Jón Árnason and Gríshildur the good

How the editor changed one woman’s narrative about another woman

  • Reynir Þór Eggertsson


In 1864, an Icelandic folktale, Sagan af Gríshildi góðu (the Story of Gríshildur the Good) was published in print for the first time, in Jón Árnason andd Guðbrandur Vigfússon’s folktale collection. The story, a version of the famous story of the Patient Griselda, has its roots in Boccaccio’s Decamerone from c. 1350, which Petrarch rewrote in Latin in 1373, so that it became widespread in European literary circles during the next centuries. The story reaches Iceland c. 1600 and became relatively popular, as at least 18 different versions of the story exist in Icelandic, both in prose and verse, preserved in 52 manuscripts, in addition to the few that have been published in print.

When the folktale collection was republished in the 1950s, it included two Griselda folktales, the one from 1864, and also, a shorter, previously unpublished tale, which appeared in volume 5 in 1958. Upon a closer inspection, it turns out that both tales go back to the same handwritten tale in Jón Árnason’s folktale manuscript, Lbs 533 4to, written by Ragnhildur Guðmundsdóttir (fol. 176r–78r). In fact, the 1864 edition is Jón Árnason’s own rewriting of the tale (also preserved in Lbs 533 4to, fol. 220r–23r) while the one from 1958 presents Ragnhildur’s original version. The article attempts to analyse and explain the changes Jón Árnason makes to Ragnhildur’s story, in addition to present the folktalee's influence on later literary works.

The main results of the study is that Jón mainly makes three types of changes. Firstly, he embellishes segments where Ragnhildur’s narrative is short and without many details. Secondly, he changes back to the Boccaccio/Petrarch tradition some details which have been spoiled by orality, for instance, by returning the number of Griselda’s children from the folktale traditional three, to Boccaccio/Petrarch’s original two. Jón also removes connections to other narrative traditions, when he makes Ragnhildur’s King Artus (Arthur) nameless. Thirdly, Jón seems to be influenced by the same misogyny as his contemporary colleagues in Europe, when he increases the power of the king and other male characters at the cost of female ones. With his changes, Jón actually created a new version of the Griselda story, so further research into the story’s intertextuality and development must treat his version as an independent text, different from the one written by Ragnhildur.