30th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies
Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 27-28, 2010

M.J. Driscoll, "Tristan in Iceland: The Continuing Saga"

The matière de Bretagne, especially the legend of Tristan, plays an important role in Old Norse-Icelandic literature. Tristrams saga ok Ísöndar, Brother Robert’s translation of the Tristan of Thomas of Britain, is the earliest of the translated riddarasögur and exerted considerable influence on Old Norse-Icelandic narrative, arguably serving as a template for several of the Íslendingasögur. The legend remained popular – and productive – in late-medieval and early-modern Scandinavia, not least in Iceland, with the 15th-century Saga af Tristram og Ísodd, seen by some as a deliberate pastiche of the medieval saga, the very fine ballad ‘Tristrams kvæði’, thought to date from the 15th century, and the Icelandic folktale ‘Tristram og Ísól bjarta’, five versions of which were recorded in the 19th century.

One of the more interesting, not to say curious, manifestations of the Tristan story in Scandinavia is the Danish chapbook Tistrand og Indiana, first published in Christiania (Oslo) in 1775. Although claiming on the title-page to be a translation from German, this is almost certainly an original Dano-Norwegian work, one clearly based on the medieval Tristan story but full of 18th-century sentimentality and preaching faithfulness to one’s spouse and devotion to one’s sovereign as the ultimate good. This highly popular work – reprinted at least 20 times over the next century – quickly found its way to Iceland, where it was translated at least three times in the course of the 19th century. These translations were never printed but circulated entirely in manuscript, generally alongside texts of the late- and post-medieval romances. The Danish chapbook also formed the basis for a set of rímur by the best-loved poet of the age, Sigurður Breiðfjörð. The Rímur af Tístrani og Indíönu were also very popular, copied often and twice printed, but were harshly criticised on aesthetic grounds – for both their style and substance – by the poet Jónas Hallgrímsson in a highly influential essay in the journal Fjölnir in 1837. Meanwhile, another well-known rímur-poet, Níels Jónsson skáldi, criticised Sigurður Breiðfjörð for not doing justice to the – in his estimation very fine – story and produced his own set of rímur in 1844.

My paper will examine these various manifestations of and responses to the Tristan legend in Iceland and attempt to show what they reveal about the cultural forces at work in late medieval and early-modern Iceland.


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