Translating the Bisclavret: the Strengleikar and King Hákon Hákonarson’s Francophile Court

Sean Spillane
Fordham University

King Hákon Hákonarsson of Norway (r.1217-1263) established a wide-ranging translation program – heavily focused on French-language literature – in order to facilitate a selective translation of European courtly ideologies to the newly formed royal court in Norway. This paper examines the cross-cultural contact of French-language literature to examine how the Norwegian court translated and adapted continental literature.

Scholars have only in the past two decades begun to investigate the traditionally understudied Old Norse genre of the Riddarasögur as conscious adaptations of continental literary trends for a Scandinavian audience. This paper intends to expand this scholarly discussion by closely examining the translation of Marie de France’s Bisclavret, which was to become known in Old Norse as Bisclaretz ljoð, within the larger corpus known at the Strengleikar. Marie’s Bisclavret is of particular interest for its exploration of the “courtly werewolf” motif – a motif that also exists, though quite differently, within the Scandinavian tradition. I seek to analyze how the Norwegian translator chose to translate the werewolf and examine how he synthesized the two werewolf traditions – broadly speaking, “Celtic” and “Scandinavian” – within the courtly milieu. I argue that the translation of the werewolf motif functions as a microcosmic exemplar of the strategies used by Hákonand his translators to transform the Norwegian royal court into a center of European courtliness, as well as an example of the ability of French-language literature to cross the permeable language and culture borders of the Middle Ages. Intranslating Bisclavret, the Norwegian translator – or adaptor – confronts issues with Marie’s werewolf and renegotiates the tone and moral of the story, not only to resonate with his Scandinavian audience, but to instruct the court on European vassalage, kingship, and justice. The translation of Marie’s Bisclavret into the Old Norse Bisclaretz ljóð negotiates the permeable boundaries of medieval kingdoms and serves as an illustration of how – and why – French-language literature moved so freely and impactfully across borders in the Middle Ages.