The Creative Exploration of Language

Hreiðar’s Tale

There was a man called Þórđ Þorgrímsson.  He was the grandson of Hreiđar, who was killed by Viga-Glúm.  Þórđ was small and handsome and he had a brother named Hreiđar who was ugly and not very smart.  Hreiđar could hardly take care of himself, though he was strong and fast and he had a gentle disposition.  Þórđ was a retainer of King Magnús and was well thought of.  He often went on trading journeys while Hreiđar stayed home.

One day, Hreiđar came across his brother at Eyarfjord, where Þórđ was preparing his ship for a voyage.  When Þórđ saw his brother he asked why he had come.

“I didn’t come for no reason at all,” said Hreiđar.

“What do you want?” asked Þórđ.

“I want to journey abroad with you,” said Hreiđar.

Þórđ said, “I don’t think you are fit for such a journey.  I would rather give you our inheritance.  It’s worth twice as much as my business.”

Hreiđar said, “I would be without wits if I took all of our inheritance and resigned myself to trying to handle it without your guidance.  I know nothing useful about money management.  Men will take advantage of me and take the money.  It would be bad for you if I got involved in fights or violence with men who tried to steal from me.  I might even get injured.  If that comes to pass, you will find it difficult to keep me from going abroad.”

“I know that,” said Þórđ.  “Don’t tell anyone that you’re going abroad.”

As soon as the brothers parted, Hreiđar began to tell everyone who would listen that he intended to go abroad with his brother.  People were critical of Þórđ for taking a fool with him on his journey.

Once they were prepared, the brothers set sail across the sea.  The journey went well and they came to Bergen, where Þórđ asked at once after the king.  He was told that King Magnús had just arrived in town but didn’t want to be disturbed that day, as he needed rest.  Hreiđar aroused comment from the men of Bergen.  He was not like other men; he was big and ugly, and he did not speak much.

Early one morning, when everyone was still sleeping, Hreiđar stood up and called out, “Wake up, brother!  He who sleeps misses out!  I have some news; I have heard a strange noise.”

“What did it sound like?” asked Þórđ.

“Like an animal,” said Hreiđar.  “There was much roaring but I don’t know what the noise was.”

“I don’t think it was so strange,” said Þórđ.  “It must have been a blast from a horn.”

“What does that mean?” asked Hreiđar.

Þórđ said, “A blast from a horn means that a meeting is being called or that a ship is being put in or out of the water.”

“What would the meeting be about?” asked Hreiđar.

“There are always difficult cases,” said Þórđ, “and the king uses the meeting to hold public discussions on them.”

“So the king will be at this meeting?” asked Hreiđar.

“Certainly,” said Þórđ.

“That’s where I’m going then,” said Hreiđar.  “I want to be the first one there, to see as many men as possible.”

“We’re not thinking the same way then,” said Þórđ.  “I would think that the less time you spend in a crowd of men the better.  I don’t plan on going myself.”

“Don’t talk like that,” said Hreiđar.  “Let’s go together.  It won’t be better for you if I go alone, and you can’t stop me.”

Then Hreiđar ran away.  At that point, Þórđ realized he had to go after his brother and gave chase.  Hreiđar was running hard and pulled far ahead.  When Hreiđar saw that Þórđ was trailing behind, he said, “It’s bad to be small and lack strength, but at least you might have been gifted fleetness of foot.  I fear you have received little of that.  You might be better off if you could trade your looks for speed.”

“I don’t know that my lack of strength hurts me more than your strength hurts you,” said Þórđ.

“Let’s arm wrestle then, brother,” said Hreiđar.

The brothers got into position and began to arm wrestle.  Þórđ’s hand soon went numb and he let his brother’s hand loose.  He wanted to maintain the peace and to stop with Hreiđar’s foolishness.

Hreiđar now set off on foot and stopped at a hill where he could see, staring off into the distance, a crowd gathering for a meeting.

Þórđ came running up behind him.  “Let’s go to the meeting together, brother.”

Hreiđar agreed.  When they came to the thing, Þórđ knew many of the men and they greeted him well, so much so that King Magnús heard about it.  Eventually, Þórđ went before the king and spoke well and the king gave him friendly greetings in return.  Soon after arriving at the thing, the brothers became separated and Hreiđar was surrounded by men, who jostled and sported with him.  He was talkative and full of laughs, and the men thought this made him great fun to spend time with, but soon enough Hreiđar was trapped and could not get away.

King Magnús asked Þórđ what tidings he brought and which men of his company should be invited to court.

“My brother is part of my crew,” said Þórđ.

“He must be a fine man,” said the king, “if he is like you.”

“He is not like me,” said Þórđ.

King Magnús said, “He might yet be a fine man.  In what way is he not like you?”

Þórđ said, “He is big and ugly and rather hard to look at.  He is strong but gentle.”

“It sounds like he may have some good qualities,” said the king.

Þórđ said, “He was never known for his wisdom when we were growing up.”

“I would rather judge him as he is now,” said the king.  “Is he able to take care of himself?”

“Not very well,” said Þórđ.

“Then why did you take him abroad?” asked the king.

“My Lord,” said Þórđ, “he has a half stake in everything I do, but he lets me make all the decisions about money.  He asked for just one thing, to go abroad with me, and I thought it unfair not to grant him this as he lets me decide so many things.  It also seemed likely that you would bring him good luck if he met you.”

“I want to see him,” said King Magnús.

“Then you shall,” said Þórđ, “but he has been driven away somewhere at the moment.”

The king then sent for Hreiđar and when Hreiđar heard that King Magnús wanted to see him, he marched about proudly, nearly tripping over his own feet.  He could hardly believe that the king wanted to meet him.  He got himself dressed in ankle length breeches, over which he wore a gray cloak.

When Hreiđar came before the king, he fell to his knees and spoke fine words.

King Magnús laughed and said, “If you have business with me then let’s hear it.  Many are waiting to speak with me.”

“My business is of the highest importance, Lord,” said Hreiđar.  “I want to get a good look at you.”

“Do you like what you see?” asked the king.

“Very much,” said Hreiđar.  “But I don’t think I have really seen you yet.”

“What shall we do then?” asked the king.  “Do you want me to stand up?”

“I would like that,” said Hreiđar.

King Magnús stood up and said, “You must be able to see me now?”

“I can see you a bit, but not fully,” said Hreiđar.

“Would you like me to take off my cloak?” asked the king.

“I would like that very much,” said Hreiđar.

“We should stop and talk about this,” said the king.  “Icelanders are a clever lot and I’m a bit afraid that you are trying to make a fool of me.  I cannot allow that.”

“I don’t think I’m able to trick or deceive you, Lord,” said Hreiđar.

The king took off his cloak and said, “Look at me as closely as you want.”

“I don’t mind if I do,” said Hreiđar.  He then proceeded to walk in rings around the king, muttering to himself all the while, “all is well, all is well.”

“Have you gotten a clear look at me?” King Magnús asked.

“Indeed,” said Hreiđar.

“So what do you think of me?” asked the king.

“I think my brother Þórđ has not exaggerated in his praise of you,” said Hreiđar.

The king said, “Do you find any faults with me, anything that most people would not know?”

“I don’t want to find fault, and I’m not able to,” said Hreiđar.  “Everyone would choose to be as you are if they could.”

“You go too far,” said King Magnús.

“The danger is for others who speak flattering words,” said Hreiđar, “if what I said to you just now is not true.”

“Find something at fault, however small,” said the king.

“The thing I notice above all else, Lord,” said Hreiđar, “is that one of your eyes is higher than the other.”

“Another man has pointed out this fault,” said the king, “my kinsman, King Harald.  Now I would like to even the score.  I want you to stand up and take off your cloak so I can see you clearly.”

Hreiđar threw off his cloak and revealed his hands; they were big and ugly and unwashed.  King Magnús looked at Hreiđar closely until Hreiđar said, “What do you think now, Lord?  What fault are you able to find?”

The king said, “I think that you are the most hideous man alive.”

“That is well said, but do you also see any good qualities in me?” asked Hreiđar.

The king said, “Your brother Þórđ said you were a gentle man.”

“That is true,” said Hreiđar, “but I don’t think it is a good thing that it is so.”

“You must become angry at some point,” said King Magnús.

“I’m sure you’re right, Lord,” said Hreiđar, “but how long must it be until this happens?”

“I don’t know,” said the king.  “Most likely this winter, that is what I guess.”

“Well said,” said Hreiđar.

The king then asked if Hreiđar had any skill as a craftsman.

“I don’t know,” said Hreiđar.  “I have never tried to be, so I have no way of knowing.”

“It doesn’t seem unlikely,” said the king.

“Well said, again,” said Hreiđar.  “Now that you say it, it must be true.  And now that I think of it, I seem to be in need of winter lodgings.”

“You are welcome to stay at my court, but I think it might be better if you stayed somewhere by yourself,” said King Magnús.

“That may be true,” said Hreiđar, “but there is no place so deserted that no men come to it at all, and those that do come will speak of what they see, especially if it is humorous.  I am not a discrete man and many things come to my lips.  Men may be angered by my words and mock me and make too much of what I say when I am joking around.  It seems wiser to me to stick close to someone, even in a crowd, who cares about me, like my brother Þórđ, rather than be alone, where there is no one to help me.”

“Then I would suggest that both you and your brother stay at court, if you like the sound of that better,” said King Magnús.

After hearing this, Hreiđar ran away immediately and told everyone he encountered what King Magnús had said.  In particular, he told his brother Þórđ that the king had given permission for them to stay at court.

Þórđ said, “You need to get yourself proper clothes that fit you, and weapons.  We don’t lack the means to do this.  Most men are impressed by fine clothes and it is more difficult to prepare yourself for the king’s court than other places.  You are less likely to be laughed at by his retainers if you are well dressed.”

“You are wide of the mark if you think I am going let you dress me up in fine clothes,” said Hreiđar.

Þórđ said, “Then cut out some homespun, then.”

“That’s better,” said Hreiđar.

The clothes were made according to Þórđ’s direction, and Hreiđar liked the results.  Hreiđar looked like a different man in the new clothes: cleaned up, but still ugly and rough.  He stood out so much that, when he and Þórđ went to court, Hreiđar had to endure much teasing from King Magnús’s retainers.  They found many ways to tease him, but found that he was quick in his responses in every situation.  They tried to make fun of him, but he just laughed at their words and proved his worth both through his words and by feats of strength.  When the king’s retainers realized Hreiđar’s strength, they left him alone.

At that time the land had two kings, King Magnús and King Harald.  It so happened that one of King Magnús’ retainers had killed one of King Harald’s retainers.  Following this, a truce was arranged and the kings were to meet in person to reach a settlement.

When Hreiđar heard about the meeting, he went to King Magnús and said, “There is something I want to ask of you.”

“What is it?” asked King Magnús.

“I want to go to the meeting with King Harald.  I am not widely traveled and I would like to see two kings together in one place.”

“You speak the truth when you say that you are not widely traveled,” said King Magnús.  “But I can’t allow you to come to the meeting.  I can’t let you fall into the hands of King Harald’s men or there may be trouble for you or others.  I’m afraid you may find the anger you long for and I think it best that you steer clear.”

“Well said,” said Hreiđar.  “I am determined to go if I can expect to lose my temper.”

“Do you mean to go even if I forbid it?” asked King Magnús.

“I will go nonetheless,” said Hreiđar.

“Do you think you can treat me like you treat your brother Þórđ?  He always does what you want in the end.”

“All the better to be with you then, as you are wiser than him.”

King Magnús could see then that Hreiđar would go despite his ban, even if he had to go with another company.  The king doubted how well Hreiđar would get on if he were left to manage on his own, so he allowed him to join his company and gave Hreiđar a horse to ride.

They set off at once on their journey.  Hreiđar rode hard, and pushed his horse until it collapsed from exhaustion.

When King Magnús heard this, he said to his men, “That works out well for me.  Help Hreiđar get home.  He isn’t going after all.”

But Hreiđar said, “My horse’s exhaustion won’t stop me from making the journey.  My fleetness of foot is of no use to me if I’m not able to keep up with you.”

They set out again and many men raced their horses against Hreiđar.  He had boasted so much, the men wanted to test his speed.  Hreiđar was able to outlast each horse he raced and said again that he did not deserve to go to the meeting if he could not keep up with them.  After hearing this, many men dismounted from their horses.

When they came to the meeting place, King Magnús said to Hreiđar, “We must stick closely together.  Keep yourself to hand and don’t wander away.  I’m not sure how things will go when King Harald’s men get here and see you.”

Hreiđar said he would do as King Magnús said.  “The closer I stick to you the better it will be.”

The kings then met and began to discuss their business.   King Harald’s men had heard about Hreiđar and when they saw him they were eager to have some fun with him.  Hreiđar went off to a nearby wood with the men while the two kings spoke.  King Harald’s men then pulled him about by his clothes so hard that he fell down.  This went on for a while, with Hreiđar sometimes being tossed around like a wisp of straw and at other times remaining as firm as a wall, so that the blows of King Harald’s men bounced off him.

Their game became even rougher and King Harald’s men began hitting Hreiđar with axe handles and the sheaths of their swords.  A nail on one of the scabbards gave Hreiđar a cut on the head.  Nevertheless, Hreiđar seemed to be having fun and never stopped laughing.  This went on for a while and King Harald’s men did not let up.

Then Hreiđar said, “We have had our fun, but I think she should stop now.  I am tired of this game.  Let’s go to your king, I would like to see him.”

“We will never let someone so fiendish see King Harald,” said the men.  “We’d sooner send you to hel.”

Hreiđar realized that he was outnumbered and he felt sure that the men would do as they said.  At this point his temper got away from him and he took hold of the man who had been most eager in attacking him.  Hreiđar picked the man up and held him aloft before throwing him down, headfirst, to the ground.  The man was knocked out, but all could soon see that he was dead.

The men thought Hreiđar’s strength was superhuman.  They fled to King Harald and told him that Hreiđar had killed one of his men.

“Kill the man who did it,” said King Harald.

“We can’t do that,” they said.  “He has run away.”

Hreiđar had fled to King Magnús, who said, “Now do you know how to become angry?”

“Yes,” said Hreiđar.  “Now I know how to do it.”

“How did it feel?” asked King Magnús.  “You seemed curious about it.”

“I didn’t like it,” said Hreiđar.  “I wanted to kill them all.”

“I always thought you would not be able to handle your anger,” said King Magnús.  “I want to send you to Uppland, to Eyvind, one of my chieftains.  He will guard you against King Harald.  I cannot guarantee your safety if you stay here with my men.  My kinsman Harald is crafty and if we see him things will be hard.  You can come back to me when I send for you.”

Hreiđar then went to Uppland and Eyvind took him under his protection as King Magnús had asked.

The kings agreed to settle their original dispute, but they could not agree on what to do about Hreiđar.  King Magnús thought that King Harald’s men had forfeited the right to wergild and that his man’s death was not a matter for the law.  King Harald, on the other hand, demanded compensation for his man and the kings parted without agreeing.

It did not take long for King Harald to find out where Hreiđar was and he journeyed to Uppland with a troop of 60 men.  They arrived early in the morning, hoping to take Eyvind unawares, but it was not to be.  Eyvind was a careful man; he knew King Harald would come and he had made himself ready.  He had gathered his men and hidden them in the forest around his house.  He would give them a sign if King Harald came and he thought he needed their support.

It is said that before King Harald came, Hreiđar asked Eyvind to give him silver and a small amount of gold.

“Are you skilled in smithing?” asked Eyvind.

“King Magnús said I was,” said Hreiđar, “but I don’t know if I am or not.  I have never tried to make anything.  The king must have believed it if he said it, and at the time I believed him.”

“You are a strange man,” said Eyvind.  “I will get you the silver and gold.  You must give me back the silver if your work does not turn out.  Otherwise, you can keep it as your own.”

Hreiđar locked himself into a house and began his work, but King Harald and his troop arrived before he was finished.  As I have said before, Eyvind was ready for the king; he had laid out a feast for his guest.  When they sat drinking, King Harald asked if Hreiđar was there.  “You will have my friendship if you hand him over to us,” he said.

“He is not here right now,” said Eyvind.

“I know that he is here,” said King Harald. “You can’t lie to me.”

“Even if that were true,” said Eyvind, “I cannot give your wishes more weight than King Magnús’s by handing over a man he has asked me to guard.”

Eyvind then left the room.  He heard Hreiđar pounding on the door of his room and shouting that he wanted to get out.

“Shut up!” said Eyvind.  “King Harald is here and he wants to kill you.”

Hreiđar kept on pounding and said he wanted to meet King Harald.  Eyvind saw that Hreiđar would break down the door if he were not let out, so he unlocked the door.  “May the trolls take you,” he said, “if you get yourself killed.”

Hreiđar went to see King Harald and greeted him.  “Lord, let go your anger.  I am just the man you need, better than most.  I will do whatever you want, even if there is no gain in it for me or if it is dangerous.  I will go where you send me, whatever the task.  Here is a thing of value I have made for you.”

Hreiđar then set on the table in front of the king a pig made of silver and coated in gold.

When King Harald saw the pig, he said, “You are a skilled craftsman.  Rarely have I seen such good work.”  Now all of King Harald’s men took turns holding the pig.

King Harald then said that he would be willing to settle his dispute with Hreiđar.  “I think you are a strong and fearless man and I would like to have you in my service.”

The pig was passed around some more until it came again to King Harald.  He held it up and looked at it more carefully.  It was then that he saw that the pig had teats and he realized that it was a sow.  He knew the pig had been made to mock him and he flung it away.  “May the trolls take you,” he said.  “Men!  On your feet and kill him.”

Hreiđar grabbed the pig and fled, journeying to King Magnús.  He told King Magnús what he had done.

Meanwhile, King Harald’s men had risen up to strike down Hreiđar, but when they tried to follow him, Eyvind blocked their path with many men.  They were not able to chase Hreiđar and King Harald left Eyvind’s house in anger.

When Hreiđar came to King Magnús’ hall, the king asked him what had happened.  Hreiđar told King Magnús the whole story and showed him the pig he had made.

King Magnús thought about the pig and then he said, “This is very skillfully made.  My kinsman King Harald has avenged much smaller mockeries than this.  You don’t lack grit and you are quite clever.”

Hreiđar then spent some time with King Magnús.  He spoke to the king and said, “King Magnús, there is something I would like to ask you.”

“What is that?” asked the king.

“That you listen to you what I have to say to you.”

“Why should I not?” said King Magnús.

Then Hreiđar began to recite a poem.  It was very strange at first but it got better as it went along.

When Hreiđar had finished King Magnús said, “That was a strange poem, but it ended well.  It reminds me of the course of your life: the early parts were marked by oddness, but it got better as time passed.  I want to reward you for the poem.  There is an island off the coast of Norway that I would like to give you.  It is not very big, but the land and the grazing are good.”

Hreiđar said, “I will unite Norway and Iceland with this island.”

King Magnús said, “I’m not sure how that will go.  I think there are many men that will be prepared to buy your island.  I think it might be wiser for me to buy the island myself, so that it does not become a bone of contention between you and those who wish to buy it.  You should not stay long here in Norway.  I know what King Harald wants to happen to you and he will try to do it if you stay.”

King Magnús didn’t want to risk Hreiđar staying in Norway any longer, so he paid him in silver for the island.  Hreiđar journeyed back to Iceland and lived in the north, in Svarfadardale, and became a great man.  His life went as King Magnús had expected in that it got better as time passed and he made the most of the strange behavior he had shown in the early part of his life.  He lived to an old age in Svarfadardale and many came from his line.

Here ends this tale.

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