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Theatre / The Warriors at Helgeland

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The Warriors at Helgeland is one of Henrik Ibsen's early plays, and considerably different from his later productions. In the late 1850s, Ibsen wrote a string of historical plays, and this is one of them. The plot is as follows:

Sometime during the tenth century, a fleet arrives at the northern coast of Norway, apparently from Iceland. The leader of the band, Sigurd, has errands to his old friend and comrade, Ørnulf. Sigurd eloped some years before with Ørnulf`s daughter Dagny.


Meanwhile, Sigurd`s friend Gunnar, who married Hjørdis, Dagny`s fostered sister and childhood friend, also arrives at the scene, and old conflicts arise. Apparently, Hjørdis would rather have married Sigurd the warrior, than the more peaceful Gunnar. In the process, and because of poor communication, Ørnulf loses all his seven sons, Hjørdis kills Sigurd, then commits suicide, and the rest reconcile.

This is the last play of Ibsen`s early phase, finished right before his Creator Breakdown. The tone of the play is dark and fatalistic, and he didn`t publish another play for four years.

Alternative English title is The Vikings at Helgeland. Full translation herel. The term "Hærmand" (armed man), as used by Ibsen himself, translates as "warrior" rather than "viking".


Tropes found in the play:

  • The Ace: Sigurd, commented on as the greatest achiever in any feats. He is in fact so awesome Ørnulf finds it honorable to be wounded by him.
    • Of course, he is an expy of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer. Also possibly of Balder.
    • The only way to kill him is by using a magic arrow.
  • A Father to His Men: Ørnulf is a literal example of this trope, commanding his seven badass sons in combat. And of course his household men.
  • Alpha Bitch: Hjørdis. From beginning to end. She intimidates Dagny rather quickly.
  • The Archer: Hjørdis, killing Sigurd with an arrow.
  • Badass Boast: The first line of Sigurd, stating that he has never retreated from any challenge.
  • Badass Family: Ørulf from the Fjords and his seven sons. They are not to be messed with.
  • Big Entrance: The entrance of Ørnulf at the start of the play. The following exchange follows:
    Retreat, Warrior!
    If I did, it would be the first time!
    • After a short exchange of reasons why not, Ørnulf raises his spear, Sigurd draws his sword, and the fighting is on.
  • Big "NO!": When Sigurd tells Hjørdis he is baptized in England, Hjørdis invokes it.
  • Combat by Champion: Invoked, but averted. Hjørdis is out for blood, and urges Gunnar and Sigurd, who has a peace conduct, to fight it out over her. This comes around when Gunnar tries to avoid killing Sigurd. The night before the planned combat, Hjørdis offs Sigurd herself, and thus saves the life of Gunnar.
    • The first combat in the play, between Sigurd and Ørnulf, also qualifies, but is subverted as the two men backs off the moment blood is spilled.
    • Actually, the entire plot hinges on this. Ørnulf killed Jøkul, the father of Hjørdis, in single combat. And a lot of problems, if not all of them, arose from this, since Hjørdis was fostered by Ørnulf afterwards.
  • Cool Old Guy: Ørnulf to a T. He is so cool that he accepts the murder of his youngest son because it was done the right way, and thus avoids blood vengeance.
  • Captain Obvious: Gunnar, stating that Hjørdis is "dead indeed" at the end of the play.
    • Prior to that, he states the same on behalf of Sigurd.
  • Cataclysm Climax: Hjørdis riding off with the wild hunt, after jumping off a cliff in a climactic thunder storm.
    • And if that isn`t enough: the homestead of Gunnar burns to the ground, and all his men are killed at the same time.
  • Chewing the Scenery: It is difficult not to - at least not in this particular play. It can hardly be read out loud without chewing. It seems like Ibsen intended the play to be acted out as hammy as possible.
  • Colorcoded For Your Convenience: Every prominent actor has a different color on their coat:
    • Sigurd: White coat.
    • Ørnulf: brown.
    • Dagny: red
    • Kåre: grey
    • Gunnar: blue cape and brown coat.
    • Hjørdis: Black. According to the Rule of Symbolism, Hjørdis (black) kills Sigurd (White).
  • The Dark Arts: Hjørdis is into the norse equivalent, the seid, chanting and summoning.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Sigurd confessing his love for Hjørdis, then expiring. Also confessing that he has become a christian ("worshipping the new white God").
  • Due to the Dead: Ørnulf grieving his dead sons on the beach. Then making an elegic poem on the spot (Ørnulf´s drapa), and moving on.
  • Drama Queen: Hjørdis.
  • Dramatic Thunder: The final scene, topped by the wild hunt.
  • Driven to Suicide: Hjørdis, after killing Sigurd.
  • Dysfunctional Family: All of the main characters are related through fostering and true genetics: Ørnulf is the father of Dagny. Gunnar and Sigurd was fostered together, and Hjørdis was fostered alongside Dagny. They all seem to have known eachother from childhood.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: For those familiar with the later and more realistic works of Ibsen, this play may seem quite odd. It stands out as one of a kind, but considering it an old shame is not fair. Ibsen`s old shames does not appear in his "collected works", but this does.
  • Expy: Gunnar and Sigurd are modelled on Gunnar and Sigurd from The Saga of the Volsungs. Ørnulf is an expy of Egill Skallagrimsson, while Hjørdis and Dagny expies Brynhild and Gudrun from Völsunga Saga. Dagny doubles it with her expy of the abducted bride mentioned in the saga of Egil Skallagrimsson.
    • Ibsen got some criticism for this. He might as well make a historical play based on the actual Volsunga story, or the story of Egill, but he chose to combine the two for the Rule of Cool. It seems to have worked.
  • The Epic: hard to find any work of Ibsen more epic than this.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Hjørdis comes pretty close.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Hjørdis will rather die than live to see Norway christianized.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble:
    • Sigurd - Sanguine
    • Dagny - Melancholic
    • Gunnar - Phlegmatic
    • Hjørdis - Choleric
    • And Ørnulf is of course a Leukine.
  • Gasp!: the two warrior bands gasp collectively and in turn when each of their chieftains reveal their identity: first Ørnulf, then Sigurd.
    • It is hard for a modern audience not to ridicule this scene, when ten actors cry out in astonishment and at the same time: "Ørnulf from the Fjords!" (Post Monty Python, this is impossible - note the "bicycle repair man skit").
  • Genre Savvy: Ørnulf is this trope. You don`t survive that long in a viking society if you are not. The whole scene concerning the death of his youngest son shouts how incredibly genre savvy he is.
  • Goth Girls Know Magic: Hjørdis is an early version of this trope.
  • Guys Smash, Girls Shoot: Played straight. Hjørdis wields a bow with deadly precision. And she made the bowstring from her own hair.
  • Ham-to-Ham Combat: Literally. With swords!
  • Heroic Fantasy: Heroism? check. Sorcery? check. The play makes a good application for this.
  • Horny Vikings: Trope codifier, at least in Norway.
  • Honor Before Reason: Could arguably be the subtitle of the entire play.
  • Idiot Ball: Sigurd telling Dagny he was the one who killed the polar bear guarding Hjørdis. Dagny couldn`t resist bragging to Hjørdis about it, and Hjørdis went batshit because Gunnar was not the totally awesome guy she thought he was.
  • If I Can't Have You…: And that is why Hjørdis kills Sigurd.
  • Incoming Ham: More than one of them. Most memorably Ørnulf: "Retreat, Warrior!", and then Dagny, screaming that the warriors of Sigurd are to defend her husband (as it turns out against her father). Also possibly all the others present in the opening scene.
  • Instant Death Bullet: Sigurd is shot and mortally wounded by one single arrow. He does get some lines after that, though.
    • Justified by the fact that the arrow is enchanted for the purpose of killing Sigurd.
  • In the Back: Ørnulf reasons that Thorolf was better off killed while facing Gunnar, and accepts the murder as a man`s deed because Gunnar did it this way. If Gunnar had killed Thorolf from behind, the murder would have been done cowardly, and blood vengeance would have to be instigated.
    • In this case, reason and honor overlaps, and Ørnulf is content.
  • Lady Macbeth: Hjørdis makes a good show - instigating a number of conflicts, even setting up her husband (Gunnar) and her former suitor (Sigurd) to fight over her in single combat, knowing full well that Sigurd will win. She is also responsible for the misunderstanding that leads to the murder of Thorolf, youngest son of Ørnulf, because she makes Gunnar believe Ørnulf has killed their son Egil.
    • This play actually makes a good Norwegian answer to Macbeth, sans the curses, of course.
  • Lady of War: Hjørdis.
  • Love Makes You Evil: Hjørdis qualifies.
  • Love Triangle: Sigurd`s main interest was Hjørdis, but he eloped with Dagny, who actually was meant for Gunnar. He ended up marrying Hjørdis, but she never forgot Sigurd.
  • Melodrama. Oh yes.
  • Mistaken Identity. Gunnar and Sigurd switched places in their youth, because Gunnar didn`t have the guts to kill a polar bear. This resulted in Hjørdis marrying Gunnar because she actually believed he was the one who did it. Dagny reveals the true circumstances, and tragedy ensues.
    • Truth in Television: Polar bears do in fact show up in Iceland, though they are not a common sight. Annals dating back to the viking ages state that they were found there at an early stage of human settling (mostly coming over from Greenland on drifting ice).
    • This plot expies the Brynhild/Gudrun-quarrel over Sigurd in the Saga of the Volsungs.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: Sigurd is assailed while trying to open a small shelter on the shore.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Gunnar, when realizing the mistake of killing Thorolf, the youngest of Ørnulf`s seven sons. To drive the point home, Thorolf was the apple of his father`s eye. The trope is invoked literally, but in the pagan phrazing: "Woe, what have I done".
    • It gets worse when Ørnulf shows up with Gunnar`s son alive and well, making the murder of Thorolf meaningless.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: Ørnulf killed the father of Hjørdis in a single combat. For honorable reasons, he fostered her, admitting this was a bad idea. Jøkul, the father of Hjørdis, put a curse on Ørnulf when he died, assuring that his offspring would cause problems down the line. And she did.
  • Norse by Norsewest: both Norway and Iceland, of course.
  • Oh, Crap!: Hjørdis when discovering that Sigurd is unable to follow her to Valhalla. He was baptized in England.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Sigurd manages to wound Ørnulf, who heroically chants a short poem. The Reveal ensues, and all are initially happy to see one another.
    • Ørnulf initiated combat and drew blood only because of the sheer awesomeness of Sigurd, whom he recognized on the spot. When getting his wound, he does not even blink. Rather, he states that the abduction of his daughter hurt far worse.
  • Period Piece: Obviously.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Gunnar killing Thorolf because of a misunderstanding.
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner: "Well marked, Hjørdis" from Sigurd. Then he falls to the ground.
  • Rated M for Manly: on the verge of testosterone poisoning.
  • Religion Is Magic: In this case, the old norse religion. Hjørdis uses it for personal gain, with tragic results.
  • The Resenter: Hjørdis, who never forgave Sigurd for leaving. And she never forgave Ørnulf for killing his father.
  • Revenge Before Reason: Gunnar kills Thorolf, believing that Ørnulf has killed his son Egil.
  • Rule of Cool: Ibsen tried to stretch this as far as possible. The whole play verges on awesome, almost tipping it over to narm. Nowadays, the reception is more bending towards narm charm.
  • Sanity Slippage: Hjørdis starts out resentful. Come the last act, she is gone batshit insane.
  • Speak in Unison: Played straight in the first scene, where warrior bands on all sides shout as one man. Several times.
  • Summon Magic: Hjørdis actually summoned the wild hunt for her and Sigurd.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Hjørdis would like to be one, eloping on a swashbuckling adventure with Sigurd.
  • Sword and Sorcerer: Played straight. Hjørdis is the sorceress, Gunnar and Sigurd wields the swords.
  • The Mole: Kåre the farmer, setting up a plot of revenge, getting all of Ørnulf`s sons killed.
  • The Reveal: The action-set opening with the said unmasking of the heroes.
  • The Unmasking: The opening scene, when two bands of warriors meet, with both chieftains (Ørnulf and Sigurd) wearing face-covering helmets. They begin a skirmish, only for both of them to take their helmets off, revealing them as old friends.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Hjørdis and Dagny.
  • Tsundere: Hjørdis can`t really decide whether she hates or loves either Gunnar or Sigurd. Killing the one true love she ever had certainly qualifies for an exaggerated Tsuntsun. Thus, she actually saves the life of Gunnar, who muses:
    Gunnar: so, she did love me after all...
  • Villainous Breakdown: When Hjørdis faces defeat and throws herself off the cliff.
  • Warrior Poet: Ørnulf.
  • The Wild Hunt: at the end of the play, Hjørdis joins it after jumping off a cliff.
  • World of Ham: Seldom found in the corpus of Ibsen, but this play is hammy in spades. Every single line is made for hamming, all the actors are expected to Chewing the Scenery, even the women. The entire cast is made of large hams.
    • Consider, just for a moment, an English production of the play casting BRIAN BLESSED as Ørnulf.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Discussed, because Hjørdis really wants Sigurd dead, and wishes Gunnar to do it for her. Gunnar resists because of the bond between them, so Hjørdis does it herself.
    • It is implied that Hjørdis works pretty hard to enforce fate, comparing herself to the norns (the norse godesses of fate).


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