And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

fredag 31. oktober 2014

Harald Fairhair and his dead queen

Halloween is traditionally a time for gory tales, and even though this is not a deep-rooted phenomenon in my native Norway, I will this year cater to my Anglophone friends who seem to appreciate a certain morbidity at this time of the year.  The story in question comes from a Norwegian chronicle of kings written in Trondheim, most likely around 1190 according to scholarly consensus. We don’t know the original title of this work, and it is not handed down to us in a complete state. Modern scholars have christened it Àgrip af Nóregskonungasogum, which means Excerpt of the sagas of the Norwegian kings.

The story concerns one of the wives of King Harald Fairhair who according to medieval historiography gathered all of Norway under his rule – though it is also admitted that he had his sons as viceroys in many of these parts. The story is found in the third and fourth chapters of Ágrip, and I here use the translation into English executed by Matthew James Driscoll in 1995 for the 10th volume of the Viking Society for Northern Research Text Series (pp. 5-7). Before reading any further, I strongly warn those of my readers who are easily disturbed by gory tales, because this one is very, very, very gory.  

III. On the eve of Yule, as Haraldr [Fairhair] sat at table, Svási came to the door and sent word in to the king that he should come out to him. This request angered the king, and the same man bore his anger out as had borne the message in. Svási asked him nevertheless a second time and also gave him a beaver skin and said that he was that Lapp whom the king had allowed to set up his hut on the other side of the hill at Þhoptyn, where the king then was. The king went out and he agreed to go to Svási’s hut, egged on by some of his men, though others tried to dissuade him.

There Snjófriðr stood up, Svási’s daughter the most beautiful of women and offered the king a cup full of mead. He took it and with it her hand, and suddenly it was as if a fiery heat entered into his flesh and he wished to have her that same night. But Svási said that this should not be so – except against his will – unless the king betrothed himself to her and then wedded her according to the law. And he betrothed himself to her and wedded her and loved her so witlessly that he neglected his kingdom and all that beseemed his kingly honour, and he stayed by her almost night and day while they both lived and for three years after she died. He mourned for her, dead, but the people all mourned for him, bewitched.

IV. But Þorleifr spaki came to cure him and put an end to this enchantment, and he did it wisely and with blandishments in this way: ‘It is not strange, king, that you should remember so beautiful and noble a woman and honour her thus on down and velvet, as she asked you. And yet your honour is less than is fitting – and hers – for she has lain too long in the same clothes. It would be much seemlier if she were moved.’ And when she was moved there issued from the body a rank and fulsome stench and foul odours of every sort. A pyre was hastily prepared and she was burned, but before that the body blackened and there bubbled out worms and vipers, frogs and toads and multitudes of vermin. She sank thus into ash, but the king rose to wisdom and abandoned his folly; he from then on took control of his kingdom and strengthened it; he was gladdened by his subjects and they by him and the kingdom by them both, and he ruled Norway as absolute king for sixty years, after having won all of it in ten.

Something rotten in the kingdom
MS Egerton 1070, Book of Hours, Use of Paris, c.1410
Courtesy of British Library

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