The Saga of Tormod

Tormod Torfæus (1636-1719) was accustomed to more comfortable lodgings. An Icelander who had lived many years in Norway, he was an officer of the king and used to being treated with respect. But this old Danish inn offered nothing but cheap beer and food, and a room he had to share. He was bone-tired and wanted his sleep, but another Icelander kept blundering into the room and trying to turn him out of his bed.

The year was 1671. Tormod had sailed home to Iceland to clear up some estate matters following the death of his brother. He decided to return home by way of Copenhagen, but his ship was wrecked near Skagen, though the passengers all survived. They had to make a long foot march to get passage on another ship, and then bad weather forced the new ship to seek harbor on Samsø Island. And that was how Tormod came to be overnighting in this miserable hostelry.

Every time he began to fall asleep, the door would open, and a drunken Icelander, Sigurd, would come barging in and try to push him out of his bed. Then they would fight, and the landlord would come and tell Tormod to go back to bed. Finally Tormod begged the landlady to give him a different room. She complied, and he lay down with some hope of a few hours’ sleep. But he’d grown suspicious of this establishment, and lay his rapier on the table, near at hand.

He still got no rest. The landlady kept coming in and out for some reason. “What are you doing here?” Tormod asked her. “Do you mean me some harm?” She denied any bad intentions and told him to go back to sleep.

Tormod was far from sleep now. He felt he was surrounded by thieves and murderers. Finally the door slammed open again, and a figure rushed toward him in the dark. Quickly Tormod leaped out of bed, drew his rapier, and stabbed out. The man who fell to the floor, mortally wounded, turned out to be the landlord.

Tormod was imprisoned, and a local court condemned him to death by beheading. He appealed to a higher court, which reduced the sentence, as it was discovered that the landlord had a criminal history, and evidence suggested that he had been trying to kill or rob Tormod. But Tormod appealed yet again, to the king himself, whom he had known as a young boy when serving the previous king. The king pardoned him at last. Tormod proceeded to Copenhagen, where he got a royal audience.

“Why are you so bloodthirsty?” the king asked.

“Because I’d rather kill than be killed,” he replied.

And at last Tormod was able to return to his wife and home at Stangeland farm, near Kopervik, Karmøy Island, Norway, where he hung the rapier on his study wall, as a reminder of his “sin.”

My great-grandfather, as I’ve mentioned before, was born on Karmøy. When I visited Avaldsnes Church, where my ancestors worshiped, I noticed that just in front of the altar steps, a flat, carved stone was set into the floor. “Is this a grave?” I asked. I was told that it was the grave of an Icelander, a historian, who had lived here. That Icelander was Tormod Torfæus.

Tormod has been called the “father of Norwegian historiography.” Iceland was a province of Denmark in those days, as was Norway, and as a promising young scholar he was appointed royal historian by King Fredrik III. He went to live on Karmøy, and the king lent him the Flatey Book (which I wrote about recently in this space). Tormod kept the two large volumes until his death, 22 years later, and used them as his chief source for his magisterial work, Historia Rerum Norvegicarum (History of Norway). For centuries, this Latin work was the standard scholarly authority on Norwegian history.

With the 20th Century and changes in scholarly thinking, Tormod’s work went out of fashion. Recently, on a wave of reconsideration of all saga material, the very first Norwegian language translation of his work was completed by the people at Saga Bok Publishers, the company I’m working with on some other translation (Latin isn’t exactly my field).

In fact, Saga Bok had trouble finding Latin translators. They could not locate a single person in Norway who was able or willing to work on the translation. Latin readers are thin on the ground in Norway nowadays. So what they did was turn to England. They found scholars there who were willing to translate Tormod’s book into English. Then they translated the translation into Norwegian.

It’s enough to make you lose sleep.

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