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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Máguss saga jarls — Mág


Máguss saga jarls ‘The Saga of Jarl Mágus’ (Mág), sometimes known as Bragða-Máguss saga ‘The Saga of Trickster-Mágus’, is a difficult work to classify within the repertoire of medieval Icelandic sagas. It is extant in two recensions of unequal length (see below). It is often treated as one of the riddarasögur ‘sagas of knights’ (cf. Kalinke 1987; Glauser 1993), but a number of the stylistic characteristics of the shorter version point to a close affinity with Íslendingasögur ‘sagas of Icelanders’, while the longer version displays connections with fornaldarsögur ‘sagas of ancient time’ (Mág 1963, cli-clviii; van Nahl 1981, 55-7, 127-9, 251), especially in its representation of the character of Mágus. The longer version contains three stanzas in fornyrðislag that are absent from the shorter and probably older recension. No other extant riddarasögur contain poetry, except for the two stanzas recorded in some mss of ÞJ (see the edition in this volume). As the absence of poetry is one of the features that differentiates riddarasögur from other saga types, the presence of poetry in Mág is a significant departure from the norm.

In terms of Scandinavian generic affinities, there are also several points of comparison between Mág, Scandinavian ballads and Icelandic rímur. There are also, however, indications that Mág’s original composition was based on narratives of non-Scandinavian origin. The first part of the saga tells how the emperor (or king) of Saxland marries the daughter of the king of Garðaríki ‘Russia’ (or Miklagarðr ‘Constantinople’ in the longer version), and subjects her to several tests, including the production of a legitimate son and heir, even though the two had not slept together. This part of the saga may once have had an independent existence. It belongs to a tale-type that is widespread in both Europe and Asia and is also similar to a Norwegian ballad type (cf. Jonsson et al. 1978, 189, Type D 404). The main plot is an Icelandic reworking of a French chanson de geste, Les Quatre Fils Aymon ‘The Four Sons of Aymon’ (also called Renaud de Montauban), extending even to similarities between the protagonists’ names. The Icelandic version of the story goes that a certain jarl in Saxland, Ámundi, has four sons, one of whom, Rǫgnvaldr, is persuaded to engage in a game of chess with the emperor. When he beats the emperor, the latter is roused to anger and strikes Rǫgnvaldr, who is later avenged by one of his brothers, a hot-head, who kills the emperor. The emperor’s son Karl reluctantly inherits the ensuing feud, which is stirred up and kept alive by Ubbi, an evil counsellor and foster-father to Karl.

The longest part of the saga, which is somewhat expanded in the longer recension, narrates the various dangers and difficulties experienced by the sons of Ámundi, who are assisted and eventually saved by their brother-in-law, Mágus, a skilled magician and shape-shifter. In addition to being a clever strategist, Mágus is able to transform himself into a number of different personae, including that of an old man, Skeljakarl ‘Shell-man’, another ancient sage, Víðfǫrull ‘Widely-travelled’, and a third form, half dark, half light in colour, called hinn hálfliti maðr ‘the half-coloured man’. In these various disguises Mágus entertains the emperor and his court with illusions and tricks as well as accounts of the heroes of old that he has known, and uses his skills both to help the sons of Ámundi and to reveal the skulduggery of Ubbi and other malicious court officials. Eventually Mágus reconciles the warring parties and disposes of Ubbi.

The representation of the character Mágus in both recensions of Mág clearly owes much both to Icelandic traditions of the behaviour of soothsayers and magicians (Hamer 1979, 2-7; cf. Dillmann 2006, who does not, however, mention this saga), and to literary works in which the protagonist adopts the disguise of an old, widely-travelled man, such as we find in Ǫrv, where Oddr also calls himself Víðfǫrull (cf. Schlauch 1931). The references to heroes Víðfǫrull has known obviously depend on the composers’ and their audiences’ acquaintance with heroic poetry, such as Akv and other eddic verse, and fornaldarsögur like Hálf, as well as works like Þiðr (see further Mág 1884, xc-cxv for possible literary echoes). Although the name Mágus is the Icelandic counterpart to the character named in the French source as Maugis, the Latin word magus ‘wise man, magician’ is likely to have been in the mind of whoever first invented this saga character (cf. Mág 1884, cii and references cited there). Furthermore, one of Mágus’ disguises, as Skeljakarl ‘Shell-man’, may invoke yet another cultural paradigm, that of Christian pilgrims to the shrine of S. James the Great at Compostela in Spain, who wore images of the saint’s emblem, a scallop shell, on their hats or clothing. The connection between pilgrims, their staves and shell-adorned clothing was well known to medieval Icelanders, some of whom had undertaken this pilgrimage; cf. Anon Alpost 5/5-8VII and Note there.

It is generally held that the older, and shorter, recension of Mág is among the oldest of the non-translated Icelandic riddarasögur (Glauser 1993; Halvorsen 1966), and datable to c. 1300, while the younger and longer recension is generally dated to c. 1350. The saga is preserved in approximately seventy-five mss from the Middle Ages right up to the twentieth century, testifying to its great popularity in Iceland. The present edition is concerned largely with the younger recension, seeing that it is only this version that contains poetry. Dodsworth (Mág 1963, xxvii-cix) gives a full description of all the pre-Reformation manuscripts of the saga, and discusses their relationships (Mág 1963, lxxviii-cix).

There are four key manuscripts of the stanzas in the longer recension, only one of which is a vellum. A second vellum, AM 534 4°, has a lacuna where the stanzas are likely to have come, and so is not considered here. The best text, which is the base manuscript for this edition, is AM 152 fol (152), of c. 1500-25 (Mág 1963, xxi-xxiv; on its ownership, see Jón Helgason 1958, 74-5). This manuscript contains a mix of Íslendingasögur, riddarasögur and fornaldarsögur; among the last-named is the longer version of Gautr, which follows Mág. Related to 152, though not a direct copy of it, is AM 590a 4°ˣ (590aˣ) of not later than 1670 (Mág 1884, cviii; Mág 1963, xxxii). Holm papp 58 folˣ (58ˣ) of 1690 is an independent text of the saga, based on a now lost fourteenth-century riddarasögur manuscript, Ormsbók Snorrasonar (Mág 1963, xliv-xlv, lxxiii-lxxiv; Jón Helgason 1958, 90); 58ˣ includes Trój and Bret, as well as Mág. The fourth text, Holm papp 25 8°ˣ (papp25ˣ), is dated to c. 1665. This manuscript, largely in the hand of Jón Rugman, is one of only two extant to contain the text of RvHbreiðm HlIII, and is described in more detail by Kari Ellen Gade in the Introduction to HlIII (see also Jón Helgason in Hl 1941, 7-16). In papp25ˣ the three stanzas from Mág are written together in Jón Rugman’s hand on a single leaf, fol 83v. The origin of the recension of the saga from which these versions of the stanzas have been taken is unknown, and Dodsworth does not mention this fragment in his 1963 edition. Readings from 152, 590aˣ, 58ˣ and papp25ˣ are given in the present edition.

A somewhat unreliable edition of the longer recension of Mág was published in Copenhagen in 1858 by Gunnlaugur Þórðarson (Mág 1858), using 152 (his A), AM 187 folˣ, a seventeenth-century copy of 152 (his B), AM 535 4°ˣ of c. 1700, another copy of 152 (his C) and 590aˣ (his D). In 1884 Gustaf Cederschiöld published an edition of the shorter recension with textual notes on pp. 1-42 of his Fornsögur Suðrlanda, using AM 580 4° of the early fourteenth century as his main manuscript (Mág 1884). He had previously published a text of the saga without the introduction (Mág 1876-7). Other editions of the longer recension are by Páll Eggert Ólason (1916) and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson (1949-54). Both are based on Mág 1858 and have no text-critical value. The most recent and thorough edition of the saga, with complete variants from the pre-Reformation manuscripts, including 152, is Dodsworth’s in Mág 1963. This edition is unpublished; it is referred to here as Mág 1963. Finnur Jónsson published a diplomatic text of the three stanzas from Mág in Skj A, using 152 as his base manuscript, but with additional readings from 590aˣ and AM 535 4°ˣ (535ˣ), a copy of 152 from c. 1700. Mág 1858, Mág 1884 and Mág 1963 have been consulted for the present edition, together with Skj and Skald.


  1. Bibliography
  2. Skj A = Finnur Jónsson, ed. 1912-15a. Den norsk-islandske skjaldedigtning. A: Tekst efter håndskrifterne. 2 vols. Copenhagen: Villadsen & Christensen. Rpt. 1967. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde & Bagger.
  3. Skald = Kock, Ernst Albin, ed. 1946-50. Den norsk-isländska skaldediktningen. 2 vols. Lund: Gleerup.
  4. Hl 1941 = Jón Helgason and Anne Holtsmark, eds. 1941. Háttalykill enn forni. BA 1. Copenhagen: Munksgaard.
  5. Þiðr = Þiðreks saga af Bern.
  6. Schlauch, Margaret. 1931. ‘Wīdsīth, Víðförull and Some Other Analogues’. PMLA 46, 969-87.
  7. Mág 1858 = Gunnlaugur Þórðarson, ed. 1858. Bragða-Mágus saga með tilheyrendi þáttum. Copenhagen: Páll Sveinsson.
  8. Mág 1884 = ‘Mágus saga jarls’, in Cederschiöld 1884, pp. lxxx-ccccviii, 1-42.
  9. Páll Eggert Ólason, ed. 1916. Mágus saga jarls ásamt þáttum af Hrólfi skuggafífli, Vilhjálmi Laissyni og Gerrarði Vilhjálmssyni. Riddarasögur 1. Reykjavík: Fjallkonuútgáfan.
  10. Mág 1963 = Dodsworth, John Brian, ed. 1963. ‘Mágus saga jarls, edited with complete variants from the pre-Reformation manuscripts’. Ph.D. thesis. University of Cambridge.
  11. Dillmann, François-Xavier. 2006. Les magiciens dans l’Islande ancienne: études sur la représentation de la magie islandaise et de ses agents dans les sources littéraires norroises. Acta Academiae Regiae Gustavi Adolphi 92. Uppsala: Kungl. Gustav Adolfs Akademien för svensk folkkultur.
  12. Glauser, Jürg. 1993. ‘Mágus saga jarls’. In MedS, 402-3.
  13. Halvorsen, Eyvind Fjeld. 1966. ‘Mágus saga jarls’. KLNM 11, 239-41.
  14. Hamer, Andrew. 1979. ‘Mágus sagaRiddarasaga or fornaldarsaga?’ In Fourth International Saga Conference, München, July 30th-August 4th, 1979. Munich: Institut für Nordische Philologie der Universität München. No continuous pagination, 13 pages.
  15. Jón Helgason. 1958. Handritaspjall. Reykjavík: Mál og menning.
  16. Kalinke, Marianne E. 1987. ‘Mágus saga jarls’. In Strayer 1982-9, 8, 45-6.
  17. Nahl, Astrid van. 1981. Originale Riddarsögur als Teil altnordischen Sagaliteratur. Texte und Untersuchungen zur Germanistik und Skaldinavistik 3. Frankfurt am Main and Bern: Lang.
  18. Bjarni Vilhjálmsson, ed. 1949-54. Riddarasögur. 6 vols. Reykjavík: Íslendingasagnaútgáfan, Haukadalsútgáfan.
  19. Mág 1876-7 = Cederschiöld, Gustaf J. Chr., ed. 1876-7. ‘Mágus saga jarls’. Acta Universitatis Lundensis 13, 1-42.
  20. Internal references
  21. 2017, ‘ Anonymous, Gautreks saga’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 241. <> (accessed 24 September 2021)
  22. Ian McDougall (ed.) 2007, ‘Anonymous Poems, Allra postula minnisvísur 5’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry on Christian Subjects. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 7. Turnhout: Brepols, pp. 859-60.
  23. 2017, ‘ Anonymous, Ǫrvar-Odds saga’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 804. <> (accessed 24 September 2021)
  24. 2017, ‘ Anonymous, Hálfs saga ok Hálfsrekka’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 303. <> (accessed 24 September 2021)
  25. 2017, ‘ Unattributed, Breta saga’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 38. <> (accessed 24 September 2021)
  26. Not published: do not cite (RunVI)
  27. Kari Ellen Gade 2017, ‘ Rǫgnvaldr jarl and Hallr Þórarinsson, Háttalykill’ in Kari Ellen Gade and Edith Marold (eds), Poetry from Treatises on Poetics. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 3. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 1001. <> (accessed 24 September 2021)
  28. Not published: do not cite ()
  29. Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.) 2017, ‘Máguss saga jarls 1 (Mágus jarl, verses 1)’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 599.
  30. 2017, ‘ Anonymous, Þjalar-Jóns saga’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 798. <> (accessed 24 September 2021)

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Information about a text: poem, sequence of stanzas, or prose work

This page is used for different resources. For groups of stanzas such as poems, you will see the verse text and, where published, the translation of each stanza. These are also links to information about the individual stanzas.

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