King Harald’s Saga

This is a relatively short and straightforward read in an excellent, fluent translation by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson. It was published in 1966, 900 years after the events of the Great Year it describes, for this is the life story of King Harald Sigurdsson, known as Hardrada (hard ruler), the Norwegian king who invaded the north of England in late summer 1066 before being brought to battle, defeated and killed by Harold Godwinsson, King Harold II of England, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge; the ill-fated Harold who then had to force-march his army south to confront that other invasion, from the Norman pretender William the Bastard, where things didn’t turn out quite so well.

King Harald’s saga is significantly different from the 15 or so sagas I’ve read hitherto for the following reasons:

  • authored all the so-called Family sagas are anonymous – Harald’s is by a known and famous medieval author and historian, Snorri Sturlason
  • poetry all the other sagas include poetry and several of them are about famous poets (Egil Skallagrimsson, Gunnlaug Wormtongue) – but the historian Snorri uses poetry as  evidence, carefully assessing what it tells us about the events it records
  • excerpt all the Family sagas are self-contained (though some key characters appear in more than one saga) – Harald’s is an excerpt from a much longer work, the Heimskringla, which is some 850 pages long
  • linear the Family sagas, although they concern the deeds of actual historical people, are consciously shaped and moulded for artistic affect – Harald’s saga, being an almost year-by-year account of his career, is much more linear
  • interference we often know nothing more about the heroes of the Family sagas than their saga tells us and, given the artistic intention of the text, it is satisfying and sufficient to accept the narrative at face value – whereas King Harald is a major player in the events of the dramatic year of 1066 which are taught to all schoolchildren, and so his character – and this text – is slightly swamped by our outside knowledge from numerous other sources.

Snorri Sturlason

One of the key figures in the creative upsurge which led to the explosion of saga-writing in Iceland during the 12th and 13th centuries is historian, Snorri Sturlason (c.1179-1241) was an astonishing renaissance man, poet and historian, politician, chieftain and lawyer. It is to Snorri that we owe one of the two key texts about Norse mythology, the Prose Edda. This long text exists as a primer on poetic technique, leading up to a long section about the different stanzas and methods available to Icelandic poets, for which the opening section about the Norse myths was only intended as a kind of background briefing, but which is now an invaluable source – the only source – we have for many of the tales of the Norse gods.

As if this wasn’t enough of an achievement, he is also famous, in Norway, for having written the definitive history of the kings of Norway, from the earliest mythical times up to around the time of his birth, 1177, the Heimskringla.

The Heimskringla

This vast text is a comprehensive history of the kings of Norway from the mists of prehistory and the doings of Odin and Loki, through to factually accurate accounts of the kings who ruled just before Snorri’s birth. It is divided into 16 chapters which are, in style and structure, very like sagas. By far the longest is the saga of St Olaf, taking up two thirds of the total.

But unlike the Family sagas, Snorri’s long text is very aware of the problems of historical technique, of weighing and comparing sources, of choosing which version of events to follow, and so on. Snorri explicitly addresses these in his preface and in other places. Maybe the most striking aspect of the book is the very strong reliance on poetry.

Poetry

Over 90 verses of skaldic poetry are quoted in the saga, there’s a verse on every page, and most of them are credited to named individuals since the kings of Norway had a special fondness for keeping poets around them to sing their praises and Harald was no exception. I liked this verse by Bolverk Arnorsson:

Bleak showers lashed the dark prows
Hard along the coastline;
Iron-shielded vessels
Flaunted colourful rigging.
The great prince saw ahead
The copper roofs of Byzantium;
His swan-breasted ships swept
Towards the tall-towered city.

Interference

The Magnusson translation is wonderful, no problems there. It has a really useful introduction, good maps, invaluable family trees and potted biographies of almost everyone mentioned in the text. In addition there are ample footnotes on every page, so that many pages are more note than text. And it’s here the a teeny-tiny problem emerges because at key cruxes of Harald’s biography – his time with the Varangian Guard in Consntantinople, in his wars against Svein Ulfsson, king of Denmark, and Earl Hakon Ivarsson, nomadic chieftain, and in the detail of his final campaign against Harold Godwinsson in England – the notes intrude into the text to give really detailed explanations of the complicated genealogical and political connections between the main characters, and this

  • swamps the text you’re reading ie after two pages of notes on just what Harold Godwinsson promised Duke William of Normandy, it’s difficult to rejoin the narrative in the same frame of mind
  • undermines the text because, unfortunately, it turns out the saga is plain wrong in many of its factual claims

The notes, in places, become a kind of anti-text which is actively warring against the saga, undermining its facts and interpretation. This doesn’t happen in the Family sagas which are much more like, say, the tragedies of Shakespeare in that they use historical figures but are obviously crafted to produce dramatic twists and confrontations. Snorri, also, creates dramatic moments in this tale, but they are continually undermined by the scientific tone of the footnotes. In a nutshell, the first time you read it, skip the notes, just read the narrative for the speed and excitement of the story.

Summary

The story opens when Harald is 15 and fighting alongside his half-brother, King Olaf, at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030. Olaf loses and is killed and Harald flees east to Sweden. From there he journeys south-east through Russia, stopping to impress King Jaroslav before carrying on down to Constantinople to join the Varangian Guard, the elite band of mercenaries mostly from Scandinavia who served the emperor directly. He fights for the Byzantines in Greece, Sicily, then in the Holy Land where he makes pilgrimage to the shrines. Back in Constantinople he asks to return home, is refused and thrown in prison, is released by a miracle and takes part in some kind of uprising against the emperor in which he is said to have personally put out the emperor’s eyes. He and his fellow Scands escape across the Black Sea and back upriver to Russia, collect the loot they’d been stashing with King Jaroslav, and return to Norway.

The middle part of the saga details Harald’s numerous confrontations, battles, negotiations, treaties with and double crosses of King Magnus of Denmark (his nephew), his successor King Svein Ulfsson, and the slippery chieftain  Earl Hakon Ivarsson who fights first for one side then for the other then against both. It is a confusing picture made more so by the tangled skein of intermarriages among the royal families of Norway, Sweden and Denmark and the endless squabbles about who promised who which kingdom when they died.

Thus, in around 1038, King Magnus of Norway had made a pact with King Hardacnut of Denmark (son of Cnut the Great who actually ruled England from 1016-1035) that if either of them died childless the other would inherit their realm. Hardacnut died childless in 1042 and so Magnus claimed Denmark. But since  Hardacnut’s father had been king of England, Magnus also claimed the English throne. When Edward the Confessor had himself crowned English king after Hardacnut’s death, Magnus had planned to invade England only to be distracted by war with rebellious chieftains nearer home. When Magnus died in 1047 Harald considered that he’d inherited England along with Denmark. Edward negotiated with his both Harald and William of Normandy throughout the 1050s and managed to keep both at bay. But after his death in January 1066 both William of Normandy and Harald of Denmark considered themselves cheated of the kingdom when Harold Godwinsson got himself crowned, and they both set out to invade and conquer the land they thought rightfully theirs.

And that account not only partly explains the reason for Harald’s invasion, but gives a good flavour of how the fictional or artistic aspect of the saga, the creation of telling vignettes and insightful dialogue, is unfortunately swamped in the great sea of factual prose which is required to explicate these complicated events.

Harald sails Norway with 300 ships and maybe 6,000 men, lands on the Yorkshire coast, wins a battle at Fulford near York and is recovering with his men when the huge army Harold Godwinsson has raised attacks. The slaughter takes place in three terrible waves and leaves a battlefield glutted with corpses and Harald dead, killed by an arrow. Only 20 or so ships suffice to take the survivors back to Norway, and the memory of the slaughter more or less ends Scandinavian ambitions to invade let alone rule England.

In its last few chapters the saga has an obituary of Harald with a 13th century assessment of his strengths and weaknesses.  His old adversary Svein of Denmark gathers forces to invade Norway yet again, but wiser heads prevail to defuse the threat and preserve the peace, and Harald is succeeded by his sons Magnus (d.1069) and Olaf (d.1093) who preside over a long preiod of much-deserved peace.

Related links

The Battle of Stamford bridge, 1870, by Peter Nicolai Arbo (Wikimedia Commons)

The Battle of Stamford bridge with Harald getting shot in the neck, 1870, by Peter Nicolai Arbo (Wikimedia Commons)

Other sagas

The Saga of Eirik the Red

Two short sagas deal with the legendary discovery of America by Vikings – the Saga of the Greenlanders (Grœnlendinga saga) and the Saga of Eirik the Red (Eiríks saga rauða). Eirik’s saga is slightly longer (13 chapters versus 8) and is thought to be the later of the two, though both only reached their final form during the 13th century which saw the great flowering of anonymous Icelandic prose narratives we call the sagas.

The fine detail of who landed where and what they called it is admirably covered in this new and very thorough Penguin edition which contains maps and detailed notes as well as appendices on subjects like Norse boat design, the nature of outlawry and so on.

The overall message of the two sagas to the non-scholar is a) the astonishing adventurousness of the Old Norse/Viking peoples, their willingness to explore further and further afield from their Scandinavian base until their destinations stretched from the  Black Sea in the east to American in the west; b) but that these specific expeditions marked the limit of that urge: Vinland (the name they gave to the fertile land they sighted and settled for a year or two, probably Newfoundland, maybe further south along the northeast coast of America) was settled for a short while, but then abandoned, too far beyond the usual lines of communication, the natives too dangerous and threatening.

Detailed synopsis

1 – Oleif the White raids round Ireland and conquers Dublin. He marries Aud the Deep-Minded, daughter of Ketil Flat-Nose (both of whom feature at the start of the Laxærdal Saga). Their son is Thorstein. When Oleif is killed in battle Aud and Thorstein decamp to the Hebrides. Thorstein rises to become a king of Cithness etc but is then killed by the Scots. Aud makes her getaway to the Orkneys. She marries off her daughter royally before proceeding to Iceland and claiming all the land around Hvamm. One of her crew is Vifil, high born but made a slave in Britain. Aud frees him and gives him land.
2 – Introducing Thorvald who has a son Eirik the Red. They’re involved in killings in Norway and so flee to Iceland. Thorvald dies. Eirik marries and builds a farm at Eiriksstadir (whose ruins can still be seen today). But feuds: his slaves cause a landslide which kills some servant; Filth-Eyjolf kills the slaves; Eirik kills Filth-Eyjolf and more besides. He flees to an offshore island. He is outlawed at the Thorsnes Assembly. He tells his followers he intends to find th eland spotted by Gunnbjorn when blown off course. He sails west to Greenland (985). He names places, staying in Eiriksey Island. The next spring travels round to Eiriksfjord where he settles. All told three years of exploring and building camps. Eirik returns to Iceland and publicises the new place he has christened Greenland.
3 – Vifil (from chapter 1) had two sons. One of them was Thorbjorn who marries and has a daughter, Gudrid. She is fostered by Orm. Einar is a succesful merchant son of a freed slave. He visits Orm with mechandise and sees Gudrid and is smitten. He asks Orm to ask Thorbjorn for Gudrid’s hand. Thorbjorn is predictably cross at receiving a humiliating proposal from a slave’s son. At that year’s autumn feast he surprises his friends by announcing he will sail to the land his friend Eirik told him about. He sells his goods and farm and sets off in a ship with thirty crew. they are storm-beaten and then illness strikes. Unlucky Orm and his wife die. Finally they arrive at the southern tip of Greenland, named Herjolfsnes, and a farmer named Thorkel gives them shelter for the winter.
4 – Thorbjorg the Seeress An unusually long and detailed account of the clothes and rituals practiced by Thorbjorg the Seeress who the locals ask Thorkel to host and ask the future. Afte ra day of preparation she prophecies for everyone, most notably for Gudrid, saying she will marry well, return to Iceland and have many noble descendants (and we know this is written with the hindsight that at least three Icelandic bishops are descended from her). In the spring Thorbjorn sails with his daughter round the coast to Brattahlid where he is greeted by Eirik and given land.
5 – Leif Eiriksson Eirik has two sons including Leif (saga of Greenlanders tells us he has four sons and the psychopath daughter, Freydis). (999) Leif sails to Norway where he serves a while with King Olaf Tryggvasson. He is driven off course by winds and makes land on the Hebrides. He falls in love with a woman, Thorgunna, whom he makes pregnant. Leif is reluctant to abduct her against the wishes of her powerful kin, and so abandons her. Later she follows him to Greenland with her son Thorgils. But for now Leif sails to Norway and becomes a retainer of King Olaf Trygvasson (995-1000). Olaf asks Leif to convert Greenland to Christianity which he’s reluctant to do but sets sail. (1000) Leif lands somewhere rich with wheat and vines. Then encounters a ship wrecked on skerries and takes off all the passengers, then makes land on Greenland, and is known thereafter as Leif the Lucky. He goes to his home farm of Brattahlid and is welcomed by his father Eirik. He preaches the gospel and the new way. His father is reluctant but his mother Thjodhild enthusiastically converts and builds a church (which archaeologists have found and reconstructed). People say they should go explore the land Leif had brielfy seen. Eirik’s other son Thorstein becomes th eleader. He urges Eirik to come with and, although riding down to the ship Eirik has a fall, he goes nonetheless (opposite of Greenland Saga). (1001) But it is an ill-fated expedition, they are washed around by the waves, sight Iceland, see Irish birds, everything except Vinland and end up washed back ashore on Greenland.
6 – The plague This Thorstein whose expedition failed now marries Gudrid. Confusingly, they go to stay with another man named Thorstein and his wife Sigrid and disease strikes. The farmer’s wife Sigrid dies, but not before she’s had a vision of the dead lined up outside. And Thorstein Eiriksson dies. Then sits up and asks to speak to his wife, and delivers a Christian homily, saying Greenlanders must stop pagan burial practices and bury bodies in a churchyard – you can hear the true sermony voice of medieval Christianity. All the bodies are buried in the church in Eiriksfjord. Then Gudrid’s father Thorbjorn dies too, leaving her all his money.
7 – Thorfin Karlsefni comes from good family ultimately going back to Aud. With two ships they sail from Iceland to Greenland making land at Brattahlid, and Eirik generously offers to put them up. After a spell Karlsefni asks for Gudrid’s hand in marriage. The Yule feast becomes a wedding feast.
8 – (1005) Snorri and Karlsefni, Bjarni and Thorhall, Thorvald and Thorhall set sail for Vinland in three ships with 140 men. A detailed description of the  lands they see and name until they moor in a fjord (Straumsfjord) for the winter. But, fascinatingly, they nearly all starve, unprepared and unable to live off the land. Thorhall goes mad and is found after three days talking to himself. They find a beached whale and cook it and are all sick and throw themselves on God’s mercy and the weather improves and in the pring there is game, fish and birds eggs.
9 – They disagree how to proceed. Thorhall takes nine men and sails north, after reciting some pagan poems. They are washed off-course as far as Ireland where they are caught and enslaved.
10 – The rest head south to a tidal pool which is teeming with fish, the land with game and self-seeded wheat. It is paradise. After a while nine coracles approach, the short threatening natives get out and observe them, then go their way.
11 – A fleet of natives returns and the Icelanders trade with them until a bull bellowing scares them off. They return a few weeks later in warlike mood and there is a fight. Karlsefni and his men turn and run but Freydis, an illegitimate daughter of Eirik, picks up the sword of one of the dead and turns on the natives and, extracting a breast from her shift, beats it with the flat of the sword. This frightens the natives so much that they turn and flee (!) but Karlsefni and Snorri realise the natives make the land uninhabitable. They pack up and sail back north, past a headland packed with deer where the main party camp and Karlsefni sails north and wet, vainly searching for Thorhall.
12 – A one-legged creature emerges from the woods and fires an arrow which hits Thorvald and kills him. They pursue him north catching sight of the Land of the One-Legged (! presumably a longstanding fantasy land). They spend their third winter in Straumsfjord, and Karlsefni’s son Snorri is born. They sail back north past Markland where they capture some natives and convert them to Christianity, before arriving back in Greenland with Eirik.
13 – The sea of worms Bjarni Grimolfsson and his crew are borne past the Greenland Straits and into the Sea of Worms. Worms infest the ship’s timbers and everyone behaves as if that’s it for the ship. They draw lots to see who will survive in the ship’s boat. Bjarni is goaded by a young sailor until he gives up his place for him. ‘People say that Bjrani died there in the Sea of Worms, aboard the ship.’
14 – The next summer Karsefni sails for Iceland with his wife Gudrid. The last sentences in the saga describe how three of Karlsefni and Gudrid’s great grandchildren are notable Icelandic bishops. Do these sagas exist solely because the Christian bishops, or their descendants, commissioned these stories about their ancestors to be written down?

A one-legged creature? A sea of worms? These sound like later, medieval accretions to the basic story.

Related links

Other sagas

Vikings: Life and Legend @ the British Museum

This spring’s blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum is a massive one about the Vikings, the first show on the subject since 1980. It’s an international affair, mounted in collaboration with the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. It is wonderfully comprehensive, covering almost every theme or element you can image including trade patterns, coins and precious objects, religion and idols, war and weapons, homes and domestic arrangements, and the legacy of placenames and language.

Background

My experience was heavily influence by two readings of Robert Ferguson’s The Hammer and the Cross. What makes that book so pleasurable is his willingness to lay out the (often ambiguous and obscure) evidence, explain the different interpretations historians have put on it, and leave us to make our own minds up. Thus he shows that the start and the end point of the ‘Viking age’ depends which country you’re talking about and a number of other factors, for example defining at what stage Scandinavian leaders ceased to be raider-chieftains and became something like what we mean by ‘kings’ – a pretty grey area.

In England the Viking Age probably starts with the famous attack on the mainland, at Lindisfarne in 793, and lasts until the defeat of King Harald Hardrada (Hard-Ruler) who attempted to recapture the Kingdom of York and was defeated by the Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinsson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 – a date generally more familiar from the battle Harold then had to fight a few weeks later down on the south coast, and which didn’t turn out so well. In Ireland they date the end to the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. In Normandy the start and end points are different again. And so on.

Brooch shaped like a ship, 800-1050. Tjornehoj II, Fyn, Denmark. Copper alloy. Copyright of The National Museum of Denmark

Brooch shaped like a ship, 800-1050. Tjornehoj II, Fyn, Denmark. Copper alloy. (Copyright of The National Museum of Denmark)

The exhibition cuts through these and other problems/issues/enjoyable quibbles by defining the The Viking Age as 800–1050. Similarly, they boldly define the word ‘viking’ – which Ferguson spends pages explaining is obscure and has a variety of possible meanings and derivations – in the traditional way as meaning pirate or raider.

I can see the practical need to define terms and set clear parameters, but the exhibition sometimes skims over issues. It is very broad, covering all aspects of life and trade and war and domestic arrangements and boat-building and burials and gods and farm design and building projects and politics: but sometimes feels a little light, lacking follow-up on themes just as you’re starting to get interested. Then again, that’s what the shop is for, providing plenty of resources to investigate further, including the  weighty catalogue and many history books like Ferguson’s. It can be seen as a very comprehensive taster.

Images

The exhibition largely consists of objects and artefacts, most of them small, many of them coins and brooches etc. By contrast with these small objects (which are frequently difficult to see because of the crowds – this exhibition is PACKED), the most memorable images for me were a series of stunning photos of the Vikings’ stomping-grounds and locations.

A wonderful video in an early room held me spellbound as it traced the routes of Viking expeditions across the North Sea, to Iceland and Greenland, round France to Spain, across the Baltic and down the Russian rivers to the Black Sea etc – and for each route brought up large and beautifully composed photos of, for example, a carved cross in Ireland, the site of the settlement in Greenland, the steppes of Ukraine, a beaver dam in Poland, which conveyed more than anything else the physical geography, and therefore the mental and imaginative terrain, these people inhabited. These photos are almost works of art in themselves!

Network and Empire

For one major emphasis of the exhibition is on the trading aspects of Viking culture, on the amazingly farflung nature of its communications and commerce, so that silver dirhams from Baghdad are found in ship burials in Iceland etc. Thus the Vale of York trove is displayed in its entirety (and the main affect on me was surprise at how small a space such a famous haul amounts to: it looked like it could all fit into a cereal bowl).

Photo of the Vale of York hoard

The Vale of York hoard, AD 900s. North Yorkshire, England. Silver-gilt, gold, silver. (British Museum, London/Yorkshire Museum, York. Copyright of he Trustees of the British Museum)

There’s another interesting thread running through the exhibition explaining how Viking artefacts show the influence of designs from Anglo-Saxon England or from the Frankish empire, explaining in detail how slightly differing designs can help both date and locate objects, scholars are now so expert in regional variations and styles.

Objects

Case after case displayed the kinds of objects you associate with archaeology: coins and brooches and pins and combs and pots (interestingly, in their home territory they had no pottery but used carved stone or wood), rings and bracelets and necklets made from silver or gold.

I particularly liked the objects which had runes carved into them – for example, the Christian reliquary which had runes naming the new heathen owner is evocative of raids and pillage and the great culture clash which Ferguson puts at the heart of the Viking story, between literate Christians and illiterate pagans.

Photo of a carved Odin figure

Odin or volva figure, 800-1050. Lejre, Zealand, Denmark. Silver with niello. (Photo Ole Malling. Copyright of the Roskilde Museum)

The boat

The exhibition publicity gives pride of place to a huge longboat which dominates the final, enormous room. That’s true and not true: certainly the exhibition leads through half a dozen normal sized rooms into a massive bay or airplane hangar of a space and fitting almost the entire length is the metal frame of a vast longboat.

Photo of the Roskilde 6 boat

The Longship (Roskilde 6). The largest Viking ship ever discovered. The thirty-seven meter long warship was built in southern Norway around 1025, and deliberately sunk in Denmark in the mid-11th century. (Copyright of the National Museum of Denmark.)

This warship is one of a series found at Roskilde in Denmark and now labelled Roskilde 6. A hundred and twenty feet long with forty oars to each side, you see it from a viewing platform slightly above, and then, as you walk along the side, it looms larger and larger, until you are on ground level next to its keel and experience a powerful feeling of just how strong the rowers must have been, how fast and sleek it must have moved through the water, how terrified anyone on the receiving end of its raiding must have felt.

However, I was slightly disappointed to realise that almost the entire object is made of modern metal struts, including both prow and tailpiece. No romantic carved dragon, just a modern steel strut. Only long rows of planks along the very bottom give you a sense of the clinker-building technique and looks, frankly, like a very long rowing boat. Nonetheless, the sheer length, as you walk along it, does give you a hair-raising sense of the mighty physical presence, of the fear and terror it must have inspired.

The Jelling Stone

As vivid and wonderful, for me, as the ship, was a replica in the same room of the famous Jelling Stone, a massive 10th century runestone located at the town of Jelling in Denmark. Ferguson tells the story that it was found on the beach and ordered dragged to its present location by the mighty King Harald Bluetooth who ordered one side carved with Heathen zoomorphic patterns, the other with a carved image of Christ, and runes inscribed along the bottom which read: ‘King Haraldr ordered this monument made in memory of Gormr, his father, and in memory of Thyrvé, his mother; that Haraldr who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.’

As with classical statues, it is a dizzying shock to see the thing painted in bright day-glo colours and realise the world of these people of long-ago wasn’t as black and white and sparse as the few surviving relics often imply, but was as bright and colourful and decorated as their means allowed.

Audio commentary and price

The audio commentary was voiced by Sandy Toksvig who can’t really escape the comic tone which 30 years as a stand-up comedian and TV presenter have ingrained into her voice. A generation ago it would have been narrated by Magnus Magnusson, saga scholar and historian, pointing out depths and connections. Now, a comedian, making it more ‘accessible’.

The exhibition costs £16.50 to get in, plus £4.50 for the audio. If you add the transport and any merchandise you’re tempted to buy, it’s a pricey experience. But if you’re a fan, totally worth it!

Vikings: Life and Legend continues at the British Museum until 22 June.

Related links

Replica of the Jelling Stone showing how it would have looked with its original paint

Replica of the Jelling Stone showing how it would have looked with its original paint

Sagas

Eyrbyggja Saga 2

Could be called Snorri’s saga, as Snorri the Priest is born in chapter 12, dies in the last chapter (65) and dominates most of the action in between, if only as peacemaker between the various gangs which come to inhabit the Snæfelsness peninsula in north-west Iceland where it is set. He inhabits a larger proportion of the text than Egil or Njal do of their sagas.

Eyrbyggja as a late, carefully-crafted text

Eyrbyggja uses material from other sagas: chapters  12 and 13 give a brisk summary of the main plot of Gislis saga. In chapter 47 Snorri recounts the story of Gunnar’s last stand from Njal’s saga. The opening chapters about Ketil Flat-Nose seems to come from, or certainly parallel, the opening chapters of Laxdæla saga which also describe the reasons for Ketil leaving Norway for Iceland, and also echo the account in the Landnamabok. Towards the end the text refers overtly to Grettis saga and Bandamanna saga and Heidarviga saga and chapter 24 gives a summary of part of Eirik’s saga. At key moments in the Thorbrandssons versus Thorlakssons sections, the fights at Alftafjord and Vigra Fjord, the author quotes a long poem on the subject, the Lay of the Raven by Thormod Trefilsson, as well as poems supposedly created by the protagonists. Right at the end he quotes Gudny Bodvar’s-daughter as an eyewitness to the bones of Snorri, Bork the Stout and Thordis Sur’s-daughter being dug up and transferred to the new church at Tongue.

Eyrbyggja definitely feels late – it feels as if the author had good written accounts of numerous sagas, long poems and short verses which had been handed down, along with factual accounts of key events and legends and ghost stories, all of which he used carefully to amplify and enrich his narrative. This strength is also its weakness as it lacks the clarity of narrative of Egils saga or Njals saga and suffers, especially in the final third, from feeling like an anthology of interesting legends and anecdotes. Still, for this very reason, its variety of tone and incident, and also because this is a very fluent and readable translation by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards, complete with good map and useful notes, I’d be tempted to recommend this as a first saga for the beginner.

Synopsis

The first settlers from Norway
1 – Ketil Flat-Nose is a great chieftain in Norway and married to Yngvild. King Harald Fair-Hair forces Ketil to combat exiles from Norway who are ravaging the coast. Ketil packs wife and sons and sails to the Hebrides where he crushes the Vikings and makes peace with the local chieftains with no intention of handing them over to Harald who promptly confiscates all Ketil’s property in Norway. Ketil marries his daughter to the most powerful chieftain in Britain, Olaf the White.
2 – Ketil’s son Bjorn had stayed on in Norway, goes south to his father’s estates and expels the king’s men. In response Harald outlaws Bjorn and sends men to kill him. Tipped off, Bjorn sails south along the coast to a place named Mostur Island and takes refuge with Hrolf.
3 – Hrolf is a friend of Thor, in charge of Thor’s temple and has an impressive beard so is known as Thorolf Mostur-Beard. Thorolf sends Bjorn with his son Hallstein across the sea. When Harald learns Thorolf has been sheltering the outlaw Ketil’s son, he outlaws him.
4 – Thorolf consults his friend Thor who advises him to go to Iceland. He takes Thor’s temple, timbers and some earth. On sighting Iceland he throws overboard the high-seat pillars and vows to build where they land. They sail into a broad fjord which he names Breida Fjord. The pillars land at a promontory which he calls Thorsnes. Thorolf builds a farm Hofstad and a new temple. On the ness is a mountain which Thorolf declares so sacred that no man can look at it without washing, and he names Helga Fell. He institutes the Thors Ness assembly and the land is so holy no-one is allowed to poo there but must go out to an island just offshore known as Dritsker.
5 – When Bjorn rendevous with his family in the Hebrides, his father Ketil has died. He discovers his mother and brother have converted to Christianity and becomes alienated from them. They call him Bjorn the Easterner.
6 – After two years in the Hebrides Bjorn and his friend Hallstein Thorolfsson sail to Iceland, to Breidafjord where they settle and build farms.

The second generation
7 – Other settlers arrive: Geirrod builds  his home at Eyr, along with Ulfar the Champion and Finngeir. Vestar has a son Asgeir. Bjorn the Easterner dies, succeeded by son 1 Kjallak the Old who marries Astrid and has Thorgrim the Priest, Gerd and Helga – their descendants are many and known as the Kjalleklings; and son 2 Ottar marries Gro, has Bjord father of Vigfus and Osvif the Wise, father of Gudrun the ill-fated heroine of Laxdala saga. In old age Thorolf Mostur-Bear marries Unn and has a son Thorstein, nicknamed Cod-Biter. Hallstein, Bjorn’s sailing companion, has a son Thorstein, fostered by Thorolf and nicknamed Thorstein Surt.
8 – Geirrid sister of Geirrod of Eyr comes to Iceland and Geirrod grants her land. She has a son who grows up to be Thorolf Bjornsson a great Viking. He thinks the land his mother has too small and challenges Ulfar the Champion to a duel and kills him not before Ulfar wounds his leg so that he walks with a limp and is known as Thorolf Twist-Foot. Thorolf has a son, Arnkel (who will squabble with Snorri), and a daughter Geirrid who marries another Thorolf and has Thorarin the Black (who will kill Thorbjorn and be exiled).
9 – Thorolf the founder dies and is succeeded by his son Thorstein Cod-Biter. The Kjalleklings (descended from Bjorn the Easterner) are arrogant. At the Thors Ness assembly Thorgim Kjallaksson announces they will poo where they want and no longer go to Dritsker. Thorstein Cod-Biter, defending his father’s holy soil, musters his men and attacks the Kjalleklings driving them down to the beach where there is a big pitched battle with some deaths.
10 – Thord Gellir, at that time leading chieftain of Breidafjord, is brought in to make a settlement. He moves the assembly to a new location and makes Thorgim half responsible for maintaining the temple, from which point he is known as Thorgrim the Priest.
11 – Thorstein Cod-Biter dies. He had a son Bork the Stout then, aged 25, another baby he calls Thorgrim and dedicates to Thor to become a priest. That autumn shepherds see the north side of Helga Fell open revealing fires and the sounds of feasting and the names of Thorstein and comrades. The next day they learn Thorstein was drowned on a fishing expedition to Hoskuld Island.

Overlap with Gisli’s saga
12 – Thorgrim marries Thordis Sur-daughter of Dyrafjord and goes to live with his brothers-in-law Gisli and Thorkel. Thorgrim kills Vestein Vesteinsson at a festival and, the following year, aged 25 like his father, Thorgrim is killed by his brother-in-law Gisli at an autumn feast. A few days later Thorgrim’s widow Thordis gives birth to a son named Thorgrim after his father – Thorgrim Thorgrimsson. She marries her brother-in-law Bork the Stout and goes to live in Helgafell. Little Thorgrim is fostered out to Thorbrand of Alftafjord where he is so troublesome he acquires the nickname Snorri, eventually to become the famous Snorri the Priest. Thorbrand has five sons and these Thorbrandssons are blood brothers to Snorri. The fearsome Viking Thorolf Twist-foot has a son Arnkel. Thorgim Kjallakson who started the fight at Thors Ness has three sons: Brand, Arngrim who is so mean he is nicknamed Styr, and Vermund the Slender. Asgeir of Eyr has a son Thorlak who marries Thurid and has sons Steinthor, Bergthor, Thormod, Thord Blig (the Thorlakssons who are going to be involved in feuds) and daughter Helga.
13 – When he’s 14 Snorri travels to Norway funded by his uncle Bork. The following year he returns and there is much joking that his colleague wears elaborate clothes and armour, whereas Snorri rides a plain mare in a black cloak. One day 12 armed men walk into the hall at Helgafell led by Bork’s kinsman, Eyjolf the Grey (son of Thord Gellir, biggest chieftain in the area who made the peace in chapter 10) who announces his crew have just killed Gisli the outlaw. This is as Bork wanted because Gisli killed his brother Thorgrim. But it is bad news for Bork’s wife Thordis as Gisli was her brother. As she goes to serve them, Thordis seizes Eyjolf’s sword and tries to stab him, only succeeding in gashing his thigh. Bork pushes her and Eyjolf would attack her but Snorri steps in to protect her. Bork gives Eyjolf self-judgement and gives him ample compensation, who rides off feeling very dissatisfied with all his hard work for Bork. This widens the gap between Snorri and his uncle and foster-father Bork.

Snorri’s career
14 – Snorri kicks Bork out of Helgafell which rightfully belongs to him. He surprises Bork by being able to pay the price Bork names. Thordis divorces Bork for hitting her and takes half his belongings so Bork ends up with very little.
15 – Snorri’s farm at Helgafell flourishes and he becomes the priest of Thor’s temple. A widow called Katla lived at Holt, west of Mavahlid with her son Odd, a trouble-maker. Thorbjorn the Stout’s son Gunnlaug often goes to study witchcraft with Geirrid Thorolf’s-daughter. He stops in to chat to Katla and she insinuates that he makes love to Geirrid and that she fancies him. As he’s accompanied by Odd on these journeys he often stops off at Mavahlid and Katla always invites him in and he always refuses.
16 – On one of these visits Geirrid warns Gunnlaug not to go home. When he and Odd reach Holt, Katla invites him in and he refuses as usual. The next morning Gunnlaug is found almost dead covered in piercing deep scratches. He has been ridden by a night witch. Snorri and Gunnlaug’s father Thorbjorn ride over to Mavahlid and serve a summons on Geirrid for being a witch. But at the next assembly a lot of her kin support her and the case is rejected.
17 – At the same assembly a big fight breaks out, one side led by Thorgrim Kjallakson over the dowry of Illugi the Black’s wife. Men are killed before Snorri manages to separate the sides and broker a peace for which Illugi is grateful.
18 – Thorbjorn the Stout’s prize horses go missing. A man with second-sight called Spa-Gils strongly implies it was Thorarin the Black, son of Geiridd from Mavahlid. Thorbjorn rides there with a posse. Thorbjorn calls a door court and starts to accuse Thorarin. In a typical moment, it is goading by his mother calling him a coward which prompts Thorarin to leap forward attacking and a fight starts, until the women intervene and Thorbjorn and his men ride away. In the frenzy Thorarin’s wife Aud’s hand is cut off. He rides to where Thorbjorn’s men are recovering and hears them joking about it which drives him wild and he leaps forward and splits Thorbjorn’s skull in half. A fierce battle ensues until Thorbjorn’s men run away. (Odd is protected by the magic tunic his mother has given him.)
19 – Thorarin rides to see Vermund who advises they go see Arnkel. They know Snorri will prepare a case on behalf of Thorbjorn who was married to his half-sister.
20 – Geirrid of Mavahlid says it was Odd Katlason who cut off Aud’s hand. Thorarin and Arnkel ride to Holt: there is a strange folk tale scene where the men search the house for Odd three times but each time Katla bewitches them so they can’t see him. Only when Geirrid arrives do they put a bag over Katla’s head thus stymying her magic and find Odd. They hang him and stone her to death.
21- Arnkel advises Thorarin to go abroad. Message is sent to Bjorn the captain to ready his boat.
22 – On the Summons Days Snorri assembles a big force and rides to Alftafjord to summons the killers for manslaughter. Then he rides to the coast, seizes the Norwegian captain and burns the boat Thorarin was going to flee in. Whereupon Arnkel and Vermund and Thorarin row north across Breidafjord and buy another boat, and Thorarin and Vermund sail away. Snorri attends the assembly and successfully gets Thorarin and all his crew sentenced to outlawry, then confiscates all their property.

23 – Vigfus has a layabout nephew called Bjorn. At a big annual sorting of the sheep Bjorn accuses Snorri’ shepherd Helgi of stealing sheep and attacks him, Snorri’s uncle Mar Hallvardson goes to his defence and injures Bjorn. Vigfus takes the case to the Thor’s Ness assembly, but Snorri counter-charges Bjorn who is found guilty of starting.
24 – At the same assembly Eirik the Red is accused of a killing. His friends the Thorbrandssons gather supporters and Styr asks Snorri not to join the attack on Eirik after the assembly in exchange for his support any other time. They see Eirik off to a boat and he sets sail: it’s on this expedition that he discovers Greenland, in 986.
25 – The Swedish Berserks Vermund and Thorarin the Black arrive in Norway and go serve Earl Hakon the Good. With him are two Swedish berserks. The next year Vermund asks if he can bring them back to Iceland though Hakon warns him against. So he brings them back to Iceland where they soon start arguing. Vermund holds a feast for his brother Styr, Arnkel and other men of Eyr. He tries to persuade first Arnkel, then Styr to take the berserks and at first they get on well.
26 – Vigfus commissions one of his slaves, Svart, to kill Snorri. He breaks a hole in the ceiling of the porch and waits, but he thrusts down with his halberd just too late, misses Snorri and wounds Mar. Svart jumps to the ground but slips and is caught. Svart confesses it was Vigfus and Snorri sets off with six men, surprises Vigfus making charcoal in the woods and kill him. His slaves tell his widow who tries to raise support from Arnkel who refuses, saying it is the Kjallakings and Styr’s business.
27 – Vigfus’s widow Thorgerd goes to Styr asking for help. Styr points out the pledge he made to Snorri in exchange for Snorri not attacking Eirik. So, no help. She goes see Vermund who says, No help. She goes see Steinthor who says I’m too young. Exasperated she goes back to Vermund who says chop off Vigfus’s head and take it in a bag to Arnkel. Which she does and this shames and horrifies him into agreeing to launch a case against Snorri in the spring. But Snorri vigorously launches a counter action for attempted manslaughter and for the wounding of Mar, claiming Vigfus was lawfully killed. Moderators step in and Snorri agrees terms: he pays a large fine and Mar is exiled for three years.
28 – The end of the Swedish berserks One of them asks Styr for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Not keen, Styr goes consult Snorri and they go atop Helgafell: ‘plans made there have never been known to fail’. Snorri advises Styr to set the berserks two massive tasks, build a dyke and a sauna. When they enter the sauna Styr kills them. Snorri marries Styr’s daughter, Asdis, binding them together.

29 – Thorodd Tribute-trader and Bjorn Introducing Thorodd who goes a sailing trip to Ireland. Earl Sigurd of Orkney has just made a raid demanding tribute from the Isle of Man but is shipwrecked. Thorodd sailing by hears them shouting from the shore and, reluctantly sells them his two boat in exchange for the tribute. So people call him Thorodd Tribute-Trader. Back in Ireland he stays with Snorri at Helgafell and marries his sister Thurid, widow of Thorbjorn who Thorarin the Black killed after the dispute about horses (chapter 18) and they go live in the farm at Frodriver. Soon Bjorn Asbrandsson starts calling on her and rumours start. Thorodd unhappy. One day, going home, Bjorn is attacked by Thorodd and servants – who he wounds – and the two sons of Thorir Wood-leg (the Thorissons), who he kills. Thorodd asks Snorri to mount a case against Bjorn for killing the Thorissons. Bjorn is outlawed and banished for three years. Bjorn sails to Norway, then Denmark, then on to join the legendary Jomsvikings.

Incidents concerning Thorolf Twist-foot, his feuds and ghost
30 – Thorolf Twist-Foot is an old mean man who doesn’t get on with his son Arnkel. Thorolf gets Ulfar’s advice about the weather and haymaking but pays him back badly by getting his men to fetch in Ulfar’s hay as well. Ulfar rushes out to the fields furious, but withdraws in face of Thorolf’s threats and goes to see his son Arnkel for compensation. Thorolf refuses to listen to Arnkel, so he pays Ulfar the compensation then kills seven of Thorolf’s oxen and claims that’s his hay-price returned. Thorolf is livid.
31 – About Christmastime Thorolf has a feast, gets his servants drunk, and tells them to go burn Ulfar’s farm. Over at Bolstad Arnkel sees the fire, rushes over with men to put it out, and seizes his father’s slaves and hangs them in the morning. Ulfar wisely makes over all his property to Arnkel, thus gaining legal support against threats from Thorolf. But this angers the Thorbrandssons, whose freedman Ulfar was and who think the property should revert to them. Thorolf rides to visit Snorri and offers him ownership of the woods on Krakaness if he will take up the case against Arnkel for killing Thorolf’s slaves. Driven by need for the woods, Snorri accepts and prosecutes Arnkel who points out he prevented a burning. Mediators step in and award Snorri 12 ounces of silver per slave ie the minimum which he gives to Thorolf who abuses him. Thus Thorolf is angry, Snorri is angry and Arnkel is angry.
32 – Ulfar’s brother Orlyg dies and Ulfar quickly gets Arnkel to come take joint protection of his property. The Thorbrandssons are cross again, reckoning their freedman’s property should be theirs and go see Snorri who refuses to take up the case against Arnkel, seeing as how his previous case wasn’t a particular success. In the autumn Arnkel gives a feast. Ulfar attends. Thorolf bribes his friend Spa-Gils who needs the money to lie in wait and murder Ulfar, which he does then runs off. Arnkel sees what’s happened and sends men after Spa-Gils. Thorolf sees Spa-Gils running and sends men to the Thorbrandssons so they can get to Ulfar’s property and claim it. Arnkel’s men catch and kill Spa-Gils. Arnkel and his men are at Ulfar’s property before the Thorbrandssons arrive so they fail to claim it again!
33 – Thorolf Twist-foot becomes angry that Snorri is using up too much of the wood and rides to confront him. Snorri calls witnesses to confirm Thorolf giving it to him and Thorolf rides on to his son Arnkel at Bolstad, but Arnkel refuses to get embroiled in another law case with Snorri so Thorolf rides home to Hvamm livid, sits in his high chair and in the morning his staff find him dead. Arnkel knocks a hole in the wall behind Thorolf, has him pulled backwards and his body placed on a sledge pulled by oxen up to a burial place where they build a cairn over the body.
34 – Thorolf’s ghost haunts the valley: the oxen which hauled his body are ridden to death by demons; every animal that goes near his grave goes out of its mind; the ghost kills shepherd and sheep; any bird alighting on Thorolf’s cairn drops dead. The ghost haunts vigorously and drives his widow out of her mind till she dies. First the farm at Hvamm is abandoned, then the whole valley. Arnkel gets recruits, loads Thorolf’s corpse onto a sled and drags it miles away to Ulfarsfell Ridge where they rebury it in Twist-Foot’s Knoll.
35 – Arnkel inherits his father’s property & rights and gets just as cross as his father with Snorri for using Krakaness woods. He waits till Snorri’s friend Hauk is supervising some slaves loading timber onto pack horses, then attacks. Hauk lunges at him but Arnkel deflects with his shield and spears Hauk, takes the horses and wood. Next spring Snorri brings a case against Arnkel for murder but Arnkel argues that Haul attacked him and the case is defeated. Simmering tension.
36 – A man called Thorleif is an outlaw. He comes to Snorri asking for sanctuary; Snorri rejects him but after a long talk. Then Thorleif goes to Bolstad to ask sanctuary of Arnkel and while they’re talking Thorleif takes up Arnkel’s adze and tries to kill him but Arnkel is too fast and kills him. Word gets about that Snorri commissioned him.
37 – Snorri holds a big Winter feast. He gives gifts to the guests. As the Thorbrandssons leave he gives Thorleif Kimbi a fine axe and they make an agreement to kill Arnkel. One night before Christmas Arnkel is working with some of  his men at haystacks. Snorri is tipped off and joins with the Thorbrandssons, 15 in all, to attack. Arnkel holds off a long time but is finally killed.

Arnkel was mourned by everyone, for of all men in pagan times he was the most gifted. He was remarkably shrewd in judgement, good-tempered, kind-hearted, brave, honest and moderate. He came out on top in every lawsuit, no matter with whom he had to deal, which explains why people were so envious of him.

38 – Arnkel’s heirs are all women who don’t pursue the case very well. Only Thorleif Kimbi is outlawed.

A new dispute – between Thorlakssons and Thorbrandssons aka the men of Eyr and the men of Breidavik
39 – Thorleif takes ship to Norway. They are joined at the last minute by a stranger who turns out to be Arnbjorn Asbrandsson, going to look for his brother Bjorn (the one who was exiled and went off to join the Jomsvikings in chapter 29). After landfall in Norway it’s Thorleif’s turn to make porridge but Arnbjorn is still making his so after some argument Thorleif grabs the pot, spills Arnbjorn’s porridge out and walks away but Arnbjorn hits him on the neck with the ladle which was still very hot and marks him. Arnbjorn saild south to find his brother.
40 – After two years exile Thorleif Kimbi returns to Iceland pleased with himself. The same summer Arnbjorn returns with his brother, now known as Bjorn Breidavik-Champion. Together they are known as the Men of Breidavik. Arnbjorn settles at Hakki in Hraunhaven on the south side of the Snæfelsness peninsula. At a big gathering of farmers Bjorn bumps into Thurid, the housewife of Frodriver, over whose affair he was exiled. Bjorn resumes seeing Thurid. An upset Thorodd pays Thorgrima Witch-Face to cause a blizzard. Bjorn is lost crawls into a cave and only just survives three days cooped in the cave.
41 – Fighting between Thorlakssons and Thorbrandssons That spring at the Thornes Assembly Thorleif Kimbi (one of Thorbrand’s five sons, the Thorbrandssons) makes a marriage offer for Helga Thorlak’s-daughter, sister of Steinthor (Thormod, Bergthor, and Thord Blig, the sons of Thorlak, the Thorlakssons). He is rudely rejected by Steinthor and Thord. Next morning the Thorlakssons are walking by as the Thorbrandssons are playing the turf game. A great chunk of sandy turf hits Thord Blig on the neck and he turns to see all the Thorbrandssons laughing. Both sides draw swords and a fight starts. Eventually Steinthor and Snorri are brought in to make peace.
42 – The Thorbrandssons try to kill Arnbjorn That summer a ship puts in at Hraunhaven on the south of the peninsula. Snorri has business with it and rides south. He is joined by the Thorbrandssons, one of whom is Thorleif Kimbi who was humiliated by Arnbjorn who now lives at Hakki near Hraunhaven. They peel off from Snorri and attack Arnbjorn’s farm, climbing onto the roof but he fights them off, until Snorri returns and tells them to stop which, reluctantly they do. The Men of Breidavik arrive and both gangs are in the market at Hraunhaven in a very uneasy peace.
43 – Egil’s failed assassination attempt The Thorbrandssons tell their slave he will be freed if he sneaks into the autumn games and kills one of the Breidavik men, either Bjorn or Arnbjorn or Thord. People say Snorri advised Egil to hide in the hills until the pass was full of smoke of evening meals then sneak down and kill one. Egil does just that but as he enters the hut where Bjorn and Thord are making dinner he trips and they catch him. They extract the full story of his assassination mission before witnesses then kill him. (The strange incident of the talking head.) It is the custom to pay recompense to the owner of a murdered slave. Steinthor gathers a vast posse of nearly a hundred to ride to give payment. When he learns from spies that Snorri is sitting doing nothing Steinthor decides to reduce the party so as not to provoke anyone. Bjorn tells him he’ll regret it.
44 – The Battle of Alfta Fjord Snorri quickly musters his supporters and takes them to Karsstad telling everyone to behave. Stainthor rides up to the door, dismounts, nails a pich with 12oz of silver to the door, calls witnesses that he has paid the debt. As usual, it’s a woman taunting the men inside who make them furious and Thorleif Kimbi comes rushing out followed by the other hotheads and they start fighting. However Snorri comes out and gets them all to stop and promises Steinthor safe passage. However, he then discovers his 12 year-old son Thorodd has been injured by the very man he’s given safe passage and the red mist descends: they chase after the Thorlakssons and there’s a big fight up a scree called Geirvör. Eventually Aslak of Langadale and Illugi the Strong and Vermund the Slender and all their men come between them and stop the fighting. Snorri reaches out his hand to shake Steinthor’s who abruptly hacks at it with a sword, though the sword hits a gold arm-ring. Everyone pleads with Steinthor to make peace and eventually he does, a ceasefire till all sides get home. Some say Snorri could see the Men of Breidavik riding along Ulfarsfell as reinforcements to the Thorlakssons and that was why Snorri was keen to peacemake.
45 – The Battle of Vigra Fjord That winter Steinthor of Eyr with seven companions is loosing a boat in ice-bound Vigra Fjord when they see six man approaching, their enemies the Thorbrandssons. The Thorbrandssons climb a rock surrounded by massive shards of ice while Steinthor and his posse attack. After fierce fighting they lay all the Thorbrandssons low, only Freystein Bofi is dead (who he? ) but all the others badly injured and Thorleif Kimbi’s leg is chopped off. Snorri, alerted by his farmers, arrives and carries them all back to Helgafell and nurses them back to health. Thorleif Kimbi walks with a wooden leg the rest of his days.
46 – In the spring a lot of their neighbours work hard at the Thors Ness Assembly to make a settlement: elaborate pairings of injuries and killings make both sides about equal, and they shake on the deal, and the peace lasts while Steinthor and Snorri lived.
47 – That summer Thorodd the Tribute-Trader hosts Snorri to a feast and asks him to sort out the ongoing shame of Bjorn visiting his wife, Thurid, Snorri’s sister. Snorri decides they’ll attack and kill him and they ride to Kamb. Interestingly, Snorri uses the example of Gunnar’s last stand, in chapter 77 of Njal’s Saga, as an example of how one man can fight off an attacking crew. Daringly, Bjorn walks straight up to Snorri and puts his shearing knife to his heart and they discuss the issue. In a nutshell, Bjorn promises to stop bothering Thurid. Snorri and gang leave. Bjorn packs his belongings and takes ship at Hraunhaven. Nothing is heard of him for a long time, until the mysterious penultimate chapter 64, in fact.

Peace – the end of the Thorlakssons versus Thorbrandssons feud
48 – Snorri Thorbrandsson and his brother Thorleif Kimbi sail to Greenland where Thorleif lives to a ripe old age and Snorri voyages on to Vinland where he dies like a man fighting the Skrælings. Thorodd Thorbrandsson takes over the farm at Alftafjord and lives in peace.
49 – Christianity is brought to Iceland by Gizur the White and his son-in-law Hjalti. This is very briefly described, as if the author knew that other, fuller accounts existed (eg the five chapters in Njal’s saga). Snorri the Priest does more than anything to convert the Western fjords and it may be for this reason that the Christian author makes him the hero of the saga.

The next six chapters are a respite from fighting, telling the story of the haunting of Thorgunna and Thorodd
50 – Thorgunna arrives in a ship from Dublin, she being from the Hebrides. She is big-boned and stout and has a trunk full of treasures such as English sheets and hangings. Thurid of Frodriver (wife of Thorodd the Tribute-Trader and sister of Snorri) is madly jealous and invites her to stay though Thorgunna insists on working for her keep and angers Thurid by refusing to part with her wondrous belongings.
51 – Thorgunna joins in with raking the hay when there is a sudden shower and when it clears they see it was of blood. She takes to her bed dying and makes Thorodd promise to burn all her bedding. (In evidence of the lateness of composition Thorgunna asks to be buried at Skalholt which only develops into a centre of Christian learning and holiness in the 11th and 12th centuries). Thorgunna’s body is buried and Thorodd builds a fire to burn the bedding but Thurid begs him to keep it and he acquiesces. They carry the coffin a long way to Skalholt over rain-sodden moors in sleet, stopping at a farm named Nether Ness where the farmer gives them shelter but no food. In the middle of the night they hear noises and find Thorgunna stark naked making food in the kitchen. She brings it into the living room at which the farmer hastily welcomes then and Thorgunna walks out and vanishes. They eat the food she’s prepared and are fine.
52 – Back at the farm at Frodriver, once the coffin-bearers have returned, the household sees a weird half moon appearing on the wall. Thorir Wood-Leg says it is a fatal moon.
53 – Something starts haunting. It kills a shepherd. When Thorir Wood-Leg goes to the privy the shepherd’s ghost blocks his way and throws him hard against the door so that he sickens and dies. Now the two of them haunt. Soon farm hands start dying one after another. Thorodd goes fishing with five men. A ghostly seal appears, head first, emerging out of the floorboards at Frodriver, no matter what people do to it.
54 – Thorodd and servants put out to sea and are all drowned. When news arrives at Frodriver Thurid and Kjartan hold a funeral feast. At the height of the feast Thorodd and his men walk in drenched, dripping seawater.

Everyone welcomed Thorodd and his men, and thought this a happy omen because in those days it was believed that drowned people had been well-received by the sea-goddess, Ran, if they came to their own funeral feast. At that time a good many heathen beliefs still prevailed, though people were baptised and supposed to be Christians.

Thorodd and his men go sit by the fire. They do this every night till the fire burns low, then leave. After some days the guests all leave but Thorodd and his men still come and Thorir Wood-Leg now appears, along with the five servants who are buried, and they are all covered in mud and earth, which they start throwing at the drowned ghosts. Kjartan has the idea of building a long fire in the all and a smaller one in the household room, and the ghosts take the long fire and the household take the small one and this goes on all winter. An ox-tail is fond wagging in the fish pile which skedaddles away and all the fish are revealed to have been eaten, then Thorir Wood-Leg’s widow, Thorgrima Witch-Face, dies and another round of illness decimates the farm: six more people die and the rest run away.
55 – Not before time Kjartan goes to see his uncle Snorri who happens to have a priest staying with him. On Snorri’s advice they return to Frodriver on Candlemas, burn all of Thorgunna’s bedding, summon the dead to a door-court and charge them one by one. As the judgements are passed each ghosts leaves, saying they only stayed as long as they were let. Then the priest carries relics and sprinkles holy water into every corner and the dead men are banished.

Snorri swaps houses with Gudrun, the heroine of Laxdæla saga
56 – Snorri lived at Helgafell for eight years after Christianity came to Iceland (ie till 1008). In the spring Snorri exchanges farms with Gudrun Osvif’s-daughter and moves to Tongue in Sælingsdale, two years after Gudrun’s husband Bolli was murdered by Kjartan’s kin. Why? Though Gudrun hasn’t appeared in this saga yet, Snorri has already appeared in Laxdæla saga as a wise man Gudrun turns to. There it is explained Gudrun needs to get away from her vengeful neighbours and much the same motive drives Snorri, though his behaviour doesn’t change much after the move.

Styr’s death and Snorri’s revenge
It will be remembered that although Styr is the son of Thorgim Kjallakson (12), he does a deal with Snorri not to attack Eirik the Red (24) and keeps his word by not attacking Snorri after Vigfus’s murder (27), and asks Snorri’s advice about handling the berserks (28), as a result of which Snorri marries Styr’s daughter, Asdis. So when Styr is killed Snorri rides south with 400 men to avenge him. But he is met by 500 of his adversaries and there’s a stand-off. Snorri summons Gest for killing Styr but at the Althing their case is dismissed by Thorstein Gislason. Later Snorri rides south with 14 men and kills Thorstein Gislason and his son Gunnar. At the next Althing another Thorstein, of Hafsfjord, blocks Snorri’s plans and bad feeling quickly degenerates into a pitched battle. Ten or so men die until others step in and a comprehensive settlement is made. —This episode feels bolted onto the narrative, and the numbers (500 men!) and the unusual way the build-up to Styr’s death isn’t explained, make it stand out from the rest of the saga, much of whose interest derives from tracing the way trivial disputes snowball into massive feuds.

Ospak
This is another self-contained episode that could almost come from any saga, anyone’s life. Ospak is a rustler and after a lot of hassle Snorri is one among the many enemies he’s made who band together and kill him. The only failing in this otherwise excellent Penguin edition is that the map which excellently shows all the key locations on Snæfelsness peninsula, doesn’t show any of the locations of the Ospak episode, all of which (I think) happen to the north of Breidafjord.
57 – Ospak raids along the north coast with half a dozen men. He conflicts with Alf the Short and Thorir Gold-Hardarson. He has a fortified stead at Eyr (but not, apparently, the same Eyr as the one in Alftafjord). One day a whale is washed up. Alf and others cut it up, as they have driftage rights. Ospak and crew row up and start taking the already cut whalemeat: Thorir intervenes and Ospak knocks him out with the back of an axe.
58 – Ospak and fourteen men go to Thambardale and raid Alf’s house, stealing everything. Servants warn Thorir at Tongue who goes after them with eighteen men. A full scale battle in which Ospak strikes Thorir over the neck but hits his knife-on-a-strap, more fighting then Ospak and men run off to their fortified farm.
59 – Snorri represents Thorir and Alf at The Thors ness assembly and gets Ospak and crew outlawed. Snorri rides to enact the confiscation only to discover Ospak and his men have packed all their goods and sailed far north, where they set up a base and continue raiding.
60 – Snorri enacts the confiscation anyway and divides what was left of the belongings among Alf and Thorir. At summer’s end Ospak and crew sail south to Bitra, put in at Eyr and carry the loot to the fortified farm, where Ospak’s wife and son had remained. They sail onto Tongue in Bistra, drag Thorir out of bed and kill him on the spot, steal all his goods, then carry on to Thambardale, where Alf the Short hears them coming and esapes through a secret door. Again they loot everything they can and return to the fortified stornghold at Eyr, haul the boats inside and make it impenetrable.
61 – Snorri takes in Alf and his family and makes sure of the lie of the land. Just before Christmas he calls on Thrand Stigandi.
62 – Snorri calls on Sturla Thjodreksson and other neighbours till he has fifty men. At Tongue thirty more join and they ride north to Eyr. The fight starts with both sides throwing lots of stones. Finally Sturla’s spear knocks Ospak down and Sturla kills him, then they kill two more and the vikings surrender. Snorri gives them safe passage so long as they split up. He lets Ospak’s widow and son keep the farm. Glum marries Thordis, sister of Grettir the Strong, and their son was that Ospak who quarrels with Odd Ofeigsson (the plot of the Bandamanna saga).

Thorolf’s ghost (part two) and the magic bull
63 – Another story or legend which could, frankly, be attached to anyone. We thought we’d heard the last of Thorolf Twist-Foot in chapter 34. Now, after all this time, he is back haunting farms at Ulfarsfell and Orlygsstad. Farmers call on Thorodd Thorbrandsson to help. He goes with slaves to Twist-Foot’s Knoll, break open the grave and roll Thorolf’s corpse down to the shore where they create a pyre and burn it. Coming back they witness a cow break a leg. They patch it up and let it roam on the hill where it seen frolicking with an unknown bull and licking the stones where Thorolf was burned. It gets pregnant and has a bull calf which grows with uncanny speed. Thorodd’s foster-mother, old and blind, predicts no good will come of it and they should slaughter it. But Thorodd deceives her, keeps it, feeds it as it grows into a monster and call it Glaesir. In the summer, after a heavy rain, Glaesir runs mad in the home meadow attacking the hayricks. Thorodd goes out to calm him, ends up wrestling with him and is finally tossed and gored in the guts. He limps home where he dies in bed. This same Thorodd was one of Snorri’s companions in the killing of Thorolf Twist-Foot’s noble son, Arnkel (37) and a participant in the Battle of Vigra Fjord (45). He is buried in the local church.— This story is a stand-alone anecdote which needn’t have been in the saga at all.

Vinland
64 – A marvellously haunting and romantic chapter in which a man named Gudleif Gudlaugsson sets out from Norway in the reign of King Olaf the Saint (1015-30), heading for Dublin but is blown way off course by stormy winds, arriving at a big country where they are cpatured by hundreds of locals and dragged before their big grey-haired leader who, to their astonishment addresses them in Norse, asks after Iceland, then about the west fjords, then specifically about Thurid and her son Kjartan. He refuses to name himself but asks them to give Thurid a ring and Kjartan a sword, then bids them leave in a hurry before the locals kill them. Legend has it this man was Bjorn the Breidavik-Champion, who we first met making unwanted visits to Thurid, Snorri’s sister, back in chapter 29, before he was exiled and went to join the Jomsvikings. It is a strange and haunting almost-ending to the book.

65 – Snorri’s descendants The actual ending is a final chapter lovingly rounding up the descendants of Snorri’s many children.

Sayings

  • What happens to others can happen to you (32)

Helgafell

Translations

Helgafell

Helga Fell or Holy Mountain where Thorolf Mostur-Beard settles and which no man is allowed to look on unless he has washed (Wikimedia Commons)

Other sagas

Eyrbyggja Saga 1

Plot and characters

Eyrbyggja saga follows events on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in west Iceland, starting with the family trees of the first settler who fled Norway under King Harald Fine-Hair to settle the area, through 20 pages or so of the first settlers and their feuds, before it gets to what seem to be the main characters although, since characters appear then disappear from the narrative and are likely to drown or be killed just like that, it is very hard to get your bearings and really develop a feeling for, an empathy with, any of the characters.

If there is a central character it is Snorri the Priest, originally named Thorgrim Thorgrimson. It’s changed to Snorri because this means ‘turbulent’ or ‘troublesome’, and he is a deeply ambivalent character, sometimes violent, hiring assassins, himself killing men; but also, as priest of Thor, responsible for trying to establish peace despite the endless feuding of gangs of men (eg the Thorbrandssons versus the Thorlakssons). His character might be said to grow and the translators like him but he is at one with the violent untrustworthy milieu.

Arnkel the Priest is a fairly sympathetic character who tries to maintain some honour and dignity in the feud-bedeviled culture and despite provocation from his fiery Viking father Thorolf Twist-Foot, before he is eventually killed at a lone stand atop a haystack on his farm by a gang of eight men led by Snorri.

Bjorn Asbrandsson the Breidavik-Champion also emerges in the latter part of the saga, having seduced Thurid, wife of Thorodd the Tribute-Trader, and survived an attack on him by Thorodd and his relatives, Bjorn is outlawed, travels to Norway, Denmark and then east to join the legendary Jomsvikings, among whom he rises to become a chieftain, before returning many years later to Iceland.

Paganism

The Age of Sagas (870-1050) covers the period of the Christianisation of the Icelanders’ homelands of Denmark and Norway (in the 960s) and then the Christianisation of Iceland itself in 1000. the sagas were mostly written in the Christian 1200s, probably by monks or scholars educated in Christian culture.

Eyrbyggja Saga is notable for having details of pagan life, belief and ritual found nowhere else, in any written sources. The founder, the first arrival at Snæfellsnes, Thorolf Mostur-Beard, is described as ‘a friend of Thor’, casts his temple pillars into the sea to see where they will wash ashore, and there builds his settlement. There is a detailed description of his pagan temple which is, alas, almost certainly fictitious. Despite a few more details, and despite two of the leading characters (Snorri and Arnkel) being surnamed ‘the Priest’, the details and the real feel of paganism are here as elusive as everywhere else. There is almost nothing about beliefs or rituals compared to, say, the details given of legal procedure, how they are conducted and what people think of them.

The arrival of Christianity

The arrival of Christianity, which you would have thought a momentous occasion, is dealt with in the six sentences which comprise chapter 49 (compared to the five chapters which describe Christianisation in Nja’s saga):

The next part of the story tells how Gizur the White and his son-in-law Hjalti came to Iceland to preach the faith. Everyone in Iceland was baptised, and Christianity was adopted by law at the Althing. It was Snorri the Priest who more than anyone else persuaded the people in the Westfjords to embrace the new faith… The priests promised each farmer as many places in Heaven as there was standing room in any church he might build. This proved a great inducement to them to put up churches…

The advent of Christianity had little impact on the feuding and killing. A little on the supernatural as Holy water i snow used to disperse the ghosts. The introduction to this Penguin edition argues that the saga as a whole demonstrates a moral progression from chaotic violence in Norway, to the eruption of countless feuds in Iceland, to a growing respect for peace and the law. Doesn’t feel like that to me. Violence and the touchy pride and dangerous edge which lead to violence so quickly seem to me present right to the end.

Ghosts and the supernatural

The world of the saga is saturated with the supernatural, with ghosts and night-riders, strange animals, omens and portents:

  • one of his shepherds sees the whole of Helgafell opening and Thorstein Cod-Biter being welcomed inside, later discovering Thorstein has drowned
  • Gunnlaug Thorbjarnarson is ridden to death by a night hag, probably Geirrid Thorolf’s-daughter
  • Thorolf Twist-Foot dies in his chair and they cut through the wall behind it in order to drag him to his grave. But he rises again, birds and wild animals are killed and then humans until the entire valley is emptied, until his son Arnkell the Priest with helpers digs up Thorolf’s corpse and drags it to the seashore where it is reburied
  • Thorodd the Tribute-Taker drowns at sea but the ghosts of him and his crew come back to haunt his farm at Frodriver all one winter, until banished by a combination of a door-court in which legal formulas force them to leave – cemented by the blessing of the house with holy water
  • the entire episode of Thorgunna, an immigrant from the Hebrides with her luxurious bedding who is caught in a rain shower which turns out to be of blood (!) before she takes to her bed and dies, warning that all the bedding is destroyed. When it is not, she returns to haunt the farmstead.

Thor

It is generally thought that Thor was the most commonly worshiped of the pagan gods: small lockets depicting him or his holy hammer have been found in burial sites. In Eyrbyggja Saga the first settler of Snæfellsnes where the action is set is a priest of Thor who throws his temple pillars into the sea to see where the god will wash them ashore and there builds his new temple, and maintenance and tithes for the temple play a role in the action.

Part of the evidence for the popularity of Thor the god is the sheer number of personal names formed from the stem Thor, namely: Thorarin, THorbjorn, Thorbrand, Thord, Thordis, Thorfinn, Thorgerd, Thorgest, Thorgrim, Thorgrima, Thorgunna, Thorir, Thorlak, Thorlief, Thormod, Thorodd, Thorolf and Thorstein.

Nicknames

The Icelanders are fond of giving each other nicknames – presumably to bring to life and make more manageable the blizzard of very similar names which surrounded them. Thus: Alf the Short, Aud the Deep-Minded, Bork the Stout, Egil the Strong, Eirik the Red, Eyjolf the Grey, Illugi the Black, Ketil Flat-Nose, Kjallak the Old, Svart the Strong, Thorarin the Black, Thord the Cat, Thorgrima Witch-Face, Thorofl Mostur-Beard, Thorolf Twist-Foot, Thorstein Cod-Biter, Vermund the Slender.

Greenland

is mentioned twice in the saga. Almost at the end, in chapter 64, a man named Gudleif son of Gudlaug is introduced solely to tell the story of how he and his ship gets lots in a storm and end up making landfall on (prsumably) Greenland where the native people (Inuit Indians?) tie them up and take them before a grey-haired elder who amazes them by suddenly speaking in Old Norse. He never gives his name but asks them to take a gold ring and sword back to Iceland and give them to Thurid and the boy Kjaltan. It is obviously Bjorn Asbrandsson the Breidavik-Champion whose strange career has taken him form fighting with the Jomsvikings in the Baltic to ruling over Inuit in Greenland. A fitting and almost moving end to a fairly brief (141 pages) saga which in the end contains multiple and fascinating elements.

Translation

This translation is by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Presumably Edwards is responsible for the final English style which is admirable. It is clear and rhythmic and comfortably colloquial. It’s the colloquialisms which all too often let a translation down but Edwards is relaxed and assured:

‘I’ll tell you what’, said Arnkell. ‘We’ll each have to do what we think best. You two run back home and rouse my men.’ (Ch37)

He tried to tread as softly as he could, for he had already caught a glimpse of Thord and Bjorn sitting by the fire, and thought he had a lifetime of freedom within his grasp, but as he crossed the doorsill, he stepped on a loose tassel. He tried to move to the other foot, but the tassel was caught, so that he tripped and crashed onto the floor with a great thump that sounded like the carcass of a skinned bull being thrown down. Thord leapt to his feet and asked who the devil was there. (Ch 43)

Then Alf the Short stepped forward and asked Ospak not to take the whale. ‘You’d better keep out of this, Alf,’ said Ospak, ‘you’ve a thin skull, and I’ve a heavy axe. One step more and you’ll finish up like Thorir.’ It was good advice, and Alf took it. (Ch 57)

Related links

Icelanders paying a social call

Icelanders paying a social call

Other sagas

A Dark Age Chronology

Inspired by Robert Ferguson’s brilliant book, The Hammer and The Cross, I collated key dates from the so-called Dark Ages (let’s say from the departure of the Romans from Britain in 410 to the Norman Conquest of 1066). Why? Why not?

An at-a-glance overview of the period would be:
400 Romans leave England – Angles and Saxons invade Christian Britain
500 Anglo-Saxon kingdoms exist all across Britain, the Heptarchy
600 St Augustine comes as missionary to the pagan Anglo-Saxons
800 Vikings attack Lindisfarne, going on to colonise east and north England: a century of battles
900 Alfred the Great and successors unify the Anglo-Saxons against the Danes, creating ‘England’
1000 Aethelred the Unready fails to deal with repeated Viking attacks

5th century
410 Traditional date for the Romans quitting Britain. In fact it was a gradual process: 407 the army elects Constantine III emperor and he takes a lot of the Roman army to Gaul to attack Honorius: how many? was a military commander left or ever reappointed? 408 A Saxon attack repelled by Britons. 409 Zosimus records the natives expelled the Roman administration. 410 the rescript of Honorius – apparently the emperor Honorius telling the Britons they are on their own facing barbarian attacks.
449 (a retrospectively written section of) the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says Hengest and Horsa lead Saxons, Jutes and Angles to Kent at King Vortigern’s request to protect from marauding Picts, and decide to stay: the official start of Anglo-Saxon England. The venerable Bede attributes the date of 449. Their names mean stallion and horse: were they real people or legendary symbols?

6th century
500 Beowulf born, according to JRR Tolkien’s chronology. Welsh monk & historian Gildas born.
520s Beowulf fights Grendel
525 King Hygelac of the Geats killed fighting the Franks
550 Gildas writes the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae
597 Saint Augustine arrives to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons

7th century
A blank

8th century
732 The Venerable Bede‘s Ecclesiastical History of the English People
772 Charlemagne comes to the throne
782 massacre of Saxon pagans at Verden
793 Vikings attack Lindisfarne

9th century
800 Charlemagne crowned Holy Roman Emperor
814 Charlemagne dies
820 13 Viking ships attack north of the Seine
825 kingdom of Wessex absorbs Sussex and Essex
830 Nennius’s history Historia Brittonum
835 Viking attack on Isle of Sheppey
849 Alfred the Great born
857 Vikings attack Paris, take Rouen
865 Grand Heathen Army invades the east and establishes the Viking kingdom of York
868 the GHA takes Nottingham. Alfred marries the Mercian princess Ealswith
870 the GHA led by Ivar the Boneless defeat the army of and kill Edmund, king of East Anglia, soon to be canonised
870s the settlement of Iceland begins
871 the Saxons fight nine big battles against the GHA: Ethelred dies and is succeeded by king Alfred who makes peace with the Danes
876 the GHA conquers Northumbria
877 the GHA occupies Wrexham and attacks Exeter
878 Alfred hides in the Somerset marshes around Athelney; emerges to defeat Guthrum and make peace at the Treaty of Wedmore and baptise him
886 final peace made with Guthrum and establishment of the Danelaw
889 Alfred’s daughter Ethelfled marries Aethelred aldorman of Mercia
892 dues to his alliances and military reforms Alfred defeats a Viking invasion fleet of 250 ships
899 Alfred dies and is succeeded by his son Edward
890-910 intense period of settlement of Iceland caused by the unification campaign of Norway’s king Harald Finehair

10th century
903 the Vikings driven out of Dublin by Caerball
910-20 Ethelred and Ethelfled build 28 fortified burhs along the border with the Danelaw to defend Mercia and Wessex
911 Rollo founds the Duchy of Normandy
911 death of King Louis the Child ends the Carolingian dynasty in the east
911 Edward son of Alfred annexes Oxford and London
914 Brittany-based Vikings raid south Wales
917 Ethelfled drives the Danes from Derby
918 Ethelfled dies, leaving a daughter, Elfwyn. Within a year she disappears from the record, probably forced into a convent, marking the End of the independent kingdom of Wessex
919 dukes elect Henry the Fowler king
920 Edward son of Alfred is king of all England south of the Mersey and Humber
924 Edward son of Alfred dies, succeeded by his brother Athelstan
927 Athelstan drives Olaf viking out of York
930 settlement of Iceland largely complete
930 Ganger Rolf / Rollo dies and is succeeded by his son William Longsword
934 Constantine king of the Scots challenges Athelstan
935 rule of Gorm the Old ends
936 Henry the Fowler’s successor, Otto the Great, symbolically crowned at Aachen Charlemagne’s capital
936 Haakon the Good of Norway drives out his brother Erik Bloodaxe
937 Athelstan and his brother march north and defeat the Irish-Norse Scots and Northumbrian Norwegians at the battle of Brunanburh, commemorated in an Anglo-Saxon poem
939 Athelstan dies: Olaf returns and retakes York
940 death of Harald Finehair king of Norway
941 Olaf dies: York passes to Olaf Sihtricsson
944 the Danes reject him: Erik Bloodaxe, an exile fromt he Norwegian court, in some versions is baptised by Athelstan and given York. But his wife is unpopular…
954 Eric Bloodaxe expelled from York by king Edred ending the Scandinavian kingdom of York: 100 years after the Danelaw was defined, all of its territories are in English hands once more
955 king Eadwig crowned at Kingston
957 his brother Edgar rises against him
959 Eadwig dies and king Edgar reigns
960s Harald Bluetooth erects the Jelling stones in memory of his parents, celebrating his conquest of Denmark and Norway, and his conversion of the Danes to Christianity
962 in exchange for his military support the Pope crowns Otto Holy Roman Emperor, a title which is to dog central Europe for the next thousand years
973 Harald Bluetooth attacks Otto from Denmark but is repelled
975 Edgar dies, is succeeded by his son Edward
978 Edward murdered to clear the succession for the 10 year old Ethelred; a cult grows around Edward the martyr undermining all Ethelred’s subsequent attempts to rally the English against the Danes
980s settlement of Greenland led by Erik the Red
983 Harald Bluetooth successfully expels Otto from Denmark
987 Harald Bluetooth overthrown by his son Sweyn/Sven Forkbeard, exiled, dies of an arrow wound, in some versions fired by a child
991 Vikings raid along the east coast and win the Battle of Maldon, commemorated in the Anglo Saxon poem
992 Ethelred raises a fleet to attack the Vikings but some Anglos on his own side betray him
993 Vikings sack Bamburgh
994 Olaf Trygvasson and Sweyn Forkbeard attack London with 94 ships
995 bishops approach Olaf and he agrees to be confirmed, sponsored by Ethelred, and to leave England
996 Olaf returns to Norway, defeats and beheads king Hakon and embarks on a violent campaign of Christianisation
998 Viking army in Dorsey
999 Viking army sails up the Thames to Rochester
999 conversion of Iceland to Christianity under threat from Olaf Trygvasson

11th century
1001 Vikings burn and pillage up the river Exe
1002 Ethelred orders the St Brice’s Day massacre of all Danes in England
1003 Sven returns and burns Exeter
1004 Sven’s Vikings burn Norwich
1005 famine drives the Vikings home
1006 Sven’s Vikings base themselves on the Isle of Wight, march through Reading to loot Winchester
1007 Ethelred offers 36,000 pounds of silver as Danegeld
1008 Ethelred orders a massive fleet built but is betrayed by his own side, the fleet is destroyed in storms, never engages the enemy
1009 Canterbury buys off Thorkell the Tall with Danegeld
1011 Thorkell’s Vikings back in Canterbury kidnap the archbishop, Alphege then, bored and drunk, stone him to death
1013 Sweyn/Sven Forkbeard arrives from Denmark and travels round the country being acclaimed king wherever he goes in the Danelaw. Ethelred flees to Normandy
1014 having conquered England and established a kingdom which includes Denmark and Norway, Sven dies. The Danes and Anglo-Danes elect his son Cnut king, but Ethelred returns, raises a fleet and army, and drives Cnut out.
1015 Cnut returns with a massive fleet and ravages the West Country. Æthelred’s son, Edmund Ironside, had revolted against his father and established himself in the Danelaw. Over the next months, Canute conquered most of England, and Edmund had rejoined Æthelred to defend London when Æthelred died on 23 April 1016. The subsequent war between Edmund and Canute ended in a decisive victory for Canute at the Battle of Ashingdon on 18 October 1016. Edmund’s reputation as a warrior was such that Canute nevertheless agreed to divide England, Edmund taking Wessex and Canute the whole of the country beyond the Thames. However, Edmund died on 30 November and Canute became king of the whole country aged 20.
1017 Cnut formally crowned and receives 72,000 pounds Danegeld. Cnut executes high level traitors, parcels out land to his followers, marries Ethelred’s widow, Emma, and takes a Christian name.
1020s Cnut supports the rebuilding of Chartres cathedral, issues laws against heathenism
1019 upon the death of Cnut’s childless older brother Harald, Cnut becomes king of Denmark
1027 Cnut undertakes a pilgrimae to Rome to attend the coronation of the Emperor Conrad II
1035 Cnut dies intending his son by Emma, Harthacnut, to succeed. Harthacanut has to go to Norway to sort out problems there giving his half-brother, Cnut’s illegitimate son by Aelfgifu, Harold Harefoot, chance to seize the throne.
1040 Harthacnut is preparing a fleet to sail back to take Britain when Harold Harefoot dies
1042 Harthacnut proves himself a cruel king, imposing high taxes, burning Worcester to punish the citizens, before dropping dead after drinking heavily at a wedding.
1066 Harald Hardrada invades from Norway. Harold Godwinson defeats him at the battle of Stamford Bridge. William of Normandy invades. Harold loses to him at the battle of Hastings.

For a light-hearted Danish point of view see this web page.

Beowulf – elements of style

In the introduction to his Penguin 1973 edition of Beowulf, Michael Alexander summarises elements of the style of Beowulf and their consequences. (All quotes in the following are from Michael Alexander’s 1973 translation, reproduced with kind permission of the author):

1. The alliterative verse line

Number one is the use of alliteration as a device to order the verse rather than end-rhyme. Alliteration is much more intrusive, up to three words are dictated by the form as opposed the one of end-rhyme and this helps the tendency to clump words into alliterating stock phrases. Next is the inflected nature of the language which allows complex meaning to be conveyed by one word, and powerful meanings by just two. Compact and energetic. But the real key to Old English verse structure is the caesura which divides the two half lines, holding in balance the short clauses:

þaér æt hýðe | stód hringedstefna

There at hythe [harbour] | stood the ringed-prow [ship]

This balancing has all kinds of affects, as Alexander puts it:

Traditional oral composition by phrase accounts for an exclamatory lack of syntactic subordination and for the tacking, eddying, resumptive movement of the sense.

There is a continual play between the demands of sense ie the syntactic units not to be too far apart – and of the alliterative scheme ie some sets of words fit fluently together regardless of sense and so being grouped together regardless of sense: an accumulation of short stocky phrases.

The symmetry of the halves of the line produces balance, antithesis and chiasmos much more commonly than in unrhymed iambic pentameter, and the forward movement is much more impeded than in later English blank verse. The halves of the line are, as often as not, out of the natural sequence of prose or spoken syntax and, as the mind reshuffles the parts of the sentence, the tendency is for the half-lines to move apart; but the alliteration and the stress pattern bind them together. The final impression of the verse in Beowulf is of contrasting energies being held in a rhythmic balance – and this is also the impression of the poem as a whole.

This is what Alexander captures in his use of “exclamatory”. Reading Anglo Saxon verse is like a series of hand grenades going off in your mind, in your mouth, as punchy phrase follows punchy phrase. Or, as Tolkien puts it in his famous essay, The Monsters and the Critics:

We must not view this poem as in intention an exciting narrative or a romantic tale.The very nature of Old English metre is often misjudged. In it there is no single rhythmic pattern progressing from the beginning of a line to the end, and repeated with variation in other lines. The lines do not go according to a tune. They are founded on a balance; an opposition between two halves of roughly equivalent phonetic weight, and significant content, which are more often rhythmically contrasted than similar. They are more like masonry than music.

2. Other elements of style

The kenning is a figure of speech in old Germanic or Norse literature which uses two words, one in the genitive or possessive case, to create a periphrasis or roundabout way of describing an object. Thus, in Beowulf, the sea is described as the seġl-rād “sail-road” (1429b), swan-rād “swan-road” (200a), hron-rād “whale-road” (10). (Riddles were a big part of Germanic culture. There are two entire sets of riddles in the AngloSaxon corpus, 90 riddles survive in the Exeter Book. Kennings are a kind of miniature riddle).

From the south blazed
the sun, the world’s candle (1965-6)

When heaven’s jewel
has glided from the world… (2073)

God they thanked
For the smooth going over the salt-trails (228)

Day in the east grew
God’s bright beacon, | and the billows sank… (571)

… a chief shall greet
his fellow with gifts | over the gannet’s bath (1861)

Riding at anchor
the strayer of ocean… (1882)

A special sea dress, | a sail, was hoisted… (1906)

… until they took part | in that play-of-the-shields… (2038)

the daring-in-battle | would address the harp,
the joy wood… (2108)

since the legacy of the hammer [sword], | hard and battle-scarred,
the iron edges, | had utterly destroyed him (2828)

As this selection shows they are good but not that good. Some of them stray from being kennings to being simple metaphors. In fact it’s surprising and a little disappointing that there are so few kennings in Beowulf, I counted fewer than 20 in total. This is not where the poet’s energies were directed. More effort went into…

Pleasure in elaborating – armour God, kings, heroes and some classes of objects tend to have repeatable descriptive phrases cluster round them in apposition.

He then saw in the hall | a host of young soldiers,
a company of kinsmen | caught away in sleep,
a whole warrior-band. (728)

the grisly plaint of God’s enemy,
his song of ill-success, the sobs of the damned one
bewailing his pain. (786)

Let’s take objects first: the poem is awash with description of objects, especially those manmade objects which indicate status and class and that means, pre-eminently, arms and armour. Finely carved armour, especially if it involved gold, was possibly the most precious and rare object in the Migration Age; cups, goblets, jewellery come a close second but armour was heavily invested with the masculine values of the time – the strongest warrior was expected to wear the finest armour; and arms and armour were also an important part of the gift-giving which bound Dark Age society together:

The war-coats shone
and the links of hard | hand-locked iron
sang in their harness | as they stepped along
in their gear of grim aspect | going to the hall.
Sea-wearied, they then | set against the wall
their broad shields | of special temper,
and bowed to bench, | battle-shirts clinking,
the war-dress of warriors. (322-8)

Then as a sign of victory | the son of Healfdene
bestowed on Beowulf | a standard worked in gold,
a figured battle-banner, | breast and head armour;
and many admired | the marvellous sword
that was borne before the hero. (1021-5)

Against sea-beasts | my body-armour,
hand-linked and hammered, | helped me then,
this forge-knit battleshirt | bright with gold,
decking my breast. (550-3)

Then the cup was taken to him | and he was entreated kindly
to honour their feast: | ornate gold
was presented in trophy: | two arm-wreaths,
with robes and rings also, | and the richest collar
I have ever heard of | in all the world. (1192-6)

On a side note, much of the armour has the image of a boar on it. Not sure if this was a generic symbol of warriors or relates to a particular tribe but, strikingly, boar motifs were found on the armour at the famous Sutton Hoo archaeological site.

Over the cheek-pieces
boar-shapes shone out, | bristling with gold,
blazing and fire-hard, | fierce guards
of their bearers’ lives… (303-6)

where the bound blade, | beaten out by hammers,
cuts, with its sharp edges | shining with blood,
through the boars that bristle | above the foes’ helmets! ( 1285-87)

He was my closest councillor, | he was keeper of my thoughts,
he stood at my shoulder | when we struck for our lives
as the crashing together | of companies of foot,
when blows rained on boar-crests. (1325-8)

Boar carved in iron on a helmet from the Sutton Hoo excavations

Boar carved in iron on a helmet from the Sutton Hoo excavations

Elaboration of names Not only are important objects described at length but important people tend to have multiple epithets clustered around them, “a series of synonyms in apposition”. A king or hero will be named and then their position as leader or their family position clarified, their genealogy or their deeds will be summarised in an apposite phrase or two. It bigs them up, it makes them more potent (as, to this day, we give the royal family or eminent soldiers or notable citizens an accumulation of names, titles and awards).

It also has a secondary affect, as Alexander points out, of placing everything and everyone within a realistically-conceived world. Characters don’t appear out of nowhere: their names, their deeds, their family and their history are all explained, and this technique is part of what gives to the poem its epic quality of describing a real and objective world.

to earth’s men the most glorious
of houses under heaven, | the home of the king (309)

“The Master of the Danes,
Lord of the Scyldings, | shall learn of your request.
I shall gladly ask | my honoured chief,
giver of armbands, | about your undertaking… (350)

“The Master of Battles | bids me announce,
the Lord of the North-Danes, | that he knows your ancestry…” (391)

To you I will now
put one request, | Royal Scylding,
Shield of the South-Danes, | one sole favour
that you’ll not deny me, | dear lord of your people,
now that I have come thus far, | Fastness of Warriors.. (426)

Great then was the hope | of the grey-locked Hrothgar,
warrior, giver of rings. | Great was the trust
of the Shield of the Danes, | shepherd of the people… (607)

… hoping that their lord’s son | would live and in ripeness
assume the kingdom, | the care of his people,
the hoard and the stronghold, | the storehouse of heroes,
the Scylding homeland. (910)

… stepping on eagerly | to the stronghold where
Ongentheow’s conqueror, | the earl’s defender,
the warlike young king… (1967)

The protector of warriors | rewarded me
with a heap of treasure, | Healfdene’s son. (2142)

… when Hygelac was slain
when that kindly lord of the peoples, | the king of the Geats,
the son of Hrethel, | among the hurl of battle
slaked the sword’s thirst… (2355)

Elaboration of God’s names And of course this applies most of all to descriptions of God who, naturally, merits multiple appositional phrases, to big up his magnitude, as he does in all churches to this day. To this day it is felt by many users of English that the only way to convey somebody or something’s power is to give them multiple epithets. More is more:

The Maker was unknown to them
the Judge of all actions, | the Almighty was unheard of,
they knew not hot to praise | the Prince of heaven,
the Wielder of Glory. (180)

The Father in His wisdom
shall apportion the honours then, | the All-Holy Lord… (687-8)

The ancient arose and | offered thanks to God,
to the Lord Almighty, | for what this man had spoken. (1396)

“I wish to put in words my thanks
to the King of Glory, | the Giver of All,
the Lord of Eternity, | for these treasures that I see… (2794)

Understatement of experience “Litotes is a figure of speech in which understatement is employed for rhetorical effect, principally via double negatives. Rather than saying something is attractive (or even very attractive), one might merely say it is ‘not unattractive'”. A bluff Northern Yorkshire understatement is meant to be a leading characteristic of Norse and Anglo Saxon verse but I found litotes relatively rare in Beowulf.

Nor was it ungraciously | that he greeted the strangers (1892)

The wind did not hinder | the wave-skimming ship (1907)

There was little cause | for crowing among the Hetware
for their conduct of the foot-fight… (2363)

Related to it is the way eloquent verse paragraphs often end with a short, pithy, blunt, ironic comment, like a capstone.

The Scylding champion, | shaking with war rage,
caught it by its rich hilt, and, | careless of his life,
brandished its circles, | and brought it down in fury
to take her full and fairly across the neck,
breaking the bones; | the blade sheared
through the death-doomed flesh. | She fell to the ground;
the sword was gory; | he was glad at the deed.

The last line and a half is the conclusion and climax of 50 lines describing the fight between Beowulf and Grendel’s dam, and very characteristically Anglo Saxon in its sudden laconic brevity: three short, pithy half lines, summing up the action with Nordic indirectness (“the sword was gory”) and understatement of emotion (“he was glad at the deed”).

He had dived to his doom, | he had died miserably;
here in his fen-lair | he had laid aside
his heathen soul. | Hell welcomed it. (850-52)

There were melting heads
and bursting wounds, | as the blood sprang out
from weapon-bitten bodies. | Blazing fire,
most insatiable of spirits, | swallowed the remains
of the victims of both nations. | Their valour was no more. (1120)

Before morning’s light
he flew back to the hoard | in its hidden chamber.
He had poured out fire | and flame on the people,
he had put them to the torch; | he trusted now to the barrow’s walls
and to his fighting strength; | his faith misled him. (2320)

It was not granted to him
that an iron edge | could ever lend him
help in a battle; | his hand was too strong.
I have heard that any sword, | however hardened by wounds,
that he bore into battle, | his blow would overtax
– any weapon whatever: | it was the worse for him. (2682)

Archaic and artful Anglo Saxon poetic diction is deliberately more archaic and elaborate than Anglo Saxon prose which tends to be simpler and more analytic. Many words occur in the poetry which are found nowhere in the prose, some of them related to older Norse terms. Ie Anglo Saxon poetry is a highly artificial and artful creation. The use of multiple short, laconic, forceful phrases in apposition creates a steady, powerful impact. As Alexander eloquently puts it:

the effect is of strenuous and untiring eloquence.

Full text of Beowulf with parallel translation

All quotes copyright © Michael Alexander 1973, reproduced with kind permission of the author.

Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode by JRR Tolkien (1982)

Known to millions as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien earned his living as a philologist, a specialist in Anglo Saxon, Middle English, and medieval Norse and German at Oxford University. His core activity was establishing the meanings of Anglo Saxon and Norse words which often exist only in a handful of forms, in a handful or only one manuscript, identifying where scribes and copyists made mistakes (as they often did), establishing their cognate forms in other early medieval texts, languages and dialects, with the ultimate aim of establishing ‘good’ texts. For 40 years, from the late 1920s to the early 60s,  he lectured and wrote about all aspects of Anglo Saxon (and its cousin, medieval Norse) literature.

The historic ‘interludes’ in Beowulf

The 3,000 line Old English ‘epic’ Beowulf contains quite a few references to the collective history of the north European Germanic tribes of the Dark Ages; the stories of various heroes of legend are told within the poem by the bards who populate the various kings’ halls (Hrothgar the Dane, Hyglac the Geat), but always quite allusively – the audience who heard these poems knew the stories extremely well; the pleasure was in the way the poet shaped and formed them.

Unfortunately, to us, 1,500 years later, these tellings are tantalisingly obscure, hinting at back stories which we can almost never verify or only painfully piece together from other fragments and damaged texts which happened to survive from Europe’s ‘Dark Ages’. This book is about one particular such legend which occurs around line 1,000 of Beowulf:

The Episode, Beowulf 1063-1160

After Beowulf fights and defeats the monster Grendel in Heorot, the meadhall of King Hrothgar the Dane, the king’s bard sings in celebration a brief summary of the story of Finn, Hnaef and Hengest. The ‘Episode’ as it’s called, lasts only 100 lines before the plot moves swiftly on, leaving a number of unresolved queries in its wake: what happens at Finn’s hall? Why is there a fight at all? Who exactly is it between – Danes and Frisians are mentioned, so where do the Jutes come in? Why does Hengest replace Hnaef as leader of the Danes? Is Hengest even Danish or some kind of exile or mercenary? Has he got anything to do with the Hengest who the Venerable Bede records as leading the Jutes who invade and start to settle Kent in 449AD? Why does Hengest decide to stay, along with the Danish warband, under the hospitality of the Frisian King Finn for an entire winter after Finn and his men have treacherously attacked them?

The Fragment

As chance would have it, and it really is the randomest of lucky chances, in the 1700s a scholarly vicar, George Hickes, published a fragment of Anglo Saxon verse he had found on spare sheet of manuscript in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s library. The sheet has since disappeared. All we have is his transcription, riddled with mistakes. But it is a fragment (starting and ending in mid-sentence) which seems to come from the story of Hnaef and Finn and seems to describe in hectic immediate style the start of the dramatic fight at Finn’s hall. This text has become known as the Fight at Finnsburg, also known as the ‘Fragment’.

Gathering Tolkien’s papers

When Tolkien died he left a vast amount of papers, published and unpublished, scholarly or part of his great imagined world of Middle Earth. His son, Christopher, has dedicated his life to establishing order and publishing definitive versions of these texts (hence, for example, the 12 volumes of the stories of Middle Earth). Over his career Tolkien lectured and speculated repeatedly about the relation between the Fragment and the Episode (which has also attracted a huge amount of attention from other scholars of the period).

Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode was compiled by the OE scholar Alan Bliss in an attempt to create a definitive version of Tolkien’s thoughts on this popular subject. It is divided into four parts:

1. Glossary of Names A very detailed consideration of the origin, meaning, other citings and interrelations of all the proper names used in both the Fragment and Episode: Hnaef, Healfdene, Scylding, Hengest, Finn. You get a good flavour of just how complicated it is trying to establish order and consistency from the wealth of fragments and references to names which differ in every citation and from language to language, in the Wikipedia article about Hrothgar, lord of the Danes, whose meadhall Beowulf visits and protects from the monster Grendel.

Investigating all the names which occur in both Fragment and Episode provides a foundation for…

2. Textual Commentary A detailed examination of key words and phrases in the text which shed light on the mystery. This is like the textual apparatus you get with any classic text, explaining in detail all the editorial choices and decisions. This passage gives a good flavour of the book. It is analysing lines 43-45 of the fragment which, in George Hickes’ transcription reads:

Þā gewāt him wund hæleð | on wæg gangan,
sǣde þæt his byrne | ābrocen wǣre,
here-sceorpum hrōr, | and ēac wæs his helm þyrl…

Then a wounded hero | away turned,
said that his byrnie | was a-broken
active in his armour| and also his helm pierced…

about which Tolkien writes:

45 Hickes [ie George Hickes’ transcription has…] Here sceorpum hror. ‘Active in his armour’ makes no sense in this context, which clearly is a complaint that their weapons are no longer serviceable. Compare the exclamation of Hjalti (Hialto) in Saxo’s translation of Bjarkamal: “Already, grievously have sword and darts cut to pieces my shield… of the broken shield the arm thongs alone remain.” Compare also the situation in Olafr Trygvasson’s last fight:

“Ōlāfr konungr Tryggvason stōð ī lypting ā Orminum, ok skaut optast um daginn, stundum bogaskoti, en stundum gaflǫkum, ok jafnan tveim sęnn. Hann sā fram ā skipit, ok sā sīna męnn reiða sverðin ok hǫggva tītt, ok sā at illa bitu; mælti þā hātt: ‘hvārt reiði þēr svā slæliga sverðin, er ek sē at ekki bīta yðr?’ Maðr svarar: ‘sverð vār eru slæ ok brotin mjǫk.’

In that case read hreosceorp (pl.) unhror. Unhror does not else occur, and hror is usually applied to persons – its sense is ‘valiant, mighty’ (but etymologically ‘active, agile’). Neither of these is a fatal objection to weapons. Cf. fyrdsearo fuslic (B.2618) ‘gallant’. The classic example is cene ‘noble’ – ‘bold’ – ‘sharp’. The accentuation héresceorp un| hrór (Type E) is not unprecedented: cf. se þe unmurlice | madmas dæleþ (B.1756), þæt is undyrne | dryhten Higelac (B.2000). Technically as a “noun-compound”, un- should have the accent, but in spite of the additional logical reason for accenting the negative un- it was clearly often unaccented (like ne) – owing partly to the influence of the simplex and partly to sentence-rhythm. It is often in origin an IE unaccented form. Cf. “the ùnknown warrior”, “into the ùnknown”; cf. also ON ó– accented, ú– unaccented.

That is Tolkien’s reasoning for changing hrōr to unhrōr in the passage quoted above, so that his amended version now reads:

Þā gewāt him wund hæleð | on wæg gangan,
sǣde þæt his byrne | ābrocen wǣre,
here-sceorpum unhrōr, | and ēac wæs his helm þyrl…

Then a wounded hero | away turned
said that his byrnie | was a-broken
his armour inactive | and also his helm pierced…

If you’re looking for hobbits, forget it. The whole book is written like this.

3. Reconstruction A brief conclusion, based on the detailed evidence of the previous two sections of what the actual story was, what are the historical events behind the legend, namely:

Finn is king of the Frisians., a border people caught between the powerful Franks to the south, Danes to the north. He has married Hildeburh, sister of king Hnaef of the Halfdanes, probably in an attempt to patch up some feud between them. The Halfdanes are probably a family or tribe on the edges of Danish royal influence proper, types of colonists. The Frisians are an ancient tribe recorded by the Romans as far back as the first century. Hnaef Halfdane takes 60 thanes to visit Finn; this half Danish, mixed nature of his following explains why a number of his followers appear to be Jutes from the Jutland peninsula. Presumably he was visiting his sister; probably he was bringing back Finn’s son who he had been fostering as per northern Germanic custom. He planned to spend the winder with Finn, his brother-in-law.

It seems that Hnaef the half-Dane, with Jutes among his retinue, arrives at Finn’s hall/stronghold to find there are a number of exiled Jutes there who have fled some internal Jutish feud. There is very bad blood between the Jutish contingents. The atmosphere is tense. The half-Danish contingent, housed in the guests’ hall, that night notice shields and armour creeping up on them in the night. This is where the Fragment starts with the first assault on the hall: Hnaef despatches men to guard the two doors; Garulf among the attackers falls; they fight for five days, with the attackers suffering grievous casualties, when an attacker turns to his king (Finn?) to say his armour is packing up, the king replying, How are the two others (presumably the pair of defenders defending the door) doing…?

The Episode starts with queen Hildeburh surveying the carnage “when morning came”. King Hnaef of the defenders has been killled. So has Hildeburh’s son by Finn (the assumption is that he had been sent as a ward to the court of Hnaef, had therefore slept with the half-Danes, had for some reason been forward in the defence and so killed). But Finn has suffered more with most of his thanes killed in the assault. Therefore he is forced to make a peace treaty with Hengest, who has succeeded Hnaef as leader of the guests. In it Finn promises to call off the attack, lease them the hall for the winter, give them as much gold and rings as he usually gives his Frisians; so that they in every way become his subjects. The treaty agreed, many of the Frisians return to their homesteads leaving Hengest and the half-Danes to winter with Finn. Hengest broods all winter long on the conflict between his duty to avenge his dead leader Hnaef and the peace treaty he has agreed with Finn. In the spring the sea thaws and a number of the half-Danes sail away to Denmark, taking the tale of the treacherous attack on them and the murder of Hnaef. They return with reinforcements. One of the half-Danes places a well-known sword in Hengest’s lap and the next thing we know Finn is dead, his hall burnt down, and the half-Danes have taken queen Hildeburh and all Finn’s gold back to their native land.

Popularity

The tale, and references to Finn, seem to be so widespread in the ancient literature because:

a) historically, it captures an important moment in the troubled tribal wars of the North Sea and Baltic, one which seems to have crystallised certain shifts of power towards the Danes, against the Frisians and which, importantly for the later English tribes, prompted Hengest’s mission to Britain.

b) culturally, it deals with the classic dilemma explored again and again in the Icelandic sagas: Hengest’s conflict between the prime duty to avenge a murdered lord and some other duty either of marriage or, as here, a sworn treaty.

c) of its psychological complexity: almost certainly Finn didn’t initiate the attack on the half-Danes, his Jutish guests did and he found himself dragged in to fight against his wife’s kin; he sees his own son killed; he himself dies and loses everything. It is a very Northern, bleak outcome. But also the wrecca or adventurer Hengest didn’t expect a fight, and probably finds leadership of the survivors thrust upon him. His ethical dilemma (described above) is at the centre of the Episode. And queen Hildeburh is a victim like Hecuba or Andromache; through no fault at all of her own seeing first her son then her husband killed, her marriage hall going up in flames and herself taken like booty back to her homeland with ashes in her mouth. She is a character worthy of Greek tragedy.

Three Appendices One of the appendices is a tentative chronology of the events outlined above: I was electrified to discover Tolkien thought that Beowulf must have been born around 500AD; and that, with his breadth of knowledge and command of the sources, he thinks the powerful wrecca (exile, adventurer) Hengest, whose brooding character dominates both Fragment and Episode, is the same Hengest who the Venerable Bede records as invading Kent with his partner Horsa in 453! Tolkien’s full chronology is:

410 Romans leave Britain
425 Hengest born
430 Healfdene born
Fight at Finnsburh occurs about 452. Hnaef aged about 30 dies. Hengest the king’s thegn is 25. Hildeburh, Hnaef’s sister, older than him, 33, so as to have a son old enough to fight (and die) 15?
453 Hengest, victorious in the fight at Finnsburh, but with all sorts of enemies, leads a war band along with Horsa in the invasion of Kent. He has an infant son Oesc. Horsa is killed in battle soon after.
460 Hrothgar, second son of Healfdene born
470 Oesc becomes a warrior. 473 last mention of Hengest, in a chronicle. He probably lives to old age.
480 Hygelac of the Geats born.
490 Kingdom of Kent established with Oesc as head of the new royal line.
495-505 death of Healfdene Scylding; accession of his second son Hrothgar aged 35 or so.
495-500 Beowulf born.
512 death of Oesc, recorded in Chronicle.
520 Beowulf, aged about 20, travels from the court of King Hygelac of the Geats to visit Heorot, hall of King Hrothgar of the Healfdenes. Fights Grendel and her mother.
525-30 death of King Hygelac in a battle with the Franks, as recorded in Gregory of Tours’ Historia Francorum.
570 the aged Beowulf sets out to battle the dragon who is terrorising his people. Dies and is buried beneath a great mound by the sea.

Criticism

I am not scholar enough to criticise the contents of this book in detail. The editor, Bliss, keeps up a steady stream of footnotes pointing out where Tolkien’s theories are out of date or wrong. And the book was published in 1982 – who knows what further discoveries and insights have been published in the past 30 years?

It is a big effort to read this book, but working through all 150 pages of Tolkien’s densely argued notes really takes you into the guts of the text with all its possible variant readings and interpretations. Even an amateur like myself comes away with a much more vivid feel for the complexity of the texts, for the power and beauty of the poetry, for the pathos of the central characters, and excited by the tantalising crossovers with actual recorded historical events.

The only criticism I can confidently make is that the book should have included the text of the poem Widsith. This 140-line Anglo Saxon poem is a lament by a wandering minstrel for the courts and kings he has known and performed for: some are clearly fantasy (Caesar, the king of the Egyptians) but others are highly factual references to real kings of Germanic tribes. Early in the poem he refers to Hnaef and Finn, lines Tolkien includes in his list of four sources of evidence which he will consider. It would have been easy and very convenient for the reader trying to follow the repeated references to Widsith if the book had included the full text and a decent prose translation of it.

Book jacket for Finn and Hengist, copyright John Howe and Random Books

Book jacket for Finn and Hengist, copyright John Howe and Random Books

Sagas

Beowulf – the epic

Beowulf is the longest Old English poem, some 3,200 lines in length, representing a tenth of the 30,000 lines of OE poetry which survive. It relates events set during the European Migration Era (400-600); was probably composed before the death of Bede (735); and the version we have was probably written down around 1000.

Setting All the events of Beowulf are set in Denmark and southern Sweden; it doesn’t even mention Britain or England which makes it odd that it is routinely discussed as the first great work in English literature – though having read the Eddas I now appreciate that Germanic culture, language, myths and legends stretched during this period in a continuum from the Black Sea to Iceland. Beowulf was only given its current name in 1805 and was first published in 1815.

Manuscript Beowulf survives, like most OE, in just one manuscript, in this case British Library Cotton MS Vitellius, which was damaged in a fire but luckily survived. The manuscript also contains handwritten texts of a homily on St Christopher, the Marvels of the East, the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle and an imperfect copy of another Old English poem, Judith. All five texts concern or mention fabulous beasts so the MS may well have been assembled around this theme. The verse is written out as continuous prose, divided into numbered sections. So the layout of all modern editions into traditional poetic lines, often with clearly marked half line-breaks, the punctuation, commas, full stops and speech marks, are all the work of modern editors.

First page of the Beowulf manuscript; legible but damaged

First page of the Beowulf manuscript; legible but damaged

Above, the first page of the Beowulf manuscript, from which scholars extract lines of verse, thus:

Hwæt! We Gardena | in geardagum,
þeodcyninga,  | þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas | ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing | sceaþena þreatum,
5monegum mægþum, | meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas.

Author Of course no-one knows who the author was or even where it was written: but scholars agree it is the work of a sophisticated and well-educated Christian, maybe even a monk, probably associated with one of the royal courts which flourished in the 700s, either of Wessex or Mercia or Northumbria.

Plot In his youth Beowulf the Geat, from south Sweden, sails to the legendary court, Heorot, of King Hrothgar the Dane, and frees it from being terrorised by the monster Grendel who has been attacking and sweeping off warriors to kill and eat for 12 long years. No sooner is Grendel defeated than his mother attacks. Beowulf tracks her back to her lair beneath a lake, there fighting and killing her. He returns in honour and laden with gifts to Geatland and his king, Hygelac. Eventually Hygelac and his son die and Beowulf becomes king of the Geats. 50 years later his own kingdom is threatened by a dragon. Beowulf heroically defeats the dragon but is himself killed; he is burnt on a pagan funeral pyre, buried in a mound by the sea, and it is predicted that his people will now perish. It is not a happy ending.

Historical provenance Beowulf is nowhere attested in the historical record. Maybe he is entirely fictitious. But his Geatish lord, Hygelac, was certainly real: he is recorded as dying in a skirmish against the Franks about 520 in Bishop Gregory of Tour’s History of the Franks. So soon after is when Beowulf would take over as king; and fifty years later would date his fight with the dragon and death around 570AD.

Network of references If the plot is so simple, how come the poem is so long? Partly because it is enmeshed in scores of references to other Germanic legends of the Migration Era. These were clearly designed to pad, bolster and ennoble the main plot, but are a stumbling block to the modern reader: whereas the contemporary audience would have caught the subtlest reference to these stories, we know next to nothing about these long-lost legends;  many are only barely explicable by reference to scattered and obscure references or fragments.

The Penguin translation Penguin translations have a long tradition of being old-fashioned and often poor quality. But Michael Alexander’s introduction and translation are both excellent. (Nota bene: I am referring here to the 1973 translation and introduction; Alexander updated his translation and completely rewrote the introduction in 2003.)

Michael Alexander’s introduction His main claim is that Beowulf is an epic, if we define epic as having these attributes:

1 inclusiveness of scope
2 objectivity of treatment
3 unity of consciousness, of ethos
4 an action of significance – epic amplitude – fullness of epic narration

An epic should be universal, taking in all of life and representing it in such a way that the general truth of the presentation is universally recognised. Its scope should embrace war and peace, men and gods, life and death in a comprehensive and encyclopedic way. And its presentation should be objective…. One’s consciousness of unity in the Iliad, and in epic generally, springs not from a unity of action but a unity of consciousness, an ethos which arises from a primitive intuition of the cosmic solidarity, organic unity and continuity of life.

1. Inclusiveness of scope Beowulf comprehends life and death, man and God, peace and war. It opens with the funeral of one hero, follows the career from young glory to aged defeat of another hero: a lifecycle. The entire life of a people, the Geats, its rise and fall, is described. Peace with its beauty and ceremonies in the hall of Hereot is described, and war and its devastating consequences among the Germanic tribes is continually referred to. Goodness and civilisation at the hall are disrupted by evil incarnated in the monsters. The start of history is captured by the scop or bard, who inaugurates Hereot by singing a poem of God’s Creation of the world – and the end of the history is symbolised by the prophesied extermination of Beowulf’s people after his death. God is seen intervening at key points throughout the poem; but the Devil is alluded to once and his forces, the monsters, drive the plot which is a microcosm of the endless battle of Good against Evil in a fallen universe. “The whole life of the people and of mankind is involved in the struggle of the hero-king against the dragon.” In its way, it is as cosmic in ambition as Paradise Lost.

2. Objectivity of treatment

  • The dignified presentation of death Alexander considers the poem gives weight and due importance to all its characters and especially to their deaths : “Every single one of the numerous individual deaths in the poem is given its full weight and significance… Homer and Tolstoy do not outdo Beowulf in their respect for the gravity and commonness of dying.” Though Alexander admits that the poet does intervene, does comment, does include homilies and morals, thus falling short of the “blithe cosmic impartiality” of Homer. But then who doesn’t?
  • Stock scenes “Much of the objectivity – the truth – comes from the traditional presentation of life in the heroic world. It is crystallised into generic scenes: voyage, welcome, feast, boast, arming, fight, reward… have the traditional and practised feel of solid simplicity and consistency… The familiar nuts and bolts of life are presented in stylised, elevated but simple form…”
  • Values “Value are constant: sunlight is good, cold is ominous.” Constant, simple and dignified. Feasting in the firelit hall is good. Being isolated in the cold moor is bad. Fighting alongside your brother warriors is good. Being betrayed by a colleague is bad.
  • Nature “The stage upon which the drama is set is large and simple. Men are haeleth under heofenum, ‘heroes beneath the heavens’, they are be twaem seonum, ‘between two seas’,  on middanyeard, on ‘middle earth’, swa hit waeter bebugeth, ‘surrounded by water’. Every event and action is positioned in a landscape which is both realistic but raised to a level of stylised simplicity, given a symbolic depth. “The sense of never losing one’s bearings is not only spatial but temporal. The coming of day or night or the seasons is never omitted.”
  • Genealogy “Likewise we know where ever man comes from… A man is identified as someone’s son or as someone’s kin. For important people or things, complete genealogies or lists of owners are given… Each action in Beowulf has a full spatial and temporal dimension, and the cosmic envelope of space and time is always assumed and usually felt to be there, immutable.”
  • Impersonal “In epic, human and non-human actions are felt to be part of a larger impersonal if organic process, the authority of which is not questioned, but accepted and respected. (Critics of Homer speak of the aidos, or respect, felt for the operations of the process.)” Alexander concedes the poet’s Christian comments and interventions do break this impersonality; they intrude sermonising; they prevent Beowulf rising to the heights of Homer. Nothing in western literature does.
  • Already known Unlike most modern narratives, whether novels or plays or movies, in an epic poem the audience knows the story and outcome before the start. This means a) the audience and poet are interested in the treatment not the plot b) the poem is full of flashbacks, recapitulations, anticipations: these amplify the sense of completeness, of pattern, of objectivity and detachment from events.

3. Unity of ethos is related to objectivity. The one enables the other. The poet achieves his objectivity because he is working within an objective worldview. “The stability of the system of epic formulae perpetuates the tribal view in the hallowed tribal words. This system is itself an organism. Each verbal formula is the tribe’s crystallisation of an aspect of experience…” The crystallisation is possible because of the tribe’s shared views. The tribe’s shared views are crystallised in the formulae. This is why the way in which OE alliterative verse tends to separate stock phrases in apposition into stand-alone units, also emphasises the deep, archaic, shared value in these phrases – and smoothing their clunky positioning out into fluent modern English prose completely obliterates not only their poetical, but their ideological impact, which is enormous.

Lofgeornost The last word of the poem is lof-geornost “most eager for praise” and “this is the primary theme of all heroic poetry, the prowess, strength and courage of the single male, undismayed and undefeated in the face of all adversaries and in all adventures. The hero surpasses other men, and his aristeia is rewarded by fame.  He represents the ultimate of human achievement in a heroic age, and embodies its ideal. Though he must die his glory lives on.”

The Aeneid issue CS Lewis divided epic into primary epic (made by a sometimes illiterate near-contemporary in the culture he is describing – Homer) and secondary epic (a conscious recreation of a vanished world by a highly literate author from another culture – Virgil). Beowulf is nearer the second category because, as all scholars acknowledge, although it is written about preliterate pagan Germanic society in pagan Germanic poetry using pagan Germanic formulae, it was actually composed by a highly literate Christian, possibly even a Christian Anglian monk, just about as far removed from the world of feasting, fighting German pagans as he could be. He is in love with the pagan world and its culture; presumably so is his audience or there would have been little point composing the poem; but he is decisively separated from it by his Christian faith.

Secondary epic This is what makes Beowulf a secondary epic: that the poet is not only looking back at a legendary past; he is looking back at the pagan world looking back at its legendary past. Not only is there a dying fall to his depiction of the pagan world (itself obsessed with the sense of transitoriness and passing-away); but he sees that the entire pagan worldview epitomised in his subject matter and in the Germanic style of stock phrasing, was wrong. There is a deeper level of melancholy. “To a literate consciousness deepened by Christianity, the heroic world of these heathen ancestors must have seemed doubly admirable and the limitations of heroic life doubly tragic.”

4. A significant action At its core Beowulf is a folk story or, deeper, a myth. A hero fights monsters three times: the first two times he conquers; the third time he is old and the monster kills him. It is a profound emblem of the life of man, overcoming challenge after challenge, but unable to avoid, ultimately, his own mortality. If, at a deep, mythical level, the story is about Man confronting his own Mortality, Alexander suggests that at a higher level the “significant action” or actions emphasise the importance of loyalty to the chieftain as the fundamental tie in heroic society; Beowulf dies on a mythic level because the dragon kills him, but on a social level because his 12 thanes abandon him; at his moment of need the bonds of allegiance break down; and that is symbolic of the fragility and vulnerability of heroic society as a whole. It has the same elegiac feel as the collapse of the Order of the Round Table. Sure, it’s attacked by external enemies; but it is its internal weakness that condemns it.

And here again the “Aeneid effect” kicks in – the poem laments the passing of one warband, one people, the Geats – but the Christian poet, at a higher level, laments the passing of the entire pagan way of life. It is a double elegy. It is made up of dynamic, vigorous, virile verse which, at every moment, is haunted by the transitoriness of human power and life. It is wonderful.

Beowulf sailing home by John Howe © John Howe (http://www.john-howe.com)

Beowulf sailing home by John Howe © John Howe (http://www.john-howe.com)

John Howe The illustrator John Howe has created a wonderful series of illustrations of Beowulf on his website. Enjoy and marvel.

Energy is eternal delight as William Blake said. Both Tolkien and Alexander emphasise the power and forcefulness and energy of the verse which, of course, reinforce the subject matter of the poem which is, ultimately, the hero’s virility. Beowulf has “a hero’s delight in his own prowess and a hero’s magnanimity to lesser men”. His virility burns bright in his youth; then diminishes and is conquered in old age, by death. It is no shame. We all share the same destiny. Beowulf is revered for his defiance, his unwillingness to go gentle into that good night, for his prowess.

The critics write of: “sustained energy as poetry”, “an utterance of power”, “characteristic power and beauty”, “powerful and unique power”…

All quotes copyright © Michael Alexander 1973, reproduced with kind permission of the author.

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún by JRR Tolkien

Since the death of JRR Tolkien in 1973, his son Christopher has been working through his father’s papers, publishing a steady stream of posthumous editions of the Great Man’s writings. Largest has been the twelve volume set The Histories of Middle Earth in which Christopher compiled all the unfinished, abandoned and alternative versions Tolkien drafted for the epic mythology of which ‘Lord of the Rings’ is only an episode.

Tolkien earned his living, of course, as a Professor of English at Oxford, specialising in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse poetry. He routinely delivered lectures about both subjects and marked students’ translations of verse from both traditions.

Still, it came as a surprise to both fans and experts in the field when Christopher Tolkien announced he was publishing two long poems by Tolkien, written in English but obeying the rules of the eight-line fornyrðislag metre found in Icelandic Eddaic poetry. Not only is the form Icelandic but the subject matter is an ambitious attempt to retell the entire tale of Sigurd and Gudrún – a central legend of the north European Dark Ages, the subject of a third of the poems in the Poetic Edda, the entire subject of the Icelandic Völsunga saga, of the German epic poem the Nibelungenlied, of the long poem The Story of Sigurd the Volsung by William Morris and, most famously, the basis of Richard Wagner’s vast four-opera cycle, the Ring of the Nibelung.

Contents

The challenge Tolkien set himself to overcome is that the three main sources for the story – the Elder Edda, the prose Edda and the Völsunga saga – contradict each other in the outline of the story, in many details, even in the names. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún aims to cut through the scholarly pernicketiness and hesitancy about manuscript variants and textual ambiguities etc, in order to tell one clear consistent story. It succeeds brilliantly!

The New Lay of the Völsungs is the first and longest of the two poems, nearly 130 pages long and divided into 10 sections. It starts with the creation of the world, a short retelling of the famous Völuspá poem from the Poetic Edda:

Of old was an age
when Odin walked
by wide waters
in the world’s beginning;
lightfooted Loki
at his left was running,
at his right Hœnir
roamed beside him.

That’s the fornyrðislag metre: four lines divided in two halves (or eight short lines, as here), two syllables emphasised in each half line, each emphasised syllable in the first half line alliterating with the first emphasised syllable in the second half line.

Birds sang blithely (two alliterating beat words)
o’er board and hearth, (one alliterating beat word, one not)
bold men and brave (two alliterating beat words)
on benches sitting.  (one alliterating beat word, one not)
Mailclad, mighty  (two alliterating beat words)
his message spake there  (one alliterating beat word, one not)
a Gautish lord (one alliterating beat word, one not – irregular)
gleaming-harnessed.  (one alliterating beat word, one not)

The tale moves briskly on through the successful career of king Völsung, his son Sigmund, and his son, Sigurd, through Sigurd’s famous killing of the dragon Fafnir, his betrothal to the Valkyrie Brynhild, his drugging by king Gjúki’s wicked wife Grimhild, so that he forgets Brynhild and marries Gudrún; in this state of amnesia he swaps bodily shape with his brother-in-law Gunnar to help Gunnar woo and wed Brynhild – but the day after the marriage Brynhild realises Gunnar is not the hero she thought and the oblivion potion wears off a distraught Sigurd, and both lovers are left married to other partners. The infuriated Brynhild tells Gunnar Sigurd has seduced her and Gunnar gets his idiot brother, Gotthorm, to murder Sigurd in his bed. They build a funeral pyre for Sigurd and the deranged Brynhild kills herself and is burned along with the hero whose death she caused.

Commentary on The New Lay of the Völsungs Christopher Tolkien gives a detailed account of the manuscripts JRR left behind along with useful clarifications of where JRR departed from, or chose between, the various sources.

The New Lay of Gudrún is shorter at 56 pages and follows the career of the widow Gudrún as she is married off to Atli, the infamous Attila, king of the Huns (!), who invites her brothers, Gunnar and Högni  to visit and promptly tortures them to extract the gold treasure Sigurd brought with him from killing the dragon Fafnir.  Högni  has his heart cut out and Gunnar refuses to talk so Atli throws him into a snakepit where Gudrún sends him a harp which he plays and magically prevents the snakes biting him. Until one does. At her brother’s funeral Gudrún serves Atli the bodies of his own sons, cooked, and then burns Atli’s stronghold to the ground. She summarises the long tragic events, all the dead princes the curse of Andvari’s gold has killed, before drowning herself in the sea.

Commentary on The New Lay of Gudrún shorter set of notes on the poem and the story of Gudrún.

Appendix A – A short account of the origins of the Legend Christopher seeks to  establish, via Tolkien’s lectures, notes, remarks and scattered pieces of paper, where his father stood on the various theories about the origin of the Sigurd and Fafnir legend (dragon, gold, hero) and how it came to be combined with the obviously different legend about the Niflungs. Complex stuff.

Appendix B – The Prophecy of the Sibyl Tolkien essayed a translation of part of the famous Völuspá poem from the Poetic Edda into 12 6-line stanzas of traditional English rhyming verse. It is interesting how bad this is:

Then darkened shall the sunlight be
and Earth shall founder under sea,
and from the cloven heavens all
the gleaming stars shall flee and fall;
the steam shall rise in roaring spires
and heaven’s roof be licked with fires.

It doesn’t have the compression and power of the long fornyrðislag poems, showing that the eddaic poems live or die by their concision and power. Also shows what a very traditional poet Tolkien is, using outdated poeticisms to fill in the metre of the longer English line.

Appendix C – Two fragments of a heroic poem of Attila in Old English one is 40 lines long, the second 28 lines long, two translations of sections of the Norse eddaic poem Atlakviða into Old English (Anglo-Saxon). One for the specialists.

Changes

The two commentaries detail the changes Tolkien made to his source material in order to create one unified coherent story. Along with the introduction and appendices they dwell at length on the confused state of the old texts, how they appear to be trying to reconcile different traditions, different stories, about different sets of heroes. Christopher Tolkien admirably recounts his father’s theories as expressed in lectures, notes and random scraps of paper. If you have the mental capacity, Christopher supplies the evidence you need to assess Tolkien’s theories about the origins and authorship of all the various Dark Age sources.

But there is one MASSIVE change Tolkien makes in his version of the poems, which is entirely gratuitous, entirely his own addition to this ancient tangle of narratives. He makes Sigurd not just any old warrior, but THE warrior, the Chosen One of Odin who, it is explained in the opening section, will be the last best hope of the gods when the time comes for their Last Battle with the giants, at the Ragnarök.

This is hugely unlike the Norse originals, a complete and surprising transformation. One reason the Völsunga saga is so confusing is because, as so many of the other sagas, one damn thing happens after another. There is no sense of foregrounding individuals or important scenes. Plenty of other lives and stories occur before we get to Sigurd in either the Völsungasaga or the Poetic Edda, and the story carries right on after his death without a blip.

One of the challenges of reading the sagas is this complete lack of all the devices we know from novels and plays and films and TV which make crystal clear who the hero and heroine are, prepare the ground for them, and then focus in on dramatic moments in their story. In the sagas one person with a complex family tree follows another in puzzling profusion – leaving the reader struggling to figure out who among the scores of Helgis and Hognis is the actual “hero”.

In sharp contrast Tolkien makes Sigurd a hero of world-shattering importance, not just another Helgi but THE man who will come to Valhalla to help the gods fight against the giants.

Thy womb shall wax
with the World’s Chosen,
serpent-slayer,
seed of Odin.
Till ages end
all shall name him
chief of chieftains,
changeless glory.

It transplants the entire story into a different worldview. Very tempting to remember Tolkien was a Roman Catholic and has here imposed a Christian-shaped importance to the hero. If not that personal a shift, it at the least gives the narrative a priority and importance which the Norse original lacks.

This big shift is just one way in which Tolkien makes his poems much more modern, comprehensible and meaningful than the original Norse. The story is smoothed out into a comprehensible linear narrative. Characters get lots of dialogue to explain their motives. Scenes are properly set and the way prepared for the protagonists to say what’s on their minds. You understand what’s happening and why.

This couldn’t be more unlike the clipped, laconic, obscure and often impenetrable poems of the Poetic Edda. The obscurity and garbled brokenness of the originals is of a piece with the compressed power of the originals. Tolkien can’t match or replace that. But this paperback might make a good transition for readers who like modern fantasy and want to tentatively explore the sources of Tolkien’s imagination before diving  straight in to the challenging Poetic or Prose Eddas.

Photo of the woodcarving of Sigurd killing the dragon Fafnir, wood carving from Hylestad stave church in Norway

Sigurd killing the dragon Fafnir, wood carving from Hylestad stave church in Norway

Sagas

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