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The Tale of Tormod, KolBrun’s Skald

A stupid 19th Century conception of a Viking skald.

In Trapped, the Icelandic miniseries I reviewed last night, both in the first season (which I reviewed) and the second (which I’m watching now), there’s a female character named Kolbrun. It was a familiar name to me, and by coincidence I came to the Tale of Tormod Kolbrunarskald in my reading of the Norwegian translation of Flatøy Book. Obviously this was a sign from heaven that I should share Tormod’s story with you.

Tormod Kolbrunarskald is an important character in the Saga of St. Olaf. He doesn’t appear in my novel, The Elder King, but I expect he’ll show up in a later book, because he’s an important character and has one of the most memorable deaths in saga literature. But that’s not my topic tonight. My topic is his backstory.

I’d always assumed that he got his nickname, which means “dark-brow poet,” because he had dark eyebrows. Turns out that’s not true. His nickname actually means, “Dark-Brow’s Poet”

This is the tale (in highly condensed form).

Tormod Bersesson was living at his father’s farm in Laugabol, Iceland. Nearby, at a farm called Ogr, there lived a widow named Grima who had a beautiful daughter named Tordis. Tormod got in the habit of visiting Ogr, and spending time in private with the girl.

Eventually Grima, the mother, took Tormod aside and suggested that he should either ask for the girl’s hand honestly, or leave her alone for the sake of her reputation. Tormod hemmed and hawed, so to show she was serious, Grima sent a thrall to kill Tormod, but the poet escaped with a wounded hand.

After that, Tormod relocated to a fishing station his father had at Bolungarvik. Nearby lived another widow, named Katla, who had a daughter named Torbjorg, who was nicknamed Kolbrun because of her dark eyebrows.

Tormod thought Kolbrun not quite as pretty as Tordis, but nevertheless he started spending time with her. To gain her favor he wrote a series of poems, the “Kolbrun Poems.”

Later, when winter came, Tormod moved back to Laugabol, and renewed his visits with Tordis. At first she was distant. “I heard that you wrote a series of poems for a girl at Bolungarvik named Kolbrun,” she said.

“Oh, no!” Tormod lied. “That story is completely wrong. I didn’t write those poems for Kolbrun. I wrote them for you.” He immediately recited them for her, but changed the words so they now praised Tordis. Tordis was pleased with this.

But that night, Tormod had a terrible dream. He saw Kolbrun floating in the darkness in front of his bed. She said, “You have broken your word to me. It’s dangerous to break your word to a witch. I will now lay this curse on you – your eyes will swell up and grow terribly painful. They will swell so that if it isn’t stopped they’ll pop right out of your head. The only way you can prevent this from happening is by announcing in public that the poems are mine, not Tordis’s, and that you lied.”

Tormod woke in terrible pain, and slept no more that night. As soon as he could he assembled family and friends and confessed his lie. Immediately his eyes improved, and soon he was well again.

But forever after he was known as Tormod, Kolbrun’s Poet.

Blessed aches and pains

It’s one of the most delightful and inspirational stories of American history. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who started as political allies in the Continental Congress – where they worked together on drafting the Declaration of Independence – became the bitterest of political enemies after independence had been won. Their approaches to government were very different, and their perceptions of dangers to the republic widely separated. The lies and vitriol both men (and especially their spokesmen) employed against each other in election campaigns make the ugliness of today’s politics look courtly and tame.

And yet, in their old age, the two men began corresponding, and became friends again. Amazingly, they died on the very same day – and that day was the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration. (Seriously. It’s true. Look it up.)

I’m recalling that story today, not for political purposes, but just to talk about old age – a subject of increasing interest to me.

I haven’t read the Adams-Jefferson letters (I know, I should). But I wonder if part of their reconciliation, beyond the fact that they were nearly the sole survivors of their generation, was the reconciling power of shared aches and pains.

I had opportunities recently to spend time with a couple of people from my youth. One of the particular tribulations to which a just Providence has subjected me in my dotage has been that pretty much every one of the friends of my youth, the people I was closest to, have walked away from the beliefs we shared. I have not changed (much). They have changed their views in almost every way.

And yet we spent time together in amity. Thinking it over afterward, I realized that we spent a lot of the time discussing our health complaints.

This is a topic that never fails among the old.

I remember being young (my memory is still that good), and I recall that one of the things we laughed about when talking about old people was how they couldn’t shut up about their aches and pains, their digestions and their prescriptions.

And I understand. I have no wish to impose tales of my dry skin and digestive habits on the healthy young, who should have their minds set on higher things.

But when we oldsters are together, ailment talk is great. It bridges divisions, awakens sympathy, and arouses our helpful instincts.

All part of God’s plan, no doubt. He has a wry sense of humor.

2 Spellings of Gray. Or Grey.

Photo credit: Ani Kolleshi @ anikolleshi

It must be because I’ve been plowing through Mark Greaney’s Gray Man novels – I got to thinking about the spelling of the word “gray,” which seems to be in a “dynamic” state just now.

As a child I learned the basic rule – Americans spell it “gray;” the English spell it “grey.” The first warning of change swam into my ken when I read an interview with Colleen McCullough, author of the besteller, The Thorn Birds. I think it was in the 1980s. She said, as I recall, that she always spelled it “gray,” except when describing eye color. “Grey” just seemed right for eyes, she said.

And it did seem right in that case. Maybe it’s the mirroring of the two vowels, “e” and “y.” There seems to be a suggestion of something kind of blue-grey in the English spelling. At least for me.

Then, years later, along comes the novel, Fifty Shades of Grey (Sorry, I will not link to it). It became a huge phenomenon and Americans began to see that “ey” spelling in front of their faces all day long. It seems to have imprinted itself on a lot of them.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that sexual excitement increases memorability.

In any case, it seems to be catching on. I’ve noticed that James Lileks consistently spells it “grey” over at the Daily Bleat. I expect that has more to do with the time he’s spent in England than with Fifty Shades.

But it looks (to me) as if we’re in the midst of a spelling shift in this country. The English are winning this one. Gradually.

Me, I’m going to stick with “gray,” even though I’ll admit I kind of like “grey.” I’m an anglophile, after all, and there is a certain nuance with the “ey.”

But I stick with the old rules, unless there’s good reason to drop them. And “gray” has committed no crime deserving of termination.

For your Spectation

I have a new column up at The American Spectator Online today: Slaves to Intellectual Fashion: 1619. A little more fiery and dismissive than my usual stuff, I think. This particular initiative gets my goat in a personal way. I consider it slander against a country I love and am grateful for.

The weekend was good, thanks for asking. We had a couple Viking groups at Nisswa, Minnesota for a one-day Viking event on Saturday. I took a few pictures, but they weren’t very good. Having 2 groups together made it possible to have some relatively impressive battles, with (I guess) 15 to 20 guys all together. I did not participate in those. I sat in my pavilion in Viking splendor, dispensing wisdom and information to all comers. Also selling books.

It was nice, the weather was beatiful, and I stayed with some very gracious hosts in Brainerd. All in all, pretty rewarding. The scuttlebutt is that the event will happen again next year.

Watch for ‘Wisting’

I have approval now to tell you about another Norwegian TV miniseries I helped translate. You may recall the name Wisting, because I reviewed several of the books on which this series is based, written by Jørn Lier Horst. I couldn’t say it at the time, but I got interested in the books when I worked on the TV scripts (though I admit I only helped with a couple). The books seem to be out of print in English right now, but I suspect they’re preparing a new edition to tie in with the miniseries.

Should be interesting. It’s been broadcast in Norway already, so I would look for it to show up on Netflix or something before very long. Recommended, with cautions for the sort of things you’d expect.

The Donald and the Erik

Scrupulously researched portrait of Erik the Red from Arngrimur Jonsson’s Gronlandia (ca. early 17th Century).

Sorry about the lack of a post last night. I actually posted one, and WordPress disappeared it. It vanished into the ether, like a childhood friend of Stalin. I don’t know what my sin was.

Let’s see if this one stays up.

Last night’s post wasn’t anything you’ll miss much, just a reminiscence from my childhood. Not even very dramatic. Maybe I’ll write about it again someday.

One of today’s big news stories is that President Trump, apparently, would like the US to purchase Greenland.

It ain’t gonna happen, according to the Danes. They have no need, or wish, to part with one of the very few remnants of their once-extensive empire.

And after all, people live in Greenland. I would hope they’d have a say in the matter.

Still, it’s an intriguing thought. It occurs to me that Donald Trump and Erik the Red, settler of Greenland, are kindred souls.

Both are larger-than-life characters, combative, practiced in self-promotion. The saga famously says that Erik called his country Greenland “because people would be more inclined to move there if it had a pleasant name.”

Thus he’s been called the first real estate developer.

I like to think that if Erik and Donald could meet, they’d take to one another right off. Sit down over some mead (though I understand Pres. Trump doesn’t drink) and talk deals.

I suspect Erik could have been talked out of Greenland, for a sweet enough offer.

Alexandria the Great

Photo credit: Chris Falteisek

For a few days I was a rock star. Granted, I was a rock star with “selective appeal,” but a couple hundred people in Alexandria, Minnesota treated me like a celebrity.

The event was the Tre Lag Stevne. The Bygdelags (as I explained last week) are organizations composed of descendants of immigrants from various Norwegian regions. The three “lags” who met for the stevne (gathering) were groups from Gudbrandsdal, Hedemark, and Trondelag. They invited me to lecture twice on Thursday – once on the Lindisfarne raid in 793 AD, and again on the book Viking Legacy (which I translated; might not have mentioned that to you before).

The audience was attentive, smart (they laughed at my jokes) and appreciative. They descended on my book table like a flock of seagulls and snatched up every copy of Viking Legacy I brought. On top of the sales, I got an honorarium which was generous by my standards.

I have no complaints.

The next day I had to be in a meeting in Fergus Falls, just a little up the road, so I stayed a second night. I had some free time – and when Walker has free time in Alexandria, he can’t resist visiting the Kensington Rune Stone Museum. I’ve been there before, but I heard they’d made some changes.

Photo credit: Lars Walker

This is the stone itself. I have grave reservations about its authenticity, but you can’t deny it’s become a part of history in its own right.

Photo credit: Lars Walker

This display is the main thing I came to see. They did an upgrade to the museum a few years back, and decided to include a tableau about the real Vikings (even if the stone is genuine, it’s not a Viking artifact. Its date is 14th Century, long after the Viking Age ended). The person the museum hired to make costumes for the Viking family was my friend Kelsey Patton – who also made the Viking trousers and summer tunic I’m wearing in the top picture.

Photo credit: Lars Walker

Here’s a surprise – the museum has a Viking ship, in a barn outside. It’s a ¾ scale replica of a Viking knarr (a cargo ship), which was built as a project some years ago by the American Museum of Natural History. Somehow it ended up here.

An interesting and profitable few days. Thanks to everyone who made it possible.

One of the better days

Today I was a rock star. A rock star for a very small public, I’ll grant you, but I’ve rarely faced such an appreciative crowd as the people at the Lag Stevne at the Holiday Inn in Alexandria, Minnesota today.

The Bygdelags, as I explained yesterday, are groups of people whose ancestors came from various regions of Norway. Genealogy is one of their primary interests. So they like history, and they were primed and ready for a morning lecture on the 793 AD Lindisfarne raid, and an afternoon lecture on the book Viking Legacy and its themes.

They ate it up. They listened with rapt attention, laughed at my jokes, and asked good questions afterwards.

And then they bought up my entire stock of Viking Legacy, plus a good number of West Oversea.

I am a happier, and more prosperous, man today.

Thanks to all the Lag folks.

Reporting from the field

I write this from a motel in Glenwood, Minnesota. I’m speaking at a bygdelag meeting in Alexandria tomorrow, and I figured I’d take a room up here so I wouldn’t have to get up tomorrow before it was tomorrow. Glenwood is sufficiently close to Alex, and the rooms are a little cheaper here.

Bygdelags are an old institution among Norwegian-Americans. They started as social organizations for people who came from particular regions or neighborhoods in the old country. Nowadays (much consolidated due to falling membership) they’re largely about mutual support in genealogy. (Or so I believe; I may learn other things tomorrow.)

They asked me to do two lectures — morning and afternoon. They specified that they wanted to hear about the great 793 AD Lindisfarne raid (considered the start of the Viking Age) at 9:30 a.m. So I did some research and was happy to add to my store of knowledge. In the afternoon I’ll do my extended infomercial on Viking Legacy. My hope is to sell a lot of books.

Sorry, the lectures aren’t open to the public, as far as I know.

Weekend and Monday report

Today was a good day. I got some translation work, after a month of nothing. Oddly enough, it was in Swedish, which constituted a bit of a challenge. My boss said she understood some of it would probably baffle me. But I think I got most of it OK. If you can read Norwegian, reading Swedish is generally just a matter of lateral thinking. It took me about 5 ½ hours.

The weekend involved the great, biennial (means every other year; I still have to look it up) Walker Family Reunion. This year we held it in the Depot Park in Kenyon, Minnesota, instead of one of the old family farms. The Depot Park is next to the municipal swimming pool, which goes back all the way in time to my childhood. After the Chicago & Great Western Railroad tore up their line, the depot was given to the city as a picnic shelter, and moved across town. It’s decorated inside with a number of historical signs – the old apex of the false front of the Kenyon Opera House (a fancy name for the vaudeville theater), the scoreboard from the old ball field, the railroad crossing “X” sign, etc.

This was almost – but not quite – the year my generation got to be the Old Folks. But one representative of my dad’s cousins showed up – using a walker, but there and welcome. Then of course there’s the cousin who’s the son of the youngest daughter in my great-grandfather’s family, who married late. So he’s almost young enough to be my cousin, but is in fact my great uncle. Or something.

Nice day, lots of food. Many stories told. “You still working at the library?” they ask. No, other things are happening now. Movie scripts? Really? And we always thought you were respectable!

Nothing went wrong at all, and yet when it was done I felt like I’d done nine rounds with Evander Holyfield. Hours and hours of human society. Oh, the humanity! I collapsed into bed and slept like an honest man.

‘This very day was Cassius born…’

Photo credit: Sophie Elvis @thetechnomaid

In case you missed the parades and fireworks, today is my birthday. I won’t tell you how old I am, for online security reasons. Let’s just say I don’t think I can get away with calling myself middle-aged anymore.

It’s a challenge to write about one’s birthday without sounding self-pitying — probably because I am pitying myself to a degree. Birthdays, especially when one is alone, are mostly opportunities for ruthless self-examination. And those are seldom occasions for merriment.

My brother and his wife bought me lunch the other day. I took myself out for lunch today. I thought about buying a little cake, but I’d already sabotaged my diet pretty ruthlessly. And events beyond my control are coming up that promise to subvert it even more.

What are we to do? Longevity is its own punishment.

And then I exchange emails with a friend who happens to have the very same birthday. And he tells me he highlighted his day by scheduling a biopsy.

Perspective. Ah, well. Thanks to everyone who sent greetings on Facebook. I do appreciate them.