The Tale of Roe

I’m in the “thinking it up” stage of writing my next Erling book. In the course thereof, I’m reading the Flatey Book in the handsome Norwegian translation published by Saga Bok Publishers in Norway (they were kind enough to send me the first three volumes as a goodwill gesture – a generous one). In St. Olav’s Saga I discovered an interesting story, not much known even to Viking buffs, because so few people have read Flatey. It’s called “The Tale of Roe.” The original story has several plot threads, but I’ve reduced it to the one thread I liked best. I offer my re-telling below.

There was once a merchant named Roe, who came from Denmark. He was an easy man to recognize, as his eyes were of two different colors – one was blue, the other black. He traveled to many lands, and had mixed luck with his business dealings.

One day he was in Upsala, and he met a man walking down the street. The man’s name was Tore, and he had only one eye. He stopped when he saw Roe, and said, “I know you. I saw you once in Denmark.”

Roe did not remember him, but could not deny that was possible.

“Not only that,” said Tore. “You robbed me! You got a wizard to magic my eye out of my head, and put it into yours. And there it sits! Anyone can see the blue one isn’t yours! I’m going to bring a case against you before the king when he sits in judgment tomorrow – and you should know the king and I are good friends. He trusts my word.”

Roe went on his way, troubled. After a while he met a very pretty girl, who smiled at him. He smiled back, but his smile was sad.

“What’s the matter?” the girl asked. “Why so down in the mouth?”

Roe told her about the accusation Tore the One-Eyed had made against him.

“You should talk to my father,” the girl said. “My name is Sigbjørg, and my father is Torgny Torgnisson, the lawspeaker of the Upsala Thing. They call him the wisest man in Sweden.”

“Would he help me?” Roe asked.

“Well,” said Sigbjørg, “Father doesn’t usually have much time for Danes. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Come to my house at sundown tonight, and stand outside where I tell you. I’ll go to my father’s bedchamber and ask him about your problem. You can listen through the wall and hear what he has to say.”

Roe agreed to do this. That night he met Sigbjørg at her house, and she told him where to stand under the eaves. He listened as she told her father about his problem, and asked him what he’d do in his place.

“Ah,” said Torgny. “That’s an interesting problem. He’s dealing with a treacherous man here, and treachery must be met with treachery. Here is what I’d do if I were he…”

After Torgny lay down to sleep, Sigbjørg went out to Roe and asked if what he’d heard had helped him. Roe said it had indeed helped, and he thanked her.

The next day Roe met Tore the One-Eyed at the king’s judgment seat, and Tore laid down his accusation. He demanded that his eye be returned to him, plus Roe’s entire cargo as compensation.

“This is a serious charge,” said the king. “Roe, what do you have to say in your defense?”

“I’d not be afraid to go through the iron ordeal to prove my honesty,” Roe replied. “But I have a simpler way we can learn the truth of the matter. Tore says my blue eye belongs to him. I think we can all agree that no two things are more alike than a man’s two eyes. So I suggest each of us have his blue eye removed, and you can weigh them both in a balance scale. If both eyes weigh the same, then Tore’s case is proven. If not, then I demand compensation.”

The king asked Tore the One-Eyed what he thought of the proposition, and Tore was not keen on the plan. He confessed at last that he’d lied.

The king had Tore hanged on a gallows, and gave Roe some of his property. Later on, Roe met Sigbjørg again, and he went to her father to ask for her hand. They were married, and many prominent people in Sweden are descended from them.

2 thoughts on “The Tale of Roe”

    1. At this point in history, Olaf Haraldsson was introducing royal judgment in Norway. The saga writer may be assuming that the same thing was going on in Sweden. More likely the story is mostly fiction, heavily influenced by 13th Century conditions.

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