The Northern Way

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

3. The Fall of Ragnar and the Vengeance of his Sons

At that time, there was a king called Ella ruling over Northumbria in England. And when he learns that raiders have come to his kingdom, he musters a mighty force and marches against Ragnar with an overwhelming host, and hard and terrible battle ensues. King Ragnar was clad in the silken jacket Aslaug had given him at their parting. But as the defending army was so big that nothing could withstand them, so almost all his men were killed, but he himself charged four times through the ranks of King Ella, and iron just glanced off his silk shirt. Finally he was taken captive and put in a snake-pit, but the snakes wouldn't come near him. King Ella had seen during the day, as they fought, that iron didn't bite him, and now the snakes won't harm him. So he had him stripped of the clothes that he'd been wearing on the day, and at once snakes were hanging off him on all sides, and he left his life there with much courage.

And when the sons of King Ragnar hear this news, they head west to England and fight with King Ella. But since Ivar wouldn't fight, nor his men, and moreover the English army was immense, they were defeated and fled to their ships and home to Denmark, leaving it at that.

But Ivar stayed in England and went to see King Ella and asked to be compensated for his father. And because King Ella had seen that Ivar didn't want to fight alongside his brothers, he took this for a genuine offer of peace. Ivar asked the king to give him in compensation as much land as he could cover with the biggest old bull-hide he could find, because, he says, he can't very well go home in peace to his brothers if he doesn't get anything. This all seemed above board to Ella and they agree to these terms. Ivar now takes a fresh supple bull-skin and has it stretched out as thin as can be. And then he has the hide sliced into the finest string, and he then splits the flesh-side from the hair-side for himself. Then he has it pulled around a flat stretch of land and marked out foundations. He builds strong city walls, and that town is now called York. He makes alliances with all the people of the country and especially with the leaders, and eventually all the chiefs around pledged loyalty to him and his brothers.

Then he sends word to his brothers and says it's more likely they'll be able to avenge their father now if they come with an army to England. And when they hear that, they order out the army and make for England. And as soon as Ivar learns they're on their way, he goes to King Ella and says that he doesn't want to keep such news a secret, but he can't really fight against his own brothers; nevertheless he'll go and talk to them and try to make peace. The king agrees. Ivar goes to meet his brothers and incites them to avenge their father, and then goes back to King Ella and says that they're so savage and crazed with fury that they want to fight no matter what. As far as the king can see, Ivar is acting with the utmost faith. Now Ella goes against the bothers with his army.

But when they clash, a good many leaders leave the king and go over to Ivar. The king was outnumbered then, so that the greater part of his forces fell, but he himself was taken captive. Ivar and the brothers now recall how their father was tortured. They now had the eagle cut in Ella's back, then all his ribs severed from the backbone with a sword, so that his lungs were pulled out. As Sighvat says in the poem Knutsdrapa:

“Ivar, he who
held court at York,
had eagle hacked
in Ella's back.”

After this battle, Ivar made himself king over that part of England which his forbears had owned before him. He had two brothers born out of wedlock, one called Yngvar, the other Husto. They tortured King Edmund the Saint on Ivar's orders, and then he took his kingdom.

The sons of Lodbrok went raiding in many lands: England, Wales, France and out over Lombardy. But it's said the furthest they got was when they took the town of Luni. And one time they thought of going to Rome and taking that. And their warrings have become the most famous in all the northlands where Norse is spoken. And when they come back to their realm in Denmark, they shared out the lands between them. Bjorn Ironside got Uppsala and central Sweden and all the lands that belong to that, and it's told that Sigurd Snake-in-Eye had Zealand and Skåne and Halland, and Oslo Fjord, and Agder as far as Lindesnes and a good portion of the Norwegian Uplands, while Hvitserk had Reidgotaland and Wendland.

Sigurd Snake-in-Eye married Blaeja, the daughter of King Ella. Their son was Knut, who was called Horda-Knut, who succeeded his father in Zealand, Skåne and Halland, but Oslo Fjord broke away from his rule. Gorm was his son. He was named after his foster father, the son of Knut the Foundling. He governed all the lands of Ragnar's sons while they were away at war. Gorm Knutsson was the biggest of men and the strongest and the most impressive in every respect, but he wasn't as wise as his forebears had been.

4. Of King Gorm

Gorm took the kingship after his father. He married Thyri, who was called Denmark's Saviour, daughter of Klakk-Harald, who was king in Jutland. But when Harald died, Gorm took all of Harald's realm under his rule too. King Gorm went with his host over the whole of Jutland and abolished all the petty kings as far south as the River Schlei, and thus seized much of Wendland, and he fought great battles against the Saxons and became a mighty king. He had two sons. The eldest was called Knut, and the younger one Harald. Knut was the most handsome man ever seen. The king loved him above any other man, and so did all the people. He was called The Love of the Danes. Harald resembled his mother's kin and his mother loved him no less than Knut.

Ivar the Boneless was king in England for a long time. He had no children, because of the way he was: with no lust or love--but he wasn't short of cunning and cruelty. And he died of old-age in England and was buried there. Then all Ragnar's sons were dead. After Ivar, Adalmund, the son of Saint Edmund's brother, took the kingship in England and converted large parts of it to Christianity. He took tribute from Northumbria, because that was heathen. His son, Adalbrigt, ruled after him. He was a good king and lived to an old age.

Towards the end of his time, a Danish army came to England, and the leaders of the army were Knut and Harald, the sons of King Gorm. They seized large parts of the kingdom in Northumbria, which Ivar had owned. King Adalbrigt marched against them and they fought north of Cleveland, and a great many Danes fell there. And a little later, the Danes went up to Scarborough and fought there and won. Then they marched south to York and the whole populous accepted their rule, and they had no fear. And one day, when the weather was hot, the men went bathing in the sea. And as the king's sons were also swimming between the ships, some men rushed down from the land and shot at them. Knut was mortally wounded with an arrow, and they took the body and carried it out to the ship. And when the English hear that, they gather their forces, so that the Danes can't get ashore, due to the Englishmen gathered there. So after that they go back home to Denmark.

King Gorm was in Jutland at the time. And when he heard these tidings, he collapsed and he died of grief at the same hour the following day. Then Harald, his son, ruled in Denmark. He was the first of his kin to take the faith and be baptised.

5. The Fall of Sigurd Hart

Sigurd Snake-in-Eye and Bjorn Ironside and Hvitserk had raided widely in France. Then Bjorn headed back home to his kingdom. After that, the Emperor Arnulf fought with the brothers, and a hundred thousand Danes and Norwegians fell there. There also fell Sigurd Snake-in-Eye, and Gudrod was the name of another king who fell there. He was the son of Olaf, the son of Ring, the son of Ingjald, the son of Ingi, the son of Ring, after whom Ringerike in Norway is known. Ring was the son of Dag and Thora Mother-of-Drengs.3 They had nine sons, and the Dagling dynasty comes from them.

Helgi Hvassi, the Sharp, was the name of Gudrod's brother. He escaped from the battle with the standard of Sigurd Snake-in-Eye, and his sword and shield. He went home to Demark with his own forces and there found Aslaug, Sigurd's mother, and told her the tidings. Then Aslaug spoke a verse:

“Sad sit the corpse-stalkers,
slaverers after cadavers:
the slain-craver, raven--
what a shame!--forsaken
by namesake of Sigurd;
in vain now they're waiting.
Too soon from life Lord Odin
let such a hero go.”

But because Horda-Knut was young, Helgi stayed with Aslaug for a long time as protector of the land. Sigurd and Blaeja had a daughter. She was Horda-Knut's twin. Aslaug gave her own name to her and brought her up then and fostered her. Afterwards she married Helgi Hvassi. Their son was Sigurd Hart. Of all the men ever seen, he was the fairest, and the biggest, and the strongest. They were the same age, Gorm Knutsson and Sigurd Hart.

When Sigurd was twelve, he killed the berserk Hildibrand in a duel, and he single-handedly slew twelve men in that fight. After that Klakk-Harald gave him his daughter, who was called Ingibjorg. They had two children: Gudthorm and Ragnhild.

Then Sigurd learnt that King Frodi, his father's brother, was dead. He went north to Norway and became king over Ringerike, his inheritance. There is a long story told of him, as he did all manner of mighty deeds.

But it's said of his passing, that he rode out hunting in the wilderness, as was his custom, and Haki Hadaberserk came at him with thirty fully armed men and they fought with him. Sigurd fell there, after first killing twelve men, but King Haki had lost his right hand and received three other wounds besides. Afterwards Haki and his men rode to Ringerike, to Stein, where Sigurd's dwelling was, and took away Ragnhild his daughter, and his son Gudthorm, and plenty of goods too, and carried them off home with him to Hadeland. And soon after that, he had a great feast prepared and meant to celebrate his wedding, but it was put off because his wounds weren't healing. Ragnhild was fifteen years old then, and Gudthorm fourteen. Autumn passed, and Haki was laid up with his wounds till Yule.

At this time, King Halfdan the Black was staying at his estate in Hedmark. He sent Harek Gand with a hundred and twenty men, and they marched over the frozen Lake Mjøsa to Hadeland one night and came the next morning to King Haki's home and seized all the doors of the hall where the retainers were sleeping. And then they went to King Haki's bedroom and took Ragnhild and Gudthorm, her brother, and all the treasure that was there, and carry it off with them. They burnt all the retainers in their hall and then leave. But King Haki got up and got dressed and went after them for a while. But when he came to the ice, he turned down his sword-hilt to the ground and fell on the point and met his death there, and he's buried on the bank of the lake.

King Halfdan saw them coming over the ice with a covered wagon and guessed their mission had gone exactly as he wished. He had a message sent then to all the settlements and invited to all the important people in Hedmark to a big feast that very day. There he celebrated his wedding to Ragnhild, and they lived together for many years after. Their son was King Harald the Fine-Haired, who was first to become sole ruler over the whole of Norway.

Notes

3. drengr ‘a gallant, brave fellow’.

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