The Story of Jonatas in Iceland (Jónatas ævintýri)

With the decline of the Hanseatic League numerous ships plied the waters between Iceland and the ports of England during the greater part of the fifteenth century, but the paucity of Icelandic manuscripts evidencing English influence points to a commercial rather than to a lively cultural affiliation. In Iceland only five vellum manuscript fragments containing literary material of English provenance are known to exist, and all five of these can be traced to just a single collection in Middle English of exempla and fables derived from the Gesta Romanorum, the Handlyng Synne, and the stories of Odo of Cheriton. The most logical time for bringing to Iceland an English manuscript containing material popular with the Church and for translating it into Icelandic coincides with the tenure of the only English bishop ever to serve in Iceland (Jón Vilhjálmsson Craxton at Hólar, 1429-34), a period of time supported by the available paleographic, historical, and literary evidence.

The most unusual tale in this collection of more than four dozen exempla is the story of Jonatas, which has retained its popularity in Iceland for 500 years. Prior to 1600 the Icelandic exemplum was turned into a poetic (rímur) version of three cantos, and this poetic text was refashioned into a prose story once again, most likely in the early eighteenth century. A related folktale sprang up rather early in the Icelandic literary tradition, and sometime before 1800 material from the folktale went into the composition of Júnífers saga. Because motifs from the story of Jonatas were borrowed into several Icelandic romances, it is possible to propose more exact datings for Gibbons saga, Viktors saga ok Blávus, Viktors rímur fornu, and Sigrgarðs saga frækna.

PETER JORGENSEN holds a B.A. degree in German from Princeton University as well as an M.A. degree in linguistics and a Ph.D. in Germanic philology from Harvard University. He taught at the University of California in Riverside for five years and is currently Professor of Germanic Languages at the University of Georgia. Among his articles are investigations uncovering two saga forgeries from the 18th century, analogues to the Bear's Son Folktale in Old English and Old Icelandic literature, and the Ripuarian manuscripts of the medieval pilgrimage of Arnold von Harff, as well as first editions and source studies of previously overlooked Icelandic vellum fragments of saints' lives and exempla. He has published a bilingual edition of Valla-Ljóts saga and is currently working on a bilingual edition of Tristrams saga ok Ísöndar.