Literature: Gesta Danorum

First page of the 1514 print.

Gesta Danorum is a monumental medieval history of Denmark, written by a certain Saxo between c. 1185 and 1210 AD. The name that Saxo gave to his work is not known, and it has been referred to with a variety of names. In recent times, Gesta Danorum has emerged as the most frequently used title. This literally translates to Deeds of the Danes, but may more idiomatically but more boring be rendered as Danish History.

Saxo (c. 1150-1220) was, according to his own words, a descendant of a line of warriors and a secretary to Archbishop Absalon of Lund, who, having diagnosed that Denmark was in need of a big patriotic national history, convinced Saxo that he was the right man to write such a book. Not much else is certain about Saxo except that during his lifetime, he was nicknamed "the Long", but after his death became known with the epithet "Grammaticus" ("the Learned"). This byname he probably earned for what was his main qualification in Absolon's eyes: His ability to write a sophisticated Latin style, considered unusual to admirable in his time and stilted to unintentionally funny today.

Gesta Danorum consists of 16 books of which Nos. 1-9 are considered mythology and 10-16 history. Although Saxo did not suggest any such division, modern editions usually use a corresponding two-part structure.

  • The mythological part starts with Dan, mythic progenitor of the Danish people, and goes through many generations of legendary kings and heroes. The plot is too massive for any short summary, but among the figures of this part that deserve some highlighting are prince Amleth, who hatches a plan of revenge against his brother-killing uncle while playing a retard; King Harald Wartooth, who arranges the greatest battle ever fought in the Northlands to serve as a worthy end to his own life; and the cursed hero Starkad, a giant warrior who is fated to live three human lifespans and to commit one nefarious act of betrayal in each of them. Other chapters offer Saxo's take on heroic kings also known from the Icelandic Sagas, such as Hrolf Kraki and Ragnar Lothbrog, as well as an account of the death of Baldur that is quite different from the one in Prose Edda.

  • The historical part covers the period from kings Harald Bluetooth (succeeded c. 958 AD) to Canute VI (died 1202), with a focus on the careers of Bishop Absalon and King Valdemar (1157-1182) and their campaigns of conquest against the pagans around the southern shores of the Baltic Sea, part of the series of Northern European wars also known as the Northern Crusades.

As a source on Norse Mythology, Gesta Danorum has been in the shadow of the Icelandic Eddas and Sagas since the 19th century, although before it, the opposite was the case. Thanks to its use of Latin rather than Old Norse, Gesta Danorum appealed to Renaissance scholars and was first printed in Paris in 1514, which is why the story of Amleth could find its way to Elizabethan England to serve as the basis of William Shakespeare's play Hamlet.note 

You can find the Latin original text and the 1894 translation by Oliver Elton online.

This work provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Acquitted Too Late: Ragnar has already been thrown into Ella's Snake Pit when the realization that there are still sons of Ragnar alive makes Ella change his mind about killing Ragnar. He gives orders to release Ragnar from the pit, but the messenger finds Ragnar already dead.
  • Attending Your Own Funeral: After Fengo has sent Amleth to England to be killed with a Please Shoot the Messenger plot, the Danes thinks that Amleth is dead. Just the day they hold a memorial feast for him, Amleth returns to the royal palace. Later in the same night, he finally exexutes his vengeance.
  • Beware the Quiet Ones: The story of Uffe the Meek. People where very sceptical when the titular prince, know for his withdrawn and quiet manners and slender build, volenteers to defend Denmark's terrory and honor against two Saxon nobles. Uffe, however, expertly slays them both and goes on to become an renowned king after his father's death.
  • Cain and Abel: After Dan's son Humble has been elected king by the Danes, he is attacked and captured by his brother Lother, who only leaves him the choice of giving him the kingship or being killed. Humble gives in and Lother assumes the royal title.
  • Combat by Champion: Fighting against the Swedish usurper Sorli, Ragnar and his three sons Bjorn, Fridleif and Radbard take on a Swedish champion and his seven sons in a public single combat.
  • Cultural Translation: Writing in Latin, Saxo takes the trouble to describe Norse Mythology and society with a Classical vocabulary. Thus, his mythic Scandinavia is filled with amazons (shieldmaidens), satyrs (dwarfs), nymphs (valkyries?), and fauns (?). People exlaim "by Hercules!", Asgard is Byzantium, jarls are satraps, the underworld is ruled by Proserpina (Hel), and there are references to the rivers Phlegethon and Styx. In one thing Saxo is adamant, though: Odin and Thor are not Mercury and Jupiter, because Odin is Thor's father while Mercury is Jupiter's son.
  • Death Seeker: Starkad, some 200 years old and half-blind, feels he is getting too old for combat and, wishing to die by the sword, travels the road searching for somebody worthy to kill him.
  • Defiant to the End: The Famous Last Words of Ragnar Lodbrok to King Ella: "How the little pigs would grunt if they knew how the old boar suffers!"
  • Dragon Hoard:
    • Book 2 relates how young King Frode, looking desperately for money to pay his troops, hears about a giant venom-breathing snake that occupies a hill-like island on which much treasure is buried. Frode goes there, kills the dragon, digs up the treasure and thus regains his solvency.
    • A similar tale is told in book 6 about King Fridleif, who on a sea-journey is driven to an unknown island where a treasure is hidden in an underground chamber, guarded by a sea-dragon. Fridleif kills the dragon and salvages the hoard.
  • Duel to the Death: Skiold duels and kills Skat, the "governor of Allemannia" and rival suitor for the hand of the Saxon princess Alfhild, "in the sight of the armies of the Teutons and Danes".
  • Evil Uncle: Fengo murders his brother Horwendillus to seize the power in Jutland. Horwendillus' son Amleth has to pretend to be mentally retarded to stay alive.
  • Fainting: When Odin makes snakes appear on the eyes of the boy Sigurd Ragnarsson, Sigurd's nurse faints in terror at the sight.
  • Fed to Pigs: After killing his uncle's spying courtier that tried to eavesdrop on Amleth's conversation with his mother, Amleth cuts his body to pieces, boils it, and throws it into a sewer for pigs to eat.
  • Human Sacrifice: When King Wikar and his crew cannot get good weather for sailing, they resolve to sacrifice one of their own for fair winds.
  • Lottery Of Doom: While Starkad goes sea-roving with king Wikar, they are stopped by permanent violent storms. They determine that the gods must be appeased by a human sacrifice and draw lots over which one of them is going to be killed as an offering.
  • Made of Iron: Bjorn "Ironside" Ragnarsson receives his nickname after fighting in a single combat against a superior number of Swedish champions, and coming out both victorious and unhurt, which is attributed to the "strength of his sides" (which are supposedly hard as iron).
  • Shoot the Messenger: King Gorm vows he will kill anyone who should ever bring him the message that his favourite son Knut is dead. When Knut is killed, nobody dares to tell Gorm. The queen then drops hints until Gorm understands by himself what has happened.
  • Snake Pit: Captured by King Ella, Ragnar Lothbrog is thrown into a snake pit to die.
  • Taking You with Me: Holding out his neck for Hather to decapitate him, Starkad advises Hather that jumping between his severed head and the trunk before they can fall to the ground will protect him against being wounded in battle. Hather strikes Starkad's head off, but realizes at the last moment that Starkad intends to crush him with the weight of his falling body.
  • Unrequited Love Switcheroo: When Ragnar woos Ladgerda, she is not interested and sets a bear and a dog on him to get rid of him. Ragnar kills the animals and gets his will. Years later, when Ladgerda has already born him three children, it suddenly occurs to Ragnar he cannot trust her because she sicced the beasts on him, so he divorces her and marries Thora. But Ladgerda still loves him and when Ragnar is hard-pressed by the usurper Harald, she comes to his aid with a fleet and once more saves him from defeat.
  • William Telling: In Book 10, the archer Toki (Toco) is forced by Harald Bluetooth to shoot an apple from his own son's head. This is the earliest known instance of this trope. Toki later uses his bow and arrow to kill Harald in vengeance.

Alternative Title(s):

Danish History, Saxo Grammaticus