Brian's Saga

by Robin Gordon

Auksford crest: a great auk displaying an open book with the words "Ex ovo sapientia"
-  Auksford, 2006  -

Copyright Robin Gordon 2006

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    Chapter 8
The Swardalers' Saga
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      When Earl Sigurd recognised Sweyne he embraced him.  Tears overflowed down his grey beard.  Then he began to give orders to his men to prepare a great feast.  He seized a drinking horn, drank a draught, and pressed it on Sweyne.  He sent messengers to his farms to bring back provisions.  He ordered them to kill the best beasts and broach the best barrels of beer, and to take silver and buy anything that was lacking.
    Thorkel too said he was glad to see Sweyne, but Sweyne wanted to keep his eyes on him.
    "We'll hold a feast for Sweyne," said Thorkel, "but first, Father, find some place to keep these women, who belong to Nils, Holger and Fritjoff.  I'm sure they will want to set off as soon as they can, to sell them.  You can get very good prices for women like these in Arabia."

    Sweyne said he wanted to keep the women for himself.  The women were not thralls, he said, but of respectable families.
    "If that's so," said Thorkel, "perhaps you know where we can claim the ransom.  I say they are the property of Nils and his friends."
    "I refer this to you, Father," said Sweyne.  "If you decide that they are Nils Ulfsson's property, I mean to ransome them myself.  After that we can hold a wedding, for I mean to marry Ædwitha and none other."
    Sigurd laughed when he heard that and said, "Well, now I understand the power that restored my son's manhood.  You may be sure that I shan't let him lose it again.  I will ransom the prisoners from Nils Ulfsson and his friends, and, if no-one objects, I will assess the compensation myself."
    These are the gifts that Sigurd gave to Nils Ulfsson: a bronze arm-ring, a dagger with a jewelled hilt that Bodvar Einarsson had brought back from an expedition with the Rus, and a horn beaker ornamented with gold that had once belonged to the King of Mercia.  To Holger the Handsome he gave a fine fur cloak made of pelts from Finnmark, a helmet, inlaid with gold and chased with silver, said to have been taken from the Franks by Ragnar when he burned their city of Paris, and a fine gold clasp for a mantle.  To Fritjoff he gave so many silver pieces from his treasure chest that his men began to laugh and to say that if Fritjoff sewed them all into his breeches his belt would not hold them and he would have to stumble around like Sweyne and Thorkel when they were fighting.
    Atfer that Sigurd wanted to hold the marriage ceremony straight away.  "Unless you have relatives that you want to invite," he said to Walburga.
    Sweyne stopped him.  "These women are followers of Christ, not of Odin," he said, "and the marriage must be consecrated by a Christian priest.  There is something else I want you to know, Father.  I have become a Christian myself.  The poisonous breath of the Midgard Serpent withered my body and killed my manhood.  I called on Odin and all the other gods to help me, but they failed me.  When Thorkel wanted to rape Ædwitha, I called on her god, Jesus, and my strength came back straight away.  As soon as I felt it in my blood and my bone I made a vow that I would marry Ædwitha and serve no other god but Christ."
    Sigurd said nothing for a while, then he said that, if that was what Sweyne wanted, it would be done.  "I also made a vow," he said, "but I will not speak of it now."
    When Thorkel saw how things were going he drew Thorolf Bjornsson aside.
    "Go at once and tell the Lord Odd what has happened," he said. "Be sure to tell him everything and answer his questions as well as you can."
    Thorolf went straight to Odd's farm at Odderby and gave him the news.  Odd stroked his skimpy beard and his nose quivered, but he said nothing.


    Next day Odd Fart went to congratulate Earl Sigurd.
    "I hear that your son has come back to you," he said.  "You are a very lucky man, and I can see it's a good thing, both for myself and for my brother-in-law, King Harald, that I've allied our house to yours."
    Sigurd was in high spirits and took Odd to meet Sweyne straight away.  They talked for some time, then Odd Fart drew Sweyne aside.
    "I'm sure your father has a great deal of work to attend to on his farms," he said, "but he will not mind if you stay idle a little longer."
    Sigurd said he did not mind, and left them.
    "My difficulty is this," said Odd.  "I had heard of your exploits and I came over from Norway to betroth my daughter Rannveig to you.  I wanted to make an alliance by marriage between you and King Harald, my brother-in-law, because it seemed to me that you are the two most able noblemen that our nation has.  When I got here they told me that you were dead and offered to ally our houses by marrying Rannveig to your brother Thorkel.  Well, of course, it won't do for the King's niece to be married to a man who is not of the first rank in his country, and, now you've returned, I'm afraid Thorkel has no choice but to take second place.
    "We all know he's a very fine man, but you are obviously much better fitted to enter the royal family.  As you know, there were a few disagreements about who was to be King, and Harald has very few living relatives.  I've heard it said, though I hope you won't repeat it, that he is unable to father children, so Rannveig's sons may well be in line of succession."
    "Well," said Sweyne, "if Thorkel's sons can take the crown of Norway, good luck to them I say, but I don't think it's very likely, sir, for I hear that you have sons as well as daughters."
    "Between ourselves," replied Odd, "I don't think my sons have the ability to be kings.  I set my hopes on my grandchildren, and, if their father is a man of your stamp, I think I can hope great things of them.  I may add that my voice will be quite influential in deciding the succession."
    "I see that my father's luck has fallen to Thorkel," said Sweyne.  "As for me, I shall be quite content to be Earl of Swardale, if the Kings of York and Dublin let me keep it."
    Odd Fart left without a word.  He asked where Sigurd was and went straight to find him.  The Earl was helping repair a plough that had been broken on a stone.
    "I see that you are not as lucky as I thought," said Odd.  "Under the fairest fields lie rocks to blunt the ploughshare.  I've just been talking to your son, Sweyne, and, though I've never met him before, I'm sure he can't be the same as he was when he helped defend his mother from Haakon Bloodhand, or when he helped you to take Swardale, or when his ships were the terror of the Irish Sea.  I had heard of his reputation and that was one of the reasons I wanted to betroth my daughter, Rannveig, to him, and ally him to my brother-in-law the King.  But he does not seem to be the same man at all.  I can't really imagine Sweyne, as he is now, being chosen as the favoured son of Odin.  I think I am fortunate to have chosen Thorkel for my son-in-law, for he is clearly the better man of the two.
    "Tell me, has Sweyne said anything that seems odd to you?  He seems to me almost as if he were drugged, or as if he'd been bewitched by Christians.  That's impossible, of course.  I know there aren't any Christians in Swardale, but that's how he seems to me."
    "If there are Christians in Swardale," said Sigurd, "it's not Sweyne's fault.  But it is as you say: he has been bewitched by Christians and wants to marry this girl Ædwitha who looked after him when he was sick.  Didn't he tell you?"
    "No, we spoke of other things," replied Odd.  "I wanted to be sure that he wouldn't bear a grudge when he found out that his brother was to marry the King's niece.  His reply made no sense to me at all, but now it does.  This girl Ædwitha must be a Saxon.  She's probably been sent here by the King of Mercia.  These Christians are so cunning.  Remember how the Frankish Emperor used Christian missionaries to try and sap his foes' will to fight?  If it hadn't been for King Godfred, Denmark would have fallen, and we'd probably all be living under the Holy Roman Empire.  It's the same old story.  The Mercians have sent this girl to entrap Sweyne.  Well, you can't let him have any share of power in Swardale unless we can somehow knock this Christian nonsense out of his head, or we'll find ourselves ruled by the Saxon and all our gods driven out.
    "I've never heard such disloyalty in my life!  Wasn't it Odin himself who gave Sweyne his sword and marked it with its runes?  And now he calls Odin a devil and says Christ is the only true god!  It's plain that you'll have to leave your Earldom to Thorkel alone, because if a Christian has any power at all he won't rest until he has driven out all our old Viking traditions and made us as soft and weak as the Saxons.  It's really hard to believe that they were like us once, that they came over like us and raided this country, then conquered it and took it for themselves.  Now they are Christians, and live soft lives just like the southern peoples.  It would be wrong to let our people go the same way."
    Earl Sigurd said he would think about Odd's words.
    Odd Fart found Thorolf Bjornsson and spoke to him about Sweyne and Thorkel.  Next he found Gunnar Hallvardsson.  After that Odd, Thorolf and Gunnar all talked together about Sweyne.  Then Odd Fart went to where Nils Ulfsson was mending his scabbard.  He told Nils that he, Thorolf and Gunnar all agreed that Sweyne had been bewitched by Christians and was unfit to share power with Thorkel.  Nils agreed and went with him to find Holger and Fritjoff.
    All day Odd Fart went around talking to people and bringing little groups together.  Afterwards Odd and several others went to Ketil Greybeard.  They told him that all the men of Halđan agreed that Sweyne was unfit to share Sigurd's power with Thorkel.
    "Some people think he may not be Sweyne at all but a shape-changer," said Odd.  "I told them it was impossible.  The Christians have many black arts, but it's surely not possible for a shape-changer to counterfeit a man so closely that even his own father can't tell."
    When Ketil told Sigurd what was being said, Sigurd made no reply but went off by himself.


    All this time Sweyne was at Swenby with Ædwitha and Walburga.  He drove Thorkel's men off his land and sent out for as many of his old labourers as could be found.  They did not all come back to him when they heard he was a Christian.
    There was a great deal of work to do.  Thorkel's men had neglected the autumn ploughing.  They had let the fences fall down, and they had slaughtered many of the beasts for their feasting and carousing, intending to steal more in spring.
    Gunnar the One-Eyed came to Swenby.  He said to Sweyne, "Your father sends you this message.  The men of Swardale will not follow a Christian.  You must give up Ædwitha and abandon Christ if you want a share in the Earldom."
    Sweyne said, "This is some trick of Odd Fart's.  Tell my father I'm coming to see him, and we'll talk things over face to face."
    “Sigurd has given orders not to admit you to Halđan," said Gunnar.  "You'll be turned back at the gate, and if you try to climb the stockade you'll very likely be killed.  There have been raids from Ireland and the guards are on the alert day and night.  The only way you'll get in is if you send Ædwitha and Walburga back with me.  Sigurd means to give them back to Nils, Holger and Fritjoff to sell to the Arabs."
    "If there are guards on the stockade it's not to watch for the Earl of Dublin," said Sweyne.  "I'll not deny my God, nor hand over my wife, and if Odd Fart wants any further answer, he can ask Wormbane."
    "Perhaps he'll find that easier than you thought," replied Gunnar.  “The rune-marked dragon-killer is still in Sigurd's hall."
    "God will provide," said Sweyne.


    When Gunnar got back to Halđan he went straight to Odd Fart's house.  Then Odd went to find Sigurd.
    "Sweyne will not give up his new religion, nor will he come to see you," said Odd.  "In the circumstances you can't possibly let him share your power.  It looks as if Thorkel will have to be your only heir. I only hope that you live for a long time.  Thorkel is much too hot-headed.  He's sure to give York or Dublin an excuse to invade.  It seems to me that it would be much safer if you could find a somewhat older and wiser man to share the power with you and Thorkel, then, if you did die, at least it wouldn't be a complete disaster."
    Sigurd said he would talk it over with his kinsman, Ketil Greybeard, and Odd had to be content with that.
    Next Odd went to see Thorkel.
    "I've persuaded your father to disinherit Sweyne," he said, "but he does not seem to be willing to give all his power to you, or even to make you his sole heir.  It seems that some gossip has been poisoning his mind against you, and telling him that you're much too hot-headed to rule as Earl here.  At court in Norway people think I'm a skilful talker, but there's nothing I can do to change your father's mind.  I think an earl should be vigorous and strong.  He should know how to act decisively to punish his enemies and put down trouble-makers and law-breakers.  But the greybeards won't agree.  I'm afraid you have enemies among your father's friends."
    "It's true,” said Thorkel, "that some people have always preferred Sweyne to me.  Ketil has always disliked me, and he's always whispering in my father's ear.
    "It makes my blood boil," said Odd, "to think that my son-in-law should be deprived of his rightful inheritance by being forced to share it with a man nominated by Ketil Greybeard -- that my grandchildren may be turned out of their own land by usurpers!  It's clear that, if Sigurd insists on yoking you with an older man, we must find someone of our choice, preferably from our own kin, or at least someone who won't have children.  You see, I'm entirely on your side in this.  I don't want your sons to be disinherited, because they'll be my grandsons."
    "Why don't we ask Sigurd to let you share his power with me," said Thorkel.
    "Me?!" said Odd.  "I hadn't thought of that … though it would be an excellent way of protecting the interests of our descendants.  Yes, Thorkel, I think you've hit the nail right on the head and found the only real solution.  But we must be careful.  I'll have a word with one or two people and prepare the ground, just to make sure we have some support before we let Sigurd know our plans."


    Sigurd rode to Ketil Greybeard's farm.
    "It's clear," he said, "that Odd Fart means to get a share in my power, and, if he does, I don't think I shall live very long, and neither will my sons."
    "That's very true," said Ketil, "but the remedy lies in your own hands.  Give Sweyne a share in your power, and send Odd Fart packing. Your followers may grumble a bit about having a Christian for a leader, but it won't last.  They all know Sweyne, and they know he's a good fighting man and a good farmer, and just the man to rule Swardale.  After all, what's one god more or less among so many?"
    "Don't think I care one way or the other which gods are going to have Swardale," said Sigurd angrily, "not after the way Odin has cheated me!  When Sweyne's sword was washed up on the shore, they brought it to me, and I swore on the sacred runes engraved on it that, if Sweyne came back, I would keep Swardale sacred to the Aesir even if the rest of the world forsook them, that I would never allow Christians to settle in Halđan, and that, as long as we Vikings rule in Swardale, no-one shall ever be Earl unless he takes an oath to serve Odin and Thor. -- Well, Odin kept his side of the bargain, Sweyne has come back; and I'll keep my part: Sweyne will never be Earl of Swardale unless he gives up his new gods."
    "A man should never bind himself without good reason," said Ketil, “for neither we nor the gods can know what the future may bring. That oath of yours will probably cost you and your sons your lives, for it's clear that Thorkel will never have the ability to rule here, and Odd Eyvindsson seems to be able to bewitch everyone, either with his silver-tongued flattery or with his sorcerer's poisons."
    "Odd Fart would poison his own grandmother for half a mark of unrefined silver," said Sigurd.  "The Swardale Vikings are too simple and true-hearted to be able to understand his treachery."
    "But the native British know what sort of man he is," said Ketil, because he thinks they are of no account and doesn't trouble to hide his wickedness from them.  I think that may be our one chance.  He's a sly, cunning, cowardly rascal who would rather poison his enemies than stand up to them in fair fight, and he's come to rely too much on that Welsh sorcerer of his.  It's almost as if the man has some hold on him.  Well, if we can bind Hywel with an oath he's afraid to break, we may be able to save your lives."
    "And how does Ketil Silvertongue mean to do that?"
    Ketil would not answer, but he told Sigurd to wait for two days before making Odd and Thorkel his fellow earls.
    As soon as Sigurd had gone Ketil saddled his pony and rode off eastward towards Baldersdale, though in those days it was known as the Valley of the Derwydd.  What he did there no-one knows.

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    Even if the author of the Swardalers' Saga does not know what Ketil did his story is not entirely lost.  The following poem, collected in northern Norway by the seventeenth-century antiquarian, Guđmund Guđmundarsson, was called by him "Ketil's dream". Guđmundarsson thought  that the Sigurd mentioned here was the dragon-killing hero, Sigurd the Volsung.  Since the Ketil who tells the story could not be identified, and the poem was difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with the rest of the Sigurd tradition, it remained in obscurity and has never, till now, been reprinted.  Our thesis is that, far from referring to Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer, the poem is part of a lost cycle of poems about Sweyne.

Say what you saw,  speak, Ketil.
I rode through woods,  over rocks I went,
my horse's hooves  hard on the ground.
By the wild water  like the wind I rode.

My foot fell  among fern and heath.
My lame legs'  last strength
brought me through boulders  to the black cliff
where the bubbling beck  breaks forth.

I couldn't climb  the cliffs, too high
rose the rocks  where the water ran.
My foot stumbled.  I fell helpless.
Down into the water  drowning I fell.

High on the hill  hands brought me.
The sayer spoke sooth.
Like wind and water  his words came,
falling far.
With wounding words  he woke me to hear.
"I watch and ward
Sigurd's sinking.
Growing grey
I hold the hound
that grubs his grave.

His dearest life  is death to me.
Bleached bones,
shattered skull,
long will I lie,
lost and forlorn
my body's blood.

Sigurd, scorched,  sinks to earth.
His body's blood
quenches and quells
the fearsome fire.
His body's blood
stands in my stead.

Let the rocks quake,  quiver the earth.
Water and wind
wail wildly,
ice over all.
The strong sea
streams and storms.

The high heavens  hurl fire.
Bracken burns.
Boulders break.
The fells fall.
The rooted rocks
rise and run.

Sigurd’s death  is doomed thus:
his body's blood
breaks the bonds,
kills the keeper,
wastes the world,
wounds the wound
and rights the wrong."


    Sigurd called all the Vikings together in a Thing in the assembly fields outside Halđan.  When everything was ready, he stood up and told them what was in his mind.
    "It is better for a man to hand on his power to his sons before he grows so feeble that it falls from his grasp," he said.  "I had two sons, but one of them has turned against me and against our gods and our Norse way of life.  I want to adopt Odd Eyvindsson as my foster-son, and he has agreed to this, even though his family is greater than mine.  I want my two sons, Thorkel and Odd, to share my power and be equal with me as Earls of Swardale, but, even if my son, Sweyne, has forsaken me, I shall not forsake him entirely, because I know my duty as a father.  He can never be Earl in Swardale as long as he is a Christian, because I have bound myself by an oath, and I will never be so weak as to break my word, but I do not mean to harm him or drive him out of Swardale.  I want my fellow Earls to swear an oath that they will keep faith with me and do no harm to any of my family.  There will be two witnesses to the oath, and, if no-one minds, I will name them both.  First I choose Ketil Greybeard, because he is my friend and the truest man in Swardale.  Secondly, to show how much regard I have for my son, Odd, I choose his friend, Hywel the Welshman."
    This was agreed.  Ketil and Hywel talked together for a while, then they read out the oath, which was as Sigurd had said.  Thorkel and Odd both bound themselves to keep it.  That is how Odd Fart, the son of Eyvind the Boaster, became Earl of Swardale.  That same day Rannveig Oddsdaughter was wedded to Thorkel Sigurdsson.
    Soon afterwards Sweyne Sigurdsson bought a ship and left Swardale, sailing southward along the English coast with Ædwitha and Walburga, to find the abbey of which Walburga's brother was abbot.  He returned safely a few weeks later, brining back Ædwitha as his wife.  Walburga stayed in Mercia.
    As soon as Sweyne returned he began to work to convert the Vikings and the British to Christianity.  Most of the Vikings would have nothing to do with him, and the three Earls would not let him enter Halđan, but the British, many of whom had been Christians before, often preferred to join him and get his help against Odd Fart and his robbers, who plundered the countryside whenever they could.
    Sweyne founded several churches, including one on the coastal island where he had lain hidden with Ædwitha and Walburga.  Here he built a wooden church and erected a stone cross where the hut had stood. A village grew up around it, and, as the men made their living by fishing, it was called Fishers' Cross.
    Sweyne's other deeds are told in Sweyne Wormbane's Saga, which was written by his grandson, Knut Sigurdsson the Learned.
    And there this saga of the Swardalers ends.

Chapter 9: Odd Fart's Saga

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