Centre for Medieval Studies Lecture Series 2016–2017

Judith Jesch

The literary history of Skáld-Helgi

Rímur and a lost saga between Iceland and Greenland

Tuesday November 8, 2016, at 16.30
Lögberg 101

Judith Jesch

The cycles of narrative poems kown as rímur were inordinately popular in late medieval Iceland and the genre continued to be productive well into modern times. The late medieval rímur are best characterised as a highly derivative genre. While all literature is derivative of other literature in some way or other, rímur are explicitly and obviously so. The medieval rímur of Iceland are almost always reworkings of sagas, sometimes quite slavish ones. In most cases, they are based on the more popular late medieval genres such as riddarasögur or lygisögur, but there are a couple of examples of rímur based on sagas of Icelanders, such as Grettisrímur and Króka-Refs rímur. The rímur of Skáld-Helgi, ‘the most remarkable man in Greeland’, however, have no surviving source. They are difficult to date: the oldest surviving manuscripts are from the 16th century but those who have thought about the question have concluded that the rímur might be somewhat older, perhaps from the 15th century. Scholars also tend to agree that the rímur were based on a lost saga about Skáld-Helgi, a saga that is generally classified as an Íslendingasaga and is described as ‘late’.

Although the rímur-poets were highly dependent on their saga-sources, they had different literary interests, and the change from prose to poetry also enforced different literary strategies on them. It is interesting to speculate on the ways in which the lost saga might have differed from the surviving rímur, particularly since they belong to this very small group of rímur based on Sagas of Icelanders. The paper will explore the ways in which the story of Skáld-Helgi is adapted and appropriated for different contexts using the very different conventions of sagas and rímur – was the lost saga really a typical Íslendingasaga, and what aspects of it did the rímur-poet appropriate for his narrative, and what might he have left out? Finally, what indications might there be of the time and place in which both saga and rímur were produced and enjoyed by their audiences?

Judith Jesch (PhD University of London) is Professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham. She is interested in and has published on many different topics in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Viking Age and Medieval Scandinavian Studies.

The talk will be delivered in English. All are welcome to attend.