This book deals with a fascinating but until recently largely neglected area of late medieval Icelandic literature: the indigenous prose romances, generally known as riddarasögur (lit. sagas of knights), a group of some 30 sagas composed in Iceland from the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century onwards which take place in an exotic (non-Scandinavian), vaguely chivalric milieu and are characterised by the extensive use of foreign motifs and a strong supernatural or fabulous element.
The author, Geraldine Barnes, former Professor of English Language and Early English Literature at the University of Sydney, has written extensively on the riddarasögur throughout her long career. This book represents the culmination of her work in this area and presents an interesting ‘take’ on the riddarasögur, focusing on their learned or ‘bookish’ elements.
Although the riddarasögur are clearly modelled on Continental chivalric romances and influenced by the ‘translated’ riddarasögur in terms of subject matter, style and ethos, that debt tends to be limited largely to the surface attributes of romance – typically, princes on quests in exotic foreign lands which ultimately bring material rewards, noble brides and the acquisition of new kingdoms. Contrary to European chivalric romance, however, the Icelandic riddarasögur manifest a substantial debt to medieval encyclopaedic and historiographical traditions. One effect of this is to bring an element of ‘biculturalism’ to the textual landscapes of the riddarasögur which suggests that their authors, and, by implication, their audiences, were familiar with both learned tradition and traditional lore and accustomed to moving back and forth between them in creative literary composition.