WOLF-COATS AND BLOODY SHIELDS OF BATTLE

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THE LAY OF HAROLD

By Thorbiorn Hornklofi.

Hearken, ye ring-bearers, while of Harold I tell you,

the mightily wealthy, and his manful war-deeds;

words I o`erheard a maiden high minded speaking,

golden haired, white armed, with a glossy-beaked raven.

                    Wise thought her the valkyrie; were welcome never

                    men to the bright-eyed one, her who bird`s speech new well.

                    Greeted the light-lashed maiden, the lily-throated woman,

                    the Hymir`s- skull cleaver as on cliff he was perching.

“How is it, ye ravens — whence are ye come now

with beaks all gory, at break of morning?

Carrion-reek ye carry, and your claws are bloody.

Were ye near, at night-time, where ye knew of corpses?”

                    Shook himself the dun hued one, and dried his beak,

                    the eagle`s oath-brother, and of answer bethought him:

                    “Harold we follow, Halfdan`s first-born,

                     I the young Yngling, since out of egg we crept.

“That king thou knowest, him who at Kvinnar dwelleth,

the hoard-warder of Northmen, who has hollow war-ships

with reddish ribs and with reddened war-shields,

with tarred oar-blades, and with tents foam-besprinkled.

                    “Fain outside would he drink the ale at Yule-tide,

                    the fight loving folk-warder, and Frey`s game play there.

                    Even half-grown, he hated the hearthfire cozy,

                    the warm women`s room, and the wadded down-mittens.

“Hearken how the high-born one in the Hafrs-firth fought there,

the keen-eyed king`s son, against Kiotvi the wealthy:

came the fleet from the eastward, eager for fighting,

with gaping figureheads and graven ship-prows.

                    “They were laden with franklins and linden shields gleaming,

                    with Westland spearshafts and with Welsh bradswords.

                    The beserkers bellowed as the battle opened,

                    the wolf-coats shrieked loud and shook their weapons.

“Their strength would they try, but he taught them to flee,

the lord of the Eastmen who at Utstein dwelleth.

The steeds-of-Nokkvi he steered out when started the battle.

Then boomed the bucklers ere a blow felled Haklang.

                    “The thick-necked atheling behind the isle took shelter:

                    he grew loath against Lufa to hold the land of his fathers.

                    Then hid under benches, and let their buttocks stick up,

                    they who were wounded, but thrust their heads keelward.

“Their shoulders shielded the shifty heroes

were they showered with slung-shot–with the shingles of Gladhome.

Home from Hafrs-firth hastened they eastward,

fled by way of Iathar, of ale-cups thinking.

                    “On the gravel lay the fallen, given to the one-eyed

                    husband of Fulla; were we fain of such doings.

“Of more and other things shall the maids of Ragnhild,

the haughty women-folk, now have to gabble

than of the heath-dwellers which Harold not ever

feasted on the fallen, as their friends had done oft.

                    “The high-born liege-lord took the lady from Denmark–

                    broke with his Rogaland sweethearts and their sisters from Horthaland,

                    with those from Heithmork and Halogaland eke.”

THE VALKYRIE:

“Whether is open-handed he-who-hastens-the-battle,

to those who fend faithfully foemen from his homeland?”

THE RAVEN:

“With much goods are gladdened the gallant warriors,

who in the hall of Harold while the time with chess-play:

with much wealth he rewards them, and with well-forged broadswords,

with gold from Hunland and with girls from the Eastfolks.

                    “Most happy are they when there is hope for battle,

                    all ready to rouse them and to row strongly,

                    so as to snap the thongs and to sunder the thole-pins,

                    to churn the brine briskly at the beck of their liege-lord.”

THE VALKYRIE:

“Of the skalds` lot would I ask thee, since thou skill of that boastest:

how the bards fare there thou full well knowest–

                    they who are in Harold`s hall.”

THE RAVEN:

“Is seen from their raiment and their red-gold finger-rings

                    that a kind king they have.

Red fur-cloaks they own, most fairly bordered,

swords wound with silver, and sarks-ring-woven,

gilded baldricks and graven helmets,

heavy gold bracelets which Harold bestowed on them.”

THE VALKYRIE:

“Of the berserkers` lot would I ask thee, thou who batten`st on corpses:

how fare the fighters who rush forth to battle,

                    and stout hearted stand`gainst the foe?”

THE RAVEN:

“Wolf-coats are they called, the warriors unfleeing,

                    who bear bloody shields in battle;

the darts redden where they dash into battle

                    and shoulder to shoulder stand.

`T is tried and true men only, who can targes shatter,

whom the wise war-lord wants in battle.”

THE VALKYRIE:

“Of Andath and all his ilk, too, have I asked thee but little:

how fare the fiddlers, how fare the jugglers

                    in the halls of Harold?”

THE RAVEN:

“His earless dogs does your Andath fondle;

the churl with his fool-tricks makes the folk-warder chuckle.

Yet be there others who about the fire

                    bowls of hot wine bear;

their flapping fools`-caps they tuck fast in their belts–

fellows you`re free to kick.”

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With King Harold Fairhair, Norway emerges into the full light of recorded history (860-933): the son of Halfdan the Black, Harold while still a youth engages in a bitter struggle against independent minded nobles to bring his realm under control. The final battle was against a coalition of warlords of the West reinforced by auxiliaries from the British Isles, when both sides locked horns at the naval engagement fought in the Hafrs-firth (873), an inlet in southern Norway.

This great battle of Dragon Ships is celebrated in the Lay of Harold, and after this clash, many great lords preferred to “up sticks” and sail away to to the Western Isles, and chiefly Iceland, rather than submit to Harold`s rule.

Apart from Harold`s obvious prowess in the art of war, he loved poetry: we are told in Egil`s Saga that “of his followers, he valued most his skalds,” and is said to have been no mean poet himself; whether this is sycophancy among his followers at work, or the truth of it, is unknown.

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Of the writer of the Lay of Harold, Thorbiorn Hornklofi we know next to nothing; except that he was of high birth and “an old friend of kings, who had always been attached to their courts.” It`s a poem in simpler style than other, more elaborate lays celebrating the great warriors of the Norse, but is none the worse for that. It has been pieced together from fragments found mainly in the historical work called Fagrskinna, which contains a history of sorts of the Norwegian kings. The poet is telling us that he heard a raven – a scavenger of the battlefield – answering a valkyrie who asks whether Harold`s warlike deeds are worthy to be remembered. The one thing a Viking warrior craved above all things was Fame: without Fame there was no afterlife; no feasting in the Halls of Valhalla as one of the chosen, beneath the watchful gaze of the AllFather Odin. The Choosers of the Slain were the Valkyrie, who plucked the souls of those who had not died a straw death in bed, but had gone down in a blaze of glory, weapon in hand, fighting to the last breath.

Vikings in the rain

The poem shows us the grim Viking humour of things: scenes of carnage are individualized; the tension is dramatic, and as taught as the death rattle of a warrior cleaved in two by a Danish, two-headed battle axe.

Under intense questioning by the Valkyrie, we are given a realistic view of Harold`s prowess in war and sex as a youth: marriages, concubines, berserkers, skalds and jugglers; all is presented before us as a banquet of the violence, and the honey sweetness of words.

It`s a great poem which sets the benchmark for all that follows………..“Hearken ye ring bearers, while of Harold I tell you….”

They hearkened, they wrote, they followed…………The Viking Sagas are one of the glories of language and literature, and still nourish the souls of all who sit round the metaphorical campfire on a cold and windy night, and listen to tales of the glorious, fallen Norse warriors. They will live forever as long as tales of their glorious and valiant deeds are told………….Fame is all that matters for eternal life.

Viking-Warrior

 

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