How Bad Were the Asses of the Vikings?

by Pål Hellesnes
Artwork by Vasudha Shankar

(Editor intro: This really needs no intro from us, as it explains itself so well and is a very entertaining and inspiring piece. – Charlie)

It’s a common enough game for young boys (and girls?) to play: one sits around a table and discusses the martial prowess of various warriors against one another. Hand There are really no limits on who can be involved in these virtual battles: one might as easily pit the ancient Spartans against the Mongol Hordes as the X-men against Superman. In comic-book circles this kind of debate has its own label: They’re called “vs.-debates”, and among more sophisticated comic-nerds (such as yours truly) it’s seen as sort of inane. I mean, WE don’t care who’d win in a fight between Morpheus (of Sandman fame) and the Incredible Hulk — to our cultivated sensibilities it is the STORY that matters.

And yet…

Recently such a debate arose on the internet forum I frequent. The subject this time was “Who were the baddest asses in history?”, and serious contenders were the Samurai, Spartans, medieval knights, and many others. Notably absent from the poll were my forefathers, the Norse Vikings. Now some Norwegians would be offended at this, but not me. After all, we really don’t have much to boast of: some coastal raids, some slaughtered monks, an aborted colonization of America (WAY before Colombus, mind you…), trifling stuff all. True, we DID conquer England, but come on, how big a deal is that? The upshot of it is that as conquerors, the Vikings simply don’t have the mustard to be up there with the Romans or Alexander the Great. This does not bother me.

BUT, on a more individual level, the chronicles of Viking prowess has several cracking good yarns. One of my favourite stories is the story of the death of Tormod Kolbrunarskald. In said internet-forum debate, I felt compelled to recount it to the gathered masses of geeks. And there was much rejoicing, and the honourable Charlie K saw it, and saw that it was good, and said unto me:

“Hey, that’d look good on our webpage.”

So without further ado, I present to you, in a not-very-official translation by yours truly, the story of the death of Tormod Kolbrunarskald.

Actually, I lie, I have to give you some context before I tell you the tale: This story is part of the saga of king Olav the sainted, one of two kings who tried to Christen Norway. Both of them were called Olav, and both of them were killed in the attempt – apparently the Vikings of Norway weren’t all that keen on conversion. Either that, or they really didn’t like kings that much. Anyhow, Olav the saint met his end at a place called Stiklestad, in a huge battle where the assembled masses of peasants soundly thrashed him and his army. Tormod Kolbrunarskald was a bard in the king’s company, renowned both for poetry and fighting skills.

Now, on to the story:

Tormod Kolbrunarskald fought under the king’s banner during the battle. When the king had fallen, and the battle was at it’s hardest, the king’s men fell one after the other, and most of those still standing were wounded. Tormod was grievously wounded. He did what the others did, pulled back from where the battle was thickest, and some fled.

Then commenced the battle known as “Dags-ria”, and every able-bodied man from the king’s army went there. Tormod couldn’t join in the fighting, wearied as he was from the wounds and the fighting, but yet he stood there with his comrades, though unable to do aught else. He was hit by an arrow in his left flank. He broke the arrow shaft, and walked away from the battle back to the houses where he came to a cabin. It was a large house. Tormod carried his sword unsheathed, and as he went inside, a man came towards him and said:

“What awful noise there is in there, screams and cries. It’s a great shame that strong men cannot bear being wounded. These kingsmen may have been strong in battle, but they carry their wounds like weaklings.”

Tormod gave him answer:

“What is your name?”

He was called Kimbe.

“Did you fight in the battle?”

“I did so,” he said. “I fought with the peasants, who were the best.”

“Are you wounded?” Tormod asked.

“A little,” Kimbe said. “Did you fight?”

Tormod said: “I was among those who were best off.”

Kimbe could see that Tormod carried a gold ring on his finger. He said: “You must be a kingsman. Give me the ring, and I will hide you. The peasants will kill you if you cross their path.” Tormod said: “Take the ring if you can, I’ve lost far more today.” Kimbe stretched out his hand to take the ring. Tormod swung his sword, cutting Kimbe’s hand off, and it is said that Kimbe carried his wound no better than those he had ridiculed. Kimbe went away, while Tormod sat down to listen to what people were saying. Most of what they said was about what he had seen in the battle, and there was talk about the prowess of the fighters. Some lauded the king’s fighting, while others held other men no less.

Tormod quoth:

“Olaf was brave beyond all doubt, —
At Stiklestad was none so stout;
Spattered with blood, the king, unsparing,
Cheered on his men with deed and daring.
But I have heard that some were there
Who in the fight themselves would spare;
Though, in the arrow-storm, the most
Had perils quite enough to boast.”

Then Tormod left, and wandered to a small house, where he went in. Inside were many other men who were badly wounded. A crone was there, tending to their wounds. There was a fire on the floor, and she warmed water to clean the wounds. Tormod sat down near the door. People went in and out who tended to the wounded. One of them turned to Tormod, looked at him and said: “Why are you so pale? Are you wounded? And why did you not ask the doctor to help you?”

Tormod quoth:

“I am not blooming, and the fair
And slender girl loves to care
For blooming youths — few care for me;
With Fenja’s meal I cannot fee.
This is the reason why I feel
The slash and thrust of Danish steel;
And pale and faint, and bent with pain,
Return from yonder battle-plain.”

Then Tormod rose, went close to the heat and stood for a while. The doctor-woman said to him:

“You, man, go outside and bring me the firewood lying outside the door.”

He went outside, carried the firewood inside, and threw it to the floor. Then the woman looked at his face and said: “My, how pale this man is! Why are you like this?”

Tormod quoth:

“Thou wonderest, sweet sprig, at me,
A man so hideous to see:
Deep wounds but rarely mend the face,
The crippling blow gives little grace.
The arrow-drift o’ertook me, girl, —
A fine-ground arrow in the whirl
Went through me, and I feel the dart
Sits, lovely girl, too near my heart.”

The woman said:

“Let me see your wounds, and I will tend to them.”

He sat down, and took his clothes off. When the doctor saw his wounds, she felt the wound in his side, and felt that iron was stuck in it, but she could not find what way it had taken. She had cooked up a broth in an iron pot, onions and herbs cooked together. This she fed to the wounded, so she could find out if they had wounds in their belly, as she could smell the broth through the wounds that pierced through. She came with some of this to Tormod, and bade him eat. He answered: “Take that away, I have no porridge-plague!”

Then she took out some tongs, to pull the iron out, but it was stuck fast, and would not budge. Not much protruded either, as the wound had set. Tormod spoke: “Cut down to the iron, woman, so the tongs can get a hold. Then pass me the tongs, and let me pull.” She did as he said. Tormod took his gold ring off his finger, and gave it to the woman, telling her to do what she wanted with it.

“But this is a good gift,” he said, “King Olav gave it to me this morning.”

Then Tormod grasped the tongs and pulled the arrowhead fromn his side. It was barbed, and heartflesh was stuck to it as it came out, some red, some white. As he saw this, he said:
“Well has the king fed us; my heartroots are still fat.”

Then he leaned back and was dead. Here ends the story of Tormod.

(All the poetry has been translated by someone else, and I stole it from this webpage.)

That image, of the guy having ripped out half his heart and then calmly commenting on how well he’d been treated by the king stuck in my brain like glue after I first read it in high school. If there is some sort of badass heaven, I’m sure that Tormod is right up there at the head of the table.

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4 responses to “How Bad Were the Asses of the Vikings?

  1. He’s bad ass and much more.

  2. Awesome translation, Pål. I also vividly remember reading it in high school, especially the end bit when he rips the barbed arrowhead out. Good work, showing the badassery of the Vikings.

  3. Anyone feel like topping that story, go right ahead… 😀

  4. When we finally meet the Klingons they will claim Tormod was one of them…

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