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Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks

Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks

Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek) is a legendary saga from the 13th century combining matter from several older sagas. It is a valuable saga for several different reasons: it contains traditions of wars between the Goths and the Huns from the 4th century; the final part of the saga is used as a source for Swedish medieval history.

The saga may be most appreciated for its memorable imagery, as seen in a quote from one of its translators, Nora Kershaw Chadwick, on the invasion of the Horde:

Hervör standing at sunrise on the summit of the tower and looking southward towards the forest; Angantyr marshalling his men for battle and remarking dryly that there used to be more of them when mead drinking was in question; great clouds of dust rolling over the plain, through which glittered white corslet and golden helmet, as the Hunnish host came riding on.

The text contains several poetic sections: the Hervararkviða, on Hervor's visit to her father's grave and retrieval of the sword Tyrfing; another, the Hlöðskviða, on the battle between Goths and Huns; and a third, containing the riddles of Gestumblindi.

It has inspired later writers and derivative works, such as J. R. R. Tolkien when shaping his legends of Middle-earth. His son, Christopher Tolkien translated the work into English, as The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise.


Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek) is a legendary saga known from 13th- and 14th-century parchment sources, plus additional 17th-century paper manuscripts that complete the story.[1]


There are two main manuscript sources for the text, dating to the 14th and 15th centuries, often referred to as H and R, respectively.[1]

H, the Hauksbók (AM 544) dates to c. 1325; R (MS 2845) dates to the 15th century and is held at the Danish Royal Library at Copenhagen.[1] H tells the story up to the end of *Gestumblindi'*s second riddle, whereas R is truncated before the end of Ch. 12,[1] that is within the poem on the battle of Goths and Huns.[2]

There is a third version, often referred to as U, from 17th-century paper manuscript (R 715) held at the University Library in Uppsala. The version is very garbled, and includes corrections sourced from other sagas, including from the Rímur reworking of the same tale, the Hervarar Rímur.[3] An additional 17th-century manuscript (AM 203fol) held at the Copenhagen University Library contains a copy of R, but then continues with text from another unknown source, thought to share a common ancestor with U.[4]

There are also copied versions written down in the late 17th century; whereas the two early versions are on parchment, these later versions are on paper. These include AM 192, AM 193, AM 202 k, AM 354 4to, AM 355 4to, and AM 359 a 4to.[5] These the 17th century paper manuscripts are thought to add nothing to the texts already known from H and R, though they continue the story where the two older versions end, and fill in lacunas.[1][6] Two manuscripts, (AM 281 4to) and (AM 597b) help complete the 'H' (Hausbók) version, being copies.[7] (Rafn 1829) used the 1694 text (AM 345) in preparing his edition of the saga.[1]

There are significant differences between R and H: R misses the first chapter and some riddles, as well as having a different sequence from H.[8] Scholarly opinion differs as to which presents the best form of the text.[9] The least altered version is thought to be the 'R' text.[2][10]

A slightly different version of the stemma has been reconstructed by Alaric Hall, from that originally proposed by Helgason 1924 - both propose a (lost) version from which both parchment and the paper versions descend.[11]

Content and analysis

The saga tells the history of the family of Hervör and Heidrek over several generations. It begins with Guthmund, a mythic tale; then the story turns to the sons of Arngrim, a viking age tale also told in the Hyndluljóð; next, the tale tells of Hervor, daughter of Angantyr; then to Heithrik son of Hervor -at this point the setting of the tale changes from to the Kingdom of the Goths, somewhere in eastern Europe (c. 4th–5th century);[12] finally, the tale returns to the historically later date.[13] (Kershaw 1921) considers that the latter part of the tale, among the Huns and Goths, has a separate origin to the earlier parts, and, in actual chronological time, is actually taking place several centuries earlier.[14]

All the different manuscripts show a similar pattern, with (a maximum of) seven sections, four of which are poetry.[15] (Hall 2005) identifies seven key events: 1. introduction with the forging of the sword, Tyrfingr; 2. A holmganga (duel) between Örvar-Oddr and Hjálmarr, and Angantýr and his brothers, with Angantýr killed and buried with the sword; 3. (with the poem Hervarakviða) Hervör reviving her dead father Angantýr and retrieving the sword Tyrgingr; 4. the tale of Heiðrekr son of Hervör, new wielder of Tyrfingr; 5. and his killing following a riddle-contest (a gátur presented in poem form) with Óðinn; 6. war between Heiðrekr’s sons Angantýr and Hlöðr (including the poem Hlöðskviða); 7. an epilogue listing the kingly descendants of Angantýr.[16] The 6th and final parts are partially lost or absent in manuscripts 'H' and 'R', but are found in the 17th-century paper manuscripts.[11]

The common link through all the tales is the sword (Tyrfing) passed between generations - this magic sword shares a common trope with some other mythological weapons in that it cannot be sheathed once drawn until it has drawn blood.[14] (e.g., see also Dáinsleif, or Bodvar Bjarki's sword in Hrolf Kraki's Saga)

There are three poems in the text, one romantic, one gnomic, one heroic.[13] The gnomic The Riddles of Gestumblindi, is a good example of riddling from early Norse literature;[17] the other two poems are considered very good examples of the type: one concerns the dialogue between Hervor and Angantyr at the barrows at Samso; the other describes the battle between Huns and Goths.[18]

In addition to attempts to understand the relationship between the events in the saga and real world historical characters, events, and places (see § Historicity) the manuscripts and contents are also of interest in research into the attitudes and cultures of the periods in which they were composed or written down.[19] Hall thinks the text derives ultimately from oral tradition, not from the invention of an author.[20]

(Hall 2005) thinks the poem Hervararkviða (or 'The Waking of Angantyr') was composed specifically for a narrative closely akin to the tale told in Heiðreks saga, as it is consistent in style, and, forms a consistent narrative link between events in the tale.[21] (Tolkien 1960) considers it unequivocally older than the saga itself.[22] What exactly was the original underpinning narrative for the poem is a matter of scholarly debate.[23]

The section of the saga concerning Heidrek's disregard for his father's advice is common to a widely known family of tales (called by Knut Liestøl "The Good Counsels of the Father") - in general there are three counsels - and in the saga a set of three (1st, 2nd, and 6th) fit together.[24] Tolkien proposes that after the counsellings aspect of the tale was introduced into the work, further counsels were added, further extending that theme through the saga.[25]

The poem Hlöðskviða (or "Battle of the Goths and Huns") has numerous analogues that overlap in topical coverage - the oldest of these is thought to be the English Widsith.[20] Some parts of the poetry in 'Heiðreks saga' also appear in variant forms in Örvar-Odd's saga (lines 97-9, 103-6), and the outline story appears in books 5 and 6 of the Gesta Danorum.[20] There are also elemental plot similarities between the saga and Sturlaugs saga starfsama up to the point a protagonist receives the magic sword via a female figure - Hall surmises that the two may have shared a narrative origin.[26] (Tolkien 1960) considers that the poem, though seemingly considerably altered over time, once formed part of a continuous poetic narrative that gave a complete description of the Goth-Hun conflict, which existed as a separate work.[27]

Historicity of "The Battle of the Goths and Huns"

In the 17th century, when the Norse sagas became a subject of interest to scholars they were initially taken as reasonably accurate depictions of historical events. Later in the 19th and 20th century it was realized that they were not completely historically accurate.[19]

(Rafn 1850) considered that the battle between Goths and Huns was a legendary retelling of the battle between the Gothic king Ostrogotha and the Gepid king Fastida, which was described by Jordanes in Ch.17 of his history of the Goths.[28][29] (Heinzel 1887) in his analysis in Ueber die Hervararsaga suggested the battle described was the same as the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains (AD 451), identifying Angantyr as the Roman general Aetius and Hlothr as the Frankish Chlodio, with the incorporation of parts of the general Litorius, whereas the Vandal Geiseric is the prototype for Gizurr Grytingalithi.[30] (Much 1889) proposed alternative attributions for the battles - to one recorded by Paul the Deacon that took place between the Langobards and the Vulgares Bulgars: one in which Agelmundus (Agelmund) was killed, and his sister (conflated to Hervor) is taken prisoner, the other in which new Langobardian king Lamissio is victorious - this is conflated with the battle of the Goths and Huns by Much - Much also identifies the region of the battles to be north of the Carpathian/river Danube area, near modern Krakov.[31]

In the latter half of the 19th century Heinzel's theory was predominant and widely accepted.[32] Later Gustav Neckel and Gudmund Schütte further analysed the textual and historical information: Neckel placed the events after the death of Attila (d.453) during the later Gepid-Hun conflicts, whereas Schutte identified either Heithrekr or Heathoric as transformations of the name of the Gepid king Ardaric;[33]; in the early 1900s Henrik Schück and Richard Constant Boer both rejected Heinzel's attribution and a link with Attila - Schück split the legends of the strife between brothers and the Goth-Hun war, placing each separately, and identified the location of places to be in southern Russia, whereas Boer associated the Dunheithr with the Daugava River, but placed the battle further north in central European Russia, in the Valdai Hills.[34]

Further scholarship in the 20th century returned further name and place attributions, with Otto von Friesen and Arwid Johannson returning to the western end of the Carpathians; Hermann Schnedier proposing the Goths in the Black Sea area (Crimean Goths); and N. Lukman re-analysing the tale, not in the context of Jordanes' history, but from that of Ammianus Marcellinus - under this interpretation the date now shifted to 386, where a mass migration of peoples under Odotheus (conflated to Hlothr) was destroyed by the Romans on the Danube - in Lukman's reconstruction Heithrekr is the visigothic Athanaric.[35] In an analysis of parts of the tale, (Tolkien 1953) indentifies the place where Angantyr revenges his father's (Heithrekr) killing by slaves as being at the feet of the Carpathian Mountains, using linguistic analysis based on consonant shifts (see Grimm's law) on the term "Harvath Mountains"; the place Árheimar in Danparstathir mentioned in association is unidentified, though "Danpar-" has been assumed to be some form of the river Dneiper.[36] Similarities with the Battle of Nedao (AD 454) have also been noted.[37]

It is a testimony to its great age that names appear in genuinely Germanic forms and not in any form remotely influenced by Latin. Names for Goths appear that stopped being used after 390, such as Grýting (cf. the Latin form Greutungi) and Tyrfing (cf. the Latin form Tervingi). The events take place where the Goths lived during the wars with the Huns. The Gothic capital Árheimar is located on the Dniepr (...á Danparstöðum á þeim bæ, er Árheimar heita...), King Heidrek dies in the Horvatya (White Croatia) (...und Harvaða fjöllum) and the Battle with the Huns takes place on the plains of the Danube (...á vígvöll á Dúnheiði í Dylgjudölum). The mythical Myrkviðr [Mirkwood] which separates the Goths from the Huns appears to correspond to Maeotian marshes.


The saga deals with the sword Tyrfing and how it was forged and cursed by the Dwarves Dvalinn and Durin for king Svafrlami. Later, he lost it to the berserker Arngrim from Bolmsö who gave it to his son Angantyr. Angantyr died during a fight on Samsø against the Swedish hero Hjalmar, whose friend Orvar-Odd buried the cursed sword in a barrow together with Angantyr. From the barrow it was retrieved by Angantyr's daughter, the shieldmaiden Hervor who summoned her dead father to claim her inheritance. Then the saga continues with her and her son Heidrek, the king of Reidgotaland. Heiðrekr is killed after a riddle contest with Óðinn. Between his sons Angantyr and Hlod, there is a great battle about their father's heritage and Hlod is aided by the Huns. However, Hlod is defeated and killed.

In the end, the saga relates that Angantyr had the son Heiðrekr Ulfhamr who was king of Reidgotaland for a long time. Heiðrekr's daughter was Hildr and she had the son Halfdan the Valiant, who was the father of Ivar Vidfamne. After Ivar Vidfamne follows a list of Swedish kings, both real and semi-legendary, ending with Philip Halstensson, but this was probably composed separately from the rest of the saga and integrated with it in later redactions.[38]

Influence, legacy, and adaptions

A key scene in the later medieval Ormars rímur, in which the hero awakens his father from the dead to retrieve his sword, was probably inspired by Hervararkviða.[39] A Faroese ballad, Gátu ríma ('riddle poem') was collected in the nineteenth century that is thought by some scholars to derive from the riddle-contest in the saga.[40]

Hickes' "The Waking of Angantyr"

At the beginning of the 18th century George Hickes published a translation of the Hervararkviða in his thesaurus (the Linguarum veterum septentrionalium thesaurus grammatico-criticus et archæologicus) - working from (Verelius 1671), with the aid of a Swedish scholar, he presented the entire poem in half line verse similar to that used in Old English poetry (see Old English metre) - it was the first full Icelandic poem translated to English, and contributed to interest within England in such works.[41][42] The work was reprinted in Dryden's Poetical Miscellanies (1716), and by Thomas Percy in amended form as "The Incantation of Hervor" in his Five Pieces of Runic Poetry (1763).[43][44]

Hicke's publication inspired various 'gothic' and 'runic odes' based on the poem, of varying quality and faithfullness to the original.[45] (Wawn 2002) states "[T]he cult of the ubiquitous eighteenth-century poem known as 'The Waking of Angantyr' can be traced directly to its door".[46]

Other adaptions

The Hervararkviða poem was translated fairly closely into verse by Beatrice Barmby and included in her Gísli Súrsson: a Drama (1900); and into a more 'olde english' style by (Smith-Dampier 1912) in The Norse King's Bridal.[45] Hjálmar's Death-Song was translated by W. Herbert in his Select Icelandic Poetry.[47][48]

The French poet Charles-Marie-René Leconte de Lisle adapted the Hervararkviða in the poem "L’Épée d’Angantyr" [Angantyr's sword] in his Poemes barbares.[49][50]

J. R. R. Tolkien

There is much in this saga that readers of J. R. R. Tolkien's work will recognize, most importantly the riddle contest. There are for instance warriors similar to the Rohirrim, brave shieldmaidens, Mirkwood, haunted barrows yielding enchanted swords (see Barrow-downs), a mithril mailcoat, an epic battle, and two Dwarves named Dwalin and Durin.


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