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Literature / Gesta Danorum

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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 boringly 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 going out of his way to seem harmless; 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. Another high point are the adventures of Thorkill, a seafarer who sails to Jotunheim and to Utgard.

  • 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  2022's The Northman loosely adapts the story of Amleth.

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.
  • Afterlife Tour: At King Hadding's marriage (which is held in winter), a mysterious old woman appears and shows Hading fresh stalks of hemlock and asks him whether he would like to see the place where hemlock grows in winter, to which Hadding agrees. The mystery woman wraps him into her cloak and thus takes him to the underworld, where they travel through thick fog and darkness to a sunny meadow where hemlock grows. Afterwards they cross a river bearing weapons in its water to a field where two armies are fighting, and the woman explains both armies are of men who were killed in battle. Finally they stop at an unsurmountable wall; the woman kills a rooster and throws it over the wall, and immediately it is heard crowing on the other side. Then they return.
  • 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 executes his vengeance.
  • Beware the Quiet Ones: The story of Uffe the Meek. People were very sceptical when the titular prince, know for his withdrawn and quiet manners and slender build, volunteers to defend Denmark's territory and honor in a duel against two Saxon nobles. Uffe, however, expertly slays them both and goes on to become an renowned king after his father's death.
  • Breaking the Bonds: During his imprisonment for rebellion, Ubbe, son of Ragnar Lodbrok, tears his chains "by immense violence". He is then shackled with stronger chains which he is not able to break.
  • 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.
  • Call on Me: Kraka the sorceress promises her stepson Erik that she will aid him in any kind of dire straits if he calls out her name. Much later, when Erik and his newlywed wife are being attacked by assassins in their bedchamber, Erik calls out his stepmother's name; suddenly a shield drops from the rafters, covers Erik's body and thus saves his life.
  • 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 by Despair: The aged king Gorm the Old dies from grief the day after he has heard that his favourite son Knut has been killed.
  • 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.
  • Decoy Getaway: Under the influence of slanderers, King Gorm resolves to have Thorkill murdered in his bed. But Thorkill is forewarned, sneaks out of his bunk and leaves a log in his place. The assassins stab the log before realizing their mistake.
  • Dirty Cop: After Starkad has been wounded in a duel, a passer-by asks him how he will reward him if he will patch up his wounds. Starkad, who does not want to accept help from "those in low walks of life", asks him what his social position is, and learns that the man is a bailiff. Upon this revelation Starkad at once showers him with abuse for disregarding his "honourable duties", talking sneeringly about everone, launching wrongful charges against innocents, snooping around in other people's business, and harassing "harmless characters" at every opportunity. The passage not only makes clear that Starkad considers all bailiffs lowlifes, but the fact that the bailiff would only help if promised a reward first also suggests Starkad's accusations are not far from the truth.
  • Doing In the Wizard: A variation on the trope anyway. As a Christian writer, Saxo was compelled to distance himself and his fellow Danes from the old Norse religion their ancestors adhered to, so he describes Odin (along with several other old Norse gods) as if he was an actual historical person, and explains that he tricked people into worshipping him by being a skilled illusionist.
  • 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".
  • Dying Deal Upgrade: Sivard, son of Ragnar Lodbrog, is severely wounded in the first battle he fights in, and it looks like he is going to die. A strange, very tall man who calls himself Roftar appears and promises Sivard that he will cure him, if Sivard in turn agrees to "consecrate unto him [Roftar] the souls of all whom he [Sivard] should overcome in battle". When Sivard agrees, Roftar instantly heals his wound with a touch of his hand, and at the same time makes little snakes appear in Sivard's eyes. Sivard, now called Sivard Snake-Eye, later becomes a great warrior-king. We are expected to understand that "Roftar" was Odin.
  • 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.
  • Faint in Shock: When Odin makes little snakes appear in the eyes of the boy Sivard Ragnarsson, an old woman acting as Sivard'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.
  • Food Chains: Passing through the realm of the giant Gudmund on their journey to Geirrodsgard, Thorkill warns his companions that any mortal who eats the food offered by Gudmund will lose his memory and can never leave Gudmund's realm again. Gudmund meanwhile invites them to a banquet and urges them to try the fruits in his orchard, forcing Thorkill to contrive excuses for not eating anything.
  • Glowing Gem: When Thorkill, on his voyage to Utgard-Loki, goes to explore an unknown shore in a region of eternal darkness, he fixes a gleaming jewel to the mast of his ship to mark the way back.
  • Good Stepmother: Kraka the Sorceress cooks meals for her stepson Erik and her own son Roller, but prepares Roller's share with the slaver of a magical snake, which will make him smarter and luckier. When Erik and Roller swap plates, the spell is upon Erik instead, but rather than being angry at Erik, Kraka decides Erik should be the leader of the brothers. She promises her magic will aid Erik when he calls her name, and helps him outwit King Gotar of Norway. When Gotar's assassins attack him in bed, he calls out his stepmother's name, whereupon a shield falls from the rafters, covering his body and saving his life.
  • Healing Hands: Odin (in the shape of Roftar) offers to heal the wounds of Sivard Ragnarsson if Sivard will promise to dedicate all men he is going to kill in his life to Odin. When Sivard agrees, Roftar touches him with his hand, causing the wound to close and scar over at once.
  • Heroic Ambidexterity: Invoked: Young king Frode of Denmark (book 5) asks for the daughter of the king of the Huns in marriage, but the princess declines because Frode has not yet earned fame by heroic deeds. Frode's messenger goes on to praise Frode's physical qualities, one of them being that "he use[s] his left hand as well as his right". The intent of this is apparently to convince the princess that Frode has all the potential to become a famous warrior.
  • 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.
  • Love Triangle: King Frothi marries his sister to his new retainer, Erick the Eloquent, and sends him to convince the Norwegian king to wed his daughter to him. Erick's spouse, however, loves her husband and insists on coming along. However, the Norwegian king is disinterested in the idea but is attracted to Erick's newlywed wife, he is also fond of Erick and would prefer to marry his daughter to him instead. Therefore, he begins plotting but fails to comprehend that Erick is two moves ahead.
  • A Light in the Distance: Looking for the way to Utgard-Loki, Thorkill and his crew are lost in a sea of eternal darkness, when they spot "a twinkle of a fire at no great distance". Thorkill goes after the fire and finds two freakishly ugly but helpful giants who eventually direct him to Utgard-Loki.
  • Nasty Party: In the story of Amleth, Amleth pretends to be mentally impaired to protect himself, but is really waiting for an opportunity to avenge the murder of his father on his uncle Fengo. At a memorial feast held on the occasion of Amleth's presumed death, Amleth unexpectedly returns. The rest of the court gets drunk, due to Amleth plying them with drink, and fall asleep. Amleth then pulls tapestries down over them and using hooks he had made earlier with which he claimed he'd avenge his father's death, he fixes the tapestries in place. He then sets the place alight while going off to kill his uncle in a sword-fight, through switching their sword with one fixed in the scabbard.
  • Please Shoot the Messenger: After the usurper Fengi has murdered his brother and married the latter's wife, he senses that his nephew Amleth is dangerous, but does not dare to kill him himself because he fears the reaction of his wife (Amleth's mother) and her family. He contrives to send Amleth to Britain with two courtiers carrying a message (carved into a piece of wood) instructing the King of Britain to put Amleth to death. While his companions are sleeping, Amleth reads the message and alters it so that it orders the death of the courtiers and moreover demands the king to give Amleth his daughter in marriage. The king complies on both counts.
  • Poison Is Corrosive: As Thorkill and his companions sail away from Utgard in flight, flying demons rain poisonous slaver down on them. The voyagers take shelter under animal hides, but one man accidentally thrusts out his hand, and it withers from touch of the poison; a second man peeks out from under his cover, and goes blind; a third man sticks out his whole head, which is taken clean off at the neck "as if it had been severed with a sword".
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: In Book 6, Starkad agrees to help Helge in a single combat against nine brothers. On the appointed day, Helge oversleeps and Starkad is too proud to wake him, so he goes to the combat alone. His nine opponents offer Starkad to attack him one by one, but he rudely tells them to come at him all at once. Starkad kills all nine, but is severely wounded so he is forced to wait for random passersby to help him. One by one, a sheriff, a free man married to another man's slave, and a slave woman with a baby to feed offer to bandage his wounds, but are refused because Starkad considers it beneath him to get his life saved by any of them. Finally there comes a peasant laborer, son of a laborer, whom Starkad considers worthy to be his rescuer.
  • 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. Queen Thyra has the royal hall hung with black cloth and when Gorm asks about the reason for this, she tells him hat his favourite falcon has died. Gorm immediately understands the true sense of her words, without anyone having to tell him.
  • Sizeshifter: Young prince Hadding is hit on by the giantess Harthgrepa, who wants him to sleep with her. First Hadding rejects her because of her giant size, but when Harthgrepa reveals that she can change her size at will and can easily scale down to human size in order to have sex with him, he gives up his objections.
  • 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.
  • Undignified Death: King Harald Bluetooth is relieving himself in a bush when he is ambushed by Toke, the chieftain of Fyn. The King is then slain by Toke by getting Shot in the Ass with an arrow as he tries to flee.
  • The Un-Favourite: King Gorm vows that he will put to death whoever should bring him the message that his son Knut is dead; when Knut is killed (though he does not make good on his vow) Gorm dies from grief, and Knut's younger brother Harald Bluetooth becomes king. Gorm's vow and his reaction to the death of Knut imply that he does not particularly care for Harald, and that he considers him an unworthy son compared to Knut.
  • 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.
  • Tempting Apple: On their way to Geirrodsgard, King Gorm and Thorkill are hosted by the giant Guthmundus. Thorkill however knows that any mortal who eats the food offered by Guthmund or who has intercourse with a woman of Guthmund's realm will lose his mind and can never leave Guthmund's realm again. After Guthmund has tried to trap them twice by inviting them to a feast, then by offering them his maidservants as concubines, he leads them to his garden and asks Gorm to try the fruits growing there. When he is foiled again by Gorm evading to accept the offer, Guthmund gives up and allows them to continue their voyage.
  • The Weird Sisters: In Book 6, King Fridleif consults "the oracles of the Fates" to ask for how the life of his newborn son Olvar will turn out. He goes to "the house of the gods" where he finds three maidens who are sisters, of which the first two grant beauty, popularity and generosity; but the third one is malicious and rules that Olvar will be considered a miser. The text leaves ambiguous whether the three women are three seers, or the Fates themselves.
  • William Telling: In Book 10, the archer Toke is forced by Harald Bluetooth to shoot an apple from his own son's head. This is the earliest known instance of this trope. Toke later uses his bow and arrow to kill Harald in vengeance.

Alternative Title(s): Danish History, Saxo Grammaticus