Making a copy of Njáls saga: the story of the Urðabók manuscript

Making a copy of Njáls saga: the story of the Urðabók manuscript

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By Minjie Su

The 17th International Saga Conference, held last month in Iceland, offered many insights into the Norse world. This included a plenary lecture given by Andrew Wawn, Professor Emeritus from the University of Leeds. He explored the story of Urðabók (ÍB 270 4to), which was created around the year 1773, making it one of the youngest surviving manuscripts of Njáls saga. Although the manuscript is currently marked as attributed to an unidentified scribe, Wawn’s research sheds new light on who wrote it and why.

Urðabók is a much less known manuscript of what perhaps is the most famous of the Icelandic sagas. Nevertheless offers insights into a mini literary community in the late 18th-century Svarfaðardalur, a valley in central north Iceland.

But who scribed Urðabók? And for whom and what? Wawn aims at unveiling the story behind this little, modest manuscript.

The clue, to everyone’s surprise, lies in a verse about Hallgerðr, the infamous wife of Gunnar, who keeps stirring trouble between Gunnar and his friend Njáll and whose refusal of a strand of her hair directly leads to Gunnar’s death. The verse is apparently the scribe’s own composition. It only exists in three manuscripts from the 19th century; the second version, dated from 1880, is a complete text with helpful annotations, therefore more promising. The heading of this version identifies the poet as Magnús Einarson (á Tjörn, ‘of Tjörn’). This Magnús is trained at Þingeyrar, where Iceland’s first stone church is built. He is a pastor, a healer, an exorcist, and becomes a legend during his life-time; folk stories about him are circulated around, such as that he removes accursed bed board. The verse also demonstrates his religiosity: although Hallgerðr is described as ‘cursed’, Magnús expresses doubts about her being in hell: perhaps she repents and redeems herself in the afterlife. The poem, along with the saga, is intended for the lawman Sveinn Þorgeirson, who at that time had judicial power over half of Iceland and whom Magnús befriended with when he was in Þingeyrar.

This gives rise to a question: being the man who had in possession the largest library in Svarfaðardalur, why did Sveinn need to be told the story of Njáls saga? Surely, he had read it already. Unless, it is not Njáls saga, but a version of Njáls saga: Ólafur Ólafsson Olavius’s Sagan af Niáli Þórgeirssyni ok sonum hans (The Saga of Njáll Þórgeirsson and His Sons) was published in 1772, just a few years prior to Urðabók. Magnús’s gifting the verse to Sveinn suggest that the new copy might have just arrived in northern Iceland and reached Magnús’s circle.

How can we be sure that it is Magnús who wrote Urðabók? According to Magnúss great grandson Þorkell, Magnús has indeed made a copy of Njáls saga, added his own verse in the end, and gave to a Jón Sigurðsson, farmer in Urðir in Svarfaðadalur. Þorkell never saw Urðabók, but Urðabók fits Þorkell‘s description. Moreover, the prose hand matches a recently discovered 1785 autograph letter, and Magnús has been identified as its scribe. His hand is also found in ÍB 1629 4to, a late 19th-century manuscript; Þorkell confirms that his great grandfather was the scribe of the first two sagas.

As the quest approaches its fulfilment, Professor Wawn offers eight further speculations about Urðabók:

1. Why did Magnús make the copy? The most obvious reason would be that he genuinely adored the saga, but he must also have felt some personal attachment to it: a close examination into his family letters and records shows that there was a Bergþóra Skarphéðinsdóttir in the family tree, who, named after the two major family members of Njáll, was believed to be a descendant of them.

2. That the copy was gifted to Jón Sigurðsson also makes sense, since the two men were friends, neighbours, and exact contemporaries. A parish visiting record in 1875 gives us Jón’s household members, thus giving us some ideas of who would hear the reading of the saga in winter evenings.

3. What sort of a scribe was Magnús? Wawn’s research reveals that he was a very meticulous scribe, the sort that would correct everything and rarely make any mistake.

4. The Urðabók Njála has no chapter heading until chapter 124. This is explained by Magnús’s source: the headings from 124 to the end of the saga prove to be identical to the new Copenhagen copy; Magnús must have used the new copy once it had arrived at Svarfaðardalur.

5. What was Njáls saga to Magnús, apart from being a fascinating story and a story attached to his own ancestors? It appears that the saga was used by Magnús as a store of gnomic wisdom, for he used a more formal hand for words of wisdom and famous sentences, which was not a very common practice at that time.

6. Text variants do occur. In particulary, one variant is found in the main text rather than in the margin. Magnús listed two alternative readings: ámælis (‘blame, reproach’) and almælis (‘a general report’); whenever it concerns with reputation, he seems to favour the more laconic option.

7. Hierographic is used as a way of censoring: for instance, ‘to have sex with’ is replaced with hierographic symbols. Similar practice is also found in at least in one other manuscript, and the Njáls saga in the English explorer and scientist Joseph Banks’s collection uses runes for the same effect.

8. Urðabók opens not with Njáls saga but with a text from Gunnlaugs saga Ormstungu (Saga of Gunnlaugr Serpent-tongue). The hand is different paper and the paper shows different water marks; it is most likely a later addition.

All considered, Urðabók is not only a major resource for Magnús, his household, and those living in Urðir at the time, but also offers valuable insights into the life of Njáls saga in the late 18th century.

See also: Proving Facts in Njáls saga

You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter @minjie_su 

Top Image: The beginning of Njals’ Saga in Urðabók – ÍB 270 4to fol.17r

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