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What was a poem by a Viking like? In his new book, Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw, Ian Crockatt has translated dozens of poems of one of the most famous poets from the Norse world.
Rögnvald Kali Kolsson was the Earl of Orkney from 1129 to 1158, and many of his deeds are recounted in the Orkneyinga saga. One of the main sections of the saga deal with a pilgrimage that Earl Rögnvald undertakes in 1151 to go to Jerusalem.
Ian Crockatt explains, “there are the expected sea-poems, descriptions of battles and sieges, the occasional scatological squib, his delight in a friend falling in an open sewer, and another competition with a fellow-skald in which each composed poems on the spot about a man in a tapestry. These are all verses which fit the description of the intelligent and outgoing Viking-earl the saga describes, compositions distinguished primarily by the opportunism, wit and skill of their making.”
Here are four poems from this collection. In the first, Rögnvald brags about his own skills:
Who’ll challenge my nine skills?
I’m champion at chess,
canny recalling runes,
well-read, a red-hot smith –
some say I shoot and ski
and scull skilfully too.
Best of all, I’ve mastered
harp-play and poetry.
On his pilgrimage to the Holy Land he meets with the Countess Ermingerd of Narbonne. In this poem he praises her beauty:
Who else hoards such yellow
hair, bright lady – fair as
your milk-mind shoulders,
where milled barley-gold falls?
Chuck the cowled hawk, harry
him with sweets. Crimsoner
of eagles’ claws, I covet
cool downpours of silk; yours.
On their journey to Jerusalem, Rögnvald’s ship finds a North African ship (a dromond) and attacks it. He praises one of his friends, Erlingr:
How our blood-stained standards
stream! Erlingr – extreme
in terror, blade bristler –
bombards the doomed dromond.
Our spears cause suffering,
spread Saracen-gore. Red-
drenched blades clinch bone boldly.
We stack slain black sailors.
After leaving Jerusalem, Rögnvald and his crew sail to Constantinople, where they were received by the emperor and his Varangian Guard. His poem on this episode:
Ride the spray-maned sailed-horse!
Sea-ploughs don’t grub field-gorse!
Bows plough the blue wave’s course
to Byzantium. Norse-
men, claim that caliph’s gold!
Cut through steel-storms, be hold!
Feed wolves’ red grins! Withhold
wit while kings’ tale are told!
Crockatt adds, “the translations are at their best when read out loud – declaimed in some cases, murmured in others. I hope they convey something of the skill, vigour and daring of skaldic poetry, as well as the reflective sensibility of Rögnvaldr’s more personal verses.”
The book Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw: The Viking Poems of Rǫgnvaldr Kali Kolsson, Earl of Orkney, is published in 2014 by Arc Publications. .
You can also buy the book from Amazon.com