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Gunnlaugr Leifsson (GunnLeif)

13th century; volume 8; ed. Russell Poole;

VIII. 1. Merlínusspá I (Merl I) - 103

Gunnlaugr Leifsson (GunnLeif, d. 1218 or 1219) was a monk at the Benedictine house of Þingeyrar, a monastery near the shores of Húnaflói, in northern Iceland, that maintained close relations with the seat of the bishop at Hólar (Turville-Petre 1953, 135). Nothing is known concerning Gunnlaugr’s place of birth, upbringing or social origins. He was regarded in his own time as a man of singular Latin learning (LH II, 394-5) and worked in a distinguished historiographic and hagiographic milieu (de Vries 1964-7, II, 246). In a rare personal anecdote, perhaps apocryphal, Arngrímr Brandsson, a Benedictine monk and abbot at Þingeyrar (d. 1361 or 1362), tells that Gunnlaugr attempted to recite his new history of Saint Ambrose at the church at Hólar but was rebuffed by Bishop Guðmundr Arason (LH II, 394-5; Ciklamini 2008, 1). The two men were evidently on good terms at an earlier stage, however (Ciklamini 2004, 66), and, while bishop at Hólar, Guðmundr commissioned Gunnlaugr to prepare a life of Jón helgi ‘the Saint’ Ǫgmundarson and an account of portents and miracles pertaining to Þorlákr Þórhallsson, both in Latin (LH II, 394-5). 

Works ascribed to Gunnlaugr that survive in one form or other include the Latin life of Jón helgi, represented by a close Icelandic translation; the account of Þorlákr’s miracles; a Latin expansion of Gunnlaugr’s Þingeyrar colleague Oddr Snorrason’s life of King Óláfr Tryggvason, extant in the shape of excerpts translated into Icelandic; an Icelandic original version of Þorvalds þáttr víðfǫrla ‘The Tale of Þorvaldr the Far-traveller’ that may at one time have formed part of the life of Óláfr; and a now entirely lost life of Saint Ambrose (LH II, 394-403; Turville-Petre 1953, 194-200; Bekker-Nielsen 1958; de Vries 1964-7, II, 245-7; Würth 1998, 205-6; Ciklamini 2004, 66; Katrín Axelsdóttir 2005). The only work ascribed to Gunnlaugr that appears to survive in a relatively complete state is Merlínusspá ‘The Prophecies of Merlin’ (Merl I and II). It is also the sole medieval instance of a direct verse translation into Icelandic from Latin prose (Würth 1998, 206).

no FJ abbr

Merlínusspá I (‘The Prophecies of Merlin I’) — GunnLeif Merl IVIII (Bret)

Russell Poole 2017, ‘(Introduction to) Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínusspá I’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 38.

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Skj: Gunnlaugr Leifsson: Merlínússpá II (AII, 22-36, BII, 24-45)

SkP info: VIII, 84

old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance search files

49 — GunnLeif Merl I 49VIII (Bret 117)

edition interactive full text transcriptions old edition references concordance


Cite as: Russell Poole (ed.) 2017, ‘Breta saga 117 (Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínusspá I 49)’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 84.

‘Ríkir enn at þat         ormar tvennir;
missir annarr þar         aldrs fyr skeyti,
en annarr mun         aptr of hverfa
und skugga nafns         at skǫpum vinna.

‘Ríkir enn at þat ormar tvennir; annarr missir þar aldrs fyr skeyti, en annarr mun of hverfa aptr und skugga nafns at vinna skǫpum.

‘After that two more snakes will rule; one will lose his life there to an arrow, but the other will return under the cover of a name to contend against the fates.

Mss: Hb(51v) (Bret)

Readings: [2] tvennir: tvennir HbJS, ‘[…]nnir’ Hb

Editions: Skj: Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínússpá II 49: AII, 29, BII, 34, Skald II, 21; Bret 1848-9, II, 55 (Bret st. 117); Hb 1892-6, 280; Merl 2012, 164-5.

Notes: [All]: Cf. DGB 113 (Reeve and Wright 2007, 147.76-8; cf. Wright 1988, 104, prophecy 10): Succedent duo dracones, quorum alter inuidiae spiculo suffocabitur, alter uero sub umbra nominis redibit ‘Two dragons will succeed, one of which will be suffocated by the arrow of envy, while the other will return beneath the shadow of a name’ (Reeve and Wright 2007, 146). This prophecy appears to allude to two of the sons of William the Conqueror, William Rufus, who succeeded his father as King of England in 1087, and Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy, who early in William Rufus’s reign made a return to Normandy from the Crusades and competed with him for the throne; among the commentators to offer this interpretation is John of Cornwall (Curley 1982, 237). — [2] ormar ‘snakes’: Gunnlaugr thus translates Geoffrey’s allegorical dracones ‘dragons’, which, despite appearances, are not to be equated with either the Germanic white snake or the British red snake whose hostilities are described earlier in the poem. — [4] skeyti ‘an arrow’: Taken literally in Merl; the notion of invidia ‘envy’ is absent. This indeed fits well with the manner of death of William Rufus and may point to Gunnlaugr’s familiarity with the accounts of either Henry of Huntingdon (HA 1996, 446-7: Ubi Walterus Tirel cum sagitta ceruo intendens regem percussit inscius ‘There Walter Tirel, aiming at a stag, accidentally hit the king with an arrow’) or William of Malmesbury (Mynors et al. 1998-9, I, 504-5: sagitta pectus … traiectus ‘pierced … by an arrow in the breast’ and cf. Mynors et al. 1998-9, I, 574-5). — [7] und skugga nafns ‘under the cover of a name’: The phrase sub umbra nominis, translated by Thorpe as ‘under the cover of authority’ (1966, 174), is also handled literally by Gunnlaugr. It is translated in error as under skyggens navn ‘under the name of a shadow’ in Skj B (contrast LP: skuggi; also Bret 1848-9). For an explication of the Latin phrase, which disparages weak leaders who hide behind a great name or reputation, see Feeney (1986). Robert Curthose was in name the heir apparent to power over England as well as Normandy, being the elder son, but in reality subordinate to William Rufus, whom William the Conqueror had designated as successor to the throne in England (Stenton 1971, 608, 620). — [8] at vinna skǫpum ‘to contend against the fates’: To resist the fates was an adynaton in Old Norse (cf. Gríp 53/2, Am 48/3). This element in the characterisation of Robert Curthose appears to be derived not from DGB but from the following account in William of Malmesbury (Mynors et al. 1998-9, I, 706-7): … sed nullo impetrato ad bellum publicum uenit, ultimam fortunam experturus. Qua illum infelici pede prosequente … ‘ … he was reduced to overt war, to try a last throw with Fortune. But she pursued him with hostile intent ...’. Such a passage might have appealed to Gunnlaugr, who had already invoked skǫp ‘fate’ in I 42/6. Related in substance but not so close in wording is Henry of Huntingdon, who speaks of divine determination to thwart Robert’s wishes and efforts (HA 1996, 452-5, s. a. 1106).

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