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IN THE sixth book of Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum there are embedded, in the narrative of the Danish hero, Starkath’s, life and deeds, two extensive poems, the Lay of Ingiald and Starkath’s Death Song; and a third lay, somewhat related to the Icelandic Víkarsbálk, is to be inferred from Saxo’s prose narrative. That there were current lays about Starkath, not only in Scandinavia, but also in Anglo-Saxon England, brought thither from the old home, and that they were in favor, is amply evident from that reproachful passage in one of Alcuin’s letters:1 “Quid enim Hinieldus cum Christo? Angusta est domus; utrosque tenere non poterit”—What hath Ingiald to do with Christ? Small is the house, it will not hold both—even if we did not have the well-known Ingeld episode of Bēowulf (2024-2069).
Like the Biarkamól, and likewise Danish in origin, the Lay of Ingiald is an “exhortation”—even more narrowly so—not to loyal devotion unto death in the king’s cause, but addressed to the son of the slain father, to bestir himself to revenge. Both the situation and the reaction to it are typical of the Germanic North in pre-Christian times.
According to the oldest, and no doubt most original, account as found in Bēowulf, the matter is as follows: In a great battle with the Heathobards,2 their king, Frōda, was slain. In order to effect a reconciliation between the two hostile nations, the Danish king, Hrōthgār, gave his daughter, Frēawaru, in marriage to Ingeld, the son of Frōda; but at the marriage feast—it seems, in the royal hall of the Heathobards—a young warrior, stung to the quick by the repeated eggings on of an old warrior, slays one of the Danish company, in order to avenge his father. Ingeld’s love of the Danish princess “cools” (i.e., he puts her away), the feud breaks out again which according to Wīdsīth, ends with the disastrous defeat of the Heathobards before Heorot, the royal hall of the Danes.
This matter is significantly changed, and condensed to far greater dramatic effect, in the Old Danish lay. There, the injured party are the Danes, the ignominious peace and marriage lies in the past. Starkath, the stern old warrior and companion in arms of Fróthi, arrives incognito in Leire, where a sumptuous banquet is being given by Ingiald to his brothers-in-law (here called the sons of Sverting), and arouses him by bitter denunciation of his supineness to slay them and put away their sister, his wife. To the rôle of the formidable hereditary enemies of the land have succeeded the Germans3—as well they might under the powerful and aggressive (Saxon) Ottones, who finally compelled the Danes to accept their overlordship and Christianity. The lay has gained, furthermore, by the fierce denunciation of the new and hated Southron ways and by concentrating this invective on Ingiald; who avenges himself on the spot.
Starkath’s own personality is kept in the background, though he is unmistakably felt to be the representative of the older and better ideals of the Viking Age. Since this age, to which the lay harks back with such approbation, had come to an end in the ninth century, after the conquest and settlement of the western and northern Atlantic littoral; since the poem is still thoroughly heathen in spirit; and since the fear and hatred of the Saxon and his ways could have arisen only after the accession of the Saxon emperors, it is safe to conclude that the lay was composed during the tenth century.
As for its contents, we are altogether dependent on Saxo’s prolix and highly rhetorical Latin version—in Sapphic stanzas and hexameters.4 From these, Olrik by judicious reduction brought out the lay approximately as it may have come to the knowledge of Saxo. The version here offered leans on Olrik’s, but is shorter by nine stanzas through the elimination of some fulsome details improbable in an old lay and, especially, the omission of the weak ending which in Olrik’s version mars the fine climax of exultation over the revenge accomplished, which Starkath calls on Óthin to witness.
|1||“Go from the grey-beard! No longer make game of me,|
ye deedless swains in the Danish court!
No outcast is the old man before you:
oft hoary hair hideth a hardy mind.
|2||“I formerly followed Fróthi for years,|
sate in the high-seat,5 and was served before others;
but now I sit nameless and unknown in the hall,
I like a fish at ebb-tide finding a waterhole.
|3||“I formerly sate on soft cushions;|
now in a corner I sit, crowded by every one.
Fain out of doors would they drive the grey-beard
but wall and wainscot gave welcome foothold.
|4||“The courtiers laugh at me who come from afar off,|
no one gets up to greet me or to cheer the guest!
What be the ways now in the hall of the Skioldungs?
I should like to learn Leire’s6 new breeding.
|5||“Thinkest thou, Ingiald, as at ease thou sittest,|
to avenge Fróthi, thy father, on his banesmen?
Or are you pleased, rather to fill your paunch
than to make stern war on the murderers of your father?
|6||“That feared I, when farewell to the folkwarder I said,|
that slain by the sword he soon would lie.
From Fróthi afar the folklands I roamed
when I learned that our liege had been laid low by Saxons.
|7||“Had that time I been with the thane’s shield-bearers,|
then not deedless had I seen my dear lord’s fall:
my sword had then smitten the Saxon traitors,
or else had I fallen by Fróthi’s side.
|8||“Now on wilding ways I wended from Sweden,|
hoping to find Fróthi’s heir-taker—
p. 15 and find a feaster but for food hankering,
and instead of a king, a coward and wanton.
|9||“But sooth did say the Swedish king—7|
that ‘deedless scions follow doughty father.’
Shall strangers steal the stores of your father?
Shall his red-gold rings fall in robbers’ hands?”
(Then the queen, frightened, and wishing to appease the terrible old man, undid her golden fillet and handed it to him; but Starkath hurled it back at her scornfully and said:)
|10||“Away from the warrior with your woman’s finery!|
About your own brow bind your fillet,
or else your husband’s, who will highly prize it,
fingering for food steaked fowls’ inwards.
|11||“Evil art, thou, Ingiald’s mistress!|
Saxland’s ways soft to Sealand thou broughtest!
In the king’s kitchen cook they now tidbits,
such as war-workers ne’er would have eaten.
|12||“But on board, bloody, the meat of beeves8|
was laid for strong men as they right the battlefield.
In their frosted beards oft bit the rowers,
nor slaked their thirst with sweet milk for babies.
|13||“Athelings eleven, all told, were there|
with Haki,9 when we rode the horse-of-the-sea.10
Beigath and Belgi at board with us sate;
seldom on sea fared swains more hardy.
|14||“With smoked salt meat we sated our hunger,|
and slaked our thirst with swallows of ale;
nor was honeyed mead ever Haki’s delight,
nor soft bread, either, when at sea he fared.
|15||“But weregild no one e’er would have taken,|
or by payment of pence in his purse borne his father;11
nor was ever heard that the heir of his father
sate at festive board with his father’s banesmen.
|16||“So, when in the hall great heroes are spoken of,|
and skalds are chanting the champions’ great deeds,
then in shame I hide under hood my glances,
for Fróthi’s first-born showed but faint-heartedness.
|17||“Why so sternly, Ingiald, starest thou at me?|
Never saw the sneering Saxons such glances!
Thou who never didst win other warfare
than cutting down bread and killing puddings.
|18||“A cruel fate has befallen Fróthi’s kinsmen|
when the king was given such a coward as heir:
no greater worth hast thou than a hunted goat,
or than sheep in shambles shrinking in terror.
|19||“Shall Sverting’s12 seed hold sway over Denmark,|
Seated at Leire with Saxon warriors,
on thy lap whilst thou fondlest the linen-clad woman,
the fair-haired daughter of thy father’s banesman.
(Roused by these words, Ingiald leapt up and drew his sword on Sverting’s sons who sate in the high-seat with him.)
|20||“Rail now, Ingiald! Thou art awakened!|
No more wavering weakness, thou warriors’ leader,
but slay with the sword all of Sverting’s kinsmen!
Alike be their death as alike was their deed!
|21||“Let thralls drag then the dead from the high-seat,|
cart away the killed ones from the king’s mead-hall,
toss the dead out-of-doors— nor dig graves for them—
to feed on the heath foxes and ravens.
|22||“Still further shalt, Ingiald, if foresight thou hast,|
put away the woman wily and evil!
The she-wolf’s whelps will take after her:
beware of the wolf though weak he be now.
|23||“Behold now, Hrauthi,13 thou who whettest to strife,|
that full vengeance for Fróthi is taken:
the seven sons of Sverting by sword are laid low,
his false friends now are felled by Ingiald.
|24||“Though hoary my hair that hope never left me|
that Fróthi’s first-born would not flinch in trial;
as only heir shall Ingiald rule here
over the lands of the Danes and Leire’s high-seat.”
1 A.D. 797.
2 This warlike tribe was located south of Denmark, north of the lower Elbe.
3 Or “Saxons” as they are called, from the nearest German tribe.
4 The metre of the original is assumed to have been málaháttr.
5 The raised seat of honor in the middle of the hall. The seats for servants and hangers-on were at the gable-end, near the door.
6 Cf. Biarkamól, note 25.
7 With whom Starkath had dwelt during his absence.
8 Cf. the Second Lay of Helgi, stanzas 8, 9.
9 Typical name for a viking.
10 Kenning for “ship.”
11 To “carry one’s kinsman in one’s purse” was a current expression of utmost contumely for enriching one’s self by accepting weregild, instead of avenging him.
12 The king of the Saxons.
13 “The Destroyer;” which seems to be a name of Óthin, the inciter to warfare.