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Literature / The Tale of Norna-Gest

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"Death of Norna-Gest" by G. V. Forssell

The Tale of Norna-Gest (Norna-Gests þáttr) is a short Icelandic saga from about 1300 AD. It can best be classified as a lygisaga a.k.a. "fairy-tale saga"note , a literary fairy tale.

A stranger called Gest appears at the court of King Olaf Tryggvason in Trondheim, Norway 998 AD. He is old yet surprisingly strong, and astounds the king's retainers by his skill in harp-playing and story-telling. Questioned how he can know so much about times long ago, the stranger reveals that he knew Sigurd Fafnisbane personally, as well as the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok, Harald Finehair of Norway and King Ludwig of Germany. This amazes the King and his retainers, as all these men are long dead, some of them for centuries. Finally Gest, who now reveals that he is also called Norna-Gest, tells his full story:

When he was recently born, his father had invited three seeresses, or norns, to foretell the child’s future. Two of the norns made good prophecies, but the last one was in a bad mood and when some rude guests enraged her, she cursed Gest to live no longer than the candle that burned beside his cradle. So the other norns extinguished the candle and told Gest’s parents to keep it, and Gest gained immortality — he cannot die before the candle is used up.

On the wish of King Olaf, Norna-Gest agrees to be baptized. After a time, King Olaf asks him how long he plans to live. Norna-Gest says that he wants to die, being three hundred years old. In the presence of King Olaf, he lays down on a bed and lights the candle. A priest gives him the last rites. When the candle burns out, he dies.

Can be read online as translated by Nora Kershaw (1921) or George L. Hardman (2011).

Tropes in "Tale of Norna-Gest"

Tropes in the frame story

  • The Ageless: An interesting case. Phenotypically, Gest seems to be simply an "undying" character — he does not age beyond a certain point and cannot die of natural causes. The more complex problem, could he be killed by fatal violence or accidents, as long as the candle exists? Apparently not, or else the Curse Escape Clause would be proven invalid. In other words, the norn's spell must also have caused an in-universe Contractual Immortality.note 
  • Artistic License – History: From Norna-Gest's testimony it must be inferred that Sigurd the dragonslayer lived in the 8th century, which doesn't sit well with the history books.
  • The Bard: Norna-Gest ist an accomplished harp-player and singer who knows many old songs.
  • Curse Escape Clause: The curse of the angry Norn is pretty easily neutralized by exploiting Exact Words.
  • Dying Candle: As a baby, Nornagest had been cursed by a Norn to "live no longer than the candle that burns beside him". Another Norn extinguished the candle and gave it to Norna-Gest's mother for keeping, thus making Norna-Gest immortal. When, 300 years later, Norna-Gest decides to die of his own accord, he lights the candle, lays down on a bed and calls a priest to give him the last rites. As the candle burns down, he gets weaker, and dies the moment the flame goes out.
  • Elderly Immortal: Norna-Gest looks old, but is still healthy and vigorous.
  • Exact Words: The Norn's curse was not really well-thought-out. Presumably she meant that Gest should live no longer than the flame on the candle. The way in which Gest attains immortality is appropriated from the Ancient Greek hero Meleager (where the Soul Jar was a torch).
  • Exposition of Immortality: By and by, Norna-Gest reveals that he knew many of the famous heroes of the heroic past in person. What's more, he owns the broken saddle-ring of Sigurd Fafnisbane which is made of pure, exceptionally fine gold, and also a strand of hair from the tail of Grani, Sigurd's stallion, which is longer than any other horse hair — giving a hint of Grani's (and thereby, Sigurd's) gigantic proportions.
  • Fairy Godmother: The good norns are more or less fairy godmothers. The story of how Norna-Gest gained immortality is indeed practically identical to the beginning of "Sleeping Beauty".
  • Framing Device: Norna-Gest's life at King Olaf's court is the frame story for several tales from the age of Heroes, told through the mouth of the protagonist.
  • His Name Really Is "Barkeep": Gest is an Old Norse first name, but also means "guest". When Gest introduces himself to King Olaf, the latter thinks Gest is saying that he "is a guest", until Gest assures him that this is actually his name.
  • Immortality Inducer: The candle.
  • Living Relic: Norna-Gest is the last remaining survivor of the fornaldar or age of heroes.
  • Nested Story: Norna-Gest's tells several stories of his own adventures with famous heroes of the ancient times.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right: The nature of the curse/prophecy raises interesting questions: Could Norna-Gest have been killed in any way at all, as long as the candle existed?
  • Prophecy Twist: Uncharacteristically, in this story a bad prophecy is turned into something good — usually, it's the other way round.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Three hundred years, to be precise.
  • The Storyteller: Norna-Gest.
  • Soul Jar: What the enchanted candle amounts to.
  • The Weird Sisters: At Nornagest's birth, his father invites three seeresses to foretell Nornagest's fate; of these the two elder ones make good predictions but the youngest curses the baby. The three women are introduced as seers, but the youngest one is then referred to as a Norn, and she pronounces a curse (not a prophecy).
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: It seems Norna-Gest finally had enough of life after three hundred years.

Tropes in Norna-Gest's stories

  • Angel Unaware:
    • The stranger that calls himself Hnikar, calms the storm and gives Sigurd helpful advice is Odin.
    • Norna-Gest thinks the wandering stranger that dissuades the Ragnarssons from attacking Rome was an angel or saint in disguise.
  • Battle-Halting Duel: When Sigurd meets Lyngvi in battle, "there was a pause in the battle, as people were watching the hand-to-hand combat."
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: On the order of Sigurd, King Lyngvi is executed by the "blood-eagle" — cutting the ribs from the back and drawing the lungs out.
  • Magic Knight: Lyngvi and his brothers are warriors but also "skilled in magic", powerful enough to summon a storm.
  • Villainous Valour: King Lyngvi's valour is highlighted with approval by Norna-Gest.

Alternative Title(s): Tale Of Norna Gest