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THE MANUSCRIPT Fagrskinna is our sole source for this magnificent lay also. We are told that it was composed at the behest of Gunnhild, wife of Eric Bloody-axe, oldest of the many sons of Harold Hairfair, and his heir constituted. Driven by his half brother, Hákon the Good, from Norway where he was hated on account of his bloody deeds, Eric fled to England and carved himself a kingdom in Northumbria. From this, he was driven, too, and killed in a skirmish, it seems, in the year 950 according to the English Annals. A fierce and rough warrior, he had few redeeming features besides his bravery. He was baptized when acknowledging King Eadred of England as his overlord; but in this encomium of an unknown (Norwegian?) poet the heathen ethos prevails altogether: warfare as the great content of life.
The lay is generally regarded as a fragment; but that may be doubted, for the action seems clear and self-sufficient in its bold simplicity:
Óthin at break of day soliloquizes—he has dreamed of the advent into Valholl of a mighty king and that great preparations were made for his reception. But now, great din arises, and he asks Bragi, the god of Skaldic art, what it might be. No less joyful it sounds, Bragi thinks, than if Baldr himself were returning—Baldr whose fall was most fateful to the gods, and whose longed-for return to Valholl would be for them a matter of the greatest rejoicing!1 But Óthin, better acquainted with Fate, recognizes King Eric from afar and bids two of the heroes of the olden times rise up and welcome him: ragnarok, the Doom of the Gods, is approaching, and heroes such as Eric will be needed for the impending battle with the monsters of destruction. Eric draws near; and with him enter into Valholl p. 64 no less than five kings slain in battle—worthy retinue for his apotheosis!2
The form of the poem is quite irregular—málaháttr followed by loosely built lióthaháttr stanzas. Though a skaldic effort, it is notably simple in style, and almost without kennings.
|1||“What dreams be these, now? Methought that ere daybreak|
I got Valholl ready to make room for warriors;
I waked the einheriar,3 asked them to rise up,
to put straw on benches, and to rinse the beer-jugs;
and the valkyries, to deal wine out as though a warrior drew nigh.
|2||“Lords from man-home4 are to be looked for,|
high-born and hardy, which my heart gladdens.
|3||“What thunders, Bragi, as though thousands stirred,|
or whelming hosts?”
|“Crack all boards of the benches as though Baldr were coming|
back to Óthin’s beer-hall.”
|4||“Of witless words shalt beware, wise Bragi,|
for full well thou wotst:
’t is Eric this heralds, who to us is wending,
the earl, into Óthin’s hall.
|5||“Sigmund and Sinfiotli, leave your seats, ye heroes,|
and go forth to greet the king!
p. 65 Bid him enter in, if Eric it be:
him I have hopes to see.”
|6||“Why of Eric, rather than of another?”|
|“Because in many a liege-land this lord hath warred|
and borne a bloody sword.”
|7||“Why, then, didst rob him of victory, since valiant thou thought’st him?”5|
| “No one knoweth—|
looks the grey wolf (grimly)6 toward the gods’ dwellings.”
|8||“Hail to thee, Eric, here thou art welcome!|
wise war-lord, in hall.
This fain would I know: who be following thee
of athelings, from the edge7-fight?”
|9||“Kings five there are, them all I shall name thee:|
am I the sixth myself.”
1 Cf. Baldr’s Dreams, 6, 7; Voluspó, 24 ff.
2 It is interesting to note that in that spirited Anglo-Saxon poem of the Battle of Brunanburh, fought not so many years before (937) and under similar circumstances, the bodies of five kings likewise lie on the battlefield (line 28).
3 The fallen warriors who are gathered by the valkyries into Óthin’s hall; cf. Vafthrúthnismól, 41.
4 The earth.
5 The same reproach is hurled at Óthin by Loki, Lokasenna, 22:
|“Hush thee, Óthin; not ever fairly|
didst allot men luck in battle.
Oft thou gavest, as give thou shouldst not,
mastery to worser men.”
6 Conjecture. Óthin’s defense is that the best of (fallen) heroes—the einheriar—will be needed in the final battle with the Wolf, Fenrir (cf. Voluspó, 45 f.).
7 Pars pro toto for “sword.”