A saga by yours truly
A snippet from story night
Last night some friends hosted a storytelling night. We’ve been talking for a while about the decay of the oral tradition, and we decided to do what we could to revive it. So this was the first of many evenings of stories told, sung, and made together. I had the honor of telling a story, and I chose the saga of Hervor.
Unfortunately I can’t tell you the story orally, but here’s my written version. Devotees of Icelandic sagas will notice that I took a few liberties with the tale: Angantyr, instead of his father, now slays the king of Holmgardr; I gave Hervor a bit of a backstory with the wolf tale; I have probed a little more deeply the moral difficulty presented by Hervor’s assault on the barrow and on her father’s legacy.
I hope you enjoy, and feel inspired to write and tell your own tales!
A Saga of Hervor
Bend your ear, and listen: here is the story of Hervor, she-king, sword-taker, throne-maker, who raised from the dust a mighty mead-hall, who dared to wield the cursed blade, and alone of all its bearers laid down to rest in peace.
First there was Angantyr, a wild warrior, a battle-storm, wrecker of mead-benches, a berserker who strode the whale-way and flung to pieces the halls of kings. Angantyr destroyed in single combat that wicked king of Holmgardr, who in a weather of words deceived the Dwarves and bound them to his will to make that great sword, the cursed blade, Tyrfing, the edge of evil that could not leave its sheath without shedding blood. The Dwarves laid a spell upon the blade that bound it to blood, burdened it with three great evils, and doomed it to twist and wreck that headstrong king’s life.
So came Angantyr, wielder of chaos, blade of Fate, brought down death on Holmgardr, the first evil of Tyrfing. From the body of the king, Angantyr wrested the blade and from their shadowed caves the Dwarves watched as he bore the shining doom-gleam to his own lands.
Angantyr himself met death spear-gored by a Swedish king, Tyrfing’s moon-gleam buried in its sheath, and was buried, mounted in a barrow on a far island, the sword clasped in his cold hands. But not before he sired a child by fair Svafa, his wife. Svafa dreamt it was a son, but from the birth-blood there sprang no son; instead Hervor, daughter of Angantyr, and after her first scream, she laughed.
She grew up spear-straight, lovely and cold as a fjord in winter. When the day came for her to take her place among women in the weaving-hall, she refused, laughing.
From that day she ran among the men-children, and proved cunning in crafts of blood and bone. Yet they mocked and spurned her. To her they barred the doors of the kingless mead-hall of her father, and left her to fashion her own weapons in secret, and she had no sword.
Then one winter there came wolves, led by one great wolf whose coat and eyes were black and whose teeth glittered like stars. This wolf was vast in cunning, and each trap for him he dodged, leading his pack unerringly past blades. And so he ravaged many villages and laid waste to many halls, and each night bore him closer to the kingless hall of Angantyr.
Before the black wolf ran rumors, the only thing faster than he, and all Norseland trembled, save Hervor, who laughed. The men of Angantyr shook their heads and said of her that she was a fool girl. The day before the black wolf came they gave her a choice, saying,
Either you will go into the weaving-hall with the other women and wait, or you must go away from here into the hills, far from this place, that by your foolishness you do not bring destruction on us all.
Hervor laughed, for she had long wandered alone the lands around her hall, and she knew the very place between the hills where the cunning wolf would come down. So Hervor grasped her spear—woman-wrought, every inch—and a flint, and went to an abandoned beast-hut, where the ancient stench of beasts would veil her. Then she knelt beside her spear—woman-wrought, every inch—and whetted it against a flint blacker than the wolf.
Night fell, a berserker’s axe, chill and final. Around the hall the watch-fires flared. The men of Angangyr waited before the kingless hall. And in her dark place, Hervor watched, and her teeth and eyes were brighter than the stars.
Then came the wolf, a shadow-foe, all his mind and heart bent on havoc at the hall. As he passed, Hervor sprang from the shadows, unscented, unseen. Even between his claws she sprang and matched him grin for grin, and even as he came on light-swift she drove her spear into his chest until the point, woman-wrought, thrust out through his back.
The wolf-river surged around them, but when from the chaos Hervor rose, the wolves cried in dismay. They scattered, some fleeing north, others in panic descending on the hall of Angantyr, where the men met them, a grim blade-line. That night the wolf corpses mounted high as the lintels, and even as they slew, all wondered where was the black wolf, the foe of Norse. They wondered until morning, when in the cold light of day there came Hervor, blood-streamed and gleaming, and slung behind her on a sled of boughs was the wolf king, still impaled on her blade.
That spear-maid went straight to the doors of the hall, which stood open. She laid the body of the wolf across the door, and so great was he that when he lay there, the doors could not be passed. She wrenched from the wolf her spear, then she turned and spoke to the men of Angantyr saying,
You have barred me from my father’s hall because I was swordless. Now I bar you. Kingless you are, and kingless you shall be. Hall-less you are, and hall-less you shall be, until the day when I enter this, my mead-hall, and welcome you again.
Then she passed, blood-stained spear-maid, among their silent rows, down to the water. She chose for herself a ship and mounted it, and as she set her hand upon the helm there came down from the hall three men, comrades of old, and they begged of her to let them follow.
So it was the four of them set forth, drawn by the lure of the cursed sword, for the barrow-island of the king Angantyr where between his dead hands lay the blade of doom.
Many days they sailed, and many dark isles passed, until they came to that land. It rose, a single mountain, sheer from the cold sea, and there was no shore. Hervor grasped her spear and leapt from the ship to the sea. She swam, swift and strong, to the gray stones, and when her hand grasped the mountain’s mantle, the sea groaned. The mountain writhed and tore, and hot streams poured down into the cold sea, where they made a great hissing. A chill mist rose up, till from the ships the whole island was hidden. Then, their hearts cold with fear, the companions of Hervor drew back and did not set bow or foot upon that land, which was poisoned with the curse of the sword.
Then Hervor drew herself up upon the rocks, a lovely shield-maid, and in a voice like cold iron she called, I am Hervor, child of Angantyr, and I claim that which is mine. There came no reply, but from deep within the mountain, a great creaking as of stone on stone.
Again she cried, I am Hervor, daughter of Angantyr, and I come for what is mine! Now from the bowels of earth there came the sound of dread laughter.
Again Hervor raised her head and called, I am Hervor, heir of Angantyr, and I will have what is mine! Now from the heart of the mountain came a sound of footsteps, slow and heavy, coming nearer.
When from the ship the three companions heard that sound, they called and begged Hervor to swim back and leave that cursed place. But she laughed, and at the ringing of her laughter the footsteps faltered. A voice, hollow, doom-deep, said,
Hervor, child, go now. I offer you your life; take it and go!
Hervor replied, I will have what is mine.
Again the voice called, nearer, deeper, Hervor, daughter, flee now. I offer you your future; take it and go!
Hervor replied, I will have what is mine.
Again the voice spoke, and now it was near, within the very midst around her, and a darkness came upon the barrow-land. Hervor, heir, escape now. I offer you your final chance; take it and go!
Then Hervor did not reply, but thrust out with her spear to where the voice was clearest, and drove it so sure that it went two hands-breadths into the stone. Then there rang out a terrible cry as of iron on iron, so loud that Hervor’s ears ran blood. She plunged forward through the blinding mist to where her spear had struck and pinned a thing, a terror, to the stone by its mail, and from the white hands of that undead king she wrenched the sword Tyrfing. Then she cried, I have what is mine, and you shall have what is yours! Go, undead king, back to your tomb, and leave the life-light for the living! She raised the sword above her head and drove it down, but the blade met nothing but mist and air, which swirled white and silent. Her spear she saw buried in stone, but there was nothing there. And that was one of the evils of Tyrfing, that for it a daughter raised her hand against her father’s wraith.
Then from the heart of the barrow then came a terrible cry, and the mountain was split open. The sea roiled. In terror, the three companions fled as stones fell hissing into the waves. The sea boiled, and Hervor clung with one hand to her spear and with the other to the sword, as all the land around her sank beneath the waves.
Then the mist fled, and the winter sun shown down on the solitary rock amidst the waves, held in place by the spear of Hervor, and all the barrow was gone, sunk beneath the sea, lost forever.
There are many other tales of the courage of Hervor, how she came to escape the rock in the sea and return, after many adventures, to her own mead-hall, how she swept aside the bones of the black wolf and sat down with her warriors, a crown upon her brow, how she won for herself the heart and hand of a king and bore him two sons on whom the doom of the sword fell, and how in her old age she rode out once again to battle against dark foes, her hair streaming behind her like barrow-mist beneath the sun. But the last tale is this: how she, alone of all the wielders of Tyrfing, lay herself down upon her bed and died in peace, for over her the sword’s doom had no hold.