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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Gunnlaugr Leifsson (GunnLeif)

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

VIII. 1. Merlínusspá I (Merl I) - 103

Skj info: Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Islandsk munk, d. 1218 (AII, 10-36, BII, 10-45).

Skj poems:
Merlínússpá I
Merlínússpá II

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, ‘ Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínusspá I’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 38. <> (accessed 20 October 2021)

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

SkP info: VIII, 92

old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance search files

55 — GunnLeif Merl I 55VIII (Bret 123)

edition interactive full text transcriptions old edition references concordance


Cite as: Russell Poole (ed.) 2017, ‘Breta saga 123 (Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínusspá I 55)’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 92.

‘Enn munu í skógi         skœðir síðan
vargar vakna         veiða í borgum.
Þeir munu sína         sjalfir dolga
fella eða fjǫtra;         fáir munu verða,
þeirs treystask þeim         telja at móti.

‘Enn munu skœðir vargar síðan vakna í skógi, veiða í borgum. Þeir munu sjalfir fella eða fjǫtra dolga sína; fáir munu verða, þeirs telja treystask at móti þeim.

‘Then once more will vicious wolves awaken in the forest, hunt in the cities. They will themselves kill or shackle their foes; few will there be, who have confidence to complain against them.

Mss: Hb(52r) (Bret)

Readings: [1] munu: mun Hb

Editions: Skj: Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínússpá II 55: AII, 29, BII, 35, Skald II, 22; Bret 1848-9, II, 58 (Bret st. 123); Hb 1892-6, 280; Merl 2012, 169-70.

Notes: [All]: Cf. DGB 114 (Reeve and Wright 2007, 149.94-7; cf. Wright 1988, 104-5, prophecy 15): Euigilabunt regentis catuli et postpositis nemoribus infra moenia ciuitatum uenabuntur. Stragem non minimam ex obstantibus facient et linguas taurorum abscident. Colla rugientium onerabunt catenis ‘The cubs of the ruler will awake, leave the forests and hunt within city walls. They will do great slaughter among those who oppose them and cut out the tongues of bulls. They will load with chains the necks of those who roar’ (cf. Reeve and Wright 2007, 148). From this point onward, after the two preceding transitional stanzas, Geoffrey’s prophecies (and Gunnlaugr’s adaptation of them) have no historical or pseudo-historical referent but merely hint in vague and portentous language at possible future events affecting the British people, conceived on the basis of both the deep and the recent past. While it is possible that Gunnlaugr had knowledge from Henry of Huntingdon or William of Malmesbury concerning the Anarchy (i.e. the conflict between Stephen and Matilda for the crown of England following the death of Henry I), it is not reflected in his adaptation, but see I 56 Note to [All] for an indication that he took the reign of Henry II into account. Geoffrey appears to refer back in this prophecy to the catuli leonis ‘lion’s cubs’ of prophecy 11 (corresponding to I 52 in Gunnlaugr’s rendering). Merl paraphrases loosely here and, at least as extant, does not include a rendering of the final sentence of prophecy 15. — [1] munu ‘will’: Emended in Skj B and subsequent eds from ms. mun, to gain concord with pl. vargar in l. 3. — [3] vargar ‘wolves’: Gunnlaugr appears to replace Geoffrey’s prediction of insurrection on the part of the king’s children with a less specific vision of an uprising by outlaws, ‘outlaw’ being another sense of vargr in Old Norse. But possibly he is referring back to the progeny of the léons vargar ‘the lion’s wolves’ mentioned in I 52/9. — [9-10]: The syntax and meaning here are not entirely certain. Both treystask and telja can be finite (3rd pers. pl. pres. indic.) or inf. Adopted in this edn is the interpretation by Bret 1848-9, which treats treystask as the finite verb and telja as the inf. (treystask telja at móti þeim), translating faae kun ville vove mod dem at före Ordet ‘only a few will venture to bring the word against them’. For telja in this sense see CVC: telja III; Fritzner: telja 3. Finnur Jónsson wavers in his interpretation: Skj B translates det vil være få som vover at imødegå dem ‘there will be few that venture to oppose them’ (cf. Merl 2012), leaving the meaning of telja unclear, whereas LP: telja 4 gives telja treystask at móti as som siger at de trøster sig til modstand ‘who say that they have confidence to resist [them]’ and LP: treysta 3 has treystask telja móti e-m (the latter in agreement with Bret 1848-9). Gunnlaugr seems not to reproduce DGB with his customary closeness in this passage but Geoffrey’s mention of severed tongues might have prompted this evocation of fears of outspokenness.

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