Sacred-Texts Legends & Sagas Iceland Index Previous Next
THIS FINE fragment is an offshoot of the South Germanic, and ultimately Gothic, heroic motif best known to us from the famous old German lay in which the greatest tragedy conceivable to the Germanic mind, kinsman slain by kinsman—son by father—has found classic expression. There, Hiltibrant, the grey-haired warrior, returning from long exile, meets his fiery young son Hadubrant, recognizes, and makes advances to him but is rebuffed and, to save his honor, is compelled to fight and slay him. In the Old Norse poem it is Hildibrand who is slain, by his half brother, Ásmund; and the previous death of Hildibrand’s son at his own hands (stanza 6) is right only as a kind of rudiment. The lay is found, in a much mutilated condition, in the Asmunda saga kappabana (“the Saga of Ásmund, Slayer of Champions”), a fornaldarsaga which must have existed in the twelfth century about as it has come down to us, since it is found in a very similar form in Saxo’s Danish History1 which was composed toward the end of that century. This version also contains a Latin paraphrase of the lay, in hexameters, agreeing with our fragment down to verbal details; so that a tentative reconstruction of certain lines and stanzas is justifiable.
The saga tells how King Buthli’s daughter, Hild—in the lay and in Saxo she is called Drótt—by the fortunes of war is married successively to two kings. Her sons by these, Hildibrand and Ásmund,2 grow up in ignorance of one another. Both become great warriors. Hildibrand is attached to the Hunnish court, Ásmund becomes the champion of two Saxon lords whose realm has been reduced by Hildibrand. He takes up Hildibrand’s standing challenge to single combat; but as Hildibrand through a description has recognized Ásmund he avoids him and sends his berserkers instead. Only when these have all succumbed does he issue forth himself to the struggle which he knows will be fatal to one or both of them. Wounded unto death, Hildibrand addresses the victor:
|1||(“ ’Tis time to tell, on turf as I lie,|
felled by the sword, what fate was ours:
unlike our lot in life hath been,
to Hel fare I while whole thou livest.)3
|2||“Not easy is it ever to know|
who will be born his brother’s slayer.4
Did Drótt bear thee in Danish lands;
myself she bore in Sweden’s realm.
|3||(“By the same mother suckled we were;|
yet neither the other knew as brother
until the twain, trusting their weapon,
for the fray eager, fought the other:)5
|4||“Trusty broad-swords twain were forged—|
heirlooms from Buthli; now one is broken.
So deftly had the dwarfs forged them
as none e’er did or will do, hereafter.6
|5||“By my head, broken, my buckler stands,|
(round-shaped, shining, but shattered now;)7
on it are scored eighty notches
for doughty men given to death by me.
|6||“My liefest son lies by my head,8|
the after-heir whom I did have—
* * *
unwittingly in war I slew him.
|7||“One boon, brother, I beg of thee—|
one boon only albeit one
which slayer not often to slain man grants:10
in thy weeds of war wind my body!
|8||“(Have hateful norns knit our fate-thread:|
to fight against fate the fey one avails not:)11
lifeless shall I now lie on the ground,
slain by the sword, sorely wounded.”
According to the saga, Ásmund—ill-pleased with his deed—fulfills his brother’s dying wish. But when he returns from the combat he scornfully remarks about the “odd custom” of sending two men against one.12 Of the four stanzas put into his mouth, the fourth stands out with peculiar vigor.
|1||“I little bethought me of laws like these—13|
that me, single-handed, many would challenge
when as their champion the Huns chose me,14
eight times over, for the atheling’s realm.
|2||“I grappled with one, and again with two—|
with four and five of their followers;
with six and seven at the same time, then,
and one against eight: a wonder I live!
|3||“But then wavered, wincing, my courage|
when eleven warriors me alone bestead,
ere that in my sleep said to me wraiths15
that I should dare to do battle.
|4||“Then came the hoary16 Hildibrand,|
the Hunnish warrior; nor he my match:17
I marked on him, his helmet beneath,
a deadly wound, dealt with the sword.”18
1 Book VII.
2 In Saxo, Hildigerus and Halfdanus.
3 Supplied by the translator after Saxo, lines 1-7.
4 I accept E. A. Kock’s emendation.
5 Do., after lines 10-16.
6 Two wondrous swords to which, however, a curse had been attached, had been forged for Buthli by two dwarfs. They came into the possession of the half brothers. In the duel, Hildibrand’s is shattered.
7 Supplied after lines 18-19 of Saxo’s paraphrase.
8 The recurrence of “by my head” renders the line suspicious. In Saxo’s verses the dying Hildeglr’s shield is adorned with the figures of the warriors he had slain—among them his own son: “in the middle (panel) stands the picture of my son, drawn with great art, whom this hand of mine snatched out of life.” In the saga, Hildibrand is represented as slaying his son in the berserker rage which overcomes him before going to meet Ásmund.
8 There is nothing in Saxo’s version to suggest a lacuna here.
10 It being customary, rather, that the victor despoils the vanquished of his armor.
11 Freely supplied by the translator after Saxo’s lines 31-34.
12 Which is dishonorable, according to the code of the single combat.
13 Adopting Detter’s and Heinzel’s emendation of the passage.
14 The strange contradiction in this line might, possibly, be interpreted ironically as meaning that they picked him as their opponent.
15 In the original dísir, tutelary spirits in the shape of women, guiding and warning one.
16 This epithet shows the same, older, conception as the Lay of Hiltibrant where Hiltibrant is called “alter Hun”; whereas in the saga he is represented as youthful, notwithstanding his having a grown son.
17 Or “hard to overcome.” The line seems corrupt.
18 F. Jónsson’s emendation.