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Literature / The Saga of the Jomsvikings

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"Hailstorm at the Battle of Hjórunga Bay" (Halfdan Egedius, 1899)

"Poorly would I remember the laws of the Jomsvikings if I shrank from death or spoke words of fear. Death comes to every man."

Jómsvíkinga saga, i.e. Saga of the Jomsvikings, is a 13th century Old Norse saga, the author being an anonymous Icelander. It is a fanciful historical adventure set in the 10th century, recalling the days of the vikings.

Its first part is dedicated to the rise of the Knytlings, the Danish royal dynasty that was the first to unite Denmark under their rule and built it into the northern European hegemonial power of the late The Viking Age.

The focus then shifts to a clan of Danish warlords, the descendants of the chieftain Toki, and their long history of both rivalry and collaboration with the Danish kings. King Harald "Bluetooth" Gormsson’s ruthless pursuit of unrivalled power leads to a long-smouldering enmity with Toki's clan that only ends when Toki's grandson Palnatoki stirs up a rebellion that overthrows the king and puts Harald's bastard son Svein Forkbeard on the throne.

But when Svein discovers the truth about his father's death, he cuts ties with Palnatoki, and the latter is forced to leave Denmark. A successful commander of viking cruises, he eventually establishes a new base of operations in Vindlandnote , realm of the mighty king Burisleifnote , who cedes the Danish sea-rovers a stretch of coast in the land of Jom, where they build the mighty fortress of Jomsborg.note 

Having become somewhat snobbish by all their victories, Palnatoki and his lot, henceforward known as the Jomsvikings, decide that only the crème de la crème of warriors can join their club, and establish the law of Jomsborg that makes bravery and recklessness mandatory. Applicants arrive from whom Palnatoki picks the captains of Jomsborg – Sigvaldi, Thorkell the Tall, Búi the Stout, Sigurd Cape, and Palnatoki's own grandson Vagn Akason with his veteran mentor, Bjorn the Welshman. Together, they form the most prestigious viking host to ever haunt the seas, and heap up fame and fortune in spades.

King Svein is not exactly enthusiastic about the unchecked power of the Jomsvikings and their lack of proper obedience to the Danish king. When Palnatoki dies and Sigvaldi takes over the leadership, things seem to normalize - only for Sigvaldi’s double-dealing with Svein to fire a new grudge. Eventually, the crafty king devises a scheme to put the Jomsvikings back in their place—tricking them into a brazen undertaking that can only result in glory... or total destruction.

A free translation (pdf file).

Tropes in Jómsvíkinga saga:

  • Adopted into Royalty: To hush up an incestuous affair, Jarl Arnfinn of Saxony abandons his newborn son in a forest so it will be found by king Gorm of Denmark. Gorm, who at once infers from the costly garments and the gold found along with him that the boy is of noble birth, has him raised like a son and eventually names him his heir. The boy, Knut, becomes king and gives his name to the royal house of Knytlings.
  • Alcohol-Induced Idiocy: Sigvaldi and the other Jomsvikings get wasted at the memorial feast for Strut-Harald, the father of Sigvaldi and Thorkel, prepared for them by King Svein Forkbeard. The king then suggests for them all to make vows about heroic achievements they are going to accomplish; Sigvaldi takes the bait and vows that he will conquer Norway, and the other Jomsvikings vow they will support him in that. The next morning, a sobered-up Sigvaldi realizes they have publicly committed themselves to a goal that may be too big for them. Context implies this was all in the intent of King Svein, who saw to that the strongest beer would be served to the Jomsvikings.
  • Badass Army: The Jomsvikings.
  • The Berserker: Aslak Holmskalle and Vagn are the first to board Jarl Erik's ship and "each plowed forward on either side of the ship, clearing the deck, so that everybody fell back". They "[slay] many a man". Aslak is moreover invulnerable to weapons and though he wears no helmet, and gets hit on the head with swords, he stays unharmed. Aslak is only stopped when his skull is bashed in with an anvil; Vagn, who is not invulnerable but is nevertheless "killing men savagely", continues to advance until he takes a hit with an oaken club which splits his helmet and prompts him to jump back onto his own ship. Jarl Erik then flees from the battle line, because he has lost too many defenders.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Just as Sigvaldi is turning to flight from the Battle of Hjórunga Bay, Búi's ship is boarded and Búi gets both his hands cut off at the wrists by Sigmund Brestisson. With his last strength, Búi picks up his two chests of gold with his arm stumps and jumps overboard while calling on his remaining men to do the same.
  • Big Badass Battle Sequence: The Battle of Hjórunga Bay is the saga's climax.
  • Black Comedy: Svein Buason tricking one of the Jarl's bodyguards into losing both of his hands. Cruel and horrible ... and funny.
  • Blood Knight: Vagn.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Knut, the founder of the Danish royal house of Knytlings, is the result of an incestuous affair a Saxon jarl called Arnfinn had with his sister. The parents keep the boy a secret and abandon him in a forest so he will be found by King Gorm of Denmark.
    The jarl had a beautiful sister, and he was fonder of her than he should have been and begot a child with her.
  • Cool Old Guy: Bjorn the Welshman is already an old man by the time of the Battle of Hjórunga Bay, but still renowned for his bravery.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The narrative does neither approve nor condemn the acts committed by the Jomsvikings. The underlying outlook seems to be that the Jomsvikings were bad people, but they got style.
  • Divine Intervention: The goddesses Thorgerd and Irpanote  come to the aid of the Norwegians, summoning an enormous hailstorm in the process.
  • Doorstop Baby: Jarl Arnfinn, wishing to keep his incestuous affair with his own sister a secret, arranges for his newborn son to be abandoned in a forest where the Danish king Gorm the Childless is hunting. As planned, the boy is found and brought to the king, who has him raised as a royal and eventually names him his successor. Because the boy is left with gold knotted into a cloth hanging from branches above his head, Gorm calls him Knútr ("knot"), and he becomes the founder of the Danish royal house of Knytlings.
  • Dragon Hoard: The saga speculates that a sea-serpent seen in Hjórunga Bay is the ghost of the Jomsviking Búi, guarding the two chests of gold he took with him to his watery grave.
  • Dragons Are Demonic: The saga speculates that a sea-serpent seen in Hjórunga Bay is either the ghost of Búi guarding the two chests of gold he took with him to the sea-bottom, or else that "some evil spirit" has taken possession of the treasure.
  • "Facing the Bullets" One-Liner: A whole firework of them.
  • Get It Over With: The fourth Jomsviking to be beheaded, when he is asked how he feels about dying, replies that he is content to die the same way as his father did, and tells the executioner to "slash away!"
  • Half the Man He Used to Be: The warrior Thorkel Midlong splits Búi's chin with a sword-blow, but Búi returns the blow while Thorkel slips on the wet planks and topples against the gunwale, and "the blow struck him in the middle, and he was cut in two against the gunwale."
  • Home Base: Jomsborg, with a pinch of Clown-Car Base as some manuscripts make it big enough to accommodate 300 ships.
  • Honor Before Reason: Sigvaldi and the Jomsvikings when they decide to keep the vows they swore while they were wasted, even though they know they have bitten off more than they can chew. Vagn Akason when he refuses to retreat from the Battle of Hjórunga Bay, preferring death or captivity over flight.
  • Human Sacrifice: To ensure the victory over the Jomsvikings, Jarl Hakon sacrifices his own seven-year old son Erling.
  • The Kingslayer: Palnatóki, foster-father to the young Svein Forkbeard, instructs his foster-son to raise a rebellion against his own father Harald Gormsson, King of Denmark. In the night after the first (indecisive) battle, Palnatóki sneaks near Harald's camp and kills him with a well-aimed arrow. With Harald dead, his troops submit to Svein, and Svein is made king. As king, Svein hosts a remembrance feast for his father at which he presents the arrow which killed Harald and interrogates all guests about what they know about Harald's murder. Palnatóki bluntly admits that he killed Harald, upon which Svein at once (even though he owes his kingship to him) wants him killed. Palnatóki and his men can escape from the hall, but go into exile and never return to Denmark.
  • Last Breath Bullet: At daybreak the day after the Battle of Hjórunga Bay, the victorious Norwegians are busy binding up their wounds when they "heard the twang of a bowstring" from one of the ships of the Jomsvikings which are still drifting in the bay, and an arrow strikes and kills Gudbrand, a relative of Jarl Hakon. They search the ships and find Hávard the Hewing, who is still alive even though both his feet are cut off. Before he is put to death, Hávard expresses his disappointment that the man he killed was not Jarl Hakon himself.
  • Last-Minute Reprieve: Of seventy Jomsvikings captured after the Battle of Hjórunga Bay, ten have already been beheaded when Jarl Erik is so impressed with their defiant behavior in the face of death that he saves Svein Buason by taking him into his retinue. When he makes the same offer to Vagn, Vagn makes it a condition that all the others are set free too, or else he would rather be executed. Jarl Erik accepts and grants them their lives.
  • Last Request: One of the doomed Jomsvikings asks to take one last piss. Turns out it's only the set-up for a foul punchline.
  • Losing Your Head: Discussed when a captive Jomsviking suggests he will lift his hand holding a knife if he still can after being beheaded. Interestingly, the thought that his head could still be alive without having control over his body doesn't occur to him.
  • The Low Middle Ages: Semi-historical adventure set in the 10th century.
  • Nigh-Invulnerability: Aslak Holmskalle, who is the first to board Jarl Erik's ship, does not wear a helmet, yet the swords of the defenders fail to do any damage on him (this and the ferocity with which he fights mark him as a berserker). He is only stopped when Vigfus Viga-Glumsson throws an anvil at him, which pierces his skull with its point, killing him instantly.
  • Nobody Touches the Hair: (invoked) The eleventh Jomsviking brought up to be executed is Svein Buason, a young man with hair "long and golden yellow like silk" who asks, as his last request, for a man of Jarl Hakon's bodyguard to hold his hair away from his head so that it will not be bloodied when he is decapitated. When Thorkel Leira is striking at Svein's neck, Svein jerks his head so that the blade falls on the arms of the volunteer who has wound Svein's hair around his hands, cutting them off at the wrist. Svein follows up with a joke:
    [Svein] then leapt up and said: "Whose hands are in my hair?"
  • Off With The Head: After the Battle of Hjórunga Bay, seventy Jomsvikings who have failed to get away are taken prisoner by the Norwegians, and are set to be executed by beheading. One by one, ten vikings get decapitated until their death-defiance impresses the captors sufficiently they pardon the rest.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: The Jomsvikings' daily grind.
  • Rain of Arrows: Pours over the Jomsvikings in Hjórunga Bay.
  • Sea Serpents: The ending relates that, long after the Battle of Hjórunga Bay, a serpent is seen in the bay, leading to speculations that the monster is the ghost of Búi guarding the chests of gold which he took with him to the sea-bottom, or maybe is "some evil spirit" which has taken possession of the gold (as is common in medieval folklore, "dragon" and "serpent" are here treated as the same thing).
  • Sinister Schnoz: When Sigvaldi is introduced, he is described as tall, strong, "shrewd", and having "very fine eyes but an ugly nose". Sigvaldi's "ugly nose", which mars an otherwise handsome appearance, hints at the flaws of his character, namely, his treachery, which later shows when he deviously abducts King Svein in order to blackmail him to make peace with Burisleif, and when he retreats from the Battle of Hjórunga Bay, in the process abandoning Vagn and his men to their fate.
  • Taking You with Me: After the battle of Hjórunga Bay, Vagn and the other captured Jomsvikings are set to be executed by Thorkel Leira, whom Vagn has earlier vowed to kill. As Thorkel Leira is about to behead Vagn, Bjorn the Welshman kicks Vagn so that he falls. Thorkel misses Vagn, trips and drops his sword, which accidentally cuts the fetters on Vagn's hands, and Vagn grabs the sword and kills Thorkel. Despite there still seems to be no chance for him to get away alive, Vagn voices his satisfaction that he has made good on his vow. Vagn is then saved by Jarl Erik, who takes him into his retinue.
  • Warrior Poet: Jarl Hakon's Icelandic skalds Einar Skalaglam, Vigfus Vigaglumsson and Thorleif Skuma.
  • We All Die Someday: One of the Jomsvikings about to be executed is asked how he feels about dying. The man replies that everyone has to die and therefore, there is no reason for him to break the law of the Jomsvikings, which is, to never show fear of anything, including death.
    "Poorly would I remember the laws of the Jomsvikings if I shrank from death or spoke words of fear. Death comes to every man."
  • Weather of War: It looks like the Jomsvikings are going to win the Battle of Hjórunga Bay until Jarl Hakon of Norway uses a lull in the battle to sacrifice to the goddesses Thorgerd and Irpa and call on them for victory. When the battle resumes, suddenly the sky casts over and a storm with thunder, lightning and heavy fall of hail arises. The wind is blowing into the faces of the Jomsvikings and is so strong so "that they could hardly stand up" and all their missiles are turned back on them "to join the shower of missiles from their enemies". Initially the Jomsvikings continue to fight as before, but when the storm gets even stronger after a while, Sigvaldi orders a retreat.
  • What Did I Do Last Night?: After getting utterly wasted at a banquet at King Svein's of Denmark, Sigvaldi, chief of the eponymous Viking band, is induced to make a solemn, public vow to conquer Norway. When he wakes up the next day, he remembers nothing at all, and needs to be told what he did by his wife.
  • Where Are They Now: The saga ends with a short summary of what later became of the Jomsviking chiefs that survived Hjórunga Bay: Vagn marries Ingibjörg, the daughter of Thorkel Leira, and moves back to Fyn, Bjorn lives out his life in Wales, Sigurd Cape returns to Bornholm, and also that Búi (who jumped overboard in Hjórunga Bay) may have turned into a sea-dragon.

Alternative Title(s): Jomsvikinga Saga, Saga Of The Jomsvikings