THE SAGA OF RAGNAR LOTHBROK AND SONS
Below is the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok and Sons as told by the twelfth century cleric, Saxo Grammaticus, in Book IX of his Danish History. Eventually we hope to have all nine Books available to our readers, but this version of Ragnar’s Saga is a little different than the one that was appended to the Saga of the Volsungs. Being a cleric, Saxo’s work does not seem to suffer quite as much from what I term Drunken Skald Syndrome. Skalds of old borrowed freely from the works of their contemporaries and rearranged stories in a manner fitting to the beliefs of their host kings, thus ensuring a free flow of mead. Ingvar Skald Spillar (Skaldscrapper) spent his life trying to correct these transgressions, but it was a thankless effort and I’m not sure whose side he was on.
THE FIRST NINE BOOKS OF THE DANISH HISTORY OF SAXO GRAMMATICUS ARE ALSO APPENDED TO THIS HEADING
The Danish History/Book IX
After Gotrik’s death reigned his son OLAF; who, desirous to avenge his father, did not hesitate to involve his country in civil wars, putting patriotism after private inclination. When he perished, his body was put in a barrow, famous for the name of Olaf, which was built up close by Leire. He was succeeded by HEMMING, of whom I have found no deed worthy of record, save that he made a sworn peace with Kaiser Ludwig; and yet, perhaps, envious antiquity hides many notable deeds of his time, albeit they were then famous.
After these men there came to the throne, backed by the Skanians and Zealanders, SIWARD, surnamed RING. He was the son, born long ago, of the chief of Norway who bore the same name, by Gotrik’s daughter. Now Ring, cousin of Siward, and also a grandson of Gotrik, was master of Jutland. Thus the power of the single kingdom was divided; and, as though its two parts were contemptible for their smallness, foreigners began not only to despise but to attack it. These Siward assailed with greater hatred than he did his rival for the throne; and, preferring wars abroad to wars at home, he stubbornly defended his country against dangers for five years; for he chose to put up with a trouble at home that he might the more easily cure one which came from abroad. Wherefore Ring (desiring his) command, seized the opportunity, tried to transfer the whole sovereignty to himself, and did not hesitate to injure in his own land the man who was watching over it without; for he attacked the provinces in the possession of Siward, which was an ungrateful requital for the defence of their common country. Therefore, some of the Zealanders who were more zealous for Siward, in order to show him firmer loyalty in his absence, proclaimed his son Ragnar as king, when he was scarcely dragged out of his cradle. Not but what they knew he was too young to govern; yet they hoped that such a gage would serve to rouse their sluggish allies against Ring. But, when Ring heard that Siward had meantime returned from his expedition, he attacked the Zealanders with a large force, and proclaimed that they should perish by the sword if they did not surrender; but the Zealanders, who were bidden to choose between shame and peril, were so few that they distrusted their strength, and requested a truce to consider the matter. It was granted; but, since it did not seem open to them to seek the favour of Siward, nor honourable to embrace that of Ring, they wavered long in perplexity between fear and shame. In this plight even the old were at a loss for counsel; but Ragnar, who chanced to be present at the assembly, said: “The short bow shoots its shaft suddenly. Though it may seem the hardihood of a boy that I venture to forestall the speech of the elders, yet I pray you to pardon my errors, and be indulgent to my unripe words. Yet the counsellor of wisdom is not to be spurned, though he seem contemptible; for the teaching of profitable things should be drunk in with an open mind. Now it is shameful that we should be branded as deserters and runaways, but it is just as foolhardy to venture above our strength; and thus there is proved to be equal blame either way. We must, then, pretend to go over to the enemy, but, when a chance comes in our way, we must desert him betimes. It will thus be better to forestall the wrath of our foe by feigned obedience than, by refusing it, to give him a weapon wherewith to attack us yet more harshly; for if we decline the sway of the stronger, are we not simply turning his arms against our own throat? Intricate devices are often the best nurse of craft. You need cunning to trap a fox.” By this sound counsel he dispelled the wavering of his countrymen, and strengthened the camp of the enemy to its own hurt.
The assembly, marvelling at the eloquence as much as at the wit of one so young, gladly embraced a proposal of such genius, which they thought excellent beyond his years. Nor were the old men ashamed to obey the bidding of a boy when they lacked counsel themselves; for, though it came from one of tender years, it was full, notwithstanding, of weighty and sound instruction. But they feared to expose their adviser to immediate peril, and sent him over to Norway to be brought up. Soon afterwards, Siward joined battle with Ring and attacked him. He slew Ring, but himself received an incurable wound, of which he died a few days afterwards.
He was succeeded on the throne by RAGNAR. At this time Fro (Frey?), the King of Sweden, after slaying Siward, the King of the Norwegians, put the wives of Siward’s kinsfolk in bonds in a brothel, and delivered them to public outrage. When Ragnar heard of this, he went to Norway to avenge his grandfather. As he came, many of the matrons, who had either suffered insult to their persons or feared imminent peril to their chastity, hastened eagerly to his camp in male attire, declaring that they would prefer death to outrage. Nor did Ragnar, who was to punish this reproach upon the women, scorn to use against the author of the infamy the help of those whose shame he had come to avenge. Among them was Ladgerda, a skilled amazon, who, though a maiden, had the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders. All marvelled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman.
Ragnar, when he had justly cut down the murderer of his grandfather, asked many questions of his fellow soldiers concerning the maiden whom he had seen so forward in the fray, and declared that he had gained the victory by the might of one woman. Learning that she was of noble birth among the barbarians, he steadfastly wooed her by means of messengers. She spurned his mission in her heart, but feigned compliance. Giving false answers, she made her panting wooer confident that he would gain his desires; but ordered that a bear and a dog should be set at the porch of her dwelling, thinking to guard her own room against all the ardour of a lover by means of the beasts that blocked the way. Ragnar, comforted by the good news, embarked, crossed the sea, and, telling his men to stop in Gaulardale, as the valley is called, went to the dwelling of the maiden alone. Here the beasts met him, and he thrust one through with a spear, and caught the other by the throat, wrung its neck, and choked it. Thus he had the maiden as the prize of the peril he had overcome. By this marriage he had two daughters, whose names have not come down to us, and a son Fridleif. Then he lived three years at peace.
The Jutlanders, a presumptuous race, thinking that because of his recent marriage he would never return, took the Skanians into alliance, and tried to attack the Zealanders, who preserved the most zealous and affectionate loyalty towards Ragnar. He, when he heard of it, equipped thirty ships, and, the winds favouring his voyage, crushed the Skanians, who ventured to fight, near the stead of Whiteby, and when the winter was over he fought successfully with the Jutlanders who dwelt near the Liimfjord in that region. A third and a fourth time he conquered the Skanians and the Hallanders triumphantly.
Afterwards, changing his love, and desiring Thora, the daughter of the King Herodd, to wife, Ragnar divorced himself from Ladgerda; for he thought ill of her trustworthiness, remembering that she had long ago set the most savage beasts to destroy him. Meantime Herodd, the King of the Swedes, happening to go and hunt in the woods, brought home some snakes, found by his escort, for his daughter to rear. She speedily obeyed the instructions of her father, and endured to rear a race of adders with her maiden hands. Moreover, she took care that they should daily have a whole ox-carcase to gorge upon, not knowing that she was privately feeding and keeping up a public nuisance. The vipers grew up, and scorched the country-side with their pestilential breath. Whereupon the king, repenting of his sluggishness, proclaimed that whosoever removed the pest should have his daughter.
Many warriors were thereto attracted by courage as much as by desire; but all idly and perilously wasted their pains. Ragnar, learning from men who travelled to and fro how the matter stood, asked his nurse for a woolen mantle, and for some thigh-pieces that were very hairy, with which he could repel the snake-bites. He thought that he ought to use a dress stuffed with hair to protect himself, and also took one that was not unwieldy, that he might move nimbly. And when he had landed in Sweden, he deliberately plunged his body in water, while there was a frost falling, and, wetting his dress, to make it the less penetrable, he let the cold freeze it. Thus attired, he took leave of his companions, exhorted them to remain loyal to Fridleif, and went on to the palace alone. When he saw it, he tied his sword to his side, and lashed a spear to his right hand with a thong. As he went on, an enormous snake glided up and met him. Another, equally huge, crawled up, following in the trail of the first. They strove now to buffet the young man with the coils of their tails, and now to spit and belch their venom stubbornly upon him. Meantime the courtiers, betaking themselves to safer hiding, watched the struggle from afar like affrighted little girls. The king was stricken with equal fear, and fled, with a few followers, to a narrow shelter. But Ragnar, trusting in the hardness of his frozen dress, foiled the poisonous assaults not only with his arms, but with his attire, and, singlehanded, in unweariable combat, stood up against the two gaping creatures, who stubbornly poured forth their venom upon him. For their teeth he repelled with his shield, their poison with his dress. At last he cast his spear, and drove it against the bodies of the brutes, who were attacking him hard. He pierced both their hearts, and his battle ended in victory.
After Ragnar had thus triumphed the king scanned his dress closely, and saw that he was rough and hairy; but, above all, he laughed at the shaggy lower portion of his garb, and chiefly the uncouth aspect of his breeches; so that he gave him in jest the nickname of Lodbrog. Also he invited him to feast with his friends, to refresh him after his labours. Ragnar said that he would first go back to the witnesses whom he had left behind. He set out and brought them back, splendidly attired for the coming feast. At last, when the banquet was over, he received the prize that was appointed for the victory. By her he begot two nobly- gifted sons, Radbard and Dunwat. These also had brothers — Siward, Biorn, Agnar, and Iwar.
Meanwhile, the Jutes and Skanians were kindled with an unquenchable fire of sedition; they disallowed the title of Ragnar, and gave a certain Harald the sovereign power. Ragnar sent envoys to Norway, and besought friendly assistance against these men; and Ladgerda, whose early love still flowed deep and steadfast, hastily sailed off with her husband and her son. She brought herself to offer a hundred and twenty ships to the man who had once put her away. And he, thinking himself destitute of all resources, took to borrowing help from folk of every age, crowded the strong and the feeble all together, and was not ashamed to insert some old men and boys among the wedges of the strong. So he first tried to crush the power of the Skanians in the field which in Latin is called Laneus (Woolly); here he had a hard fight with the rebels. Here, too, Iwar, who was in his seventh year, fought splendidly, and showed the strength of a man in the body of a boy. But Siward, while attacking the enemy face to face, fell forward upon the ground wounded. When his men saw this, it made them look round most anxiously for means of flight; and this brought low not only Siward, but almost the whole army on the side of Ragnar. But Ragnar by his manly deeds and exhortations comforted their amazed and sunken spirits, and, just when they were ready to be conquered, spurred them on to try and conquer.
Ladgerda, who had a matchless spirit though a delicate frame, covered by her splendid bravery the inclination of the soldiers to waver. For she made a sally about, and flew round to the rear of the enemy, taking them unawares, and thus turned the panic of her friends into the camp of the enemy. At last the lines of HARALD became slack, and HARALD himself was routed with a great slaughter of his men. LADGERDA, when she had gone home after the battle, murdered her husband…. in the night with a spear-head, which she had hid in her gown. Then she usurped the whole of his name and sovereignty; for this most presumptuous dame thought it pleasanter to rule without her husband than to share the throne with him.
Meantime, Siward was taken to a town in the neighbourhood, and gave himself to be tended by the doctors, who were reduced to the depths of despair. But while the huge wound baffled all the remedies they applied, a certain man of amazing size was seen to approach the litter of the sick man, and promised that Siward should straightway rejoice and be whole, if he would consecrate unto him the souls of all whom he should overcome in battle. Nor did he conceal his name, but said that he was called Rostar. Now Siward, when he saw that a great benefit could be got at the cost of a little promise, eagerly acceded to this request. Then the old man suddenly, by the help of his hand, touched and banished the livid spot, and suddenly scarred the wound over. At last he poured dust on his eyes and departed. Spots suddenly arose, and the dust, to the amaze of the beholders, seemed to become wonderfully like little snakes.
I should think that he who did this miracle wished to declare, by the manifest token of his eyes, that the young man was to be cruel in future, in order that the more visible part of his body might not lack some omen of his life that was to follow. When the old woman, who had the care of his draughts, saw him showing in his face signs of little snakes; she was seized with an extraordinary horror of the young man, and suddenly fell and swooned away. Hence it happened that Siward got the widespread name of Snake-Eye.
Meantime Thora, the bride of Ragnar, perished of a violent malady, which caused infinite trouble and distress to the husband, who dearly loved his wife. This distress, he thought, would be best dispelled by business, and he resolved to find solace in exercise and qualify his grief by toil. To banish his affliction and gain some comfort, he bent his thoughts to warfare, and decreed that every father of a family should devote to his service whichever of his children he thought most contemptible, or any slave of his who was lazy at his work or of doubtful fidelity. And albeit that this decree seemed little fitted for his purpose, he showed that the feeblest of the Danish race were better than the strongest men of other nations; and it did the young men great good, each of those chosen being eager to wipe off the reproach of indolence. Also he enacted that every piece of litigation should be referred to the judgment of twelve chosen elders, all ordinary methods of action being removed, the accuser being forbidden to charge, and the accused to defend. This law removed all chance of incurring litigation lightly. Thinking that there was thus sufficient provision made against false accusations by unscrupulous men, he lifted up his arms against Britain, and attacked and slew in battle its king, Hame, the father of Ella, who was a most noble youth. Then he killed the earls of Scotland and of Pictland, and of the isles that they call the Southern or Meridional (Sudreyar), and made his sons Siward and Radbard masters of the provinces, which were now without governors. He also deprived Norway of its chief by force, and commanded it to obey Fridleif, whom he also set over the Orkneys, from which he took their own earl.
Meantime, some of the Danes who were most stubborn in their hatred against Ragnar were obstinately bent on rebellion. They rallied to the side of Harald, once an exile, and tried to raise the fallen fortunes of the tyrant. By this hardihood they raised up against the king the most virulent blasts of civil war, and entangled him in domestic perils when he was free from foreign troubles. Ragnar, setting out to check them with a fleet of the Danes who lived in the isles, crushed the army of the rebels, drove Harald, the leader of the conquered army, a fugitive to Germany, and forced him to resign unbashfully an honour which he had gained without scruple. Nor was he content simply to kill his prisoners: he preferred to torture them to death, so that those who could not be induced to forsake their disloyalty might not be so much as suffered to give up the ghost save under the most grievous punishment. Moreover, the estates of those who had deserted with Harald he distributed among those who were serving as his soldiers, thinking that the fathers would be worse punished by seeing the honour of their inheritance made over to the children whom they had rejected, while those whom they had loved better lost their patrimony. But even this did not sate his vengeance, and he further determined to attack Saxony, thinking it the refuge of his foes and the retreat of Harald. So, begging his sons to help him, he came on Karl, who happened then to be tarrying on those borders of his empire. Intercepting his sentries, he eluded the watch that was posted on guard. But while he thought that all the rest would therefore be easy and more open to his attacks, suddenly a woman who was a soothsayer, a kind of divine oracle or interpreter of the will of heaven, warned the king with a saving prophecy, and by her fortunate presage forestalled the mischief that impended, saying that the fleet of Siward had moored at the mouth of the river Seine. The emperor, heeding the warning, and understanding that the enemy was at hand, managed to engage with and stop the barbarians, who were thus pointed out to him. A battle was fought with Ragnar; but Karl did not succeed as happily in the field as he had got warning of the danger. And so that tireless conqueror of almost all Europe, who in his calm and complete career of victory had travelled over so great a portion of the world, now beheld his army, which had vanquished all these states and nations, turning its face from the field, and shattered by a handful from a single province.
Ragnar, after loading the Saxons with tribute, had sure tidings from Sweden of the death of Herodd, and also heard that his own sons, owing to the slander of Sorle, the king chosen in his stead, had been robbed of their inheritance. He besought the aid of the brothers Biorn, Fridleif, and Ragbard (for Ragnald, Hwitserk, and Erik, his sons by Swanloga, had not yet reached the age of bearing arms), and went to Sweden. Sorle met him with his army, and offered him the choice between a public conflict and a duel; and when Ragnar chose personal combat, he sent against him Starkad, a champion of approved daring, with his band of seven sons, to challenge and fight with him. Ragnar took his three sons to share the battle with him, engaged in the sight of both armies, and came out of the combat triumphant.
Biorn, having inflicted great slaughter on the foe without hurt to himself, gained from the strength of his sides, which were like iron, a perpetual name (Ironsides). This victory emboldened Ragnar to hope that he could overcome any peril, and he attacked and slew Sorle with the entire forces he was leading. He presented Biorn with the lordship of Sweden for his conspicuous bravery and service. Then for a little interval he rested from wars, and chanced to fall deeply in love with a certain woman. In order to find some means of approaching and winning her the more readily, he courted her father (Esbern) by showing him the most obliging and attentive kindness. He often invited him to banquets, and received him with lavish courtesy. When he came, he paid him the respect of rising, and when he sat, he honoured him with a set next to himself. He also often comforted him with gifts, and at times with the most kindly speech. The man saw that no merits of his own could be the cause of all this distinction, and casting over the matter every way in his mind, he perceived that the generosity of his monarch was caused by his love for his daughter, and that he coloured this lustful purpose with the name of kindness. But, that he might balk the cleverness of the lover, however well calculated, he had the girl watched all the more carefully that he saw her beset by secret aims and obstinate methods. But Ragnar, who was comforted by the surest tidings of her consent, went to the farmhouse in which she was kept, and fancying that love must find out a way, repaired alone to a certain peasant in a neighbouring lodging. In the morning he exchanged dress with the women, and went in female attire, and stood by his mistress as she was unwinding wool. Cunningly, to avoid betrayal, he set his hands to the work of a maiden, though they were little skilled in the art. In the night he embraced the maiden and gained his desire. When her time drew near, and the girl growing big, betrayed her outraged chastity, the father, not knowing to whom his daughter had given herself to be defiled, persisted in asking the girl herself who was the unknown seducer. She steadfastly affirmed that she had had no one to share her bed except her handmaid, and he made the affair over to the king to search into. He would not allow an innocent servant to be branded with an extraordinary charge, and was not ashamed to prove another’s innocence by avowing his own guilt. By this generosity he partially removed the woman’s reproach, and prevented an absurd report from being sown in the ears of the wicked. Also he added, that the son to be born of her was of his own line, and that he wished him to be named Ubbe. When this son had grown up somewhat, his wit, despite his tender years, equalled the discernment of manhood. For he took to loving his mother, since she had had converse with a noble bed, but cast off all respect for his father, because he had stooped to a union too lowly.
After this Ragnar prepared an expedition against the Hellespontines, and summoned an assembly of the Danes, promising that he would give the people most wholesome laws. He had enacted before that each father of a household should offer for service that one among his sons whom he esteemed least; but now he enacted that each should arm the son who was stoutest of hand or of most approved loyalty. Thereon, taking all the sons he had by Thora, in addition to Ubbe, he attacked, crushed in sundry campaigns, and subdued the Hellespont with its king Dia. At last he involved the same king in disaster after disaster, and slew him. Dia’s sons, Dia and Daxo, who had before married the daughters of the Russian king, begged forces from their father- in-law, and rushed with most ardent courage to the work of avenging their father. But Ragnar, when he saw their boundless army, distrusted his own forces; and he put brazen horses on wheels that could be drawn easily, took them round on carriages that would turn, and ordered that they should be driven with the utmost force against the thickest ranks of the enemy. This device served so well to break the line of the foe, that the Danes’ hope of conquest seemed to lie more in the engine than in the soldiers: for its insupportable weight overwhelmed whatever it struck. Thus one of the leaders was killed, while one made off in flight, and the whole army of the area of the Hellespont retreated. The Scythians, also, who were closely related by blood to Daxo on the mother’s side, are said to have been crushed in the same disaster. Their province was made over to Hwitserk, and the king of the Russians, trusting little in his own strength, hastened to fly out of the reach of the terrible arms of Ragnar.
Now Ragnar had spent almost five years in sea-roving, and had quickly compelled all other nations to submit; but he found the Perms in open defiance of his sovereignty. He had just conquered them, but their loyalty was weak. When they heard that he had come they cast spells upon the sky, stirred up the clouds, and drove them into most furious storms. This for some time prevented the Danes from voyaging, and caused their supply of food to fail. Then, again, the storm suddenly abated, and now they were scorched by the most fervent and burning heat; nor was this plague any easier to bear than the great and violent cold had been. Thus the mischievous excess in both directions affected their bodies alternately, and injured them by an immoderate increase first of cold and then of heat. Moreover, dysentery killed most of them. So the mass of the Danes, being pent in by the dangerous state of the weather, perished of the bodily plague that arose on every side. And when Ragnar saw that he was hindered, not so much by a natural as by a factitious tempest, he held on his voyage as best he could, and got to the country of the Kurlanders and Sembs, who paid zealous honour to his might and majesty, as if he were the most revered of conquerors. This service enraged the king all the more against the arrogance of the men of Permland, and he attempted to avenge his slighted dignity by a sudden attack. Their king, whose name is not known, was struck with panic at such a sudden invasion of the enemy, and at the same time had no heart to join battle with them; and fled to Matul, the prince of Finmark. He, trusting in the great skill of his archers, harassed with impunity the army of Ragnar, which was wintering in Permland. For the Finns, who are wont to glide on slippery timbers (snowskates), scud along at whatever pace they will, and are considered to be able to approach or depart very quickly; for as soon as they have damaged the enemy they fly away as speedily as they approach, nor is the retreat they make quicker than their charge. Thus their vehicles and their bodies are so nimble that they acquire the utmost expertness both in advance and flight.
Ragnar was filled with amazement at the poorness of his fortunes when he saw that he, who had conquered Rome at its pinnacle of power, was dragged by an unarmed and uncouth race into the utmost peril. He, therefore, who had signally crushed the most glorious flower of the Roman soldiery, and the forces of a most great and serene captain, now yielded to a base mob with the poorest and slenderest equipment; and he whose lustre in war the might of the strongest race on earth had failed to tarnish, was now too weak to withstand the tiny band of a miserable tribe. Hence, with that force which had helped him bravely to defeat the most famous pomp in all the world and the weightiest weapon of military power, and to subdue in the field all that thunderous foot, horse, and encampment; with this he had now, stealthily and like a thief, to endure the attacks of a wretched and obscure populace; nor must he blush to stain by a treachery in the night that noble glory of his which had been won in the light of day, for he took to a secret ambuscade instead of open bravery. This affair was as profitable in its issue as it was unhandsome in the doing.
Ragnar was equally as well pleased at the flight of the Finns as he had been at that of Karl, and owned that he had found more strength in that defenceless people than in the best equipped soldiery; for he found the heaviest weapons of the Romans easier to bear than the light darts of this ragged tribe. Here, after killing the king of the Perms and routing the king of the Finns, Ragnar set an eternal memorial of his victory on the rocks, which bore the characters of his deeds on their face, and looked down upon them.
Meanwhile Ubbe was led by his grandfather, Esbern, to conceive an unholy desire for the throne; and, casting away all thought of the reverence due to his father, he claimed the emblem of royalty for his own head.
When Ragnar heard of his arrogance from Kelther and Thorkill, the earls of Sweden, he made a hasty voyage towards Gothland. Esbern, finding that these men were attached with a singular loyalty to the side of Ragnar, tried to bribe them to desert the king. But they did not swerve from their purpose, and replied that their will depended on that of Biorn, declaring that not a single Swede would dare to do what went against his pleasure. Esbern speedily made an attempt on Biorn himself, addressing him most courteously through his envoys. Biorn said that he would never lean more to treachery than to good faith, and judged that it would be a most abominable thing to prefer the favour of an infamous brother to the love of a most righteous father. The envoys themselves he punished with hanging, because they counselled him to so grievous a crime. The Swedes, moreover, slew the rest of the train of the envoys in the same way, as a punishment for their mischievous advice. So Esbern, thinking that his secret and stealthy manoeuvres did not succeed fast enough, mustered his forces openly, and went publicly forth to war. But Iwar, the governor of Jutland, seeing no righteousness on either side of the impious conflict, avoided all unholy war by voluntary exile.
Ragnar attacked and slew Esbern in the bay that is called in Latin Viridis; he cut off the dead man’s head and bade it be set upon the ship’s prow, a dreadful sight for the seditious. But Ubbe took to flight, and again attacked his father, having revived the war in Zealand. Ubbe’s ranks broke, and he was assailed single-handed from all sides; but he felled so many of the enemy’s line that he was surrounded with a pile of the corpses of the foe as with a strong bulwark, and easily checked his assailants from approaching. At last he was overwhelmed by the thickening masses of the enemy, captured, and taken off to be laden with public fetters. By immense violence he disentangled his chains and cut them away. But when he tried to sunder and rend the bonds that were (then) put upon him, he could not in any wise escape his bars. But when Iwar heard that the rising in his country had been quelled by the punishment of the rebel, he went to Denmark. Ragnar received him with the greatest honour, because, while the unnatural war had raged its fiercest, he had behaved with the most entire filial respect.
Meanwhile Daxo long and vainly tried to overcome Hwitserk, who ruled over Sweden; but at last he enrapped him under pretence of making a peace, and attacked him. Hwitserk received him hospitably, but Daxo had prepared an army with weapons, who were to feign to be trading, ride into the city in carriages, and break with a night attack into the house of their host. Hwitserk smote this band of robbers with such a slaughter that he was surrounded with a heap of his enemies’ bodies, and could only be taken by letting down ladders from above. Twelve of his companions, who were captured at the same time by the enemy, were given leave to go back to their country; but they gave up their lives for their king, and chose to share the dangers of another rather than be quit of their own.
Daxo, moved with compassion at the beauty of Hwitserk, had not the heart to pluck the budding blossom of that noble nature, and offered him not only his life, but his daughter in marriage, with a dowry of half his kingdom; choosing rather to spare his comeliness than to punish his bravery. But the other, in the greatness of his soul, valued as nothing the life which he was given on sufferance, and spurned his safety as though it were some trivial benefit. Of his own will he embraced the sentence of doom, saying, that Ragnar would exact a milder vengeance for his son if he found that he had made his own choice in selecting the manner of his death. The enemy wondered at his rashness, and promised that he should die by the manner of death which he should choose for this punishment. This leave the young man accepted as a great kindness, and begged that he might be bound and burned with his friends. Daxo speedily complied with his prayers that craved for death, and by way of kindness granted him the end that he had chosen. When Ragnar heard of this, he began to grieve stubbornly even unto death, and not only put on the garb of mourning, but, in the exceeding sorrow of his soul, took to his bed and showed his grief by groaning. But his wife, who had more than a man’s courage, chid his weakness, and put heart into him with her manful admonitions. Drawing his mind off from his woe, she bade him be zealous in the pursuit of war; declaring that it was better for so brave a father to avenge the bloodstained ashes of his son with weapons than with tears. She also told him not to whimper like a woman, and get as much disgrace by his tears as he had once earned glory by his valour. Upon these words Ragnar began to fear lest he should destroy his ancient name for courage by his womanish sorrow; so, shaking off his melancholy garb and putting away his signs of mourning, he revived his sleeping valour with hopes of speedy vengeance. Thus do the weak sometimes nerve the spirits of the strong. So he put his kingdom in charge of Iwar, and embraced with a father’s love Ubbe, who was now restored to his ancient favour. Then he transported his fleet over to Russia, took Daxo, bound him in chains, and sent him away to be kept in Utgard. (1)
Ragnar showed on this occasion the most merciful moderation towards the slayer of his dearest son, since he sufficiently satisfied the vengeance which he desired, by the exile of the culprit rather than his death. This compassion shamed the Russians out of any further rage against such a king, who could not be driven even by the most grievous wrongs to inflict death upon his prisoners. Ragnar soon took Daxo back into favour, and restored him to his country, upon his promising that he would every year pay him his tribute barefoot, like a suppliant, with twelve elders, also unshod. For he thought it better to punish a prisoner and a suppliant gently, than to draw the axe of bloodshed; better to punish that proud neck with constant slavery than to sever it once and for all. Then he went on and appointed his son Erik, surnamed Windhat, over Sweden. Here, while Fridleif and Siward were serving under him, he found that the Norwegians and the Scots had wrongfully conferred the title of king on two other men. So he first overthrew the usurper to the power of Norway, and let Biorn have the country for his own benefit.
Then he summoned Biorn and Erik, ravaged the Orkneys, landed at last on the territory of the Scots, and in a three days’ battle wearied out their king Murial, and slew him. But Ragnar’s sons, Dunwat and Radbard, after fighting nobly, were slain by the enemy. So that the victory their father won was stained with their blood. He returned to Denmark, and found that his wife Swanloga had in the meantime died of disease. Straightway he sought medicine for his grief in loneliness, and patiently confined the grief of his sick soul within the walls of his house. But this bitter sorrow was driven out of him by the sudden arrival of Iwar, who had been expelled from the kingdom. For the Gauls had made him fly, and had wrongfully bestowed royal power on a certain Ella, the son of Hame. Ragnar took Iwar to guide him, since he was acquainted with the country, gave orders for a fleet, and approached the harbour called York. Here he disembarked his forces, and after a battle which lasted three days, he made Ella, who had trusted in the valour of the Gauls, desirous to fly. The affair cost much blood to the English and very little to the Danes. Here Ragnar completed a year of conquest, and then, summoning his sons to help him, he went to Ireland, slew its king Melbrik, besieged Dublin, which was filled with wealth of the barbarians, attacked it, and received its surrender. There he lay in camp for a year; and then, sailing through the midland sea, he made his way to the Hellespont. He won signal victories as he crossed all the intervening countries, and no ill-fortune anywhere checked his steady and prosperous advance.
Harald, meanwhile, with the adherence of certain Danes who were cold-hearted servants in the army of Ragnar, disturbed his country with renewed sedition, and came forward claiming the title of king. He was met by the arms of Ragnar returning from the Hellespont; but being unsuccessful, and seeing that his resources of defence at home were exhausted, he went to ask help of Ludwig, who was then stationed at Mainz. But Ludwig, filled with the greatest zeal for promoting his religion, imposed a condition on the Barbarian, promising him help if he would agree to follow the worship of Christ. For he said there could be no agreement of hearts between those who embraced discordant creeds. Anyone, therefore, who asked for help, must first have a fellowship in religion. No men could be partners in great works who were separated by a different form of worship. This decision procured not only salvation for Ludwig’s guest, but the praise of piety for Ludwig himself, who, as soon as Harald had gone to the holy font, accordingly strengthened him with Saxon auxiliaries. Trusting in these, Harald built a temple in the land of Sleswik with much care and cost, to be hallowed to God. Thus he borrowed a pattern of the most holy way from the worship of Rome. He unhallowed, pulled down the shrines that had been profaned by the error of misbelievers, outlawed the sacrificers, abolished the (heathen) priesthood, and was the first to introduce the religion of Christianity to his uncouth country. Rejecting the worship of demons, he was zealous for that of God. Lastly, he observed with the most scrupulous care whatever concerned the protection of religion. But he began with more piety than success. For Ragnar came up, outraged the holy rites he had brought in, outlawed the true faith, restored the false one to its old position, and bestowed on the ceremonies the same honour as before. As for Harald, he deserted and cast in his lot with sacrilege. For though he was a notable ensample by his introduction of religion, yet he was the first who was seen to neglect it, and this illustrious promoter of holiness proved a most infamous forsaker of the same.
Meanwhile, Ella betook himself to the Irish, and put to the sword or punished all those who were closely and loyally attached to Ragnar. Then Ragnar attacked him with his fleet, but, by the just visitation of the Omnipotent, was openly punished for disparaging religion. For when he had been taken and cast into prison, his guilty limbs were given to serpents to devour, and adders found ghastly substance in the fibres of his entrails. His liver was eaten away, and a snake, like a deadly executioner, beset his very heart. Then in a courageous voice he recounted all his deeds in order, and at the end of his recital added the following sentence: “If the porkers knew the punishment of the boar-pig, surely they would break into the sty and hasten to loose him from his affliction.” At this saying, Ella conjectured that some of his sons were yet alive, and bade that the executioners should stop and the vipers be removed. The servants ran up to accomplish his bidding; but Ragnar was dead, and forestalled the order of the king. Surely we must say that this man had a double lot for his share? By one, he had a fleet unscathed, an empire well-inclined, and immense power as a rover; while the other inflicted on him the ruin of his fame, the slaughter of his soldiers, and a most bitter end. The executioner beheld him beset with poisonous beasts, and asps gorging on that heart which he had borne steadfast in the face of every peril. Thus a most glorious conqueror declined to the piteous lot of a prisoner; a lesson that no man should put too much trust in fortune.
Iwar heard of this disaster as he happened to be looking on at the games. Nevertheless, he kept an unmoved countenance, and in nowise broke down. Not only did he dissemble his grief and conceal the news of his father’s death, but he did not even allow a clamour to arise, and forbade the panic-stricken people to leave the scene of the sports. Thus, loth to interrupt the spectacle by the ceasing of the games, he neither clouded his countenance nor turned his eyes from public merriment to dwell upon his private sorrow; for he would not fall suddenly into the deepest melancholy from the height of festal joy, or seem to behave more like an afflicted son than a blithe captain.
But when Siward heard the same tidings, he loved his father more than he cared for his own pain, and in his distraction plunged deeply into his foot the spear he chanced to be holding, dead to all bodily troubles in his stony sadness. For he wished to hurt some part of his body severely, that he might the more patiently bear the wound in his soul. By this act he showed at once his bravery and his grief, and bore his lot like a son who was more afflicted and steadfast. But Biorn received the tidings of his father’s death while he was playing at dice, and squeezed so violently the piece that he was grasping that he wrung the blood from his fingers and shed it on the table; whereon he said that assuredly the cast of fate was more fickle than that of the very die which he was throwing. When Ella heard this, he judged that his father’s death had been borne with the toughest and most stubborn spirit by that son of the three who had paid no filial respect to his decease; and therefore he dreaded the bravery of Iwar most.
Iwar went towards England, and when he saw that his fleet was not strong enough to join battle with the enemy, he chose to be cunning rather than bold, and tried a shrewd trick on Ella, begging as a pledge of peace between them a strip of land as great as he could cover with a horse’s hide. He gained his request, for the king supposed that it would cost little, and thought himself happy that so strong a foe begged for a little boon instead of a great one; supposing that a tiny skin would cover but a very little land. But Iwar cut the hide out and lengthened it into very slender thongs, thus enclosing a piece of ground large enough to build a city on. Then Ella came to repent of his lavishness, and tardily set to reckoning the size of the hide, measuring the little skin more narrowly now that it was cut up than when it was whole. For that which he had thought would encompass a little strip of ground, he saw lying wide over a great estate. Iwar brought into the city, when he founded it, supplies that would serve amply for a siege, wishing the defences to be as good against scarcity as against an enemy.
Meantime, Siward and Biorn came up with a fleet of 400 ships, and with open challenge declared war against the king. This they did at the appointed time; and when they had captured him, they ordered the figure of an eagle to be cut in his back, rejoicing to crush their most ruthless foe by marking him with the cruellest of birds. Not satisfied with imprinting a wound on him, they salted the mangled flesh. Thus Ella was done to death, and Biorn and Siward went back to their own kingdoms.
Iwar governed England for two years. Meanwhile the Danes were stubborn in revolt, and made war, and delivered the sovereignty publicly to a certain SIWARD and to ERIK, both of the royal line. The sons of Ragnar, together with a fleet of 1,700 ships, attacked them at Sleswik, and destroyed them in a conflict which lasted six months. Barrows remain to tell the tale. The sound on which the war was conducted has gained equal glory by the death of Siward. And now the royal stock was almost extinguished, saving only the sons of Ragnar. Then, when Biorn and Erik had gone home, Iwar and Siward settled in Denmark, that they might curb the rebels with a stronger rein, setting Agnar to govern England. Agnar was stung because the English rejected him, and, with the help of Siward, chose, rather than foster the insolence of the province that despised him, to dispeople it and leave its fields, which were matted in decay, with none to till them. He covered the richest land of the island with the most hideous desolation, thinking it better to be lord of a wilderness than of a headstrong country. After this he wished to avenge Erik, who had been slain in Sweden by the malice of a certain Osten. But while he was narrowly bent on avenging another, he squandered his own blood on the foe; and while he was eagerly trying to punish the slaughter of his brother, sacrificed his own life to brotherly love.
Thus SIWARD, by the sovereign vote of the whole Danish assembly, received the empire of his father. But after the defeats he had inflicted everywhere he was satisfied with the honour he received at home, and liked better to be famous with the gown than with the sword. He ceased to be a man of camps, and changed from the fiercest of despots into the most punctual guardian of peace. He found as much honour in ease and leisure as he had used to think lay in many victories. Fortune so favoured his change of pursuits, that no foe ever attacked him, nor he any foe. He died, and ERIK, who was a very young child, inherited his nature, rather than his realm or his tranquillity. For Erik, the brother of Harald, despising his exceedingly tender years, invaded the country with rebels, and seized the crown; nor was he ashamed to assail the lawful infant sovereign, and to assume an unrightful power. In thus bringing himself to despoil a feeble child of the kingdom he showed himself the more unworthy of it. Thus he stripped the other of his throne, but himself of all his virtues, and cast all manliness out of his heart, when he made war upon a cradle: for where covetousness and ambition flamed, love of kindred could find no place. But this brutality was requited by the wrath of a divine vengeance. For the war between this man and Gudorm, the son of Harald, ended suddenly with such slaughter that they were both slain, with numberless others; and the royal stock of the Danes, now worn out by the most terrible massacres, was reduced to the only son of the above Siward.
This man (Erik) won the fortune of a throne by losing his kindred; it was luckier for him to have his relations dead than alive. He forsook the example of all the rest, and hastened to tread in the steps of his grandfather; for he suddenly came out as a most zealous practitioner of roving. And would that he had not shown himself rashly to inherit the spirit of Ragnar, by his abolition of Christian worship! For he continually tortured all the most religious men, or stripped them of their property and banished them. But it were idle for me to blame the man’s beginnings when I am to praise his end. For that life is more laudable of which the foul beginning is checked by a glorious close, than that which begins commendably but declines into faults and infamies. For Erik, upon the healthy admonitions of Ansgarius, laid aside the errors of his impious heart, and atoned for whatsoever he had done amiss in the insolence thereof; showing himself as strong in the observance of religion as he had been in slighting it. Thus he not only took a draught of more wholesome teaching with obedient mind, but wiped off early stains by his purity at the end. He had a son KANUTE by the daughter of Gudorm, who was also the granddaughter of Harald; and him he left to survive his death.
While this child remained in infancy a guardian was required for the pupil and for the realm. But inasmuch it seemed to most people either invidious or difficult to give the aid that this office needed, it was resolved that a man should be chosen by lot. For the wisest of the Danes, fearing much to make a choice by their own will in so lofty a matter, allowed more voice to external chance than to their own opinions, and entrusted the issue of the selection rather to luck than to sound counsel. The issue was that a certain Enni-gnup (Steep-brow), a man of the highest and most entire virtue, was forced to put his shoulder to this heavy burden; and when he entered on the administration which chalice had decreed, he oversaw, not only the early rearing of the king, but the affairs of the whole people. For which reason some who are little versed in our history give this man a central place in its annals. But when Kanute had passed through the period of boyhood, and had in time grown to be a man, he left those who had done him the service of bringing him up, and turned from an almost hopeless youth to the practice of unhoped for virtue; being deplorable for this reason only, that he passed from life to death without the tokens of the Christian faith.
But soon the sovereignty passed to his son FRODE. This man’s fortune, increased by arms and warfare, rose to such a height of prosperity that he brought back to the ancient yoke the provinces which had once revolted from the Danes, and bound them in their old obedience. He also came forward to be baptised with holy water in England, which had for some while past been versed in Christianity. But he desired that his personal salvation should overflow and become general, and begged that Denmark should be instructed in divinity by Agapete, who was then Pope of Rome. But he was cut off before his prayers attained this wish. His death befell before the arrival of the messengers from Rome: and indeed his intention was better than his fortune, and he won as great a reward in heaven for his intended piety as others are vouchsafed for their achievement.
His son GORM, who had the surname of “The Englishman,” because he was born in England, gained the sovereignty in the island on his father’s death; but his fortune, though it came soon, did not last long. He left England for Denmark to put it in order; but a long misfortune was the fruit of this short absence. For the English, who thought that their whole chance of freedom lay in his being away, planned an open revolt from the Danes, and in hot haste took heart to rebel. But the greater the hatred and contempt of England, the greater the loyal attachment of Denmark to the king. Thus while he stretched out his two hands to both provinces in his desire for sway, he gained one, but lost the lordship of the other irretrievably; for he never made any bold effort to regain it. So hard is it to keep a hold on very large empires.
After this man his son HARALD came to be king of Denmark; he is half-forgotten by posterity, and lacks all record for famous deeds, because he rather preserved than extended the possessions of the realm.
After this the throne was obtained by GORM, a man whose soul was ever hostile to religion, and who tried to efface all regard for Christ’s worshippers, as though they were the most abominable of men. All those who shared this rule of life he harassed with divers kinds of injuries and incessantly pursued with whatever slanders he could. Also, in order to restore the old worship to the shrines, he razed to its lowest foundations, as though it were some unholy abode of impiety, a temple which religious men had founded in a stead in Sleswik; and those whom he did not visit with tortures he punished by the demolition of the holy chapel. Though this man was thought notable for his stature, his mind did not answer to his body; for he kept himself so well sated with power that he rejoiced more in saving than increasing his dignity, and thought it better to guard his own than to attack what belonged to others: caring more to look to what he had than to swell his havings.
This man was counselled by the elders to celebrate the rites of marriage, and he wooed Thyra, the daughter of Ethelred, the king of the English, for his wife. She surpassed other women in seriousness and shrewdness, and laid the condition on her suitor that she would not marry him till she had received Denmark as a dowry. This compact was made between them, and she was betrothed to Gorm. But on the first night that she went up on to the marriage-bed, she prayed her husband most earnestly that she should be allowed to go for three days free from intercourse with man. For she resolved to have no pleasure of love till she had learned by some omen in a vision that her marriage would be fruitful. Thus, under pretence of self-control, she deferred her experience of marriage, and veiled under a show of modesty her wish to learn about her issue. She put off lustful intercourse, inquiring, under the feint of chastity, into the fortune she would have in continuing her line. Some conjecture that she refused the pleasures of the nuptial couch in order to win her mate over to Christianity by her abstinence. But the youth, though he was most ardently bent on her love, yet chose to regard the continence of another more than his own desires, and thought it nobler to control the impulses of the night than to rebuff the prayers of his weeping mistress; for he thought that her beseechings, really coming from calculation, had to do with modesty. Thus it befell that he who should have done a husband’s part made himself the guardian of her chastity so that the reproach of an infamous mind should not be his at the very beginning of his marriage; as though he had yielded more to the might of passion than to his own self-respect. Moreover that he might not seem to forestall by his lustful embraces the love which the maiden would not grant, he not only forbore to let their sides that were next one another touch, but even severed them by his drawn sword, and turned the bed into a divided shelter for his bride and himself. But he soon tasted in the joyous form of a dream the pleasure which he postponed from free loving kindness. For, when his spirit was steeped in slumber, he thought that two birds glided down from the privy parts of his wife, one larger than the other; that they poised their bodies aloft and soared swiftly to heaven, and, when a little time had elapsed, came back and sat on either of his hands. A second, and again a third time, when they had been refreshed by a short rest, they ventured forth to the air with outspread wings. At last the lesser of them came back without his fellow, and with wings smeared with blood. He was amazed with this imagination, and, being in a deep sleep, uttered a cry to betoken his astonishment, filling the whole house with an uproarious shout. When his servants questioned him, he related his vision; and Thyra, thinking that she would be blest with offspring, forbore her purpose to put off her marriage, eagerly relaxing the chastity for which she had so hotly prayed. Exchanging celibacy for love, she granted her husband full joy of herself, requiting his virtuous self-restraint with the fulness of permitted intercourse, and telling him that she would not have married him at all, had she not inferred from these images in the dream which he had related, the certainty of her being fruitful.
By a device as cunning as it was strange, Thyra’s pretended modesty passed into an acknowledgment of her future offspring. Nor did fate disappoint her hopes. Soon she was the fortunate mother of Kanute and Harald. When these princes had attained man’s estate, they put forth a fleet and quelled the reckless insolence of the Sclavs. Neither did they leave England free from an attack of the same kind. Ethelred was delighted with their spirit, and rejoiced at the violence his nephews offered him; accepting an abominable wrong as though it were the richest of benefits. For he saw far more merit in their bravery than in piety. Thus he thought it nobler to be attacked by foes than courted by cowards, and felt that he saw in their valiant promise a sample of their future manhood.
For he could not doubt that they would some day attack foreign realms, since they so boldly claimed those of their mother. He so much preferred their wrongdoing to their service, that he passed over his daughter, and bequeathed England in his will to these two, not scrupling to set the name of grandfather before that of father. Nor was he unwise; for he knew that it beseemed men to enjoy the sovereignty rather than women, and considered that he ought to separate the lot of his unwarlike daughter from that of her valiant sons. Hence Thyra saw her sons inheriting the goods of her father, not grudging to be disinherited herself. For she thought that the preference above herself was honourable to her, rather than insulting.
Kanute and Harald enriched themselves with great gains from sea-roving, and most confidently aspired to lay hands on Ireland. Dublin, which was considered the capital of the country, was beseiged. Its king went into a wood adjoining the city with a few very skilled archers, and with treacherous art surrounded Kanute (who was present with a great throng of soldiers witnessing the show of the games by night), and aimed a deadly arrow at him from afar. It struck the body of the king in front, and pierced him with a mortal wound. But Kanute feared that the enemy would greet his peril with an outburst of delight. He therefore wished his disaster to be kept dark; and summoning voice with his last breath, he ordered the games to be gone through without disturbance. By this device he made the Danes masters of Ireland ere he made his own death known to the Irish.
Who would not bewail the end of such a man, whose self-mastery served to give the victory to his soldiers, by reason of the wisdom that outlasted his life? For the safety of the Danes was most seriously endangered, and was nearly involved in the most deadly peril; yet because they obeyed the dying orders of their general they presently triumphed over those they feared. G
eorm had now reached the extremity of his days, having been blind for many years, and had prolonged his old age to the utmost bounds of the human lot, being more anxious for the life and prosperity of his sons than for the few days he had to breathe. But so great was his love for his elder son that he swore that he would slay with his own hand whosoever first brought him news of his death. As it chanced, Thyra heard sure tidings that this son had perished. But when no man durst openly hint this to G eorm, she fell back on her cunning to defend her, and revealed by her deeds the mischance which she durst not speak plainly out. For she took the royal robes off her husband and dressed him in filthy garments, bringing him other signs of grief also, to explain the cause of her mourning; for the ancients were wont to use such things in the performance of obsequies, bearing witness by their garb to the bitterness of their sorrow. Then said G eorm: “Dost thou declare to me the death of Kanute?” (2) And Thyra said: “That is proclaimed by thy presage, not by mine.” By this answer she made out her lord a dead man and herself a widow, and had to lament her husband as soon as her son. Thus, while she announced the fate of her son to her husband, she united them in death, and followed the obsequies of both with equal mourning; shedding the tears of a wife upon the one and of a mother upon the other; though at that moment she ought to have been cheered with comfort rather than crushed with disasters.
(End of “The Danish History”, Books I-IX)
(1) Utgard. Saxo, rationalising as usual, turns the mythical home of the giants into some terrestrial place in his vaguely-defined Eastern Europe.
(2) Kanute. Here the vernacular is far finer. The old king notices “Denmark is drooping, dead must my son be!”, puts on the signs of mourning, and dies.