In the air, among clouds, and upon a white horse, a valkyrie rides with the corpse of a man. Flanked by two ravens, two other valkyries ride behind her, one raising a spear. Doepler, Emil. ca. 1905. Walhall, die Götterwelt der Germanen. Martin Oldenbourg, Berlin

The Bloody Sisters of Fate

Here Thomas Gray, a poet whose work I’ve shared before, is adapting “Song of the Valkyries,” a piece from the Saga of Burnt Nial, one of the Icelandic sagas with a great deal of history behind it. As my previous discussion of this poem pointed out, this takes place at the Battle of Clontarf, which was the point at which the Vikings were finally defeated in Ireland. Of course, saying “the Vikings were defeated” is somewhat silly; immigration from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark into Ireland didn’t stop then, and the colonies that were already in Ireland weren’t expelled. The character of the violence changed is all.

Anyway, you’ll probably want to compare this poem, “The Fatal Sisters,” to “Song of the Valkyries”. But there are two factors to consider when reading this poem. First, Gray is not translating the original. It’s something of an imitation of the style, following the basic “Song of the Valkyries” format, but it’s not intended to be word-for-word. You might consider it to be a “poetic translation” but it’s not quite that either. He’s trying to be inspired by the original to say something different about the Battle, and about Valkyries and Fate, and also about the Norse influence on English poetry.

Also, Gray is a professional poet, not a professional translator. He’s focusing more on meter, rhyme, and general aesthetics, than he is on fidelity to the original. You might find this poem more pleasing than that version I shared previously. It’s an interesting point of comparison, and I think many of you will find it fascinating for a variety of reasons, whether you’ve followed this blog for history, for mythology, for poetry, or just for fun.

Give it a shot. Maybe you’ll like this version better, maybe the other, maybe you’re just wondering why I’m stuck on Valkyries again. But feel free to refer back to the translation I shared previously.

The Fatal Sisters

by Thomas Gray


In the eleventh century Sigurd, Earl of the Orkney-Islands,
went with a fleet of ships and a considerable body of troops
into Ireland, to the assistance of Sictryg with the silken beard,
who was then making war on his father-in-law Brian, King of
Dublin: the Earl and all his forces were cut to pieces, and
Sictryg was in danger of a total defeat; but the enemy had a
greater loss by the death of Brian, their King, who fell in
the action. On Christmas-day, (the day of the battle,) a native
of Caithness in Scotland saw at a distance a number of persons
on horseback riding full speed towards a hill, and seeming to enter
into it. Curiosity led him to follow them, till looking through an
opening in the rocks he saw twelve gigantic figures resembling
women: they were all employed about a loom; and as they wove,
they sung the following dreadful Song; which when they had
finished, they tore the web into twelve pieces, and (each taking
her portion) galloped six to the north and as many to the south.

1 Now the storm begins to lower,
2 (Haste, the loom of hell prepare,)
3 Iron-sleet of arrowy shower
4 Hurtles in the darkened air.

5 Glittering lances are the loom,
6 Where the dusky warp we strain,
7 Weaving many a soldier’s doom,
8 Orkney’s woe, and Randver’s bane.

9 See the grisly texture grow,
10 (‘Tis of human entrails made,)
11 And the weights that play below,
12 Each a gasping warrior’s head.

13 Shafts for shuttles, dipped in gore,
14 Shoot the trembling cords along.
15 Sword, that once a monarch bore,
16 Keep the tissue close and strong.

17 Mista black, terrific maid,
18 Sangrida and Hilda see,
19 Join the wayward work to aid:
20 ‘Tis the woof of victory.

21 Ere the ruddy sun be set,
22 Pikes must shiver, javelins sing,
23 Blade with clattering buckler meet,
24 Hauberk crash and helmet ring.

25 (Weave the crimson web of war)
26 Let us go, and let us fly,
27 Where our friends the conflict share,
28 Where they triumph, where they die.

29 As the paths of fate we tread,
30 Wading through the ensanguined field:
31 Gondula and Geira, spread
32 O’er the youthful King your shield.

33 We the reins to slaughter give,
34 Ours to kill and ours to spare:
35 Spite of danger he shall live.
36 (Weave the crimson web of war.)

37 They, whom once the desert-beach
38 Pent within its bleak domain,
39 Soon their ample sway shall stretch
40 O’er the plenty of the plain.

41 Low the dauntless Earl is laid,
42 Gored with many a gaping wound:
43 Fate demands a nobler head;
44 Soon a King shall bite the ground.

45 Long his loss shall Eirin weep,
46 Ne’er again his likeness see;
47 Long her strains in sorrow steep,
48 Strains of immortality!

49 Horror covers all the heath,
50 Clouds of carnage blot the sun.
51 Sisters, weave the web of death;
52 Sisters, cease, the work is done.

53 Hail the task, and hail the hands!
54 Songs of joy and triumph sing!
55 Joy to the victorious bands;
56 Triumph to the younger King.

57 Mortal, thou that hear’st the tale,
58 Learn the tenor of our song.
59 Scotland, through each winding vale
60 Far and wide the notes prolong.

61 Sisters, hence with spurs of speed:
62 Each her thundering faulchion wield;
63 Each bestride her sable steed.
64 Hurry, hurry to the field.

Battle of Clontarf, oil on canvas painting by Hugh Frazer, 1826
Battle of Clontarf, oil on canvas painting by Hugh Frazer, 1826

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