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IN A famous passage of his great book on the History of the Norwegian Kings (Heimskringla), Snorri relates how, early at morn, before the fatal battle of Stiklastad (1030), King Ólaf the Saint asked his skald (Thórmóth Kólbrunarskálld) to intone a song; whereupon he recited the Old Biarkamól (Biarkamól hin fornu) so that all the army could hear it, and all were pleased; and the men called the lay the Exhortation of the Housecarls1 (Húskarla hvot). In the Legendary Saga of Ólaf we are told, furthermore, that when the king asked Thórmóth what boon he desired, that loyal heart asked for naught better than to be allowed to go before his king in battle, and that it might be granted to him not to survive his lord. “This answer is in the very spirit of the Biarkamól;”2 as was the poem singularly well chosen, from out of the many Thórmóth no doubt knew, to fit the occasion, for it is a high song of devotion unto death—and every one felt the king’s to be a Lost Cause.
Unfortunately, only inconsiderable fragments have come down to us of this proud lay, though once it was known all over the North. For a conception of the whole poem we are now dependent on Saxo’s spirited, but very free and wordy, translation into Latin hexameters,3 and on the prolix and novelistic account of the late Hrólfs saga kraka. Taking these as his basis, aided by a strong poetic imagination, and with a profound knowledge of Old Norse poetry as a corrective, the Danish scholar, Axel Olrik, essayed to reconstruct the lay in its original form. As to the success of this difficult piece of restoration, one may question a detail, here and there, and yet agree that it is in the main true to the type, and rejoice in the successful p. 4 restoration of a noble poem. For its meter Olrik chose the málaháttr, irregularly varying with fornyrthislag, which is seen in the few rests preserved. As to structure the poem consists of three long and chiefly lyrical parts of about equal size, separated from one another by brief dramatic interludes. In this decided preponderance of lyric over dramatic elements, as also in the leisurely breadth of the lyric passages, the lay reminds one of the Anglo-Saxon epics rather than of the poems of the Edda with their firmer structure and more energetic movement—whether now this be due to Danish origin or to the early date of the Icelandic lay used by Saxo. This is estimated by Olrik to be from about 900; but other scholars incline to a much later date (ca. 1200).
Putting together the accounts of Saxo and of the saga, the action is as follows: The great hero-king Hrólf kraki,5 the son of Helgi (and nephew of Hróar), is assailed in his hall at Leire during the night by his vassal Hiorvarth, the ruler of the Gauts, who is incited to this treachery by his wife Skuld, Hrólf’s own sister (or daughter). Hialti, a youthful champion in Hrólf’s hird, arouses the inmates, and with taunting speeches exhorts them to fight and die for their generous lord, rallying them again and again. After a bitter struggle, Hiorvarth bursts through the castle gate, Hrólf falls, but his warriors continue to fight. The castle is fired, it seems by Hrólf’s own men. Meanwhile, Biarki, his greatest champion, who has risen from poverty and finally married Hrólf’s sister Hrút, lies in the hall in profound sleep, superinduced by Skuld’s magic. He wakes at Hialti’s third call and plunges into battle. But it is too late. Biarki sinks at his beloved chieftain’s head, Hialti at his feet. When the battle dies down the mortally wounded Biarki is found by Hrút and made to see Óthin riding over the battle field. Dying, he defies him.6
The king remains throughout in the background, yet is the invisible center, worthy of the loyalty unto death of such warriors. They but reflect his glory—Biarki, towering up over the p. 5 rest of them, the stern warrior, unyielding in death and defying even the king of the gods; beside him, brisk and steadfast, Hialti, his younger companion at arms, whose ringing alarums are thrice repeated, thanks to the happy retarding device of Biarki’s magic sleep. Sharp lights fall even on the lesser characters, living and dead—on wicked Skuld, “by evil norns for ill created,” and her husband Hiorvarth, swayed by her “to his kin to be false, his king to betray”; on the fierce warrlor Agnar who “laughs toward death”; on wretched King Hrœrek and gold-greedy King Athisl. Scelles of the present and the past flit by Hialti’s and Biarki’s inner vision, in their supreme hour—the glorious and deed-filled life of the housecarls in field and in banquet hall, under the eyes of the hero-king. Through their speeches we sense the hurly-burly, and feel the progress, of the battle. We learn of all the noble qualities which the upstanding, manly warrior-life of old allowed to unfold, and above all we appreciate that there may be glory in defeat.
|1||“Awake, arise, rally, friends!|
All ye foremost athelings of Hrólf!
Awake not to wine nor to your wives’ converse,
but rather to Gondul’s7 game of war.”
|(drowsily responds, calling out to a thrall:)|
|2||“Bring a fardel of fagots to kindle the fire!|
Brush thou the hearth and blow in the embers!
p. 6 Let the kindling crackle to kindle the logs:
’tis winsome, with warm hand to welcome friends.”8
(He relapses into sleep; but Hialti exhorts the housecarls and plunges into battle with his king:)
|3||“Our great-hearted king gave to his housecarls|
rings, helms, short-swords, and shining mail-coats;
his gifts in peace must be gained in war;
in war is proved what was pledged over ale.9
|4||“The ruler of Danes chose him the doughty;|
courage is known when the craven flee;
in the tumult of battle he needs trusty fighters:
conquest follows king who may count on his men.
|5||“Hold firm your hilts, ye chosen housecarls,|
shield flung on shoulder, to show ye are men;
breast open ’gainst breast offer we to our foemen:
beak against beak, so shall battle the eagles.
|6||“Foremost among fighters bold Hiorvarth10 fares,|
glorying in swordplay, in gold-helm dight;
after him are marching martial hosts of Gauts,
with ring-laid11 helms and rattling spears.
|7||“Skuld him egged on, the Skioldung12 queen,|
to his kin to be false, his king to betray;
p. 7 raving she is and bereft of reason,
by evil norns for ill created.”
(The tide of battle turns against Hrólf and he falls. Hialti continues:)
|8||“Now their last cup for kingsmen is poured,|
after his liege-lord shall no one live
but he show him fearful and shrink from blows,
or be too listless his lord to avenge.
|9||“Our byrnies are slit and sundered our limbs;|
blows of the bill have broken the king’s shield;
wide gapes the gate, and the gallant flee,
the baleful battle-axe gnaws men’s brows.
|10||“Lift thou now, Hrút, thy light-haired brow,|
leave thy bower, for battle is nigh.
|* * *|
|the towers are tumbling, the castle-gates tremble.”|
(Hialti and his men fire the castle. They discover Biarki in profound sleep:)
|11||“Bidest thou yet, Biarki? Do sleep-runes13 bind thee?|
Come forth now with me ere thee fire assail!
We fend off our foes as we do bears—with firebrands:14
the castle crumbles, the king’s hall flames.”
(As Biarki still tarries, Hialti once more rallies his warriors:)
|12||“Let us rally our ranks as Hrólf us taught,|
the hero who hewed down the ring-hoarder.
p. 8 Wretched was Hrœrek though he riches owned:
but gold he gathered, not gallant men.
|13||“Hrólf harried on Hrœrek. He ransom offered—|
before the gates disgorged his purse its gold:
he strewed before stronghold stores of treasure.15
Then was lavished on foe what on friends was saved.
|14||“Though our liege him slew: he allotted the hoard|
among faithful followers, refused it himself.
Nothing him gladdened but he gave it to them:
to award it to warriors naught was too welcome.
|15||“The most large-hearted lord lifeless has sunk;|
lost is the life men will longest remember:
he ran to the sword-play as river toward sea,
fared against foe like the fleet-footed stag.
|16||“A burn of blood from the battle-field flows,|
as Hiorvarth arnong hosts Hild’s-play16 speedeth.
But the sword-giver smiles in his sleep of death,
as at bountiful banquet he beakers emptied.
|17||“Fróthi’s kinsman17 on the Fýri Plains|
his gold rings sowed, glad in his mind;
him we joyfully follow on his journey to Hel,
manly of speech and firm of mettle.
|18||“Blows of our brands shall back our faith,|
the glory of great deeds never is forgotten.
Latched and locked the hall still is right.
A third time, Biarki, I bid thee come forth!”
|19||“Eagerly doest thou, Hialti, egg on Hrólf’s kinsman;18|
but to vaunting words fit valiant deeds.
Bide thou whilst Biarki his byrnie fastens;
little he lists to be burned alive.
|20||“On an isle was I born, barren and little;|
twelve demesnes gave me Hrólf to master,
realms to rule, and ruddy gold, too—
his sister to wife; here’s worth to requite.
(He plunges into battle:)
|21||“Shields on your shoulders, if ye shun not death!|
Only the craven covers him now.
Bare your breasts! Your bucklers fling down!19
Gold-weighted arm the glaive best wields.20
|22||“With my steel erst I struck the ‘wild stag’21 in battle,|
with my short-sword slew him which Snirtir is named.
Hero’s name got I when its hilt I gripped—
when Agnar Ingialdsson’s life I ended.
|23||“ ’Gainst my head he hewed, but Hœking22 broke,|
on Biarki’s brow his blade was shattered.
Then raised I Snirtir, through his ribs thrust him,
his right hand and right leg I lopped with one blow.
|24||“Never was there, I ween, a more warlike hero|
than when, sword-hewn, sank the son of Ingiald:
lifeless he lay and laughed toward death;
to Valholl’s gates he gleefully hied him.
|25||“To his heart I hewed the hero but now,|
young in years but unyielding in spirit;
p. 10 through his buckler I battered, naught booted him his hauberk:
my Snirtir but seldom slackens its blow.
|26||“Guard you now, ye gallant Gautish chieftains!|
Athelings only enter this battle!
|* * *|
* * *
|27||“His loved son now loses many a lord;|
but for barons, not bondmen Hel’s bars will be lowered.
More closely comes the clash of battle,
three blows I get for one I give.
|28||“Alone in the strife I stand amongst the slain.|
A bulwark I build me of fallen bodies.
Where is now he who whetted me before,
and tempted me sore, as though twelve lives he had?”
|29||“Few are the followers, but far I am not.|
strong is now need of stout-hearted men;
battered is my buckler, broken and shattered—
yourself may see it: sight goes before hearsay.
Doest battle now, Biarki, as thou bidedst before?”
|30||“Thy spiteful speech spurs me no longer:|
not I am the cause that tardy I came.
Now a Swedish sword sorely has struck me;
through my war-weeds it went as though water it cleft.”
(Biarki’s wife Hrút has found her mortally wounded husband on the battle field, where the conflict is now dying down.)
|31||“But where is Óthin, the one-eyed grey-beard?|
Say now, Hrút, swiftly: Seest thou him nowhere?”
|32||“Lower thy eye and look through my arm,23|
sign then thy view with victory-runes:
unscathed shalt thou, Biarki, then scan with thy glance
and fasten thy eyes on the father of victory.”24
|33||“Could I fasten my eyes on Frigg’s husband24 now,|
the swift shield-swinger and Sleipnir’s rider,
his life would lose the war-god at Leire25—
blood for blood then would Biarki crave.
|34||“Here by my chieftain’s head I shall sink now,|
thou26 by his feet shalt find thee a rest.
Booty-seekers on battle field shall bear me out:
the great-souled king’s gifts even the dead forget not.
|35||“Soon greedy eagles will gorge on our bodies,|
ramping ravens will rend our limbs.
to high-minded, hardy hero it is seeming
dying to dwell by his king rich in deeds.”
1 The housecarls of the Scandinavian kings correspond to the hird of the Anglo-Saxons. They formed the bodyguard of select warriors.
2 Axel Olrik, The Heroic Legends of Denmark (English trans., 1916) p. 169.
3 Gesta Danorum, book II.
4 Among other things, it may be doubted whether the lay was a pure dialogue poem and not, as were the oldest lays, interspersed with narrative.
5 The matter of Hrólf’s rise, but not his fall, is briefly alluded to in various passages of Bēowulf.
6 For a detailed and searching analysis the reader is referred to Olrik’s work, pp. 202 f.
7 (Or Hild), one of the Valkyries. In Snorri’s account, the beginning is as follows:
|The day has come, claps the cock his wings:|
’tis time for thralls to go to their tasks.
Awake, ye friends, be aye awake,
all ye best men of Athil’s board.
|Hár the hard-gripping, Hrólf the bowman,|
men of noble race who never flee;
I wake you not to wine nor to women’s converse,
but rather to the hard game of Hild.
But for reasons, fully discussed by Olrik, op. cit., pp. 183 f, these stanzas cannot have been the beginning of the Old Biarkamól.
8 It is uncertain whether he thinks guests are coming or ironically bids the enemies welcome with fire (cf. stanza 11).
9 Almost all the phrases in this stanza, and many others in the following exhortation, recur verbally in Wīglāf’s exhortation of Bēowulf’s men to support him against the dragon (Bēowulf, 11, 2663-2660); and much occurs of the same import in the Battle of Maldon.
10 Equivalent to Anglo-Saxon Heoroweard. Other names, in the lay, have the following Anglo-Saxon equivalents: Helgi, Hālga; Hróar, Hrōthgār; Hrólf, Hrōthulf; the Gauts (Gautar), Gēatas; Hrœrek, Hrēthrīk; Ingiald, Ingeld; Athils, Ēadgils.
11 Helmets adomed with chains of rings.
12 Skioldungs (Anglo-Saxon, Scyldingas), the royal race of Denmark, whose progenitor is Skiǫld (Anglo-Saxon, Scyld).
13 Cf. the magic runes fettering Sigrdrífa, Sigrdrífumǫl, Prose after stanza 4.
14 In Saxo: igne ursos arcere licet. Possibly, an allusion to Biarki’s name, which is a “short-name” for a name compounded with -biǫrn, “bear.” He has by some scholars been identified with Bēowulf.
15 In order to purchase peace.
16 One of the valkyries; hence, “Hild’s-play,” a kenning for “battle.”
17 I.e., Hrólf.—The allusion is to an expedition of Hrólf to King Athils of Sweden. When treacherously pursued by Athils on the Fýri Plains (i.e., the region of Upsala) Hrólf stopped him by scattering gold rings which Athils and his men greedily picked up.
18 Biarki himself.
19 Cf. Hákonarmól, stanza 4.
20 I.e., the golden arm-ring, by reminding warriors of the generosity of their lord, will cause them to fight more spiritedly.
21 A kenning, it seems, for “warrior.”
22 Agnar’s sword. Its name signifies “the sword owned by Hók.”
23 One who possesses second-sight can make others see what he sees by letting them look through his bended arm supported on his hip. The victory-runes are the same, apparently, as those referred to in Sigrdrífumól, stanza 7.
24 Óthin, who has been aiding the enemy and is now collecting the dead warriors for Valholl. He rides the eight-footed steed Sleipnir. Cf. Grímnismól, stanza 44.
25 Old Norse Hleithrar, the capital of the Danish kingdom in prehistoric times.