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Þjalar-Jóns saga (ÞJ)

Skaldic vol. 8; ed. Philip Lavender

verse introduction manuscripts contents

Þjalar-Jóns saga ‘The Saga of File-Jón’ (ÞJ), sometimes known as Jóns saga Svipdagssonar ok Eiríks forvitna ‘The Saga of Jón Svipdagsson and Eiríkr the Curious’ occupies a somewhat ambivalent generic position in Old Norse saga literature. The main action, which involves a bridal quest by Prince Eiríkr of Valland, takes place initially in Rúðuborg (Rouen, France) and afterwards in Hólmgarðr (the lands around Novgorod inhabited by people of Scandinavian descent, now within western Russia). This means that it is only tangentially concerned with events taking place in Scandinavian lands, usually a minimal basic requirement for a saga to be considered a fornaldarsaga: the north of France and Hólmgarðr were both settled by Scandinavians, but are not considered part of Scandinavia proper. For this reason Rafn did not include the saga in FSN, which is generally taken to mark the boundaries of the genre. More recent commentators have pointed out that the saga is, however, thematically dissimilar from the riddarasögur ‘sagas of knights’, with which it has often been grouped, and modern, more inclusive interpretations of the fornaldarsögur genre (such as that of the research project Stories for All Time, accessed 31 December 2015), find a place for it, hence the inclusion of the stanzas from that saga in this volume.

The two anonymous lausavísur edited below (ÞjJ Lv 1 and 2 (ÞJ 1 and 2) appear early on in ÞJ, in the third of twenty-nine chapters. They are the only stanzas found in the saga, and are spoken by a mysterious stranger, Gestr ‘Guest’, who is later revealed to be the eponymous hero, Þjalar-Jón. Even given the enigmatic nature of the speaker at the time at which he utters these stanzas, they seem somewhat incongruous. Both are spoken as responses to Prince Eiríkr’s curiosity, the first because Eiríkr wants to know what Gestr is keeping in a locked chest, the second as an answer to Eiríkr’s question as to whether Gestr was himself responsible for making a marvellous ring and effigy. Yet neither stanza gives a satisfactory answer to its apparent provocation. Instead, both refer to women whom the speaker cannot get off his mind, a common trope in romantic poetry. Jón has no love interest at the time, however, and the only reasonable candidates (albeit awkward ones due to the potentially incestuous overtones) would seem to be his sister and mother who have been left behind in Hólmgarðr with the evil usurper Roðbert, who murdered Jón’s father and tried repeatedly to murder him. The second stanza, in particular, might make more sense if spoken by Eiríkr, concerning as it does happy feelings elicited by the appearance of an attractive woman (he has just seen the effigy of Gestr/Jón’s sister, the beautiful Marsilia). If textual modification in the process of transmission is not solely to blame for the confusion, an alternative explanation is that the stanzas have been taken from another source and inserted here with little attempt to modify the content to its current context.

Very little is known about the origins of the saga, partly because it has received so little critical attention. A terminus ante quem for its composition is provided by the earliest extant ms., Holm perg 6 4° (Holm6), which is also the main ms. for this edition and is dated to c. 1400. Tan-Haverhorst (ÞJ 1939, ii) took this ms. as the base text for her edition of the saga and refers to and makes use of the various preexisting discussions of its dates. The saga’s history prior to this ms. remains a matter of speculation. Stefán Einarsson (1966, 272) claimed that it was written at Reykhólar in Breiðafjörður, but provides no rationale for such an identification, and he dates it to 1300-50 (Stefán Einarsson 1957, 163-4). A useful guideline may be the episodes reminiscent of and most likely influenced by Vǫls and Krók which appear in the saga. Based on the generally posited dates of composition of those sagas, ÞJ would thus be unlikely to have circulated prior to the fourteenth century.

Tan-Haverhorst (ÞJ 1939) also gives an extensive treatment of the younger mss containing the saga. She considers thirty partial or complete texts written in Old Norse (twelve further texts are now known to exist), all of which are found in paper mss and none of which is older than the seventeenth century. Her findings suggest that they all ultimately derive from Holm6, making that ms. the single most useful witness when attempting to establish the medieval form of the stanzas in question. The text there, particularly the first helmingr of the second stanza, already shows a number of signs of having been altered in the process of transmission. Emendations are required to ensure that the stanzas fit requirements of metre, rhyme and sense. The younger mss are categorised by Tan-Haverhorst (ÞJ 1939, iv-lxi) as group a, B (a single ms.), groups c, δ (d and e), F (another single ms.) and group σ (subdivided into s, s’, t and u). The entire sigma branch omits both stanzas, while B is fragmentary, lacking the early part of the saga in which the stanzas appear. The only potential sources of secondary readings are groups a, c, δ and F, the principal mss of which are AM 181 l folx (group a), ÍB 185 8°x (group c), AM 181 m folx, Kall 614 4°x, Lbs 1629 4°x, ÍB 277 4°x (the latter four all from group δ and the latter two, from group e, only containing the first of the two stanzas) and Engestr B: III, 1, 20x (F). The absence of the stanzas in group σ and of the second stanza in group e could be a sign that later scribes were having trouble interpreting the somewhat garbled form of the stanzas which had been passed down to them and simply chose to sidestep the whole issue through omission. Ultimately, however, while the mss mentioned were consulted, their readings were considered to be derivative and at times incomprehensible, and thus they have not been used in the Readings.

The stanzas did not find their way into Finnur Jónsson’s Skjaldedigtning (Skj), presumably not due to any intentional rejection of their relevance. Therefore there are only two editions, both of ÞJ, in which the stanzas have previously appeared. The main one is the afore-mentioned edition by Tan-Haverhorst (ÞJ 1939), based on the only medieval ms. The other is a popular edition published in Iceland by Gunnlaugur Þórðarson in 1857 (ÞJ 1857) and reprinted by Jón Helgason in 1907, which takes as its principal text AM 585 e 4°x (from 1694), a derivative ms. of the a-group.

The metre of the two stanzas is fairly standard dróttkvætt, after one has made allowances for various late Icelandic syntactic and morphological changes. The standard normalisation practice for Volume VIII of SkP to a date between 1250-1300 requires these stanzas to be presented as more archaic than they are likely to have been, if they were C14th compositions, but that is also true of some of the poetry in other late sagas, like Frið and HjǪ. It is hard to say whether the deviations in the second stanza (alliteration on the second rather than first syllable, lack of full rhyme in st. 2/2) reflect metrical innovations or are simply modifications accrued in the process of transmission. The stanzas are, from a poetical-rhetorical perspective, rather dense considering their potentially late date. Each stanza has four kennings, more than one of which is unique. The second stanza compounds this with a complex mythological allusion through the mention of the wolf that knows what it has eaten. The accompanying prose (and pictorial accompaniment on fol. 121v of Holm6) helps with the unpacking of the latter-mentioned enigmatic statement, which at its core suggests the frustration inherent in being fully aware of the futility of one’s situation (as when the mythical wolf Fenrir bit off the god Týr’s hand).


Image of a wolf-like creature, possibly biting a man’s disembodied arm (the first words of the second stanza are visible at the end of the last line ‘Hlær, þá er…’). Stockholm, National Library of Sweden, MS perg. [Holm perg] 6 4°, fol. 121v (lower margin). Reproduced with permission.

Runic data from Samnordisk runtextdatabas, Uppsala universitet, unless otherwise stated