The Northern Way

The Tale of Ragnar's Sons - Translation by Peter Tunstall

© 2005 Peter Tunstall

1. King Ragnar

After the death of King Ring, his son Ragnar came to power in Sweden and Denmark. Then many kings came to the kingdom and seized land. And because he was a young man, they thought he would also be unfit for decision making or governing the country. There was a jarl in West Gautland who was called Herraud. He was a vassal of King Ragnar. He was the wisest man there was and a great warrior. He had a daughter, who was called Thora Hart-of-the-Town. She was the fairest of all women that the king had heard tell of.

The jarl, her father, had given her a baby snake for a present one morning. To begin with, she kept it in a box. But in time, this snake got so big that it coiled right round the bower and bit its own tail. It grew so fierce then that no one dared come near the bower, except her servants and those who fed it, and it ate an ox a day. Folk were very scared, and they could see that it would do great harm, so big and fierce had it become. The jarl made this solemn vow at the bragarfull, the ceremony of the chief's cup, that he would give his daughter Thora in marriage to none but the man who could kill that snake, or who dared go and talk with her there in front of the snake.

And when King Ragnar hears this news, he goes to West Gautland. And when he had just a little way to go to the jarl's dwelling, he donned shaggy clothes: trousers and a cloak with sleeves and hood. These clothes were treated with sand and tar, and he took in his hand a great spear, and had a sword on his belt, and in this way he left his men and walked alone to the jarl's dwelling and Thora's bower. And as soon as the snake saw that a stranger had come, it reared up and blew poison at him. But he thrust his shield at it and went bravely towards it and pierced its heart with his spear. Then he drew his sword and cut off the serpent's head. And it turned out just as it says in the Saga of King Ragnar: he married Thora Hart-of-the-Town.

And afterwards he went to war and liberated the whole kingdom. He had two sons with Thora, one called Eirik, the other Agnar. And when they were a few years old, Thora takes sick and she died. After that, Ragnar married Aslaug, whom some call Randalin, the daughter of Sigurd Fafnir's Bane and Brynhild Budli's daughter. They had four sons. Ivar Boneless was the eldest, then Bjorn Ironside, then Hvitserk, then Sigurd. There was a mark is his eye, as if a snake lay around the pupil, and that's why he was called Sigurd Snake-in-Eye.

2. The Death of Ragnar's Elder Sons

Now when Ragnar's sons were fully grown, they went raiding far and wide. The brothers Eirek and Agnar were second in rank after Ragnar, and Ivar third with his younger brothers, and he was the leader because he was very clever. They conquered Zealand and Reidgotaland, Gotland, and Öland and all the smaller islands in the sea. Then Ivar set himself up at Lejre in Zealand with his younger brothers, but that went against the will of King Ragnar. His sons all went warring, because they didn't want to be any less famous than their father the king.

King Ragnar wasn't too pleased about this, that his sons had turned against him and taken his tributary lands against his will. He set up a man called Eystein Beli as king over Upper Sweden, and told him to hold the realm for him and guard it from his sons, if they laid claim to it.

One summer, when King Ragnar had gone east over the Baltic with his army, his sons Eirik and Agnar came to Sweden and brought their ships into Lake Mälaren. Then they sent word to King Eystein in Uppsala, telling him to come to them. And when they met, Eirik said that he wanted Eystein to govern Sweden under the brothers, and adds that he wants to marry Eystein's daughter Borghild, and says that then they'll be well able to hold the kingdom against King Ragnar. Eystein tells them that he wants to consult the Swedish chieftains, so with that they part. And when King Eystein raised this matter, the chieftains were all of one mind: to defend the land from Ragnar's sons. And they bring together now an overwhelming host, and King Eystein marches against Ragnar's sons. And when they clash, a great battle ensues and Lodbrok's sons are overwhelmed by superior numbers, and their troops fall in such numbers that hardly any were left standing. Then Agnar fell too, and Eirik was captured.

King Eystein offered peace to Eirik and as much of the wealth of Uppsala as he wanted in compensation for his brother Agnar, and, along with that, he could have his daughter Borghild, just as he'd asked. Eirik didn't want monetary compensation, and he didn't want the king's daughter, and he says he doesn't want to live after such a defeat as he's just had, but this, he said, this is what he would accept: to choose for himself the day of his death. And since King Eystein couldn't get any settlement out of Eirik, he agreed to that.

Eirik asked them to catch him from below on spear-points and so lift him up above all the slain. Then chanted Eirik:

“Don't care, cur, to hear you,
killer if you offer;
(Eystein, they say, slew Agnar)
I don't want your daughter.
To mourn me I've no mother;
make haste, hey!, impale me.
I'll die over host hoisted,
highest o'er the slaughter.”

And before he was lifted up on the spears, he saw a man riding hard. Then he said:

“Send word to my slender
sweet stepmother, greet her:
(my forays east are ended)
say all my rings are hers.
Great will grow their anger
when they get to know it,
when she brings her bounteous
boys news of my demise.”

Now it was done, just as he'd said: Eirik was raised up on the spear-points, and he died thus, up above the slain.

And when word of this reaches Aslaug in Zealand, she goes at once to see her sons and tells them the news. Bjorn and Hvitserk were playing tafl, and Sigurd was stood in front. Then said Aslaug:

“I doubt, if they'd made it,
and you lot had fallen,
(with loved ones not living)
they'd let you go forgotten
--I say and make no secret--
six whole months sans vengeance,
if Eirik lived, and Agnar--
I who never bore them.”

Then Sigurd Snake-in-Eye answered:

“In three weeks we'll be through with
(if that grieves you, mother)
(long the way that waits us)
war-readying of levies.
Eystein's rule's soon over
--even if he offers
payments big and brazen--
if our blades prove true then.

Then said Bjorn Ironside:

“Heart will hold, heroic,
in a hawk-keen torso:
doughty, daring, though I
don't shout out about it,
nor snakes nor beady serpents
sit in my eyes spiralled.
Those men made me merry:
your stepsons I remember.”

Then answered Hvitserk:

“Let's plan, before vowing,
how vengeance might be managed,
various vile torments
devise for Agnar's killer;
heave hulls onto billows,
hew ice aside, slice it.
Let's see who's sloop's scrambled,
schooners to sea, soonest.

Then Ivar Boneless said:

“Pluck you have in plenty
and pith as well with it:
let's trust too you're stubborn,
as tough heads are needed.
I'm borne before my fighters
forward though I'm boneless,
I have hands for vengeance,
though hardly strength in either.”

After that, Ragnar's sons mustered an overwhelming army. And when they were ready, they went with a fleet to Sweden, while Queen Aslaug goes overland with fifteen hundred knights, and that host was well equipped. She wore armour herself and commanded the army, and they called her Randalin, and they meet up in Sweden and plunder and burn wherever they go.

King Eystein hears word of this and raises an army against them, with every man of fighting age who was in his realm. And when they met, a mighty battle ensued, and Lodbrok's sons had the victory, and King Eystein fell, and news of this battle spreads far and wide, and very famous it becomes.

Out campaigning, King Ragnar hears of it, and he's less than happy with his sons, as they'd taken revenge without waiting for him. And when he comes home to his realm, he says to Aslaug that he'll do deeds no less famous than his sons have done. “I've now won back almost all the lands that my forebears held, but not England. And that's why I've now had two knorrs1 made at Lidum in Vestfold”--his kingdom reached all the way to Dovrefjell and Lindesnes.

Aslaug answered, “You could have had many longships2 made for the price of these knorrs. And besides, you know that big ships are no good for going to England, with all the streams and shallows there, and this is not well thought out.”

But all the same, King Ragnar goes west to England in these knorrs with five hundred men and both ships are wrecked in England, but Ragnar himself and all his crew came safely ashore. He takes now to harrying wherever he goes.

Notes

1. Bulky cargo ships.

2. Sleeker vessel favoured as a warship.

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