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Literature / Ragnar Lodbrok and His Sons

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"King Aella's messenger before Ragnar Lodbrok's sons", by August Malmström (1857)

The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok (Ragnars saga loðbrókar) and Tale of Ragnar’s Sons (Ragnarssona þáttr) are two 13th century Icelandic sagas, telling the story of a prestigious clan of enterprising warlord-kings, set in a fictionalised 9th century, in the heyday of The Viking Age. The authorship is anonymous. Despite what the titles suggest, the two works are not sequels, rather different treatments of the same story, but with a shift in emphasis, and also a few inconsistencies between them. The "Tale" is much shorter than the Saga.

Ragnar succeeds his father as king of Sweden and Denmark. While he is still a youngster, he kills a giant snake, wearing special clothes made of fur for protection, which earns him his unique nickname Loðbrók (a.k.a. Lodbrok, Lothbrok, or Lodbrog, depending on transliteration)—"Hairy-Breeches"note —and also the jarl’s daughter that the monster guarded, Thora Hart-of-the-Town.

But Thora dies young, and Ragnar takes another wife—Kraka, a mysterious girl raised by a poor couple, who will eventually reveal a lofty heritage. Thora’s sons are Erik and Agnar; Kraka’s sons are Ivar the Boneless, Bjorn Ironside, Hvitserk, Rognvald, and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye. In time, the sons follow in the footsteps of their father and take up careers as viking raiders and conquerors—and soon, father and sons find themselves competing against each other in a quest for glory that ravages half of Europe, drips of blood, and entertains the reader.

Ragnar Lodbrok and his sons were popular stuff of legend of medieval Northern Europe; however the details of the story vary considerably—especially the number and names of the sons. Nevertheless, many of the episodes are obviously based on history: Ragnar may be inspired by a certain viking warlord Reginer who sacked Paris in 845, Ivar the Boneless is modelled on a certain "Hinguar"note  who, together with his brothers, invaded England in 865, and the Ragnarssons’ foray to the South mirrors a real-life viking invasion of the Mediterranean that occurred in 859-862. Altogether, the saga is cleverly stitched between the age of legend and history—while the Ragnarssons are descended from mythic heroes, they are also (supposedly) the ancestors of the historical royal houses of Norway, Denmark and Sweden. For more, sometimes conflicting material on the tale of Ragnar, see book 9 of Gesta Danorum, Krákumál, and The Tale of Norna-Gest.

A free translation of Ragnar's Saga can be found here (pdf file); Tale of Ragnar's Sons can be read here.

The sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok and his sons are among those medieval works that deal explicitly with viking expeditions (even if they are not strong on the realism), and portrayal of Vikings in fiction often takes inspiration from them. This begins, of course, with all the fictional Viking chiefs called Ragnar. The 1958 Hollywood epic The Vikings, the 2010s TV series Vikings, and novels such as the Hammer and the Cross trilogy and the Saxon Stories series (adapted for TV as The Last Kingdom) are loosely based on the sagas. Ragnar and his sons are also playable in Crusader Kings II: Ragnar is the heir of Sigurdr of Uppland at the 769 AD start date in the "Charlemagne" DLC, while "The Old Gods" starts during the Norse invasion of Britain with all the brothers featured.

Tropes in Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok and "Tale of Ragnar's Sons":

  • Acquitted Too Late: Ragnar has already been thrown into the Snake Pit when Ella realizes his mysterious captive is Ragnar Lothbrok. Fearing the vengeance of Ragnar's sons, he at once orders to release Ragnar from the pit. Alas, when the messenger arrives, Ragnar has already expired.
  • Archer Archetype: Ivar the Boneless has crippled legs which make him unsuited for melee combat, but he is a good archer. He is also cunning, prefers stratagems over blunt force and is described as emotionally cold.
  • Artistic License – History: Ragnar's Saga claims that Ivar the Boneless founded London; in "Tale of Ragnar's Sons", the city founded is York. Nevermind that both cities go back at least to Britain's Roman era.
  • Badass Family: Ragnar, Aslaug and their sons.
  • Child Prodigy: At the age of three, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye composes his first impromptu poem and joins his brothers in their attack on King Eystein, and goes with them to raid Southern Europe right after that.
  • Clothes Make the Superman: The eponymous "Hairy Breeches". Also, the impenetrable silk shirt made by Aslaug.
  • Continuation: The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok is ostensibly written as a continuation of the Saga of the Volsungs.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: A lot. Click here if you don't mind the spoilers. 
  • Cruel Mercy: When Aslaug leaves Aki and Grima, the couple that murdered her foster-father, she forgoes taking revenge on them, because they also raised her; but she predicts that their lives will be unhappy and will only go downhill from there.
    "For the sake of the long time that I have lived with you two, I will not do you any harm—but I now pronounce that each day will be worse for you than those that have passed, and your last day will be the worst. Now we are parted."
  • Damsel in Distress: Thora Hart-of-the-Town ends up a captive of her own overgrown pet dragon, and her father promises to marry her to any warrior who will rid them of the monster.
  • Defiant Captive: Captured by the Northumbrians, Ragnar refuses to tell Aella who he is, or indeed speak to him at all. Even when Aella has him thrown into a snake pit to make him talk, Ragnar continues to ignore him.
  • Defiant to the End: As Ragnar lies dying in Aella's snake pit his last words are: "How the piglets would grunt if they knew how the old boar suffered!", referring to how his sons are not going to take the news of his death lightly.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: When the teenager Rognvald is killed on his very first viking expedition, his mother Aslaug does not mourn him, because she considers his death honorable, and (she thinks) he could not have expected more from life.
    "And I cannot see," she said, "that he could have lived to a greater honor."
  • Deuteragonist: Ragnar, with Aslaug as the protagonist.
  • Dragon Hoard: Thora's dragon hatched a pile of gold from a single gold coin.
  • Dragons Prefer Princesses: Princess Thora ends up a de facto captive of her pet dragon. The dragon is not actively harmful to her, though — in fact it looks like the situation is a consequence of the monster's misguided protective instinct towards its mistress.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: When Hvitserk is captured in the Eastlands, his enemies allow him to chose how he wants to die. He choses to be burnt alive on a pyre built from the severed heads of the battle dead.
  • End of an Age: The ending suggests that the death of the Ragnarssons marks the end of the fornaldar, the time of heroes:
    And then when the sons of Ragnar had all given up their lives, their troops who had assisted them were dispersed far and wide, and all of them who had been with the sons of Ragnar thought that there was no worth in other princes. (Ragnar's Saga)
  • Evil Cripple: Ivar the Boneless has crippled legs that make him unable to walk, but "he wasn't short of cunning and cruelty." ("Tale of Ragnar's Sons")
  • Famed In-Story: After the Ragnarssons' campaign through Southern Europe, "they were then so famous in all that region that there was no child, however young, that did not know their names."
  • Fantastic Fruits and Vegetables: Heimir feeds baby Aslaug with a "wine-leek" (vinlauk). This is apparently some kind of highly nutritious super-vegetable which provides a complete and balanced diet to small children.
    It was the nature of this leek that a man could live long even though he had no other food.
  • Feel No Pain: When Aella's messenger relates Ragnar's death to the Ragnarssons, Sigurd is paring his fingernails with a knife. He listens to the messenger so attentively (and presumably, is so worked up internally) he does not notice he is cutting into his own flesh "until the knife stood in the bone, and he did not flinch at that."
  • Fictional Disability: Even though Ragnar's new wife Kraka prophetically warns that a child conceived within the first three nights after the wedding will "have no bones", Ragnar insists on consummating the marriage without delay. Accordingly Kraka's first son, Ivar, is born "boneless", "as if there were gristle where his bones should be." Ivar is unable to walk and has to be carried everywhere; nevertheless he is "so large that no one was his equal" and "the handsomest of all men", and he has great strength in his upper body which makes him an excellent archer. Ivar's condition (which, despite the statement that Ivar has no bones whatsoever, does not seem to effect his upper body at all) does not seem to match any real-life disability.
  • Fluffy the Terrible: For being supposedly the probably most feared Viking warlord ever, Ragnar Lodbrok has a curiously comical nickname. The real reason for the epithet is probably that it's a garbled form of a foreign nickname — maybe Old English leódbroga, 'the people's terror' (that's more like it!).
  • Genius Cripple: Ivar the Boneless is the mastermind of the Ragnarsson troupe.
  • Girl in the Tower: Thora Hart-of-the-Town is trapped in her tower when her pet dragon grows too big and fierce to let anyone in or out.
  • Glory Seeker: The main motive of Ragnar and all his sons is to become famous: The sons of Aslaug start raiding to "have their renown increased" and to "gain gold and glory". Also, they attack the town of Hvitabaer specifically because it is strongly defended, and Ragnar attacks England with only two ships because going against greater odds will make victory the more glorious.
  • Godiva Hair: To fulfill his request of meeting him "neither dressed nor undressed", Kraka goes to Ragnar covered only in a fishnet. Her long hair makes sure that she is nevertheless "bare in no place".
  • Gone Horribly Right: Don't rear baby dragons if you don't want a giant fire-breathing monster living on your property.
  • Good Stepmother: Aslaug weeps a single tear of blood for her stepsons Erik and Agnar when they are killed, and afterwards persuades her biological sons to avenge them, even personally leading an army against Eystein, eventually defeating and killing the latter.
  • Handicapped Badass: Ivar the Boneless is unable to walk, and therefore is carried onto the battlefield on a shield.
  • Heroic Vow: Worried that his own fame might be eclipsed by that of his sons, Ragnar decides to conquer England—with no more than two ships.
  • Homage: There are several scenes which echo motifs from The Saga of the Volsungs: Ragnar killing a dragon (like Sigurd), Aslaug receiving a warning by understanding the language of the birds (as did Sigurd after eating Fafnir's heart), and Ragnar dying in a snake pit, as did Gunnar the Niflung in Völsunga saga.
    • It's worth noting that Kraka is the daughter of Sigurd and Brynhilde.
  • Horny Vikings: Apart from the horns, this story is among the Trope Makers.
  • Iconic Outfit: The "hairy breeches" Ragnar wears for fighting the dragon give rise to his nickname which sticks on him for life.
  • Impossible Task: Ragnar demands of Kraka that she meet him "neither dressed nor undressed, neither fed nor unfed", and that "she must not be all alone, but nevertheless no man may accompany her". Kraka solves the task by going wrapped in a fishnet, chewing on a leek, accompanied by a dog.
  • I Was Quite the Looker: When Ragnar's crew wonder that beautiful Kraka should be the daughter of ugly Grima, Grima tries to invoke this.
  • Lady Macbeth: The farmwife Grima goads her husband Aki into murdering their guest Heimir, as she believes the latter to be very rich.
  • Lady of War: Aslaug commands an army in the campaign to Sweden.
  • Lamarck Was Right: Aslaug has inherited the ability to understand bird talk from her father, but her father only acquired this ability by eating a certain dragon's heart.
  • The Low Middle Ages: Set in a fictionalized 9th century.
  • Mama Bear: An interesting variant: Aslaug vehemently drives on her sons to avenge Erik and Agnar — even though Erik and Agnar were just her stepsons, and her biological sons are initially rather unwilling to go to war for the sake of their half-brothers. Yet Aslaug prevails, and even personally heads an army in the resulting campaign.
  • Marital Rape License: Kraka wants Ragnar not to sleep with her for three nights after their wedding, as she foresees that a child thus conceived will "have no bones". But Ragnar "follows his own advice." Cue Ivar the Boneless.
  • Mood Whiplash: The beginning, with Ragnar slaying a dragon and marrying a princess, reads much like a Fairy Tale. But the princess dies almost immediately, and the rest of the story is less and less fairy-tale like, and increasingly bloody.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: An interesting quality of the giant snake in Ragnar’s Saga is that it hatches gold: The heap of gold magically grows together with the dragon.
  • The Protagonist: While Ragnar and his sons are the eponymous characters, and have starring roles in the first and the second half respectively, a closer look reveals that the protagonist of the whole cycle is actually Aslaug.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: "They killed every man’s child who was in the town, and they took all the goods and burnt the town before they went on their way." (Ragnar's Saga)
  • Red Baron: When Aslaug leads an army to Sweden, she earns the nickname 'Randalin', "Shield-Lady" (also a poetical term for 'valkyrie').
  • Rescue Romance: Enforced by Jarl Herraud's promise to give his daughter Thora in marriage to a warrior who would rid her of the dragon.
  • Secret Legacy: Kraka, although it seems she was always aware of it herself: She is actually Aslaug, the orphaned daughter of Sigurd Fafnisbane and Brynhild the Valkyrie.
  • Sibling Team: The Ragnarssons are used to working together. In fact, they are always successful when they cooperate, but every time they don't they are in for a defeat.
  • Single Tear: According to Ragnar's Saga, Aslaug weeps a single tear of blood for Erik and Agnar.
  • Slain in Their Sleep: Urged on by his wife Grima, Aki murders their guest Heimir by striking him with an axe while he sleeps.
  • Snake Pit: King Ella has Ragnar thrown into a pit of vipers to die.
  • Speaks Fluent Animal: Aslaug has inherited the ability to understand the language of the birds from her father and thereby learns of Ragnar's plan to leave her and marry the daughter of King Eystein of Sweden instead.
  • Tears of Blood: According to Ragnar's Saga, Aslaug weeps a single tear of blood for Erik and Agnar.

Alternative Title(s): The Saga Of Ragnar Lodbrok, Ragnar Lothbrok And His Sons, The Saga Of Ragnar Lothbrok, Saga Of Ragnar Lothbrok