Icelandic Sagas

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Icelandic Sagas

Post by Hagbard » Wed Jan 18, 2017 8:12 am

January 16th I attended in the Historical Association a most fascinating lecture about the early medieval Icelandic Manuscripts with the Viking sagas, given by an associate professor from the Iceland University institute in Reykjavik responsible for the manuscripts. The manuscripts are on UNESCO's list of World Heritage.
Especially "Njal's Saga" was recommended. The actions and the dialogues of one-liners of the sagas have much in common with our time's spaghetti westerns, the professor said...

The manuscripts have been very precious objects of their time, not written on paper but on calves' skins and using a very durable, high quality ink of an unknown, local formula, easy to read also now after 800-900 years. It took the skins of 25 calves to write Njal's saga!
And often there are many small, fine, coloured illustrations blended in the texts.

A small bit from Njal's Saga:
Gunnar's hall was made all of wood, and roofed with beams above, and there were window-slits under the beams that carried the roof, and they were fitted with shutters.

Gunnar slept in a loft above the hall, and so did Hallgerda and his mother.

Now when they were come near to the house they knew not whether Gunnar were at home, and bade that some one would go straight up to the house and see if he could find out. But the rest sat them down on the ground.

Thorgrim the Easterling went and began to climb up on the hall; Gunnar sees that a red kirtle passed before the windowslit, and thrusts out the bill, and smote him on the middle. Thorgrim's feet slipped from under him, and he dropped his shield, and down he toppled from the roof.

Then he goes to Gizur and his band as they sat on the ground.

Gizur looked at him and said -

"Well, is Gunnar at home?"

"Find that out for yourselves," said Thorgrim; "but this I am sure of, that his bill is at home," and with that he fell down dead.

Then they made for the buildings. Gunnar shot out arrows at them, and made a stout defence, and they could get nothing done. Then some of them got into the out-houses and tried to attack him thence, but Gunnar found them out with his arrows there also, and still they could get nothing done.

So it went on for while, then they took a rest, and made a second onslaught. Gunnar still shot out at them, and they could do nothing, and fell off the second time. Then Gizur the white said-

"Let us press on harder; nothing comes of our onslaught."

Then they made a third bout of it, and were long at it, and then they fell off again.

Gunnar said, "There lies an arrow outside on the wall, and it is one of their shafts; I will shoot at them with it, and it will be a shame to them if they get a hurt from their own weapons".

His mother said, "Do not so, my son; nor rouse them again when they have already fallen off from the attack".

But Gunnar caught up the arrow and shot it after them, and struck Eylif Aunund's son, and he got a great wound; he was standing all by himself, and they knew not that he was wounded.

"Out came an arm yonder," says Gizur, "and there was a gold ring on it, and took an arrow from the roof and they would not look outside for shafts if there were enough in doors; and now ye shall make a fresh onslaught."

"Let us burn him house and all," said Mord.

"That shall never be," says Gizur, "though I knew that my life lay on it; but it is easy for thee to find out some plan, such a cunning man as thou art said to be."

Some ropes lay there on the ground, and they were often used to strengthen the roof. Then Mord said - "Let us take the ropes and throw one end over the end of the carrying beams, but let us fasten the other end to these rocks and twist them tight with levers, and so pull the roof off the hall."

So they took the ropes and all lent a hand to carry this out, and before Gunnar was aware of it, they had pulled the whole roof off the hall.

Then Gunnar still shoots with his bow so that they could never come nigh him. Then Mord said again that they must burn the house over Gunnar's head. But Gizur said -

"I know not why thou wilt speak of that which no one else wishes, and that shall never be."

Just then Thorbrand Thorleik's son sprang up on the roof, and cuts asunder Gunnar's bowstring. Gunnar clutches the bill with both hands, and turns on him quickly and drives it through him, and hurls him down on the ground.

Then up sprung Asbrand his brother. Gunnar thrusts at him with the bill, and he threw his shield before the blow, but the bill passed clean through the shield and broke both his arms, and down he fell from the wall.

Gunnar had already wounded eight men and slain those twain. By that time Gunnar had got two wounds, and all men said that he never once winced either at wounds or death.

Then Gunnar said to Hallgerda, "Give me two locks of thy hair, and ye two, my mother and thou, twist them together into a bowstring for me."

"Does aught lie on it?" she says.

"My life lies on it," he said; "for they will never come to close quarters with me if I can keep them off with my bow."

"Well!" she says, "now I will call to thy mind that slap on the face which thou gavest me; and I care never a whit whether thou holdest out a long while or a short."

Then Gunnar sang a song -

Each who hurls the gory javelin
Hath some honour of his own,
Now my helpmeet wimple-hooded
Hurries all my fame to earth.
No one owner of a war-ship
Often asks for little things,
Woman, fond of Frodi's flour,
Wends her hand as she is wont.

"Every one has something to boast of," says Gunnar, "and I will ask thee no more for this."

"Thou behavest ill," said Rannveig, "and this shame shall long be had in mind."

Gunnar made a stout and bold defence, and now wounds other eight men with such sore wounds that many lay at death's door. Gunnar keeps them all off until he fell worn out with toil. Then they wounded him with many and great wounds, but still he got away out of their hands, and held his own against them a while longer, but at last it came about that they slew him.

Of this defence of his, Thorkell the Skald of Göta-Elf sang in the verses which follow -

We have heard how south in Iceland
Gunnar guarded well himself,
Boldly battle's thunder wielding,
Fiercest Iceman on the wave;
Hero of the golden collar,
Sixteen with the sword he wounded;
In the shock that Odin loveth,
Two before him lasted death.

But this is what Thormod Olaf's son sang -

None that scattered sea's bright sunbeams,
Won more glorious fame than Gunnar,
So runs fame of old in Iceland,
Fitting fame of heathen men;
Lord of fight when helms were crashing,
Lives of foeman twain he took,
Wielding bitter steel he sorely
Wounded twelve, and four besides.

Then Gizur spoke and said: "We have now laid low to earth a mighty chief, and hard work has it been, and the fame of this defence of his shall last as long as men live in this land".

After that he went to see Rannveig and said, "Wilt thou grant us earth here for two of our men who are dead, that they may lie in a cairn here?"

"All the more willingly for two," she says, "because I wish with all my heart I had to grant it to all of you."

"It must be forgiven thee," he says, "to speak thus, for thou hast had a great loss."

Then he gave orders that no man should spoil or rob anything there.

After that they went away.

Then Thorgeir Starkad's son said, "We may not be in our house at home for the sons of Sigfus, unless thou Gizur or thou Geir be here south some little while".

"This shall be so," says Gizur, and they cast lots, and the lot fell on Geir to stay behind.

After that he came to the Point, and set up his house there; he had a son whose name was Hroald; he was base born, and his mother's name was Biartey; he boasted that he had given Gunnar his death-blow. Hroald was at the Point with his father.

Thorgeir Starkad's son boasted of another wound which he had given to Gunnar.

Gizur sat at home at Mossfell. Gunnar's slaying was heard of, and ill spoken of throughout the whole country, and his death was a great grief to many a man.
And a small bit from Saga of Gunnlaugr Serpent-Tongue:
Meanwhile Raven and Thorkel the Black, Gunnlaug's kinsman, fought until Thorkel fell before Raven and lost his life; and so at last all their fellowship fell. Then they two alone fought together with fierce onsets and mighty strokes, which they dealt each the other, falling on furiously without stop or delay.

Gunnlaug had the sword Ethelred's-gift, and that was the best of weapons. At last Gunnlaug dealt a mighty blow at Raven, and cut his leg from under him; but none the more did Raven fall, but swung round up to a tree-stem, whereat he steadied the stump.

Then said Gunnlaug, Now thou art no more meet for battle, nor will I fight thee any longer, a maimed man.

Raven answered: So it is, said he, that my lot is now all the worser lot, but it were well with me yet, might I but drink somewhat.

Gunnlaug said, Betray me not if I bring thee water in my helm.

I will not betray thee, said Raven.

Then went Gunnlaug to a brook and fetched water in his helm, and brought it to Raven; but Raven stretched forth his left hand to take it, but with his right hand drave his sword into Gunnlaug's head, and that was a mighty great wound.

Then Gunnlaug said, Evilly hast thou beguiled me, and done traitorously wherein I trusted thee.

Raven answers, Thou sayest sooth, but this brought me to it, that I begrudged thee to lie in the bosom of Helga the Fair.

Thereat they fought on, recking of nought; but the end of it was that Gunnlaug overcame Raven, and there Raven lost his life.

Then the earl's guides came forward and bound the head-wound of Gunnlaug, and in meanwhile he sat and sang:

O thou sword-storm stirrer,
Raven, stem of battle
Famous, fared against me
Fiercely in the spear din.
Many a flight of metal
Was borne on me this morning,
By the spear-walls' builder,
Ring-bearer, on hard Dingness.

After that they buried the dead, and got Gunnlaug on to his horse thereafter, and brought him right down to Lifangr. There he lay three nights, and got all his rights of a priest , and died thereafter, and was buried at the church there.

All men thought it great scathe of both of these men, Gunnlaug and Raven, amid such deeds as they died.
Last edited by Hagbard on Tue Nov 27, 2018 7:29 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Icelandic Sagas

Post by Hagbard » Fri Nov 23, 2018 9:58 am

Yule is approaching fast in a month.

1941 and 1945 Frans G. Bengtsson wrote two books, "Røde Orm". They have been translated into English, "The Long Ships". In the novels is a narrative of a Yule celebration at the residence of king Harald Bluetooth.

I have the Danish version only, and the fighting scenes are difficult for me to translate, but you can run the text through Google translate. Here is an extract of the narrative:
Hvordan man drak jul hos kong Harald Blåtand.

Der kom stormænd til Jelling fra mange kanter af landet for at holde jul hos kong Harald, og der blev kneben plads både i sovekamrene og ved bordene.
Nu var alt færdigt til julefesten i kong Haralds store hal, og alle mænd bænkede sig dér. Ingen kvinder deltog i et sådant stort drikkelag; thi det var vanskeligt nok, syntes kong Harald, at holde fred mellem mænd, der var for sig selv. ... Da alle havde fået en plads, meddelte kongens staller højt, at Kristi og kong Haralds fred rådede i hallen, og at intet jern måtte bruges, undtagen til at skære føden med: hug- og stiksår og ethvert blødende sår, som en mand voldte en anden med ølkrus eller kødben, trætallerken, slev eller knyttet hånd, skulle regnes som fuldt drab og som mangel på respekt over for Kristus og som en gerning, der ikke ville kunne sones ved en bøde, og den skyldige ville få en sten bundet om sin hals og blive druknet på dybt vand. Alle våben undtagen spiseknive var blevet anbragt i forstuen, og kun de betroede mænd, der sad ved kong Haralds eget bord, havde deres sværd med sig ind, thi de havde ord for at kunne beherske sig, selv efter de var blevet berusede.
Hallen var bygget til at rumme godt og vel syv hundrede mand uden trængsel, og i midten stod kong Haralds eget bord, hvor de tredive hædrede mænd sad. Bordene til de andre stod på tværs i begge ender af hallen.
- [Dyre til Toke] Lad os gå ud og pisse sammen uden at glemme at tage sværdene med.
[Orm mod Sigtrygg] Hallbjørn Staller lod en mand blæse i lur og påbød tavshed og forkyndte, at alle skulle holde sig rolige under kampen, og ingen måtte råbe råd til de kæmpende eller kaste genstande ind på kamppladsen.
Man kunne se på dem begge, at det var kæmper, som få ville have mødt godvilligt, og man sporede ingen ængstelse for udfaldet hos nogen af dem.
Toke kom nu tilbage. Han haltede, og man kunne høre, at han mumlede et vers; og da han skrævede hen over bænken til sin plads, kunne man se, at han var blodig på det ene lår og nedefter.
- Hvordan gik det med Dyre? spurgte Sigurd Buesson.
- Det tog sin tid, sagde Toke; men nu har han pisset af.
Pludselig tog Orm et spring fremad og fangede Sigtryggs hug med sværdet og drev med hele sin styrke sit skjold mod hans, så skjoldpiggen gik gennem læder og træ og sad hårdt fast. Han trykkede skjoldene så heftigt nedad, at begge skjoldgrebene brast, og nu gik de begge baglæns, fik sværdene fri og huggede på en gang, Sigtryggs hug ramte i siden og slog hul på Orms brynje og fremkaldte et dybt sår, men Orms hug ramte i halsen; og der lød et voldsomt skrig i hallen, da hovedet fløj af, stødte mod bordkanten og faldt ned i det ølfad, der stod ved enden af bordet.
Orm vaklede og støttede sig til bordet; han strøg sværdet af over knæet og stak det i skeden og så ned på den hovedløse krop ved sine fødder.
- Og dér ser du nu, sagde han, hvem kæden tilhører.
Tvekampen om halskæden blev meget omtalt i kongens gård både i hallen og i køkkenet og kvindernes kamre. ... Det var alles mening, at man ikke engang hos kong Harald havde en så god jul hvert år.
Det lo de meget af den vinter.

The whole chapter in Russian:
(Hat tip: Alexander Steiger Dis, "Steiger").

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