Laxdæla saga

Second only to the mighty Njal’s saga in number of manuscripts surviving, the ‘saga of the people of Laxdal’ is one of the classics of the genre.

Ketil Flat-Nose emigrates to Iceland
1 – Introducing Ketil Flat-Nose and his wife Yngvild, and their five children: sons Bjorn the Easterner and Helgi Bjolan and daughters Unn the Deep-Minded, Thorunn, Jorunn Manvitsbrekka.
2 – After the Battle of Hafrsfjord (?875) King Harald Fair-Hair (872-930) emerged as the first king of a unified Norway. He imposed taxes and appointed lords and drove many people into exile. Ketil assembles his family and says he doesn’t want to submit to Harald. His sons Bjorn and Helgi are for going to Iceland, Ketil less keen.
3 – The sons and son-in-law arrive in west and north Iceland and claim land and build settlements.
4 – Ketil settles in Scotland with his kin (890). His grandson Thorstein goes a-viking around the Scottish coast. He eventually makes peace with the Scots but is killed. Ketil dies. Her father and son dead, Unn has a knorr built secretly and steals away with her people and goods. She sails to the Orkneys and settles Thorstein’s daughter, then on to the Faroes and arranges the marriage of another of Thorstein’s daughters.
5 – Unn sails to Iceland (895), arriving at Hvammsfjord and making her home at Hvamm. She marries Thorgerd daughter of Thorstein to Dala-Koll. Their son is Hoskuld Dala-Kollson whose daughter is Hallgerd ‘Long legs’, a central character in Njals’ saga where she manages to get her three husbands killed (notably the hero Gunnar) and then provides a focus for the enemies of Njal.
6 – Unn apportions land to all her followers, and the marriages of the rest of Thorstein the Red’s six daughters.

Rise of Hoskuld
7 – Unn holds a big wedding feast for her grandson Olaf Feilan (920) at which she publicly leaves him the farm at Hvamm then goes to bed. In the morning she is found dead. She is buried in a boat in a mound along with lots of treasure. Dala-Koll dies and Hoskuld inherits what comes to be known as Hoskuldsstadir. His mother Thorgerd (now a widow) returns to Norway and marries Herjolf.
8 – Herjolf and Thorgerd have a son, Hrut. He grows up big and strong. Herjolf dies (923). Thorgerd returns to Iceland, to Hoskuldsstadir. Eventually she dies and Hoskuld takes over all her property.
9 – Hoskuld woos and marries Jorunn (935). Their sons were Thorleik and Bard; their daughters were Hallgerd long-legs and Thurid. Hoskuld becomes honoured and rich.
10 – A man called Hrapp lives at a farm across the river Laxal from Hoskuldsstadir. He is troublesome. His wife Vigdis and all her family and relations.
11 – A man called Thord Goddi is neighbour to Hrapp and comes into conflict with him.

Hoskuld visits Norway
Hoskuld buys a ship and sails to Norway where he is welcomed by kin.
12 –  In the summer a royal expedition east to the Brenno Islands to judge law cases, also an excuse for feasting and entertainment. Hoskuld goes. He encounters the trader Gilli the Russian. He barters for a slave woman, paying three marks of silver for one who cannot speak.
13 – Hoskuld presents himself to the newish ruler of Norway, Earl Hakon (975-995), who is a bit miffed he’s delayed saying hello, but helps him to the timber he requires and sends him back to Iceland laden with presents (gold ring and sword) (948).

Hoskuld returns to iceland with a concubine
Hoskuld’s wife Jorunn is not thrilled to have Hoskuld’s slave woman under the same roof especially when she gives birth to a fine-looking boy, whom Hoskuld names Olaf after his uncle Olaf Feilan.  Hoskuld discovers the dumb slave girl by a stream talking to handsome young Olaf, asks her name. She is Melkorka daughter of Myrkjarten, a king in Ireland, before she was captured in a raid aged fifteen. When she’s getting changed Jorunn hits her with a sock, Melkorka slaps her. Oops. Hoskuld separates them and gives Melkorka her own farm further up the Laxdal valley.

The story of Hall which leads to Thord fostering Olaf
14 – Long story of overbearing Hall from the Saudeyjar Islands. He goes to the fishing camp on the Bjarneyjar islands, takes a fishing partner Thorolf and bullies him. The bullying reaches a climax after one trip where Hall claims the better half of the catch. Hall tries to hit him with a gaff, they are separated, Thorolf goes off disgruntled, Hall takes another partner. As Hall leaps off the boat after his next fishing expedition Thorolf is waiting, chops off  his head, and scarpers. He takes a boat to the mainland, to the Laxa river and goes up to the house of Thord because Thord’s wife Vigdis is a distant relative. They argue about it but Vigdis gets her way to hide Thorolf for the winter. But then Hall’s overbearing brother, Ingjald, arrives and offers Thord three marks of silver if he will hand Thorolf over peacefully.
15 – Vigdis scents a trap and sends their servant Asgaut to take Thorolf from the cowshed where Thord has secreted him but they’re surprised by Ingjald and his men, and decide to swim across the half-frozen Laxa river, where Ingjald and his men can’t follow. They proceed on to the house of Thorolf Red-Nose where they are welcomed and Thorolf the fisherman becomes a retainer. Back at Thord’s house Ingjald is furious and demands the return of  his money but Vigdis smacks it in his face and frightens him off.
16 – Vigdis gives Asgaut money and makes him a free man; he sails to Denmark, settles and is out of this saga. Vigdis divorces her cowardly husband, takes her half of the goods and goes to stay with her kin the leader of which, Thord Bellower, is not impressed. Thord goes begs Hoskuld for his help. He offers to foster Hoskuld’s illegitimate son, Olaf, making him his heir. Hoskuld agrees, dspite the objections of Olaf’s mother, the ex-slave woman Melkorka (950). Hoskuld sends a conciliatory message and money to Thord Bellower and this placates him. Olaf grows up to be big, strong and handsome, and Hoskuld gives him fine clothes, which leads to his nickname, the peacock.

17 – Unpopular Hrapp dies (950). He’d asked his wife (another Vigdis) to bury him upright in the doorway which she does. But he haunts the farm and area and kills his servants. Vigdis flees. Hoskuld digs up Hrapp’s body and reburies it far away. Hrapp’s son, Sumarlidid, takes over the farm but goes mad and dies.
18 – Thorstein moves his whole family east in a boat. Interesting details of Norse boat and sailing, currents etc. In the event it overturns and everyone is drowned bar one. Details of the deal Thorkel Scarf does with the survivor to make him tell the order of the drowning in such a way as to ensure that Thorkel inherits all the goods through his wife Gudrid, Thorstein’s daughter (who drowned).

The dispute between Hrut and Hoskuld
19 – In the Laxdæla version Hrut is born and raised in Norway where he becomes a valued member of King Harald Gunnhildsson’s entourage, but he is called to Iceland to claim his inheritance, namely his mother’s share of the farm. Hoskuld is not pleased to see him, Hrut demands his mother’s share of the farm. Hoskuld replies that he was legally his mother’s guardian after his father’s death and did not give her permission to remarry (and thus split the property). Hrut is dissatisfied. In the autumn Hoskuld makes a visit and Hrut and his men go and rustle 20 of his cattle. Hoskuld’s men pursue and there is a pitched battle in which four of Hoskuld’s men are killed and the rest surrender. When Hoskuld finds out he is furious and sets about raising men from allies and supporters when his wife Jorunn intervenes: a) lots of people think Hrut was only taking his due and had showed retraint waiting so long b) Hoskuld has enemies such as Thord Bellower for taking Thord Goddi’s side against his wife. Hoskuld calms down and sees sense. He offers a settlement to Hrut. Hrut offers compensation for the men killed. The two are reconciled and live as brothers ought to. Hrut lives to a ripe old age at Hrutsstadir.

(Compare and contrast with the version of events told in Njal’s saga’s early chapters where Hrut lives happily with his brother, but is called to Norway to collect an inheritance from a distant relative and slips into the service of King Harald Grey-Cloak and becomes lover to Queen Gunnhild before returning cursed by Queen Gunhild, so that is marriage to Unn remains unconsummated so that Unn divorces him and Hrut is sued for return of the dowry etc. The core of the two Hruts ie half-brother to Hoskuld, time in Norway, lover to Queen Gunnhild, are consistent: but everything  else has been changed and rearranged. This makes you realise just how malleable these narratives and, by extension, the names, the people, the protagonists, are. )

Melkorka sends Olaf the Peacock abroad
20 – Hoskuld is old. His son Thorleik builds his own farm and marries Gjaflaug. The other son Bard helps Hoskuld on his farm. Meanwhile Hoskuld is reluctant to help Melkorka on her farm, he says she has Olaf to help. Melkorka decides to get revenge for his neglect. She arranges a) to marry Thorbjorn Pockmark, at which point he will release treadeable goods for b) her son Olaf the Peacock to go to Ireland and find her father, the Irish king Myrkjarten. She gives him a gold arm ring which her father will remember and a knife and belt which her nurse will remember.

Olaf in Norway
21 – Olaf sails to Norway where he is kindly received by King Harald and the Queen Mother Gunnhild who takes a shine to him (as she does to all attractive men). After faithful service Olaf requests help sailing to Ireland the the king and queen equip him with a boat and sixty men.

Olaf in Ireland
After some trials in the fog and with reefs they anchor on the coast of Ireland. The locals threaten to storm the boat but Olaf puts up a stout defence and looks commanding in his golden helmet. The king is called and at a parlay Olaf realises it is his grandfather Myrkjarten. Recognising the golden arm band Myrkjarten acknowledges Olaf as his son and they ride to Dublin. Olaf fights for the king and proves a daring commander. So much so that at a massive assembly Myrkjarten declares Olaf his successor as king of Ireland. Olaf gracefully declines: ‘I would rather enjoy a brief spell of honour than a long rule of shame’. Olaf requests to return to Norway; the king gives him a spear, a sword and other wealth and Olaf arrives back in Norway.

Olaf returns to Iceland
22 – King Harald and Queen Gunnhild like him all over again and try to get him to stay but Olaf sails safely home to Iceland with another set of royal presents, and goes to stay with his father Hoskuld. He becomes famous. Melkorka asks if her nurse came with him but he has to say, regretfully, the king wouldn’t let her. Melkorka had married Thorbjorn Pockmark: they have a son, Lambi who grows up big and strong. Hoskuld says Olaf needs a wife. He suggests Thorgerd, daughter of Egil Skallagrimsson (who, of course, has a famous saga dedicated to him).
23 – At the Althing Hoskuld suggests to Egil who asks Thorgerd who refuses to marry the son of a slave. So Olaf himself visits Egil’s booth and gets talking to Thorgerd and she agrees. A sumptuous wedding feast is held as Hoskuldsstadir and Olaf gives Egil the sword given him by King Myrkjarten.

Hrapp’s haunting
24 – Thord Goddi (Olaf’s fosterfather) dies. Olaf builds a mound over him. Olaf buys Killer-Hrapp’s vacant land, builds a farmhouse in a clearing, herds all his animals from Hoskuldsstadir to the new place which he calls Hjardaholt. One night a shepherd comes in terrified. Hrapp is haunting. Olaf attakcs Hrapp with a spear, Hrapp breaks off the spearhead and sinks into the ground. Olaf digs up Hrapp’s corpse (and finds the spearhead) and burns it by the sea.
25 – Hrut frees a slave and gives him land close to Hoskuld’s land. Hoskuld says it is his land. One day Thorleik kills the freeman. Hrut and his people are livid but the Law finds against them. Thorleik and Gaufljag have a bonny son, Bolli.

Hoskuld dies – his funeral feast
26 – Hoskuld is dying. He tells his sons Thorleik and Bard he’ll divide the legacy between them but wants to give Olaf the 12 ounces which the law allows an illegitimate son. Thorleik grudgingly agrees but then Hoskuld gives Olaf the gold armband and sword Myrkjarten gave him, 12 ounces of gold not the 12 ounces of silver that was customary. Thorleik was furious. Hoskuld dies and is buried. The brothers agree to hold a funeral feast after the next Althing.
27 – At the Law Rock Olaf promises a lavish feast, which irritates the brothers. In fact it IS an extravagant feast, with 1,080 guests, the second largest feast in Icelandic history. Afterwards, Olaf makes it up with Thorleik and offers to foster Thorleik’s son Bolli, since the foster-father acknowledges himself inferior. Thorleik is delighted so Bolli, aged 3, goes to Hjardarholt.
28 – Olaf and Thorgerd have a son, Kjartan, named for his maternal grandfather the Irish king. Dueller-Bersi offers to foster Olaf’s son Halldor. Kjartan is the handsomest man ever born in Iceland, tall and strong and excelling at physical sports etc like his grandfather Egil Skallagrimsson. Bolli is the second-finest man in Iceland.

Geirmund and Leg-Biter
29 – Olaf sails to Norway where he is taken in by Geirmund the Powerful who helps him ask the current ruler, Earl Hakon Sigurdsson (Hakon the Powerful) (975-995) to secure timber. Secretly, Geirmund stashes all his goods and people aboard Olaf’s timber ship, he wants to flee Norway. Olaf reluctantly acquiesces and, once back in Iceland, takes him in. With the timber Olaf builds a magnificent new hall decorated with carvings of Norse myths and legends. Olaf falls in love with olaf’s daughter Thurid and proposes. Olaf says no but Geirmund gets Thorgerd’s support and again acquiesces. At the wedding feast poet Ulf Uggasson sings a drapa about Hoskuld and about the wood carvings. (Some stanzas are preserved in the Poetic Edda; Ulf is also mentioned in Njal’s Saga.)
30 – After three years Geirmund announces he is abandoning Thurid and their daughter Groa. Thorgerd and Thurid are furious. Olaf is more relaxed and gives Geirmund a boat to return to Norway in. It is becalmed off islands in the fjord. Thurid follows it with servants, gets them to puncture the tow boat, then steals aboard, takes Geirmund’s beloved sword, ‘Leg-Biter’, and leaves the baby. When Groa starts crying Geirmund, wakes, runs on deck and begs the departing Thurid to return his sword. Never, she yells. Whereupon Geirmund curses the sword and says it will kill the one she loves most. Back at Hjardarholt Thurid gives Leg-Biter to her cousin Bolli. Geirmund sails on to Norway where his ship is wrecked and everyone aboard drowns (including, presumably, one-year-old Groa).

Olaf’s dream
31 – Thurid remarries, to Gudmund Solmundsson and bears the sons Hall, Bardi, Stein and Staingrim. Details of the marriages of Olaf’s other daughters. Olaf has a magnificent oxen named Harri. At age 18 he has it slaughtered. That night a woman comes to him in a dream and says you have had my son killed and returned him to me mutilated. For that I will see your son drenched and blood and by the person you wojuld least wish to.

Introducing Gudrun
32 – Osvif Helgasson and his kin at Laugur in Saelingsdale. His daughter, Gudrun Osvifs-daughter, the most beautiful and intelligent woman in Iceland.
33 – Gudrun tells wise Gest Oddleifson her four dreams: he interprets them that she will have four husbands and they will all die. Later he rides past Bolli and Kjartan swimming in the river along with other boys. He points them out to Olaf and chats to him. they ride on and his son notices him weeping: he explains he foresees Bolli stooping over Kjartan’s corpse.
34 – Gudrun is wooed and married by Thorvald Halldorsson. She is a prickly wife, alwa demanding the finest jewellery. Rumour gets round she’s seeing a lot of Thord Ingunnarsson leading Thorvald to argue with Gudrun and slap her. Outraged, she divorces him, takes half his property and returns to Osvif.
35 – Gudrun persuades Thord to divorce his wife Aud for wearing trousers. She is upset and her brothers are furious. Gudrun and Thord are married a a big feast. Later Aud sneaks to the homestead where Thord is sleeping and delivers a mighty sword blow which permanently damages his arm. Thord recovers in time for his mother Ingunn to come complain about her neighbour Kotkel and wife and sons who are wizards and pestering her. Thord takes a boat and loads all her belongings aboard then rides to confront Kotkel and family of being wizards, a crime which demands full outlawry, then rides back and boards the ship. Kotkel and sons mount a wizard platform and make incantations and spells. Thord’s boat, his mother and servants and all their belongings are drowned and lost.
36 – Gudrun is grief-stricken, gives birth to Thord’s son and calls him Thord. Snorri the Godi from Helgafell offers to foster Thord who becomes known as the Cat. Kotkel and family are driven out of the north and travel south where they manage to inveigle Thorleik Hoskuldsson into letting them stay in exchange for some fine stallions. Osvif, Gudrun and her brothers are outraged and want to kill Kotkel but Snorri the Godi suggests calm; Thorleik will pay the price.
37 – At the Althing a big man named Eldgrim makes Thorleik an offer for the horses which he refuses. They argue, Eldgrim threatening to steal them. One day one of Hrut’s servants reports a big man taking Thorleik’s horses. Hrut rides down to confront him. Hrut is 80 years old. They argue. Hrut kills Eldgrim with one blow of his halberd. Thorleik is very cross and feels he’s been shamed. He commissions Kotkel to go work magic on Hrut. Hrut and his household hear musical chants outside. They all fall asleep except for Hrut’s son Kari who goes outside and is struck dead by the magic. When they wake and find the body Hrut is devastated. He rides to Olaf the Peacock suggesting violent action against Kotkel and Thorleik. Olaf says it would be bad for kin to fight and he would have to defend Thorleik. Instead they ride after Kotkel and his sons. Stigandi gets away. Kotkel and son are captured and stoned to death. They take Hallbjorn Slickstone-eye out into the fjord and drown him with a rock around his neck. But not before he looks back to Kambsnes and curses Thorleik and his farm (a curse which many later remember).
38 – Stigandi becomes an outlaw and a nuisance. Olaf helps bribe a shepherdess to trap him. They put a sack over his head then stone him to death. Slickstone-eye’s body washes up ashore, it’s buried but haunts the area. Olaf goes see Thorleik and persuades him to emigrate. Thorleik sells the farm at Kambsnes and sails to Norway, then on to Denmark and Gotland and he is out of this saga.

Kjartan and Gudrun fall in love
39 – Kjartan and Bolli regularly go to the hot springs at Laugur in Saelingsdal where Kjartan enjoys talking to Gudrun. And Olaf and Gudrun’s father Osvif are friendly.

Kjartan and Bolli go to Norway
40 – Kjartan decides to go abroad. He buys a half share in a boat. His father Olaf Peacock does not approve. Neither it turns out does Gudrun. She asks to go with him but he says her family need her. He says, wait for three years and she angrily refuses. Kjartan and Bolli sail to Norway. they discover Earl Hakon has been replaced by King Olaf Tryggvasson (995-1000) who is insisting everyone convert to the new religion. All the Icelanders in port make a pact to refuse to convert. One day they see lots of people swimming. There is one strong swimmer. Kjartan dives in and has, what appears to count for a swimming competition which is to see how long you can hold the other guy under. Three times Kjartan struggles with the stranger. Upon resurfacing it turns out it is King Tryggvasson! When they dress the king gives Kjartan a fine cloak as a gift. The king stays in the neighbourhood making speeches exhorting people to convert. Kjartan and Bolli discuss their response and Kjartan is hot headed and says they must resist and even burn the king’s house down. Olaf has spies everywhere and at the next assembly asks who said his house must be burnt down? Kjartan steps forward to admit it but refuses to convert. Olaf’s advisers say Force him but Olaf sees that Kjartan’s volunatry conversion will mean more to his men and his kin in Iceland than threats. Finally Kjartan and his men go to observe the Christmas feast and find their hearts turned. They all ask to be baptised. Kjartan and Bolli become liegemen to the king.

The conversion of Iceland
41 – Kjartan tells Olaf he wants to leave but Olaf will only let him if it’s to convert Iceland. Kjartan says that will pit him against his kinsmen so he prefers to stay serving the king on Norway. Olaf sends Thangbrand to convert Iceland. He has some success eg with Hall of Sida, and kills some men, but is attacked and returns to Norway saying the Icelands are obstinate which makes Olaf angry.  (This correlates with Njal’s saga 100-5 where Thangbrand performs various miracles, kills a few men including a berserkr, converts Hall and Gizur the White and Njal, but also returns disgruntled. This version even echoes the outlawry of Hjalti Skeggjason for blasphemy ie his couplet insulting Frey and Thor.)

Bolli marries Gudrun
42 – After they have come to do fealty to him Olaf sends Gizur and Hjalti back to Iceland as missionaries. Bolli goes with them but Kjartan is kept by the king as a hostage. Bolli hints that Kjartan has been friendly with the king’s sister Ingibjorg. Gizur and Hjalti speak well at the Althing and convert Iceland 🙂 Bolli is warmly received back at Hjardarholt with uncle Olaf. He rides over to see Gudrun often and even tentatively proposes but Gudrun says she will never consider another man while Kjartan is alive. Bolli tells her (as he’d promised not to) that Kjartan may be warm for Ingibjorg.
43 – Bolli persuades Osvif to let him marry Gudrun; she is not keen at all. Olaf is also not keen, knowing how people associated Gudrun with Kjartan. But Bolli overrides them all and marries Gudrun at a big feast.

Kjartan returns to Iceland
Meanwhile the missionaries arrive back in Norway to tell King Olaf that Iceland is converted and he releases the hostages including Kjartan. Kjartan says an ambiguous goodbye to Ingibjorg who gives him a luxury white head-dress to give Gudrun, and Olaf gives him a sword, he will never die while he bears it.
44 – Kjartan and Kalf arrive back in Iceland with their goods. Kjartan learns his foster-brother Bolli has married Gudrun and shows no response. Kalf tells his lovely sister Hrefna she can have her pick of the treasure and while the men are out she finds and choses the white head-dress given by Ingibjorg. On their return Kalf says No she can’t have it but Kjartan says sure she can, he’d like to have the head-dress and the pretty head under it. Hrefna is puzzled by his listless proposal and doesn’t accept it. Kjartan is joyously welcomed by his father Olaf. Bolli and Gudrun invite Kjartan to come and stay and Osvif and Olaf traditionally host each other at feasts so the Hjardaholt people are incited to Laugar. Gudrun tells Bolli he wasn’t truthful about Kjartan’s feelings: she is unhappy. Kjartan doesn’t want to go but Olaf persuades him and he puts on a gold helmet and shield, the sword King’s Gift.
45 – Kjartan really doesn’t enjoy the feast. Bolli offers him the finest stallion from his herd but Kjartan refuses. Twice. They part badly. Then Olaf and Kjartan travel north to the home of Gudmund the Powerful and his son Hall, where they are richly entertained and take part in games. Kjartan’s sister Thurid matchmakes: why not marry Hrefna: she is pretty, her father is good, he’s good friends with her brother. Kjartan is won round and marries her with a massive wedding feast at Hjardaholt which lasts a week, and Hrefna gets to wear the white head-dress with eight ounces of gold woven into it.

Relations deteriorate
46 – Olaf and Osvir alternate hosting feasts. At Olaf’s feast Kjartan disputes which wife will get the seat of precedence. Then Kjartan’s sword goes missing. Servants accompany Osvir’s crew home and some of the men detour to a pond/bushes and, later, coming back, the servant finds the sword there. Olaf counsels discretion. A season later the Hjardaholt people go to Laugar. During the festivities the famous white head-dress goes missing. It is never found. this time Kjartan speaks up and accuses Bolli and his people of being thieves.
47 – That Christmas Kjartan takes 60 men from Hjardaholt and blockades the longhouse at Laugar. People had outside privies. The Laugar people are all forced to pee and poo inside the house for three days. Then Kjartan rides home. Olaf is unhappy. The Osvifssons want revenge. Thorarin wants to sell his farm at Tongue and get away from the growing tension. It’s perfect for Bolli and Gudrun who offer a good price and Thorarin agrees, though without witnesses. As soon as Kjartan hears about it he rides to Tongue and offers the same high price, with witnesses, and says he means to be master of the area. Reluctantly Thorarin accedes. Kjartan makes him ride up to Saurbaer to assign debts owed to him to Thorarin as payment. Thorhalla Chatterbox happened to be at Tongue when Kjaltan arrived and overheard his plans and the route he is taking. Gudrun says to Thorhalla Kjartan can afford to be puffed up since noone ever intervenes no matter how much offence he gives. The Osvifssons overhear and are shamed.
48 – Kjartan is at Hol in the north. An has a dream that a witchy woman opens his chest with a cleaver, empties his entrails and fills his gut with twigs. they all joke about it but mother Aud warns Kjartan to take extra men for the return journey south. Reluctantly he agrees for the sons Thorkel Pup and Knut to accompany him. But half way down the Svinavald valley, at the shielings called Nordursel, Kjartan tells them to go back. Which is a shame because Gudrun has spent the day shaming and goading her brothers into taking revenge and they are lying in ambush for him further down the valley.

Murder of Kjartan
49 – Kjartan continues south. A man named Thorkel of Hafratindar can see both Kjartan riding and the assassins waiting. His shepherd boy says they should warn him. Thorkel says, Let’s watch. The Osvifssons attack but can’t get to Kjartan. An the Black holds them off at the cost of having his intestines ripped out. The Osvifssons goad Bolli who eventually, reluctantly, draws Leg-Biter. Kjartan drops his sword. Bolli deals Kjartan his death blow. Bolli returns and tells Gudrun. The Osvifssons go into hiding. Olaf forbids his sons killing Bolli, instead they sail to find Thorhalla’s two sons and kill them.
50 – Olaf sends men to Laugar to protect Bolli. Family and allies assemble furiously angry, but Olaf counsels retraint.
51 – At the Thorsness Assembly Olaf secures exile for all the Osvifssons. Three years later he dies. His son Halldor takes over the farm at Hjardarholt, with Olaf’s widow, Thorgerd, consumed with hatred for Bolli.

Murder of Bolli
52 – Gudrun and Bolli thrive at their new farm and have a son, Thorleik. Thorgerd taunts Halldor into murdering Thorkel of Hafratindar, the man who watched Kjartan ride to his death.
53 – thorgerd has Halldor and Steinthor accompany her on a trip north past Saelingsdaltunga, the farm of Bolli and Gurdun, where she taunts her sons, saying how ashamed Egil Skallagrimsson would have been of them. An Althing. The Olafssons invite Bardi Gudmandarson home with them.
54 – Halldor and the three other Olafssons, Lambi his father’s half-brother, Bardi, Thorstein the Black and Helgi his brother-in-law, An Twig-Belly as well as Thorgerd the vengeful mother, ride to kill Bolli.
55 – They find Bolli and Gudrun in the sheiling, all the farmers gone out to hay. A short fight ends with Steinthor Olafsson decapitating Bolli. Helgi Hardbeinsson wipes his bloody spear on Gudrun’s shawl.
56 – Gudrun and Osvif call for Snorri the Godi who comes with advice. Part of that is they exchange houses, Snorri moving to Tunga while Gudrun and Osvif move across the fjord to Helgafell (setting of much of Eyrbyggja Saga).
57 – Thorgills Holluson woos Gudrun; she lets her son Thorleik stay and learn law with him. A rich merchant Thorkel Eyjolfsson carries out a feud-vengeance attack on an outlaw called Grim using the sword Skofnung.
58 – But the attack goes wrong and Grim comes out better. But refuses to kill him. They make peace and ride to Snorri who congratulates them and suggeste Thorkel propose to Gudrun. Thorkel takes Grim to Norway where he becomes successful.
59 – It is twelve years since Bolli’s death. Gudrun and Snorri have a sneaky conversation in which a) they agree to make Lambi and Thorstein an offer, namely help us kill Helgi and live b) Gudrun will offer marriage to Thorgils Holluson to make him lead the attack, but she will make her promise to marry him of all the men in Iceland – all the while meaning to really marry Thorkel who is in Norway.
60 – Gudrun taunts her sons Thorleik (16) and Bolli (12) and makes the tricky promise of marriage to Thorgils in echange for getting him to lead the attack on Helgi.
61 – Thorgils persuades Thorstein the Black and Lambi to make reparation to Bolli’s sons and avoid risk to themselves if they join the expedition to kill Helgi.
62 – Ten men ride to kill Helgi. At his farm men tell them he’s up at his sheiling.
63 – Along chapter in which a shepherd gives an unusually detailed description of the appearance of each of the attackers. Helgi sends the women back to his farm to get help. At the last minute a funny little man named Hrapp rides up to help Thorgils and his crew.

Battle of Skorradal
64 – Big fight at Helgi’s sheiling. He is killed by Bolli Bollasson with Leg-Biter along with two other fatalities.
65 – Lambi and Thorstein the Black are extremely unpopular with their own side. Thorgils and Gudrun’s sons return to Helgafell where Gudrun is delighted. At this point she reveals the trick-promise to Thorgills and he leaves, furious.
66 – Osvif dies and is buried in the church in Helgafell. Gest Oddleifson also dies and his body transported across the icebound Breidafjord to lie in the same grave, two wise and good men together.
67 – Thorgils and Thorstein the Black visit Helgi’s sons and come to an honourable settlement. They ride to the Althing to settle up. Thorgils is counting silver when Audgisl Thorarinsson comes up and chops his head off for depriving his father of a godord. They had come to complain to Snorri who had a) said it’s about time someone dealt with Thorgils b) given Audgisl an axe ie more or less commissioned the murder.

Gudrun’s fourth husband
68 – Thorkel Eyjolfsson returns a rich man from abroad. Snorri says propose to Gudrun (having disposed of the rival Thorgils). Thorkel does and after consulting her sons, Gudrin says yes. Big wedding feast.
69 – An outlaw named Thidbrandabani is at the wedding feast and it turns out Thorkel has promised to kill him to avenge and kinsman but Gudrun says he must be protected at all costs and a massacre nearly breaks out at the feast, until halted by Snorri. Gifts for the departing guests. Snorri invites young Bolli Bollason to come stay with him. Thorkel improves the farm, rebuilding the hall. Gudrun asks him to give the outlaw Gunnar all he wants to Thorkel gives him his merchant ship and money and Gunnar sails to Norway where he becomes a successful wealthy man.
70 – Thorleik wants to make his way in the world and sails to Norway where he enters the service of King (saint) Olaf. When Bolli comes of age he asks his step-father Thorkel to intercede on his behalf with Snorri to secure marriage with Snorri’s daughter Thordis. they are married. Big feast. Thorleik returns home rich.
71 – The reunited brothers are as thick as thieves all summer and when Snorri asks them what they’re planning they tell him a revenge attack on the Olafssons for killing Bolli. Snorri works his magic and effects a settlement between the Bollassons and the Olafssons. Money is paid and Halldor gives Bolli a fine sword and Steinthor gives Thorleik a fine shield.
72 – Then Bolli wants to go abroad. Snorri gives him portable wealth. Bolli buys the other half of the ship Thorleik owns, so it is totally owned by the brothers.

Bolli goes to Constantinople
73 – They sail to Norway. Bolli arrogantly delays going to see the ruling King Olaf the Saint. Eventually they do and Olaf is impressed with Bolli and takes him into his service. Eventually Bolli asks leave to travel south, to Denmark, and then he voyages to Constantinople to become part of the Varangian Guard.
74 – Thorkel sails to Norway to collect timber to build a church in Helgafell. (This is made more poignant if you know that Helgafell which features so largely in this saga and Eyrbyggja saga was to become one of the early centres of Christian learning in Iceland.) He is greeted warmly by King Olaf but they argue when Thorkel plans his church to the same dimensions as Olaf’s ie refuses to back down. Nonetheless he sails back to Helgafell and holds a sumptuous feast.
75 – Strange diversion: Thorkel rides north to collect  his wood, collecting his kinsman Thorstein on the way: they detour to Hjardarholt where they try to persuade Halldor to sell them his land, but he rejects them and they quickly become angry, in fact they would have attacked him had he not had his kinsman Beinar standing behind them with a large axe.

Thorkel, Gudrun’s fourth husband, is drowned
76 – Thorkel is returning with the ship full of timber when it founders in high seas and he and all aboard are drowned. At that moment Gudrun sees a ghost as she enters church. As she exits she sees Thorkel and his crew all dripping wet but when she gets home they are not there, then someone brings news of the drowning. Gellir is 14 and takes over running the farm. Gudrun becomes very religious, becoming the first woman in Iceland to learn the Psalter. She spends long periods in the church praying.
77 – Four years later Bolli Bollasson returns to Iceland in high, exotic style, dressed in gold with a fine helmet and shield. He greets his mother, then rides on to stay with his father-in-law Snorri.
78 – The last chapter is elegiac, dealing with the deaths of these great people, first Snorri old and full of years. Then the aged Gudrun, having become Iceland’s first nun and anchorite. Gellir becomes a rich man, much honoured and in later life undertakes a pilgrimage to Rome, dying on the way home. He had two sons, one Thorgils who had a son who was Ari the Learned (1067–1148), Iceland’s most prominent medieval chronicler, author of Íslendingabók which details the histories of the families who settled Iceland.

Thus the saga which began in the dark, pagan and illiterate times of King Harald Fair-Hair, ends 150 years later in the light of educated, Christian historians, having traversed what feels like vast distances in time, space and emotion.

Sayings

  • When one wolf hunts for another he may eat the prey (22)
  • Every kin has its coward (53)
  • Each man must look after himself in a tight situation (61)

Related links

Helgi Harðbeinsson wipes the spear he has just killed her husband with on Gudrun's shawl (Wikimedia Commons)

Helgi Harðbeinsson wipes the spear he has just killed her husband with, on Gudrun’s shawl. Note her look. (Wikimedia Commons)

Other sagas

The Poetic Edda – the heroic poems

The Icelandic poem Helgakviða Hundingsbana starts, in the Codex Regius manuscript, with an unusually large letter A (starting the word ‘Ar’ meaning Early or Once upon a time) which suggests the scribe was well-aware that he was transitioning from the sequence of mythological poems – stories about the unruly Norse gods – to the second part of the Poetic Edda, which records the deeds of heroes and mortal men and women.

The most striking thing about the 19 heroic poems is the way they focus on the same cycle of stories which dominate Snorri’s Prose Edda and are also the subject of the Volsungsaga, namely the legends of King Sigmund, his sons Helgi and Sigurd, the latter’s fight with the dragon Fafnir, his ill-fated love triangle with Brynhild and Gudrún, the latter’s ill-starred marriage to Atli, and then to king Jörmunrekkr. The Greeks have many cycles of legends – the Trojan War, or Theseus, or Perseus, or Jason and the Argonauts. But Norse legend seems fixated on this one, rather fissile tragedy of Sigurd and Gudrún.

The 14 poems about this legend have the added distinction of having a massive hole ripped out of the heart of them. 8 folios which could have contained anything between 200 and 250 stanzas – at an average of 50 stanzas per poem, some 5 entire poems – have at some stage been removed from the Codex, right in the middle of the Sigurd cycle of poems, giving rise to endless speculation about the missing content.

The heroic poems fall easily into three sections:

The story of Helgi Hundingsbani
The story of the Nibelungs
The story of Jörmunrekkr, king of the Goths

…respectively, Scandinavian, German and Gothic in origin.


The story of Helgi Hundingsbani

Immediately (and typically of the Poetic Edda) there are textual issues, because poems 1 and 3 are about Helgi Hundingsbana (so-called because he kills king Hunding in battle) but poem 2 is about a completely different Helgi, Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar, who lived a generation before Helgi Hundingsbana and who Helgi Hundingsbana was named after. It makes for a much simpler experience just to read poems 1 and 3. When you do this you realise that number 3 covers a lot of the same ground as number 1, and both – after the heroic birth and heroic deeds and comic flyting before the big battle – are about the surprisingly romantic story of Helgi the hero and his true love Sigrun the valkyrie. The poems lead up to the climactic scene of Sigrun’s nightly visits to Helgi’s funeral barrow, hoping to meet and talk with her dead lover, a subject which endeared itself to the sentimental Victorians. The (as usual) rather confusing story of Helgi Hundingsbane is usefully summarised on Wikipedia.

Helgakviða Hundingsbana I – The First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane or Helgi the Hunding-Slayer
(Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar – The Lay of Helgi the Son of Hjörvard)
Helgakviða Hundingsbana II – The Second Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane or Helgi the Hunding-Slayer

As usual, I quote the Henry Adams Bellows translation because it is both out of copyright and easily available online:

1. In olden days, | when eagles screamed,
And holy streams | from heaven’s crags fell,
Was Helgi then, | the hero-hearted,
Borghild’s son, | in Bralund born.

2. ‘Twas night in the dwelling, | and Norns there came,
Who shaped the life | of the lofty one;
They bade him most famed | of fighters all
And best of princes | ever to be.

3. Mightily wove they | the web of fate,
While Bralund’s towns | were trembling all;
And there the golden | threads they wove,
And in the moon’s hall | fast they made them.


The Niflung or Nibelung Cycle (the story of Sigurd, Bryinhild and Gudrún)

Frá dauða Sinfjötla (Sinfjötli’s Death) This is a short prose text which summarises the story found in the saga and elsewhere: Sinfjötli, son of Sigmund, who had been prominent in the Helgi poems for carrying out dialogues of abuse with various enemies, is poisoned in front of his father by his step-mother in revenge for killing her husband/brother (delete as appropriate, depending on which version you’re reading). In all the versions the grieving Sigmund does nothing to the poisoner but carries the body to a fjord and calls a ferryman to take him across but the boat is only big enough for one passenger and the ferryman takes Sinfjötli’s body and then mysteriously disappears. Was he Odin?

Grípisspá (Grípir’s Prophecy) 53 stanzas – Sigurd abruptly appears in the cycle of poems, rides up to his uncle Gripir’s who prophesies his destiny. It’s not a pretty sight.

“Ever remember, ruler of men,
That fortune lies in the hero’s life;
A nobler man shall never live
Beneath the sun than Sigurth shall seem.”

Reginsmál (The Ballad of Regin) The editors point out that the next three poems might very well be one long one; they are in a similar style, with frequent short prose inserts to move the story along. The third one breaks off abruptly where vital pages have been torn from the Codex. In Reginsmál the young Sigurd is apprenticed to Regin at the court of king Hjalprek. The king gives Sigurd ships to sail back to Volsung land and take revenge for his father. A stranger shouts at the ships from the shore. It is Hnikar (?) and they ask him what are the best omens before a battle:

20. “Many the signs, | if men but knew,
That are good for the swinging of swords;
It is well, methinks, | if the warrior meets
A raven black on his road.

21. “Another it is | if out thou art come,
And art ready forth to fare,
To behold on the path | before thy house
Two fighters greedy of fame.

22. “Third it is well | if a howling wolf
Thou hearest under the ash;
And fortune comes | if thy foe thou seest
Ere thee the hero beholds.

23. “A man shall fight not | when he must face
The moon’s bright sister setting late;
Win he shall | who well can see,
And wedge-like forms | his men for the fray.

24. “Foul is the sign | if thy foot shall stumble
As thou goest forth to fight;
Goddesses baneful | at both thy sides
Will that wounds thou shalt get.

25. “Combed and washed | shall the wise man go,
And a meal at mom shall take;
For unknown it is | where at eve he may be;
It is ill thy luck to lose.”

Fáfnismál (The Ballad of Fáfnir) 44 stanzas – Like so many of the poems the action happens before it starts. In the prose prologue Sigurd waits in the trench and kills the dragon. This poem is about what interests this culture, a dialogue between the hero and the dragon about wisdom and fate. Eventually leads to the scene where Sigurd cooks the dragon’s heart, tastes the blood, understand the birds warning him against Regin, who he promptly decapitates.

Sigurth spake:
28. “Better is heart | than a mighty blade
For him who shall fiercely fight;
The brave man well | shall fight and win,
Though dull his blade may be.

29. “Brave men better | than cowards be,
When the clash of battle comes;
And better the glad | than the gloomy man
Shall face what before him lies.

Sigrdrífumál (The Lay of Sigrdrífa) In this poem, in this version, the woman asleep on the Hind’s Fell surrounded by a wall of flame is not Brynhild, but a different Valkyrie named Sigrdrífa. Sigurd wakes her and then they do what these people love: have a wisdom dialogue, in fact a monologue, in which she first explains what runes you need to practice various skills, and then gives a numbered set of practical advice for warriors. It is in the middle of this sequence, after stanza 27, that the poem breaks off abruptly because a great hole has been torn in the codex. The fifth folio of eight sheets is missing, maybe 250 verses, a huge chunk of text covering the central story of the betrothal of Sigurd and Brynhild and the treachery of queen Grimhild, are missing. This is referred to as THE GREAT LACUNA.

6. Winning-runes learn, | if thou longest to win,
And the runes on thy sword-hilt write;
Some on the furrow, | and some on the flat,
And twice shalt thou call on Tyr.

7. Ale-runes learn, | that with lies the wife
Of another betray not thy trust;
On the horn thou shalt write, | and the backs of thy hands,
And Need shalt mark on thy nails.
Thou shalt bless the draught, | and danger escape,
And cast a leek in the cup;
(For so I know | thou never shalt see
Thy mead with evil mixed.)

8. Birth-runes learn, | if help thou wilt lend,
The babe from the mother to bring;
On thy palms shalt write them, | and round thy joints,
And ask the fates to aid.

9. Wave-runes learn, | if well thou wouldst shelter
The sail-steeds out on the sea;
On the stem shalt thou write, | and the steering blade,
And burn them into the oars;
Though high be the breakers, | and black the waves,
Thou shalt safe the harbor seek.

Apparently this is the most confused and scraped together of all the Codex Regius poems. As Henry Adams Bellows puts it: “the strange conglomeration of stanzas which the compiler of the collection has left for us, and which, in much the same general form, seems to have lain before the authors of the Volsungasaga, in which eighteen of its stanzas are quoted, is not a poem at all… The Sigrdrifumol section as we now have it is an extraordinary piece of patchwork…a collection of fragments, most of them originally having no relation to the main subject. All of the story, the dialogue and the characterization are embodied in stanzas 1-4 and 20-21 and in the prose notes accompanying the first four stanzas; all of the rest might equally well (or better) be transferred to the Hovamol…”

—–THE GREAT LACUNA—–

Brot af Sigurðarkviðu (Fragment of a Poem about Sigurd) After the Great Lacuna this poem starts or rather resumes in mid-flow. Its 19 stanzas cover Sigurd’s murder and the recriminations between brother and sister Gunnar and Gudrun. It’s notable that’s Sigurd’s death, in this poem, happens out of doors by a river on some journey. Also that it is treated very casually:

4. They cooked a wolf, | they cut up a snake,
They gave to Gotthorm | the greedy one’s flesh,
Before the men, | to murder minded,
Laid their hands | on the hero bold.

5. Slain was Sigurth | south of the Rhine;
From a limb a raven | called full loud:
“Your blood shall redden | Atli’s blade,
And your oaths shall bind | you both in chains.”

6. Without stood Guthrun, | Gjuki’s daughter,
Hear now the speech | that first she spake:
“Where is Sigurth now, | the noble king,
That my kinsmen riding | before him come?”

7. Only this | did Hogni answer:
“Sigurth we | with our swords have slain;
The gray horse mourns | by his master dead.”

“Slain was Sigurth | south of the Rhine” that’s how the central moment of the entire legend is casually described, preparing the way for stanzas recounting Gunnar’s conversations with Gudrun. Dialogue always trumps action in these poems.

Fra Dauda Sigurdar This is a short piece of prose which admits there are at least three versions of where Sigurd was killed: by a river, in a forest, or in bed.

Guðrúnarkviða I (The First Lay of Gudrún) In 27 stanzas Gudrun is unable to weep for her dead husband despite various ladies of the court coming to her and telling their life stories and the woes they have suffered; until suddenly she breaks down and bitterly laments..

17. “So was my Sigurth | o’er Gjuki’s sons
As the spear-leek grown | above the grass,
Or the jewel bright | borne on the band,
The precious stone | that princes wear.

18. “To the leader of men | I loftier seemed
And higher than all | of Herjan’s maids;
As little now | as the leaf I am
On the willow hanging; | my hero is dead.

Sigurðarkviða hin skamma (The Short Lay of Sigurd) at 71 stanzas the longest poem in this section, it recaps much of the plot, including the murder of Sigurd which, here, takes place in his bed next to Gudrun. In fact the poem isn’t about Sigurd at all, but in the first part describes Gudrun mourning – and in the second half details Brynhild’s elaborate plans to kill herself and arrange a big funeral pyre for herself and Sigurd. It is striking that, in this poem, Sigurd is killed in his bed and that, again, there appears to be lines or maybe whole stanzas missing, so that the fatal event is strangely mangled and elided.

20. “Gotthorm to wrath | we needs must rouse,
Our younger brother, | in rashness blind;
He entered not | in the oaths we swore,
The oaths we swore | and all our vows.”

21. It was easy to rouse | the reckless one.
. . . . . . . . . .
The sword in the heart | of Sigurth stood.

Helreið Brynhildar (Brynhild’s Hell-Ride) a short poem of 14 stanzas in which Brynhild, riding down to hell is questioned by an ogress in a cave and justifies her life and actions. “It shows the confusion of traditions manifest in all the later poems; for example, Brynhild is here not only a Valkyrie but also a swan-maiden.”

13. “Yet Guthrun reproached me, | Gjuki’s daughter,
That I in Sigurth’s | arms had slept;
Then did I hear | what I would were hid,
That they had betrayed me | in taking a mate.

14. “Ever with grief | and all too long
Are men and women | born in the world;
But yet we shall live | our lives together,
Sigurth and I. | Sink down, Giantess!”

Dráp Niflunga (The Slaying of The Niflungs) A short prose piece recounting the gruesome events after Sigurd’s funeral, where Gudrun is married off to Atli who invites her brothers to Hunland, hoping to steal their gold, tortures them, cuts out Hogni’s heart, then throws Gunnar in the snakepit where he plays the harp until bitten by an enormous adder which may or may not be Atli’s witch mother.

Guðrúnarkviða II (The Second Lay of Gudrún) In these 44 stanzas Gudrun is seen telling her story to captive king Theoderic, from the murder of Sigurd through her drugging and betrothal to Atli, to the visit of her brothers to Atli and their murder, and up until Atli’s fearful bad dreams – which presage Gudrun’s bloodthirsty murder and cooking of her own sons! This is thought to be the oldest poem in the book, dating form the 900s, an estimate reinforced by the use of Germanic details eg the fact Sigurd is murdered in a forest. It seems that the version of him being murdered in bed next to Gudrún is a later, Scandinavian, version.

This poem has real power.

3. Till my brothers let me | no longer have
The best of heroes | my husband to be;
Sleep they could not, | or quarrels settle,
Till Sigurth they | at last had slain.

4. From the Thing ran Grani | with thundering feet,
But thence did Sigurth | himself come never;
Covered with sweat | was the saddle-bearer,
Wont the warrior’s | weight to bear.

5. Weeping I sought | with Grani to speak,
With tear-wet cheeks | for the tale I asked;
The head of Grani | was bowed to the grass,
The steed knew well | his master was slain.

Guðrúnarkviða III (The Third Lay of Gudrún) a very short 11 stanza poem on a side event, one of Atli’s slave girls Herkja, claims to have seen Gudrun being unfaithful with the captive king Thjodrek. they both undergo ordeal by boiling water: Gudrún plunges her hands into the boiling water to get the stones from the bottom of the kettle and her hands are fine; Herkja does the same and her hands are badly scalded so she is thrown into a bog and drowned as punishment.

Oddrúnargrátr (The Lament of Oddrún) In these 34 stanzas Oddrún laments the tragic events which have overcome them all. She is sister to Atli who became Gunnar’s lover (presumably after Brynhild’s death). She doesn’t feature in any of the other versions or stories. It seems she has been invented in order to author this lament.

19. “Love to Gunnar | then I gave,
To the breaker of rings, | as Brynhild might…

21. “Yet could we not | our love o’ercome,
And my head I laid | on the hero’s shoulder…

Atlakviða (The Lay of Atli) These 44 stanzas cover Atli’s invitation to Gunnar and Hogni to come visit; Gudrun’s inclusion of a ring carved with runes warning them not to; their deliberation and fateful decision to go; their capture immediately on arrival; Hogni’s heart is torn out but Gunnar refuses to confess where the gold is and so he is thrown into the snakepit; in revenge Gudrun serves up the corpses of their sons to her husband Atli, before stabbing him in bed and then setting fire to the entire stronghold, killing all the staff and servants. This is reckoned to be one of the oldest poems in the collection and is without doubt one of hte grimmest and most intense.

Atlamál hin groenlenzku (The Greenland Ballad of Atli) A much longer version of the above, with 101 stanzas – ie Gunnar and Hogni’s fateful visit to Atli, this time bringing in their wives for extensive conversation before the boys set off.


The story of Jörmunrekkr, king of the Goths Though put in a separate category by scholars these stories are just a continuation of the story of Gudrún: having woken up beside the bloodsoaked body of her husband, mortally wounded by her brothers, she grieves and laments then is drugged and married off to Atli, only to witness her two brothers have their hearts torn out or be bitten to death in a snake pit, before she murders her two sons by Atli and serves him up their cooked corpses, before setting fire to the entire stronghold and burning everyone inside to death. She walks into the sea to drown herself but can’t, instead floating across the sea (strongly indicating, as the scholars point out, that she has become part-witch). Here, in a new land, she is found by and marries her third husband, Jonak, and bears him three sons Sorli and Erp and Hamther. Here she brings up Svanhild, her daughter by Sigurd. The mighty and violent Goth king Jormunrek wants to marry Svanhild and sends his son Randver to woo her. Inevitably, Randver and Svanhild fall  in love but are betrayed to the king who promptly has his son hanged, and the beautiful Svanhild trampled to death under horses’ feet.

A handy summary of this story is told on the Kids Britannica website.

To quote Henry Adams Bellows:

“Chief among the popular tales of Ermanarich’s cruelty was one concerning the death of a certain Sunilda or Sanielh, whom, according to Jordanes, he caused to be torn asunder by wild horses because of her husband’s treachery. Her brothers, Sarus and Ammius, seeking to avenge her, wounded but failed to kill Ermanarich. In this story is the root of the two Norse poems included in the Codex Regius. Sunilda easily became the wife as well as the victim of the tyrant, and, by the process of legend-blending so frequently observed, the story was connected with the more famous one of the Nibelungs by making her the daughter of Sigurth and Guthrun. To account for her brothers, a third husband had to be found for Guthrun; the Sarus and Ammius of Jordanes are obviously the Sorli and Hamther, sons of Guthrun and Jonak, of the Norse poems. The blending of the Sigurth and Ermanarich legends probably, though not certainly, took place before the story reached the North, in other words before the end of the eighth century.”

Guðrúnarhvöt (Gudrún’s Inciting) 22 stanzas. “The present title is really a misnomer; the poet, who presumably was an eleventh century Icelander, used the episode of Guthrun’s inciting her sons to vengeance for the slaying of Svanhild simply as an introduction to his main subject, the last lament of the unhappy queen.” The story is told much more fully in the prose Voldungsaga; what this emphasises is the way the Codex Regius poems are about, emphasise and foreground the experiences of women, especially the figure of the grieving Gudrún. Much more than Sigurd or Gunnar, she is the enduring memory of the heroic poems.

Hamðismál (The Ballad of Hamdir) 31 stanzas. Gudrun’s sons take revenge for the trampling to death by horses of their sister Svanhild. They chop off the four limbs of the king responsible, Jörmunrekkr, before themselves being stoned to death by his men. This is a strange afterthought of a poem, starting with the sons’ foreboding, skipping very elliptically over their murder of their half-brother Erpi on the way, and then in just a few stanzas dealing with what must have been an epic fight in which king  Jormunrek and both sons die, and their last words are a fitting epitaph to the whole sorry story…

“We have greatly fought, | o’er the Goths do we stand
By our blades laid low, | like eagles on branches;
Great our fame though we die | today or tomorrow;
None outlives the night | when the Norris have spoken.”

Or, in the Penguin Andy Orchard translation:

“Great glory we have gained
though we die now or tomorrow;
no man survives a single dusk
beyond the norns’ decree.”

This is Svanhild, daughter of Sigurd and Gudrún. Pretty, eh? Her father is murdered in his bed, her mother drowns herself, and Svanhild is either tied to horses and torn to pieces or trampled to death by horses, depending on which version you read.

Black and white illustration of Svanhild

Svanhild (from Fredrik Sander’s 1893 Swedish edition of the Poetic Edda/Public Domain)

Everybody dies and the Völsung line is wiped out. A fitting end to these strange, damaged, elliptic and addictive poems from the depths of Europe’s long Dark Age.

Sagas

Widsith

Widsith is an Old English poem. Like most Old English texts it exists in just one manuscript version, in this case in the Exeter Book, a manuscript of Old English poetry compiled in the late 10th century and containing approximately one sixth of all the Old English poetry we possess. By such slender threads and accidents did this ancient literature survive…

The poem is in traditional OE alliterative verse ie the line has four beats and is divided in half; the sound of the first stressed syllable in the second half of the line sets the alliteration;  the first stressed syllable in the first half-line must alliterate with it; the second stressed syllable in the first half line may or may not; the fourth stressed syllable, ie the second one in the second half of the line, must not alliterate.

Widwith is the name of the narrator (the word means “far journey” so is more emblematic than real) and the opening lines introduce him:

Widsið maðolade | wordhord onleac,
se þe monna mæst | mægþa ofer eorþan,
folca geondferde | oft he on flette geþah
mynelicne maþþum. | Him from Myrgingum…

Widsith spoke, unlocked his word-hoard,
he who had travelled most of all men
through tribes and nations across the earth.
Often he had gained great treasure in hall…

Quite quickly the poem turns into a survey of the people, kings, and heroes of Europe in the Heroic Age of Northern Europe (300-600AD). T

  • he first section is a list of famous kings, contemporary and ancient (“Caesar ruled the Greeks”), in a very formulaic way: ‘(name of a king) ruled (name of a tribe)’:

ætla weold Hunum, Eormanric Gotum,
Becca Baningum, Burgendum Gifica.
Casere weold Creacum ond Cælic Finnum,
Hagena Holmrygum ond Heoden Glommum.

Attila ruled the Huns, Eormanric the Goths,
Becca the Baningas, Gifica the Burgundians.
Caesar ruled the Greeks and Caelic the Finns,
Hagena the Holmrycgas and Henden the Glomman.

The second section contains the names of the peoples the narrator visited, in the format ‘With the (name of a tribe) I was, and with the (name of another tribe)’:

Swa ic geondferde fela fremdra londa
geond ginne grund. Godes ond yfles
þær ic cunnade cnosle bidæled,
freomægum feor folgade wide.
Forþon ic mæg singan ond secgan spell,
mænan fore mengo in meoduhealle
hu me cynegode cystum dohten.
Ic wæs mid Hunum ond mid Hreðgotum,
mid Sweom ond mid Geatum ond mid Suþdenum.
Mid Wenlum ic wæs ond mid Wærnum ond mid wicingum.
Mid Gefþum ic wæs ond mid Winedum ond mid Gefflegum.
Mid Englum ic wæs ond mid Swæfum ond mid ænenum.

So I travelled widely through foreign lands,
through distant countries, and there I met
both good and bad fortune, far from my kin,
and served as a follower far and wide.
And so I can sing and tell a tale,
declare to the company in the mead-hall
how noble rulers rewarded me with gifts.
I was with the Huns and the glorious Goths,
with the Swedes and with the Geats and with the South-Danes.
I was with the Wenlas, the Waerne and the Wicingas.
I was with the Gefthan, the Winedas and the Gefflegan.
I was with the Angles, the Swaefe and the Aenenas.

In the third section the narrator lists the heroes of myth and legend that he has visited:

Wulfhere sohte ic ond Wyrmhere; ful oft þær wig ne alæg,
þonne Hræda here heardum sweordum
ymb Wistlawudu wergan sceoldon
ealdne eþelstol ætlan leodum.
Rædhere sohte ic ond Rondhere, Rumstan ond Gislhere,
Wiþergield ond Freoþeric, Wudgan ond Haman;

I visited Wulfhere and Wyrmhere; there battle often raged
in the Vistula woods, when the Gothic army
with their sharp swords had to defend
their ancestral seat against Attila’s host.
I visited Raedhere and Rondhere, Rumstan and Gislhere,
Withergield and Freotheric, Wudga and Hama.

It concludes with wise words about the life of a wandering minstrel and his reliance on the patronage of discerning kings:

Swa scriþende gesceapum hweorfað
gleomen gumena geond grunda fela,
þearfe secgað, þoncword sprecaþ,
simle suð oþþe norð sumne gemetað
gydda gleawne, geofum unhneawne,
se þe fore duguþe wile dom aræran,
eorlscipe æfnan, oþþæt eal scæceð,
leoht ond lif somod; lof se gewyrceð,
hafað under heofonum heahfæstne dom.

Wandering like this, driven by chance,
minstrels travel through many lands;
they state their needs, say words of thanks,
always, south or north, they find some man
well-versed in songs, generous in gifts,
who wishes to raise his renown with his men,
to do great things, until everything passes,
light and life together; he who wins fame
has lasting glory under the heavens.

From which we can conclude that this culture liked lists. It liked lists of peoples and tribes and of the great kings and warriors that led them. No stories as such, just lists. If Widsith stands out for any reason it’s for the special pleading of the minstrel author as to how jolly successful he’s been and how well-rewarded by various wise and cultured patrons:

There the king of the Goths granted me treasure:
the king of the city gave me a torc
made from pure gold coins, worth six hundred pence…

Then Scilling and I with our clear voices,
before our glorious lord, struck up our song;
sung to the harp, it rang out loudly.
Then many men with noble hearts
who understood these things openly said
that they had never heard a better song.

In fact, the whole poem could be considered a very early example of that undervalued literary genre, the CV. And like all CVs it contains some whopping fibs:

Mid Israhelum ic wæs ond mid Exsyringum,
mid Ebreum ond mid Indeum ond mid Egyptum…

I was with the Israelites and with the Assyrians,
with the Hebrews and the Indians and with the Egyptians…

So – A culture which enjoys lists of high sounding kings and exotic peoples and extravagantly inaccurate claims. I read it because three of the names in this couplet feature in the great Northern tale of the Völsungs, of Sigmund and Sigurd and Brynhild and Gudrún.

Attila ruled the Huns, Eormanric the Goths,
Becca the Baningas, Gifica the Burgundians.

Gudrún marries, then murders, Atli (Attila) king of the Huns; she is the daughter of Gifica (Gjuki) king of the Burgundians (Niflungen); she then marries Jörmunrekkr (Eormanric), her fourth husband, who murders her. Not, on the whole, a happy story. What is staggering is the power of the legends which became attached to these kings (Attila died 453, Gifica died 407, Eormanric died 375) and lived after them for so very long. The Volsung saga, the Poetic Edda, were written down in the 1200s, 800 years after these legendary kings died. 800 years accumulating depth and complexity and resonance and power!

Priscus at the Court of Attila the Hun

The Roman historian Priscus visited the court of Attila the Hun as ambassador from the Emperor in Constantinople and, miraculously, although most of he History of his times which he wrote is lost, the fragment describing Attila’s court survives. Among other things it contains a fascinating description the kind of setting in which poetry or music would have been composed and received. The party of Romans is invited to Attila’s wooden house, the grandest in the village. The guests are seated on benches lining the walls. There is a ceremony of toasting each of the leaders in order of precedence; a lot of food is served.

When the viands of the first course had been consumed we all stood up, and did not resume our seats until each one, in the order before observed, drank to the health of Attila in the goblet of wine presented to him. We then sat down, and a second dish was placed on each table with eatables of another kind. After this course the same ceremony was observed as after the first.

Then:

When evening fell torches were lit, and two barbarians coming forward in front of Attila sang songs they had composed, celebrating his victories and deeds of valour in war. And of the guests, as they looked at the singers, some were pleased with the verses, others reminded of wars were excited in their souls, while yet others, whose bodies were feeble with age and their spirits compelled to rest, shed tears.

And after the serious songs, the light entertainment:

After the songs a Scythian, whose mind was deranged, appeared, and by uttering outlandish and senseless words forced the company to laugh. After him Zerkon, the Moorish dwarf, entered… On the occasion of the banquet he made his appearance, and threw all except Attila into fits of unquenchable laughter by his appearance, his dress, his voice, and his words, which were a confused jumble of Latin, Hunnic, and Gothic. Attila, however, remained immovable and of unchanging countenance nor by word or act did he betray anything approaching to a smile of merriment

Tough crowd.

Related links

The opening lines of Widsith in the Exeter Book

The opening lines of Widsith in the Exeter Book

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún by JRR Tolkien

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

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

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

Contents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sagas

The Poetic Edda

1. SUBJECTIVE – The difficulty of medieval Icelandic literature

This is extremely scholarly stuff. Although they say you should just dive in and start reading the poems as poems, this is in reality impossible. You have to know the background facts about the poems (as I summarise them below) – you have to be a bit prepared for the non-rhyming, alliterative form of the poems – and then the poems themselves are generally obscure, sometimes sinking to complete unintelligibility if it weren’t for the extensive notes. Both the new penguin edition (The Elder Edda translated by Andy Orchard, 2011) which I started off reading – and the online version of the Poetic Edda translated by Henry Adams Bellows (1936) which I ended up consulting – pepper the poems with notes on every stanza, every line, every name. And then you discover that the scholars themselves are in confusion about multiple aspects of the poems. They don’t know who many of the characters referred to are, entire lines are missing from the manuscript so editors guess what should be there, guess at the meaning of obscure words, cut and move around lines and sometimes entire stanzas to fit theories which are still contested. Some editors make these decisions; some editors make others. So different editions vary a lot the order of words, lines, stanzas and even the poems they include.

In other words, at every level – from the titles, the names of characters, the order of stanzas, even the very existence of stanzas and lines, to the meaning of individual words and phrases – there is obscurity piled on obscurity. And that’s before you arrive at the “final” ie largely invented-by-editors, version of the poems – to discover that the poems themselves take delight in a clipped, allusive style which only deepens the obscurity. Almost all the poems are in tight, short, four-line stanzas, structured by alliteration, not rhyme (as in the Anglo-Saxon poetry from the same time) which, when translated, sound like  this (Bellows translation):

Alvíssmál (The Ballad of Alvís, The Lay of Alvís, All-Wise’s Sayings)

Alvis spake:
1. “Now shall the bride | my benches adorn,
And homeward haste forthwith;
Eager for wedlock | to all shall I seem,
Nor at home shall they rob me of rest.”

Thor spake:
2. “What, pray, art thou? | Why so pale round the nose?
By the dead hast thou lain of late?
To a giant like | dost thou look, methinks;
Thou wast not born for the bride.”

To understand this, you have to look in the notes to discover that, Alvis is a dwarf; apparently (ie the editor is guessing as much as we are) he has been promised a bride among the goddesses (by whom? why? – nobody knows), specifically (editors assume, from the context) Thor’s daughter, Thrudr – and has arrived to collect her. Thor is unhappy about this and spends eight stanzas contesting Alvis’s right, before settling in to a regular (and – quel relief! – easy-to-understand) series of questions and answers: if the dwarf can answer them, he will win his bride.

This pattern of Thor’s question and Alvis’s response goes on for 34 stanzas and is a rare sequence where the reader perfectly understands what is going on, until abruptly:

Thor spake:
35 “In a single breast | I never have seen
More wealth of wisdom old;
But with treacherous wiles | must I now betray thee:
The day has caught thee, dwarf!
(Now the sun shines here in the hall.)”

Which I didn’t understand at all until I read in the notes that dwarves (like giants) mustn’t be exposed to sunlight; that they, in fact, turn to stone in sunlight. And so Thor (usually portrayed as pretty thick here and in the Prose Edda) has outwitted the dwarf by making him answer so many riddles that the sun has come up and killed him.

This extract captures a) the obscurity of the poems b) the necessity for a lot of explanation and notes c) their laconic and allusive style, hard to follow even once you do know the story, and d) the harsh Northern worldview: it is cold; solemn promises are broken; dwarfs and giants are mocked and killed; children are killed and cooked and served to their parents; warriors slaughter each other in battle; Odin seduces or rapes young women; Thor kills everyone; an enormous amount of time is spent explaining the genealogy of characters who appear for one line never to be seen again…

This Edwardian illustration of the scene by WG Collingwood, in my opinion ludicrously humanises and sanitises this poem, converting it a) visually into the cartoon world of Noggin the Nog b) introducing a note of late Victorian/Edwardian chivalry (the stricken maiden clutching her father’s waist) which is totally absent from the text of the poem (the daughter doesn’t appear or speak) and from the worldview of the poems as a whole (which is harsh and brutal, with no chivalry or romance or honour: it is a kill-and-be-killed world).

Thor protecting his daughter Thrudr, from the dwarf Alvis (Image: W.G. Collingwood. 1908/public domain)

Thor protecting his daughter Thrudr, from the dwarf Alvis (Image: W.G. Collingwood. 1908/public domain)

2. OBJECTIVE – Background

Almost everything we know about Norse mythology and legend comes from two medieval manuscripts, the Poetic Edda and the The Prose Edda. I reviewed the Prose Edda a few weeks ago. It’s a handbook for Icelandic poets, explaining to the would-be poet the traditional poetic forms and – crucially for us – giving brisk summaries of the key Norse myths and legends which the young poet needs to know. It’s ascribed to the Icelandic chieftain and lawmaker Snorri Sturluson. Throughout his prose text he quotes from older poems as examples of style or to illustrate points from the stories. Therefore, for centuries scholars speculated that there must exist a body of older poems which Snorri so regularly refers to.

So imagine the delight of scholars when, in 1643, an Icelandic bishop, Brynjólfur Sveinsson, revealed that he had discovered just such a manuscript of ancient Icelandic poems in his library. He sent it as a present to the king of Norway, and as a result it is now known as the Codex Regius.

Modern scholars have established that the manuscript was written in the 13th century, but nothing is known of its author. The bishop fancifully ascribed it to Sæmundr the Learned, a larger-than-life 12th century Icelandic priest – partly to counterbalance Snorri’s authorship of the Prose Edda. This is rejected by modern scholars but it has led to the situation where each of the books can be known by any of three titles:

The Prose Edda / Snorri’s Edda / the Younger Edda

The Poetic Edda / Sæmundr’s Edda / the Elder Edda.

Allitrative

The Eddic poems are composed in alliterative verse where the aim is to get alliterative consonants to fall on the two stressed syllables in the first half of the line, and one of the two stressed syllables in the second half. Thus the Alvíssmál quoted above, begins:

Bekki breiða,
nú skal brúðr með mér
heim í sinni snúask,
hratat of mægi
mun hverjum þykkja,
heima skal-at hvílð nema.”

(Source: The New Northvegr Center)

Andy Orchard in the 2011 Penguin translation gives this as:

“Now must a bride spread the benches for me,
and be taken home in a trice;
it’ll seem a rushed match to everyone here:
but at home no one will rob us of rest.”

The language of the poems is usually clear and unadorned ie there is little or no metaphor or simile, little imagery of any kind. This absence of colour is probably the single factor which makes them seem to bare and archaic and brutal. It contrasts with the other main Norse tradition, of skaldic poetry, composed by named poets (or skalds) who often write about their feelings, and do so in verse packed with clever riddles and allusions.

Oral tradition and Timescale

Like most early poetry the Eddic poems were passed orally from poet to poet for centuries. None of the poems are attributed to a named author though some of them show strong individual characteristics and are likely to have been the work of individual poets. Scholars sometimes speculate on hypothetical authors but there is – typically – no agreement. Andy Orchard’s notes confidently point out one poem as being the oldest in the collection, maybe from the 800s, others as probably being written about the time the Codex was written down ie the 1200s.  What strikes the casual reader is the tremendously long timescale this implies: that poets were working in the same style with the same stories for four or five hundred years!

In fact, the single most striking thing for me about the entire Edda is the fact that a key player in the sequence of poems at the end (the ones about the legendary hero Sigurd which take up a third of the text) is Atli (who marries and then is murdered by the ill-fated Gudrun), and that all scholars agree this refers to Attila the Hun! who died in 453! That his name is still being invoked in poems being composed and written down in the 1200s, 800 years after is death, says something very deep about the culture of the Dark Ages, about the way legends spread right across Europe (Attila’s campaigns took him from Constantinople to Rome – his legend is being written about in Iceland!), and about Time in the Dark Ages – these stories endured for nearly a thousand years, providing fictional types and figures to shape the imaginations of scores of generations.

By reading it now, in 2013, I feel I am tapping into something very deep, very archaic, into dark and brutal truths about our culture and our history…

Translations

There is a range of translations into English to explore:

The Poems

1, The mythological poems

The Codex Regius is divided into two parts: part one contains the eleven mythological (ie concerned with gods) poems. Mythological Poems in Codex Regius:

  1. Völuspá (Wise-woman’s prophecy, The Prophecy of the Seeress, The Seeress’s Prophecy)
  2. Hávamál (The Ballad of the High One, The Sayings of Hár, Sayings of the High One)
  3. Vafþrúðnismál (The Ballad of Vafthrúdnir, The Lay of Vafthrúdnir, Vafthrúdnir’s Sayings)
  4. Grímnismál (The Ballad of Grímnir, The Lay of Grímnir, Grímnir’s Sayings)
  5. Skírnismál (The Ballad of Skírnir, The Lay of Skírnir, Skírnir’s Journey
  6. Hárbarðsljóð (The Poem of Hárbard, The Lay of Hárbard, Hárbard’s Song
  7. Hymiskviða (The Lay of Hymir, Hymir’s Poem)
  8. Lokasenna (Loki’s Wrangling, The Flyting of Loki, Loki’s Quarrel)
  9. Þrymskviða (The Lay of Thrym, Thrym’s Poem)
  10. Völundarkviða (The Lay of Völund)
  11. Alvíssmál (The Ballad of Alvís, The Lay of Alvís, All-Wise’s Sayings

Part two is a collection of heroic lays about mortal heroes. These consist of three layers:

  • the story of Helgi Hundingsbani
  • the story of the Nibelungs
  • the story of Jörmunrekkr, king of the Goths

…respectively, Scandinavian, German and Gothic in origin. As far as historicity can be ascertained, Attila, Jörmunrekkr and Brynhildr actually existed.

  1. Helgakviða Hundingsbana I or Völsungakviða (The First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane, The First Lay of Helgi the Hunding-Slayer, The First Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani
  2. Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar (The Lay of Helgi the Son of Hjörvard, The Lay of Helgi Hjörvardsson, The Poem of Helgi Hjörvardsson)
  3. Helgakviða Hundingsbana II or Völsungakviða in forna (The Second Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane, The Second Lay of Helgi the Hunding-Slayer, A Second Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani)

The Niflung Cycle

  1. Frá dauða Sinfjötla (Of Sinfjötli’s Death, Sinfjötli’s Death, The Death of Sinfjötli) (A short prose text)
  2. Grípisspá (Grípir’s Prophecy, The Prophecy of Grípir)
  3. Reginsmál (The Ballad of Regin, The Lay of Regin)
  4. Fáfnismál (The Ballad of Fáfnir, The Lay of Fáfnir)
  5. Sigrdrífumál (The Ballad of The Victory-Bringer, The Lay of Sigrdrífa)
  6. Brot af Sigurðarkviðu (Fragment of a Sigurd Lay, Fragment of a Poem about Sigurd)
  7. Guðrúnarkviða I (The First Lay of Gudrún)
  8. Sigurðarkviða hin skamma (The Short Lay of Sigurd, A Short Poem about Sigurd)
  9. Helreið Brynhildar (Brynhild’s Hell-Ride, Brynhild’s Ride to Hel, Brynhild’s Ride to Hell)
  10. Dráp Niflunga (The Slaying of The Niflungs, The Fall of the Niflungs, The Death of the Niflungs)
  11. Guðrúnarkviða II (The Second Lay of Gudrún or Guðrúnarkviða hin forna The Old Lay of Gudrún)
  12. Guðrúnarkviða III (The Third Lay of Gudrún)
  13. Oddrúnargrátr (The Lament of Oddrún, The Plaint of Oddrún, Oddrún’s Lament)
  14. Atlakviða (The Lay of Atli). The full manuscript title is Atlakviða hin grœnlenzka, that is, The Greenland Lay of Atli, but editors and translators generally omit the Greenland reference as a probable error from confusion with the following poem.
  15. Atlamál hin groenlenzku (The Greenland Ballad of Atli, The Greenlandish Lay of Atli, The Greenlandic Poem of Atli)

The Jörmunrekkr Lays

  1. Guðrúnarhvöt (Gudrún’s Inciting, Gudrún’s Lament, The Whetting of Gudrún.)
  2. Hamðismál (The Ballad of Hamdir, The Lay of Hamdir)
Heithrun, the she-goat who lives on the twigs of the tree Lærath (presumably Yggdrasil), and daily gives mead for the heroes in Valhall

Heithrun, the she-goat who lives on the twigs of the tree Lærath (presumably Yggdrasil), and daily gives mead for the heroes in Valhalla

Other “eddaic” poems

Because “eddaic” poems are so distinctive in style, it is easy to identify eddaic poems which occur in other collections and manuscripts. A selection of these is often included in editions of the Poetic Edda. Which ones depends on the editor. Those not in Codex Regius are sometimes called Eddica minora from their appearance in an edition with that title edited by Andreas Heusler and Wilhelm Ranisch in 1903.

For example Andy Orchard’s edition includes the following non-Codex Regius poems:

  • Baldrs draumar (Baldr’s Dreams)
  • Gróttasöngr (The Mill’s Song, The Song of Grotti)
  • Rígsþula (The Song of Ríg, The Lay of Ríg, The List of Ríg)
  • Hyndluljóð (The Poem of Hyndla, The Lay of Hyndla, The Song of Hyndla)

Myths of the Norsemen by Roger Lancelyn Green (1960)

First of all, what a fabulous name! Where does the Lancelyn come from? His name is redolent of all the Puffin paperbacks, about Troy and King Arthur especially, which I read as a child, curled up in a snug corner and transported to faraway lands.

Roger Lancelyn Green (1918-87) was an Oxford scholar, a younger member of the Inklings group of Oxford English scholars which included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. He is well-known for his series of books for children telling the legends of Robin Hood and King Arthur and the myths of ancient Greece and Rome and Egypt and, as here, of the Norsemen.

To an extent I wouldn’t have appreciated as a child, he uses the same limited, fragmented, scholarly sources as everyone else (in the preface he credits the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda and the Volsunga Saga) and cheerfully admits the challenge of making one coherent narrative from them:

Norse mythology is the very antithesis of Greek from the reteller’s point of view. The wealth of literature and legend available for studying the gods of Olympus is positively embarrassing, and the problem there is one of selection. The gods of Asgard, on the other hand, remain strangely aloof: the difficulty here is to find enough about them. And when the scanty material is collected, it is still harder to fit together the incomplete jigsaw-puzzle which is all that remains to us. (Author’s Note)

He does a great job, a really great job, of splicing all the scattered material into one coherent and thrilling narrative. One can take a diachronic or a synchronic approach to myths ie narrate the Creation story and how the pantheon grew from its primal origins; or accept the mythic landscape and tell the stories which occur within it. RLG combines the two: swiftly retelling the Norse creation myth before moving on to tell the main stories, but skilfully weaving in asides about the origins or relevant features of the supernatural protagonists of each adventure to fill out their personalities and divine attributes. Thus:

Chapter 1 – Yggdrasill the World Tree The creation story, Ymir the frost giant, Yggdrassil the Worldtree, Audumhil the World Cow, Odin the AllFather, Asgard the abode of the gods, Gladsheim the gods’ palace, Valhalla Odin’s hall of heroes (the Einheriar) and the Valkyries, Midgard the earth of humans, Bifrost bridge from Asgard to Midgard. — Heimdall the bright roams through Midgard disguised as Rig the Walker, breeding the three human classes of thrall, craftsman and lord.

Chapter 2 – Odin in search of Wisdom Realising he needs wisdom and knowledge to prepare for the coming war with the giants, Odin roams the universe. He gives one eye to Mimir to be allowed to drink from the well of Wisdom at the root of the WorldTree. He hangs himself on Yggdrasil for nine days in order to understand death. Gullveig the beautiful giantess provokes war with the Vanir, the gods of the air, until peace is made with their leader, Niord, lord of Vanaheim, who settles in Asgard and fathers the fertility gods, Frey and Freya. Mimir and Honir, Odin’s brother, go to live among the Vanir as hostages. Mimir is beheaded. Odin keeps his living head by him to speak wisdom. — The long story of Kvasir the wise, murdered and his blood turned into kvas, the Mead of Inspiration, by dwarves, which is then stolen by the giant Suttung. Odin in disguise tricks the giant Baugi into helping him enter the dungeon where the Mead is guarded by the beautiful giantess Gunnlod whom Odin seduces, swallowing all the Mead and turning into an eagle to fly with it back to Asgard.

Black and white illustration of dwarves killing Kvasir and draining his blood to make the Mead of Inspiration (Image: Franz Stassen, 1920. Public domain)

Dwarves killing Kvasir and draining his blood to make the Mead of Inspiration (Image: Franz Stassen, 1920. Public domain)

Chapter 3 – The apples of Iduna The arrival at Asgard of the minstrel and harpist Bragi, son of Odin and Gunnlod who obviously became very familiar in the cave of Kvasi (see above). Accompanied by beautiful Iduna who keeps the gods supplied with the golden apples of eternal youth. Wandering through the world Odin and Honir encounter Loki, part giant and all trickster. Carried off by the Storm Giant Thiassi Loki promises to deliver him Iduna, who he leads into a wood where Thiassi, as an eagle captures her and carries off to his castle in Thrymheim, Kingdom of the Winds. Loki promises the Aesir to rescue her and flies to Thiassi’s castle as a falcon and carries Iduna back in the shape of a nut. Thiassi as an eagle, chasing, is burned by the fire at the threshold of Asgard. His daughter Skadi demands vengeance and is married to an Aesir she chooses by his feet from behind a curtain. It is Niord of the Vanir, and of their union are born Frey, Lord of peace and fruitfulness, and Freya, Lady of Love and Beauty.

Painting of “Idun and the Apples” by James Doyle Penrose (1890. Public domain)

“Idun and the Apples” by James Doyle Penrose (1890. Public domain)

Chapter 4 – Loki and the Giants From the start Loki’s ambiguous status in Asgard, Odin has made blood brothers with him but Loki is quite prepared to betray the Aesir if it suits him. Along with Odin and Honir he helps the peasant save his son Rogner from the giant Skrymsir who has vowed to eat him, by hiding him in an ear of corn, a swan’s feathers, a flatfish roe. — A man appears who promises to build a wall which will keep out the Rime Giants and Hill Giants in three years. He demands Freya and the moon and the Sun. Loki advises they contract to give him Freya if he can do it in one year since that’s obviously impossible. The gods agree but the man proceeds to almost build it with help from his supernatural horse, Svadilfari. Loki transforms into a beautiful white mare and steals Svadilfari away. The man turns into a monstrous giant who threatens Asgard until Odin casts down the sheild Svarin which was hiding the sun which turns the giant to stone. Loki returns some months later with Svadilfari and a foal, the eight-legged superhorse Sleipnir who will become Odin’s magic steed.

Loki as a mare distracting the stallion Svadilfari (Image: Dorothy Hardy, 1909. Public domain)

Loki as a mare distracting the stallion Svadilfari (Image: Dorothy Hardy, 1909. Public domain)

Chapter 5 Loki makes Mischief Loki copulates with the giantess Angurboda three monsters: Odin sends Hela down to the underworld of Nifelheim, protected by the bloody dog Garm; and he flings the monster serpent Jormungand out into the sea where he grows until he stretched right round the world and bit his own tail; the giant wolf Fenris grows larger, the gods try to bind him in two chains which break; then Frey commissions a magic chain from the Black Dwarfs of Svartalfheim, Gleipnir and the gods trick Fenris into trying it on, but only if one of them places his hand in the wolf’s mouth. The war god Tyr does so, Fenris is bound until Ragnarok, and Tyr loses his hand. — Secretly angered, Loki cuts off the hair of beautiful Sif, wife to Thor, who goes berserk. As recompense Loki commissions Dvalin, chief of the Black Dwarfs, to make the spear Gungnir for Odin, the ship Skidbladnir for Frey, and new golden hair for Sif. But rivalry breaks out among the dwarfs and Loki bets his head that another dwarf, Sindri can’t do better. Sindri proceeds to make Gullinbursti, a golden boar, for Frey, Draupnir the magic ring to Odin, and Mjolnir the hammer to Thor. a) Loki, as a gadfly, distracts Brok while he’s pumping the bellows, so Mjolnir’s handle is a trifle short; b) the gods deem Sindri’s gifts best and prepare for Loki to be beheaded until Loki says Brok can have his head – but not his neck! Angered, the dwarf sows Loki’s lips shut.

'Loki loses his bet' by Lorenz Frølich (1885. Public domain)

‘Loki loses his bet’ by Lorenz Frølich (1885. Public domain)

Chapter 6 Freya the Bride  Freya is happily married to Odur and lives in Folkvanger. She goes walking in Midgard and sees the Brisingamen, the Brising necklace, being forged by Black Dwarfs. She is bewitched; they will only give it if she spends one night with each four of them; and she does. Shamefully she returns to Asgard and hides the necklace. but Loki steals it form around her neck and shows it to Odur who wanders off distraught. Freya goes searching for him through Midgard dropping golden tears of sorrow. — Frey sits in Odin’s chair Hlidskjalf and sees a beautiful giantess, Gerda; he sends his companion Skirnir to woo her (which involves threatening her with the sword of sharpness). She says yes. Marriage feast in the wood Barri, where Freya reappears reconciled to Odur.— In the night someone steals Thor’s hammer. Loki flies to Thrymheim for it has been stolen by Thrym the Giant of Noise and buried 8 miles deep in the earth unless he can marry Freya. Thor is dressed as a woman and accompanied by Loki goes to Thrymheim where he plays the part until the hammer is brought out whereupon he kills Thrym, his sister and all their kin.

Frey riding the golden boar Gullinbursti, Freya driving her chariot pulled by cats (Image: Donn Crane. Public domain)

Frey riding the golden boar Gullinbursti, Freya driving her chariot pulled by cats (Image: Donn Crane. Public domain)

Chapter 7 – Thor’s visit to Utgard The giants sue for peace and invite Thor to Utgard, in the heart of Jotunheim, to stay with Utgardhaloki. En route they sleep in a vast hall which turns out to be Skrymir’s gloves. As he sleeps Thor three times tries to kill him with Mjolnar, each time the giant complains it tickles. Arriving at the giant’s castle they are challenged to an eating contest, a running contest, then Thor is invited to drink from a horn, to lift a cat off the ground then wrestle with an old lady. As the gods leave Utgardhaloki reveals he was Skrymir and Thor’s three hammer blows knocked valleys in a mountain range. The foot race was against Thought. The eating contest was against Fire. The other end of the drinking horn was in the Ocean and Thor drank a lot of it, creating the first tides. The cat he lifted off the floor was the world snake Jormungand, and the old lady was Age.

The Giant Skrymir and Thor (Image: Louis Huard/Wikimedia Commons)

The Giant Skrymir and Thor (Image: Louis Huard/Wikimedia Commons)

Chapter 8 – Odin goes wandering The tale of the brothers Agnar and Gerrad, how they stay with Odin and Frigga pretending to be kindly humans; how they sail back to their kingdom but Gerrad pushes Agnar and his boat out to sea, inherits the kingdom, but Agnar returns to be a poor servant in his brother’s court; and how upon visiting Odin in disguise is ill-treated and tied between two fires for 8 days, until he sings a song about the creation of the heavens and Gerrad in his hurry to release him trips over his own sword and impales himself. — Odin wins a knowledge competition with the giant Valfthrudnir. — Odin challenges the giant Rungnir to a horserace between Sleipnir and Golden Mane. Odin wins and invited Rungnir into Asgard where he gets drunk and insults everyone. Thor challenges him to a fight at Giottunagard. Rungnir’s hone smashes into Thor’s hammer in midair. The hone is shattered scattering all the flint we find in the earth. Mjolnir kills the giant, but a) a fragment of flint enters Thor’s head b) the giant’s leg pins Thor to the ground until his three year old son comes to free him. The sorceress Groa recites spells to loosen the fragment and Thor tells her how much the gods love her husband Aurvandill.

Odin tied between fires in King Gerrad's castle (Image: Emil Doepler. Public domain)

Odin tied between fires in King Gerrad’s castle (Image: Emil Doepler. Public domain)

Chapter 9 – Geirrodur the Troll King Loki is trapped by Geirrodur into inviting Thor to his palace without his armour or hammer. En route Thor is entertained by the friendly giantess Grid who gives him a girdle of power and a magic staff. When he sits in a chair in Geirrodur’s castle it rises to crush him against the ceiling but he uses the magic staff and Geirrodur’s two daughters beneath the chair break their backs. As Thor approaches the giant he suddenly seizes a rod of white hot metal from the fire and throws it at Thor who catches it and throws it straight back; it passes through a stone column, through Geirrodur’s body, through the castle wall and outside into the earth. Thor leaves the crippled family and returns to Asgard. — The adventures of Thorkill the traveller who comes to Geirrodur’s kingdom some time later, surviving various hazards and witnessing the carnage of Thor’s visit.

Gerrod watches Thorkill by Alan Lee

Gerrod watches Thorkill by Alan Lee

Chapter 10 – The Curse of Andvari’s Ring Wandering through Midgard with Odin and Honir, Loki sees an otter eating a salmon and kills both with one stone. They arrive at the castle of Hreidmarr who recognises his dead son Otr and calls  his brothers Fafnir and Reginn. They keep Odin and Honir hostage while Loki gets a net off Ran the goddess of shipwrecks and captures the dwarf Andvari in the shape of a pike. Andvari hands over all his gold but curses the ring. Loki returns and stuffs and covers the dead otter with gold. The cursed ring is the last piece, covering the last hair. The gods depart but Hreidmarr’s sons kill him over the gold hoard and then Fafnir takes it off to Gnita Heath and turns into a dragon. Reginn goes to find employment as a smith with Hialprek, King of the Danes.

Here arrives the wife of the dead King Sigmund, once blessed by Odin, as a boy the only one able to pull the magic sword placed by Odin in the tree in his father King Volsung’s hall, but when his fate decreed, met by Odin in battle and his sword shattered. Reginn raises Sigmund’s son Sigurd filling him with tales of glory and especially about the gold hoard on Gnita Heath. The young hero asks Reginn to make a sword: twice he makes inferior ones which Sigurd smashes against the anvil; for the third one he asks Queen Hjordis for the fragments of Sigmund’s sword and forges the sword of power, Gram. On the advice of a strange old man with a broad brimmed hat and one eye, Sigurd builds trenches where Fafnir comes to drink. Lying in wait he thrusts up into the dragon’s body: there is a death colloquy. Reginn asks Sigurd to burn the dragon’s heart and as he cooks it Sigurd touches it, burns his finger and sucks it, tasting the dragon’s blood. Instantly he understand the conversation of the birds who are warning that Reginn plans to kill him. Without hesitation Sigurd decapitates Reginn.

He hears the birds singing of a maiden in Hindfell, surrounded by fire. He rides his horse through the fire and wakes the maiden from her sleep. It is Brynhild, a Valkyrie who disobeyed Odin and was pricked by a sleeping thorn. She serves him mead. They plight their troths. She encourages him to deeds of prowess so he rides out of the flames to the court of King Guiki. Sigurd wins fame with Guiki’s sons Gunnar and Hogni but their mother witch Queen Grimhild magics his drink to that he forgets Brynhild and falls in love and marries Gudrun. Then one day Gunnar decides to go try his hand at the maiden who lives behind fire, but he can’t ride through, not even when Sigurd lends him his horse, Grani. Only when they exchange shapes, so that it is Sigurd in the shape of Gunnar riding Grani can he cross the flames. Now he wins the surprised Brynhild who marries Gunnar and comes to live at King Guiki’s.

One day at the river Gudrun reveals the deception to Brynhild. Gunnar never rode through the flames. Brynhild is distraught. She confronts Sigurd who knows the truth but has kept silent to honour his blood brotherhood to Gunnar. Distraught Brynhild tells Gunnar that Sigurd lay with her and Gunnar and Hogni commission their thick brother Gutthorn to murder Sigurd in his bed. Brynhild kills herself. they are both burned on a pyre.

The widowed Gudrun is married by King Guiki to King Atli (Attila the Hun). He invited the brothers Gunnar and Hogni but captures and tortures them to reveal the location of Fafnir’s hoard. Atli cuts out Hogni’s heart. He binds Gunnar and throws him into a pit of snakes. Gudrun sends her brother a harp which he plays with his toes to charm the snakes, all except one which bites and kills him. In revenge Gudrun conspires with a thrall to murder Atli in  his bed then burn down his stronghold, killing everyone in it. She throws herself into the sea and the curse of Andvari’s ring is finally quenched. (Source: The Volsunga Saga)

Sigurd/Siegfried killing the dragon Fafnir (Arthur Rackham/Wikimedia Commons)

Sigurd/Siegfried killing the dragon Fafnir (Arthur Rackham/Wikimedia Commons)

Chapter 11 Ægir’s brewing kettle Ægir is the Ocean Giant, husband of Ran whose net Loki used to catch Andvari. Ægir holds feasts on an island in the Kattigut for the souls of drowned sailors, waited on by his nine Wave-Daughters. He invites the Æsir to a feast but only if they can provide a kettle big enough. Tyr says his grandfather the giant Hymir has such a kettle so he and Thor journey to Hymir’s castle. Hymir invites them fishing, and while Hymir catches two whales Thor hooks the serpent of Midgard, Jormungand, until Hymir cuts the line at which Thor smacks him in the head. Back on dry land they feast on the whales. Then Thor must win the kettle by shattering a beaker. His mother tells him the secret; it can only break against Hymir’s thick skull. Having broken the beaker Thor picks up the mighty kettle and wears it like a helmet. — Back at the river Elivagar which divides Midgard from Jotunheim Thor has a long flyting with the one-eyed ferryman. It is, of course, Odin ho ho ho. (Sources: Hymiskviða, the Gylfaginning of the Prose Edda)

Chapter 12 The Death of Baldur In Breidablik on the island of Ida dwelt Baldur the beautiful and his fair wife, Nanna, and his blind, gloomy brother Hodur. He foretells his death. Odin rides on Sleipnir to the river Gioll, the border of Nifelheim with Hel where the dead who don’t die in battle go. The skeleton maid Modgul guarding the bridge lets Odin pass to ride through the Iron Wood to confront the hellhound Garm and turn aside to raise the dead prophetess Volva to predict Baldur’s death. — Arriving back at Asgard Odin finds Frigga has made everything in the universe promise not to harm Baldur; the gods are amusing themselves throwing spears and arrows and axes at the indestructible Baldur. But Loki changes into an old crone and questions Frigga who concedes she didn’t extract the promise from one thing, the mistletoe which grows on an oak east of Asgard. Loki fetches the mistletoe, sharpens and stiffens it using magic and then guides blind Hodur’s hand to kill his beloved brother. — Baldur is set on his longboat Ringhorn and as she bends to kiss him Nanna falls dead. Only a giant can push the flaming boat out to sea and a great cry goes up from heaven and earth (the same cry as greeted the death of Osiris and the agony of Christ). — Hermodur the messenger of the gods rides down to Helheim, past Modgul and Garm to confront Hela and ask for Baldur back. Only if every living thing weeps for him says Hela so Hermodur returns to incite the whole universe to weep over Baldur and it does except for Thokk the wicked giantess. And so Baldur remains in Helheim and Odin knows Thokk is none other than Loki.

The Death of Baldur by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1816. Public domain)

The Death of Baldur by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1816. Public domain)

Chapter 13 Vali the Avenger Odin tasks Hermodur with riding Sleipnir to the far north to bind Rossthiof the wizard in his castle of green ice and force him to foresee who the avenger will be. Rossthiof says Odin must woo Rinda. — So Odin travels across Midgard to the kingdom of King Billing; he gains control of the king’s armies and leads them to victory, but Rinda rejects him. He returns disguised as Rosstheow the goldsmith and offers Rinda a priceless bracelet and rings, but she rejects him. A third time Odin appears as an ardent young lover and Rinda asks him to come to her bower secretly but her dog barks and wakes the whole palace who come running. Odin touches her and makes Rinda mad. Days later he reappears as the crone Vecha and promises King Billing to cure his daughter if left with her for a day and a night. This is what it takes to woo and impregnate her. Some time later a little boy with a bow and arrow walks up Bifrost Bridge to confront Heimdall the watchman. It is Vali. He grows in size even as the gods watch, takes his bow and arrow to the woods where blind Hodur is walking and despite  his magic shield and spear shoots him dead. Vali rejoices. Hodur’s spirit goes down into Hel to meet his dead brother Baldur. (Source: book III of the Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus)

Chapter 14 The Punishment of Loki Loki goes and hides at the Frananger falls. Odin sees him from his chair Hlidskjalf.  The gods find a hlaf-finished net and finish it and trawl the river for Loki in the shape of a salmon. As he leaps out of the water Odin clasps him tight which is why salmon’s tails are so slender to this day. They bind him with magic sinews to three enormous rocks in a cave under Midgard and suspend over him a venomous snake which drops agonising poison onto him.

The punishment of Loki (Image: Louis Huard / Wikimedia Commons)

The punishment of Loki (Image: Louis Huard / Wikimedia Commons)

Chapter 15 – Ragnarok Odin visits the prophetess Haid who foretells Ragnarok. The Fimbal Winter will come covering the earth for 3 years. Depravity and greed will ruin man. The Wolf Skull will swallow the moon and the sun. Fenris Wolf breaks free. Jormungand swims ashore flooding Midgard. The ship Naglfar made of dead men’s fingernails approaches. The sky splits open and the Surtur leads the sons of Muspel over Bifrost bridge which breaks beneath them. Loki is set free and comes with Hymir leading the frost Giants and the hellhound Garm. Surtur kills Frey who gave his sword to Skirnir to win the giantess. Garm and Tyr kill each other. Thor kills Jormungand but staggers 9 paces away and dies from its venom. Loki and Heimdall fight to the death. Odin is swallowed by Fenris who is killed by Odin’s son Vidar. Triumphant Surtur spreads fire over the entire universe which is consumed in flames.

And yet a new world will arise from the flames, pure and clean and beautiful and new gods will govern it wisely and a new race of men will be born, fair and good.

“The sagas of Midgard, whether the heroes be Gunnar or Grettir, or Sigurd himself, all end in tragedy – in the picture of the brave man struggling in vain  against the powers of fate – ‘And how can man die better than facing fearful odds?’ – This was the Norseman’s view of life – and the deeds and fate of the heroes of saga must have been but the earthly counterpart of the deeds of the Gods of Asgard in their struggle against the Giant forces of Nature so apparent to the men of the North, and of the doom, the Ragnarok, which was to overtake them.”

Related links

Sagas

%d bloggers like this: