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.