The Northern Way

The Tale of Helgi Thorisson - Translation by Peter Tunstall

© 2005 Peter Tunstall

1. Helgi Met Ingibjorg

There was once a man called Thorir who lived in Norway at Raudberg. This farmstead is not far from Oslo Fjord. Thorir had two sons. One was called Helgi and the other Thorstein. They were both fine men, but Helgi was the more talented. By rank, their father was a lord. He was friendly with King Olaf.1

It happened one summer that the brothers took a trading trip north to Finnmark with butter and bacon to sell to the Lapps. They had a good trip and as summer was getting on they turned back, and one day they came to the headland known as Vimund. There was a very fine forest there. They went ashore and cut down some maple tree. Helgi has gone deeper into the woods than the others. Then a thick fog comes down so that he can't find the ship that evening. Soon night falls too.

Then Helgi sees twelve women riding from the wood. They were all in red, on red horses. They dismounted. All the trappings of the horses glittered with gold. One surpassed the others in loveliness, and they're all serving her, this magnificent imposing woman. Their horses went to graze. Next, they set up a beautiful tent. It was covered in different coloured stripes shot through with gold, and the points flashed with gold as the tent went up, and the pole too, as it stood up, with a big knob of gold on top.

And when they were ready, they set up a table and put on it all sorts of delicacies. Then they took water to wash their hands with, using a jug in the shape of a man and basins made of silver and inlaid all over with gold. Helgi stepped closer to the tent and looked in. She who was chief of them said, “Helgi, come here and take food and drink with us.”

So he does. Helgi sees that there is excellent drink and good food too and beautiful vessels. Then the table was taken down and beds prepared, and they were much more ornate than the beds of other folk. That woman, the one who was their leader, asks Helgi whether he'd rather sleep on his own, or with her. Helgi asked her name.

“I am Ingibjorg, daughter of Godmund of Glasisvellir.”

Helgi said, “With you.”

And so they did, for three nights in a row. Then the weather cleared--they rise and get dressed.

And Ingibjorg said, “Now we must part. Here are two boxes, one full of silver, one of gold, which I want to give you, but tell no one where it's from.”

After that, they ride off the way they came, and he went to his ship. They welcome him back and ask where he's been, but he doesn't want to talk about it. They steer south along the coast and come home to their father, and they've done well for themselves. Helgi's father and brother ask where he came by so much wealth as he had in the boxes, but he won't say.

2. Of Godmund's Messengers

Now it's getting on for Yule. And one night, it so happened, there comes portentous weather. Thorstein spoke to his brother, “We ought to go and have a look to see how our ship's doing.”

That's that they do, but it was quite secure. Helgi had put up a dragon figurehead on their ship, up on the prow, and it was well decorated above the sea-line. He spent some of the treasure that Ingibjorg gave him on this, and the rest he'd locked in the dragon's neck. Then they hear a great crack. Two men ride at them and carry off Helgi. Thorstein didn't know what had become of him. The storm quickly subsides then. Thorstein comes home and tells his father what happened, and it sounds serious. Thorir goes to see King Olaf and tells him how things stood, and begged him to find out what had become of his son. The king says he'll do as Thorir asked, though he said he wasn't sure if Helgi would be of much use to his family after this.

So Thorir returned home, and a year passes, and now it's getting on for Yule again, and the king is staying the winter at Alreksstadir. It's now the eighth day of Yule, and at evening three men walk into the hall and stand before King Olaf as he sat at table. They greet him well. The king greets them well in return. One of them was Helgi, but no one knew the other two. The king asked their names, and they were both called Grim.

“We've been sent here to you by Godmund of Glasisvellir. He sends his respects and, with them, these two horns.”

The king took them and they were covered in gold. These were very fine items. King Olaf owned two horns, which were called the Hyrnings, but even though they were very good, these were better, these ones Godmund had sent.

“Here, lord, is Godmund's offer, that you be his friend, for he sets great store in your having your respect, more so than that of any other king.”

The king doesn't reply, but has them shown to their seats. He has the horns filled with good drink and blessed by his bishop, and brought to the Grims, for them to drink from first. Then the king chanted this verse:

“Our guests shall get
a good drink now,
to quench their thirst,
thanes of Godmund.
Here's ale
in horns for the Grims,
the two namesakes,
as they take their rest.”

So the Grims take hold of the horns and they think they know what words the bishop has read out over the drinks. They say, “He wasn't far off the mark, our king, Godmund. This is a sneaky king who doesn't know how to repay kindness very well, for our master acted honourably towards him. Let's all get up now and be off.”

So they do. There's a great disturbance in the room. They tipped the drinks from the horns and snuffed the lights. Then a great crack was heard. The king prayed God to watch over them, and told his men to get up and pull themselves together. Now the Grims are gone, and Helgi with them. A light was kindled in the king's dwelling. They see then that three men have been killed, and there lie the horns of the Grims on the hall floor beside the dead.

“This is a great wonder,” said the king, “but it would be better if it didn't happen too often. And I've heard it said of Godmund of Glasisvellir, that he's full of spells, and dangerous to deal with, and those who have come under his power are in a bad way, even if we could do something about it.”

The king told them to keep the horns of the Grims, and drink from them, and there was no problem. The pass above Alreksstadir, where they came from the east, is now called Grims' Gap, and nobody's used it since.

3. Helgi's Story

Now the winter passes, and another year, and it's the eighth day of Yule again and the king is in church with his court hearing mass. And three men appear at the church door and two of them say: “Here, we've brought Old Mopy for you, king, but when you'll be rid of him, well, that's anyone's guess.”

Then the two of them go, leaving the third man. And people recognise him as Helgi. The king is at now table, and as the men are talking with Helgi there, they notice that he's blind. The king asked what it meant, what happened to him, and, for that matter, where he'd been all this time. He tells the king first about finding the women in the wood, then about the Grims causing a storm for him and his brother, so that they would want go out to save their ship, and how the Grims had then taken him off to Godmund in Glasisvellir and brought him to Ingibjorg, Godmund's daughter.

The king asked, “What was it like there?”

“Just perfect,” he says, “and I've never seen better.”

Then the king enquired about King Godmund's way of life, how many his people were, and what they got up to. And Helgi spoke, saying how great everything was, and how it was impossible to describe it all.

The king said, “Why did you leave so suddenly last year?”

“Godmund sent the Grims to trick you,” says Helgi, “He let me come because of your prayers, so that you might know what became of me. But we left so fast then because of the Grims. On account of their nature, they couldn't drink the drink which you'd had blessed. They got angry at seeing themselves beaten. And they killed those men of yours because that's what Godmund said to do, if they didn't manage to harm you. But he showed off his glory, sending you those horns, so that you would think more of them than me.”

The king asked, “Why have you come back now?”

He answers, “It's due to Ingibjorg. She reckoned she couldn't sleep with me without feeling sick, if she touched my naked body, and that's mostly why I left, and of course King Godmund didn't want any bother with you, as soon as he knew you wanted me away from there. But the glory and bounty of King Godmund, and the vast host of the people that are with him, well, I can't sum it up in just a few words.”

The king asked, “Why are you blind?”

He answers, “Ingibjorg, Godmund's daughter, clawed out both my eyes when we parted, and said that the women in Norway would not enjoy me for long.”

The king said, “I'd have Godmund suffer greatly for those murders he did in my hall, if that is God's will.”

Now they sent for Thorir, Helgi's father, and he gave thanks to the king, that his son had been brought back out of the clutches of trolls. Then Thorir went home, but Helgi stayed on with the king and lived a year to the day. And the king had the Horns Grim with him when he put to sea that last time. And it's said that when King Olaf vanished from his ship, The Long Serpent,2 the horns vanished too, and they say no one has seen them since. And that's all there is to be told of the Grims.

Notes

1. Olaf Tryggvason (Óláfr Tryggvason), king of Norway 995-1000, esteemed in sagas for his attempt to Christianise the country.

2. Ormr inn langi. Olaf’s prized flagship, from which he leapt to avoid capture in his final battle, sinking without a trace.

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