A Viking in Shining Armour?: Vikings and chivalry in the fornaldarsögur
By Carolyne Larrington
Viking and Medieval Scandinavia, Vol. 4 (2008)
Introduction: When literate Christian Icelanders of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries began to commit to parchment histories and narratives of the Icelandic past, they drew on communal and oral traditions about what ‘Viking’ constituted for their ancestors. Accounts of adventures undertaken in small military groups, engaged in raiding foreign communities, gaining recognition from foreign rulers, and fighting with other seafarers are deployed in the Íslendingasögur as a kind of rite of passage for the young hero. Once full adulthood has been reached, the ex-Viking usually settles in Iceland, marries, and begins life as a farmer or landholder. The depiction of this phase of the hero’s life is often conventionalized in those sagas which include a Viking youth, though it seems likely that there is some basis for individual details in family oral tradition. At some point in the thirteenth century, perhaps concomitantly with the composition of the Íslendingsögur, Icelanders began to compose their own tales of the heroic Viking past of their ancestors in Scandinavia in the form of the fornaldarsögur or ‘legendary sagas’ set in the pre-settlement period. Fornaldarsögur-authors were also influenced by southern European romance tropes and traditions, channelled through the Norwegian translations of Arthurian material from the early thirteenth century: Tristrams saga, composed in 1226, and most likely Parcevals saga and Ívens saga, prose versions of poems by Chrétien de Troyes. The generic characteristics of fornaldarsögur, and to what extent they are influenced by translated riddarasögur, have been contested. Torfi Tulinius notes that the fornaldarsögur, the translated riddarasögur, and the indigenous riddarasögur are all products of the Europe-wide development of secular, vernacular literature beginning in the twelfth century. This essay will suggest that the reinvention of Viking identity which takes place in fornaldarsaga tends to align individual heroes with the norms and conventions of European romance.