Literature / The Saga of Hervor and Heidrek
"Hervor's Death", by Peter Nicolai Arbo
The Saga of Hervor and Heidrek
Now she sees where the grave-fire is burning on the edge of the island, and she goes up there and is not afraid, though all the mounds were in her path, and the dead standing outside.
a.k.a. Hervor's Saga
a.k.a. The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise
is a 13th century legendary saga, forming a part of Norse Mythology
On a hunting expedition, King Svafrlami of Russia
captures two dwarfs and forces them to forge the ultimate sword for him in exchange for their life. The product is Tyrfing, a weapon so awesome it cuts stone and metal like butter
, inevitably kills anything so much as scratched by it, and lets its wielder win every fight. But alas, in vengeance for their humiliation the dwarfs have built in a few nasty surprises: The blade is enchanted so that it must always kill a man when unsheathed, that Svafrlami will die by it, and that it will be the instrument of three acts of parricide.
It is believed the Saga of Hervor and Heidrek
was originally composed as a frame story for several pieces of heroic poetry that are older than the saga and are included in the narrative verbatim. In the process, the author tied together several legends and legendary figures that, in all likelihood, had no link to each other before that, and thus created a generational saga about a turbulent family and their cursed heirloom.
The plot thus created is somewhat episodic and loosely connected, and subsequent writers have felt the need to tinker with the story. The greatest differences appear between the oldest (and shortest) variant (surviving in a single manuscript) and all the younger manuscripts which tell a rewritten and expanded plot: In fact, only the younger version relates the circumstances of Tyrfing's creation and introduces its threefold curse. No two manuscripts tell exactly the same story, and no manuscript is completely free of consistency snarls. Accordingly, translations (which are necessarily synthesized from a number of manuscripts) vary quite a bit, depending on the translator's choices.
On the plus side, the saga is highly valued for the poetry it preserves, and which provides some of its most memorable scenes: Among these are "The Waking of Angantyr", in which the shieldmaiden Hervor calls forth her father Angantyr from his gravemound to hand her over Tyrfing which was buried with him; "The Riddles of Gestumblindi" in which Hervor's son Heidrek plays a game of riddles with a disguised Odin; and "The Battle of Goths and Huns", which tells of a humungous succession war in the kingdom of the Goths, drawing on very old lore from a time when the Goths were still living north of the Black Sea.
Choose your translation: Nora Kershaw
(1921), Christopher Tolkien (pdf file)
(1960), Peter Tunstall
(2005). A Cliffs Notes-esque version of the tale is included in the opening section of Scion: Ragnarok
- Absurdly Sharp Blade: Tyrfing is "the keenest of all blades" and cuts "into iron and stone as if into cloth"; its blows "had never been stayed before it plunged into the earth." When Svafrlami strikes at the dwarfs vanishing into the rock, the blade sinks into the stone up to the hilt, yet is undamaged.
- Accidental Murder: In the older version, Heidrek kills his brother Angantyr accidentally after he is sent away from Angantyr's party for causing disturbance. In going, Heidrek throws a stone into the dark where people are talking; the stone hits Angantyr and kills him.
- Ancestral Weapon: Tyrfing is passed on among Sigrlami's descendants over five generations.
- Cain and Abel: Heidrek kills his brother Angantyr (accidentally in the old version, not-so-accidentally in the younger version).
- Cold Flames: When Hervor is looking for her father's gravemound in a haunted burial ground at night, there are ghostly "grave-fires" burning on the barrows. As it turns out, Hervor can go right through these fires without getting burned.
- Cold Iron: Svafrlami catches the dwarfs by "drawing his graven sword over them", which takes away their power to vanish into the stone. This is striking because the dwarfs have no trouble handling iron when forging Tyrfing. Maybe the magic is in the unexplained "gravings".
- Divine Parentage: Sigrlami, father of Svafrlami, is "said to be a son of Odin".
- Draw Sword, Draw Blood: Tyrfing "could never be held unsheathed without being the death of a man, and it always had to be sheathed with blood still warm upon it." This is told as a plain fact in the older version; in the younger version is is a curse laid on the sword by the dwarfs that made it. It is unclear how this spell works in practice, as Tyrfing is sheathed several times without anyone getting killed; while all wielders who do this come to a bad end, it is not obvious whether this is because of the curse.
- Dreaming of Things to Come: Before the appointed battle on Samsey, Angantyr son of Arngrim has a dream in which he and his brothers kill a flock of birds, then are themselves attacked and killed by two eagles. This is an accurate prediction of the events on Samsey, wherein Hjalmar and Orvar-Odd are the two eagles.
- Driven to Suicide: After Hjalmar's death, Ingibjorg kills herself from grief. Also, Heidrek's first wife hangs herself after Heidrek backstabs and kills her father.
- Duel to the Death: Hjalmar vs. Angantyr.
- Due to the Dead: After the Battle of Samsey, Orvar-Odd takes his time to bury his enemies the sons of Arngrim, and even refrains from looting their corpses, burying them with all their weapons—including Tyrfing.
- Evil Weapon: Tyrfing always has to kill someone when unsheathed, and must be sheathed covered with warm blood. If sheathed without taking a life, the owner will die soon. It is also cursed so that three deeds of parricide will be committed through it.
- Hereditary Curse: Technically, only the sword Tyrfing is cursed, but as nobody ever seems to consider simply getting rid of the sword, the three kinslayings are necessarily committed within the same family line.
- Human Sacrifice: When Gothland is beset by a famine, an oracle reveals that "the noblest boy in the kingdom" must be sacrificed to Odin.
- Jacob and Esau: Angantyr II is popular and just like his father Hofund, while Heidrek is a troublemaker like his mother Hervor. Hofund favours Angantyr while Hervor likes Heidrek more.
- "Just So" Story: When Odin drops his disguise, King Heidrek strikes at him with Tyrfing. Odin turns into a hawk to fly away, and Tyrfing cuts off the hawk's tail feathers. Ever since, the hawk has a short tail.
- Large and in Charge: Angantyr Arngrimsson, leader of the berserk brothers, is "one head taller than other men".
- Literal Genie: The dwarfs promised that whoever wields Tyrfing will be victorious in every fight. But apparently, 'victorious' does not always mean 'alive'.
- Nominal Hero: Heidrek kills his own brother, his father-in-law, and murders his double-dealing concubine and dumps her body in a river. In short, he really isn't a good person.
- The Marvelous Deer: Possibly. Svafrlami, grandson of Odin, captures the dwarfs after vainly pursuing a stag for two days. Maybe the stag was sent by Odin.
- Multi-Armed and Dangerous: The giant Starkad Aludreng has eight arms and wields four swords at once in combat. He is eventually killed by Thor for abducting princess Alfhild of Alfheim.
- Mutual Kill: Hjalmar and Angantyr kill each other in a duel. Hjalmar survives Angantyr but dies from the wounds Tyrfing has inflicted.
- Named Weapon: Tyrfing (obviously). Opinions are divided whether Tyrfing is "the finger of Tyr", the "weapon from under the turf", or maybe has to do with the Tervingi, an ancient tribe of the Goths.
- Revenge SVP: At the feast of his brother Angantyr, Heidrek incites two of the guests into fighting. This seems to be motivated by him not being invited to the party in the first place.
- Riddle Me This: Heidrek plays a game of riddles with an old man, Odin in disguise. The old man beats him by asking, "What did Odin whisper in Balder's ear as they pushed his funeral boat out to sea?" This also gives away his identity, because Odin is the only person on the Nine Worlds who would know.
- Sibling Team: The twelve sons of Arngrim only ever act as a unit.
- Single-Minded Twins: The "two Haddings", the youngest of the twelve sons of Arngrim, "only did one man's work between them, because they were twins". They are only ever mentioned in plural, and they even have the same first name.
- Sole Survivor: Orvar-Odd is the only survivor of the Battle of Samsey.
- Sweet Polly Oliver: Hervor daughter of Angantyr dresses as a man and calls herself Hervard to join a band of vikings, eventually even becoming their leader, and later becomes a retainer of King Gudmund of Glaesisvellir.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: What happened to Tyrfing after the death of Angantyr son of Heidrek?