VIKING - 33: KORMAK, The Ill-fated Icelandic Wordsmith Comes To Grief Battling With A Pictish Giant
"You have a friend you barely trust, to whom you cannot unburden yourself, so smilingly use cunning on him for his".
King Harald 'Harfagri' ruled Norway at the time the chieftain Kormak held the Vik in his name...
A strong chieftain of good ruling stock, Kormak was a great warrior who had fought at Harald's side. He had an equally able son, Ogmund, who showed promise and grew in strength, sailing away during the summer months. Come winter he would be seen revelling with the king. Ogmund earned himself great wealth and a good name.
One summer he set out westward, raiding where a Viking by the name of Asmund 'Ash-sides' held sway. A champion, this Asmund had beaten many other Viking warriors. Having been made aware of one another word passed between them. A meeting took place and they set a day for a fight. Although Asmund had more men than Ogmund, he did not bring them all into the conflict. For four days the fighting went on, and Asmund's men fell in swathes. He himself fled, and with his newly gained wealth Ogmund was hailed by his father.
"...I shall have to find you a wife", Kormak told his son, "Helga, Jarl Frodi's daughter".
"That would suit me well", Ogmund was pleased.
They set out to see the jarl, who greeted them warmly. When he heard their business Frodi told them there was cause for worry with regards to Ogmund's defeat of Asmund. Nevertheless the wedding date was set, father and son left for home whilst the feast was being prepared.
Helga's foster-mother, a seeress, also attended the wedding, and Asmund learned of the event. He called on Ogmund to challenge him to a holm-gang. To Helga's dismay her intended husband agreed.
Helga's foster-mother was known to to take hold of men's hands before they went to fight, and she did this with Ogmund. Her 'sight' let him know he would come to no harm and he took on Asmund. The Viking was blind-sided during the fighting and Ogmund brought down his sword on Asmund's leg, cutting through it. He took three gold marks in duel ransom from Asmund because although badly wounded, in living the fellow failed to finish the fight.
Harald 'Harfagri' died and 'by slight of hand' the younger son Eirik 'Blood-axe' took the throne. Ogmund felt no friendship toward either Eirik or his queen, Gunnhild, and had his ship readied to sail west to Iceland. Helga gave birth to a son, Frodi, but fell ill shortly after and died. Frodi died soon after and Ogmund set out to sea with his followers after burying wife and infant son. When they came near land Ogmund threw his father's high-seat pillars overboard. Where the pillars were washed up ashore was the land of Skeggi of Midfjord. Skeggi offered Ogmund his choice of land for building, and the new incomer set forth to measure out the land, having houses built near the foreshore, and settled down. He wedded Dalla, daughter of Onund 'Sjoni', (the keen-eyed) and had two sons by her, Thorgils and Kormak. Kormak had dark, wavy hair and fair skin like his mother. He was well-built and stormy-tempered whereas Thorgils was quieter and easy-going.
Ogmund died when his sons were young men, Dalla keeping the steading going with her sons, Skeggi overseeing their running of the land. A man named Thorkel lived at Tunga with his wife and they had a daughter, Steingerd, being fostered at Gnupsdal. A whale grounded one day at Vatnsnes, deemed therefore to belong to the Dallussons. Thorgils offered Kormak the task of either going up onto the mountain to look for their sheep, or working on the whale. Kormak chose the mountain. A man known as Tostig was overseer at the shieling and he took Kormak with him to Gnupsdal where they spent the night in the large hall, fires being made up for them by Steingerd's fosterers.
Steingerd left her room in the evening with a woman thrall for company. They could hear talking in the hall and the thrall woman offered to go with Steingerd to see who was there. Steingerd thought there was no need for company, but went to the door and stepped onto the threshold to look over the stacked wood by the door. There was a gap between the door bottom and the threshold that allowed those within to see her feet.
"Mighty love has filled my thoughts", Kormak said, more to himself than aloud,
"My troll-woman's fair breeze,
a necklace-sleigh has just shown me her instep.
The feet of that head-dress goddess
will bring me grief more often
than now, yet of this maid
I otherwise know nothing".
Steingerd knew she had been seen, turned into the dark, narrow alley and looked out from under the carved beard of Hagbard. The light shone onto her face.
"Kormak, do you see the eyes out there, by the carved giant Hagbard's beard?"
By way of an answer Kormak reeled off a few stanzas from the top of his head, of his love for a girl he did not know. Tostig told him the girl was staring, and Kormak went on making up stanzas about her, ending with,
"I recall the ribbon-yearner
when she, winner of board games
standing at the doorstep's prow
carved with Hagbard's head,
stared, necklace-laden, at me".
The women went into the hall and sat talking about Kormak. The thrall-woman called him dark and ugly. Steingerd thought him good-looking, as fine as a man could be, but added that there was only one fault, "The hair is curled on his forehead".
"The eyes are black", the thrall-woman told her, "and that does not go well".
Needless to say, Kormak seemed to be as smitten as she. In the morning Kormak went to a water-butt and washed. He went on to the main room; seeing no-one he was about to leave when he heard women talking. Steingerd was there and the thrall-woman told her,
"That man you think as good-looking is coming, Steingerd".
"He is a brave-looking man", Steingerd answered, combing her hair. Kormak asked her to lend him her comb. She handed it to him but the thrall-woman warned him he would pay a high price for a wife with such fine hair as Steingerd had, or such eyes
"Those eyes of the ale-goddess,
I value one - in the body bright
of the goddess of the bed it lies - at three hundred silver pieces.
At five I value the hair
which she, flax-greedy goddess, combs;
the goddess who polishes hoards of gold
is fast growing costly",
Kormak finished and smiled at Steingerd.
"You both have taken a shine to one another", the thrall-woman winked at him, "but you will surely value the whole of her highly?"
"All told, I value the pine tree
of wealth, who gives me anguish,
boldly with Iceland, with Danmark too,
and Germania beyond the sea"..
He went on to add that Steingerd was worth more than Aengla-land and the soft earth of Erin.
Tostig entered and asked Kormak to attend to a matter, to which Kormak answered that he should take his horse and find the sheep, as he wished to stay and hold forth with Steingerd.
"You're bound to find that more fruitful", Tostig laughed, and set off, leaving Kormak to play a board game with Steingerd. He stayed there all day.
Tostig came back down off the mountain and they rode back home with the stray ewes. Kormak often walked to Gnupsdal after that, and asked his mother to make him some fine clothes to go courting Steingerd. Dalla told him that while there was quite a social gulf between them, she was unsure of happiness between her son and Steingerd if her parents learned of their meetings.
Thorkel did hear of it, and he thought there might be some smear on himself and his daughter if Kormak did not put a seal on their friendship. Meanwhile he summoned Steingerd home. Narfi lived with Thorkel, a foolish fellow given to boasting. He told his host,
"If Kormak's visits upset you I can put things right quickly".
Thorkel nodded and so it came to pass that when in the after-year Narfi was making blood-sausages he told the visiting Kormak, thrusting a sausage under his nose,
"As for the snakes of the cauldron, Kormak, what do you think?"
In the evening Kormak saw Narfi before he left, and recalling the taunt told him,
"I think it will happen sooner, Narfi, that I will strike you than you have any say in my comings and goings". With that Kormak struck him a blow with the butt of an axe, adding,
"What would you know of food, you ignorant, scythe-wielding oaf?
There was no need for cheek from you towards me, Narfi". Kormak added,
"A cow's nosy feeder asked how I liked pot-snakes.
Red around the eyelids now, he seems to me,
from time spent in the kitchen.
I know the grimy no-gooder,
that bruiser with filthy, matted hair -
the one who also manured the home fields -
was beaten like a bitch".
A woman named Thorveig lived at Steinsstadir in Midfjord, highly skilled in the dark arts. She had two sons, the elder named Odd and the younger, Gudmund. They were a playful pair. Odd often sought out Thorkel at Tunga and the landowner became very friendly with the brothers. One day he urged them to set an ambush for Kormak. Odd told him it was not beyond his skills.
One day Kormak came to Tunga. Steingerd sat in the main room on a cross-bench. Thorveig's sons also sat in the main room and were set to belay Kormak as he came in to Steingerd. Thorkel had put a drawn sword on one side of the doorway, and on the other side Narfi had left a long-handled scythe. On Kormak's passing through the doorway the scythe slid down, cutting a large notch into the blade of the sword. Thorkel accused Kormak of damaging the sword. Angered, he called Steingerd from the main room and they left together by another doorway. He locked her into one of the outhouses, telling her she would never again set eyes on Kormak.
The brothers were taken aback when Kormak entered the room more quickly than they had hoped. He looked for Steingerd and, on seeing Odd and Gudmund sharpening their weapons declared,
"A meadow-cutter clashed
with the foot-stand of the giant
that belonged in the hall corner;
I had entered to meet a goddess.
That means more to put up with,
if he has threatened me now with trouble
yet from Odin's task I shall not shrink,
whether it be verse-play or sword-play".
Having failed to find Steingerd he added,
"From the room the sweet stay-at-home vanished;
my thoughts stay all the more keenly
on the Valkyrie of channel fire,
what might now give the hall its sparkle?
All around within the house
I cast my brow's beams on her;
eager I am, to find the goddess
whose gift is to soothe and heal".
Kormak went to where Steingerd was locked in, heaved the door open and spoke to her. In answering she told him,
"You have thrown caution to the wind in seeking me here, as the sons of Thorveig are set on killing you".
"Sitting indoors, sharpening swords
is all they are up to,
my foes, sons of one churl;
they will never be my slayers.
If those two attack me
on my own, on an open plain,
it will be like ewes seeking
the blood of the savage wolf".
Kormak stayed there all day and Thorkel saw his plan had come to nothing. He asked Thorveig's sons to ambush Kormak in a dale beyond his hayfield wall,
"Narfi is to go with the pair of you, but I shall stay here and come out if needed".
In the evening Kormak left. When he came to the dale he saw three men,
"Sitting waiting, denying
to me the goddess of beads;
those men have a hard task ahead
to keep the ribbon-goddess from me.
The more they bear me ill will and envy
over my calling on her,
so much the more shall I love her,
that Valkyrie of the sea's herb".
Odd and Gudmund leapt up at the passing Kormak. Narfi stayed out of the fighting and from where he was, Thorkel could see the fight was not going their way. He took up his weapons and as he left Steingerd came out of the outhouse. Seeing what her father was about she seized hold of him and he was unable to go to the brothers' help. Odd fell and Gudmund was lamed, later to die of his wounds. Kormak left for home and Thorkel had to see to their corpses.
Kormak went to see Thorveig and ordered her away from the fjord,
"You are to leave and I shall withhold any blood money for your sons".
"It is highly likely you will make me leave without my sons being accounted for. This I will say then, that you will never be rewarded with Steingerd's love".
"You shall have no say in that, evil woman", Kormak answered. He went to see Steingerd as he had before. Once, when they talked over these events she heard him out and then warned that much could happen to alter things between them.
"Which Valkyries champion,
oh goddess of the veil, would you choose to be your husband?"
"Ring-breaker, though he were blind", Steingerd answered direct,
"It is to Frodi's brother I would myself bind.
Then the gods and norns
would in spite of all treat me well".
"You have chosen well", Kormak was relieved to her her tell him that.
Although she and Kormak set a day for their wedding he did not go. Thorveig had cast her spell on their love, wrenching them apart. Steingerd's kindred were left to seek a way to make good the slight on her.
In the fullness of time Steingerd wedded Bersi 'the Dueller'; she became disenchanted with him and every so often Kormak would show up, putting together stanzas for her. She was not interested in him, however - or it seemed that way - and sent him away each time. Strife and feud kept them apart and one day Kormak set out eastward across the sea with his brother Thorgils to Norway. Hakon was king there now. He had been fostered by the Aenglish king Aethelstan, so he forbade raiding there when during the summer they went raiding around the British isles. With them sailed a Frankish nobleman, Sigurd.
Whilst they were away Hakon had died and the new king was Harald 'Grey Cloak'. He took the brothers with him to Ireland the following summer. In one fight Kormak's thoughts wandered to Steingerd. Although greatly outnumbered Garald won the day and his men chased the last of the foes from the field. Nine men stood, nevertheless. With Thorgils alone Kormak saw them off. Later Kormak told his brother he wished to sail for Iceland.
"You have many ills to deal with, brother". Thorgils agreed to sail with him, however, telling him, "I do not rightly know how things will work out".
King Harald learned of Kormak's wish to return to Iceland and tried to talk him out of it. Kormak's stubbornness won out. The crossing rough, with heavy seas and bitter cold, made the sailing hard but they finally came ashore at Midfjord. Kormak saw Steingerd riding, and as soon as he had landed he took a horse to ride after her. On catching up with her he leapt from his horse and took Steingerd down from hers. As they sat talking the horses wandered off. When darkness fell they sought out a nearby steading. Sleeping on either side of a screen, Kormak thought up some lines in her praise but she insisted they should not meet again,
"It is over. Speak no more of embracing or whatever -"
Fighting soon took place where Kormak's enemies wished to belittle him. One of them, Thorvald, boasted of beating Kormak in a fight. They met at the Hunavatn Thing in the late-year and set a day. Thorvald spoke to a seeress named Thordis to put a spell on him to help him win against Kormak. Kormak also went to see her, but as he did not believe in sorcery or such things he broke the spell she tried to cast on his behalf. Thorvald gave Thordis more silver and a sacrifice was made in return to strengthen the original spell.
Kormak shook his head and remarked aloud,
"The trolls, it is true, have much trodden this chariot that carries the fire of the sea-king's land; that man believes another's wife! Now I think the seeress - hoarse-spoken and all - will bring harm as we go to the battleground's reddening. Why should we blame her for that?"
Thordis told him she would make him unseen but Kormak sniffed and said she would bring nothing but harm. He wanted to pull her out into the doorway and see her eyes in the ligtht of day. Thorgils held him back from doing so, saying it would solve nothing.
They fought, and Kormak's sword would not bite. A lengthy blow-for-blow fight saw neither gain the upper hand, but finally Kormak struck at Thorvald's side. Numbed, and with his ribs broken, Thorvald was unable to fight on. The duel was over. As Steingerd had come to the fight Kormak asked her to leave with him but she was unwilling to do so. They parted company, neither happy with the outcome. She bound Thorvald's wounds and Kormak kept pestering her.
Thorvald's recovery was slow. When able to stand he went to Thordis to ask her about speeding up the healing of his wounds. He was told to take a bull that had been sacrificed by Kormak after the fight. Thorvald was to redden the top of a hillock in which the elves were said to dwell, and make them a feast of the meat. Thorvald went with friends to buy the bull's carcass and Kormak agreed to sell, providing they gave him the ring belonging to Steingerd. On collecting the ring they handed it over and prepared the bull carcass as Thordis advised.
Steingerd was angry with them for parting with her ring, as Kormak thought she would be. Thorvald made a speedy recovery from then on and when he thought himself fit enough he challenged Kormak to another fight.
"You will never learn, will you - but I will fight you", Kormak agreed.
Again Thorvald consulted Thordis but Kormak did not seek her advice this time. She put a curse on Kormak's sword, that it would not cut, but this time Kormak dealt Thorvald a heavy blow to his shoulder blade, rendering him unable to fight again - ever. He had to pay Kormak another ring to release himself from the duel.
Thorolf of Spakonufell ran up and struck at Kormak. Parrying the blow, Kormak taunted him,
"He who reddened shields let
a rusty sword fumble around me;
let him snort, most wretched of men;
of Odin's drink I am the handler.
Well out of my way did you keep
you husband of a spay-wife.
That attack gave grounds for scorn!
Again Kormak killed a sacrificial bull as per custom and added,
"Things have come to a sad pass,
having to suffer your attack
as well as Thordis' weak sorcery".
Some merchants looked over Kormak's ship as she lay ashore in Hrutafjord. The brothers agreed to take the ship overseas. When ready Kormak sought out Steingerd. Before parting with her he gave her two long drawn-out kisses. Thorvald of Tintein was loath to stand for this and friends on both sides stepped in to talk over the compensation Kormak should pay him for the public humiliation. Kormak asked what it was they wished and Thorvald told him,
"The two things I lost to you,.
I am to pay for both times I hugged Steingerd with a ring?"
They sailed. On coming to the king's court they were welcomed and regaled as before.
Meanwhile Steingerd asked Thorvald Tintein to sail with her. His answer was it would not be wise to do so but could not turn her down flat. They set off but were attacked by Vikings close to where they were to land. Kormak learnt of this and went to support them. In the end Tintein and Steingerd kept their belongings and their freedom. They reached the king's court together. One day out walking Kormak saw Steingerd seated in a ladies' chamber. He went to her, talked and kissed her several times. Thorvald saw and drew his sword. Some women stepped in and King Harald was sent for. The king said talking the matter over with Kormak and Thorvald would prove hard,
"But I shall have you both parting friends again". They agreed and the king began again, "One kiss is warranted for saving you when you made landfall. A second for saving Steingerd. The other two can be paid for with two ounces of gold".
Kormak told them the same as he had told Thorvald in Iceland before setting out. Nothing more was said.
One day Kormak was out in the street when he saw Steingerd. He turned to her and asked if she would walk with him. Then he snatched her to him when she spurned him. She called for help and, being nearby the king drew her away. To him Kormak's behaviour seemed odd and he had a few sharp words for his errant courtier. Kormak stayed at court, however, and was again soon on friendly terms with the king. All was quiet over winter.
Another of the Penguin Classics series of books, SAGAS OF WARRIOR POETS follows the background and lives of the Icelandic poets Kormak, Hallfred 'Troublesome Poet', Gunnlaug 'Serpent-tongue', Bjorn the Champion and Viglund. i've had a copy for some years now since I spotted it on the Saga shelf of Waterstones' University Bookshop on Gower Street, London WC1. Takes you into a different world of alliteration, mythology and kennings, well worth the outlay!
Notes, Plot summaries, References, Maps and a Chronology of the age are included to guide you through unfamiliar territory.
Sagas of Warrior Poets
King Harald set out the following fore-year with a large following on a foray to the far north.
Kormak had command of one ship, Thorvald another. When the ships sailed close to one another through one of the northern sounds Kormak struck at Thorvald with his steering oar and caught an ear. Thorvald fell, stunned by the oar, leaving his ship's steering oar untended. At the same time Kormak's ship lurched sideways without its steerboard oar.
Luckily Steingerd had been seated close by Thorvald and took the helm. She steered his ship at the beam of Kormak's, capsizing the ship and throwing all the crew into the sea. Saved from drowning, Kormak's crew were given room on other ships. When Thorvald came to the fleet was on its way again. King Harald ruled that the blow rained on Thorvald was 'payment' for an insult to Kormak and the matter was settled once and for all.
They made landfall that evening and as the king regaled his men a young man crept into the great tent and took the pin from Kormak's cloak. On trying to don the cloak Kormak realised the pin was missing. He leapt up and ran after the fellow with his spear, threw it and missed. He shrugged and said in verse,
"A young lad stole a cloak-pin
from me as I drank the health of an upstanding maid;
let us share the pin like two youngsters.
My spear has been well-shafted;
at stones I must cast it, for I missed the man, my target,
and tore up only moss".
The expedition to the White Sea went off without further mishap and soon they were back in southern Norway. Thorvald 'Tintein' made his ship ready to sail south to Denmark, to be accompanied by Steingerd. Not long after he sailed the brothers Thorgils and Kormak sailed after them.
On seeing Thorvald's ship ahead they learned from him that his property and Steingerd had been taken. Leading the Vikings who had robbed Thorvald was Thorstein, son of Asmund 'Ash-sides' who had long ago fought their father and lost.
"Why did you not go after them", Kormak asked.
"We do not have the men", came the answer.
"In other words you are owning to not being up to it", Kormak savoured Thorvald's misery.
"We do not have the strength of numbers to fight Thorstein. But if you have the numbers, by all means go ahead - see what you win".
"We shall go then", Kormak nodded to his older brother. During the night they took a boat and rowed to Thorstein's ship. On boarding they saw Steingerd on the raised after-deck. She had been offered as a bride to one of Thorstein's men - still on the ship - but most of the crew were ashore by the cooking fires.
Kormak made one of the cooks tell him what had gone before. On hearing them out, the brothers boarded the ship astern. Thorgils dragged the 'bride-groom' to the ship's side, where Kormak drove in a knife, slaying him. Thorgils and Steingerd dived into the water and swam to shore, Kormak after them. When he was near the shore he was beset by eels that pulled him under. On freeing himself he made for the shore and they took Steingerd to her husband.
Thorvald asked her to go with Kormak,
"After all, you have pursued her manfully".
"If that is your wish", Kormak was all for taking Steingerd with him but she was against it. Kormak agreed with her, "Evil has come between us from the outset".
She sailed on with Thorvald.
The brothers went back to Norway and Thorvald on to Iceland where he felt he would be safer. Kormak and Thorgils went raiding around the British isles. On their way around the east coast of Northumbria they set up a garth, a small fortified stronghold, in the lee of a cliff that separated two wide bays. The settlement within was named after the older brother Thorgils 'Skarthi' (hare-lipped), Skartiburh*.
In the far north of Scotland they had with them a large band of raiders. Of that band, by far, Kormak was the strongest and bravest - and by all acounts the most foolhardy. Once, after raiding Kormak chased the fleeing foe alone, his men having gone back to their ships. A giant of a man came out from nearby woodland and set about Kormak. The Gaelic warrior being by far greater in size, with the strength of Grendel** overcame Kormak easily. His sword had slipped from its scabbard and, reaching for it, Kormak dealt the giant his death-blow. However, in his death-throes the Gael gripped Kormak so tightly his ribs cracked. Ge fell beneath the giant and was unable to escape the crush.
Meanwhile, finding he was not with them, Kormak's men had gone to look for him. When they found him he was taken to his ship.
"It was not as if I had a woman
such as Steingerd hugging me
when I put my strength to the test
against the steerer of rigging steeds;
I would be supping ale in the high seat
in Odin's hall, had Skrymir helped me; swiftly
I will tell you this, comrades".
Kormak's wounds were tended but the ribs were broken either side and he told them there was no need for treatment. He lay wounded, dying, whilst men around him scolded him for behaving so wantonly. Kormak merely answered,
"Anger was always my way -
after all, I was once known for killing -
sea goddess, so the sword
would forestall my dying in bed.
No way can I get around it;
other staves of the battle-snake surely
must die in their beds; on my heart
weighs heavily the pain of death".
He passed on his wealth and entrusted his followers to Thorgils, and died there by the shore. His brother raided many a year on from then onward, both with his own men and Kormak's crew.
The saga ends here, not on a heavy note but as the beginning of a new era..
*Skarthiburh later became Scarborough, where an annual summer parade remembers the town's founder;
** Grendel, the troll-giant killed by Beowulf in the eponymous saga.
VIKING AGE ICELAND gives you a background steeped in folklore, the sagas, the feuds - almost leading at one time to civil war - and the voyagers who left to search further west (Eirik 'the Red' had little choice, having killed a man on Iceland and a potential target; he'd already killed another man in Norway and was obliged to take to the sea before he was killed with impunity).