Rune Stone #1: The Top Five Epic and Hilarious Moments in the Norse Sagas

So today I decided to post my first Rune Stone, which will be my name for the “fun lists.” Why “Rune Stone”, you ask? Well Rune Stones were used in Norse and Celtic cultures as a way of marking locations and inscribing short poems or messages. Since the format of the list posts is shorter than the article posts, I thought the name apt. Anyway, on to the first Rune Stone!  Huzza!

Rune Stone #1: 

The Norse sagas are filled with many strange and wonderful things: Monsters and Heroes, Warriors and Villains, Valiant Queens and Mischievous Craftsmen.  Though the language may be a little stilted and antiquated for modern audiences, the stories contained within these 1,000 year old writings are as vivid and engaging as any modern story. And, I would say, they are often more entertaining that modern fiction. Imagine the gore and politicking of Game of Thrones, the epic battles of Lord of the Rings, and the magic of Harry Potter bundled into a collection of stories.

I have certainly not read every Norse saga story that has been written, but in my time at my alma mater and now as a pastime I have read a fair amount of the Norse cannon.  I have found that while some parts of the sagas are slow and tedious, there are also many interesting, epic, and hilarious moments in these stories. This Rune Stone is my compilation of the “best hits,” as it were, to give you a taste of how fun it is to read the sagas. So, without further ado, here are five of my favorite moments in the Norse saga literature (in no particular order).

 

1.The Proud Hawk (The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki)

The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki is, in short, a story about this Danish king who has a lot of great warriors, only we learn more about his warriors than we do about the man himself. (But he’s super cool. Trust me, I’m the saga author.) This story is one of my favorites in all of saga literature, and it reads like a version of Lord of the Rings, which is sayin’ a lot. Of the many great scenes in this book, the first I will highlight is this episode:

“In the midst of the hard fighting, King Hrolf’s hawk came flying out of the fortress. It settled on the king’s shoulder, and from there, filled with pride, it acted as though assisting in a glorious victory.

Bodvar [one of Hrolf’s champions] said, ‘The hawk is behaving as if it has performed a great feat.’”

(Byock, The Saga of Hrolf Kraki, 65)

When I was reading this scene for the first time, this last line instantly struck me as kind of strange. We’re in the middle of this epic battle between the Swedish king, Adils, and the Danish king, Hrolf Kraki, and the author takes time to break from the main narrative to talk about Hrolf’s hunting hawk (whose name is Habrok, by the way).  So I figured it had to be important. That little bird was being smug about something. But it gets better…

“Adils’ man, whose task it was to watch over the hawks, raced up to the loft where they were kept. He thought it strange the King Hrolf’s hawk had managed to get free, but then he found ALL OF KING ADILS’ HAWKS HAD BEEN KILLED.” [my emphasis added]

(Byock, The Saga of Hrolf Kraki, 65)

So while Hrolf and his men were killing the Swedish kings men Hrolf’s freeking hawk made all-out war on the Swedish king’s hawks, and killed them all like a badass. Hrolf Kraki is such a badass king that even his hawk is a freeking badass.  That’s pretty cool.

2. The Epic Sea Battle (Egil’s Saga)

Picture this: Two boats bob on the frothing waves. They’re out in the open, eyeing each other, drifting closer. Then the two boats meet, side to side, and the armies clash. Men leap from boat to boat, slashing with swords and axes. Is this a scene from a pirate movie? Nope, Vikings.  Specifically Egil’s Saga, which is a damn epic saga and is really worth a read. The plot of this saga follows a badass dude who goes around killing people. (Okay that’s a lot of sagas, admittedly, but this one is almost exclusively cool battle scenes and badassery.) This was the first time I had read a Viking sea battle and honestly I didn’t know they boarded each other’s ships in this manner. As it turns out, for really large battles they would lash several boats together and make a large fighting area that men could run around on.  Take that, 1700s pirates!

What takes the cake in this battle is this one description:

“When Kveldulf came aft to the stern-castle, he brandished high his battle-axe, and smote Hallvard right through helm and head, so that the axe sank in even to the shaft; then he snatched it back towards him so forcibly that he whirled Hallvard aloft, and slung him overboard.”

(Egil’s Saga, chapter 27, http://sagadb.org/egils_saga.en)

Yep. You read that right. He threw the guy over the boat using the ax he had lodged into the man’s skull.

3. Flawless Logic (Njal’s Saga)

Now Njal’s Saga is an interesting mix of horrific feuding and really slow descriptions of Icelandic law proceedings. And when I mean slow, I mean that I read law codes for fun and I wanted to claw my eyes out. But there are also several really interesting battle scenes in this work that makes the overall story very engaging. The scene I am going to talk about now, however, is neither of these things. Instead, it involves the one chapter where the conversion of Iceland to Christianity is specifically discussed.  Thangbrand, the priest sent by Olav Tryggvason, was preaching to the people about Jesus. One woman steps forward and jeers:

“‘Have you heard,’ she said, ‘that Thor challenged Christ to a duel and that Christ didn’t dare to fight with him?’

‘What I have heard,’ said Thangbrand, ‘is that Thor would be mere dust and ashes if God didn’t want him to live.’”

(Cook and Eiricksson, Njal’s Saga, chapter 98)

I love this scene for two reasons. 1) Can you imagine Jesus and Thor dueling? In some versions I’ve seen the term “wrestling” used instead of “duel”, but in either case this concept just makes me laugh. 2) Thangbrand actually took that woman’s comment seriously and retorted with a serious answer. Of course, in that period such a comment was meant seriously and it reflects the worldview of the Viking’s. Thor was the protector god of the farmers and peasants, and so it would make sense for him to challenge Jesus, the protector of the Christians, to a duel. Contests like wrestling, spear throwing, swimming, and fighting are often mentioned in the sagas, and probably reflected a common practice.

Nevertheless, envisioning Jesus and Thor dueling makes me laugh every time.

4. Grendel’s Mother (Beowulf)

What Viking list would be complete without mentioning Beowulf? Now, those of you who are familiar with this story probably read it in English class, and it was presented as an English work of literature. Well, it’s about a Swede who goes to help a bunch of Danes and kills trolls, so I count it as a Viking story. It is also a really excellent work of literature and I recommend that you read Tolkien’s translation of the poem if you have not already.  It’s basically Rohan from The Two Towers with a troll and a dragon added in.

There are many fabulous scenes to talk about in Beowulf, but I picked the scene with Grendel’s mom because it was the first time that I was legitimately concerned for Beowulf’s safety. Yes, Grendel was a pretty formidable enemy, but honestly the first thing you learn about the book is that Beowulf defeats Grendel so I was not really worried about that first monster. But what they don’t tell you before you read it in English class is that Grendel has a mother who has huge claws, lives in a lake full of sea monsters, and fights with a dagger. Tolkien’s translation even calls her “the wolf of the waves.” That’s kinda terrifying.

So Beowulf goes into the lake, fights sea monsters WHILE HE’S SWIMMING, and gets to the cave where Grendel’s mom lives. Now mind, she’s already beheaded the king’s trusted warrior at this point, so she’s lethal. And then Beowulf’s trusted magical sword, Hrunting, refuses to work! When even magic fails to work, you know you’re dealing with a seriously dangerous creature.   So what does Beowulf do?

“…he cast away that blade with twisted ornament…He trusted his strength and the grasp of his own mighty hands. … Then seized the prince of Geatish warriors Grendel’s mother by her locks, ruing not the cruel deed, and his mortal foe he threw, for now he grim with war was filled with wrath, and she was bowed to the floor. Again she swiftly answered him with like, and grappling cruelly she clutched at him.”

(Tolkien, Beowulf, 57-8.)

As someone who has a year and a half of sword fighting and grappling training under her belt, Beowulf’s action is well reasoned but still gutsy as hell. The last thing you want to do in a sword battle is come to grappling, because whoever wins the grapple wins the contest. So this is an incredibly badass and daring move, especially against a monster woman who has huge claws and a dagger while he is weaponless. But then, miraculously, he does find a weapon: “…a blade gigantic, old, with edges stern, the pride of men at arms” (58). With this great weapon, Beowulf rose up to face the monstrous troll.

“Despairing for his life with ire he smote, and on her neck it bitter seized, and shivered the bony joints. Through and through the sword pierced her body doomed. She sank upon the floor. The sword was wet. The knight rejoiced him in the deed.” (58).

And that, dear reader, is why Beowulf is famous.

5. Ass-Kicking to a whole new level (The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki)

Only in Norse Saga is cutting off someone’s butt an acceptable kill-strike. What makes this funnier, at least for the Danes and Norwegians reading this, is that it is the Danish king Hrolf Kraki cutting off the Swedish King Adils’ butt.  The overarching story makes the Swedish king out to be a villain, so by the time we get to this final battle his ass-chopping (I am making that a term) is well deserved. He’s betrayed several main characters to their deaths and kept Hrolf’s inheritance from him. So as Hrolf escapes from Sweden with his men he scatters rings on the ground to distract the Swedish king and his army. The Swedish king sees his favorite ring on the road, and bends down to pick it up with the point of his spear. The rest, I’ll leave to the saga writer:

“Seeing what Adils was doing, Hrolf turned his horse around and said, ‘I have made the greatest of Swedes stoop like swine.’ Then, just as King Adils was pulling the spear shaft with the ring on it back toward him, King Hrolf galloped up and sliced off both his buttocks right down to the bone.”

(Byock, The Saga of Hrolf Kraki, 67-8.)

Again, only the Vikings could make a kill violent and hilarious at the same time. So take note, everyone, don’t go Sméagol over a nice ring, because it could cost you your butt.

That’s all for now!  If you enjoyed this post, stay tuned for part two! I also have planned a couple of book reviews on the sagas if you want to hear more about these books individually.  And if you want to go ahead read these texts yourself, many can be found online or on Amazon.com! Happy reading!

-The Valkyrie

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2 thoughts on “Rune Stone #1: The Top Five Epic and Hilarious Moments in the Norse Sagas

  1. Pingback: Reinterpreting Beowulf | Midgard to Middle Earth

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