Plot Synopsis

The backdrop of the story is the struggle between two rivaling kingdoms on the European continent, each with their own religion: Christian Poland and heathen France. Poland is ruled by a king called Hinrik, and his son Pólenstator is the main character of the story. France is ruled by Möndulþvari, a worshipper of the god Makómet. One day, the easily angered king Möndulþvari decides to conquer Poland and sends a threatening letter to king Hinrik with the message that he should give up his country and abandon his faith. After consulting with his son Pólenstator, Hinrik decides to resist the aggression. He sends Pólenstator to deliver the message, and Pólenstator does not only do that, but also hews off the head of a statue of the god Makómet. This enfuriates Möndulþvari, and a long battle follows. Möndulþvari is eventually forced to retreat, but manages to capture Pólenstator and bring him back to France. While in captitivity, Pólenstator meets Elinborg, the daughter of Möndulþvari, and they fall in love. They escape together, and having returned to Poland, Elinborg is baptized. Pólenstator and Elinborg then get married. There is a large wedding feast with many famous guests. Möndulþvari, however, reacts unfavourably to the wedding invitation and decides to launch another attack on Poland. Pólenstator resists him with a small group of fighters, and after the troops have annihilated each other Pólenstator eventually kills Möndulþvari in a duel. Pólenstator and Elinborg live happily ever after and have three children.

Story Origins and Literary Context

The literary context of Sagan af Polenstator is largely typical of its genre, although within the bounds of the lygisaga/indigenous romance it nevertheless contains curious elements. The texts that we have been working with are mostly from the nineteenth century, making this saga one of the later compositions in Icelandic literary tradition. This section will give a brief overview of the likely transmission of the narrative before focussing on the initial findings from the texts themselves.

Genre and Transmission

The nineteenth century saw the production of a significant proportion of surviving Icelandic manuscripts and a flourishing of literary activity. Various levels of society participated in this process and the reasons for writing down tales included both antiquarian impulses and the simple desire for entertainment.[1] These nineteenth century narratives are generally of the popular genre known as lygisögur, ‘lie-sagas’, and some were inspired by earlier rímur, collections of secular, narrative verse.[2] The history of the term lygisaga is relatively well-known, although scholars have attempted to establish a definition of the genre that is less negative than whoever coined the term likely had in mind.[3] Significantly, it is used to distinguish a set of sagas that are believed to have been composed in Iceland – although they may have been inspired by foreign material – that do not focus on the mythic-heroic Scandinavia: that is, indigenous romances.

The scene of action in Sagan af Polenstator ensures that it could not be termed a fornaldarsaga; it is set in continental Europe, variously in France and Poland, and neither Iceland nor Icelanders are mentioned – although some Scandinavian delegates are invited to the wedding feast. Nor could it be confused with a riddarasaga translated from French or German, for as far as we can discern there is no other story telling of how Christian Poland resisted the advances of the aggressively heathen French. It contains much that is derived from foreign influence upon Icelandic literature, but the chivalric youth of Polenstator and his melodramatic swoon on the battlefield are tropes that were adopted so enthusiastically by Icelandic authors that by the nineteenth century they cannot be considered to be a conscious imitation of ‘continental’ style. Taken as a whole, the subject matter of the saga contains many of the standard components of its genre: grand feasts, grander battles, a beautiful princess and a touch of the supernatural. Whilst there are specific details within the saga that are more unusual or noteworthy, these will be discussed below, following details of how the nineteenth century saga came to be.

Lygisögur are not exclusively nineteenth-century compositions; the genre includes late medieval texts such as Gibbons saga and Nitida saga, and it is certain that some rímur were based on now lost earlier prose narratives.[4] Sagan af Polenstator can tentatively be placed in this group, as alongside the twelve prose copies that we have been studying the story survives in four sets of rímur. The earliest of these sets is from the late seventeenth century (AM 613d 4to), although the suggestion also exists that Magnús Jónsson prúði (1525–91) wrote a set of rímur concerning the character Polenstator.[5] Whether or not Magnús himself did compose Rímur af Polenstator, the fact that there are rímur that pre-date the surviving prose versions is significant in its own right. Rímur composers are not known for inventing their subject matter; rather it is thought that nearly all rímur were based on pre-existing sources.[6] The lygisögur were the main source of inspiration for the rímur from the sixteenth century onwards, so it appears likely that prior to its existence in verse the narrative of Polenstator and his victory over heathen France was present in an earlier prose form.[7]

Whilst it is interesting to note that the story is older than its nineteenth-century manuscripts, it is not currently possible to say how close these late versions are to the postulated pre-rímur saga. Two of the prose manuscripts – Lbs 1657 8vo and Lbs 1971 4to – bear striking similarities to the narrative of the oldest set of rímur – similarities that the other prose versions do not share – although differences obviously remain. The relationship between these prose versions and the rímur will need to be studied in more detail, but until more work has been completed on the remaining three sets of rímur nothing further can be said about earlier versions of the narrative. As Shaun Hughes reminds us, complications are sure to arise in any attempt to trace this sort of text backwards.[8]

Motifs and Sources

As noted above, Sagan af Polenstator is in many ways typical of its genre. Driscoll lists the permutations of plot likely to be found in all lygisögur, from the beginning of the story to end.[9] Of those he lists, these are to be found in Sagan af Polenstator: an introduction to the hero’s father and family; a summary of the hero’s illustrious childhood; a fixation on travelling by sea, even between France and Poland; the implied presence of a supernatural donor (in the case of Polenstator’s magic mail coat); a ‘marriage-minded’ giant;[10] a less than supportive potential father-in-law; lavish feasting and, with the greatest relish, the ‘repetitive, monstrous and overblown’ scenes of battle.[11]

The bridal-quest narrative common to most lygisögur also underlies the plot of Sagan af Polenstator, although atypically the saga does not end in the hero’s marriage feast; rather this happens earlier in the story, in an interlude between the numerous battles involving Poland and France. Another variation on the usual course of events in lygisögur is that Sagan af Polenstator does not strictly follow the model of the adventure-seeker – it is rather adventure that seeks out Polenstator when the heathen king of France, Möndulþvari, takes it upon himself to de-Christianise Poland. In a similarly atypical fashion, Polenstator himself must be rescued by his princess before he can return to rescue her. Nevertheless, such reversals must not be overstated – Polenstator’s escape and tryst with Elinborg are well within the realm of romantic and exotic storytelling, including the hero’s female disguise and Elinborg’s eunuch guard. Likewise Möndulþvari’s aggressive heathenism simply allows Polenstator to become a crusader hero – again not something uncommon to medieval continental literature – and the early feast enables the saga to return to the doubling and repetition of battle scenes that it evidently relishes.

Although the general trends in the narrative are as expected, solid folk motifs are more difficult to discern. A couple of tenuous supernatural examples are present, but others are so unsubstantial as to be hardly worth mentioning, such as the presence of blámenn or motif P12.13 ‘king quick to anger’.[12] The examples from a specifically Norse context are only alluded to in the narrative or fit the context imperfectly.[13] These are D812.12 ‘magic object from dwarf’ where Polenstator’s acquisition of his armour is never narrated, it is merely said that it was made by dwarves and F531.1.11 ‘giants and giantesses dressed as human beings’, discernable in the scene where the giant employed by Möndulþvari disguises himself as an English hermit, although the giant is not in fact referred to as a giant in all versions. As for Q413.5.1 ‘impudent suitor or his messenger hanged or threatened with hanging’, or Q433.11 ‘undesired suitor’s messengers imprisoned’, variations on these motifs can be seen in the death of Polenstator’s messenger and in the imprisonment of Polenstator, the undesired suitor himself, but these are not great details.

When we turn to specifics such as names, however, a slightly more informative picture emerges. In lygisögur women’s names are often drawn from floral or Latinate inspiration, whilst the heroes are usually Germanic in origin. Although these are not hard and fast rules – often all characters have Scandinavian names regardless of where the action is set – they are general trends within the genre.[14] The women of Sagan af Polenstator are some of the few clearly Scandinavian elements in the story; we have Queen Ingibjörg of Poland (where she is named) and Princess Elínborg of France, alongside the similarly Nordic King Hinrik of Poland.

Polenstator’s name is explained in the rímur and one of the manuscripts (Lbs 1657) as a combination of the country’s name, Poland, and the Latin word for savior (salvator).

The strangest example is Möndulþvari’s name. Many of the manuscripts of Sagan af Polenstator choose to call the villain Möndulfari rather than Möndulþvari. Möndulfari is referred to as the father of the sun in Snorra Edda, and this name makes a little more sense as a compound – ‘axis-traveller’ rather than Möndulþvari’s ‘axis-axle’.[15] Whether the use of Möndulfari was due to a scribe’s familiarity with Snorra Edda is therefore difficult to judge, but this example, taken alongside the poetry, confirms a native Icelandic origin for the name Möndulþvari.

Less Icelandic are Möndulþvari’s heathen gods; he is said to worship Muhammad – whose name is spelt in wildly varying ways – and this is a similar misunderstanding of the prophet’s role to that in, for example, the Chanson de Roland. Ba’al is another of Möndulþvari’s gods, a figure referred to in the Old Testament of the Hebrew Bible and in the Qu’ran as a pagan deity or false god. The name ‘Báál’ is present in Stjórn in the passages of the Old Testament that we would expect him to appear in, such as Judges 2:13, so we probably need look no further than the Bible for the source of this name.[16]

Although motifs and names have still not yielded much of substance that tells us about the literary context for this saga, there is one clear detail that in one way or another must be linked to a somewhat unexpected source. Trapped in the foreign country with no way back after the unruly sea has stopped his advance, Möndulþvari orders the sea to be whipped: a reaction that is identical to that of Xerxes I of Persia when his bridge across the Hellespont was destroyed, according to Herodotus’ Histories.[17] Even Xerxes’ determination to execute all men involved with the building of the bridge is echoed by Möndulþvari’s execution of all men involved in giving him bad news, whether they are messengers bringing bad news or guards who allowed Polenstator to escape. In Herodotus’ writing the episode is designed to show Xerxes in a humiliating light as a superstitious hot-head, which is entirely consistent with Sagan af Polenstator’s depiction of Möndulþvari; a man of impressive and consistent rage whose idols are destroyed and whose final plea to his gods does nothing to save him from death at Polenstator’s hands. While the source of the motif appears to be found, it remains a mystery how a nineteenth-century Icelander may have come across this tale. It would be highly interesting to investigate how far back the motif can be traced in Icelandic writing, and in which way a scribe might have accessed the story - either to a version of Herodotus' Histories directly, or perhaps to some anthology containing stories from him and other classical histories. More research needs to be done on the rímur and on the transmission of the original episode involving Xerxes in order to ascertain what other texts Sagan af Polenstator may have a connection with.


[1] Driscoll, The Unwashed Children of Eve, pp. 50, 71.

[2] Driscoll, The Unwashed Children of Eve, pp. 6, 10-13.

[3] Driscoll, ‘Late Prose Fiction’, p. 190.

[4] Hughes, ‘Late Secular Poetry’, p. 211.

[5] Finnur Sigmundsson, Rímnatal I, p. 386.

[6] Driscoll, ‘Late Prose Fiction’, p. 195; Hughes, ‘Late Secular Poetry’, p. 210.

[7] Driscoll, ‘Late Prose Fiction’, p. 195.

[8] Hughes, ‘Late Secular Poetry’, p. 211. It is worth observing that Magnús Jónson í Tjaldanesi frustratingly does not include a preface to the volume of his ‘Fornmannasögur Norðurlanda’ in which Sagan af Polenstator appears. Had there been a preface it may have provided valuable material concerning the saga’s popularity during the period. Driscoll, The Unwashed Children of Eve, p. 56.

[9] Driscoll, ‘Late Prose Fiction’, pp. 199-203.

[10] Driscoll, ‘Late Prose Fiction’, pp. 201. Although in one manuscript (Lbs 1509 4to) the story is distanced from supernatural elements and this giant becomes simply a tall man.

[11] Driscoll, ‘Late Prose Fiction’, p. 202.

[12] Thompson, Motif Index accessed 15/01/2013.

[13] Norse examples from Boberg, Motif Index.

[14] Driscoll, ‘Late Prose Fiction’, p. 199.

[15] SnE, Gylf. 10. Cf. Simek, Lexikon der germanischen Mythologie, p. 289.

[16] C. Unger, Stjorn, p. 381.

[17] Herodotus, Histories, 7.34-35.


Driscoll, Matthew (1997): The Unwashed Children of Eve. The Production, Dissemination and Reception of Popular Literature in Post-Reformation Iceland. Enfield Lock, Middlesex: Hisarlik Press.

Driscoll, Matthew (2005): Late prose fiction (lygisögur). In: A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture. Second Edition. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 190-204.

Hughes, Shaun (2005): Late Secular Poetry. In: A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture. Second Edition. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 205-222.

Sigmundsson, Finnur (1966): Rímnatal. Reykjavík: Rímnafélagið.

Simek, Rudolf (2006): Lexikon der germanischen Mythologie. 3rd edition. Stuttgart: Kröner.

Unger, Carl Richard (1862): Stjorn. Gammelnorsk bibelhistorie. Christiania: Feilberg og Landmark.