Hákonarmal is one of the most well-known Norse poems, and is typically considered a skaldic poem (I won’t get into what does and doesn’t constitute a skaldic poem here). It was definitely composed by a skald, a Norse poet: Eyvind Finnsson, Skaldaspillir. Eyvind wrote it upon the death of Hákon the Good, to honor his much-loved life.
You may recall that a poem I shared recently had a character named Hákon in it; whether that poem by James Russell Lowell was intended to invoke the reader’s memory of studies of Germanic history or literature is unclear. But Hákon, like Leif Eriksson, was right on the frontier of Scandinavian conversion from the Old Way to Christianity: Hákon was converted by his foster-father, King Athelstan of England; Leif was converted by Olaf Tryggvason, King of Norway.
This text of Hákonarmal is taken from Samuel Laing’s 1844 translation of the Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson’s account of the kings of Norway. While Hákonarmal was composed following the death of Hákon in 961 CE, it was included as part of the end of Hákon the Good’s Saga, one of the many parts of the much longer collection of tales in Snorri’s Heimskringla. Another version of the text, a 1936 translation by scholar Lee Hollander, more closely resembles the original in form and use of complex kennings, but is therefore a bit more difficult to read. It may still be worth your time.
The Lay of Hákon
“In Odin’s hall an empty place
Stands for a king of Yngve’s race;
`Go, my Valkyries,’ Odin said,
`Go forth, my angels of the dead,
Gondul and Skogul, to the plain
Drenched with the battle’s bloody rain,
And to the dying Hakon tell,
Here in Valhal shall he dwell.’
“At Stord, so late a lonely shore,
Was heard the battle’s wild uproar;
The lightning of the flashing sword
Burned fiercely at the shore of Stord.
From levelled halberd and spearhead
Life-blood was dropping fast and red;
And the keen arrows’ biting sleet
Upon the shore at Stord fast beat.
“Upon the thundering cloud of shield
Flashed bright the sword-storm o’er the field;
And on the plate-mail rattled loud
The arrow-shower’s rushing cloud,
In Odin’s tempest-weather, there
Swift whistling through the angry air;
And the spear-torrents swept away
Ranks of brave men from light of day.
“With batter’d shield, and blood-smear’d sword
Slits one beside the shore of Stord,
With armour crushed and gashed sits he,
A grim and ghastly sight to see;
And round about in sorrow stand
The warriors of his gallant band:
Because the king of Dags’ old race
In Odin’s hall must fill a place.
“Then up spake Gondul, standing near
Resting upon her long ash spear, —
`Hakon! the gods’ cause prospers well,
And thou in Odin’s halls shalt dwell!’
The king beside the shore of Stord
The speech of the valkyrie heard,
Who sat there on his coal-black steed,
With shield on arm and helm on head.
“Thoughtful, said Hakon, `Tell me why
Ruler of battles, victory
Is so dealt out on Stord’s red plain?
Have we not well deserved to gain?’
`And is it not as well dealt out?’
Said Gondul. `Hearest thou not the shout?
The field is cleared — the foemen run —
The day is ours — the battle won!’
“Then Skogul said, `My coal-black steed,
Home to the gods I now must speed,
To their green home, to tell the tiding
That Hakon’s self is thither riding.’
To Hermod and to Bragi then
Said Odin, `Here, the first of men,
Brave Hakon comes, the Norsemen’s king, —
Go forth, my welcome to him bring.’
“Fresh from the battle-field came in,
Dripping with blood, the Norsemens’ king.
`Methinks,’ said he, great Odin’s will
Is harsh, and bodes me further ill;
Thy son from off the field to-day
From victory to snatch away!’
But Odin said, `Be thine the joy
Valhal gives, my own brave boy!’
“And Bragi said, `Eight brothers here
Welcome thee to Valhal’s cheer,
To drain the cup, or fights repeat
Where Hakon Eirik’s earls beat.’
Quoth the stout king, ‘And shall my gear,
Helm, sword, and mail-coat, axe and spear,
Be still at hand! ‘Tis good to hold
Fast by our trusty friends of old.’
“Well was it seen that Hakon still
Had saved the temples from all ill (1);
For the whole council of the gods
Welcomed the king to their abodes.
Happy the day when men are born
Like Hakon, who all base things scorn. —
Win from the brave and honoured name,
And die amidst an endless fame.
“Sooner shall Fenriswolf devour
The race of man from shore to shore,
Than such a grace to kingly crown
As gallant Hakon want renown.
Life, land, friends, riches, all will fly,
And we in slavery shall sigh.
But Hakon in the blessed abodes
For ever lives with the bright gods.”
* * *
(1) Hakon, although a Christian, appears to have favoured the old religion, and spared the temples of Odin, and therefore a place in Valhal is assigned him. — L.