From Heroic Legend to ‘Medieval Screwball Comedy’? The Origins, Development and Interpretation of the Maiden-King Narrative

From Heroic Legend to ‘Medieval Screwball Comedy’? The Origins, Development and Interpretation of the Maiden-King Narrative

By Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir

The Legendary Sagas: Origins and Development, eds. Ármann Jakobsson, Annette Lassen and Agneta Ney (University of Iceland Press, 2012)

Page from Flateyarbók, an Icelandic manuscript

Introduction: The social changes that took place in the wake of the civil war in the thirteenth century, and Iceland’s entry into the Norwegian monarchy, in conjunction with the influx and popularity of romance from the British Isles and Europe, brought about a transformation in the country’s cultural and political discourse. The effect of these developments can be found in Icelandic medieval literature, which from the late thirteenth century onwards became even more diverse than before. New types of popular texts emerged, bringing with them new images of women, especially the maiden-king or meykongr, a figure that features prominently in many of the late-medieval indigenous romances or (frumsamdar) riddarasögur.

This sub-genre is a fusion of different narrative elements, profoundly influenced by the structure and themes of foreign literature but containing motifs originating in native heroic legend, where images of independent and strong-willed women abound. In the following, the origins and development of the meykongr-motif will be traced, from the Germanic Brynhildr-figure found in Volsunga saga through the innovative shieldmaiden/female ruler figure in Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar and into the meykongr-sagas. The relationship between native and foreign literary tradition will be discussed and ways in which the maiden-king might have been produced and shaped in the late thirteenth century will be suggested.

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The maiden-king narratives, appearing in a number of indigenous romances along with several texts usually categorised as fornaldarsögur, but containing episodes that feature the motif, uniquely focus on a female protagonist. They follow a paradigm of a young, noble unmarried woman, usually haughty and cruel and, early in the tradition, armed. She rules her own kingdom, rejects all her suitors and mistreats them physically, verbally or both. However, ultimately the male hero finds a way to outwit and conquer the maiden-king, sometimes treating her equally violently, and the story concludes with a traditional ending in which the two protagonists (for the main female character plays a role equal in importance to the man) marry, though sometimes they do not live so happily-ever-after from the woman’s point of view.

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