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The Hunted Children of Kings: A Theme in the Old Icelandic Sagas
By Ármann Jakobsson
Scandinavica, Vol. 43 (2004)
Introduction: Is Life a Stepmother Tale? When King Sverrir of Norway (1177-1202) is on the run from his enemies in his youth, his misfortunes remind the author of tales that he regards as being from the ancient past “Í þeiri ferð fékk hann mikit vás, var því líkast, sem í fornum sögum er sagt at verit hafi, þá er konungabörn urðu fyrir stjúpmoeðra sköpum”. (His hardships in this trips were such that they most resemble what is told in old tales, when children of kings were hit by stepmother spells.)
In this instance life appears to imitate art, that is if we categorize fairy tales as art. Life, or at least the life of King Sverrir, resembles a story about stepmothers. The author of Sverris saga, presumably the abbot Karl Jónsson (d. 1212/13) under close supervision of the king himself, speaks only of ‘ancient tales’ and might be indicating that fairy tales are ancient history, rather than just stories. To him, these ‘old tales’ are not necessarily fictional. Being old, they might just belong to a different reality, a past which resembles fairy tales to a larger extent than his own life, or that of his audience.
Ancient or fictional, the reality of fairy tales would at first glance seem far removed from ordinary life. And yet Karl Jónsson seems to subscribe to a similar point of view as the 20th century scholar Bruno Bettelheim even though the premises of the two scholars are vastly different: true or false, fairy tales have a relevance to real life and might even be a helpful guide in making sense of the world.