An Allegory of Heroic War


Painting of Halldór Laxness by Einar Hákonarson, 1984. (Credit: Klettur / Wikimedia Commons)

Halldór Laxness, Icelandic poet, playwright, and novelist, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. The saga Gerpla (1952) was among the works recognized by the Nobel Prize committee. Philip Roughton’s new translation of this saga of misguided glory, Wayward Heroes, was published on November 1, 2016.

Wayward Heroes is a story drawn from ancient Icelandic tales of valor in a medieval Norse world of trolls, Viking raids, skaldic lays, dueling Kings, and Christian hypocrisy. It is an allegorical critique of contemporary militarism, the senselessness of violence. Its immediate referent is the Cold War rivalry between the US and USSR. Its continuing relevance, by extension, is to the US colossus and its Global War on Terror.

This tragic tale of comedic critique features the oath-brothers, Thorgeir and Thormod, both obsessed with glory and sworn to avenge one another’s death, whomever dies first. Thorgeir aspired to be an intrepid hero in the service of King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway (Olaf the Stout, himself a Viking thug). Thormod was a skald, a poet determined to tell the story of heroic battles fought by his chosen king. It does not end well for any of them.

The heroic ideal—which ultimately brings about misery for everyone—is captured early in Laxness’ saga. Young Thorgeir’s mother extolled the virtue of swords and slaughter, teaching her son that:

Words . . . are entirely worthless but for the praise befitting kings, swords, and battle. A hero … says little about most things, neither commending nor disparaging, uttering not a word beyond what he is prepared to back with arms . . . . The only persuasions capable of solving a dispute are the truths spoken by swords. A man’s doughtiness in conflict, his valor and cunning, prove his worth. Whether his life is long or short, whether he stands or falls in battle, makes no difference, if his deeds are resplendent with glory. His value lies in his stoutheartedness, whether fighting against overwhelming odds or taking his enemy unawares and striking him dead. Nobleness means enduring no man’s taunts, avenging injury, making open foes of traitors, and striking first.

. . . A valiant man should pledge truest faith in the most freehanded king, for good fortune attends such a king. If, on the other hand, the king grows tightfisted, then it is best to break that pledge. Never must a courageous man see his name disgraced by choosing peace when it is time for a fight. . . . A good Viking never spares a woman or a child in war. (pp. 24-25)

Thorgeir did his best to live up to his mother’s ideal, only to lose his head (which Thormod polished and preserved) devoid of glory and riches. When it finally came time for Skald Thormod (after a quest that left him impoverished and crippled) to recite his inspiring Lay of Heroes to a nervous King Olaf (who was about to undertake a battle to regain Norway), the skald could no longer remember his lay.

Peasants and townspeople were the victims of Kings and Vikings alike. Kings feared an uprising of peasants more than an invasion of Vikings so much so that in this heroic tale the English King Aethelred made a desperate pact with Vikings to rule London on his behalf. When the King earlier had refused to defend the city from Viking attack, townsfolk (mothers, unspoiled ladies, whores, children, old men, cripples, lepers, beggars, and thieves) beat the foreign invaders back by pummeling them with brooms, pokers, crutches, rocks, table knives, files, awls, knitting needles, shovels, pitchforks, clubs, and sledgehammers, pouring boiling urine over the attackers and burning their fleet of warships.  Aethelred’s fear of the foreign invaders was slight compared to his fear of his own subjects, this crazy rabble of townspeople (who were ignorant of proper warfare) putting the lie to the myth of invincible Norsemen. Aethelred’s own army had fled to the woods to avoid combat with the Vikings. Thus Aethelred sued for peace with the Vikings and made a pact to pay them tribute and designate them occupiers and protectors of London (pp. 188-190). The King “considered hostile foreign armies less of a threat than his own subjects, fearing that the peasants would overmaster him, take charge of his army, and deprive him of his throne and kingdom” (p. 174).

King Cnut of Denmark was of the same opinion about “the impudence of the peasants, who aspire to take possession of the lands they inhabit and rule them themselves,” which was “something the king considered far worse than the rule of either his friends or his enemies” (p. 402).

Churchmen—Bishops and Pope—legitimized the killing of peasants and townspeople. When Duke Richard of Normandy hired the Vikings to attack the undefended French town of Chartres, the townspeople took refuge in the cathedral. When the question was put to the Bishop of Rouen, whether the cathedral, its holy relics, and the people within should be burned or spared, his verdict was as follows:

Assuredly, Christ holds it neither laudable nor just, for any reason whatsoever, to set fire to churches and burn kings inside them, or commoners, women and children, or other wretched folk. Yet it should be kept in mind that although Christ is a great fisherman, he will not be caught in his own net. He is too skilled a lawman to be snared in the laws that he himself has laid down. Thus, he overrides his own laws whenever they become a bulwark for the fiend who dwells in Hell, and who is so clever, cunning, and underhanded that he has frequently wrapped himself in a mantle of light and adorned his own head with the halo granted to saints alone, in order to dispute with learned men over articles of faith and refute their dialectic. It is also the greatest of heresies for people to believe that Christ ever stated, in carne or in spiritu, or that the Holy Spirit ever decreed in synodo, that churches and holy relics, clergymen, women and children or other defenseless folk are to be spared, de facto, from destruction by fire, come what may—for example, when the stewards of Satan deprive good jarls of their property or disown virtuous princesses, and in doing so deluge the world with vainglory and arrogance. In such a case, a swift verdict shall be rendered: when Satan rears his head, no decree issued by a king or alderman or lawgiver or warlord shall apply, or by a bishop or magistrate or tax collector or warden, or any other of the king’s or God’s servants. Neither shall the Ten Commandments, which God inscribed with his finger on tablets of stone for Moses, remain in force, and Christians, for the love of Christ, must in fact burn children and women and other wretches, exterminate beasts and birds and grasses, and set fire to churches and holy relics, if, by this means, they are able to defeat the Enemy. In nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti. (pp. 217-18).

Once again, the devil that haunts our corrupted soul is hunted ferociously elsewhere (rather than pursued within) and foiled vicariously by condemning our enemy to a fiery death.



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