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~ Historical & Classical Poetry ~

Höfuðlausn (Head-Ransom)

From Egil's Saga, translated by Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards (Penguin, 1976).
This extract from an Icelandic saga tells how the hero Egil Skalla-Grimsson avoids
extreme punishment from the last Viking king of York – the infamous Erik (or Eirik) Bloodaxe –
by declaiming a poem dripping with praise of the king:

By sun and moon
I journeyed west,
My sea-borne tune
From Odin's breast
My sing-ship packed
With poet's art:
It's word-keel cracked
The frozen heart.

And now I feed
With an English King:
So to the English mead
I'll word-mead bring,
Your praise my task,
My song your fame,
If you but ask
I'll sound your name.

These praises, King,
Won't cost you dear
That I shall sing
If you will hear:
Who beat and blazed
Your trail of red,
Till Odin gazed
Upon the dead.

The scream of swords,
The clash of shields,
These are true words
On battlefields:
Man sees his death
Frozen in dreams,
But Eirik's breath
Frees battle-streams.

The war-lord weaves
His web of fear,
Each man receives
His fated share:
A blood-red sun's
The warrior's shield,
The eagle scans
The battlefield.

As edges swing,
Blades cut men down.
Eirik the King
Earns his renown.

Break not the spell
But silent be:
To you I'll tell
Their bravery:
At clash of kings
On carrion-field
The red blade swings
At blue-stained shield.

When swords anoint
What man is saved?
Who gets this point
Is deep engraved:
And men like oak
From Odin's tree,
Few words they spoke
At that iron-play.

The edges swing,
Blades cut men down.
Eirik the King
Earns his renown.

The ravens dinned
At this red fare,
Blood on the wind,
Death in the air;
The Scotsmen's foes
Fed wolves their meat,
Death ends their woes
As eagles eat.

Carrion birds fly thick
To the body stack,
For eyes to pick
And flesh to hack:
The raven's beak
Is crimson-red,
The wolf goes seek
His daily bread.

The sea-wolves lie
And take their ease,
But feast the sly
Wolf overseas.

Valkyries keep
The troops awake,
There's little sleep
When shield-walls shake,
When arrows fly
The taut bow-string,
To bite or lie
With broken wing.

The peace is torn
By flying spears,
When bows are drawn
Wolves prick their ears,
The yew-bow shrills,
The edges bite,
The warrior wills
His men to fight

His arrows fly
Like swarms of bees
To feast the sly
Wolf overseas.

I praise the King
Throughout his land,
And keenly sing
His open hand,
His hand so free
With golden spoil:
But vice-like, he
Grips his own soil.

Bracelets of gold
He breaks in two
And, uncontrolled,
Pours gifts on you:
The lavish King
Loads you with treasure,
And everything
Is for your pleasure.

On his golden arm
The bright shield swings:
To his foes, harm:
To his friends, rings;
His fame's a feast
Of glorious war,
His name sounds east,
From shore to shore.

And now my lord,
You've listened long
As word on word
I built this song:
Your source is war,
Your streams are blood,
But my springs pour
Great Odin's flood.

The praise my lord
This tight mouth broke,
The word-floods poured,
The still tongue spoke,
From my poet's-breast
These words took wing:
Now all the rest
May learn to sing.

Egil Skalla-Grimsson