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

Rolf Stavnem, "Praising King Olaf: Oral Tradition in Christian Skaldic Poetry"

Although the Norwegian King Olaf Tryggvason (ca. 968-1000) only ruled Norway for 5 years, he was one of the most important figures of the Scandinavian Middle Ages, judging from the massive amount of medieval literature pertaining to him. This is mainly due to his success in christianizing a number of countries, most importantly Iceland with regard to the literary sources. The traditions concerning Olaf were recorded in prose as well as poetry, and the poem Rekstefja is particularly interesting in terms of its transmission. The time of its composition is uncertain, but stylistic criteria points to the end of the 12th century. The poem is partly preserved in The Great Saga of Olaf Tryggvason, an extensive compilation of material on the king from about 1350, where we find 25  stanzas embedded in the prose narrative, whereas the poem in its entirety, 35 stanzas in all, is recorded with no prose context in Bergsbók, a manuscript from ca. 1400.

In my talk I will suggest that the extant versions of Rekstefja indicate a transmission process that is quite different from that which is commonly assumed in the transmission of skaldic poetry. The general assumption is that skaldic poetry was either composed orally and memorized until it was written down or that it was composed in writing from the beginning; in either case further transmission would belong to the written culture. In the case of Rekstefja, however, there are reasons to assume that the poem was originally composed as a written work and later incorporated into a saga and transmitted orally. Such a process could explain some striking irregularities in the material. This hypothesis is based on: a) a thorough comparison of the Rekstefja version in Bergsbók to Rekstefja stanzas in The Great Saga; b) a close examination of varying versions of Rekstefja stanzas preserved in the various manuscripts of The Great Saga; and c) an interpretation of the function of Rekstefja in Bergsbók compared with the function of the poem in The Great Saga.     


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