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 12
    Odd's end
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    The Copenhagen manuscript of Odd Fart's Saga breaks off after the birth of Odd the younger, but, with the information found therein, using various names as the basis for searching, I was able to trace a further manuscript which takes up the story some fifteen years later.  I am grateful to Dr Bronwen Jones-Davies of Bethany College Auksford for drawing my attention to the manuscript holdings of Annunciation College, among which I found an untitled, fragment, which I have called Odd's End and which I have combined with other material to reconstruct a more or less continuous narrative.

Odd’s End
… spies told Odd where he went and everything he did.
    One day when he was riding back from his farm at Geddonby with two of his followers he met some men on ponies.  One came towards him and he saw it was Nils Ulfsson.
    “Odd Eyvindsson is with us,” said Nils, “and he would like to talk with you if you don’t mind.”
    “What has Odd Fart to say to me?” said Sweyne.
    “That is something I do not know,” replied Nils, “but he asks if you will meet him here in the open air, between our two parties.”
    Sweyne agreed and rode forward to meet Odd.
    “Sigurd is an old man now,” said Odd, “and it pains me to see the two of you still at odds after so many years.”
    “I will come to Halden to see my father whenever he lets me,” said Sweyne, “and you know that my door is always open to him.”
    “Fine words,” sneered Odd, “when you know that Earl Sigurd has sworn that no Christian will be allowed into Halden.”
    “My father’s oath was that no Christian should be Earl in Halden,” said Sweyne, “and that he would keep Swardale for the old gods.”
    “That is what he will do,” replied Odd.  “He will keep his oath even if it means he will never see his son again.  But he is old and the years weigh heavy on him.  He will go to his grave in sorrow unless you come back to us.  What you must do is this: give up this new god of yours – after all, what difference does it make which of the gods hold sway here in Swardale?  Call to mind that it was Odin Allfather who blessed your sword and wrote on it its name in holy runes.  After so many years no-one will take your wife from you.  After all, Ædwitha is so old that Nils, Holger and Fritjoff wouldn’t get enough for her to make their trip to Mickelgarth worthwhile.  All you have to do is give up your new god, Jesus, agree to worship Odin and Thor, and you can come back into Halden.  I am sure Thorkel won’t mind giving up a share in the earldom to you, and I shall be delighted to have you as my fellow earl.”
    “I too have sworn an oath,” said Sweyne.  “When I was weak and unmanned I called on Odin to help me, but he could do nothing.  Then when Thorkel attacked Ædwitha I called on Jesus, and he gave me strength to defend her.  I swore then to serve no other god but Christ and his Father.”
    “Fine words again,” said Odd, “but I have heard it said that Christians always try to drive out all other gods.  If you are so devoted to Christ, why haven’t you done that?”
    “I honour my father,” said Sweyne, “and my father worships Odin and Thor.  I will not raise my hand against him.  It is enough for me that some people hear my words and become Christians.”
    “One should always respect one’s father,” said Odd.  “That is a right and holy way to behave.  I have always believed that that was your attitude, and I’m glad to find that my belief is true.  Of course, there are those who say that you don’t really love your father and that your Christianity is no more than an excuse to stand against him and go your own way.  I tell them that’s nonsense, but there’s no way of stopping malicious tongues from wagging.  There could be any number of reasons why you wouldn’t get rid of the Druid and his outlandish practices.  Perhaps you don’t want to have the bother of looking after all those British peasants who might become Christians after he was gone …”
    “Sigurd is Earl of Swardale,” said Sweyne.  “It’s not for me to start driving people out of his lands.”
    “I agree,” said Odd.  “I think what you have said is very right and proper and shows respect for your father; but the slanderers say that the Druid’s Dale isn’t really part of Swardale at all.  They say it’s a wild, uncivilised place whose people don’t pay tribute to Sigurd.  They say that your lands at Geddonby are the closest, and that you’re in league with the Druid.  They say you’ve agreed to leave him in peace as long as his men don’t raid your farms.  They say that, if you were a real Christian, you would have killed him long ago.  I defend you, of course.  Why should you want to kill the Druid when he hasn’t done you any harm?  It’s not as if there were any truth in any of these religions.  We should all agree to live and let live.  One man’s god is as good as another’s.  What I advise is this: show these people that you respect your father by giving up this new-fangled Christianity of yours and coming back to Odin and Thor.”
    Odd rode back to his men, and Sweyne went back to Swenby.  Whatever Odd said he would not forsake Christ, but it troubled him that slanderers claimed he held his father in contempt.  He turned Odd’s news over in his mind, and at last decided what to do.  He would prove the strength of his faith by confronting the Druid.  The pagan priest must either become a Christian or die.

    Sweyne rode to the Vale and called on the Druid to come forth.
    "Tell me why I should not kill you," he said.
    "In my death," said the Druid, "you will find the task set for you.  Greatness will be yours and lasting fame."
    "What would be so famous about killing an unarmed old man?" Sweyne asked.
    The Druid answered: "If you kill me a Great Worm will lay waste the fields, kill the cattle, poison the wells and the rivers, and bring sickness and death to the people.  This I swear to you."
    "Come forth from the vale," said Sweyne.  "Give up your false beliefs and superstitions.  Come down to Swenby and be baptised.  There is a well there of holy water that sprang up from the earth when I struck it with my staff.  The men of Halden would not let me baptise my followers in the Swar or the Alebeck, so the Lord sent me this water.  Even in time of drought my well does not run dry.  Be baptised there, and you will receive the well of living water promised by Jesus to all who follow him."
    "I cannot leave the vale.  It is forbidden," said the Druid.
    "You are an old man," said Sweyne.  "Your talk of a Great Worm is nonsense.  If you won't come willingly, I shall take you by force.  The waters of baptism will drive this evil from you."
    "I will not come," said the Druid.  "If you take me from here, the Worm will come forth.  Its foul breath will blacken the trees and wither the corn.  The birds will fall from the air, and the fish will drown in the water."
    "Your threats are meaningless," said Sweyne.  "They are empty words.  Come now, or die!"
    "Then I will die," said the Druid, "and when I am dead the Worm will come forth from the vale.  The waters of the Swar will flow no more.  The Alebeck will run dry.  The thirsting cattle will falter in the fields.  Sheep will fall dead on the fells.  Plague and pestilence will rage in the towns and villages.  All will be destroyed."
    "Empty threats," said Sweyne, and stabbed him to the heart.

    "Now that the Druid is dead," said Odd, "there is nothing to hold Hywel to his oath.  He can kill Sweyne and Sigurd and Thorkel.  I shall be the only Earl in Swardale.  I shall find a powerful husband for my daughter, Rannveig, my sons will have earldoms, and my grandson, Odd, will rule all of England."
    But, when Hywel heard that Sweyne had killed the Druid, he fled to Wales.  Odd raged, but his grandson, Odd Thorkelsson, said, "We don't need Hywel. I have learned all his magic.  If you want someone poisoned, I can do it for you."
    Odd asked for proof.
    "Choose any man," said Odd Thorkelsson, "and I will kill him for you whenever you want.  I'll make it appear like a fever, so no-one will suspect foul play."
    There was a man called Ulf Sigmundsson.  He was a skilled swordsman and horseman.  His farm, though small, was well-maintained and prosperous.  He was a cheerful and popular young man, and most people thought highly of him.
    Odd chose Ulf Sigmundsson.  Three days later he lay sick with a high fever, and two days after that he was dead.  Odd was pleased.
    "You have learned well," he said to his grandson.  "I shall buy Ulf's farm cheaply and one day it will be yours.  Now, if you have no objection to killing your father and your other grandfather, let us think how it can be done."
    "People say that Thorkel isn't my father," said young Odd, "so why should I care about killing him?  As for Sigurd, he dislikes me as much as he dislikes you.  I'm going to think of something special for him.  You'll know when it happens, and I’m sure you'll know what to do.  But I could dispose of Thorkel any time, with no more thought than I'd get rid of a snarling dog."
    "Wait until Sigurd is dead," said the elder Odd.  "Even if Thorkel isn't really your father, you'll still inherit his property, and he is Sigurd's heir.  You and I will be joint earls of Swardale, and then we can get rid of Sweyne."
    After this, Odd Fart went to his farm at Odderby to wait.

    The surviving fragments of The Life of St Sweyne Wormbane, found in a fourteenth centry Psalter, tell part of the story.

    Sweyne saw that the Druid led the people of [Swardale] astray by false […] and enchantments.  Taking up his sword he slew [the Druid] in the name of [Christ].  Thereafter there came into Swardale great evil […].
    […] laid waste by a monstrous dragon […] cattle died […] waters ran black with venom, fish […], stench rose from the Swar […] and the [Ale]beck ran dry so that many […] only from Sweyne's well […] came pure [water].
    Freezing fog flowed from the vale […] corn and crops lay blackened in the earth […]
    [Si]gurd […] sword Wormbane […] face the dragon […] fell poisoned by its foul breath. Many died, men, women, children […] Thorkel Barelegs would not […] after Odd had […]
    Then Sweyne […] took Wormbane from the hand of Odd Fart […] faced the worm, that spawn of ancient evil from the time the world was young […] crawled into a dark place […] lurking, waiting to bring desolation to mankind, lay waste the world, […]
    […] Sweyne's sons … Swenby and Ormsgarth […] named it Balder's Dale […] brightest and best of the old gods […] lest it come forth […]

    Not a great deal of this account survives, but enough to identify the names of Sweyne, Sigurd, Odd Fart and Thorkel Barelegs.  The story is told in more detail in Odd’s End.

    As the Druid foretold, after his death, plague and pestilence came upon Swardale.  Early winter spoiled the crops.  Cattle had no grass to eat and had to be fed on hay.  Freezing fog crept like icy breath from the Vale of the Druid.  The Britons cried that an afanc was abroad, and the Vikings spoke of a mighty, wicked worm that would lay waste the world.
    Sigurd saw the sword Wormbane in his hall.
    "If I were a young man," he said, "I would take this sword, Wormbane, the Dragon-Slayer, blessed by Odin himself and I would go to the Druid's Dale and kill the Worm in the name of Odin."
    Thus he spoke, but the young men were afraid.
    "We should ask Sweyne to kill the Dragon," they said.  "Odin gave the sword to him.  While he was with us we prospered, but, now that Sigurd is old, and we have only Odd Fart and Thorkel Barelegs to lead us, all that we do goes amiss."
    Sigurd was angry.  He called his son, Thorkel, and said, "You are Earl of Swardale along with me.  It is your place to kill the monster that is destroying our cattle and our crops. "
    "Now look here," said Thorkel, "I have far too much to do in Halden to go chasing shadows.  My son, Odd, says there are no such things as dragons, and he should know.  He's the cleverest boy I've ever seen.  He knows as much as his grandfather, Odd, and probably more.  I've got to look after things here.  Why don't you send someone to ask Sweyne to go?  After all, he doesn't have the responsibilities that I have."
    Sigurd was displeased, but nothing he could say would move Thorkel.  At last Sigurd determined to go out himself to fight the Worm.  Grimly he gathered his armour, put on his chainmail, swung the sword Wormbane, and hung it at his belt.
    "Cattle die, kinsfolk die," he said, "and even to ourselves death will come.  One thing I know will never die: the fame that we leave behind on our death."
    Then Sigurd rode forth to meet the Worm.

Sigurd swung  the sword Wormbane
the black breath  bound him
falling frozen,  fingers numbed,
groping on the ground,  unable to grip.
The sword fell  from his feeble hand.

    When Odd Fart heard that Sigurd was dead, killed by the Worm that wasted the Druid's Dale he thought that young Odd had poisoned the Earl with slow working venom then inveigled him into riding out.
    "You will know when it happens, and you will know what to do," the boy had said.  Odd thought for a few minutes, then he rode to Halden.
    "Sigurd has been killed by the great Worm of the Druid's Dale," he said, "and Thorkel Barelegs is afraid to avenge him.  I, Odd Eyvindsson will seek bloodprice for my friend.  I will hew the Dragon's head from its body and roast its foul heart on a spit.  I will spill its venomous blood upon the earth and cleanse Swardale of its evil presence."
    Then Odd Fart rode out from Halden to the Vale of the Druid.  What he planned to do was this: he would ride into the Druid's Dale, and find the body of Earl Sigurd, lying where the poison brewed by young Odd had slain him.  From Sigurd's lifeless hand he would take the sword Wormbane.  With it he would hack at Sigurd's body so that it looked as if a beast had killed him, and then he would bring back the sword and say the blood on it was the Worm's blood.  He would be hailed as a hero.
    Odd Fart rode to the Druid's Dale and found Sigurd's body, as he expected.  From its hand he took the sword, Wormbane.  He hacked at Sigurd's arms and legs, but the old man's body was shrivelled and bloodless.
    "Never mind," said Odd.  "I'll kill a sheep on my way back to Halden.  Fresh blood will be better.  I'll smear some on my face and hands too, and claim that it's mine, and before I leave here, I'll roll round on the ground and tear my clothes, so that it looks as if I've been in a fight."
    So Odd Fart rolled in the ground and tore his clothes, but as he rolled he heard a noise.  Odd started up in fright and saw coming from the darkness under the cliff an immense Worm.  To look on it filled him with fear and made his belly heave.  He turned to flee, then stopped to spew, and, before he could run, the black breath of the worm wasted his life, doomed him to dumb death, bound him in darkness, and he fell.  Faithless fled his frost-bitten soul, to the dim depths of the underworld, to wander, witless, through the halls of hell, weeping and wailing for his wasted, wicked life.

    Gogfran Davies described in the next couple of pages of editorial material how he had sorted the fragments of alliterative poetry and the scraps of a prose Sweyne Saga found as packing in the late medieval bindings at Finchbury, and how the parallel of certain lines of both verse and prose had led him to some further manuscript pages in the Babylon Library at Auksford.  Brian skipped over this section and the footnotes describing the provenance of each portion of text and concentrated on the unfolding story, beginning with these verses about Odd Fart.

With fearful fingers  he fumbled the blade,
squirming and squealing.
Wicked words  to the Worm he spoke,
feigning friendship.

Then farting with fear  he turned to flee
the wasting worm.
Its black breath  burned his bones
doomed him to death.

    The men of Halden chose Nils the Tall and his friends Holger the Handsome and Fritjoff the Goldgiver, and sent them to Sweyne at Swenby.
    "When Sweyne heard that his father had gone to fight the Worm and had not come back, he wept for he knew he must be dead.  For Odd Fart he did not weep.
    "The words of the Druid were a true saying," he said.  "After his death the Worm came forth to lay waste the land.  Why didn't my brother Thorkel go to pit himself against it?"
    "He said he was too busy," said Nils.

    Sweyne rode forth.  He told his sons to stay well back and keep watch, and he rode ahead of them into the Druid's Dale.  There he saw the body of his father, Sigurd, facing forward into the dale, and near him the coprse of Odd Fart, caught in the act of flight, both shrivelled by the breath of the beast.
    From Odd's hand he took the sword, Wormbane, and advanced towards the lair of the Worm.

Sweyne found  his father dead,
facing the foe, the fearsome Worm.
Sigurd’s son  sought his sword,
Odin-blessed  in Odd’s hand.

    From the dale came the Great Worm.  No shining scales it had, nor wings.  It was like a rock come forth from the earth, a hill that crawled on its belly like a slug, and slime dripped from its snout.

Sigurd’s son  heard in his skull
the words of the Worm.
Fear and anger  fought in his breast,
but stout he stood.

Worm-wrought woe  lays all to waste,
dooms the dales,
the high hills  it hurls down,
murders men,

blasts birds,
kills cattle,
tramples trees,
wastes the world.

Like howls in his head  he heard the words:
Bones break,
the boiling blood  bursts out of men,
fleeing they fall.

The feathered fowl  fall from the sky,
birds from the boughs.
The hovering hawks  are hurled from the heavens,
the eagles to earth.

The fields are filled  with rotting flesh.
Cattle are killed.
Swine swelter, swollen and sick.
Women wail.

Mighty men  moulder in death,
murder in madness
churls and children,
sheep and shepherds.

With stick and stone,
axe and arrow
sword and spear
they smite and stab.

Eyes and ears,
heads and hands
drop to dust,
doomed to death.

Woe to the warrior  who walks weaponless.
Grief and groans
hound and hold him.
The grave grasps him.

The high hills  and hollow caves
Shudder and shake.
Heat and hail,
Fire and flood.

Ice shall cover  all the earth,
Silver snow,
deep and deadly,
smothers spring.

Floods freeze, flow no more.
frost and fog
lay waste the world
in worm-wrought winter

    Sweyne heard in his head the words of the Worm.  His sharp sword he held in his hand and thus he spoke.  “Strong in the strength of the great God, in the name of Christ I come to face the evil that threatens Middle Earth.  Look on this sword, mighty worm!  It is called Wormbane, and well-wrought runes are carved upon its blade by Odin, the one eyed, whose cunning crows fly out and about and bring him news of all that happens here in the wide world.  This weapon that I wield dooms you to death.”
    “Humbled here in the dust lie others whose hand hefted that blade,” said the Worm.  “Broken lie their bones, unknown to any are their names.  No tears are shed for them, no women weep, for they lie like dung in the wilderness.”
    Sweyne answered: “There lies Sigurd, Earl of Swardale, a mighty warrior.  Tears for him are shed in Halden, and I too weep for him, for I am Sigurd’s son.  As for the other, if any mourn him I care not.  He is a liar and a thief.”
    “Fighter and fox lie at the last, taken together by the everlasting evil,” said the Worm.  “Worm-wrought woe will waste the world and all are doomed to die by heat and hail, by fire and flood, by frost and snow in never-ending winter.”
    “By the Cross of Christ, who died and rose again,” cried Sweyne, “give way, Great Worm, or die!”
    “Bitter are the words of him who calls on Christ,” said the Worm.  “Our fearsome foe will overcome us all at last, but the tide has not yet turned.  With Fimbul-Winter we shall win this land.  For long ages we shall hold it.”
    On came the Worm.  Its black breath fell on Sweyne.  The saint swooned, staggered, and was about to fall.  Sigurd, his son, caught him and held him.  Ketil brandished his sword at the worm.  
    Croaking in fear he cried, “Back, foul worm!  You shall not pass!”
    Sweyne stood again, flanked by his sons.  The sword Wormbane flashed in his hand.
    “By this sword, blessed by Odin and the old gods and now wielded for Christ the King, by all that lives and all that gives life, I call on you, foul lord of death, to go back whence you came.  Turn once more to stone, dread Worm.  Never come forth again from this black dale!”
    “You shall not pass!  Go back!” cried Sigurd and Ketil.
    “No sword can harm the hide of a Great Worm,” they heard in their heads.  “The slime that drips from my fangs can burn the brightest steel.  But sharper far than swords of steel are words of boldness backed by love.  I yield.  I will go back to my den in the dale, and all who look on me throughout the ages will think I am but a rock. But my time will come.  You and your kin will have to watch me through the years, and when I come back, if there are not men like you, ready to stand against me and to give their lives for each other, then Fimbul-Winter will take this land and all shall freeze and die.”
    At this point the Auksford manuscript ends, and the connection to the subject of my own research begins.  In these sagas and saints lives we find the origins of many of the folk beliefs and practices still carried on in Baldersdale in the second half of the twentieth century: traditions such as the Beating of the Beck and the part played therein by the Three Farts, who, at first sight, seem to be just absurd figures of fun interrupting the ceremonies and obstructing the participants.  Without these invaluable documents we might have been tempted to see in them reflections of older, more primitive, perhaps pre-druidic, deities, worshipped by the aboriginal peoples of Swardale, returning uninvited from their banishment to disrupt the rites.  These rites themselves might be taken for fertility rites, the ashen rods carried by the adolescent boys and used by them to agitate the waters of the beck could be seen as phallic symbols fecundating the female, life-giving element, and the eventual 'debagging' and ducking of the participants by the older youths as a pale reflection of a primeval ceremony in which young men were castrated and sacrificed to a water-goddess to ensure good crops, healthy livestock and strong children.
    I am now more inclined to believe, as I shall make clear in my forthcoming book The folklore and customs of Baldersdale, that the Three Farts represent real historical characters, Odd Eyvindsson, his daughter Rannveig, and her son, Odd the Younger.  The ashen poles are probably no more than poles, originally used to clear the Baldersbeck of dead vegetation after the catastrophe, whatever it may have been, that is represented in the tales by the fabulous afanc, and the 'debaggings' and duckings no more than youthful horseplay, which continues, not because of any folkloric significance, but simply because the young men of Baldersdale realise that, as the ceremony happens only once every seven years, the boys who perform the beating of the beck are too young to remember what happened last time. They therefore eagerly seize the opportunity of inflicting on their juniors the same humiliation as they once suffered themselves, in much the same way that generations of schoolboys and apprentices subject their successors to the same initiation ceremonies that they themselves had undergone.

Chapter 13: Mission to ormsgarth

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