Harald Fairhair, son of Halfdan the Black, is known as the king who unified Norway during the Viking Age. Like much of the Viking Age, history during this time is sketchy, but tales of Harald survived and were eventually written down. We know Harald best of all through sagas and through poetry, and so we celebrate his legacy, like with much of northern Europe during this period, as a larger than life figure who was celebrated by those who loved him.
This poem, called Hrafnsmal or Haraldskvaethi, or simply “The Lay of Harald,” tells of the final battle in which this king consolidated his rule. It’s told by a raven (a “hrafn”) in dialogue with a Valkyrie, in which the raven explains who Harald is, and what his deeds are. Since the poem seems to take place just after Hafrs-firth in 873, and was written by a contemporary of Harald, Torbjørn Hornklove. Since the poem has only been preserved in sagas written much after the death of both men, and it has some issues, it’s worth taking the whole poem with a dash of salt (see Hollander’s translation at Sacred Texts for more details).
The Lay of Harald
or The Raven’s Song
By THÓRBIORN HORNKLOFI
1 Hearken, ye ring-bearers,8 while of Harold I tell you,
the mightily wealthy, and his manful war-deeds;
words I o’erheard a maiden high-minded speaking,
golden-haired, white-armed, with a glossy-beaked raven.
2 Wise thought her the valkyrie; were welcome never
men9 to the bright-eyed one, her who birds’ speech knew well.
Greeted the light-lashed maiden, the lily-throated woman,
the Hymir’s-skull-cleaver10 as on cliff he was perching.
3 “How is it, ye ravens— whence are ye come now
with beaks all gory, at break of morning?
Carrion-reek ye carry, and your claws are bloody.
Were ye near, at night-time, where ye knew of corpses?”
4 Shook himself the dun-hued one, and dried his beak,
the eagle’s oath-brother, and of answer bethought him:
“Harold we follow, Halfdan’s first-born,
I the young Yngling, since out of egg we crept.
5 “That king thou knowest, him who at Kvinnar11 dwelleth,
the hoard-warder of North men, who has hollow war-ships
with reddish ribs12 and with reddened war-shields,
with tarred oar-blades and with tents13 foam-besprinkled.
6 “Fain outside14 would he drink the ale at Yule-tide,15
the fight-loving folk-warder, and Frey’s16-game play there.
Even half-grown, he hated the hearthfire cozy,
the warm women’s room, and the wadded down-mittens.17
7 “Hearken how the high-born one in the Hafrs-firth18 fought there,
the keen-eyed king’s son, against Kiotvi19 the wealthy:
came the fleet from the eastward,20 eager for fighting,
with gaping figureheads and graven ship-prows.21
8 “They were laden with franklins and lindenshields gleaming,
with Westland spearshafts and with Welsh broadswords.
The berserkers22 bellowed as the battle opened,
the wolf-coats22 shrieked loud and shook their weapons.
9 “Their strength would they try, but he taught them to flee,
the lord of the Eastmen23 who at Útstein24 dwelleth.
The steeds-of-Nokkvi25 he steered out when started the battle.
Then boomed the bucklers ere a blow felled Haklang.26
10 “The thick-necked atheling behind the isle took shelter:
he grew loath, against Lúfa27 to hold the land of his fathers.
Then hid under benches, and let their buttocks stick up,
they who were wounded, but thrust their heads keelward.
11 “Their shoulders shielded the shifty heroes28—
were they showered with slung-shot— with the shingles-of-Gladhome.29
Home from Hafrs-firth hastened they eastward,
fled by way of Iathar,30 of ale-cups thinking.31
12 “On the gravel lay the fallen, given to the one-eyed
husband of Fulla;32 were we33 fain of such doings.
13 “Of more and other things shall the maids of Ragnhild,34
the haughty women-folk, now have to gabble
than of the heath-dwellers35 which Harold not ever
feasted on the fallen, as their friends had done oft.36
14 “The high-born liege-lord took the lady from Denmark—
broke with his Rogaland sweethearts and their sisters from Horthaland,
with those from Heithmork and Hálogaland eke.”37
15 “Whether is open-handed he-who-hastens-the-battle,38
to those who fend faithfully foemen from his homeland?”
16 “With much goods are gladdened the gallant warriors,
who in the hall of Harold while the time with chess-play:39
with much wealth he rewards them, and with well-forged broadswords,
with gold from Hunland40 and with girls from the Eastfolks.40
17 “Most happy are they when there is hope for battle,
all ready to rouse them and to row strongly,41
so as to snap the thongs and to sunder the thole-pins,
to churn the brine briskly at the beck of their liege-lord.”
18 “Of the skalds’ lot would I ask thee, since thou skill of that boastest:
how the bards fare there thou full well knowest—
they who are in Harold’s hall.”
19 “Is seen from their raiment and their red-gold finger-rings
that a kind king they have.
Red fur-cloaks own they, most fairly bordered,
swords wound with silver,42 and sarks ring-woven,43
gilded baldricks and graven helmets,
heavy gold bracelets which Harold bestowed on them.”
20 “Of the berserkers’ lot would I ask thee, thou who batten’st on corpses:
how fare the fighters who rush forth to battle,
and stout-hearted stand ’gainst the foe?”
21 “Wolf-coats are they called, the warriors unfleeing,
who bear bloody shields in battle;
the darts redden where they dash into battle
and shoulder to shoulder stand.
’T is men tried and true only, who can targes shatter,
whom the wise war-lord wants in battle.”
22 “Of Andath and all his ilk, too, have I asked thee but little:
how fare the fiddlers, how fare the jugglers
in the halls of Harold?”
23 “His earless dog does your Andath fondle;
the churl with his fool-tricks makes the folk-warder chuckle.
Yet be there others who about the fire
bowls of hot wine bear;
their flapping fools’-caps they tuck fast in their belts—
fellows you’re free to kick.”44
1 Concerning his name, cf. the note on stanza 10.
2 Their gratitude finds typical expression in stanza 19.
3 This surname probably means “raven”—given him with reference, it may be, to his most famous poem.
4 “War-alarum drápa (song of praise).”
5 I follow Finnur Jónsson’s arrangement.
6 “Beautiful skin (Parchment).”
7 To be sure, it has been observed that the king could not be said to reside on the estates of Útstein and Kvinnar until some time after the conquest of the districts in which they are located.
8 Kenning for “warriors.”
9 As lovers or husbands. The line is difficult.
10 According to Grimnismól, st. 40, the sky was made of the giant Hymir’s skull. The raven cleaves the sky in his flight.
11 No such estate is known. Very likely, the famous royal farm on Ogvaldsnes, on the island of Karm (Rogaland), near the present town of Haugesund, is meant.
12 Adopting Finnur Jónsson’s emendation.
13 The awnings under which the crew slept at night.
14 I.e., at sea.
15 The great banquet and reunion, called the “Yule-ale,” was held at the winter solstice.
16 Frey is the god of fertility and not associated with warfare. One should expect a valkyrie’s name; but as it happens the text is clear, and no valkyrie’s name begins with the alliterating F.
17 Or “pillows.”
18 “Goat-firth,” on the coast of the old district of Rogaland in southwestern Norway.
19 “The Fat”; which is supposed to be the nickname for King Guthrœth of Agthir.
20 That of the allies: owing to the lay of the land in Western Norway, “east” came frequently to be used for “south.”
21 The warships of the Viking Age frequently had their stems and sterns carved in the likeness of a dragon’s head and tail. Hence the term “dragon-ship.”
22 Both designations for fierce warriors; cf. Hárbarthslióth, 37, note.
23 Harold, whose home dominions were in southeastern Norway.
24 This estate, like those mentioned above, is situated in southwestern Norway.
25 Nokkvi is the name of a mythical sea-king; his steed, therefore, is the “ship.”
26 “Long-chin” (or “Long One with the Harelip”); which is thought to be the nickname for Ólaf the White, famous Viking chief of Dublin.
27 “Untidy shock of hair,” Harold’s nickname. The legend tells that, when rejected by the fair Gytha, as not being the lord of all Norway, he made the vow neither to cut nor comb his hair till he had brought the whole land under his sway, or else died. But after he had fulfilled his vow, and had it cut and cleansed, he was called “Hairfair,” from his long silky hair.
28 I.e., in fleeing.
29 Glathsheimr “the shining abode,” the dwelling of Óthin in Valholl (see Grimnismól, stanza 8), is here substituted by the translator for Sváfnis salnæfrar “the-shingles-of-Óthin’s-hall,” i.e., the shields with which (ibid., stanza 9) the roof of Óthin’s hall is covered.
30 The present Jæ(de)ren, the southwesternmost district of Norway.
31 I.e., to be home again at their ease; but the interpretation is doubtful.
32 Óthin. Fulla, a hypostasis of Frigg, his wife, is substituted here by the translator.
33 I.e., the ravens. There is the suspicion that something is lacking after this line.
34 The Danish princess who superseded Harold’s many other wives.
35 I.e., the wolves.
36 The meaning of this difficult stanza is, that the Danish women can now no longer taunt Harold for not having fed the wolves on the carcasses of the slain, i.e., for not being warlike. It has been supposed that stanzas 13 and 14 may be fragments of another poem.
37 In order, these districts lie in the southeast, the west, the east center, and the north, of Norway. The order has been changed here.
38 The king.
39 Or, perhaps, the game referred to in Heithrek’s Riddles, 26.
40 Here, probably generalized names.
41 It was by no means below the dignity of warriors to ply the oars in warships; cf. the situation in Atlamól hin grœnlænzku, stanza 34. The oar moved against a tholepin and was secured by thongs.
42 I.e., the hilts, which were wound with silver wire.
43 I.e., the shirts of mail.
44 The valkyrie rather falls out of her rôle in asking about Harold’s jesters and jugglers. The raven voices the scorn generally felt, and expressed by the skalds, of the low buffoonery of these foreigners—for such they were generally—who competed with the skalds for the favors of their prince. The meaning of lines 3-5 is much debated. I follow S. Blöndal’s recent suggestions.