On Vestmannaeyjar, an archipelago off the south coast of Iceland, residents celebrate midsummer, which coincides with the summer solstice, the same way their Viking forefathers did – with fire, song and plenty to drink. A thousand years ago, Vikings believed their world – and all that was in it – should end in flame. They even placed their honoured dead in grounded ships, along with tools and weapons, and set the ships ablaze. (Sisse Brimberg/National Geographic Stock)

The Fall of Hálf: Laughing Died This Lord of Men

A lot of the poetry I share here is truly romantic – looking back on the Vikings and their forebears wistfully, with a bit of a gloss, written from the point of view of modern authors. This poem, from the Hálfs saga, was written around the 13th century, when the Poetic Edda was compiled and the Prose Edda was written, and so wasn’t a contemporary account of a Viking life… but it would be a stretch to call it romantic. Have some blood for your Thorsday. Notes and text from Hollander’s Old Norse Poems.

The Lay of Innstein

The saga deals chiefly with the life of the famous sea-king Hálf and his chosen band, the Hálfsrekkiar. When after eighteen years of Viking life, he returns with his fleet to his native kingdom of Horthaland, his stepfather, Ásmund, who had ruled it in his stead, feigns submission and invites Hálf to his hall with half his company; and he accepts, against the earnest warnings of Innstein, his old companion at arms. They are made drunk, the hall is fired over their heads; but the heroes rouse themselves and break out of the hall. In the struggle outside they fall to a man, not wishing to survive their beloved leader; at least, this is clearly the intention of the lay. A later poet, to be sure, allowed several of Hálf’s men to escape and avenge him in time. About them, we have in the saga the lays of Útstein(2) and of Hrók, in a somewhat similar vein.

INNSTEIN said:
1 “Up to Ásmund would all of us
from our dragons hie them,— most doughty men:
In their hall let us burn the host of warriors,
and send to Hel Ásmund’s heroes!”

HÁLF said:
2 “Let half, only, of our host
on our errand to Ásmund fare:
hath he offered us, most open-handed,
many wroughten rings of reddish gold.”

INNSTEIN said:
3 “You guess not, ring-giver, the guile of Ásmund:
is that crafty king cunning in mind.
If, war-lord, thou our warning heedest,
put little faith in thy stepfather!”

HÁLF said:
4 “Hath Ásmund sworn oaths full many,
and made pledges, as men do know:
will a good liege not give the lie to his oaths,
nor one atheling the other bewray.”

INNSTEIN said:
5 “Hath Óthin grown angry with thee,
since all too well thou Ásmund trustest:
by wicked wiles he will undo us,
unless on guard against him art!”

HÁLF said:
6 “Aye words of fear art fain to utter:
that prince will not thus break his pledge.
Gold we’ll get there, and goodly things
to have and to hold, from his hoard of rings.”

INNSTEIN said:
7 “This dream had I— to heed it were wise!—
that flames flickered fiercely about us,
whence hard was it to hack our way.
What deem’st thou, king, this dream betokens?”(3)

HÁLF said:
8 “A guilded helmet shall I give to each
of the fearless heroes that follow me:
would they seem to flash as though fire did blaze
on the hair-hillocks4 of the hardy men.”

INNSTEIN said:
9 “Still another dream I after had:
that fire methought to flame on my shoulders;
I guess that little good it bodeth.
What deem’st thou, king, this dream betokens?”

HÁLF said:
10 “Golden byrnies on the backs rattle
of war-workers who in wedges array them:5
the shield-bearers’ shoulders they will shine upon,
bright to behold like blazing fire.”

INNSTEIN said:
11 “A third time still I this did dream:
that in deepest sea we had sunk together;
great tidings this must betoken.
What deem’st thou, king, this dream bodeth?”

HÁLF said:
12 “Be done with dreams and doting talk:
I deem that naught thy dreams betoken.
Say thou no more in my hearing
of these thy dreams from this day onward.”

INNSTEIN said:
13 “Ye Hrók brothers, in the host of the king,
and Útstein eke: I utter warning!
Let all of us go up to the hall,
and listen not to the liege’s words!”

ÚTSTEIN said:
14 “Our brave chieftain shall choose for us,
the foremost in war, how fare we shall:
as the liege liketh so let us, brother,
risk our lives now and the leader follow!”

INNSTEIN said:
15 “Did our lord listen, in the wars as we lay,
many a time to my counsel;
but now, ween I, he will in naught
give heed to me, since hither we came.”

Then went King Hálf with the half of his ship company to the hall of King Ásmund. There they found a great host. Great plenty reigned at the feast, and the drink was so strong that Hálf’s men fell fast asleep. King Ásmund and his men set fire to the hall. Then said Innstein:

16 “There’s smoke o’er hawks(6) in the hall of the king:
I wait me the drip of wax from swords.(7)
’Tis time to deal out treasure and gold
among Hálf’s heroes, and helmets eke.

17 “That would I now that Hálf awake:
are fires kindled unquenchable.
To Ásmund oughtest, wise atheling,
to the grim-minded, his gifts requite!8

18 “Let us bravely batter the beer-hall’s walls!
Gape even now the gable walls;
will ever be sung, while earth lasteth,
how Hálf’s heroes hardily fared.

19 “Briskly forward, nor back a foot!
Will the war-workers(9) have to wield their swords:
will themselves be seared with sore gashes
and sore wounds, ere the battle is stilled.

20 “Let the warriors wend their way quickly
out of the fire with the atheling!
Forever liveth not any man:
will the folk-warder not fear to die.”

It is told that King Hálf and his men made their way out of the blazing hall and that he was overwhelmed by the greater host outside—he and his men. When the king was fallen, Innstein said:

21 “Here saw I all, equally bold,
fearlessly follow the folk-warder:
well met, again, when after we meet!(10)
Than death, life is not lighter to bear!”
Then those men joined the fray who had stayed by the ships. There fell many of Hálf’s warriors. The battle lasted till night, ere Innstein fell. He said:

22 “Is Hrok fallen with Hálf the king—
the fearless one at the feet of his lord;
but ill owe we to Óthin now
who overthrew a thane so brave.

23 “Eighteen summers(11) I did follow
the ruler, roving, to redden spears;
no other king eager for war
shall I ever have, to grow old with him.

24 “Will Innstein here to the earth sink dead,
whole-hearted henchman, by the head of his king.
will men e’er after to mind call it
that laughing died this lord of men.”

Footnotes

2 As to the names of Innstein and his brother, Útstein, they seem to be connected with the royal estate of Útstein in Horthaland; cf. Haraldskvæthi 9 and note.

3 Cf. the dreams of Kostbera, Atlamól, 4 ff.

4 Kenning for “head.”

5 Reference is here made to the wedge formation favored by many Germanic tribes in battle.

6 I.e., “warriors.”

7 Swords were dipped in wax to protect them against rust (and witchcraft).

8 Ironic allusion to fires kindled for the welcome, and presents given at the departure, of guests.

9 Ásmund’s men.

10 I.e., after death, in Valholl.

11 The Viking expeditions took place only in summer.

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