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The Icelandic rímur

Painting in poster depicts a “kvöldvaka”, or evening wake, on an Icelandic farm, where sagas and poetry were read aloud to the members of the household. Image courtesy National Museum of Iceland

Presented by M.J. Driscoll (Copenhagen University)

Thursday 18th October 2018 at 5pm

Lecture Hall, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 10 Burlington Road, Dublin 4

To register, please contact conference@celt.dias.ie

Rímur, long narrative poems traditionally sung or chanted orally, were far and away the most important secular poetic genre in Iceland from the late middle ages to the beginning of the 20th century. Their popularity is attested both by the large number of rímur composed — well over a thousand — and by the many, many manuscripts and printed editions in which they are preserved.

The subject matter of the rímur — the stories they tell — were almost invariably borrowed from pre-existing narratives in prose, sagas, in particular the romances. Many if not most received the rímur treatment more than once, perhaps as many as 7, 8 or 9 times. In some cases the only evidence we have for a saga’s existence are rímur that were based on it. These, but by no means only these, were not infrequently then turned back into prose — the book of the film of the book, as it were.

There exists a wide variety of rímur metres, over two thousand variations. In addition to end-rhyme (from which the rímur derive their name) there was alliteration. Variations making use of internal rhyme, or assonance, both horizontal and vertical, are common, some of them very complex indeed. Rímur are also characterised by their extensive use of kennings and heiti (poetic synonyms), both derived from skaldic poetry. Despite the intricacies of the form, rímur could be of considerable length: sets comprising 15 to 20 fits or cantos, each of 80 or 90 verses, are not uncommon.

From AM 604 4to in the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies in Reykjavík

With some notable exceptions, scholarly interest in the rímur has been negligible, both in Iceland itself and among Old Norse-Icelandic scholars abroad: for most scholars it is as though rímur simply don’t exist. This is indeed unfortunate, as their importance within the literary landscape of late pre-modern Iceland can scarcely be overestimated.

In my paper I will describe the form and content of the rímur and present some examples, including audio recordings of traditional singers.