Chivalric sagas

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The riddarasögur, sagas of knights or chivalric sagas[1] are Norse sagas of the romance genre. Starting in the 13th century with translations of French chansons de geste the genre soon expanded to indigenous creations in a similar style. While the riddarasögur were widely read in Iceland for many centuries they are usually regarded as popular literature inferior in artistic quality to the Icelanders' sagas and other indigenous genres. Receiving little attention from scholars of Old Norse literature many remain untranslated.


The term riddarasögur (singular riddarasaga) occurs in Mágus saga jarls where there is a reference to "Frásagnir...svo sem...Þiðreks saga, Flóvenz saga eðr aðrar riddarasögur", "narratives such as the saga of Þiðrekr, the saga of Flóvent, or other knights' sagas".[2] Another technical term sometimes encountered is lygisögur (singular lygisaga), "lie sagas", applied to fictional chivalric and legendary sagas.


The first known Old Norse translations of European romances occurred under the patronage of king Hákon Hákonarson of Norway. The earliest dated work is a 1226 translation by one Brother Robert of Tristan by Thomas of Britain. The Old Norse work, Tristrams saga ok Ísöndar, is especially valuable since the original poem is only preserved in fragments. Elis saga ok Rósamundu, a translation of Elie de Saint Gille, is similarly attributed to an Abbot Robert, presumably the same man having been promoted within his order. King Hákon also commissioned Möttuls saga, an adaptation of Le mantel mautaillé, Ívens saga, a reworking of Chrétien de Troyes's Yvain and Strengleikar, a collection of ballads principally by Marie de France.[3]

Works in similar style, which may also have been commissioned by King Hákon, are Parcevals saga, Valvens þáttr and Erex saga, all derived from the works of Chrétien de Troyes. Karlamagnús saga is a compilation of more disparate origin, dealing with Charlemagne and his twelve paladins and drawing on historiographical material as well as chansons de geste. Other works believed to derive from French originals are Bevers saga, Flóres saga ok Blankiflúr, Flóvents saga and Partalopa saga.

Pseudo-historical works translated from Latin are Alexanders saga (a translation of Alexandreis), Amícus saga ok Amilíus (based on the Speculum historiale), Breta sögur (a translation of Historia Regum Britanniae), and Trójumanna saga (a translation of De excidio Troiae). Also pseudo-historical, Þiðreks saga af Bern is unusual in having been translated from German.[3]

These Old Norse translations have been characterised by Margaret Clunies Ross thus:

The Old Norse term riddarasaga ... covers what were a number of genres in Latin, French and Anglo-Norman, but common to all of them are their courtly setting, their interest in kingship, and their concerns with the ethics of chivalry and courtly love. It seems, however, from a comparison between the French originals and the Old Norse translations of courtly romances, such as Chrétien de Troyes' Erec et Enide (Erex saga), Yvain (Ívens saga) and Perceval (Parcevals saga and Velvens þáttr), that the translators who supplied King Hákon's court and others in Norway and Iceland who enjoyed such sagas offered an independent rewriting of their sources. It is notable that they did not convey a number of key aspects of Chrétien's somewhat ironic perspective on courtly society. This may well be because most of the translators were probably clerics, but it is also likely to reflect traditional Norse tastes and narrative conventions. In particular, most elements of explicit eroticism have been deleted from the riddarasögur, as have much comedy and irony in the treatment of the protagonists' behaviour. Instead, the narratives are largely exemplary and didactic, in large part because the Scandinavian translators refrained from using two essential narrative devices of their sources, namely the internal monologue, which conveyed the private thoughts and feelings of the characters, and the intrusive involvement of the narrator, which was a vehicle for conveying a nuanced and often ironic point of view.[4]

Original compositions[edit]

Inspired by translated Continental romances, Icelanders began enthusiastically composing their own romance-sagas, appaently around the later thirteenth century, with the genre flourishing from the fourteenth century. One seminal composition seems to be Klári saga, whose the prologue of the saga states that it was a Latin metrical work which Jón Halldórsson Bishop of Skálholt found in France, but which is now thought to have been composed by Jón from scratch. Jón seems to have been one of the inspirations for the fourteenth-century North Icelandic Benedictine School which, while most clearly associated with religious writing, also seems to have involved romance-writing.

The following is a partial list of original Icelandic chivalric sagas which have been published.[5]


  1. ^ Also known as knights' sagas and sagas of chivalry.
  2. ^ Glauser 2005:372.
  3. ^ a b Naess 1993:34.
  4. ^ Margaret Clunies Ross, The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 81.
  5. ^ Cf. Marianne E. Kalinke and P. M. Mitchell, Bibliography of Old Norse–Icelandic Romances, Islandica, 44 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985).

External Links[edit]

Riddarasögur: Texts, Translations, and Scholarship


  • Driscoll, Matthew (2005). "Late Prose Fiction (lygisögur)" in A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture pp. 190-204. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-23502-7
  • Glauser, Jürg (2005). "Romance (Translated riddarasögur)" in A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture pp. 372-387. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-23502-7
  • Kalinke, Marianne E. (1990). Bridal-Quest Romance in Medieval Iceland, Islandica, 46. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
  • Kalinke, Marianne E. and P. M. Mitchell, Bibliography of Old Norse–Icelandic Romances, Islandica, 44 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985).
  • Loth, Agnete (1962-5). Late medieval Icelandic romances (5 vols.) Den Arnamagnæanske Komission. Copenhagen.
  • Naess, Harald S. (1993). A History of Norwegian Literature. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-3317-5
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