Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The History Channel's Viking Earl

To get ready for Season Two of the History Channel's TV series, "The Vikings" (premiering February 27), I've been watching Season One on DVD, as I mentioned in last week's post [here]. And I've been reminded of some of the things that bothered me.

I'm glad that Earl Haraldsson died--much as I like the actor Gabriel Byrne--because that name drove me nuts. Haraldsson? If you know anything about Old Norse, the Viking language, you know that "Haraldsson" literally means "Harald's son," and no self-respecting Viking chieftain is going to live his life in his father's shadow. For a while, I thought his first name was "Earl." Odd, but not impossible. (I know a horse named "Earl.") But no, "Earl" is a title, as we learned when Ragnar Lothbrok became earl.

Some people in the Icelandic sagas are referred to by their patronymics (or matronymics). There are the Hildaridarsons, for example, in Egil's Saga, named for their mother Hildirid. 

In the far north of Norway, we read in Chapter 7 of the Herman Pálsson and Paul Edwards translation, "there was a man called Bjorgolf, farming on Torg Island. He was a land-holder, rich and powerful, though he was a hill-giant on one side of his family, as you could tell from his size and strength. He had a son called Brynjolf, very much like his father."

One autumn, when Bjorgolf was getting on in years, he was invited to a feast. "As was the custom, lots were cast every evening to decide which pairs were to sit at the same drinking horn." A beautiful young girl named Hildirid was paired with the old half-troll. "They had plenty to talk about all evening and he thought her a fine-looking girl."

A few weeks later, Bjorgolf sets off in his Viking ship with a crew of 30. He walks up to Hildirid's house and announces to her father that "I'm taking your daughter back home with me and mean to tie a loose marriage-knot here and now." He pays the father an ounce of gold (a good bride-price: an ounce of gold is worth eight ounces of silver, and you could buy a slave girl for one ounce of silver) "and off they went to bed."

Hildirid soon has two sons--and then old Bjorgolf dies. "No sooner had he been carried to the grave, than Brynjolf"--Bjorgolf's older son--"told Hildirid to take her sons and clear out, so she wet back to her father on Leka Island, where her sons grew up." The boys got none of their father's inheritance (though their mother's father left them pretty well-off), and turned into spiteful, sly, manipulative sneakers generally referred to as that "pair of bastards" or "the Hildaridarsons." They didn't deserve names.

Soon the Hildaridarsons had wheedled their way into King Harald's confidence. They began slandering the great warrior Thorolf, son of Kveld-Ulf ("Evening-Wolf"--not only do we have hill-trolls in this saga, we have werewolves). The king had asked Thorolf to collect the tribute of furs that the Finns owed each year. It was a lucrative position, even if the tax-collector didn't skim off the best for himself, as the Hildaridarsons claimed Thorolf did.

"The King would never believe such a pack of lies," said Thorolf, when his friends told him of the slander. "There's not a scrap of evidence here that I'd betray him."

Yet King Harald did believe it. In Chapter 22, he sails north with 300 men in six ships. They catch Thorolf unaware in the middle of a feast, surround his great hall and set fire to it. The women and children, old people, slaves, and servants are allowed out. Thorolf and his warriors break down a wall and burst from the burning hall.

"Fighting broke out at once and for a time Thorolf and his men used the house to shield their backs, but as it blazed up the fire started threatening them and soon many had been killed. Thorolf ran forward towards the King's banner striking out to left and right.… Thorolf came right up to the thick wall of shields and ran the standard-bearer through with his sword.
"'I'm just three paces short,' Thorolf said.
"He had been pierced with spears and swords, but it was the King who gave him his death-wound and Thorolf dropped down at his feet."

When Kveld-Ulf heard the news he had only one question: Did his son die on his face or on his back? "Old men used to say that anyone who fell face down would be avenged, and that the retribution would come as close to the killer as the victim's fall was close to him."

And so the saga begins.

Back to the History Channel's TV series, "The Vikings." Are we, as viewers, supposed to know all this? Are we supposed to know that someone referred to only by his mother's or father's name is a coward and a conniver? Does Earl Haraldsson--or his wife--ever refer to him by his real name? Or are we supposed to accept the idea that he thinks of himself as too poor an example of manhood to deserve a name? What were the writers thinking?

The Icelandic poem called Hávamál, or "Words of the High One," presents the closest thing we have to a Viking code. The most famous verse runs like this:

Cattle die, kinsmen die,
Every man must die.
But one thing only never dies:
A name with honor earned.

From what I saw of Gabriel Byrne's Earl Haraldsson, in Season One of the History Channel's TV series, "The Vikings," I think he earned a name. Shall we give him one?

Join me again next week at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world. And if you want to learn what happened next in Egil's Saga, join me on the Song of the Vikings tour from, where we'll ride through the landscape of Part Two of the saga.

1 comment:

  1. Is it also possible to see season 2 tonight in The Netherlands? It is not mentioned in the TV guide. Kind regards, Maria