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Saga of the Jómsvíkings

Saga of the Jómsvíkings
Illustrated by Malcolm Thurgood

The story of a battle in AD 986 -- a strong ruler and his men versus a famed warrior community that feared no one and dared all.

January 1955
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116 pages | 5 1/4 x 7 1/2 | 5 line drawings |

In A.D. 986, Earl Hákon, ruler of most of Norway, won a triumphant victory over an invading fleet of Danes in the great naval battle of Hjórunga Bay. Sailing under his banner were no fewer than five Icelandic skalds, the poet-historians of the Old Norse world. Two centuries later their accounts of the battle became the basis for one of the liveliest of the Icelandic sagas, with special emphasis on the doings of the Jómsvikings, the famed members of a warrior community that feared no one and dared all. In Lee M. Hollander's faithful translation, all of the unknown twelfth-century author's narrative genius and flair for dramatic situation and pungent characterization is preserved.

  • Foreword
  • Introduction
  • 1. Knút the Foundling
  • 2. King Gorm's Dreams
  • 3. Earl Harold's Visions
  • 4. Knút Gormsson Is Slain in England
  • 5. King Harold and Earl Hákon Plot Together
  • 6. King Harold Has Áki Tókason Slain
  • 7. Palnir's Marriage. The Rise of Palnatóki
  • 8. Of King Harold and Saumaesa
  • 9. Svein's Dealings with King Harold
  • 10. Palnatóki Slays King Harold and Proclaims Svein King
  • 11. Palnatóki Acknowledges His Arrow
  • 12. The Founding of Jómsborg
  • 13. Of Earl Strút-Harold and Véseti and Their Sons
  • 14. King Svein Arbitrates the Feud
  • 15. Búi, Sigvaldi, and Vagn Join the Jómsvikings
  • 16. Of Palnatóki's Death and Sigvaldi's Ambition
  • 17. Sigvaldi Captures King Svein
  • 18. The Vows of the Jómsvikings
  • 19. Geirmund Escapes and Warns Earl Hákon
  • 20. Preparations for the Battle
  • 21. The Battle
  • 22. The Aftermath
  • 23. The Testing of the Jómsvikings
  • 24. Of Vagn, Sigvaldi, and the Other Jómsvikings

Hollander was professor emeritus of Germanic languages at the University of Texas at Austin and an authority in Nordic language and literature. His translations of the best prose and poetry of the Old North—among them Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway and The Poetic Edda—have also appeared under the imprint of the University of Texas Press.


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The great naval battle in Hjórunga Bay (A.D. 986) in which Earl Hákon, ruler of most of Norway, crushed an invading fleet of Danes left a lasting impression on the imagination of Icelandic storytellers. No fewer than five Icelandic skalds took part in it under the Norwegian banner. On their homecoming, no doubt they regaled news-hungry compatriots with accounts of the battle; and in their verses they have left us contemporary reflections of the event.

Two centuries later there appeared a saga (in several versions) about the Jómsvikings, the members of the warrior community constituting the invaders. Though it is generally classed as one of the historical sagas and though its matter has to do with events involving the fate of nations, even a superficial consideration of its structure and content shows that it is what we would today call a historical novel rather than a history. We find that the kernel of historic truth about the battle and the events leading up to it has been encrusted with accretions of more or less fanciful details.

The earmarks of deliberate composition are plain. Indeed, this saga furnishes an instructive example of how historical fact is transmuted into legend: practically all of the main characters are historic, but the details of their actions and speeches, though related soberly enough, are either pure inventions or variations of folk traditions that had grown up about the incidents. This aura of invention is particularly apparent in the first part of the story—a part lacking in one of the redactions—but to a lesser degree can be sensed throughout the whole tale.

Thus it hardly needs to be pointed out to the attentive reader how prominent, and effective, a role is assigned to the retarding epic device of the threefold repetition that is so characteristic of legend and lore. King Gorm has three dreams about the hard times to befall Denmark, forestalled then by the wise counsel of his queen. The three marvels portending coming events that stop Earl Klak-Harold at the Lim Firth are interpreted satisfactorily by him to the king. Palnatóki comes only on the third summons to take part in the funeral feast for King Harold. Three times a hostile invasion is prevented by the resourcefulness of a prince's daughter or wife—itself a legendary motif. A telling crescendo is effected by the young Svein's threefold and ever more impudent appearance before his reputed father to push his claims, each appearance followed by a more cruel harrying of the king's subjects. Even the three successive arrivals of Sigvaldi, Búi, and Vagn at the gate of Jómsborg show elements of this favorite device of the storyteller, as do the quarrels between Véseti and Strút-Harold, with the threefold reprisals following. Earl Hákon must call three times on his tutelary goddess Thorgerd before obtaining her assistance; and the course of the battle itself is broken into three phases by his repeated invocation of the demoness and her sister.

Legendary traits bulk especially in the first part. In the very first chapter the story of Knút's origin from the incestuous union of brother and sister, and of his exposure, finding, and adoption by the king has the characteristics of folklore and is reminiscent of many tales—those for instance of King Helgi Kraki, famous in legend, of Sinfjotli, the son and nephew of Sigmund, and particularly so, of the birth, exposure, finding, and upbringing of Moses (who according to some medieval legends was born in incestuous union). Again, the dreams of Gorm and their interpretation by Thyra recall the dreams of Pharaoh as interpreted by Joseph and the measures taken to ward off the coming famine. Ingeborg's dream of the web weighted with human heads definitely recalls the famous "Song of the Valkyries."

Later on in the story we can detect a novelistic and stereotype motif in the stratagem used both by Palnatóki (when attending King Harold's funeral feast) and by Sigvaldi (in enticing King Svein aboard his ship) : each man has the prows of his fleet pointing away from land for a quick getaway. The parallelism between the families of Véseti and Str&uacte;t-Harold, in that each has two warlike sons and one marriageable daughter, is another stereotype. The supernatural comes in only once—disregarding the quasi-historical Christian ordeal of Bishop Poppo (not occurring in the version chosen for our transaction)—to wit, in the magic storm superinduced by Earl Hákon's sacrifice of his youngest son. And, strange to say, this occurrence has far more authenticity, so far as tradition goes, than any of the other legendary elements. Even the skeptical historian Snorri mentions the hailstorm, a rather unusual phenomenon in western Norway, as a decisive incident in turning the tide of battle, though to be sure he does not ascribe it to a supernatural agency.

In general, and typical of tales of the legendary type, the multiplicity and complexity, as well as the contemporaneity, of historical events are here reduced to simplicity and sequency.

It stands to reason that the fairly copious speeches, which dramatically enliven and at the same time advance the action, are the property of the author—barring the exchange between old King Gorm and his queen, which has the air of a reminiscence of some lost lay, the words of the Jómsvíkings at Túnsberg addressed to Vagn, which have an authentic ring, and the remarks of the Icelandic skalds present at the various stages of the conflict, which may be considered as contemporary reporting.

This is not the place to go into extensive detail about where and how far the saga deviates from what we now know to have been historical fact. For one thing, we have learned to regard, and value, the sagas—apart from the critical works of writers like Snorri, Ari, Abbot Karl Jónsson—not so much as reliable historical documents but as art products making only a secondary claim on historical veracity. Nevertheless it is well to realize that in some important aspects (as well as in innumerable small points) our saga is conspicuously at variance with the facts.

Let us note principally that, in the interest of heightening the contrast between King Harold and his calm, deeply planning antagonist Palnatóki, serious injustice is done to Harold (Blacktooth, died ca. 985) in depicting him as an irascible, mediocre, and licentious man, weakly envious of his powerful vassals. In history he stands as a strong and capable ruler. According to the evidence of the larger Runestone of Jellinge, erected by Harold in memory of his father Gorm and his mother Thyra, it was he who united Denmark and "made the Danes Christians," long before Emperor Otto's expedition (which, by the way, was in retaliation for a Danish raid, and not to convert the Danes). The whole web of intrigue and violence through which, according to the saga, he is supposed to have rid himself (in connivance with Earl Hákon) of Harold Grayfur of Norway, Harold's mother, Queen Gunnhild, and finally of his own nephew, Gold-Harold, is inconsistent with his historical character and apparently more fiction than fact. And it was not a mythical Palnatóki but Harold who founded the warrior community of the Jómsvíkings (as a bulwark against the Wends); its members remained loyal to him and actually aided him in his fight against his rebellious son, Svein. In fact, the dominating figure of Palnatóki and his character and exploits, though possibly based on a compound of certain Tell-like legends and perhaps local Danish tradition, must be wholly credited to the inventive genius of the author.

The saga also does less than justice to King Svein (Forkbeard), historically an energetic and popular ruler: the conquest by him of most of England (1013) would not have been possible if he had not had the lasting support of the majority of his people. The attack on Norway by the Jómsvíkings, aided and abetted by him, was in all probability not merely a scheme to avenge himself on them for having captured him and transported him to Jómsborg but part of a grand plan to subject all northern lands to Danish rule—a plan which his son Knút (Canute the Great), long sovereign of Denmark, England, and Norway, came near carrying out.

On the other hand the author's portrayal of Earl Hákon's character essentially tallies with the facts. Though in true saga style the narrator never shows his hand, yet we are made to feel a certain amount of admiration for that ruthless and immensely resourceful worshiper of the ancient gods, heathen Norway's last great figure, who did indeed win the loving admiration of his fellow-countrymen and who was hailed by them as their deliverer from the Danish yoke (see note 54, page 94). No lesser man than Ólaf Tryggvason, the hero king of Norway, is brought in by the author as foil and ally of Emperor Otto in order to offset Earl Hákon's generalship—a semifictional touch, for actually Ólaf was a mere stripling when the German hosts broke through the Dannevirke (ca. 975) and was not to become the earl's great antagonist until years later.

The saga is told in a—deceptively—simple style, with now and then a deft touch of irony. There are no surmises as to the identity of the author. His Icelandic provenience is obvious from the entirely episodic interest he takes in the presence and doings of the Icelandic skalds who participated in the great battle. His knowledge of the complicated Danish littoral is vague, but he becomes more precise with the approach of the Danish fleet to Norway, a country whose geography every traveled Icelander knew almost as well as that of his own. If he did have a clerical training—indications of which might be seen in the clerically tinged dreams of King Gorm and the visions of Earl Klak-Harold—he certainly is not overly enthusiastic about the Christianity which, according to him, was rammed down the throats of the Danes by Emperor Otto. Nor does he show much pious indignation at Earl Hákon's apostasy and rank heathen practices. The old heroic ideal of uninhibited and unabashed self-assertion and the martial virtues appeal to him far more than Christian ethics—of which, in sober truth, there is no trace in the saga. One senses his unconcealed admiration for figures such as the manly, forthright Búi, and the audacious, dashing Vagn. He is at his best when he tells of fierce fighting or crafty stratagem.

He is superb in the "Testing of the Jómsvíkings (Chap. 23), where he gives us men who know how to die. They look death unflinchingly in the eye and with a jest on their lips. They love life but would not be able to survive the taunt of having begged for it. It is as though they were conceived as embodiments and ensamples of the noble sentiment of the Eddic "Hávamól" (stanza 77).

Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself eke soon wilt die;
but fair fame will fade never,
I ween, for him who wins it.

It would be difficult to cite in world literature a parallel to that unforgettable scene. Though it was no doubt based on a modicum of tradition, possibly even a grain of historic truth—the incredible marriage of Vagn with the daughter of his would-be slayer must have caused comment and invited elaboration—yet in its present, expanded form it is beyond peradventure a product of the narrative genius of the author. Who knows but that it was conceived as a kind of apotheosis of the unconquerable heroism of the Viking Age—to the author a fabled, glorious past—a heroism which dwarfed the "heroics" of the southern romances which were becoming fashionable about the time the saga was written; or perhaps as a telling contrast to the unprincipled savagery of the Sturlung period, in which the author lived.

The family sagas present us with a wealth of sharply etched and individualized portraits; but this author, in consonance with the highly fictive nature of his work, gives us characters which are types rather than individuals. Thus Búi, Vagn, Sigvaldi are all seen in the one plane of their dominant traits—manly intrepidity, reckless heroism, foxy shrewdness, respectively. Only one character may be said to exemplify all the ideals of heathen Norse antiquity: Palnatóki warrior and born leader, founder and kingmaker. But contrary to most of the purely fictitious sagas of the North, and in agreement here with the cool objectivity of the family sagas, there is no one "hero" around whom events are centered and whose part we take. Our sympathies are not exclusively engaged on one side, even in the great battle, but veer now to the one, now to the other.

Reacting to earlier implicit belief in the historic reliability of the sagas, modern historians have occasionally gone to the other extreme. Thus, in the case of this saga, one highly respected scholar has even doubted the presence of the Jómsvíkings in the battle. However, a close study of contemporary skaldic verse bearing on the matter and a consideration of the general harmony between the diverse redactions of the saga on this score decisively confute the doubt.

Again, some scholars contend that the first part of the saga—dealing with the origins of the Knytling dynasty, the attack by Emperor Otto, and Earl Hákon's apostasy and refusal to stay tributary to Denmark—is a later addition. Here a comparison with the usual technique of the sagas in the matter of dreams and prognostications inclines one to the belief that on the contrary this part was well planned as integrated preparation for what follows in the second part: the son born in incest heralds the later greatness of the royal line; the dreams of Gorm the Old are preparatory to his queen's constructive activity; Earl Klak-Harold's visions presage not only the introduction of Christianity under King Harold but the coming dissensions and deeds of treachery to ensue in the royal house; and, finally, the maneuvers of Earl Hákon for achieving independence explain why the astute Svein is more than willing to aid the Jómsvíkings in their desperate adventure. It is all well thought out. These considerations are supported, moreover, by the fact that the two parts do not differ markedly in vocabulary, style, or mode of attack, aside from the preponderance of thepurely legendary in the first part, which is, after all, a feature found also in the earlier portions of some family sagas whose organic unity is not questioned.

As to the various redactions in which the saga has come down to us, differing as they do in innumerable details but also agreeing verbally in ever so many others, the only reasonable assumption is that once the story was put together by the original author other reciters of it, in sovereign free fashion, added, embellished, diluted, condensed wherever they saw fit, and to such an extent that it is well-nigh hopeless to say with any degree of assurance that this or that redaction represents an earlier or a later form. At any rate, for translation the short version of Codex Holmiensis 7, quarto (in the Royal Library in Stockholm, is by all odds preferable, and has therefore been used.

Ever since this saga of derring-do became accessible to the Scandinavians, early in the nineteenth century, it has been a favorite with them. The great Romantic poets of Denmark, Oehlenschläger and N. F. S. Grundtvig, have treated certain portions of it in noble poems: it may be doubted if the story as a whole will ever be better told. It has not attracted the attention of writers in the English-speaking world—understandably so, since there exists no readily∞accessible English translation. Certain difficulties in the text, hesitation as to the choice of redaction, and perhaps the thoroughly heathen character of the tale may have been deterrent. The only available English version known to the present writer is the romanticized and rather Victorian treatment of the material by Sir George Webbe Dasent in The Vikings of the Baltic, published in three volumes in 1875.

Gorm was the name of a king who ruled over Denmark and was called the Childless. He was a mighty king, and popular with his subjects. He had long governed his kingdom when the events to be told happened. At that time there was in Saxland an earl called Arnfinn, who held his land in fief from King Charlemagne. Arnfinn and King Gorm were good friends and had been on viking expeditions together. The earl had a beautiful sister, and he was fonder of her than he should have been and begot a child with her; the child was kept hidden, and then the earl sent men away with it but bade them not to desert it before they knew what would befall it.

They came to Denmark and to a forest. They were aware that King Gorm was in the forest hunting with his followers. They laid the child under a tree and hid themselves.

In the evening the king left the forest, and so did all of his men except two brothers, the one named Hallvard and the other, Hávard—they had tarried behind. [And having lost their way in the darkness] they went on toward the sea. When they heard a child crying they went in that direction, not knowing what it could be. They found there a boy child lying under a tree, and a great cloth was knotted in the branches above him. The child was swathed in garments of costly fabric, and around his head was tied a silken ribbon, and in it, a golden ring weighing an ounce. They took the child up and carried him home with them. And when they returned the king was at table, drinking, and they told the king what they had found and showed him the boy.

The king was pleased with him and said: "This boy is likely to be the child of people of great account, and it is well that he was found." And he had the boy child baptized with water and had him called Knút because gold had been knotted in the cloth about his head. The king gave him good foster parents and called him his son and loved him greatly. And when King Gorm grew old he made Knút his foster son heir to his kingdom. Thereupon King Gorm died. Then Knút took possession of all the realm Gorm had ruled, and he came to be loved by the people. He begot one son, whose name was Gorm. He was first called Gorm the Silly, but when he was grown up, Gorm the Old or the Mighty.

Harold was the name of an earl who ruled over Holtsetaland. He was called Klak-Harold. He was a wise man. The earl had a daughter named Thyra. She had a prophetic gift and was a most beautiful woman and knew how to interpret dreams better than anyone else. The earl loved her dearly, and with her advice considered he had the governance of his people firmly in hand.

Now when Gorm had become grown and taken over the rule of his kingdom he left his land with a great following of men, for the purpose of asking the daughter of Earl Harold in marriage; and in case the earl refused to give him his daughter he meant to lay waste his land. When Earl Harold and his daughter learned of King Gorm's coming and his intentions, they sent men to meet him and to invite him to a splendid banquet; and the king accepted that. And when Gorm had made his wishes known to the earl, the earl answered that his daughter was to decide for herself, "because she is much wiser than I." So the king addressed his suit to her.

Thereupon she made answer as follows: "This is not a matter to be decided on immediately. You shall journey home now, with good and worthy gifts from us. But if you are minded to ask me in marriage, when you arrive home you shall have a house built where none stood before, one which is suitable for you to sleep in; and in it you shall sleep the first night of winter, and three nights in a row. And remember clearly what dreams you have, and have your messengers tell me. Then I shall let the messengers know whether you are to come to fetch me in marriage. But if you have no dreams you need not persist."

The king journeyed home with honorable parting gifts and meant indeed to put her wisdom to the test. And when he arrived in his own land he proceeded as she had told him; then he slept three nights in the house, but had three of his men keep watch about it to prevent any treason against him.

Thereupon the king sent his messengers to the earl and his daughter to tell them his dreams. When she had heard what his dreams were she told the men to say to the king that she would marry him. And the messengers told the king how matters stood, and he was very glad. He quickly outfitted a great company to go with him to fetch home his bride. Then King Gorm arrived in Holtsetaland, and the earl learned of his coming and prepared a great feast for him. And then the marriage was celebrated; and for entertainment at the banquet King Gorm told his dreams and Queen Thyra interpreted them.

The king told how in the first night he dreamed that he was out in the open and looked over all his kingdom. It seemed to him that the sea receded from the land so far that he could not reach it with his eyes; and all the sounds and firths were dry. Then he saw three white oxen come up out of the sea. They ate all the grass from off the ground and thereupon went back into the sea.

In the second dream it seemed to him that again three oxen came up out of the sea. They were all red and had great horns. They too ate all the grass from off the ground and then returned into the sea.

And in his third dream the king again saw three oxen come up out of the sea. These were all black of color, and by far the largest and had the greatest horns; and they also ate the grass off the land and thereupon went back into the sea.

And after that he heard a crash so great that he thought it could be heard over all of Denmark, and he saw that it came from the rush of the sea as it returned to the land.

"And now, Queen, I would that you interpret these dreams for the entertainment of our men."

She said that so it should be.

"When you saw the three white oxen come up on land from the sea, that signified that three winters with great snows will come, so that the fruitfulness of the land in Denmark will diminish. When you saw the three red oxen coming up on land, that signified that three winters will come with little snow, and that is not good either. And when there came out of the sea the three oxen which were black, that signified three winters to come so bad that no one can remember the like of them. And so great a famine will befall as never yet within the memory of man. And as to the oxen having big horns, that signified that many a man will be deprived of all he owns. And when in your dream you heard a great crash from the tumult of the sea, that is likely to betoken warfare in this land between men of great might near to you in kin. If you had dreamed the first night as you did the last, then this turmoil of warfare would have occurred in your days, and then I would not have gone with you; but against the famine I can devise some measures."

After this banquet King Gorm and Queen Thyra journeyed back to Denmark. And they had many ships laden with grain and other good things conveyed into Denmark, and so every year thereafter until the famine came. And then they lacked for nothing, nor did anyone who lived in their neighborhood, because the king and queen shared these good things with their countrymen. And Thyra was the wisest woman who ever came to Denmark, and she was called the Savior of Denmark.

King Gorm and Queen Thyra had two sons. The older was called Knút and the younger, Harold. Both were promising men, but Knút was the wiser. He was fostered by Earl Klak-Harold, his maternal grandfather. The earl loved him greatly, and he was dear to many. But Harold, who stayed at home at the court, was very ill liked as a youth.