Jómsvíkinga saga (ca. 1200) is one of the very earliest of the extant medieval Icelandic sagas, confounding the traditional classification of these vernacular prose narratives into discrete genres by subject matter and style: "in many ways, Jómsvíkinga saga stands alone," the translators find. (39). The saga survives in four manuscripts and has been translated before, but never from the oldest and longest version in AM [Den Arnamagnæanske Samling, Copenhagen] 291 (ca. 1300), which the translators believe to be the most reliable witness to the original composition. Three missing or illegible leaves, plus a few smaller additions, are supplied from the version preserved in the later 14th-century Flayeyjarbók 'Book of Flatey' in Iceland. The creation of Jómsvíkinga saga antedates most of the more famous Íslendingasögur 'Sagas of Icelanders' or Icelandic "family sagas" that elaborate traditions of the founding settlers of the island in the later 9th, 10th and early 11th centuries. It shares strong similarities in content with the more historical konungasögur 'sagas of the [Norwegian] kings' set during the same time period and anticipates the fantastic fornaldarsögur 'sagas of ancient times' set well before the Viking age in Germanic prehistory, though not committed to writing until the 14th century.
Jómsvíkinga saga tells of the rise and fall of a band of Baltic Vikings who occupied an island fortress called Jómsborg, most likely located on the island of Wolin at the mouth of the Oder River in modern Poland. This confraternity of noble pirates, the translators argue, is the real protagonist of the saga, a society founded by the charismatic, if somewhat Machiavellian figure Pálnatóki, who served (or enjoyed a special arrangement with) King Búrizláfr (Boleslaw I) of Vindland 'Land of the Wends', a Slavic-speaking people living along the adjacent shores of the southern Baltic Sea. Pálnatóki himself is of mixed ethnic heritage: his father is a Dane from Fyn called Pálnir, possibly a back-formation from the name of his more famous son; his mother is said to be the daughter of Jarl Óttarr of Gautland across the Kattegat. In the saga Pálnatóki becomes the foster-father of the Danish king Haraldr Bluetooth's illegitimate son Sveinn (Sweyn Forkbeard) who would take the Danish throne from his father and later conquer Anglo-Saxon England with his son Knútr. King Haraldr became the first Christian king of Denmark in the 960s after which Pálnatóki is shown to incite--or really seduce--Sveinn into rebelling against his father in the 980s. Pálnatóki's name has been analyzed not as a patronym as in the saga, but as a nickname, "Shaft-Tóki," or "Tóki the Archer," since one of the more memorable incidents in his career is his assassination of King Haraldr Bluetooth from ambush while the naked king is bending over on all fours towards a fire to warm himself: "the arrow flies straight into the king's arse and right through him and came out into his mouth" (104). In addition, the Danish author Saxo Grammaticus reports that King Haraldr had once forced Pálnatóki to shoot an apple from his son's head like William Tell while the boy was also running downhill. So Pálnatóki is surely a figure from popular legend whose historicity is very dubious indeed, a kind of cross between the crafty bowman Odysseus and the cunning trickster Loki, a character type recognized by Snorri Sturluson in the Prologue to his Prose Edda (ca. 1220), where he suggests that Ulysses had traveled to the north and left a reputation there later attributed to the sly Norse god who was deft at the manipulation of both people and projectiles. Pálnatóki is a fresh play upon this traditional figure, illustrated by his many shrewd stratagems and technical contrivances throughout the saga, including the design of Jómsborg itself:
There he also built a harbor inside the fortress that three hundred
(360) longships could be berthed in at the same time, so that they
were all shut within the fortress. It was designed with great
ingenuity where the entrance to the harbor was, and it was
constructed as if there were a door, with a great stone arch above it.
And before the entrance there were iron gates which locked the
harbor from within. And up on the stone arch a large tower was
built with catapults inside it. Some parts of the fortress stood out
over the sea, and structures built like that are called sea-castles... (110).
The translators note similarities between the "baroque violence" of Jómsvíkinga saga (42), seen in the graphic murder of King Haraldr, and that of the later sagas of ancient times, which could be illustrated with many examples from Hrólfs saga Kraka 'The Saga of Hrólfr Kraki' or Völsunga saga 'Saga of the Völsungs' (both ca. 1400). And indeed, although Jómsvíkinga saga starts off as a traditional king's saga--a redacted version is incorporated into the larger saga of King Óláfr Tryggvason in Flateyjarbók--the author seems to recognize and even relish its imaginative provisionality in his longer rendering in AM 291. He concludes with a rather coy, agnostic perspective on the fate of Búi inn digri 'Búi the Stout', one of the Jómsviking champions, who leapt overboard in the final sea-battle with a chest of gold under each arm. The author retracts with one hand what he offers with the other, then undermines confidence in any of his claims:
[P]eople have said since that Búi turned into a dragon and settled
down on his chests of gold; but I think the cause of this to be that
a dragon has been seen in Hjörungavágr, and it may be that some
evil spirit has settled down on the treasure and has been seen there
since. But I cannot say which is more likely. It may be that neither
is true, for things may appear in many different ways (159).
Our first postmodern saga-writer!
The author's depiction of the society Pálnatóki establishes at Jómsborg is also a legendary fiction, one which might usefully be compared to the cohort of exotic heroes who gather around the Skjöldung king Hrólfr in Hrólfs saga Kraka, but here with a code of conduct faintly reminiscent of that of King Arthur's knights of the Table Round, first described by the Anglo-Norman poet Wace in 1155 and elaborated by Chrétien de Troyes later in the 12th century. The translators note some similarities between the rules of the Jómsvikings and these codes of chivalry coming into vogue during the period of the saga's composition. For instance, all warriors are obliged to observe a quasi-egalitarian "honor system" under the rule of Pálnatóki: "Everything they gained in raiding must be carried to the banner whether large or small, and anything of any value. And if it proved true that anyone has not done so he must leave the fortress, whether he was of greater status or lesser" (111). Even so, the translators also find the heroes' fierce oaths to avenge their fellows and prohibition against women and children inside the fortress of Jómsborg somewhat antithetical to the courtly idealism and aspirations to fin'amor of Arthurian tradition. The saga's masculinist society may also bear some comparison with that of the Knights Templar, another possible, if distant influence upon the saga. Yet a tentative emergence of courtly values like those celebrated by Chrétien can just dimly be discerned in the character of the truculent pre-teen Vagn Ákason who wins admission to Jómsborg at only twelve years old against its strict minimum age requirement of eighteen: "It is said of Vagn that he became such a wise and well-conducted man there in Jómsborg that no one there was wiser or pleasanter than Vagn Ákason, nor more skilled in all courtliness than he" (124). In the saga-writer's usual style of qualified hyperbole, he asserts that "it is said by all that it is not clear that there have ever been greater heroes or warriors than those Jómsvikings, and we believe their equals have hardly been seen" (119). These men form an effective sea-borne strike force of what can only be called Viking marines under Pálnatóki's leadership, who cultivates among them an impressive ethos of mutual loyalty and martial valor. And the Christian writer's unabashed admiration for the courage and rectitude of these unbaptized Jómsvikings is interesting, as is his negative depiction of the Christian ruler King Haraldr Bluetooth, who rudely appropriates the daughter of a poor man for his bed: "It is true to say that service can hardly be better than has now been offered to us here, farmer, and there is only one thing that you allow to be withheld from us, and that is your daughter Æsa and her hole" (97). Haraldr then harshly and repeatedly rejects the fine son Sveinn he begets upon Æsa, so that the reader is led to feel that it is only poetic justice when the king suffers a reciprocal "rape" by Pálnatoki's arrow. But traditional Norse paganism comes off worse. While the masculine Norse sky gods are quietly airbrushed from the narrative, the apostate Jarl Hákon offers sacrifices, including his young son Erlingr, to the dark earth goddesses Þorgerðr Hörðatröll (or Hörðabrúðr) and her sister Irpa. For their part, the honest Jómsvikings seem to anticipate the guðlausir menn 'godless men' of later sagas--not atheists exactly, but those who choose to rely upon their own sworn word and arms' strength rather than on spiritual succor from either the old gods or the new Christian god of the Saxon emperor Ótta inn rauði 'Otto the Red (Otto II), the one good Christian king in the saga. The self-reliance of the Jómsvikings serves as a kind of character barometer in later Icelandic sagas, suggesting the inherent nobility of these "proto-Christian" heroes, who are, however, necessarily excluded from the protection of God's grace, explaining their ultimate failure against the forces of evil that Jarl Hákon conjures. No human beings, however brave, can stand against demons, who in this saga are gendered female, just as the human heroes are women-free men. Þorgerðr and her sister crush the Jómsvikings with a blizzard of hail and missiles:
It is said that Hávarðr höggvandi [the Feller], Búi's follower, is
the first man to see Hörðabrúðr among Jarl Hákon's force, and
many men with second sight see her, and also those without second
sight, and they see as well, when the storm slackens slightly, that
arrows were flying, as far as they could see, from each finger of the
ogress, and they always struck a man so that he died (147).
The independent Icelandic author of Jómsvíkinga saga finds something like Homi Bhabha's "third space of discourse" to describe his band of manly heroes, one poised between a feminized, demonic paganism and a craven, royal Christianity.
Jómsvíkinga saga is thus an early form of historical fiction conceived before the main generic distinctions of medieval Icelandic prose had clarified around the middle of the 13th century. It is a northern literary fantasy responsive to tales and reports of similar all-male societies to the south like Arthur's knights or the Knights Templar, but including some general knowledge of actual persons and events during the Viking age. In fact, a rough diagnostic can be applied to this as to other early Icelandic sagas: the more detailed and circumstantial the account offered, the more likely it is to be the product of the author's literary imagination working upon oral tradition; the more general and schematic the information, the more likely it is to contain some kernel of historical truth, especially if concerned with known human figures and confirmed by other, more reliable sources.
In Jómsvíkinga saga Pálnatóki is imagined to play a key role in the power politics of early medieval Scandinavia, especially in the ever-shifting conflicts between competing rulers of Denmark and Norway. These Jómsvikings are depicted as both king-makers and king-breakers. Yet, for all their cheerful valor and esprit de corps, they are finally defeated and disbanded by the pagan Jarl Hákon of Hlaðir [Lade] at the legendary battle of Hjörungavágr 'Bay of Swords' (6), somewhere up along the Atlantic coast of Norway, though the exact location and even historicity of this event is uncertain. The story of the Jómsvikings, like those of Hrolf's heroes or Arthur's knights, is ultimately a tragedy, the sad demise of a loyal band of brothers weakened in strategic judgment by the loss of their leader Pálnatóki to illness, the subsequent loosening of the standards upon which he had built their effectiveness and morale, and a willful overconfidence bred from their past successes. "Bay of Swords" proved a bay too far for the Jómsvikings, at least without their practical leader, who was far too canny for such a head-on conflict against odds.
Another extraordinary feature of this saga is the almost clinical description of the interrogation and execution--one could almost say martyrdom--of the wounded and exhausted Jómsvikings taken captive off a skerry on the morning after the battle. Some men are tight-lipped and stoical, others snarky and insulting; one is polite but devious like Vagn Ákason, who had beautiful long hair down to his shoulders of which he was very proud. He asks as a favor that someone pull his hair away from his head so it wouldn't get bloody during his beheading. His wish is granted:
But this young man, when he hears the swish of the sword, jerks
his head sharply so that the man who held him suffers the blow,
and [the executioner] chops off both the retainer's arms at the elbows.
But he jumps up, the young man, and makes a joke of it and said:
'Which of the boys,' says he, 'has his hands in my hair' (155)?
The jarl's son Eiríkr then allows the Vagn to return home unharmed, a reprieve he refuses until Jarl Hákon reluctantly agrees to release all the surviving Jómsvikings as well.
The translators provide a literal rendering into modern English, retaining the tense shifts and mixed style of the original Icelandic prose, which mostly resembles the laconic "factuality" of the family sagas, favoring terse description, brisk dialogue, and the "sharp, memorable retort" (42), but sometimes veering into moments of exaggerated, almost comic brutality, as when Búi gets his teeth knocked out and lips chopped off in the fight: "It will please the Danish woman less to kiss me," he wisecracks," in Borgundarhólmr, if we manage to get there again after this" (148). The complicated syntax and prosody of the embedded verse stanzas, added to heighten an effect or illustrate a point, is not reproduced. These verses are mercifully rendered into a more intelligible idiom with marginal explanations of the cryptic kenningar, poetic circumlocutions for common and proper nouns. The translators have done a meticulous job of making the fullest version of this unique Icelandic saga available in English. A comparison with the other redacted versions confirms their judgment that this manuscript AM 291 contains the most interesting, complete and imaginative rendering of the saga. Teachers of Icelandic literature will want a paperback edition for classroom use as soon as possible.