Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (1962)

The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.

There is no pleasure more complex than that of thought.

In the course of a life dedicated to letters and (at times) to metaphysical perplexity…

Borges wrote a surprising amount (some 70 books in Spanish) and yet he is principally known in the Anglo-Saxon world for just one work published 60 years ago, Labyrinths, a breath-taking collection of 40 mind-bending short stories, short essays, and ‘parables’, all of which reference, quote and play with a multitude of obscure and arcane texts and ideas derived from philosophy, theology and mysticism.

Penguin went on to publish a flotilla of four or five other volumes by Borges, but none of them hold a candle to Labyrinths which is one of the most important volumes of short stories in English in the second half of the 20th century. It is a scandal that, to this day, only a fraction of Borges’s output has been translated into English.

Adventures among books and ideas

Labyrinths consists of 23 ficciones, ten essays and eight ‘parables’. All the stories were written and first published in Borges’s native Spanish in Argentine literary magazines between 1941 and 1956. The first 13 stories are taken from a previous collection, Ficciones, published in 1945, which was expanded in successive editions, and the remaining ten were published in a collection titled The Aleph, published in 1949, and also added to in later editions. That’s a long time ago but when you look at individual stories it’s striking to see that most of them were first published in literary magazines much earlier, most of them at the very end of the 1930s, during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war years. Although he carried on writing into the 1980s, his greatest hits were composed in the 1940s.

Before I exhaust myself giving brief summaries of each of the pieces, let me make a simple point which is that, rereading Borges’s stories made me realise that possibly his major discovery was that, for the purposes of writing a short fiction, you can replace plot with ideas.

What I mean is that the best stories discuss philosophical and metaphysical or mystical ideas and, in doing so, refer to scores of obscure Latin and Greek, or Christian or Islamic texts and sources – and that it is this, rather than plots, character or dialogue, which fills his stories.

Most adventures are, almost by definition, about people, about named characters. Borges’s short fictions are adventures whose protagonists are ideas, ideas characterised by their multi-layered bookishness and whose explanation requires multiple references to all manner of arcane texts – and whose ‘adventure’ consists in the logical unfolding of far-fetched premises to even more-mind-boggling conclusions: such as the man who discovers he is a dream created by someone else; or that the entire universe is made up of an infinite library; or that all human activity is determined by a secret lottery; and so on.

It is immensely characteristic of this preference for ideas over psychology or emotions or feelings that, when the narrator of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius stumbles across an encyclopedia purporting to catalogue the fictitious planet of Tlön, he experiences a moment of delirious happiness i.e. emotion, feeling – but quickly stifles it:

I began to leaf through [the encyclopedia] and experienced an astonished and airy feeling of vertigo which I shall not describe, for this is not the story of my emotions but of Uqbar and Tlön and Orbis Tertius.

In fact various emotions do occur in the stories, there are characters and events, but this moment can stand as a symbol of the way that fiction’s traditional concerns for character and emotion and plot are, on the whole, in Borges’s stories, repressed or sidelined in order to make way for the adventures of ideas and books.

Borges’s bookishness is not for everyone

And I suppose there’s a point that’s so obvious that it’s easy to miss which is that you have to be fairly learnèd and scholarly, or at least fairly well-read, in order to really enjoy these works. On the first page alone of Deutsches Requiem Borges mentions Brahms and Schopenhauer and Shakespeare and Nietzsche and Spengler and Goethe and Lucretius. Now I not only know who these guys all are, but I have read some or much of all of them (a lot of Shakespeare and Nietszche, a book of Schopenhauer’s, some Goethe and Spengler) and so the mental edifice which invoking their names creates, the structure and framework of the story, are all entirely familiar to me and so I can enjoy how Borges plays with their names and references.

But I suppose there will be many readers who haven’t read (or listened to, in the case of Brahms) these authors and composers, and so might have to stop and Google each of them and, I suppose, this might well put off a lot of potential readers. It’s not that the stories are intrinsically ‘difficult’ (though sometimes they juggle with ideas on the edge of comprehension) so much as that the entire atmosphere of intense bookishness and scholarly whimsy which they evoke might well deter as many unbookish readers as it fanatically attracts fans and devotees among the literary-minded.

Contents – Fictions

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940)

Uqbar is a mythical land which the narrator and friends find mentioned in a ‘pirated’ edition of Volume XLVI of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, but can find referred to nowhere else, despite ransacking the reference books of numerous libraries. The article explains that the literature of Uqbar was one of fantasy, featuring epics and legends set in two imaginary regions, Mlejnas and Tlön. In part 2 of the story we learn that Tlön is less an imaginary realm than an entire ‘planet’.

At first it was believed that Tlön was a mere chaos, an irresponsible license of the imagination; now it is known that it is a cosmos and that the intimate laws which govern it have been formulated, at least provisionally

Once he has posited the existence of this ‘planet’, the narrator goes on to recount the dizzying nature of its language and its many schools of philosophy:

  • one of the schools of Tlön goes so far as to negate time: it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present hope, that the past has no reality other than as a present memory
  • another school declares that all time has already transpired and that our life is only the crepuscular and no
    doubt falsified and mutilated memory or reflection of an irrecoverable process
  • another, that the history of the universe — and in it our lives and the most tenuous detail of our lives — is the scripture produced by a subordinate god in order to communicate with a demon
  • another, that the universe is comparable to those cryptographs in which not all the symbols are valid and that only what happens every three hundred nights is true
  • another, that while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men

This is what makes Borges’s stories so phenomenally packed and mind-bending: that each individual sentence is capable of introducing to an entirely new way of thinking about the world.

The postscript to the story describes the narrator stumbling on a letter which purports to summarise the process whereby magi in the early 17th century decided to invent a country, how the idea was handed down as the texts proliferate, till an early Victorian American decided they needed to be more ambitious and describe an entire planet. In 1914 the last volume of a projected 40-volume encyclopedia of Tlön was distributed to the cabal of experts. It is estimated it will become the Greatest Work of Mankind, but it was decided this vast undertaking would itself be the basis of an even more detailed account which was provisionally titled the Orbus Tertius. Slowly, the narrator claims, mysterious objects from Tlön have appeared in our world. This last part is set two years in the future and describes a world in which news of Tlön has become widespread and artefacts from the imaginary planet are appearing all over the world and beginning to replace our own.

The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world…Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) “primitive language” of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty — not even that it is false… A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön. Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön.

So it is, on a fairly obvious level, a kind of science fiction disaster story in which our world will eventually be taken over and/or destroyed by the imaginary creation of the cabal.

The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)

A story which opens with a book and is about a book. Its first sentence is:

On page 22 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by thirteen British divisions (supported by 1,400 artillery pieces), planned for the 24th of July, 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th….

The story is the account of Dr. Yu Tsun, former professor of English at the Hochschule at Tsingtao, a spy acting for the Germans, based in England, in Staffordshire, but is rumbled by a British officer, Captain Madden, so makes his way by train to the village of Ashgrove and the house of one Dr Stephen Albert, who describes the efforts of Yu’s ancestor, ‘Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost’. The story reveals that this labyrinth is metaphorical: it actually stands for the scattered manuscript of an incomplete book. The garden of forking paths is the novel promised by never completed. But the nature of the fragments is deliberate:

The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts’ui Pên conceived it. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time.

So it’s about a book which encompasses all time, and all possible permutations of time.

The Lottery in Babylon (1941)

Tells the story of the development of a hyper-complex lottery run by the all-powerful ‘Company’ in a fictional version of ‘Babylon’, which ends up becoming the basis for everything which happens, for every event in everybody’s lives.

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939)

This purports to be a brief article by a follower of the now deceased writer Pierre Menard. It starts by listing the complete works of the defunct writer, some 19 in all, thus establishing the hyper-bookish context; then goes on to describe the unprecedented attempt by Pierre Menard to rewrite (sections of) Don Quixote as if by himself, as if for the first time, as if written by a 20th century author, and the complexity and strangeness of the result.

The Circular Ruins (1940)

The unnamed man arrives in a canoe from the south, beaches it in the mud and climbs to the ancient ruins.

The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though it was supernatural. He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality

He devotes years to dreaming, piece by piece, a perfect young man, who he then teaches in his dreams and who then finally becomes a real entity in the real world, who can pass painlessly though fire. But when a forest fire rages towards the ruins where he has been living the man walks boldly towards them – only not to feel a thing and to realise, that he himself is a dream-man who has been dreamed, in his turn, by someone else.

The Library of Babel (1941)

The narrator lives inside a library so huge, made up of infinite levels and extending through infinite galleries of hexagonal rooms, that he and all the other inhabitants regard it as the known universe. From this perspective, of an inhabitant of the infinite library, he shares with us the discoveries and/or theories of various other inhabitants who, through the centuries, have explored deeper into the infinite library, made discoveries and come up with theories as to its origin and purpose, for example the theories of the idealists (‘the hexagonal rooms are a necessary form of absolute space’) or the mystics (‘The mystics claim that their ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls’) origin stories (‘Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi’), those who have given up trying to find meaning (‘I know of an uncouth region whose librarians repudiate the vain and superstitious custom of finding a meaning in books and equate it with that of finding a meaning in dreams or in the chaotic lines of one’s palm’).

Five hundred years before his birth the momentous discovery was made that the library contains all possible combinations of their language’s 25 symbols, in other words, contains all human knowledge, and much more, contains the history and future of everyone. This led to a wave of optimism and pride. This gave rise to a category of men named inquisitors who travel far and wide in search of these phantom volumes which will explain everything, and are named the Vindications. This was followed by the depressing realisation that, although these books certainly exist, in a library infinitely large anyone’s chances of finding them are infinitely small. Which gave rise to a semi-religious movement of nihilists, the Purifiers, who set out to examine and destroy all books which are not Vindications. But even their senseless destruction of millions of books made little difference in a library which is infinite in size.

The knowledge that everything has already been written has had a negative effect. Some have become religious hysterics. Suicides have become more common. The population of the hexagonal rooms has been depleted. He wonders whether the human species will be extinguished.

Funes the Memorious (1942)

Ireneo Funes was a dark, Indian-looking man from Uruguay. He died in 1889. The author of this piece is contributing a memoir of him to a volume to be published in his honour. Funes was a perfectly ordinary young man till a horse threw him aged 19. From that point onwards, he remembers everything which happens to him, every single impression, sight, sound and smell which his senses register, is recorded in the fine instrument of his memmory.

The two projects I have indicated (an infinite vocabulary for the natural series of numbers, a useless mental catalogue of all the images of his memory) combine in this dazzling idea. Not just memory, he notices everything.

He was the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform, instantaneous and almost intolerably precise world

And the ‘story’, really an essay based on a fictional premise, explores what it would mean to live in this state.

To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.

The Shape of the Sword (1942)

Not a bookish brain-teaser, this is a much more straightforward story. The narrator, who is referred to as Borges, is forced when travelling in the North to stay in the house of a man who has a reputation as a martinet and occasional drunk who is disfigured by a half-moon-shaped scar on his forehead. The man treats Borges to dinner then they get talking and finally the man tells him his story: how he was a fighter with the IRA during the Irish Civil War, and helped mentor and protect a vehement young recruit, one John Vincent Moon, a committed communist who shut down every discussion with his fervent ideology. On a patrol they were caught by a guard who shot and nicked Moon’s shoulder. They break into the abandoned house of an old Indian officer, to hide out. When the town they were hiding in was taken by the Black and Tans, he returned to the house to overhear Moon betraying him to the authorities on the promise of his own safe passage, whereupon he chased Moon round the house brandishing one of the swords belonging to its absent owner until he caught him and branded his face with the half moon with a sword.

All through the story you’d been led to believe the narrator was the strong man. Only at the end does he break down and confess that it was he who was the betraying coward, John Vincent Moon. And hence the scar cut into his face.

Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (1944)

A very short story which foregrounds its own fictiveness, as Borges admits it’s an idea for a story which could be set anywhere, then arbitrarily settles on Ireland where, he says, a man named Ryan is researching the famous assassination of an eminent Irish patriot, his great-grandfather, Fergus Kilpatrick, in a theatre in 1824. His researches show him that Kilpatrick’s assassination shared many details with that of Julius Caesar, the parallels so eerie that for a while he develops a theory of ‘the existence of a secret form of time, a pattern of repeated lines’, and invokes the theories of Condorcet, Hegel, Spengler and Vico to back him up.

But then a stranger reality emerges. He discovers the oldest and closest of Kilpatrick’s companions, James Alexander Nolan, had translated the main plays of Shakespeare back in 1814. Finally the story that emerges is this: the conspirators kept being betrayed to the police so Kilpatrick had tasked his oldest comrade, Nolan, with identifying the traitor. At a secret meeting of the patriots Nolan announced that it was Kilpatrick himself. The great patriot admitted it. They discussed how to deal with him. They came up with a drama, a play, a theatrical event, which would ensure Kilpatrick’s punishment and death, and yet if he was said to have been assassinated at the theatre, people’s illusions about him, and the Cause in general, would be preserved. And so Nolan, the Shakespeare translator, arranged it all, even borrowing certain events (the unheeded warning) in order to make the ‘assassination’ more melodramatic and memorable.

And also, his disillusioned great grandson and biographer speculates, to leave messages to posterity. Some of the allusions were pretty crass. Maybe he, Ryan, was intended to discover the truth. After weighing the pros and cons, Ryan decides to suppress what he has learned, and write a straightforward biography climaxing in the great man’s tragic assassination. Maybe that, too, was part of the plan.

Death and the Compass (1942)

This is a murder mystery of a particularly arch and contrived tone, but reading it makes you realise Borges’s debt to the English yarn tellers of the 1890s, to Robert Louis Stevenson and especially Conan Doyle. We are introduced to Erik Lönnrot, another in the long line of hyper-intellectual freelance detectives with a taste for paradox and irony i.e. an entirely literary creation, who also, as per the tradition, plays off a phlegmatic police inspector, Franz Treviranus.

At the Third Talmudic Congress held in the Hotel du Nord, Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky goes to bed one night and his body is found dead, stabbed in the chest, the next morning. The dead man, of course, had a number of rare and arcane books of theology in his room. Which Lönnrot takes away and reads:

One large octavo volume revealed to him the teachings of Israel Baal Shem Tobh, founder of the sect of the Pious; another, the virtues and terrors of the Tetragrammaton, which is the unutterable name of God; another, the thesis that God has a secret name, in which is epitomized (as in the crystal sphere which the Persians ascribe to Alexander of Macedonia) his ninth attribute, eternity — that is to say, the immediate knowledge of all things that will be, which are and which have been in the universe…

Books books books. But then more bodies turn up dead – small-time crook Daniel Simon Azevedo, then the kidnapping and murder of one Gryphius. We know the three murders are linked because at the scene three sentences are written, ‘The first letter of the Name has been uttered’, and the second and the third.

After the third the police are anonymously sent a letter sent by ‘Baruch Spinoza’ asserting that a fourth murder will not be carried out. But Lönnrot has seen through all this. He Dandy Red Scharlach set out

to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother. I have woven it and it is firm: the ingredients are a dead heresiologist, a compass, an eighteenth-century sect, a Greek word, a dagger, the diamonds of a paint shop.

The Secret Miracle (1943)

Hladik had rounded forty. Aside from a few friendships and many habits, the problematic exercise of literature constituted his life…

Jaromir Hladik is an author of, among others, an unfinished drama entitled The Enemies, of Vindication of Eternity (which discusses immutable Being of Parmenides, the modifiable Past of Hinton, and the idealist philosopher, Francis Bradley) and of a study of the indirect Jewish sources of Jakob Böhme, he has translated the Sepher Yezirah and published studies of the work of Böhme, of Ibn Ezra, and of Fludd. He is another of Borges’s hyper-bookish heroes.

The Nazis take Prague and seize Hladik who is identified as a Jewish author and condemned to death. The story deals with the feverishly philosophical ideas which flood his mind during the days and nights he spends in his prison cell leading up to his sentence of death by firing squad, in which he discusses with himself various aspects of time and reality and God, and has a dream that God’s word is vouchsafed to him through a random book in a library, and in which he goes through the elaborate plot of his verse drama, The Enemies, which is itself a drama about reality and illusion. He begs God for a year to finish the work in order to justify himself and Him.

Finally he is led out to the shabby yard where the soldiers are hanging round bored, are rallied by their sergeant and line up to shoot him but, just as the order is given, time freezes, completely, but Hladik’s consciousness continues, observing the frozen world about him from his frozen body, at first in panic, and then realising that God heard his plea and has given him a year to complete his drama. And the final page of the drama describes how he does that, not needing food or water or bodily functions, but devoting a year of time to bringing the verse drama to complete perfection, And as the last phrase of it is completed in his mind, the world resumes, the firing squad fires, and Hladik slumps, dead.

Three Versions of Judas (1944)

Borges’s fiction is above all hyper-bookish, made out of references to arcane philosophical or theological texts from the Middle Ages or Antiquity. Most (if not quite all) the ‘stories’ mimic the style and approach of an old-fashioned scholarly article, not least in having textual footnotes which cite other scholarly volumes or references.

Instead of a description of a city or house or street or natural location, a time of day, or the physical appearance of a protagonist, Borges’s fictions set their scene amid books and references.

In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith, when Basilides disseminated the idea that the cosmos was the reckless or evil improvisation of deficient angels, Nils Runeberg would have directed, with singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic conventicles. Dante would have assigned him, perhaps, a fiery grave; his name would extend the list of lesser heresiarchs, along with Satornilus and Carpocrates; some fragment of his preachings, embellished with invective, would survive in the apocryphal Liber adversus omnes haereses or would have perished when the burning of a monastery library devoured the last copy of the Syntagma. Instead, God afforded Runeberg the twentieth century and the university town of Lund. There, in 1904, he published the first edition of Kristus och Judas and, in 1909, his major book, Den hemlige Frälsaren. (Of the latter there is a German translation, made in 1912 by Emil Schering; it is called Der heimliche Heiland.)

Amid a dense forest of allusions to obscure works of theology and scores of beliefs held by the orthodox and heretical, Borges articulates the three theories developed by Danish theologian, namely:

  1. In his book Kristus och Judas, Runeberg asserts that Judas was a kind of ‘reflection’ of Jesus in the human world; just as Jesus was sent from heaven, so Judas took up the burden of being human in order to pave the way for Jesus to take the path to the crucifixion and salvation of humanity.
  2. Meeting fierce criticism from fellow theologians, Runeberg rewrites the book to assert that it was Judas who sacrificed more than Jesus, mortifying his spirit for the greater good.
  3. Then in his final book, Den hemlige Frälsaren, Runeberg develops this idea to its logical conclusion, which is that it was Judas not Jesus who made the ultimate sacrifice and truly laid down his life for humanity. Jesus hung on the cross for 6 hours but then he was translated to heaven, whereas Judas committed suicide, taking upon himself not only an eternal reputation for treachery and betrayal, but condemning his own soul to eternity in hell. Which one made the greater sacrifice? Therefore, Runeberg asserts, it was Judas who was the true incarnation of a God determined to make the most complete identification with humanity possible, even to the uttermost depths of human depravity and damnation.

The Sect of the Phoenix (1952)

Those who write that the sect of the Phoenix had its origin in Heliopolis and derive it from the religious restoration following upon the death of the reformer Amenophis IV, cite texts from Herodotus, Tacitus and the monuments of Egypt, but they ignore, or prefer to ignore, that the designation ‘Phoenix’ does not date before Hrabanus Maurus and that the oldest sources (the Saturnales of Flavius Josephus, let us say) speak only of the People of the Custom or of the People of the Secret.

Repeatedly the stories invoke the same kind of imaginative world, a world of arcane books and abstruse learning, which revolves not so much around pure philosophy – the academic subject of Philosophy which concerns rather mundane discussions of language or ethics which bothered Plato and Locke – but the swirling multi-coloured world of abstruse theologies and mystical visions of the divinity and cults and lost texts, of heresiarchs (‘the founder of a heresy or the leader of a heretical sect’) and patriarchs, sectarians and mystagogues, Talmudists and Confucians, Gnostics and alchemists, adepts in secret rituals and concealed knowledge, and which has adherents down to the present day such as the heretical theologian Nils Runeberg from The Three Versions of Judas or the learned Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky in Death and The Compass, intense bookish eccentric figures who carry the convoluted world of medieval theology into obscure corners of our workaday world.

This brief story is an ostensible short scholarly essay by a narrator who claims:

I have collated accounts by travelers, I have conversed with patriarchs and theologians… I have attained on three continents the friendship of many devotees of the Phoenix

And so is in a position to know that devotees of ‘the sect of the Phoenix’ are everywhere, of all creeds and colours, speaking all languages, often not even realising it themselves. I think the essay is an answer to the question, What if there was a religion so widespread that its adherents didn’t even realise they followed it?

The Immortal (1949)

A princess (!) buys a second hand edition of Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad off a book dealer, Joseph Cartaphilus, in London and later finds in the leaves of the last volume a manuscript, which then makes up the body of the story. It is a first person narrative by Marcus Flaminius Rufus, military tribune of one of Rome’s legions, who hears rumours of a land to the West where sits the City of the Immortals and so sets off with a troop of 200 soldiers and sundry mercenaries all of whom desert him in the face of all kinds of adversity, until he comes to consciousness in a settlement of speechless troglodytes before staggering on, exhausted, hungry, thirsty towards a high rocky plateau on which is built a mysterious city, but when he finally gains entrance he discovers it is not only abandoned and deserted, but built with an excess of useless passages and windows and balconies and details amid he becomes lost and then overwhelmed by its size and complexity and horrifying pointlessness.

When he emerges he discovers one of the speechless troglodytes has followed him like a loyal dog. He nicknames him Argos after Odysseus’s loyal dog and over the next few weeks tries to teach him to speak. Then, one day, there is a ferocious downpour of rain, and Argos suddenly speaks, responds to the name, recognises the classical allusion and, to the narrator’s astonishment, reveals that he is Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey and that the other haggard, grimy, speechless troglodytes, they are the Immortals, who long ago wrecked their beautiful city, rebuilding it as a surrealist testament to the unknown and irrational forces which control our fates, and withdrew to the caves and lives of inarticulate resignation.

Because he has drunk of the river that runs past the troglodytes’ caves he is now immortal and the narrative briefly covers his wandering life for the following centuries, until in 1929 he drinks from a stream in Eritrea and realises, with enormous relief, that it has restored his mortality.

The Theologians (1947)

An orgy of theological minutiae describing the academic rivalry between two sixth century theologians, Aurelian of Aquileia and John of Pannonia, who compete with each other in refuting the heresy of the so-called Monotones (namely that history is cyclical and all people and events recur again and again), which twists via a dense undergrowth of theological quotes and references to a climax in which Aurelian witnesses John being burned at the stake for the very heresy he had set out to refute, and then the two rival theologians meet up in heaven where, in true Borgesian fashion, they are revealed to be two aspects of the same person.

Story of the Warrior and the Captive (1940)

Droctulft was an eighth century Lombard warrior who, during the siege of Ravenna, left his companions and died defending the city he had previously attacked. Borges imagines this pallid denizen of the pagan forests and the boar hunt arriving at a city, his dazzlement at the order and clarity and architecture and gardens, and suddenly throwing in his lot with the citizens, fighting against his former comrades.

And this reminds him of his grandmother who was from England. She lived out on the borderlands. One day she was introduced to a young woman Indian who, it transpires, was English, from Yorkshire, her parents emigrated and were killed in an Indian raid and she was stolen away and married to a chieftain who she has already borne two children. Borges’s grandmother offers to take her away, to return her to civilisation, but the Englishwoman-gone-native refuses. She, like Droctulft, has made a deep choice.

Emma Zunz (1948)

Emma’s father commits suicide because he was swindled out of his share of the factory he set up. She vows to be revenged on the swindler, Aaron Loewenthal (all the characters in this story are Jewish) and, a shy 19, dresses up, goes hanging round in bars, in order to lose her virginity to some rough foreigner. This is to nerve her for the assassination, when she presents herself to Loewenthal in the guise of a stoolpigeon for the ringleaders of the disgruntled workers in the factory but, when he rises to fetch her a glass of water, impulsively shoots him, though she’s not very good at it and takes three shots. She then calls the police and pleads a story that Lowenthal tried to rape and outrage her, which, Borges says, is true, in spirit if not in detail, and her genuine outrage and sense of shame and hate secures her an acquittal at her subsequent trial.

The House of Asterion (1947)

The world seen from the perspective of the Minotaur. (The idea is related to the brief one-page summary Borges gives of a story he planned to write about the world seen from the point of view of Fafnir, the gold-guarding dragon in the Nibelung legend. You can see how you could quickly generate a list of stories ‘from the point of’ figures from myth and legend.)

Deutsches Requiem (1946)

Otto Dietrich zur Linde is a Nazi and a devout follower of Schopenhauer and his doctrine that nothing that happens to us is accidental (it is a happy coincidence that I’ve recently been reading Samuel Beckett, who was also very influenced by Schopenhauer, in particular by his attitude of quietism).

As the Second World War breaks out Otto Dietrich zur Linde is involved in a shootout which leads to the amputation of one of his legs. As a good Nazi he is eventually rewarded by being made, in 1941, subdirector of the concentration camp at Tarnowitz.

When the wonderful Jewish poet David Jerusalem is sent to the camp, zur Linde sets about systematically destroying him because, by doing so, he is destroying the compassion in his own soul which keeps him down among ordinary humans, prevents him from becoming Nietzsche’s Overman.

As the tide of war turns against the Germans, zur Linde speculates why and what it means before realising that Germany itself must be destroyed so that the New Order it has helped to inaugurate can come fully into being. This short text turns into quite a disturbing hymn to Nazism:

Many things will have to be destroyed in order to construct the New Order; now we know that Germany also was one of those things. We have given more than our lives, we have sacrificed the destiny of our beloved Fatherland. Let others curse and weep; I rejoice in the fact that our destiny completes its circle and is perfect.

Averroes’ Search (1947)

A classic example of Borges’s fascination with the byways of medieval mystical theology, and his ability to spin narratives out of it.

Abulgualid Muhammad Ibn-Ahmad ibn-Muhammad ibnRushd (a century this long name would take to become Averroes, first becoming Benraist and Avenryz and even Aben-Rassad and Filius Rosadis) was writing the eleventh chapter of his work Tahafut-ulTahafut (Destruction of Destruction), in which it is maintained, contrary to the Persian ascetic Ghazali, author of the Tahafut-ulfalasifa (Destruction of Philosophers), that the divinity knows only the general laws of the universe, those pertaining to the species, not to the individual…

It is a complex text, woven with multiple levels of references, which revolves round a dinner party attended in the then-Muslim city of Cordoba in Muslim Spain by the great medieval Muslim commentator on the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, and some colleagues and friends including one who claims to have travelled as far as the fabled land of Sin (China). When he was there he recounts being taken to a large hall with tiered banks of seats where many people on a raised platform acted out events. The other diners agree how ridiculous this sounds and we learn that, apparently, the traditions and culture of Islam did not have or understand the entire concept of the theatre and the drama.

The essay focuses on the way this conversation was relevant for Averroes because he was that day working on a translation of Aristotle and puzzled by two words he had come across, ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ which have no parallel in the world of Islam.

This is all fascinating and beautifully described amid the gardens and roses and civilised calm of the Muslim city, but on the last half page Borges twists the story onto a different level altogether by intruding himself as the author and declaring he only told this story as an attempt to describe a certain kind of failure to imagine something, and that, as the story progressed, he, Borges, realised that he was failing to imagine his own story, thus the story and the writing of the story, both addressed the same subject, in a kind of duet.

I felt, on the last page, that my narration was a symbol of the man I was as I wrote it and that, in order to compose that narration, I had to be that man and, in order to be that man, I had to compose that narration, and so on to infinity. (The moment I cease to believe in him, ‘Averroes’ disappears.)

Wow.

The Zahir (1947)

Clementina Villar was a model and celebrity, always appearing at the right place at the right time dressed in the height of fashion. She dies in a slummy suburb and Borges attends her wake. Decomposition makes her look younger. On the rebound from his grief he drops into a neighbourhood bar, orders a brandy and is given the Zahir among his change. The Zahir is an everyday coin but:

people (in Muslim territories) use it to signify ‘beings or things which possess the terrible property of being unforgettable, and whose image finally drives one mad.’

He can’t stop looking at it, he takes it home, he turns it over and over, it obsesses his sleep, eventually he gets lots in a maze of streets, slips into another bar and pays for a drink handing the coin over, goes home and has his first good night’s sleep in weeks.

The Waiting (1950)

An unnamed man checks into a boarding house in a suburb of Buenos Aires and tries to lead a completely anonymous life while he waits for his assassins to track him down and kill him.

The God’s Script

The story is told by Tzinacán, magician of the pyramid of Qaholom, an Aztec priest whose city was conquered and burned down by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado who tortured and mangled him to try and extract the secret of where all the native gold and treasure was hidden. Now he lies in a dungeon where he has been subsisting for years, but it is a strange prison because on the other side of the wall is kept a jaguar which paces up and down in his cell. Only at certain hours of the day, when the light is right, can Tzinacán see it. Over the years Tzinacán becomes obsessed with the idea that his god Qaholom must have foreseen the disaster which overcame his people,

The god, foreseeing that at the end of time there would be devastation and ruin, wrote on the first day of Creation a magical sentence with the power to ward off those evils. He wrote it in such a way that it would reach the most distant generations and not be subject to chance. No one knows where it was written nor with what characters, but it is certain that it exists, secretly, and that a chosen one shall read it.

So it is another story about a kind of secret knowledge, known only to adepts, occult and hidden. To cut a long story short, Tzinacán has a revelation which is indistinguishable from going mad, as he ponders the nature of this message from the gods, as he ponders at length what the language of a god would be like, how it would contain the whole world, not even in a sentence, but in one infinite word, and he suddenly perceives it in the shape of an infinite wheel, on all sides of him, made of fire and water, the secret of the world is contained in fourteen words of forty syllables, if he said them out loud the prison would disappear and he would be master of the land of Moctezuma – but he never will because he has ceased to be Tzinacán, he has ceased to have his concerns or aims, and therefore he knows the secret of divine power, but the very knowledge of it means he never has to use it.

Essays

The Argentine Writer and Tradition (1951)

The problems of national identity and literary heritage faced by the writer in Argentina are not something most of us have spent much time worrying about. Reading Borges’s essay on the subject mostly confirms that I know nothing whatsoever about Latin American literature. For my generation this meant entirely the magical realism school pioneered by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a cluster of related writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa and, fashionable among feminists, Isabel Allende. I’m fairly well read but I’d never heard of any of the names or works Borges refers to, for example I had no idea the great Argentine epic poem is El gaucho Martín Fierro by Jose Hernandez which is, apparently, packed with gaucho colloquialisms.

Initially the essay dwells on obscure questions about the relative merits of ‘gauchesque’ poetry (which he takes to be the contrived nationalistic poetry of literary circles of Buenos Aires) vis-a-vis the poetry of payadas (improvised musical dialogues on philosophical themes which reveal their true nationalism precisely by the absence of localising dialect) but both of which are almost meaningless to me since I can’t read Spanish and had never heard of Martín Fierro. (Borges had published in 1950 a study of the gauchesque, Aspectos de la literatura gauchesca and in 1953 an essay on Martín Fierro.)

But slowly emerges his main point which is more comprehensible, namely that ‘national’ poetry or literature does not at all need to limit itself to local colour and national subjects: witness Shakespeare who wrote about Italians and Danes, and Racine whose works are entirely set in the world of Greek myth. Thus:

The idea that Argentine poetry should abound in differential Argentine traits and Argentine local colour seems to me a mistake.

In Borges’s opinion, there are other elements of the Argentine character which distinguish their literature, among which he mentions: ‘ the Argentine’s reticence, his constraint’, ‘Argentine reserve, distrust and reticence, of the difficulty we have in making confessions, in revealing our intimate nature’. In demonstrating the unnecessity of having local colour, he cites the fact (observed by Gibbon) that there are no references to camels in the Koran. This is because Mohammed, as an Arab, so lived in the culture of camels that he didn’t even have to mention them. That is how local colour should be conveyed – by the subtlety of its absence. Thus when Borges reads Argentine nationalists prescribing that Argentine writers should write about the Argentine national scene using local colour and local words, he thinks they are dead wrong.

He goes on to speculate about the role of the Jews in European literature, and the Irish in English literature, both of which are over-represented, and it’s because they are outsiders and so not tied by tradition; they can be innovators.

For that reason I repeat that we should not be alarmed and that we should feel that our patrimony is the universe; we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine; for either being Argentine is an inescapable act of fate — and in that case we shall be so in all events — or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask.

(In Labyrinths this appears as rather a one-off work, but in fact Borges wrote extensively throughout his career on Argentine subject matter, including Argentine culture (‘History of the Tango’, ‘Inscriptions on Horse Wagons’), folklore (‘Juan Muraña’, ‘Night of the Gifts’), literature (‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, ‘Almafuerte’, ‘Evaristo Carriego’), and national concerns (‘Celebration of the Monster’, ‘Hurry, Hurry’, ‘The Mountebank’, ‘Pedro Salvadores’).

The Wall and the Books

A meditation on the fact that the Chinese emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who commissioned the building of the Great Wall but also ordered the burning of all the books and libraries. It allows Borges one of his characteristic series of dreamy speculations. It is recorded that Shih Huang Ti’s mother was a libertine whom he banished. Maybe burning the books was a symbolically Freudian attempt to abolish the entire past which contained his personal shame. Maybe the wall was a psychological wall to keep out his guilt. He also forbade death to be mentioned and sought an elixir for immortality, so maybe fire and wall were to keep death at bay. If he ordered the building of the wall first then the burning of the books, we have the image of an emperor who set out to create, gave up, and resigned himself to destroying; if the order is reverse, we have the image of an emperor who set out to destroy everything, gave up, and dedicated himself to endless building. Dreamy speculations:

Perhaps the wall was a metaphor, perhaps Shih Huang Ti sentenced those who worshiped the past to a task as immense, as gross and as useless as the past itself. Perhaps the wall was a challenge and Shih Huang Ti thought: “Men love the past and neither I nor my executioners can do anything against that love, but someday there will be a man who feels as I do and he will efface my memory and be my shadow and my mirror and not know it.” Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled in his empire because he knew that it was perishable and destroyed the books because he understood that they were sacred books, in other words, books that teach what the entire universe or the mind of every man teaches. Perhaps the burning of the libraries and the erection of the wall are operations which in some secret way cancel each other.

A lazy Sunday afternoon of perhapses. The essay ends with a thunderclap, the notion that the way these two contrasting facts seem about to deliver some kind of revelation which never, in fact, arrives, the sense of a great meaning, which is never made clear:

this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.

The Fearful Sphere of Pascal

‘It may be that universal history is the history of a handful of metaphors.’ In which case he is examining one particular metaphor, that of the infinite sphere whose centre is nowhere, and pursues it through the works of Xenophanes of Colophon, Plato, Parmenides, Empedocles, Alain de Lille, the Romance of the Rose, Rabelais, Dante, Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, John Donne, John Milton, Glanville, Robert South, Pascal.

This very brief trot through the different expressions of the same metaphor suggest very strongly a sense of the rise and rise in optimism in human thought up to a kind of breakthrough in the Renaissance, summed up in Bruno’s attitude, which then crumbles into the sense of fear and isolation expressed by Pascal. I.e. this tiny essay gives a powerful sense of the changing moods and contexts of Western civilisation.

Partial Magic in the Quixote

It starts by asserting that Cervantes set out to write an utterly disenchanted account of the sordid reality of the Spain of his day yet certain moments of magic and romance nonetheless intrude; but this fairly simple point then unfolds into something much stranger as Borges zeroes in on the fact that in part two of Don Quixote the characters have read part one and comment on their own existence as characters. Borges then lists a number of other examples of fictions which appear within themselves such the Ramayana of Valmiki which, late on, features an appearance of the Ramayana of Valmiki as a major part of the plot. Similarly, on the 602nd night of the Thousand and One Nights, Scheherezade summarises the history of the king which includes his encounter with her and her telling of the stories which make up the nights, including the telling of the 602nd night, which includes the telling of the king’s own story, which includes his meeting with her and her telling of all the stories over again, including the telling of the 602nd night, and so on, forever.

What is it that intrigues and disturbs us about these images of infinite recursion?

I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.

Valéry as Symbol

This brief note appears to be an obituary for the French poet Paul Valéry who died in 1945. Borges takes the surprising tack of comparing the French poet with the American poet Walt Whitman. On the face of it no two figures could be more different, Whitman loud, brash, confident, chaotic, contradictory, is morning in America, while Valéry, careful, sensitive, discreet, reflects the ‘delicate twilight’ of Europe. What they have in common is they created fictional images of themselves, made themselves symbolic of particular approaches.

Paul Valéry leaves us at his death the symbol of a man infinitely sensitive to every phenomenon and for whom every phenomenon is a stimulus capable of provoking an infinite series of thoughts.. Of a man whose admirable texts do not exhaust, do not even define, their all-embracing possibilities. Of a man who, in an age that worships the chaotic idols of blood, earth and passion, preferred always the lucid pleasures of thought and the secret adventures of order.

Kafka and His Precursors

A sketch at identifying precursors of Kafka’s ‘atrocious thought’, Borges finds precursors in Zeno’s paradoxes; in the ninth century Chinese writer, Han Yu; Kierkegaard; a poem by Browning; a short story by Léon Bloy; and one by Lord Dunsany. We would never have noticed the Kafkaesque in all these texts had Kafka not created it. Thus each author modifies our understanding of all previous writing.

The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.

Avatars of the Tortoise

There is a concept which corrupts and upsets all others. I refer not to Evil, whose limited realm is that of ethics; I refer to the infinite.

He tells us that he once meditated a Biography of the Infinite but it would have taken forever to write. (Borges did in fact publish Historia de la eternidad in 1936.) Instead he gives us this fragment, a surprisingly thorough and mathematically-minded meditation on the second paradox of Zeno, the tortoise and Achilles. It is an intimidating trot through philosophers from the ancient Greek to F.H. Bradley and Bertrand Russell, in each one finding reformulations of the same problem in logic and various ways round it.

Only in the concluding paragraph does it become a bit more accessible when Borges brings out the meaning of Idealistic philosophy, that the world may be entirely the product of our minds and, as so often, ends on a bombshell of an idea:

We (the undivided divinity operating within us) have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.

In this view, Zeno’s paradoxes are among a putative small collection of problems or paradoxes or unnerving insights which are like cracks in the surface of the world we have made, cracks which gives us a glimpse of the utterly fictitious nature of ‘reality’.

The Mirror of Enigmas

A note on the verse from the Bible, First Letter to the Corinthians 13:12 in which Saint Paul writes: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ He considers half a dozen meditations on it by the author Léon Bloy which I found obscure. I preferred the final passage where he describes the thinking underlying the intellectual activity of the Cabbalists:

Bloy did no more than apply to the whole of Creation the method which the Jewish Cabalists applied to the Scriptures. They thought that a work dictated by the Holy Spirit was an absolute text: in other words, a text in which the collaboration of chance was calculable as zero. This portentous premise of a book impenetrable to contingency, of a book which is a mechanism of infinite purposes, moved them to permute the scriptural words, add up the numerical value of the letters, consider their form, observe the small letters and capitals, seek acrostics and anagrams and perform other exegetical rigours which it is not difficult to ridicule. Their excuse is that nothing can be contingent in the work of an infinite mind

A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw

A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. This dialogue is infinite… Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that no single book is. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships…

I didn’t quite understand the thrust of this essay which begins by refuting the notion that literature is purely a game, and asserts that it involves and tone of voice and relationship with a reader, and then seems to go on to say that this is in some measure proven by the works of George Bernard Shaw whose philosophy may be derivative (Butler and Schopenhauer) but whose prolific invention of character is unprecedented in his time. The sardonic Irishman is an odd choice for the sly Argentinian to single out for praise.

A New Refutation of Time

Consists of two essays written in the 1940s. They are complex and hard to follow but I think he begins with the philosophical doctrine of Idealism which claims the human mind consists of a succession of sense perceptions and doesn’t require there to be a ‘real world’ out there, behind them all. Borges is, I think, trying to go one step further and assert that there need not be a succession of sense perceptions, there is no logical necessity for these impressions to be in the series which we call time. There is only the present, we can only exist in the present, therefore there is no time.

Parables

A series of very short thoughts, images, moments or insights which inspire brief narratives pregnant with meaning or symbolism. Kafka, of course, also wrote modern parables, parables with no religious import but fraught with psychological meaning.

Inferno, 1, 32

God sends a leopard kept in a cage in late 13th century Italy a dream in which he explains that his existence, his life history and his presence in the zoo are all necessary so that the poet Dante will see him and place him at the opening of his poem, The Divine Comedy.

Paradiso, XXXI, 108

Who of us has never felt, while walking through the twilight or writing a date from his past, that something infinite had been lost?

Maybe the mysterious thing which St Paul and the mystics saw and could not communicate appears to all of us every day, in the face of the street lottery ticket seller. Perhaps the face of Jesus was never recorded so that it could become the face of all of us.

Ragnarök

He has a dream. He was in the School of Philosophy and Letters chatting with friends when a group breaks free from the mob below to cries of ‘The gods! The gods’ who take up their place on the dais after centuries of exile. But during that time they have become rough and inhuman, they cannot actually talk but squeak and grunt.

Centuries of fell and fugitive life had atrophied the human element in them; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these outlaws. Very low foreheads, yellow teeth, stringy mulatto or Chinese moustaches and thick bestial lips showed the degeneracy of the Olympian lineage. Their clothing corresponded not to a decorous poverty but rather to the sinister luxury of the gambling houses and brothels of the Bajo. A carnation bled crimson in a lapel and the bulge of a knife was outlined beneath a close-fitting jacket. Suddenly we sensed that they were playing their last card, that they were cunning, ignorant and cruel like old beasts of prey and that, if we let ourselves be overcome by fear or pity, they would finally destroy us. We took out our heavy revolvers (all of a sudden there were revolvers in the dream) and joyfully killed the Gods.

Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote

How could Miguel de Cervantes ever have guessed that his attempt to mock and undermine the glorious myths of the Age of Chivalry in his fictitious character, Don Quixote, would itself become a larger-than-life myth? (Well, anyone who has studied a bit of human nature and knows that humans are the myth-making species, constantly rounding out narratives, creating stories which explain everything in which larger-than-life figures either cause all evil or all good.)

The Witness

Borges imagines the last pagan Anglo-Saxon, the last eye-witness of the sacrifices to the pagan gods, living on into the new age of Christianity. What memories and meanings will be lost at his death? Which makes him reflect on what will be lost when he himself dies.

A Problem

A very abstruse problem: Cervantes derives Don Quixote from an Arab precursor, the Cide Hamete Benengeli. Imagine a scrap of manuscript is discovered in which his knightly hero discovers that in one of his fantastical conflicts he has actually killed a man. How would Quixote respond? And Borges imagines four possible responses.

Borges and I

The narrator, Borges, speculates about the other Borges. On a first reading I take this to be the Borges of literature, the Borges who both writes the stories and is conjured into existence by the stories, who is not the same as the flesh and blood Borges who walks the streets.

Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things

Everything and Nothing

A moving and beautiful meditation on the life of William Shakespeare which paints him as a hollow man, plagued by his own emptiness, who seeks to fill it with books, then with sex with an older woman (marriage to Anne Hathaway), moving to the big city, and involvement in about the most hurly-burly of professions, acting, before someone suggests he writes plays as well as acting in them, and he fills his soul with hundreds of characters, giving them undreamed-of speeches and feelings, before, an exhausted middle aged man he retires back to his provincial birthplace, and renounces all poetry for the gritty reality of lawsuits and land deals before dying young.

In a fantastical coda, he arrives in heaven and complains to God that all he wants is to have an identity, to be a complete man instead of a hollow man, but God surprises him with his reply.

After dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’


Labyrinths

A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men; its architecture, rich in symmetries, is subordinated to that end. (The Immortal)

The choice of this word for the title of the volume is no accident. The metaphor of the labyrinth, referring to endless tangles of intellectual speculation, crops up in most of the stories and many of the essays. It is a founding metaphor of his work.

  • Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.
  • Haslam has also published A General History of Labyrinths
  • I have some understanding of labyrinths: not for nothing am I the great grandson of that Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost.
  • I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars
  • Once initiated in the mysteries of Baal, every free man automatically participated in the sacred drawings, which took place in the labyrinths of the god every sixty nights (Babylon)
  • Another [book] (very much consulted in this area) is a mere labyrinth of letters (Babel)
  • He is rescued from these circular labyrinths by a curious finding, a finding which then sinks him into other, more inextricable and heterogeneous labyrinths (Theme of the Traitor and the Hero)
  • I felt that the world was a labyrinth, from which it was impossible to flee… (Death and the Compass)
  • On those nights I swore by the God who sees with two faces and by all the gods of fever and of the mirrors to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother (Death and the Compass)
  • Meticulously, motionlessly, secretly, he wrought in time his lofty, invisible labyrinth (The Secret Miracle)
  • Intolerably, I dreamt of an exiguous and nitid labyrinth: in the center was a water jar; my hands almost touched it, my eyes could see it, but so intricate and perplexed were the curves that I knew I would die before reaching it. (The Immortal)
  • There were nine doors in this cellar; eight led to a labyrinth that treacherously returned to the same chamber; the ninth (through another labyrinth) led to a second circular chamber equal to the first. (The Immortal)
  • You are not lighting a pyre, you are lighting a labyrinth of flames. (The Theologians)

The most labyrinthine story is The Garden of Forking Paths in which the word occurs 18 times.

The labyrinth is a metaphor for the mind and the way it never stops speculating, creating unending streams of interpretation, of our lives, of the world, of each other, of everything, each more entrancing and futile than the one before (among which are ‘the intimate delights of speculative theology’). Thus many of his ‘stories’ feature hardly any characters, events or dialogue – all the energy goes toward capturing the beguiling, phosphorescent stream-of-ideas of an extremely learned, religio-philosophical, fantastical mind:

I thought that Argos and I participated in different universes; I thought that our perceptions were the same, but that he combined them in another way and made other objects of them; I thought that perhaps there were no objects for him, only a vertiginous and continuous play of extremely brief impressions. I thought of a world without memory, without time; I considered the possibility of a language without nouns, a language of impersonal verbs or indeclinable epithets. (The Immortal)

And this endless stream of ideas reflects the way a mature world is full of infinite iterations of any given object. Looking at a coin in his hand:

I reflected that every coin in the world is a symbol of those famous coins which glitter in history and fable. I thought of Charon’s obol; of the obol for which Belisarius begged; of Judas’ thirty coins; of the drachmas of Laï’s, the famous courtesan; of the ancient coin which one of the Seven Sleepers proffered; of the shining coins of the wizard in the 1001 Nights, that turned out to be bits of paper; of the inexhaustible penny of Isaac Laquedem; of the sixty thousand pieces of silver, one for each line of an epic, which Firdusi sent back to a king because they were not of gold; of the doubloon which Ahab nailed to the mast; of Leopold Bloom’s irreversible florin; of the louis whose pictured face betrayed the fugitive Louis XVI near Varennes. (The Zahir)

And:

Money is abstract, I repeated; money is the future tense. It can be an evening in the suburbs, or music by Brahms; it can be maps, or chess, or coffee; it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold; it is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the isle of Pharos. It is unforeseeable time, Bergsonian time, not the rigid time of Islam or the Porch.

Everything relates to everything else. Everything is a symbol of everything else, including the most profound categories of thought, hundreds, thousands of which have been dreamt up by the centuries full of metaphysicians and mystics. Anything can stand for anything else and that is, or should be, the freedom of literature, showing us how the infinite nature of human thought can liberate us, at every moment.

Tennyson once said that if we could understand a single flower, we should know what we are and what the world is. Perhaps he meant that there is no fact, however insignificant, that does not involve universal history and the infinite concatenation of cause and effect. Perhaps he meant that the visible world is implicit in every phenomenon, just as the will, according to Schopenhauer, is implicit in every subject… (The Zahir)

Or perhaps something else again, and something else again, and on forever, as long as we breathe, as long as we have consciousness, which consists of impressions, connections, moods, feelings and thoughts endlessly unfurling. Hence his interest in The Infinite, which is the subject of many of the stories (The Library of Babel) and the essay on Achilles and the tortoise which examines the infinitely recursive nature of intelligence. Speaking of the paradox, he writes:

The historical applications do not exhaust its possibilities: the vertiginous regressus in infinitum is perhaps applicable to all subjects. To aesthetics: such and such a verse moves us for such and such a reason, such and such a reason for such and such a reason…

And so on, forever.

Labyrinths as a labyrinth

I began to note how certain names and references recur in many of the stories, for example the name and works of Kafka or the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, Schopenhauer’s notion of the world as a fantasy, Spinoza’s that all things long to persist as themselves – when it occurred to me that these references and motifs which recur across so many stories and essays themselves create a matrix or web which links the texts subterraneanly, so to speak, and themselves create a kind of labyrinth out of the text of Labyrinths. That the totality of the book Labyrinths is itself a labyrinth.

And, rereading that definition – ‘A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men’ – maybe the enjoyment of this awesome book comes from savouring pleasurable confusions; maybe it is about entering a world of carefully controlled and contrived intellectual bewilderments.

The Borgesian

There’s an adjective, apparently, Borgesian, which means: ‘reminiscent of elements of Borges’ stories and essays, especially labyrinths, mirrors, reality, identity, the nature of time, and infinity’.

In his preface, André Maurois, in an attempt to convey the sense Borges’s stories give us of a vast erudition, says that Borges has read everything, but this isn’t quite true. His fictions very cannily give the impression that he has read widely, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that he has read widely in a very particular kind of text, in a certain kind of semi-mystical philosophy and metaphysics, often venturing from the fairly reputable works of Berkeley or Hume or Schopenhauer out into the arcane and mysterious byways of Christian and Islamic and Judaic theology, with the occasional excursion into the wisdom of Chinese magi.

These attributes – the combination of reputable Western philosophers with obscure religious mystics, and the casual mingling of Western texts with dicta from the Middle East or China – are exemplified in probably most famous of all Borges’s stories, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. Here’s a complete list of all the books and ideas referred to in just this one short essay:

Books

  • The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia (New York, 1917)
  • Ritter’s Erdkunde
  • Justus Perthes’ atlases
  • Silas Haslam: History of the Land Called Uqbar (1874)
  • Silas Haslam: A General History of Labyrinths
  • Lesbare und lesenswerthe Bemerkungen über das Land Ukkbar in Klein-Asien (1641) by Johannes Valentinus Andreä
  • Thomas De Quincey (Writings, Volume XIII)
  • Bertrand Russell: The Analysis of Mind (1921)
  • Schopenhauer: Parerga und Paralipomena (1851)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)

References

  • the Gnostic philosophers’ belief that the world is a pale parody of the real Creation
  • the Islamic tradition of the marvellous Night of Nights
  • David Hume’s comments on the philosophy of George Berkeley
  • Meinong’s theory of a subsistent world
  • Spinoza’s attribution to the Almighty of the attributes of time and extension
  • a heresiarch of the eleventh century
  • Zeno’s paradoxes
  • The Tao Te Ching
  • The 1001 Nights
  • hermetic philosophy

And then there are the hoaxes for which Borges acquired quite a reputation. Silas Haslam does not exist, is merely a fictional author and, scattered throughout these 40 texts, among the pedantic footnotes citing genuine works of philosophy or theology, are scattered other fictional authors, thinkers and ideas. In Borges’s hands the worlds of fiction and ‘reality’ meet and mingle on equal terms. They are, after all, situated in the realm of discourse, and can there be anything more imaginary than that?


Related links

Borges reviews

Letters from Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice (1936)

A golden age of travel writing

We’ve spoken about the 1930s as the Age of Auden, dominated by the left-wing politics of most of the young writers and poets, who were responding to the Great Depression (1929-33) and then stricken by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

But it was also a golden age of travel writing. Posh Brits could wave their distinctive British passport and travel anywhere they wanted in what was, between the wars, the largest empire the world had ever seen, at its largest extent. There was a boom in high-end travel writing to cater for the well-heeled tourists who could travel in the new passenger planes or enjoy the new leisure concept of luxury cruises.

Almost by definition, though, the really adventurous types wanted to go beyond the usual itineraries and explore unknown parts. It’s no coincidence that they were buoyed up by the confidence of having gone to a jolly good public school, having networks of contacts and connections everywhere, and so knowing they could probably get themselves out of most scrapes with a quick phone call to cousin Algy at the Foreign Office.

Hence the ripping travel adventures of Peter Fleming (Eton and Oxford) in Brazil, Russia and China, or Robert Byron (Eton and Oxford) in Russia, China, Afghanistan and Tiber, or Patrick ‘Paddy’ Leigh Fermor (King’s School Canterbury) who, aged 18, decided to walk from London to Constantinople.

Hence the journeys Graham Greene (Berkhamsted and Oxford) undertook to Liberia and Mexico, or Evelyn Waugh (Lancing and Oxford)’s jolly journeys to Abyssinia, the Belgian Congo and British Guiana.

(Peter Fleming is actually name-checked twice in this book as the intimidating ideal of the modern travel writer who the authors are haplessly trying to live up to, p.159)

Taking the mickey

In the spring of 1936 a chance conversation with one of his former pupils at the private school where he’d taught in the early 30s revealed that he and friends and a teacher were going to Iceland that summer. Auden was instantly excited at the prospect and suggested to his publishers, Faber & Faber, that they fund him to go there and he’d write a travel book for them. Auden leapt at the chance of going to one of his childhood holy places. His family had Nordic ancestry, his father had read him all the Norse myths, and as a boy he had read lots of Icelandic sagas with their stern unforgiving heroes.

So he made his arrangements – to go by himself for a month or so, then rendezvous with the party of former schoolboys, and he persuaded one of the gang, the Ulsterman Louis MacNeice, to also make the sea voyage and meet him there. So in June 1936 he set off, and spent a little over a month travelling round Iceland, mainly by local bus with jaunts on horseback thrown in, hiring local guides and staying at whatever accommodation existed, often local farmers.

He’d been in the country for some time, fretting about how he was going to write something to repay his publishers’ advance, when he suddenly had the bright idea of making the entire book a collection of letters, letters to friends, containing appropriate content for them (‘so that each letter deals with its subject in a different and significant way’, p.140) – sending some friends straight travelogue, some jokes, some a selection of historic writing about the place, and so on.

And once MacNeice arrived (they rendezvoused in Rejkyavik on 9 August 1936), they developed the idea of poetic letters and of deliberately experimenting with different types of poetic genre (lyric, epic, eclogue etc). Once the third element, the four schoolboys and their master arrived, the party set off for a riding tour of Iceland’s central mountain range, and MacNeice had the idea of describing their rather bizarre party (two scruffy poets, a bespectacled teacher and four keen young boys) into a satirical diary of the trip as if written from one jolly upper-class girl guides leader to another (Hetty to Nancy), complaining about the bullying leader of the trip, and the other teachers and the girls, my dear, the girls! This is either very funny or revoltingly cliquey, according to taste.

Thus the idea evolved to make the book deliberately bitty and fragmented, a collage of different types of text, an anti-heroic travel book, in that it wouldn’t hold back on the realities of the trip i.e. runny noses, smelly barns, recalcitrant ponies and so on.

The original mish-mash effect was enhanced by the authors’s photos which were deliberately amateurish and scrappy, as Auden gleefully points out:

Every exciting letter has enclosures,
And so shall this – a bunch of photographs,
Some out of focus, some with wrong exposures,
Press cuttings, gossip, maps, statistics, graphs;
I don’t intend to do the thing by halves.
I’m going to be very up to date indeed.
It is a collage that you’re going to read.

There’s even a passage where Auden gives us his thoughts on photography, namely that it’s the most democratic art form, specially given all the technical advances of his day (what would he have thought of today’s camera-phones?) (p.139). Alas the authors’ photos aren’t reproduced in the rather cheap-feeling modern Faber paperback version, though you can glimpse them online.

The Letters from Iceland format allowed them to get away from the pompous smoothness of traditional travel writers, although it did tend to add fuel to the fire of the large number of critics who accused the Auden Gang of being a self-satisfied clique of insiders. This is particularly obvious in the Last Will and Testament with its references to their chums:

Next Edward Upward and Christopher Isherwood
I here appoint my joint executors
To judge my work if it be bad or good…

To our two distinguished colleagues in confidence,
To Stephen Spender and Cecil Day Lewis, we assign
Our minor talents to assist in the defence

Of the European Tradition and to carry on
The Human heritage.

For my friend Benjamin Britten, composer, I beg
That fortune send him soon a passionate affair.

Item – I leave my old friend Anthony Blunt
A copy of Marx and £1000 a year
And the picture of Love Locked Out by Holman Hunt.

Too chummy by half, it’s the one part of the book I didn’t like (and not just for this reason; it’s also just boring).

The most impressive letter, and binding the book together, are the five parts of a long poem by Auden titled Letter to Lord Byron. Again he explains his through processes in the text itself, telling us that he’d taken a copy of Byron’s immensely long rambling verse diary of his life, Don Juan, and had the inspiration of writing an updated version for his times. He liked Byron’s free and easy style, his ability to incorporate everything from thoughts about the meaning of life to the fact that he had a hangover that morning. He liked him because he was a townee i.e. urban, and heartily agreed with Byron’s dislike of the Wordsworth, nature-worshipping tradition which Auden cordially detested.

Part one of Letter to Lord Byron is the first thing you read and immediately establishes the chatty, witty tone of the book, starting by apologising to the shade of Lord Byron for bothering him.

Excuse, my lord, the liberty I take
In thus addressing you. I know that you
Will pay the price of authorship and make
The allowances an author has to do.
A poet’s fan-mail will be nothing new.
And then a lord – Good Lord, you must be peppered,
Like Gary Cooper, Coughlin, or Dick Sheppard,

With notes from perfect strangers starting, ‘Sir,
I liked your lyrics, but Childe Harold’s trash,’
‘My daughter writes, should I encourage her?’
Sometimes containing frank demands for cash,
Sometimes sly hints at a platonic pash,
And sometimes, though I think this rather crude,
The correspondent’s photo in the nude.

Light verse is difficult to bring off, but to sustain it over the 160 stanzas of the finished Letter To Lord Byron is a quite staggering achievement. Has anyone else in the entire twentieth century brought off such a sustained comic achievement in verse?

Besides this epic achievement, the book also contains quite a few other poems by Auden, including:

  • Journey to Iceland
  • a poetic letter to Richard Crossman (b.1907: head boy at Winchester then New College Oxford, went onto become a Labour MP and then cabinet member)
  • Detective Story – a sort of verse explanation of why we like and read thrillers
  • ‘O who can ever praise enough’ – a verse meditation on childhood books (note the characteristic us of ‘O’ starting a poem, a really characteristic Auden tic)
  • a free-verse letter to William Coldstream (painted, born 1908: private school, Slade Art School, met Auden at the GPO when they were making documentary films)
  • and a collaboration with MacNeice, ‘W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice: Their Last Will and Testament’

MacNeice’s contributions include:

  • a verse letter to Graham and Anne Shepard
  • an Eclogue from Iceland which contains lines describing the bitter enmities of MacNeice’s native Ireland and why he has fled them, along with speeches by Grettir which capture the spirit of the saga hero, bloody-minded and doomed, and who tells the poets that their task is ‘the assertion of human values’ (p.134)
  • a verse Epilogue

In between all this poetry there are chunks of prose, namely:

  • a prose section ‘For Tourists’, which is quite thorough and might actually have been useful to contemporary tourists
  • a sardonic selection of writings on Iceland by other authors, ‘Sheaves from Sagaland’, addressed to John Betjeman, chosen for their odd surrealist details, the best of which is a page-long description of a huge feast endured by one William Jackson Hooker in 1809, and an eye-witness account of the eruption of an Icelandic volcano in 1727 (incidentally, we learn that the title Letters From Iceland had already been used by Joseph Banks in 1772)
  • Saga Laws, the Formula of Peacemaking, the Law of the Wager of Battle, the Viking Law
  • two prose letters from Auden to ‘E. M. Auden’ (E.M. was Erika Mann: it needs to be explained that Auden – who was gay – agreed to a marriage of convenience with Erika Mann who was the eldest daughter of novelist Thomas Mann, cabaret actress and racing driver, in order to give her a nationality when the Nazis cancelled her German nationalist because of her writings against them: they were married on 15 June 1935, the only time they ever met) – these are some of the most chatty and candid pieces Auden ever wrote, joking about the appalling food but explaining some of the Icelandic verse forms, his dislike of modern art, his fondness for caricatures
  • a prose letter to Kristian Andreirsson, Esq.;

The longest single section is a series of supposed letters sent by the fictional ‘Hetty’ to her friend ‘Nancy’. These were written by MacNeice in a lampoon of contemporary posh girls’ fiction, wherein Hetty moans endlessly about the jolly hockeysticks enthusiasm of the leader of the exhibition, Miss Greenhalge, and her tent-mate, the insufferable Maisie (a girl guide version of Auden) and makes campy comments:

The road to Kleppur suffers from ribbon development and nothing, my dear, can look worse than a corrugated iron suburb if it is not kept tidy.

Letters from Iceland is still hugely enjoyable after all these years, mainly because of the infectious good humour of both the protagonists. The advice for travellers is actually useful, albeit 84 years out of date. Auden says he paid 10 kroner for three days board and lodging and hire of horse at a farm in the north-west, but elsewhere tells us the exchange rate is 24 kroner to the pound sterling. So… did he get all that for 50p! Hiring a horse for the day costs 3 kroner i.e. 12.5p!

Last time I looked at a holiday in Iceland it was ruinously expensive, and packed with pre-arranged tours and photo opportunities by gushing geysers or bathing in hot springs i.e. it has been totally commodified.

There is a diagram of the highest mountains (we learn later that Auden pinched this postcard from an old lady who ran a home for decayed ladies, p.145); an extract from an 1805 parish register; bibliographies and suggested reading; there is a map showing new roads.

MacNeice struggles manfully to keep up with Auden’s super-abundant light verse:

So I came here to the land the Romans missed,
Left for the Irish saint and the Viking colonist.
But what am I doing here? Qu’allais-je faire
Among these volcanic rocks and this grey air?
Why go north when Cyprus and Madeira
De jure if not de facto are much nearer?
The reason for hereness is beyond conjecture,
There are no trees or trains or architecture
Fruits and greens are insufficient for health
And culture is limited by lack of wealth,
The tourist sights have nothing like stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.

(from Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard by Louis MacNeice)

10 out of 10 for effort, with some impressive hits:

The tourist sights have nothing like stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.

but Macneice can’t fully mask his more thoughtful approach which tends to make for slower reading, a slight air of puzzlement: it is Auden’s poetry which overshadows the enterprise, The Letter To Lord Byron whose five parts tie the ragbag together, but also the short but wonderful Journey to Iceland, which captures in just eleven stanzas the appeal of the cold and bleak north to some of us, so unlike the lotus-eating lure of the sunny Mediterranean where most travellers went.

And the traveller hopes: ‘Let me be far from any
Physician’; and the ports have names for the sea;
The citiless, the corroding, the sorrow;
And North means to all: ‘Reject’.

And the great plains are for ever where cold creatures are hunted,
And everywhere; the light birds flicker and flaunt;
Under a scolding flag the lover
Of islands may see at last,

Faintly, his limited hope; as he nears the glitter
Of glaciers; the sterile immature mountains intense
In the abnormal day of this world, and a river’s
Fan-like polyp of sand.

Wow! If you read my post about the monotonous diction of the poetry inspired by the Spanish Civil War, you can immediately see in these lines the use of novel vocabulary and uncannily imaginative phrasing.

In traditional poetry, birds do not ‘flicker and flaunt’; why are the mountains ‘immature’? why is the day ‘abnormal’? I don’t know, but it seems strange and true, the result of a disconcerted perception, appropriate to the cold and the bleak. And the simple statement that the bare North means to all Reject I find breath-taking.

In the short Foreword he added in 1965 Auden says:

The three months in Iceland upon which it is based stand out in my memory as among the happiest in a life which has, so far, been unusually happy, and, if something of this joy comes through the writing, I shall be content.

It does. It is a wonderful, funny, civilised book.

A few themes

In the pell-mell of poetry and comic prose it’s easy to overlook a couple of themes which emerge:

1. The He-man The concept of the ‘he-man’ was relatively new in pop culture – the muscley, Mr Universe types which came, like so much marketing bs, from America. Because they went to jolly good public schools and went on to have jolly successful careers, it’s easy to overlook how anxious these young men were, particularly about their masculinity.

Peter Fleming is referenced because he had already made a name for himself with his heroic account of his travels in Asia and his newspaper reporting for The Times, whereas Auden is all too well aware that he is short-sighted, he easily gets colds, he likes his creature comforts, and the first time he tries to mount a pony he galls right over its neck and onto the ground, in front of a party of picnickers. He is not made of heroic stuff.

The Auden Gang were, at the end of the day, bookish intellectuals, more at home chatting about Dante than building fires. They’d despised all that Officer Training Corps stuff they’d been forced to do at school and now found themselves having to take it seriously.

It can’t have helped that lots of them were gay or bisexual and so felt doubly alienated from the tough-guy, heterosexual men they saw up on cinema screens, always getting the girl. This helps explain why they couldn’t get over a permanent sense of feeling ridiculous. And then feeling anxious about feeling anxious.

It’s a small by symptomatic moment when Auden finally gets the hang of horse-riding and manages to stay on quite a frisky horse he’s been rented. ‘I was a real he-man after all,’ he says (p.142).

He says it as a joke, but it reveals an anxiety and a theme which crops up throughout his poetry of the 30s, another way in which he captured the anxiety of a generation.

(Similarly, when Auden and Isherwood travelled to China in 1938, Isherwood can’t sleep in a hotel near recently bombed ruins while he listens to Auden snoring ‘the long, calm snores of the truly strong’ – Journey To A War, p.75. The ‘truly strong’. It’s a joke, but still…)

2. Sensitivity Auden writes that traditional travel books are often boring but that there is a different thread to the genre, which consists more of essays on life prompted by things the traveller has seen. For him this is epitomised by the travel writing of D.H. Lawrence or Aldous Huxley, a style, writes Auden, which he is ‘neither clever nor sensitive enough to manage’ (p.140).

Now he’s being disingenuous when he says he’s not clever enough, he was a very clever man and he knew it. But I think he is being honest when he says that he was not sensitive enough. Sensitivity is not a word you associate with Auden. Cold, clinical detachment is his mode. He likes to categorise, he loves reeling off lists of things, from industrial equipment to types of civilian, from literary genres to psychoanalytical symptoms.

Thus it was Byron’s detached, urban and civilised irony which appealed to him, and when he deprecates Wordsworth he’s not joking.

I’m also glad to find I’ve your authority
For finding Wordsworth a most bleak old bore,
Though I’m afraid we’re in a sad minority
For every year his followers get more,
Their number must have doubled since the war.
They come in train-loads to the Lakes, and swarms
Of pupil-teachers study him in Storm’s.

For, oddly enough, although he spent three months travelling round one of Europe’s most unique landscapes, Auden doesn’t like landscapes. He likes people. He likes people and their cultures and ideas and attitudes and minds and histories and cultures. For him the landscape is just a backdrop to all this much more interesting stuff.

To me Art’s subject is the human clay,
And landscape but a background to a torso;
All Cézanne’s apples I would give away
For one small Goya or a Daumier.

It may be worth pointing out that Honoré Daumier (1808-79) was a French artists and printmaker most famous for his caricatures of urban life. The Royal Academy had an exhibition on him not so long ago:

Several other anecdotes reinforce your sense that the human subject came first, second and third with Auden. On a trivial level, he quotes a well-known clerihew in a letter to a friend he’s made on the island, to clarify his position:

The art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.

Or take a longer anecdote: After quite a gruelling bus journey (Icelanders always seemed to be sick on bus journeys, Auden was told by a bus driver) he arrives at Akureyri to discover all the hotels are full. Fortunately, the young guide he’s travelling with, Ragnar, has a friend who has a brother-in-law who’s a butcher who happens to be out of town, so they’re put up at his house for the night. Next day Auden goes swimming at an open-air pool heated by geysers. So far, so touristy. But that evening, he tells us, he hunkers down for the night with two books.

Borrowed two volumes of caricatures, which are really my favourite kind of picture, and spent a very happy evening with Goya and Daumier and Max Beerbohm.

While others are trying to work themselves up into poetic visions worthy of Wordsworth, Auden doesn’t bother. He’s much more interesting in the sight of the driver of the bus struggling to change a tyre. In the evenings he doesn’t go out roistering like Ernest Hemingway, he much prefers to be snuggled up with books of entertaining cartoons. It’s very sweet and very honest.

I’ve learnt to ride, at least to ride a pony,
Taken a lot of healthy exercise,
On barren mountains and in valleys stony,
I’ve tasted a hot spring (a taste was wise),
And foods a man remembers till he dies.
All things considered, I consider Iceland,
Apart from Reykjavik, a very nice land.


Credit

Letters to Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice was first published by Faber and Faber in 1937. References are to the 1985 paperback edition.

Related links

1930s reviews

Reviews of Icelandic sagas

In Search of the Dark Ages by Michael Wood (2005)

Michael Wood

This is Wood’s first book. Back in 1979 he burst onto our TV screens as the boyishly enthusiastic presenter of a BBC series about ‘the Dark Ages’, spread across eight episodes, his hippy length hair and flapping flairs striding along castle walls and over Iron Age forts. I remember chatting to a middle-aged woman TV executive who openly lusted after Wood’s big smile and tight, tight trousers.

Since this debut, Wood has gone on to present no fewer than 19 TV series as well as eight one-off documentaries and to write 12 history books. In fact I was surprised and dismayed to read that the former boy wonder of history TV is now nearly 70.

Dated

The first edition of this paperback was published in 1981 and its datedness is confirmed by the short bibliography at the back which recommends a swathe of texts from the 1970s and even some from the 1960s i.e. 50 long years ago.

The very title is dated, as nowadays all the scholars refer to the period from 400 to 1000 as the Early Middle Ages;’ no-one says ‘Dark Ages’ any more – though, credit where credit’s due, maybe this TV series and book helped shed light on the period for a popular audience which helped along the wider recategorisation.

But the book’s age does mean that you are continually wondering how much of it is still true. Wood is keen on archaeological evidence and almost every chapter features sentences like ‘new archaeological evidence / new digs at XXX are just revealing / promise to reveal major new evidence about Offa/Arthur et al…’ The reader is left wondering just what ‘new evidence’ has revealed over the past 40 years and just how much of Wood’s interpretations still hold up.

Investigations

It’s important to emphasise that the book does not provide a continuous and overarching history of the period: the opposite. The key phrase is ‘in search of…’ for each chapter of the book (just like each of the TV programmes) focuses on one particular iconic figure from the period and goes ‘in search of’ them, starting with their current, often mythologised reputation, then going on to examine the documentary texts, contemporary artifacts (coins, tapestries etc) and archaeological evidence to try and get at ‘the truth behind the myth’.

The figures are: Boadicea, King Arthur, the Sutton Hoo Man, Offa, Alfred the Great, King Athelstan, Eric Bloodaxe, King Ethelred the Unready, William the Conqueror. Each gets a chapter putting them in the context of their day, assessing the sources and material evidence for what we can really know about them, mentioning the usual anecdotes and clichés generally to dismiss them.

Contemporary comparisons

Part of Wood’s popularising approach is to make trendy comparisons to contemporary figures or situations. Some of this has dated a lot – when he mentions a contemporary satirical cartoon comparing the Prime Minister to Boadicea (or Boudica, as she was actually called) he is of course referring to Margaret Thatcher, not Theresa May. When he says that the late-Roman rulers of Britain effectively declared U.D.I. from the Empire, I just about remember what he’s referring to – Rhodesia’s declaration of independence from Britain back in 1965 – and it’s a thought-provoking comparison – but most readers would probably have to look it up. He says that contemporaries remembered the bad winter of 763 ‘just as we do that of 1947’ – do we? He says the Northumbrians felt about Athelstan’s conquest of their kingdom ‘the same way as we feel about the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia’ (p.145).

That said, I found many of the comparisons worked well bringing these ancient people to life, in highlighting how their behaviour is comparable to the same kind of things going on in the contemporary world:

For example, he compares the native British merchants getting involved with Roman traders like entrepreneurs in contemporary Third World countries taking out, for example, a Coca Cola franchise – or compares Boudica’s rebellion against the imperial Romans with rebellions against British Imperial rule – the most disastrous of which was probably the ‘Indian Mutiny’ – invigorating my thinking about both.

In the 440s the British King Vortigern invited warbands from Germany, Frisia and Denmark to come and help him fight against the invading Picts and Scots. As we know, a number of them decided they liked this new fertile country and decided to stay. Wood entertainingly compares the situation to modern mercenaries deciding not just to fight in but to settle and take over a modern African country.

The seventh-century English kingdoms were ruled by the descendants of the illiterate condottieri who had seized their chances in the fifth and sixth centuries. It is, let us say, as if Major ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare had founded his own dynasty in the Congo in the early sixties. (p.63)

I understood the reference the more since Hoare is mentioned in the memoirs of both Frederick Forsyth and Don McCullin who covered wars in Africa back in the distant 1960s.

Elsewhere he compares the builders of Offa’s Dyke to modern motorway construction companies, kingly announcements as sounding like modern propaganda by Third World dictators, the lingering influence of Rome on the 7th and 8th century kings comparable to the lingering afterglow of European imperial trappings on African dictators like Idi Amin or Jean-Bédel Bokassa. He compares the partition of England between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings to the partition of Israel, and the readiness of armed civilians to mobilise against the invader as comparable to the readiness of Israeli reservists (p.124); the burning of Ripon Minster by the southern army of King Eardred marching north to confront Erik Bloodaxe ‘had the same effect that the shelling of Reims had in 1914 (p.181).

Learning that King Athelstan was the first king to definitively rule the entire English nation and in fact to extend his mastery over Wales and Scotland, you might think ‘game over’, it’s all peaceful from now on, but far from it. The decades after Athelstan’s death in 939 saw the ravaging of the north of England by conflicting hordes of Saxons, Vikings, Northumbrians, Scots and Welsh, until it became a kind of ‘Dark Age Vietnam’, despoiled by the Dark Age equivalent of our modern ‘saturation bombing’ (p.165).

Quibbles and kings

Pedants might quibble that Boudicca’s rebellion against the Romans took place in 60AD, quite a long time before the official start date of the Dark Ages/Early Middle Ages, which is generally given as 400. But I can see the logic: a) Boudicca is more or less the first named leader of the Britons that history records and b) the themes of Roman colonialism and British resistance and c) the broader themes of invasion and resistance are set up very neatly by her story. In fact, given that a lot of the book is about invasion and resistance, leaving her out would have been odd.

For invasion is the main theme: the Romans arrived to find the native ‘Britons’ illiterate and so it’s only with the Romans that the written record begins, although archaeology suggests that successive waves of peoples had arrived and spread over Britain before them. But after the Romans there is a well-recorded set of invaders:

  • First the Angles and Saxons under their legendary leaders Hengist and Horsa in the 450s; the legend of King Arthur grew out of stories of native ‘British’ resistance to the Germanic invaders in the late 400s and Wood, like every other serious historian, concludes that there is not a shred of evidence for Arthur’s actual historical existence.
  • It is from the period when the Anglo-Saxon invaders settled into different ‘kingdoms’ – in fact themselves made up of loosely affiliated tribal groups – that dates the stupendous grave at Sutton Hoo with its wonderful Dark Age treasure: Wood goes ‘in search’ of the king who was buried there but, like every other scholar, says we will probably never know, though the name of King Raedwald of the East Angles is most often referred to in the scholarly literature.
  • King Offa of Mercia (757-797) was the most powerful king of his day – he was even deemed worthy of correspondence from the great Charlemagne, king of Francia (768-814) and Wood goes in search of his royal ‘palace’ at Tamworth.
  • It was King Alfred the Great (871-899) who had to deal with the arrival of a massive Viking army and, although pushed back into the marshy maze of the Somerset Levels, eventually emerged to fight the invaders to a truce, in which the Danes held all of England east of a line drawn from London to the Mersey – the so-called Danelaw.
  • It fell to his son, Edward, to successfully continue the fight against the Danes, and it was only in the reign of his son, King Athelstan (927-939) that all of England was for the first time unified under one ruler.
  • In fact, the Danes fought back and the Norse adventurer Eric Haraldsson, nicknamed Eric Bloodaxe, briefly seized and ruled Yorkshire from York. When he was finally overthrown (in 954), that was meant to be the end of Danish rule in England…
  • Except that the Danish King Cnut managed, after a long campaign led by his father, to seize the English throne in 1016 and reigned till his death in 1035, and was succeeded by his son Harthacnut, an unpopular tyrant who reigned for just two years (1040-42). During Cnut’s reign England became part of his North Sea Empire which joined the thrones of Denmark and Sweden.
  • Cnut’s Anglo-Danish kingdom is generally forgotten because it, like a lot of Anglo-Saxon history, is eclipsed by the Norman Conquest of 1066, with which Wood logically concludes his story.

Brutality

Though he conveys infectious excitement at the achievement of an Offa or Athelstan, Wood is well aware of the brutality which was required of a Dark Ages king.

For most Dark Age kings had the inclinations of spoilt children and their moral sense was unrefined. (p.221)

We learn that after Offa’s death the men of Kent rose up against Mercian rule and were crushed, their king, Eadberht Praen, taken in chains to Mercia where his hands were cut off and he was blinded (p.107). The Vikings practiced a ritual sacrifice of their fallen opponents to Wodin, the blood eagle, which involved cutting the ribs and lungs out of the living man and arranging them to look like eagle’s wings (p.114). The great Athelstan himself barely survived an attempt apparently organised by  his brother, Edwin, to capture and blind him (p.140). When the invading Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard died in 1014, his army elected  his son, Cnut, as king to replace him. Ethelred took advantage of the hiatus to raise levies and attack Cnut in Gainsborough, forcing him to go to sea. But the Danes had taken a number of nobles or their sons hostage for good behaviour, and Cnut put them all ashore at Sandwich, after cutting off their noses and hands (p.216).

Ravaging not fighting

There was no shortage of battles during this period (the thousand years from Boudicca’s revolt in 60 to Hastings in 1066) but what I began to realise was the steady drip-drip of ‘campaigns’ which never involved two armies directly confronting each other; instead during which one or more armies rampaged through their opponents’ territory, murdering, raping, destroying crops and burning down villages, in order to terrorise their opponents into ceasing fire and offering a truce. The Romans, the Britons, the Saxons, the Welsh, the Scots and the Picts and the Irish, the Vikings, the Danes and the Normans – all in their time waged ‘military’ campaigns which amounted to little more than systematic murder, rape and plunder of completely unarmed peasants as a deliberate war strategy.

I’ve always wondered why there’s a massive statue of Boudicca opposite the Houses of Parliament given that one of her main achievements was burning London to the ground, after previously ravaging all Roman settlements in her native East Anglia; and a thousand years later William the Bastard, having defeated the main Wessex army at Senlac Ridge, then set about ravaging the countryside in a wide circle to the west and up and around London – then when the English in the north resisted him, William went on a massive campaign of destruction known as the Harrying of the North (1069-70) resulting in huge destruction and widespread famine caused by his army’s looting, burning and slaughtering.

From Boadicea to the Bastard, a thousand years of horrific violence and destruction.

As David Carpenter points out in his history of the Plantagenet kings, direct confrontation in battle is risky; quite often the bigger better-led force loses, for all sorts of reasons. Hugely more controllable, predictable and effective is to ravage your opponents’ land until he sues for peace. You lose no soldiers; in fact the soldiers get all the food they want plus the perks of raping and/or killing helpless civilians, which saves on pay as well; if you do it long enough your opponent will cave in the end.

This is the depressing logic which means that, time after time, king after king and invader after invader found it cheaper, safer and more effective to kill and burn helpless civilians than to engage in a set piece battle. And it is a logic which continues to this day in horribly war-torn parts of the world.

Slavery

I’m well aware that slavery was one of the great trades of this era, that slaves were one of Roman Britain’s main exports and were still a mainstay of the economy even after William the Bastard tried to ban the trade a thousand years later, but Wood himself admits to being astonished by the range of breadth of the Dark Age slave trade (pp. 183-185):

  • The Spanish Arabs engaged in a lucrative slave trade with the Dublin Norse who often planned their attacks on Christian towns to coincide with Christian festivals when they’d be packed e.g. the raid on Kells in 951 in which the Norse took away over 3,000 slaves to sell on.
  • The Church in Britain was economically dependent on its slaves.
  • The Norse settlements on the east coast of Ireland served as clearing houses for slaves seized from the interior or Wales or England and then sold on to Arab Spain, to North Africa or via the Baltic via the Russian river routes to the Islamic states of the Middle East.
  • An Arab traveller of Erik Bloodaxe’s time (the 950s) reported from Spain on the great numbers of European slaves in the harems and in the militia. The Emir of Cordoba, in particular, owned many white women.
  • Most British slaves seem to have ended up being sent via the Russian river route to the Middle East. The numerous Icelandic sagas mention the slave trade and even give portraits of individual named slave impresarios.
  • The Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great (962 – 973) captured tens of thousands of Slavs in his conquests eastwards, sending them in chains back to be processed by Jewish and Syrian slave merchants in Verdun, and then shipped south into Arab lands, many of them castrated first so as to be fit servants in the harem.
  • An eighth-century pilgrim in Taranto saw nine thousand Italian slaves being loaded aboard boat, just one of countless shipments to Egypt.

Almost everything about the Dark Ages is terrifying, the never-ending warfare, the endless ravaging burning and looting, but I think the vision of an entire continent dominated by the trade in slaves is the most harrowing thing of all.

The inheritance of Rome

Chris Wickham’s book, The Inheritance of Rome (2009), makes the claim that only in recent times have we come to realise the extent to which the legacy of Rome lived on for centuries after the end of the Roman Empire in the West (traditionally dated to the death of the last emperor in 475). So it’s interesting to read Wood making exactly the same point in 1980:

For the so-called barbarians of the seventh and eighth centuries, the Roman empire cast the same sort of afterglow as the British Empire did in post-colonial Africa… The ruins of Rome stood around them in tangible form, of course. But it went deeper than that. The Northumbrian bretwalda, Edwin, unsophisticated but immensely proud, as Bede portrays him, made the point of having the insignia of Roman office carried aloft before him in public. He was baptised by a Roman missionary in the Roman city of York, and for all we know held court in the still standing Roman HQ building there. Such men were setting themselves up as civilised heirs of Rome… (p.108)

Conclusion

All in all this is a popularising and accessible account, dipping into the most dramatic highlights of this long period, a quick entertaining read, with many stimulating thoughts, insights and comparisons thrown in.


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris (2012)

Young historian and TV presenter Marc Morris has written a racy pacy account of the ‘most important event in English history’, a  350-page overview which starts 50 years before the big event, continues for a generation afterwards, and effortlessly integrates scholarly weighing of the various sources and their reliability with common-sense interpretation and stylish factual asides.

For example, the population of 11th century England was some 1.5 million of whom over 10% were slaves. Most of the population above them were smallholding churls, with around 5,000 significant landowners in the whole country, of whom only an estimated 90 held enough land to be rich enough to attend the king, and only 4 earls at a time ruled the four main regions of Wessex, Mercia, Northumberland and East Anglia.

There are some fascinating sections on the rise of Norman church architecture, later named the ‘Romanesque’, whose soaring new designs eclipsed the clunky windowless churches of the Saxons.  And a chapter dedicated to the origin and implementation of the amazing Domesday Book.

However, no matter how brightly and enthusiastically it starts, like every account of this era, Morris’s book soon bogs down in the tangled web of family trees and promises – ie who promised who the throne of which country when, who invaded who, who made solemn oaths of friendship and then declared war etc – webs which ensnare not just the throne of England but those of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Scotland, Wales and France as well as the dukedoms and earldoms of Anjou and Flanders and Normandy, to name just the main ones.

As one way through this complex web I set out to record simply why each king of England – from Æthelred the Unready onwards – actually became king. Not their acts and achievements. Just why they became king.

***

Æthelred the Unready (978–1013 and 1014–1016) son of King Edgar and Queen Ælfthryth, Æthelred was the great-grandson of Alfred the Great. King Edgar had an older son by another wife, Edward, who duly became king in 975 but was not the choice of many powerful nobles and was murdered just three years later in 978. It’s at this point that the Witan or council of powerful landowners elected the ten-year-old Æthelred king. Over the following 40 years Æthelred failed to bind together the factions which had made his election so bloody, and his long reign was characterised by backstabbing weakness at the centre and betrayal at the periphery. All made worse for coinciding with a resumption of the Danish/Viking raiding which everyone thought had been staunched in the mid-900s. Thus in 1002 Sweyn Forkbeard, king of Denmark, landed and began harrying whole swathes of England in sustained campaigns until, in 1013, Æthelred was forced to flee abroad (to the court of Normandy, home of his wife Emma) whereupon Sweyn declared himself king.

Sweyn Forkbeard (1013-14) Sweyn had himself crowned king of England on Christmas Day 1013. He reigned for 5 weeks, dying on 3 February 1014. He had one son, Cnut, aged about 20, who had been an active helper in his wars. But the English ealdormen rejected Cnut and invited Æthelred back to be their king. Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England was elective.

Æthelred the Unready part 2 (1014–1016) Æthelred accepted the invitation, returned from Normandy and organised an army which defeated the Danes in Lincolnshire, the one and only military victory of his reign. However, old divisions among his senior advisers once again opened up and soon his eldest son, Edmund, was in open opposition to him. In September 1015 the Danes led by Cnut re-invaded and Edmund led the armies against them while Æthelred fell into his final illness and his court squabbled as usual. In April 1016 Æthelred died.

Edmund Ironside (April – November 1016) third of the six sons of Æthelred by his first marriage to Ælfgifu, Edmund gathered loyalist forces around him to fight the Danes, first Sweyn and then his son Cnut. Edmund was king of England from April 1016, when his father died. He led fierce resistance to the invading Danes, fighting five major battles against them before defeat at the battle of Battle of Assandun led him to agree to a division of the country, Edmund keeping Wessex, the old English heartland of Alfred the Great, and Cnut taking the rest. These arrangements were rendered moot when Edmund himself died 0n 30 November, probably from wounds sustained in the battle.

—At  this point Æthelred’s children by his second wife, Emma of Normandy – Alfred, the future Edward the Confessor and their sister, Godgifu – fled abroad to Normandy.—

Cnut the Great (1016-1035) Cnut and his Danish army successfully regained the throne claimed by his father Sweyn. He was to rule as king of England for nearly 20 years, at the same time being king of Denmark and of as much of Norway as he could conquer.

[Edmund’s heirs – Edmund had two children by Ealdgyth – Edward and Edmund. Cnut sent them to the king of Sweden to be murdered, but the Swedish king forwarded them to Hungary where Edmund died but Edward prospered. Edward ‘the Exile’, as he became known, returned to England in 1057 only to die within a few days of his arrival...]

Cnut had sons by two wives:

  • Ælfgifu of Northampton, who he was betrothed to by his father Sweyn upon the conquest in 1013, gave him Svein and Harold, called ‘Harefoot’. Svein was to die on campaign in Norway in 1035.
  • Upon taking the throne Cnut invited Æthelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, to marry him; she did and bore him Harthacnut.

Hiatus (1035-37) When Cnut died after nearly 20 years on the English throne he left the conditions for a bloody struggle between the two sets of sons. The great men of the kingdom held a meeting at Oxford on the river Thames, the border between Wessex and the south where Emma based herself and which supported Harthacnut, and the more Scandinavian north which supported Harold. They agreed to partition the country (once again) but in fact Harthacnut found it impossible to leave Denmark where he was threatened by invasion by the kings of both Norway and Sweden, for some years. And so, the record suggests, Harold little by little made himself actual ruler of the whole country.

Harold I ‘Harefoot’ (1035-40) son of Cnut by his second wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton, some historians speculate that his mother was the real power behind the throne. After the conflicts surrounding his election not much is recorded of his reign. He died in on 7 March 1040 at the relatively young age of 24, just as his half-brother Harthacnut had finally got round to organising a fleet to invade England.

Harthacnut (1040-42) son of Cnut and his second wife, Emma the widow of Æthelred. He arrived with a fleet of 62 ships at Sandwich on 17 June 1040.  Most of the army were mercenaries and one of Harthacnut’s first acts was to levy an enormous tax to pay for them. Unpopular across the country, two tax collectors in Worcester were killed by the mob which led Harthacnut to send forces to kill everyone in the city and raze it to the ground. His popularity never recovered and he levied the same punitive tax the next year. After two brief years, on 8 June 1042 Harthacnut dropped dead at a wedding feast in Lambeth.

But, according to Morris, one of the few good things Harthacnut did in his reign was, in the second year, unexpectedly, to invite Edward, son of Æthelred and Emma, to come and join him in a joint rule (p.42). Maybe he realised how unpopular he was and needed an English intermediary. Whatever the motivation it paved the way for Edward’s swift acclamation.

Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) was a son of Æthelred by his second marriage to Emma of Normandy. Æthelred already had no fewer than six sons by his first marriage to Ælfgifu and so it must have seemed unlikely that Edward would ever inherit the crown. However, the most powerful son, Edmund Ironside, was killed resisting Cnut as, it seems, were four of the others, and the survivor, Eawdwig, was executed by Cnut along with any other members of the English nobility who seemed a threat soon after his victory in 1016. So now, in 1042, the son of Emma and Cnut – Harthacnut – was dead – and so were the sons of Cnut and Ælfgifu – Svein and Harold – and so were all the sons of Æthelred and Ælfgifu – leaving Edward on the spot and eligible. He was elected king by the Witan and crowned on Easter Day 1043.

Harold II Godwinson (1066) Edward reigned for a long time and a lot happened. A central thread is the presence of the great earl Godwine, who had risen under Cnut from relative obscurity to become, through his fighting prowess, earl of Wessex and one of the most powerful earls in the country by about 1020. A theme of Edward’s reign was the difficulty he had managing Godwine, problems which reached a climax in 1051 when Edward ordered Godwin to punish the population of Dover for a drunken brawl with visiting Frenchmen. Godwin refused, it became a battle of wills and Edward rallied the other earls and leaders and managed to get Godwin and his sons exiled and seized all his land. However, in 1052, the Godwins returned with a large armed force and won enough support to compel Edward to restore him. In 1053 he died and his son Harold inherited the earldom of Wessex, every bit as strong and imperious as his father.

The fatal promise

The crux of the Norman Conquest is whether Edward the Confessor promised the English throne to Duke William of Normandy, as is depicted in the Bayeaux tapestry and in all Norman accounts. When Cnut ruled England the entire Saxon royal family sought refuse in Normandy, where Edward was raised. As it became clear he was going to have no male issue, he allegedly, in 1051, sent a promise to Duke William that he would inherit the English throne. Over the years he infiltrated various Normans into high positions, including Archbishop of Canterbury.

Edward was well aware that earl Godwin’s headstrong son, Harold, considered himself a legitimate heir and so in 1064 Edward ordered him to go to Normandy to confirm Edward’s election of Duke William as his successor. This Harold did with very bad grace and William forced him to make the oath of allegiance over holy relics, effectively making Harold William’s vassal. But in his heart Harold didn’t accept it.

For Harold and the Saxons the crown was passed on by the decision of the Witan or council or by brute force; one king couldn’t choose to pass it to another. For William, Edward’s promise and Harold’s confirmation of it on holy relics, was a solemn and binding legal agreement.

And so when Edward died and Harold, ignoring his forced promise, and acclaimed by the other nobles of the country, took the throne, Duke William felt cheated and was able to persuade not only his own people but even Pope Alexander II that his cause was Just, to raise a massive armada, and to get the Pope’s blessing for his invasion. Harold counter-claimed that Edward gifted him the throne on his deathbed.

Who was telling the truth? Did such a gift supersede – if it was made – the solemn promises Edward had made earlier to William? Did those solemn promises have meaning in English custom and law?

Harold was crowned in Westminster Abbey on January 6 1066. In September he had to march north to deal with the invasion of the Norwegian warrior, Harold Hardrada.

Harald Sigurdsson (called ‘Hardrada’) Half-brother to King Olaf the Saint of Norway. Following Olaf’s defeat and death at the battle of Stiklestad in 1030, Harald saw action in Russia and then as a member of the Byzantine emperor’s famous Varangian Guard in warfare around the Mediterranean. In 1046 he returned to Scandinavia and to conflict with his nephew Magnus I who had become king of Denmark and Norway. When Magnus died in 1047 Harald became king of Norway but hankered after Denmark as well and raided the country every year for nearly 20 years. Moreover, he contemplated invading England more than once, to restore the Empire of Cnut the Great. The Confessor was well aware of this and sent numerous emissaries to pacify Harald, but who also gave him the impression he would get the throne of England when Edward died.

In 1066 Harold Godwinson’s brother Tostig, former earl of Northumbria, was driven out of England and into exile. He came to Norway and persuaded Harald to try and invade the north of England, the part of the country with strong Scandinavian ties due to the prolonged settlement there of Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries. The landings were initially successful and Harald and his forces won the battle of Fulford outside York. However, King Harold II Godwinson arrived with a large force and, catching the Norwegians by surprise, massacred them at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066.

William the Bastard (1066-87) In 1036 Duke Robert of Normandy died on pilgrimage to the Holy Land leaving a 7-year-old son by a working woman to whom he was not married and who he named William. William’s childhood and teens were spent in a court in crisis and beset by war, an environment he mastered, making himself the most successful military leader in northern Europe. He was convinced Edward the Confessor had promised him the crown of England and was outraged when Harold ‘usurped’ it. He assembled a huge invasion fleet and an army well-stocked with mercenary fighters, before waiting impatiently for the weather in the English Channel to become favourable. Landing in Pevensey Bay on 28 September 1066, he marched his army to Hastings and then inland to the ridge at Senlac where, on 14 October, the Battle of Hastings was fought, King Harold Godwinson killed, and the Saxon forces decimated.

William then marched his men from the coast through Sussex and Surrey, across the Thames and then north-east along the Chilterns to Berkhamsted, ravaging and burning as he went. All resistance was crushed and eventually the English nobles in London realised they had to capitulate. William had himself crowned in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066. For the Normans coronation put God’s seal on power. He also had the Pope’s imprimatur. William claimed the throne:

  • by right of the Confessor’s solemn promises
  • by right of conquest
  • by right of the Pope and Mother Church
  • by the (eventual) acclamation of the leading English nobles

Edward the Aetheling Remember Edward the Exile, the son of Edmund Ironside? Who came back to England in 1057 only to drop dead? Well, he had a son known to history as Edgar the Ætheling (b.1051?). After Harold II was killed at Battle, Edward was briefly proclaimed king of England and based himself in anti-Norman London, at least for the few months that William ravaged his way through the Home Counties. It was Edward who led the deputation from London which went to submit to the Conqueror at Berkhamsted. He was allowed to live but plagued William by putting himself at the head of a number of rebellions against William’s rule between 1067 and 1075. With the end of English opposition in that year he went and fought alongside the Conqueror’s son Robert of Normandy in campaigns in Sicily (1085-1087) and accompanied Robert on the First Crusade (1099-1103) before dying of old age in England in 1126.

The failure of monarchy

The fundamental reason there was a Norman Conquest is because Edward the Confessor failed to have a son, indeed any children. His widow, Edith, later commissioned a Life of Edward which claimed he was so devout and holy the couple never had sex. More likely it was just a common-or-garden case of infertility, in which case two of the most seismic events in English history – the Norman Conquest and the Reformation – can be attributed to malfunctioning sex organs.

Related links

King Edward the Confessor promising what, exactly, and to whom?

King Edward the Confessor promising what, exactly, and to whom?

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 which it describes, for this is the life story of King Harald Sigurdsson, known as Harald 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 same ill-fated Harold of England who then had to force-march his army 270 miles 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:

  • It is authored All the so-called Family sagas are anonymous, whereas Harald’s was written 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 not as illustration but as evidence, carefully assessing what it tells us about the events it decribes.
  • It is an excerpt All the so-called ‘Family sagas’ are self-contained stories (though some key characters appear in more than one saga); whereas Harald’s saga 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; whereas 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 sagas tell us and, given the artistic intention of the texts, it is satisfying and sufficient to accept their narratives and stories at face value without needing to delve deeper; whereas King Harald was a real historical figure and a major player in the events of the dramatic year of 1066 which are taught to all schoolchildren. So his character – and the events described in the narrative – are easily swamped by our outside knowledge of him and his doings 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 was the Icelandic historian, Snorri Sturlason (c.1179-1241).

Snorri 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 was designed as a primer on poetic technique, leading up to a long section about the different stanzas and methods available to Icelandic poets, the opening section about the Norse myths was only intended as a kind of background briefing for these poets. But as most other sources have been lost, the Prose Edda now stands as an invaluable source – often the only source – for many of the tales of the Norse gods.

As if this wasn’t enough of an achievement, Snorri 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, in a vast book titled the Heimskringla.

The Heimskringla

This vast text is a comprehensive history of the kings of Norway from the mists of prehistory, when they were caught up in 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 chapter consists of 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 problems in his preface and in other places. Maybe the most striking aspect of the book is the very strong reliance on poetry as a form of historical evidence.

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 particularly 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 often more notes than text.

And it’s here that a teeny-tiny problem emerges, because at key cruxes of Harald’s biography – his time with the Varangian Guard in Constantinople, 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 up into the body of 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: for example, after two pages of factual scholarly notes detailing just what Harold Godwinsson promised Duke William of Normandy, it’s difficult to rejoin the fictional narrative in the same, rather fairy-tale frame of mind
  • undermines the text because, unfortunately, it turns out that 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 genuine 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, which leap in to correct Snorri’s many historical errors and so continually interfere with your enjoyment.

In a nutshell, the first time you read the Magnusson translation, I suggest you skip the notes, just read the narrative for the speed and excitement of the story.

Plot 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

Reviews of other sagas

The Saga of the Jomsvikings

Classifying sagas

Hundreds of long prose texts were composed in Iceland in the 13th and 14th centuries, the texts we call sagas. Modern scholars bring some order to this profusion by classifying them as:

  • sagas of Icelanders (Íslendinga sögur) – just over 40 texts describing what purport to be the true exploits of ordinary figures from the early settlement of Iceland, the so-called Saga Period, from 870 to just after the Christianisation in 1000 – this is the category which includes all the famous sagas ie Njal, Grettir, Laxdaela and so on
  • short tales of Icelanders (Íslendingaþættir) – around 66 items, often very short, often abstracted from the longer kings’ sagas
  • kings’ sagas (Konungasögur) – lives of Scandinavian kings, most notably the famous Heimskringla
  • contemporary sagas (Samtíðarsögur) – contemporary to their 13th century time of composition, written soon after the events they describe, most preserved in the compilation Sturlunga saga
  • legendary sagas (Fornaldarsögur) – dealing with deep myths and legends of the Northern peoples, most notably the Völsunga saga
  • chivalric sagas (Riddarasögur) – frequently copied from southern, mostly French chansons de geste
  • saga of the Greenlanders (Grænlendingasögur)
  • saints’ sagas (Heilagra manna sögur)
  • bishops’ sagas (Biskupa sögur)

Jómsvíkinga saga is told in the flat, objective style of the sagas of Icelanders but deals with chieftains and kings and high politics, so is more of a king’s saga.

Summary

Jomsborg is founded on the north German coast by the legendary Danish hero, Pálni-Tóki. It is a fraternity of vikings who raid around the Baltic. After Pálni-Tóki’s death the new leader, Sigvaldi, kidnaps King Svein of Denmark and tricks him into marrying Gunnhild, daughter of the Wendish king Búrisleif. Svein’s revenge is to invite the vikings to a feast at which he gets them drunk and encourages them to vow to conquer Norway and its ruler Earl Hákon Sigfurdsson. At the resulting Battle of Hjörungavágr the Jomsvikings are soundly beaten and, in a famous scene, 70 of them are lined up and executed until Eirik, Hákon’s son, is moved by their bravery to spare them.

Accretions

The Battle of Hjörungavágr is the core of the story and yet it only occurs in the last ten or so chapters of the 38-chapter long text. Over the centuries the oral tradition and the scribes (endless controversy about how much of each) have added on 20 or more chapters of build-up stretching back some 150 years before the main event, introducing, for example, the series of prophetic dreams (rather garbled and ineffective in the event, as they don’t actually foretell many key events). As with all the sagas events are told in the same flat style with little or no explanation which means you have to reread the text since, only when you’ve got to the end, do you find out what it’s about, which bits are important and which bits are fun and fanciful but unnecessary to the ‘plot’.

History and non-history

As the scholar N.F. Blake writes in his thorough and academic introduction to this 1962 edition, despite the highly detailed nature of the text which appears to be all about kings and battles, ‘The Jómsvíkinga Saga is not a historical text and has no value as a historical document. The main claim that the saga has to our attention is its literary excellence.’

Maybe so, but the saga is densely packed thoughout with real historical personages and, although their relations may be cast in fairy tale terms of three dreams and three visits and trick oaths and miraculous storms, nonetheless a lot of it is meaningless unless you have a good grasp of the power relations between the various kings and earls of Norway and Denmark – a challenging feat since the sources are meagre and even the best modern scholarship is dismayingly speculative about much of this period.

However, the overall affect is similar to other substantial sagas in that the mere effort involved in trying to follow the story leads you to become emotionally attached to some of the protagonists (for example, the venerable Bjorn the Welshman who is quietly effective throughout), even when their actions are repellent, even when their characters are almost non-existent – so that by the time the tragic end arrives the reader is moved partly out of sheer exhaustion at having stuck with the text till the bitter end.

Versions

Apparently the saga exists in five versions which are quite different in detail. This translation is from version H. There are also a number of other texts retailing the adventures of the Jomsvikings, which give completely different versions of key facts, for example about who founded them and where Jomsborg even was. This saga doesn’t give the definitive account, the reverse: reading this saga would be only the beginning of a journey towards a full understanding of the subject…

Detailed synposis

1 – In Denmark ruled King Gorm the Childless. His friend Earl Arnfinn holds a fiefdom in north Germany from Charlemagne (d.814). The earl has an incestuous relationship with his sister who bears a son. Slaves are told to expose it but, as always in this fable, leave it where it will be found by King Gorm and his hirdmen hunting. The babe is found in rich fabric knotted into a tree, so Gorm calls him Knut (knot) and adopts him and leaves him his kingdom. Knut himself has a son he names Gorm who will later be known as Gorm the Mighty.
2 – In Holstein rules Earl Klakk-Harald. His daughter Þyri has no equal in beauty. King Gorm comes with his army seeking her hand, but Harald wisely invites him to a feast at which Þyri herself says he must come again with gifts, build a house where none has stood, and sleep three nights in winter, having three dreams. Gorm goes away, builds the house, sleeps there on three consecutive nights and has dreams and tells Þyri who says she can marry him. Big wedding feast.
3 – Gorm tells his dreams: 1. He is looking out over his kingdom, the sea has receded to dry up. He sees three white oxen come out of the sea, eat all the grass, and return to the sea. 2. Three red oxen with large horns come up from the sea, strip all the grass, and return to the sea. 3. Three enormous black oxen come from the sea, eat all the grass, and return. Then a loud crash as the sea rushes back to where it had been. Þyri interprets: three white oxen are three heavy winters covering the land with snow. Three red oxen mean three winters with little snow but not good. The three black oxen mean a dire famine. The crash of the sea means civil war between great men close to Gorm. The queen pledges to prepare for the famine and when it comes there is enough food to feed all, whence she becomes known as the wisest woman alive and the Glory of Denmark.
4 – King Gorm invites Earl Harald to visit him at Christmas but the earl and men see a tree covered with blossom and decide it is a bad omen and turn back (symbolising the change from heathenism to Christianity in Denmark). Next year another Christmas invite but when they board a ship the earl and his men hear whelps barking in their mothers’ wombs (the rebellion of Svein against his father). Next year another invitation but this time the earl and his men see waves crashing and the sea turning red (the conflict between Knut and Harald – this never happens as Knut is killed by a Saxon arrow – see below). The king is all for attacking and ravaging Holstein but his wife calms him and invites her father who explains what kept him home three times and interprets the events as warning that boys yet unborn will cause great strife.
5 – Earl Harald bestows his land on  his foster-son Knut and goes on pilgrimage never to return. Aethelstan is king in England (925-39). The Danish army led by Gorm’s sons Knut and Harald invades and ravages Northumberland. Aethelstan gathers an army and defeats the Danes near Scarborough. One day the men were swimming by their ships when English men attack with bows, mortally wounding Knut. The English rally and the Danes are decisively expelled. They return to tell King Gorm who dies of heartbreak and is buried at Jelling (930? 940?). Harald Gormsson is elected king who will become known as King Harald Bluetooth (958-986).
6 – At this time Norway is ruled by Harald Greycloak (960-970?), the son of Eirik Bloodaxe, and his mother, Eirik’s wife Gunnhild, who had expelled Earl Hakon Sigurdarson, who takes 10 ships and to a Viking life. During winter King Harald Gormsson/Bluetooth and Earl Hákon plot treachery against King Harald Greycloak of Norway and in the spring he is killed (970) by dead Knut’s son Gull-Harald (who Hákon then string up on a gallows for his trouble). Then the Holy Roman Emperor Otto comes on an expedition (974), gets Olaf Tryggvasson to help him and they force King Harald Bluetooth and Earl Hákon to become Christians.
7 – There was a man named Tóki who lived in Fyn in Denmark. He has three sons, the illegitimate Fjolnir (sneak), legitimate Áki (hero) and Pálnir (father of the legendary Pálni-Tóki). When Tóki  dies the two legitimate sons divide his property, offering Fjolnir a third of the chattels but not property. Angered he goes off to serve King Harald, rising to become his counsellor. Áki Tókason becomes the most successful viking raider in the land but Fjolnir feeds King Harald a steady diet and criticism and paranoia. When they learn Áki is at a feast in Gotland the king sends 10 ships and 600 men who successfully kill all Áki’s 120 men. Fjolnir has had his revenge.
8 – When Áki’s brother learns this he takes to his bed in despair since he cannot carry out the required revenge against so powerful a man as the king. His foster-brother Sigurdr advises asking the hand in marriage of Ingibjorg, daughter of Earl Ottar of Götland. He says yes and travels to Fyn for the grand wedding feast. That night in their wedding chamber Ingibjorg has a dream she is weaving on a loom the threads of which are weighted with human heads. One falls down and it is the head of King Harald Gormsson/Bluetooth. Good sign.
9 – Pálnir and Ingibjorg have a son Pálni-Tóki who grows up big and strong. (Apparently Pálni-Tóki is a legendary figure, comparable to William Tell and other heroes.) When his father dies he goes a-viking every summer. Wales is ruled by Stefnir who has a daughter Álof. Pálni-Tóki plans to raid there but Stefnir and his adviser Bjorn the Welshman quickly send emissaries inviting him to a feast and to be friends. Not only does Pálni-Tóki attend but he proposes to Stefnir’s daughter, Álof. Stefnir makes Pálni-Tóki an earl and gives him half of Wales. After a year Pálni-Tóki says he wants to return to Denmark, so leaves his half the kingdom in control of Bjorn the Welshman.
10 – King Harald Bluetooth progresses round his land. He stays with Pálni-Tóki. As a result of his carousing a servant woman, Saum-Aesa, falls pregnant and bears a son (960). When Pálni-Tóki learns it is by the king he adopts the child and calls it Sveinn. (He will grow up to be the Sven Forkbeard who rebels against his father and conquers England in 1013.)  Next time the king is visiting they present him the three year-old boy but the king is angry and doesn’t want to know. Pálni-Tóki vows to bring him up royally.
11 – When he is 15 Pálni-Tóki advises him to go ask for ships from his father so he can go raiding. He harries Denmark and the farmers complain. Next spring he asks for more ships and harries fiercely all summer. When he meets his father he threatens him and Harald buys him off with more ships. Pálni-Tóki congratulates him: he is becoming strong and threatening. Pálni-Tóki goes to check his lands in Wales.
12 – Svein harries, burning and looting. Finally King Harald sets off with 50 ships to confront him.  The fleets meet off Bornholm. Day-long battle is inconclusive and the ships anchor. Harald goes ashore. Pálni-Tóki arrives back from Wales with 24 ships. Harald goes ashore with a handful of men and makes a fire. Pálni-Tóki shoots him dead with a golden arrow and sneaks away. Fjolnir keeps the arrow and Harald’s retainers agree to lie that the king fell in battle. Next day the naval fight resumes; Svein and Pálni-Tóki’s forces break through Harald’s blockade and sink more ships at which point everyone learns that Harald is dead. Svein and Pálni-Tóki give his followers the choice between fighting on or pledging their allegiance to Sveinn. They choose the latter and Sveinn progresses to an Assembly at which he is voted new king of Denmark.
13 – Svein is now king (986-1014). He invites Pálni-Tóki to a feast but three times (as in all good folk tales) he refuses, claiming he has to manage his affairs in Wales. Finally, under threats from Svein, Pálni-Tóki arrives with three ships and 120 men. Big feast. Fjolnir (the same sneak who persuaded King Harald to kill his uncle Aki) whispers to the king the story of Pálni-Tóki killing his father.
14 – Fjolnir gives a page the golden arrow and tells him to pass it round the room till someone claims it. Pálni-Tóki claims it and openly declares he shot and killed Svein’s father. Svein (Pálni-Tóki’s foster-son, after all) tells everyone to seize and kill Pálni-Tóki. Everyone leaps to their feet. Pálni-Tóki chops his bad uncle Fjolnir in two (cheers). But Pálni-Tóki and Bjorn the Welshman escape, though Bjorn goes back to rescue a man they’d left behind.
15 – The next summer Pálni-Tóki’s wife dies. He is restless in Wales, so leaves it to Bjorn the Welshman to manage and goes a-viking the coasts of Scotland and Ireland for three years, gaining great loot and then sets sail east to Wendland. The king of the Wends, Búrisleif, is understandably worried and offers Pálni-Tóki a base at a place named Jóm. Pálni-Tóki builds a castle there with a harbour that can hold 360 longships and has iron doors and catapults. (This all sounds fantasy from a long time later.) He calls it Jómsborg.
16 – Laws of the Jomsvikings: age 18-50; no refusing to fight; avenge each as a brother; never speak a word of fear; all valuable goods seized to be taken to the banner(?); no starting fights; news to be mentioned only to Pálni-Tóki; no women in the city; no-one absent for more than three days; if blood feuds exist between brothers Pálni-Tóki makes final agreement. They went harrying every summer. They were known as the Jomsvikings.
17 – A number of new families are introduced. Pálni-Tóki’s son is Áki, living back on Fyn in Denmark. Áki marries Thorgunn, daughter of Véseti, they have a son named Vagn who is tough and hard to handle.
18 – Sigvaldi and Thorkell, sons of Strut-Harald, ask his permission to go join the Jomsvikings and sail with 120 men via Bornholm where they land and raid farms owned by Véseti, then sail on to Joms. Pálni-Tóki stands on the battlements over the harbour and asks them their provenance. He knows their kin and half the men are accepted, half rejected.
19 – Meanwhile Véseti complains to King Svein about his farms being raided. Sveinn summons Earl Strutt-Harald who says his son’s actions are no responsibility of his. Véseti with 240 men plunders Harald’s farms, who complains to Sveinn but Sveinn says Harald wanted to act alone: so Harald goes raids three of Véseti’s farms.
20 – Sveinn calls a great assembly at which all parties arrive with ships and short-tempered men and it looks like a full-scale civil war might erupt, except Svein  declares a just settlement, Búi will return Harald’s cloak and riches (though not the chests of gold he insists on keeping) and awards Strut-Harald’s daughter to Véseti’s son Sigurd-kapa. All sides as reconciled.
21 – Then Búi and his brother Sigurd-kapa decide they want to go join the Jomsvikings. They sail there and are also asked questions by Pálni-Tóki on the tower. Sigvaldi and Thorkell want to be assured the feud between the families is settled.
22 – Vagn is such an unruly child that by the age of nine he has killed three men. Age 12 he asks Aki for a ship and sails to Jom. Long dialogue with Pálni-Tóki on the tower, involving Búi and Sigvaldi. Nobody wants to admit Vagn. Pálni-Tóki offers him rule in Wales, he says no. Then he challenges Sigvaldi to come out with two ships and fight it out.
23 – Sigvaldi and Vagn’s ships fight, first with hails of stones, then with swords. Sigvaldi is forced to retreat and loses thirty men. Pálni-Tóki is watching, stops the fighting and admits Vagn to the crew, even though he is only 12. He turns out a mighty warrior.
24 – Pálni-Tóki dies. Before passing he consults with King Búrisleif who gave them Jom about who should replace him. They agree Sigvaldi who is delighted. Vagn is given half of Wales to rule and goes there. But under Sigvaldi the Jomsvikings’ discipline deteriorates.
25 – King Búrisleif has three daughters. Sigvaldi asks for the hand of the Astrid. The King agrees but Astrid is not keen and says she’ll only do it on condition that Sigvald manages to liberate their country from the tribute they have to pay Denmark or, alternatively, brings King Svein there himself. They confirm the arrangement with oaths. Sigvald sails with three ships and 360 men to Sjaellund ie his home territory, learning that King Svein is holding a big feast nearby. Sigvald tells Sveinn he is dying and needs to tell him something important. King Svein comes onboard Sigvald’s ship at which Sigvald grips him and orders his men to raise anchor and row off hurriedly. He takes the king to Jomsborg where the vikings swear loyalty to him. Then Sigvald says he has pledged him (Svein) to King Búrisleif’s other daughter Gunnhild who will only accept him if he cancels the tribute which King Búrisleif has to pay him. Svein agrees and there is a mighty wedding feast. The wives wear veils until the next day when the king can see their faces and realises Sigvald was lying when he said Gunnhild was the most beautiful. Still, he sails back to Denmark with his new bride, thirty ships and fine gifts and Sigvald sails to Jom with his new wife.
26 – Earl Strut-Harald, father of Sigvald and Thorkell, dies. King Svein says the brothers should return for the funeral feast. People warn him against it but the brothers return to Sjaelland with 180 ships. Big feast, lots of drinking: Svein gets the vikings drunk then suggests they make oaths. He swears to defeat Aethelred and take England within three years (he does so in 1014). Sigvald swears that he will drive Earl Hákon out of Norway or die in the attempt. Thorkell the Tall vows to follow his brother. Búi vows to follow Sigvald. Sigurd-kapa vows to follow his brother. Vagn vows to follow his kinsmen, and then to go to bed with Ingibjorg, daughter of Thorkell leira. Bjorn the Welshman (surely getting on a bit by now) vows to follow Vagn. In the morning the sober vikings can’t remember their vows but his wife, Astrid, reminds Sigvald, and promises to help him make plans.

[In a footnote, N.F. Blake says that a man making an oath at a feast gets up from his seat and goes and puts one foot on a stone in the feast hall.]

Sweyn and the Jomsvikings at the funeral ale of his father Harald Bluetooth by Lorenz Frølich, 1886 (Wikimedia Commons)

Sweyn and the Jomsvikings at the funeral ale of his father Harald Bluetooth by Lorenz Frølich, 1886 (Wikimedia Commons)

27 – Next day King Svein reminds the now-sober Sigvald of his vow. They squabble about how many ships the king will give him, and agree to set off soon. Astrid promises help to her husband, and Tóva gives her husband Sigurd some fighting men. The Jomsvikings depart.
28 – The Jomsvikings sail to the Vik and attack Tønsborg in Norway, murdering and burning. It is managed by Geirmund the White who flees to an outhouse with retainers then, when attacked, leaps out a window and has his arm chopped off by Vagn Akisson, but nonetheless flees to the woods and makes his way north to Earl Hakon who he tells of the attack. When the earl doesn’t believe him, he shows his stump.
29 – Hákon sends round the war arrow and musters troops. He raises his sons Svein and Eirik. The fleet of 360 ships assembles at a creek called Hjörungavágr. The Jomsvikins sail north plundering. The incident of Vagn and Ulf ie Vagn goes ashore on an island and finds a farmer tending three cows and 12 goats and asks him if he’s seen the Norwegian forces and he says he’s seen the king in one boat and the Joms force him to direct them and when he thinks they’re going t orealise he was lying he dives overboard but Vagn kills him with one spear throw.
30 – Detailed list of the men lined up on either side. For some reason space is devoted to one of Hákon’s skalds, Skjald-meyjar-Einarr, who recites a poem saying he’s going to leave. The earl gives him an elaborate set of magic scales and he stays. (This poet is mentioned in Egils saga as one of Hakon’s court poets and is also unhappy with his boss in that account.) And two verses from another Icelander named Vígfúss.
31 – The Battle of Hjörungavágr – detailed description of the battle lineup.
32 – Earl Hakon convenes with his sons and agree it looks like they’re losing. He goes ashore at Prímsign and prays to the heathen godesses, Thorgerd Holgabrudr and Irpa. He offers sacrifices which are rejected until he offers his seven-year-old son Erling who is then killed.
33 – He rallies his troops to rejoin the fray. As the day proceeds it clouds over until completely dark when lightning, thunder and hailstones break out. Many had taken off their clothes earlier in the day because of the heat and now begin to freeze. Whatever the Jomsvikings threw rebounded back on them plus the hail. The vikings with second sight see that a witch is throwing arrows at them. Hákon calls on his pagan goddess Thorgerd once again and the hailstorm is renewed, and those with second sight now see two witches fighting agains them. Sigvaldi concedes defeat. They didn’t vow to fight witches. Thorkell midlang leaps aboard Búi’s ship and hits him in the face with an axe, slips and Búi chops him in two; then Búi seizes his famous chests of gold (see chapter 20) and commands his men to abandon ship. Vagn, disgusted with Sigvald for abandoning his oath, makes an insulting poem about it then flings a spear at him which pins his steersman to the gunwale. Once Sigvald is gone, Thorkell the Tall, Sigurd-kapa and the rest all flee.
34 – Only Vagn fights on though many of his men are killed. When night falls the Norwegian earls take the oars from Vagn’s ship, anchor and weigh the hailstones sent by the pagan godesses Thorgerd and Irpa. Vagn’s men manage to float on the mast & sail to nearby skerries but many are wounded, it is bitter cold, and ten men die.
35 – At first light a viking arrow kills Gudbrand, kinsman of the earl. They search the abandoned viking ships and it came from Hávard the hewer whose feet have been cut off. They kill him. Earl Eirik asks Thorleif skuma why he looks so rough and Thorleif replies he seems to have been wounded when he attacked Vagn. Then he dies. This exchange seems to be there solely to justify what is, presumably, an old piece of skaldic verse attributed to Einarr skalagramm.
36 – Execution of the Jomsvikings The Norwegians see Vagn’s men on the skerry, row out and being them back prisoner, tie all 70 of them with ropes. Thorkel leira is appointed to execute them and, one by one, they ask whether they are afraid to die. They say no and one by one are beheaded, each one being asked the question and giving some kind of witty or ironic reply. One wants to be struck in the face so as to see death. Another is disappointed he won’t get to have sex with the earl’s wife, and so on.
37 – The famous story of the viking who requests a thrall to hold his hair up as he’s executed and who, as the blow falls, jerks his head down so that the thrall’s arms are chopped off above the wrist, and who then jokes, ‘Whose are these hands in my hair?’ He is killed and Earl Hakon orders all the others executed without delay. When they come to Vagn he replies he will only die content if he fulfils his vow: what was that? To kill Thorkel leira and lie with his daughter Ingibjorg without his consent. Thorkel is so furious he lunges at Vagn; Bjorn the Welshman pushes him over so the blow misses, Thorkel stumbles and the sword cuts through Vagn’s rope, freeing him, so that he grabs the sword and kills Thorkel with one blow. Hakon orders him killed on the spot but Earl Eirik overrules him on this and, in general, requests the rest of the Jomsviking be spared. Eirik asks old white-haired Bjorn the Welshman if he’s the brave man who returned to rescue a man from the hall (in chapter 14). When he says yes Eirik says will you accept your life from me and Bjorn says only if Vagn and all the others are spared. The Jomsvikings’ bravery in face of death and legendary solidarity are confirmed.

38 – Aftermath Earl Eirik grants Vagn his freedom and his wish, namely to marry Ingobjorg. He returns to Denmark, to his estates at Fyn, and lives to old age and many famous men are descended from him. Bjorn returns to rule Wales with a mighty reputation. Sigvaldi returns to his estates in Sjaelland and his wife Astrid. He rules wisely, as do the others ie Thorkell the Tall, Sigurd-kapa etc. But Búi, who had leapt overboard with no hands, is said to have turned into a serpent and ever afterwards guarded his gold. Earl Hákon gains great fame from his victory but doesn’t live much longer. Christian Olaf Trygvasson arrives in Norway and the fiercely pagan Hákon, on the run, is murdered by his own thrall while hiding in a pigsty (995). Olaf rules and converts all of Norway to Christianity.

‘That is the end of the story of the Jomsvikings.’

Related links

The Jomsvikings in a naval battle by Nils Bergslien, 1900 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Jomsvikings in a naval battle by Nils Bergslien, 1900 (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

The Saga of the Greenlanders

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).

To be honest, neither of them seem to me to have much literary merit and to be mainly of historical interest (which is considerable). The revelation for me is that there wasn’t one big voyage but quite a few trips stretched over a number of years and by a cast of people each discovering different parts and having different adventures. Thus there isn’t the continuity of characterisation you get in even the fairly short Þattrs.

Scholars take this patchiness to prove them closer to the original oral tradition, with less literary ‘shaping’ of the narrative than we see in most other sagas. That said, the anecdotes in Grœnlendinga saga are threaded together by being associated with successive children of Eirik the Red; and an over-pattern of sorts emerges in the contrast between Freydis the psychopath and Gudrun the saint, though only really in the last chapter.

Synopsis

1 – A man named Bjarni Herjolfsson arrives one summer in Iceland to find his father has emigrated to Greenland along with Eirik the Red, so he sets off to follow him. Three days from Iceland they lose their way. Over the weeks he and his crew spot three distinct lands but, since none of them tally with the description of Greenland he doesn’t go ashore. Eventually the wind does blow them back to Greenland where they land and find his father’s farm, settling there. People hear of his travels and criticise him for lack of curiosity in not landing anywhere.
2 – Leif the son of the outlaw Eirik the Red, is interested in Bjarni’s discoveries, buys a ship from him, hires a crew and tries to get Eirik to lead the expedition but Eirik says he is too old. They discover the same lands as Bjarni but in reverse order and name them: Helluland (meaning Stone-slab land), Markland (meaning Wood land) and a much more fertile place they decide to stay for the winter: cattle could graze here all year round, the sun doesn’t disappear in winter, the salmon are huge etc. They build a base and explore.
3 – Leif’s foster-father Tyrkir goes a bit further and finds grapes and grapevines. (Much ink has been spilt speculating whether these really were grapes (unlikely) or a word the Norse applied to some other kind of fruit (gooseberries?). Leif names the place Vinland meaning Wineland and the name was widely enough known to be recorded by the 11th century historian Adam of Bremen.) In the spring Leif sails back to Greenland laden with timber and grapes (?). As he rounds the Greenland coast he comes across a shipwrecked boat and saves the entire crew and stock, from which he is nicknamed Leif the Lucky. (Ironically the captain and most of the rescued crew then die of illness.)
4 – Thorvald Eiriksson, Leif’s brother, thinks that Vinland was not explored enough. He takes Leif’s ship, sails across the sea, finds Leif’s camp and stays the winter surviving on fish. In the spring the explore further west, finding one grain cover but nothing else human. Next summer Thorvald explores to the east and north, discovering some boats made of skin and people hiding under them, who they proceed to murder (!) The natives, called Skraelings by the Norsemen, return and attack en masse. The Vikings sail off in a defended boat but Thorvald is fatally wounded, dies and is buried in Vinland. His crew return to Greenland.
5 – Thorstein Eriksson goes to Vinland to recover the body of his brother, in the same well-travelled ship, taking his wife Gudrid. The expedition never reaches Vinland, after sailing all summer ends up back at the coast of Greenland, where Thorstein falls ill and dies. Supernatural events occur: The wife of their host Thorstein the Black dies but sits up and talks. Then dead Thorstein speaks out of his dead body and tells the fortune of his wife Gudrid, predicting a long and prosperous life for her back in Iceland, and a pilgrimage to Rome.
6 – A ship arrives in Greenland from Norway commanded by Thorfinn Karlsefni, a rich man. He falls in love with Gudrid and they marry (her third marriage) and he’s encouraged to lead an expedition to Vinland. The expedition arrives in Leif’s and Thorvald’s old camp and stays there for the winter. Next summer a group of natives or Skraelings come visiting, carrying skins for trade. Karlsefni forbids his men to trade weapons, instead selling them dairy products. —Gudrid gives birth to a boy, Snorri, the first European born in North America.— The second winter the Skraelings come again to trade but this time one of Karlsefni’s men kills a Skraeling as he reaches for Norse weapons. Supernatural events occur: As she waited, Gudrid had seen a strange woman approach with enormous eyes who said she was Gudrid; as the Skraeling was killed the spirit woman disappeared!— The Skraelings return to attack and the Norsemen manage to fight them off. Karlsefni stays the rest of the winter and returns to Greenland in the spring.
7 – Two brothers arrive from Iceland, Helgi and Finnbogi. Freydis Eiriksdottir, the daughter of Eirik, suggests they all travel to Vinland and share the profits fifty-fifty. They agree to have only 30 men on each ship but Freydis double crosses her partners immediately by taking along 5 extra men. The brothers arrive slightly earlier in Vinland and move into Leif’s house but when she arrives, Freydis orders them to leave. Games which are mean to unify the little colony just lead to further disputes. One morning Freydis wakes Finnbogi to talk to him. Returning to her bed she tells her husband, Thorvard, the brothers abused and beat her and says she’ll divorce him unless he avenges her. Thorvard leads his men in tying up all the men from the other camp while they are still sleeping. Freydis has each man killed on the spot until only the five women remain who her crew are reluctant to kill. She asks for an axe and kills them all. She is greatest psychopath in all the sagas I’ve read. Freydis threatens her crew with death if anyone tells these deeds. They load the ships with goods and sail back to Greenland, telling everyone the brothers chose to stay in Vinland.
8 – Eventually Leif learns the truth and is horrified but doesn’t take it upon himself to punish her crimes. Meanwhile the saga returns to Gudrid and Karlsefni who make land in Norway, trade, then return to settle in north Iceland. When Karlsefni dies their son Snorri takes over running the farm while Gudrid goes on pilgrimage to Rome and returns to become a nun and anchoress. Their descendants include notable bishops of Iceland.

The murderess balances the holy woman – but both are treated with that same flat affect so characteristic of the sagas, so heartless and yet compelling. There is no false sentiment. There is no sentiment at all.

Related links

Norse sailors spotting land

Norse sailors spotting land

Other sagas

The Saga of Ref the Sly

Króka-Refs saga or The Saga of Ref the Sly is a relatively short one, with just 20 chapters.

Summary

Everyone thinks Ref is a layabout till he kills his overbearing neighbour and escapes to Greenland where he kills five members of a family who slander him then outwits his pursuers using a Heath-Robinson system of waterworks then comes to Norway where he kills a retainer of the king who’s trying to rape his wife then flees to Denmark where the king lends him the forces to defeat the retainer’s avengers. The King of Denmark rewards him for his ingenuity and generosity, with farms where he and his family are happy. In later life Ref undertakes a pilgrimage to Rome from which he never returns.

Detailed synopsis

1 – In the days of King Hakon (931-964), foster-son of King Athelstan of England (924-927), there lived at Breidafjord a man named Stein, married to Thorgerd, and they have a lazy sluggard son Ref. A rich overbearing man named Thorbjorn moves into the neighbouring farm and starts grazing his sheep on Stein’s land. Stein politely asks him to refrain.
2 – Stein falls ill and dies. He advises his wife Thorgerd to sell the farm and move in with her brother suspecting Thorbjorn will become a bad neighbour. Thorgerd is sentimentally attached to the farm so doesn’t move. She hires a small wiry man named Bardi to guard the border, he builds a hut down by the stream which forms the boundary and makes sure Thorbjorn’s cattle don’t stray onto Thorgerd’s land.
3 – Rannveig, Thorbjorn’s wife, says the cattle aren’t giving as much milk. It’s all the fault of Bardi. Thorbjorn rides to his shed and kills him and hides his body. Thorger’s people notice Thorbjorn’s livestock wandering across the stream and eating their hay so Thorgerd sends out and they find Bardi’s body. Thorgerd bitterly berates her lazy son Ref, wishing she’d had a daughter. Ref takes up a halberd, rides straight to Thorbjorn’s farm, walks into his closet and runs him through with the halberd. As he is leaving a hue and cry is raised so he hides in a woodpile until night then sneaks off. His mother Thorgerd greets him as a true man.
4 – Thorgerd sends Ref west to stay with her brother Gest Oddleifsson. Gest notices he is good with his hands and determines to bring out this skill. He gives Ref tools and wood and iron and he builds a shed and then spends three months building a perfect sailing boat. (This character, Gest Oddleifson or Gest the Wise, appears in no fewer than five sagas – Gísla saga, Laxdæla saga, Njáls saga, Kristni saga, Króka-Refs saga, and Hávarðar saga Ísfirðings.)
5 – Gest goes to see it and sure enough it is a fine ocean-going vessel. He gives it to Ref. Turns out a Norwegian captian once stayed with Stein and Ref carefully observed the model ailing ship his son owned. — Games are coming up. A boisterous neightbour named Gellir comes asks Ref if he’s going to take part. No. Not even in wrestling? No. Gellir challenges him then and there and leaps on him. They tussle, Ref proves the stronger and throws him. Angered, Gellir strikes his spear, but doesn’t injure him.
6 – News goes round about Ref’s ship and Gellir, passing by, stops in to see it, at which Ref kills him at one blow with an axe. Gest praises him for acting so decisively and approves his plan to sail to Greenland. Ref sails with many fine men. Storms take them to an uninhabited fjord where they winter till they can sail to ‘the settlement’. Her Ref builds an impressive hall for a man named Bjorn. Ref falls in love with Bjorn’s daughter Helga and marries her and takes over Bjorn’s farm. He lives there eight years during which time Bjorn dies and Ref and Helga have two sons, Stein and Bjorn.
7 – Coming home from the workshop Ref sees a polar bear tracking him and turns back to the workshop to get his axe. When he returns the polar bear is dead, killed by the sons of nearby Thorgils. The Thorgilssons use the incident to call Ref gay and effeminate, to invent the slur that he was expelled from Iceland for being gay, and they go about telling everyone. Ref hears but does nothing. He quietly sells his land for cash and prepares a ship.
8 – Thormod, Helga’s foster-father, confronts Ref about the rumours that he is gay. Ref fashions a massive mean spear so sharp it can slice whiskers, goes to Thorgil’s house and slices him open before going down to the Thorgilsson’s boathouse and killing all four of the sons. Then he notifies the people he’s sold the farm to that they can take occupancy, he loads  his ship with Helga, his sons and foster-father Thormod and sails away.
9 – Thorgils’ son-in-law Gunnar searches for Ref everywhere, setting lookouts on the headlands and searching north into the wilderness. After four years nothing is heard of them.
10 – A man called Bard is sent out from Norway by King Harald Sigurdarson (1046-1066) to Greenland to get ivory. He meets Gunnar at the settlement and learns about Ref’s exploits. He persaudes Gunnar to launch a sailing expedition along the coast to find Ref and they persist till Bard finds a hidden fjord with a well-built fortification. When they try to burn it Ref channels water onto their fires.
11 – Bard and Gunnar go back to the settlement and Bard prepares to return to Norway. Gunnar gives him three presents for the king: a polar bear, an ivory board game, a walrus skull inlaid with gold.
12 – Bard arrives in Norway and presents the king these gifts. The king asks what Gunnar wants for it and Bard says the king’s help in tracking down a fox. The king has heard all about it and admires Ref for being a ‘real man’.
13 – The King advises Bard not to return to Greenland, prophesying that he will die, but Bard says he promised Gunnar. The the king uses his kingly wisdom to explain to Bard the probable technology behind the fort which can’t be burned ie the planks are hollow and filled with water from a lake further up the valley: dig down till you find the pipes and break them; then you can burn the fort.
14 – Meanwhile Ref calls on the men who offered their support in the settlement to come and join him. They do so and Ref launches his Iceland boat and stocks it with greenland wares, but remains in the fort a little longer. Bard arrives in Greenland, joins up with Gunnar and sails back to the hidden fjord. Here they did down as the king advised to find water pipes and sever them. Then they fire the fortress. Ref asks who gave them this clever advice. As the flames are rising higher, the entire wall facing the water suddenly topples forward, crushing some of the attackers and creating a smooth launching pad and down it rolls a ship on wheels (!) and into the water and sails away.
15 – a) Bard’s ship gains on Ref.s but Ref orders his men to stop rowing so Bard’s overshoots at which point Ref transfixes Bard with a spear and his son cuts the sail’s stays so the mast falls over board. Now they easily escape. b) But Gunnar’s men launch their boat and quickly pursue, but Ref escapes. Gunnar returns to the settlement very unhappy. Bard’s men return to Norway and tell the king of Bard’s death who said it is as he predicted.
16 – Ref and his sons board the main ship and they all sail to Norway, arriving near Trondheim where the king is staying. Ref changes his name to Narfi and wears a fake white beard and pretends to be an old merchant. While he and his sons are attending an assembly of the king, a local braggart and favourite of the king’s named Sheath-Grani came and tried to ravish Helga. As soon as he realised she was alone and unguarded Ref had set off for their hut and discovered Grani in the act. He chased him to a fence where Grani tried to talk his way out of it but Ref skewered him with a spear then hid the body. He realised he must declare it so told his men to ready the ship, then went to the king’s assembly where he interrupted and described the encounter and killing and ran off before anyone understood, joining the little boat which they rowed out to where the ship was moored and so sailed off.
17 – King Harald unravels Ref’s long elaborate coded message to realise Grani is dead. He deduces it must be the act of the well-known troublemaker Ref. He orders his men to search high and low for him.
18 – They sail directly to Denmark where they have an audience with the king who is impressed with Ref’s resourcefulness and the riches he’s brought from Greenland. He asks to keep his two older sons at court, while he finds Ref a farm to settle.
19 – Bard’s men arrive back in Norway (as mentioned in chapter 15) and, along with the killing of his retainer Grani, King Harald nicknames Ref Steinsson Ref the Sly and outlaws him the length and breadth of Norway. He commissions Grani’s brother Eirik to go to Denmark with 60 men to kill him.
20 – As soon as Eirik’s force arrives they are greeted by an old white-bearded man using walking sticks who calls himself Sigtrygg who says he can guide them to Ref if they make a deal to give him an ounce of silver per man and free passage back to Norway. Then he takes two of Eirik’s men into a wood, overpower them, carry on to a headland the other side where there are two fine ships given to Ref by the king of Denmark with two hundred men with whom they attack Eirik, overcoming him and killing all but ten of his men. Ref imposes terms on Eirik saying he will let him live to return to King Harald and say he (Ref) will never cause him any more trouble. Ref gives them a rowing boat and impounds their fine long ship and gives it to the king of Denmark who is overjoyed at his ingenuity and success and generosity. In return he gives Ref some farms for his people. And ref takes his fake name Sigtrygg.

Like so many sagas, this one ends in a few last lines where old Sigtrygg undertakes a pilgrimage to Rome and dies on the way home. I guess the consistency with which all these pilgrims never return suggests both the actual danger and lengthiness of the journey – but also symbolises the way they’ve left their old lives and values never to return.

Chess?

‘Chapter 12 of Króka-Refs saga says that Bárðr brought gifts with him from Greenland when he visited the king of Norway. He gave the king an ivory board game as a gift, and the board was both a hneftafl (for the Viking board game) and skáktafl (for chess). Perhaps it was laid out for a chess-like game on one side and for hneftafl on the other.’ (From the Hurstwic website)

George Clark translates the relevant passages as: ‘The second was a board game skilfully made of walrus ivory…The board game was both for the old game with one king and the new with two.’

Related links

Reviews of other sagas

Thorstein Staff-Struck, Thidrandi whom the goddesses slew, Authun and the bear

‘It is useless to beg off, said Bjarni. ‘We must fight on.’ (Thorstein)

Gwyn Jones’s OUP volume, Erik the Red and other Icelandic Sagas, contains a number of texts so brief they are considered short stories rather than sagas – the Icelandic term for them is Þáttr. There are some 66 þættir of Icelanders ie which have the same feel as the sagas of Icelanders, are about ordinary people, not legendary heroes or gods. Most of them are digressions in longer kings’ sagas. There’s ongoing debate about whether they can be read meaningfully as stories in their own right, or only make sense in the context of their larger homes. I think they are like chips from grander sculptures, or sketches an artist makes in preparation for painting a large composition, or like chinks in a wall through which we can get a tiny, partial view into the rich and strange panoramas of the longer sagas.

All three are overtly Christian.

1. Thorstein Staff-Struck

The same Bjarni of Hof who features in Vapnfirðinga Saga here also appears as a noble and magnanimous chieftain:

A horse fight escalates until Thord hits big, strong, silent Thorstein in the face with a staff, who is nicknamed Thorstein Staff-Struck. He refuses to take revenge on his attacker until he is goaded beyond endurance by his grumpy ex-Viking father, Thorarin, at which he storms off and kills Thord, who happens to be horse-keeper to Bjarni. Bjarni has Thorstein outlawed but takes no active steps against him until he, too, is goaded by the overheard sneers of his retainers. He orders the two gossipers in question, Thorhall and Thorvald, to kill Thorstain but they muck it up and are killed themselves and Thorstein ties their bodies to their horses and sends them back to Hof. Again Bjarni does nothing. Until his wife Rannveig berates him for being the talk of the valley for his inaction. Next moring Bjarni rides briskly over to Sunnadal and explains to Thorstein they must fight. Thorstein asks to say goodbye to his father, who is thrilled his son is finally acting like a man. Bjarni and Thorstein fight single combat on a raised knoll. There are a folk-tale-like three interruptions: 1. Bjarni grows thirsty and asks quarter to drink; Thorstein remarks that he’s using a bad sword; they start fighting again until 2. Bjarni’s shoelace comes undone and he asks quarter to do it up, during which Thorstein goes into the farm and gets much better swords and shields for them. They fight on. Finally 3. having struck away each other’s shields they are defenceless and Bjarni says he doesn’t want to do a foul deed. He will forgive Thorstein killing three of his housecarles if Thorstein will become his man and serve him. Thorstein agrees. Bjarni goes in to deceive the old Viking Thorarin that he’s killed his son and offers him honour and a place at the table at Hof but when he goes to sit next to the old man he finds him fumbling for a big knife to kill him. He leaps up but nonetheless invites Thorarin to come live at Hof. Thorstein goes to live at Hof and follows Bjarni loyally till his death day.

Bjarni fully maintained his reputation, and was the more beloved and more magnanimous the older he grew. He was the most undaunted of men, and became a firm believer in Christ in the last years of his life. He went abroad and made a pilgrimage south and on that journey he died. (Gwyn Jones, 1961)

Bjarni maintained his honour, and he became more popular and more even-keeled the older he grew. He dealt with difficulties better than anyone, and he turned strongly towards religion during the latter part of his life. Bjarni travelled abroad and made a pilgrimage to Rome. He died on that journey. (Anthony Maxwell, 1997)

2. Thidrandi whom the goddesses slew

Þiðranda þáttr ok Þórhalls (literally the story of ‘Þiðrandi and Þórhall’) is a þáttr preserved in the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason. It is a short piece of strikingly Christian propaganda. — Sidu-Hall invites his friend Thorhall Seer (wise and able to see the future) to come stay at his farm at Hof in Alftafjord, to stay till the harvest feast is over. Thorhall grows steadily more gloomy and predicts a dire and wonderful event. On the night of the feast, amid dense snowstorms, Thorhall warns nobody to go out of doors. Late in the night there is a repeated knock at the door. Sidu-Hall’s beloved and noble son Thidrandi eventually gets impatient and goes unlocks it. There is nobody there. He ventures out into the snow and sees nine women dressed in black riding his way and nine women in white riding his way. The black women arrive first and set about him with swords, he defends himself bravely. In the morning his body is discovered and he has just time to describe what he saw and what happened before he dies. Thorhall interprets it as the pagan fetches or spirits of the people in the hall knowing that soon Christianity will come and the old religion be abandoned and they are exacting a price for their betrayal. Distraught, Hall moves and, months later, at his new farm Thorhall burst out laughing with happiness.

‘I am laughing,’ replied Thorhall, ‘because many a hill is opening , and every living creature, great and small, is packing his bags and making this his moving-day.’

And a little later Iceland was converted to Christianity (as described in Njal’s saga and others.)

3. Authun and the bear

Auðunar þáttr vestfirska (literally ‘the story of Auðun of the Westfjords’). This is a rare story which is entirely nice with noone getting axed at all.

Authun’s friends sponsor him with money to go abroad. He goes to Greenland where he spends all his money on a fine bear; then to Norway where King Harald III (1047-66) wants to see him. Harald asks for the bear but Authun says he wants to give him to King Svein of Denmark. Does he realise Norway is at war with Denmark, Harald asks. But lets him go. Authun is penniless by the time he reaches Denmark but manages to get an audience with King Svein II (1047-76) who is charmed by the present of the bear and asks Authun to become a retainer. Eventually Authun asks if he can leave and Svein says no, but Authin explains it’s to go on pilgrimage to Rome and Svein says that is the only reason that would cause him to say yes. Authun is on pilgrimage and return penniless and hides from the king until he notices him and makes him come forward and congratulates him on his piety and dignity and makes him his cup-bearer. Again after a while Authun says he wants to leave and the king is cross until Authun explains it’s to go and provide for his aged mother in Iceland, to which the king agrees. He gives Authun a ship in exchange for the bear, and a purse of silver and a gold ring to give only to a great man he is under an obligation to. And so Authun leaves King Svein, well-beloved, and sails to Norway where he is greeted by King Harald who asks what Svein gives him and Authin lists it all up to the ring which Authun now presents to Harald for not taking the bear from his forcibly and for not killing him but letting him on his way. And the king thinks it is nobly done and gives Authun presents in return and lets him sail back to Iceland.

The heroic ethos

‘It is useless to beg off, said Bjarni. ‘We must fight on.’ He and Thorstein are technically free to walk away, but both would lose what is more important to them than life, the strangely twisted version of ‘honour’ which requires them to fulfil the roles dictated to them by a society which values ‘face’ above everything. In his introduction Glyn Jones defines the northern heroic ethos well:

The Icelandic conception of character and action was heroic. The men and women of the sagas had a comparatively uncomplicated view of human destiny, and of the part they were called on to play in face of it. They had, it is not too much to say, an aesthetic appreciation of conduct. There was a right way to act: the consequences might be dreadful, hateful; but the conduct was more important than its consequences… It is a saga reading of character and destiny: to see one’s fate and embrace it, with this curious aesthetic appreciation of what one is doing – it was this that made one a saga personage. (Gwyn Jones)

Saga sayings

  • Even doers are done for once wounds befall them.
  • None takes warning from his fellow’s warming.

Horse fighting

Apparently common in Viking Iceland, along with various other sports and ball games. Almost always a prelude to trouble, like the horse fight in Njal’s saga, chapter 59, where the feud between Gunnar and the Starkardssons stems from a horse fight which degenerates into a people fight. Horse fighting continued in Iceland well into the 20th century and is still carried out in China and some other southeast Asian countries.

Related links

Old photo of a horse fight in Iceland, 1930

A horse fight in Iceland, 1930

Other sagas

%d bloggers like this: