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THIS FINE but difficult retrospective monologue is unique in Old Germanic literature; not so much in manner as in matter. Its hero is, to be sure, the Danish national champion, Starkath, celebrated in song and story (though this lay is the only extant poetic treatment of the theme in the original language); but in this episode he has undergone a change to the sinister and demonic. The stern warrior and unbending protagonist of the olden simplicity of morals and customs, such as he appears in the Lay of Ingiald and elsewhere, has here become an uncouth half-troll of superhuman strength and somewhat dubious, Ahasveric nature. But the lay bespeaks an unexpected sympathy for this composite character of mixed heroism and baseness. His crime, the most heinous, according to Old Germanic ethics, of treacherously slaying his leader and foster brother to whom he is, moreover, genuinely attached because he owes to him his awakening to the heroic life—this crime is not to be expiated by “repentance.” To be sure, the accompanying story, both in the Gautreks saga, in which the lay is interwoven, and in Saxo seeks at least to motivate, and thus palliate, the deed by laying the blame on Óthin1—in all the Starkath lays he is the instigator to strife. But, of course, it is the troll nature that reveals itself finally, making him a “nithing.”
As to the prose of the Gautreks saga and the similar story of Saxo,2 it seems to occupy a middle ground in technique: it is not mainly supererogatory and explicatory stage direction, as in the oldest lays—say, the Lays of Skirnir, of Volund; nor a wordy setting for lays elaborating, and based on, themes taken from it—as, say, the Lay of Hiálmar; but has an independent value beside the lay, furnishing legendary facts which the lay may not even hint at, just as the lay in its turn is independent p. 19 of the prose. Hence a full account is given below of the somewhat complicated story.
There is hardly a question about the Icelandic origin, say in the twelfth century, of this vigorous and pithy poem. The poor state of transmission necessitates a number of drastic emendations. Fornyrthislag, with a few kvithuháttr lines interspersed, is the meter employed.
As the Hálf’s saga relates, in its first chapter, the sacrifice of Víkar to Óthin came about in the following manner: Beautiful Geirhild managed to be taken as wife by King Alrek of Horthaland3 through Óthin’s help, on condition that she should call on the god in all difficulties. King Alrek was married already to Signy, the daughter of another king. The two wives could not agree, and Alrek promised that he would retain as his queen her who brewed the best ale against his return. Signy called on Freya, and Geirhild on Óthin. He added his spittle for yeast and said that for his help he must have that which was between her and the vat. Her ale proved to be the best. Then said Alrek:
|“ ‘Beware, Geirhild! Good is this ale,|
if not any evil follow:
on high gallows hanging I see
thy son, Geirhild, given to Óthin.’ ”
That same year was born their son Víkar.
As to Starkath’s origin and youth, we learn from the Gautreks saga, Chapter 3, that his grandfather, the giant Starkath, robbed a princess. Her father called for aid on Thór, inveterate enemy of the giant tribe, who slew Starkath and led her back to her father. She gave birth to Stórvirk—“a handsome man, though black of hair, larger and stronger than other men.” He becomes right-hand man of King Harold of Agthir. In his turn, Stórvirk abducts Unni, Earl Freki’s daughter. This deed is avenged in time by the earl’s two sons, Fiori and Fýri. They burn Stórvirk and Unni in their hall, but the infant Starkath survives the fire and is adopted by King Harold. When three years old he is taken thence and fostered by an old man called Hrosshársgrani p. 20 (i.e., Óthin) at Ask,4 where he grows to the age of twelve, uncouth and huge of strength, but unaware of his powers. Under the same fosterage, and as hostage, grew up also Víkar, the son (here) of the same King Harold who, meanwhile, was treacherously slain by a neighboring king, Herthióf. Víkar becomes a great leader and, joined by Starkath, whom he arouses to action, and eleven other young warriors, he avenges his father on Herthióf and wins back his kingdom. On all his various ensuing expeditions Starkath is his trusted friend and companion and distinguishes himself by deeds of valor.
One time, Víkar is held back with his fleet by contrary winds. They consult the oracle, which pronounces that Óthin must be appeased by the sacrifice of a man. The lot falls on King Víkar. That same night, Hrosshársgrani comes to Starkath and bids him follow him. They row to land. In a forest close at hand the gods are assembled, debating Starkath’s fate. Óthin, his foster father and protector, bestows on him all manner of good things, among them, the gift of poetry and three lives; but Thór, Óthin’s antagonist, who moreover hates Starkath by reason of his giant origin, adds a misfortune to each gift: in each life he is to commit some dastardly deed. Óthin, in return for his gifts, bids Starkath send him Víkar. He consents. On the morrow, Starkath proposes to the fleet to make a mock sacrifice of Víkar to Óthin. He induces the king to let him fasten about his neck the soft guts of a calf, which he attaches to a slender branch of a tree. Then Starkath touched him with a reed and said: “now I give thee to Óthin,” and let go of the branch. But the branch lifted Víkar up quickly, the guts did their service, and the reed became a spear and pierced him.5 Starkath is outlawed and flees to the Swedish court where the taunting of inferior men arouses the “speechless poet” to unburthen his heart in the following monologue.
|1||“A boy was I when they burned in hall,|
with my father, the warrior host—
not far outside the firth of Thruma.6
|2||“Was Harold of Agthir’s host overthrown—|
had his kinsmen bewrayed the ring-breaker,
Fiori and Fýri, earl Freki’s heirs.
Were they Unni’s brothers, my own mother’s;
|3||“the time Herthióf7 Harold betrayed,|
betrayed the king who trusted in him.
He robbed of his life the liege of Agthir,
and fetters fastened for his twain sons.
|4||“Me three winters old thence did bring|
Hrosshársgrani8 to Horthaland;
at Ask gan I grow and strengthen,
saw none of my sib for nine summers.
|5||“Strength gat I mighty, grew stalwart my arms,|
and long my legs, loathly my head;
as a gaby, dozing I gaping sate,
listless and lazy, on lower bench.9
|6||“Then Víkar wended, from watch-fire faring,10|
Herthióf’s hostage, into the hall.
He knew me again by name and bade me
up to arise and answer him.
|7||“With hands and fingers he fathomed me:|
were all my arms (much etin-like,)11
p. 22 to the wrists downward (rough and hairy,)11
and my face bearded from brow to chin.
|8||“Then Harold’s heir12 the host gathered:|
Sorkvir and Grettir and Hildigrím,
Erp and Ulf, Án and Skúma,
Hrói and Hrotti, which were Herbrand’s sons,
|9||“Stýr and Steinthór from Stath13 in the North,|
gathered also old Gunnólf blesi.14
Were then of us thirteen together:
a hardier host will hardly be found.
|10||“To Herthióf’s hall we hied us then,|
shook its door-posts, broke down its gates,
shattered its bars, brandished our swords
where stood seventy stalwart warriors.15
|11||“We vied with each other, Víkar to follow16|
since first and foremost in the flock he stood;
we hewed helmets and the heads that bore them,
sundered byrnies and broke through shields.
|12||“Was great glory granted to Víkar,|
but Herthióf paid for his hateful deed:
some we wounded, and slew others;
not far was I stead17 when fell the king.
|13||“On the Vænir18 wert not with Víkar then,|
east in the land at early morn,
p. 23 in the field when we fought with Sísar:19
were those doughty deeds of undying fame.
|14||“With his sword did he sorely wound me—|
sharp-edged was it— through my shield cleaving.
My helm he hewed from off my head,
my chin he cleft clean to the jawteeth.20
|15||“And on one side with his sword he cut me—|
mightier than I— the midriff above;
but through the other he thrust his spear,
the cold iron, within it stood.21
|16||“With my sword, Sísar’s side I cut then|
with bitter brand, his belly athwart.
So wrathfully I raised my sword
that all my strength I bestowed on it.
|* * *22|
|17||“Much Welsh gold gave me Víkar—|
the red-gold ring which on wrist I wear,
of three marks’ weight;23 I Thruma24 gave him.
I followed the king fifteen summers.
|18||“I followed the king whom foremost I knew:|
my life did I like best then.
’T was ere we fared— did foul trolls drive us—
to Horthaland: this happened last.
|19||“The outcome this, that Thór gave me|
a nithing’s25 name, unnumbered woes—
|* * *|
|I was fated fell things to do.|
|20||“In high tree was I to hallow Víkar,|
to give to the gods Geirthiof’s26 slayer.
Through his heart I thrust the thane with my spear:
of all my works most woeful this!
|21||“On wilding ways I wandered thence,|
by the Horthar27 hated, with heart rueful,
bereft of rings and robbed of honor,
leaderless, forlorn in mind.
|22||“Now have I sought the Swedish lands,|
the Ynglings’28 seat, Uppsala halls.
A speechless poet,29 the prince’s sons
did let me stay— as long I shall.
|23||“They set me here brash30 swains between,|
who scornfully scoff at the aged skald;
gleefully girding, they make game of me,
and lewdly laugh at the liege’s poet.
|24||“They ween they see on my own self|
the etin mark of eight arms,
p. 25 the time Hlórrithi31 Hergrím’s slayer32
reft of his arms in the outmost North.
|25||“The men laugh when looking at me—|
at my loathly mug and long snout,
my wolf-grey hair and hanging arms,
my scurvy neck and wrinkled skin.”
1 Cf. also the Second Lay of Helgi, 34: “of all evil is Óthin father.” It is instructive to compare the Herakles of Euripides in this respect.
2 Who derives it from Norwegian sources.
3 The southwestern district of Norway, as Agthir (below) is the southernmost.
4 On the island of Fenhring, near the present city of Bergen. The implied hostility of these divinities, and Óthin’s assumption, on an island, of the tutelage of his favorite in sinister arts, recall the story of Geirrœth in the prose of Grímnismál.
5 This story, told similarly by Saxo, is a reminiscence of the human sacrifices—by hanging and piercing with a spear—which belonged to the worship of Óthin, the “god of the hanged” (Hávamál, 139.) The circumstances of the sacrifice resemble closely that of the sacrifice of Iphigenia in Greek lore.
6 The present Tromö-sund, a sound between the island of Trom-ö and the mainland, near Arendal, on the southeast coast of Norway.
7 It appears that he joined forces with Freki, and fell upon both King Harold and Starkath’s father. We are not told who Víkar’s brother was.
8 “Man with a mustache of (or like) horse hair”: Óthin, who is frequently pictured as a greybeard.
9 Where the strvants ate: Starkath as a youth grows up as the typical ashiepattle, huge of body, who conceals his wits (and his plans of revenge?) under the guise of a tongue-tied zany. Cf. Helgi in the Lay of Helgi Hiorvarthsson.
10 Herthióf had instituted beacon signals to warn of hostile raids, and Víkar was set over one of them.
11 Lines lacking in the original and supplied here by guess of the translator.
13 The promontory in the west of Norway.
15 The MSS add the following (later?) lines:
|“unafraid of the fray, before their king.|
Were there also all of the thralls,
the working men and water-carriers.”
16 In the original, “it was hard to follow,” etc., a somewhat unusual thought.
17 Litotes: Starkath slays him.
18 Vænir is the great Swedish lake on whose frozen surface this, and other, battles were fought. The following is more particularly addressed to the king’s man who had taunted Starkath.
19 This redoubtable antagonist bears the name of the Russian Czar (from Cisari, Cæsar).
20 The MSS add:
|“my right collar-bone he crushed with a blow.”|
The description of mortal and disfiguring wounds and of other blemishes is peculiar to the poem.
21 The MSS add:
|“canst see on me the marks yet, healed.”|
22 At this point, the original contains eight stanzas, inferior in value and quite evidently interpolated, dealing with further deeds of Víkar, but speaking of Starkath in the third person.
23 A “mark” was eight ounces.
24 Which island King Harold had given Starkath ’s father.
25 “Base villain and coward”; a term difficult to render in English with one vocable. The stanza is defective, but evidently the happenings on the island to which Óthin took Starkath in the night are referred to. The broken style betrays the agitation of the speaker.
26 Another king, Herthióf’s brother, slain by Víkar.
27 The inhabitants of Horthaland.
28 The royal race of Sweden, descended from the god Yngvi-Frey.
29 The exact meaning of Old Norse thulr (here translated “poet”) is not certain, especially in this passage. If the meaning generally attributed to it, and here followed, is correct, then we may surinise that the gift of poetry given Starkath by Óthin was denied utterance by Thór. The princes allow Starkath to remain silent, brooding over his treachery. For once, he bursts out—with self-accusation, not in repentance. And he means to relapse into silence, for a long time.
30 The “white-browed” of the original I take to refer to their immaturity, contrasted with Starkath’s swart hairiness.
32 The older Starkath.