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by Marianne E. Kalinke, author of Stories Set Forth with Fair Words: The Evolution of Medieval Romance in Iceland

Iceland’s unique contribution to medieval literature are the sagas, the thirteenth-century epics that fuse history and legend in a vernacular prose form. Concurrently, translations of more or less contemporary French literature, of courtly lays and romances and the epic poems known as chansons de geste were undertaken in Norway and exported to Iceland. There they were not only copied, but also revised and adapted. Icelanders responded to the imports, known as riddarasögur, ‘chivalric sagas’, by adopting the alien literary type and developing it by blending foreign and indigenous narrative traditions.

The imported genre was introduced into a rural culture with a rich literary history quite unlike that on the continent. The foundation, growth and flowering of romance in Iceland is a story of Norse texts copied, redacted and revised in Iceland; of scribal intervention in plot, structure and style; of imported texts adapted to new ends; and, finally, of the creation of original romances. They flourished in an environment of storytelling that favored the revision, adaptation, and recreation of existing tales.

The Icelandic romances are notoriously unstable, for in the course of time anonymous authors tinkered with the texts, or, as one writer put it, “set forth with fair words” an older version deemed too brief or lacking in eloquence. The existence of variant versions of a romance suggests a conviction that a tale could be told differently or more effectively, enhanced rhetorically or structurally, or extended with additional narrative. The oldest Icelandic romances reveal their authors coming to terms with a foreign literary type in the context of their own narrative traditions.

Professor M.E. Kalinke (retired) was until May 2006 Trowbridge Chair in Literary Studies Emerita and Center for Advanced Study Professor of Germanic languages and Comparative Literature Emerita, University of Illinois.