Wayward Heroes

Halldór Laxness

Illustration by Florinda Pamungkas

Chieftain Vermundur had a kinsman named Bessi, the son of Halldór. He lived at Laugaból, a short distance from Vatnsfjörður. Bessi was highly versed in poetry and law and was popular with everyone, but not very well-to-do. He and Vermundur were not only related but also good friends—Bessi often accompanied Vermundur when he had business to attend to, either at the Alþingi or elsewhere. Bessi’s wife had passed away before this story begins, but he had a young son named Þormóður. The lad soon proved to be quick-witted, if somewhat sharp-tongued. From his father he learned poetry and other arts, and even at an early age could relate much lore of the Northern kings and jarls most intrepid in war and other noble pursuits, as well as of the Æsir, the Völsungar, the Ylfingar, and the renowned heroes who wrestled with ogresses. In addition, the lad had excellent knowledge of the great passions men shared with women in the world’s first days, when Brynhildur slept on the mountain, and he knew stories of the swans that flew from the south and alighted on the headlands, cast off their dresses, and spun men’s fates. What is more, he was fluent in the uncanny lore predicting the end of the peopled world and the twilight of the Gods.

Þormóður Bessason found life at home with his father dreary. Early on, he made a habit of visiting places where things were more lively: feasts, weddings, wakes, Yule gatherings, or else he went to join the men at the fishing huts or other places where people gathered for work. At such times, it fell to him to cheer up folk with his lays, since winters in the Vestfirðir are long and tediously dark. Soon, when pressed for fresh verses, Þormóður began composing his own. Even as a youth he had such a gift for verse that his poems were on a par with those of other skalds.

At Vatnsfjörður, Chieftain Vermundur had numerous domestics and a good store of slaves. Both poor men and criminals made their way there, in addition to invited guests and visitors from all over the Vestfirðir who would come to speak to Vermundur and ask his advice. It was not long before Þormóður became a frequent visitor to Vatnsfjörður, finding it much more entertaining there than at home in Laugaból. Many in Vermundur’s household welcomed his visits warmly, though the householders themselves were not quite so open-armed. Folk there had no end of amusement listening to the lad’s tales in the hall at the close of day.

A woman from the Jökulfirðir, Kolbrún by name, was visiting Vatnsfjörður with her young daughter, Geirríður. Kolbrún was from Norway. She had sailed for Iceland along with her husband, the ship’s skipper, and taken winter lodging with Vermundur. That same winter, her husband, the Easterling, died suddenly, and it was rumored that Kolbrún had devised his death. Then for a time she and Vermundur carried on quite a torrid affair, but when another young woman caught the aged chieftain’s attention, he broke off their relationship and sent her to dwell in Hrafnsfjörður, one of the most desolate areas in all the Jökulfirðir. Vermundur sent a Norwegian slave, named Loðinn, with Kolbrún to serve her. Loðinn was a hawkish man who kept mainly to himself; he was very hairy, bearded, and bushy-browed—hence his name. He kept his eyes lowered most of the time, though those who claimed to have seen him look up said his eyes gleamed like a snake’s. During haymaking, mother and daughter would pay visits to old acquaintances in Djúp, the slave Loðinn leading their horses. The housewife had a good short sword that she entrusted to Loðinn’s keeping, though she would take it from him during boisterous, drunken gatherings. Kolbrún was so robust that few could match her in tests of strength. She was quite portly, yet had a good-looking face, and the best eyes of any woman, dark beneath her brow. She was known to be rather pettish if displeased and harsh to people whom she did not like—or, folk said, even more so to her lovers. For this reason, more men preferred to jest with her than try for her hand—and besides, she had very little to show for herself.

Once at day’s end when folk were gathered in the hall at Vatnsfjörður, Þormóður sat for a long time singing verses, regaling the company with lays on noble kings, famous battles, and many a valiant slaying. As is wont when evenings draw on, calls came for tales of the love that men won from shieldmaidens of yore.

One man said: “What a rotten scandal, to be forced to listen over and over to the story of when Lady Sigrún trod the road to Hel to kiss the dead Helgi, or of when Freyja clamped her thighs around Loki, or yet again of when Sigurður came upon the armor-clad maiden asleep on the mountain, slit her byrnie down to her crotch, and ravaged her before she woke up, while nobody ever sings love-verses on the noblest women in the Vestfirðir in our day and age. What would suit us all better is a lay about what is on everyone’s lips: how the housewife in Hrafnsfjörður beds her slave Loðinn twice a year; first when only nine nights of winter remain and the ravens have laid their eggs, and later when summer begins to fade and the hay has been gathered from the home fields.”

Many others joined in, pointing out the need for verses composed in honor of such a noble lady as Kolbrún of Hrafnsfjörður. At that time, however, poetry about women was held in very low esteem, and it was considered such an affront to address verses to a woman that her relatives had the right to avenge it with murder.

“I am not much good at making love songs,” said Skald Þormóður, “and besides, I see little use in slandering a woman who has done no wrong.”

The gathered company said that it was unnecessary to put the woman’s name into any verses he composed—whoever was meant would be plain.

Mistress Kolbrún of Hrafnsfjörður scoffed at this conversation and declared that men who composed love songs were incapable of enjoying women in other ways.

Þormóður said: “My father Bessi Halldórsson told me that it ill beseems a real man to make up lays about women’s loves—such poems are for pansies alone, and paltry fellows who lie about in inglenooks sucking curd-teats.”

The conversation in the hall at Vatnsfjörður now died down for the night, and folk went off to bed.

But the next evening after supper, Þormóður stepped forth and asked for silence, announcing that he had composed a poem about Mistress Kolbrún of Hrafnsfjörður, as requested by the assembly the previous night.

Many of them had forgotten last evening’s gibes, and were not keen on continuing. They had gone to bed late, and that, plus work and all the curds they had just downed, made them quite drowsy. Yet some of them stayed up to hear the poem, giving Þormóður the nickname Kolbrúnarskáld: the Skald of Coal-Brow. Some of the women, however, said that the name he deserved better was Kolrössuskáld, the Skald of Coal-Rump, and they always used that name for him whenever he came up in conversation later. No one remembers clearly how the poem the young Þormóður composed for this woman went—it has been removed from most books or scratched out. Some folk of old must have thought it unseemly, yet it more likely smacked of youthful frivolity than the earnest effort of a full-grown man who makes verses on loves denied him. Most written accounts agree, however, that Kolbrún from Hrafnsfjörður neither cursed the poem nor praised it— and as the lad went off to bed in an outlying shed where his kinsman Vermundur put beggars, rascals, and dogs, he ran his hand along the bedframe of the mother and daughter from Hrafnsfjörður. The mistress lay nearest the frame, and the girl against the wall behind her. The woman bade the lad stop. “How old a man are you, Skald Þormóður?” she asked.

He told her his age, which some say was fourteen at the time, and others twelve.

She reached for the skald and sat him down beside her on the bed. Reliable sources say that the lad had never before known that so great a woman could exist in the world.

“It astonishes me,” said she, “that such a young man should foist verses on us women, against which we have little recourse. And it is unexampled in all the world for a little boy to make a woman his laughingstock—we women find it dishonorable enough to hear poems about us composed by men with more to them than you. But in this case, the precept shall prevail that words rule over works, and from this moment on, you shall never be able to escape me. This is my reward for your poem. I also declare that when you have become a man, Þormóður, you shall ever and always be drawn to me, wherever you go, yet shall never be nearer than when you set your course farthest.”

Having spoken these words, the woman let the skald go for the time being.

translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton

Used by permission of Archipelago Books and Forlagid.