I’ve told you of my woes enough in this space; I owe it to you to report my good days. I had a good day on Monday, and I’ve been upbeat all week. Which is an excellent thing when you’re my age and approaching a birthday.
I told you a while back that I was out of the script translation business. Well, I’m happy to say that I’m back in it. My outlawry has expired. I shall be cagier in the future about telling you what I’m working on, but working I am. Or will be, when the next job shows up. I am, as Bertie Wooster would say, “chuffed.”
While I wait for script work, I’m working on promotional material for my friends at Saga Bok publishers in Norway. I’ve told you that they’ve been translating the massive Flatøy Book of Icelandic sagas into modern Norwegian, the first time in history that’s been done. That project is complete now – six big, leather-bound volumes, copiously illustrated by the artist Anders Kvåle Rue, all on the market and selling well in Norway. Did I mention their next project is an English translation?
Before you ask, no, I’m not doing that translation. That’s being done the right way – by an Icelandic scholar from the original language. But they’ve asked me to translate some promotional material. So that’s what I’m working on at the moment. A fun project. I hope there’s more. You can read about the English project here, though the interview comes from 2016. Now it’s underway. If you’re interested in the project, and have money to donate, I can put you in touch. Just saying.
No book to review tonight. No great thoughts bubbling in my mind. What shall I post about?
Well, I’ve been reading the Flatey Book in the Norwegian translation, and I came on a little-known story about Erling Skjalgsson (it wasn’t new to me; I’d seen it before). To the best of my knowledge, it’s the only surviving story about Erling not also told in Heimskringla. I’ll be working it into a novel eventually, but there’s no harm telling it to you now. No doubt I’ll fiddle with it in my version, as is my wont.
It involves a young man named Eindridi, who was the son of Einar Tambarskjelvar (Gut-Shaker). Einar was a great chieftain in the Trondelag. If you’ve read The Elder King, you may recall him as a character in that timeless work. In TEK, he and Erling are good friends. In The Tale of Erling and Eindridi, things get a little touchy.
Erling had a daughter named Sigrid, whom he’d fostered out to the steward at Avaldsnes, the royal farm on Karmøy Island.
When (Saint) Olaf Haraldsson came in and started reorganizing the country, he took that stewardship away from Erling’s friend and gave it to a freedman named Tore the Seal (they also appear in TEK). He demoted Erling’s friend and sent him up to a less important farm further north. Sigrid went along with him, but chafed at being separated so far from her family.
One day a merchant ship docked near their farm, on its way
south. Sigrid went to chat with the crew, and found that it was the ship of Eindridi,
son of Einar Gut-Shaker. She asked him if she could hitch a ride south to her
home at Sola. Eindridi was preoccupied, and let her join them without really
registering whose daughter she was. Once they were under way, he realized he’d
made a mistake (because she was supposed to be in her foster-father’s care, I think).
But they had a fair wind, and there was nothing to do about it.
On the way south a storm blew up, and they had to run into
an island, taking shelter in a fishermen’s shack. It was cold and wet, and the
girl slept beside Eindridi, though they had no contact beyond a kiss. (At least
that was their story.)
When they finally arrived at Sola, Erling was not at home. Eindridi
was given a loft room to sleep in, and Sigrid came to join him, but he sent her
away. Just then Erling Skjalgsson burst in, accusing Eindridi of dishonoring
Eindridi fiercely denied touching the girl (beyond that kiss), and offered to go through the iron ordeal to prove his honor. Erling agreed to this, and Eindridi passed the trial with flying colors, carrying the glowing iron nine steps, and then having his burns examined after three days. Verdict: innocent. Erling then wished to be reconciled and offered him gifts, but Eindridi was deeply offended and prepared to sail home.
Erling’s son Skjalg went to him and told him he needed to
make peace with Eindridi, because they couldn’t do without his father Einar’s
support in their political struggle with Olaf. “What can I do?” Erling asked. “I’ve
offered him gifts.”
“You need to offer a greater gift,” said Skjalg. “You need
to offer him Sigrid as a wife.”
Erling hesitated at this. “A man of my rank,” he said, “does
not offer his daughter to other men. Other men come and bid for his daughter.”
“And that’s why Eindridi will agree,” Skjalg answered. He did not say that it would be interpreted as an apology, something Erling couldn’t make in so many words. And – perhaps – he’d noticed that the two young people liked each other.
Erling sent Skjalg to make that offer, and Einar – realizing its significance – happily agreed. He was indeed taken with Sigrid, and she with him.
Sailing home, Eindridi met his father, who’d gotten word of
events and was prepared to challenge Erling for his son’s honor. But when
Eindridi explained the marriage offer, Einar immediately understood, and was
So Eindridi and Sigrid were married. (Though other sources
name a different woman as Eindridi’s wife, so it’s not unlikely she died
Not an exciting Viking story. But it is interesting in that it illustrates the kind of social limitations honor culture placed on even powerful men, and how they were able find ways of working around them.
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
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.
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.
Among the great joys of life, at least for me (I’ll admit that my joys are somewhat circumscribed), getting a nice book for free is among the chief… examples.
Today when I got home from work (late) I found three volumes like this on my porch, all the way from Norway.
They are the volumes published so far of the Saga Bok translation of the Flatøy Book, which has never been translated in full before – into any language, I believe. Saga Bok is engaged in producing a Norwegian version in full, in seven volumes. But the first three volumes constitute a distinct unit, with a different writer than the rest. This is the chief historical section of the work, and invaluable for a historical novelist like me.
Written in the 14th Century, Flatøy Book was originally compiled for the last king of Norway, who died before it was finished. At that point Norway was united with Denmark. In the 17th Century the book was relocated to Copenhagen, where it remained until 1971, when Iceland got it back, to great national rejoicing. It did spend a number of years in Norway, though, in the home of the scholar Tormod Torfæus (1636-1719), who lived at Avaldsnes, Karmøy, where my great-grandfather was born. Torfæus used it as a source for his great Latin history of Norway. So I feel some kinship with the book.
An English edition is planned, but I won’t be involved in that project. An Icelandic translator will, quite properly, handle that important job. But in the course of my ongoing translating relationship with Saga Bok I employed my ninja negotiating skills to request and receive these volumes.
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. Continue reading The Saga of Tormod→
Therefore your end is on you,
Is on you and your kings,
Not for a fire in Ely fen,
Not that your gods are nine or ten,
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things.
–G. K. Chesterton, “The Ballad of the White Horse”
It’s pretty well known that Norse mythology is far better preserved than any other European pre-Christian mythology. This is largely because the great saga-writer and poet Snorri Sturlusson, a Christian, persuaded Icelandic churchmen that the old Norse Eddaic poetry was worth preserving, and that a knowledge of the old myths was necessary to preserve it.
In my translation work on the brochure I’m doing for the Flatey Book publication project, I learned about a further debt that Icelandic culture (including modern, reconstituted heathen culture) owes to the church.
Here’s an excerpt from Prof. Titlestad’s essay in the brochure:
In the farthest north of Iceland, at Hólar in Skagafjord, dwelt the mathematician, cartographer, culture-builder and bishop Guðbrandur Þorlaksson (1541-1627). He was the first to draw a good map of Iceland. He had a printing press at his disposal and published/edited 80 books. A graduate of the University of Copenhagen, he was the first to publish extracts of the Bible in Icelandic. In this way he established a more secure basis for a national language than Norwegians possessed – they had to get along for centuries in Danish.
It’s often stated that modern Icelandic is the same language spoken by the Vikings. That’s only approximately true — the language has changed a little. But it’s close enough for general purposes. If Jarl Haakon, who time-travels to the 21st Century in my novel Death’s Doors, showed up instead in Reykjavik, he’d get along fine making himself understood.
But the reason that old language was preserved in its early form, as we see above, is because a Christian bishop wanted to have portions of the Bible printed in Icelandic.
I hope I’m not out of line quoting a paragraph from my own translation, in progress, of a promotional booklet for the Norwegian Flatøy Book project. This passage discusses the decision of the Icelandic bishop Brynjolv Sveinsson to turn the big manuscript (two volumes) over to King Fredrik III of Denmark in 1556. The original author is Prof. Torgrim Titlestad:
Brynjolv built on insight that had been developed within the Icelandic culture ever since Arngrimur’s pioneering work in the 16th Century, but he was possibly more aware than the others of the unique civilization-building impulses contained within the Norse heritage, as especially expressed in Flatøybok. Flatøybok can be understood as a kind of “Noah’s Ark” of ideas, stocked with the fundamental concepts of the Norse world in order to survive as a time capsule in a threatening future. This distinguished Flatøybok from older saga literature. The book was a “generational ship,” laden with the experiences of many people over many generations. The Norse culture had grown up outside the sphere of Roman dominion, and thus was different from European feudal culture with its comprehensive, hierarchical class structure. The Icelandic author Bergsveinn Birgisson (1971-) has expressed himself on the message of these medieval authors to the world (2015): “We had our own unique culture up here in the North, with a value of its own, which we desire to preserve for future generations.” And as his spiritual ancestor Brynjolv might have said, “And we would wish that the world would learn from it.” Brynjolv desired to send this “ark” to Copenhagen so that the book might be published and made available to European readers. Flatøybok was meant to sail out into diverse intellectual harbors and then cast off again for further voyages around the world.
My life is suddenly full of Viking stuff again. I just got a commission to translate, not a book, but a brochure, for a Norwegian foundation devoted to the translation and publication of a complete edition of the Flatey Book, the largest and best preserved saga manuscript we have from Iceland, and incidentally one of the most beautiful medieval illuminated manuscripts in existence. The publishers are my old friends at Saga Bok publishers, with whom I’ve worked before. It gives me a wholly undeserved sense of importance to be involved in such a project at any level.
Also it occurred to me to share the movie trailer below, a soon-to-come Norwegian adventure film about the Birkebeiners, a legendary Norwegian rebel army that overthrew a king of questionable pedigree to replace him with another king of questionable pedigree. The new king was a baby whom two Birkebeiners (the name means “birchlegs,” because in the early phases they were sometimes so poor they had to wrap their legs in birch bark for lack of warmer leggings) rescued by carrying him over the mountains by ski.
The trailer, alas, is in Norwegian, but I think you can follow the sense of it. This isn’t strictly a Viking story, as it takes place in the 12th Century, after all the pillage and plunder stuff had been pretty much worked out.
Personally I’ve always been ambivalent about the Birkebeiners, because I like to imagine that one of my ancestors might have been a leader of the opposition party, the Baglers. But, like any modern Norwegian, I imagine I had ancestors on both sides.
I have no idea if there are plans to release this movie in English. I just do these things to frustrate you.