fully studying this saga and its relationship to other sagas. Scholars interested in Nítída saga will find this book full of ideas and starting points for additional research.



1. Agnete Loth (ed.), "Nitida saga" in Late Medieval Icelandic Romances, Editiones Arnamagnæanæ B20-24 (Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1965), 5:1-37.

2. Sheryl McDonald, "Nítída saga: A Normalized Icelandic Text and Translation," Leeds Studies in English new series 40 (2009): 119-146, http://digital.library.leeds.ac.uk/507/.

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