By Minjie Su
Suppose that you have read a lot of stories, and that you are to write a story yourself, chances are you’d put your reading and interpretation into your own composition, consciously or unconsciously. This is certainly the case with many medieval writers: they read, they wrote, they combined multiple motifs and created something ancient but at the same time new.
Jóns saga leikara, or the Saga of Jón the Playmate, is certainly one of them. Possibly composed in the 14th century, the saga as we know today is preserved in a number of post-medieval manuscripts, scattered across Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden. At first sight, Jóns saga leikara is but your average chivalric romance, filled with exciting but somewhat generic little adventures. Yet, on closer examination, the way the saga author put those familiar motifs together is quite interesting and unique.
The story starts with Jón’s coming of age. Born into a rich, aristocratic family somewhere in France, Jón becomes well-versed in all knightly activities at an early age and soon surpasses all the youths in the country. After he has been dubbed a knight, Jón decides to ride into the outside world to seek adventure and fame, so as to establish himself as a proper romance hero. For the journey, his father gives him many expensive gifts and superb equipment, which, interestingly, includes a good steed and an average horse – mind you, remember these horses.
Jón vows that, wherever he rides, nothing shall hinder him. Thusly he rides on, unhindered until he reaches a certain city. On the gate there carves some words of warning: do not ride through it, for you can be sure you shall never come out alive. Sounds scary, doesn’t it? Jón remembers his oath and enters anyway. But – here is the first not-so-conventional bit – he carefully leaves his good steed and his pouch behind, riding instead the spare horse.
What makes this path so life-threatening is a fire-breathing dragon (surprise!). The horse perishes in the fire, but Jón slays the vicious beast without much fuss. Then, he cuts off the dragon’s tongue, apparently following the example of Ragnarr Loðbrók, and leaves the spear in the wound, only taking the shaft, just as Tristan once did. Both actions are meant as a precaution, because in both Ragnars saga and Tristrams saga, there is always some evil steward who schemes to steal the glory and demands to marry the princess as a reward. Then the hero would produce the token, so as to expose the villain and claim the prize for himself.
However, when Jón reaches the king’s palace and tells everybody that he has killed the dragon, nobody even thinks about stealing his victory. To celebrate Jón’s victory, a feast is held in his honour, and the king promises to grant him whatever he fancies in his kingdom. Jón is seated next to the princess, who behaves as if to slay a dragon is but trivial and pours drinks for Jón rather condescendingly. The queen is served by two one-eyed boys who are apparently twins. As in Perceval, the feast is interrupted by a strange procession, but instead of the Holy Grail, it is an embalmed human head that is put on display on a dish and brought in front of the queen. Upon seeing the head, the queen weeps bitterly. Jón marvels at this greatly but, again, as in Perceval, he remains silent.
After the feast, the princess summons Jón to her chamber. The two spend the night together, frolicking. They would have been discovered in the morning, had Jón not phrased some ambiguous truth and had the king and his court not been distracted by the capture of a certain wolf – so it turns out that the kingdom is pillaged not only by the dragon, but also by a ferocious wolf. Afterwards, the king asks Jón to name his reward. Strangely Jón asks for the life of the wolf instead of the princess. Now it is the king’s turn to marvel; Jón promises to tell him why if the king swears to forgive him and to explain the significance of the human head. Then Jón confesses the affair between him and the princess. In return, the king tells him a story very similar to that of Arthur and Gorlagon, an Arthurian romance composed in Latin: The queen committed adultery many years ago, the twins are her bastard children. To punish her, the children are partially blinded, and the lover killed, his head embalmed and put on a dish. The queen is to contemplate the head midst each meal to reflect on her offence. Having heard the tale, Jón persuades the king to forgive the queen and the twins; then he renames his prize: this time he wishes to marry the princess.
Although Jón never explains as he promised why he has released the wolf, we are told at the end that the wolf is actually a prince named Sigurðr, cursed by his stepmother to be trapped in a wolf’s body. It is a common literary trope that, once someone recognises the human within the wolf is recognised (normally through the eyes) and asks for mercy, the curse will be lifted. But no explicit recognition scene is found anywhere in Jóns saga leikara – we are not even told that Jón has ever set eyes on this wolf. It seems as if, instead of recognising the werewolf, Jón recognises the narrative pattern – if there is a supernaturally huge and ferocious wolf, chances are it is a werewolf and you’d better ask mercy for it, so as to liberate the man. The same goes for Jón’s dragon-slaying: if there is a dragon around to be slain, chances are the horse is going to be killed (but the rider spared) and some bad guy might try to steal the victory; there is no harm to be prepared. Likewise, during the feast, although nobody prevents Jón from asking questions, he apparently learns from Perceval (or Perceval’s mother) that it may be considered rude and unchivalric.
So, what conclusions can we reach? Apparently, Jón takes a lot of precautions out of experience – experience gained not by actions but by reading. To be more precise, it is the saga author who read and learned from reading many other romances, both translated and indigenous; then he rearranges all these motifs in his composition, so that his hero can avoid the mistakes made by those in his source materials. In this sense, Jóns saga leikara is a ‘cannibalistic’ story: just as the adulterous queen symbolically incorporated into her lover’s body, presented and displayed as if it were food, the saga also incorporates many other stories, and makes something new out of them.
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Top Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France. MS Français 24364 fol. 61v