Anecdotes and Accounts of Epic Combat
|Saxo Grammaticus, or "The
Lettered", of whom little is known except his name, is the earliest chronicler of
Denmark and one of the important historians of the Middle Ages. His historical memoirs
originally written in Latin in the early years of the 13th Century A.D. The following
excerts reflect the most direct and interesting instances of fighting and weapon use
recorded by Saxo. They are similar to Norse Sagas, but are more historical and much
The text portions below are based on "The Nine Books of the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus", translated by Oliver Elton (Norroena Society, New York, 1905). Saxo the Dane wrote 16 books of "Danish History", only the first nine have been translated into English. This electronic edition was edited, proofed, and prepared by Doug Killings (and assisted by Mr. James W. Marchand and Mr. Jessie D. Hurlbut ). Abridged for ARMA by J. Clements.
Meanwhile Asmund, the son of Swipdag, fought with Hadding to avenge his father. And when he heard that Henry his son, his love for whom he set even before his own life, had fallen fighting valiantly, his soul longed for death, and loathed the light of day, and made a song in a strain like this: "What brave hath dared put on my armour? The sheen of the helmet serves not him who tottereth, nor doth the breastplate fitly shelter him that is sore spent. Our son is slain, let us riot in battle; my eager love for him driveth me to my death, that I may not be left outliving my dear child. In each hand I am fain to grasp the sword; now without shield let us ply our warfare bare- breasted, with flashing blades. Let the rumour of our rage beacon forth: boldly let us grind to powder the column of the foe; nor let the battle be long and chafe us; nor let our onset be shattered in rout and be still." When he had said this, he gripped his hilt with both hands, and, fearless of peril, swung his shield upon his back and slew many. Hadding therefore called on the powers with which he was allied to protect him, and on a sudden Wagnhofde rode up to fight on his side. And when Asmund saw his crooked sword, he cried out, and broke into the following strain: "Why fightest thou with curved sword? The short sword shall prove thy doom, the javelin shall be flung and bring forth death.
At the outset of the duel there was a long dispute, which of them ought to have the chance of striking first. For of old, in the ordering of combats, men did not try to exchange their blows thick and fast; but there was a pause, and at the same time a definite succession in striking: the contest being carried on with few strokes, but those terrible, so that honour was paid more to the mightiness than to the number of the blows. Agnar, being of higher rank, was put first; and the blow which he dealt is said to have been so furious, that he cut through the front of the helmet, wounded the skin on the scalp, and had to let go his sword, which became locked in the vizor-holes. Then Bjarke, who was to deal the return-stroke, leaned his foot against a stock, in order to give the freer poise to his steel, and passed his fine-edged blade through the midst of Agnar's body. Some declare that Agnar, in supreme suppression of his pain, gave up the ghost with his lips relaxed into a smile. The champions passionately sought to avenge him, but were visited by Bjarke with like destruction; for he used a sword of wonderful sharpness and unusual length which he called Lovi.
The carnage that is being done without calls thee. By now the council-chamber is shaken with warfare, and the gates creak with the dreadful fray. Steel rends the mail-coats, the woven mesh is torn apart, and the midriff gives under the rain of spears. By now the huge axes have hacked small the shield of the king; by now the long swords clash, and the battle-axe clatters its blows upon the shoulders of men, and cleaves their breasts. Why are your hearts afraid? Why is your sword faint and blunted?
The reason why I tarried was the sword in my path, which the Swedish foe whirled against my breast with mighty effort. Nor did the guider of the hilt drive home the sword with little might; for though the body was armed he smote it as far as one may when it is bare or defenceless; he pierced the armour of hard steel like yielding waters; nor could the rough, heavy breastplate give me any help.
"Lo, methinks I surely pierced a wild stag with the Teutonic sword which is called Snyrtir: from which I won the name of Warrior, when I felled Agnar, son of Ingild, and brought the trophy home. He shattered and broke with the bite the sword Hoding which smote upon my head, and would have dealt worse wounds if the edge of his blade had held out better. In return I clove asunder his left arm and part of his left side and his right foot, and the piercing steel ran down his limbs and smote deep into his ribs. By Hercules! No man ever seemed to me stronger than he. For he sank down half-conscious, and, leaning on his elbow, welcomed death with a smile, and spurned destruction with a laugh, and passed rejoicing in the world of Elysium. Mighty was the man's courage, which knew how with one laugh to cover his death-hour, and with a joyous face to suppress utter anguish of mind and body!
"Now also with the same blade I searched the heart of one sprung from an illustrious line, and plunged the steel deep in his breast. He was a king's son, of illustrious ancestry, of a noble nature, and shone with the brightness of youth. The mailed metal could not avail him, nor his sword, nor the smooth target-boss; so keen was the force of my steel, it knew not how to be stayed by obstacles.
"I do not remember any combat wherein swords were crossed in turn and blow dealt out for blow more speedily. I take three for each I give; thus do the Goths requite the wounds I deal them, and thus doth the stronger hand of the enemy avenge with heaped interest the punishment that they receive. Yet singly in battle I have given over the bodies of so many men to the pyre of destruction, that a mound like a hill could grow up and be raised out of their lopped limbs, and the piles of carcases would look like a burial-barrow. And now what doeth he, who but now bade me come forth, vaunting himself with mighty praise, and chafing others with his arrogant words, and scattering harsh taunts, as though in his one body he enclosed twelve lives?"
Horwendil, in his too great ardour, became keener to attack his enemy than to defend his own body; and, heedless of his shield, had grasped his sword with both hands; and his boldness did not fail. For by his rain of blows he destroyed Koller's shield and deprived him of it, and at last hewed off his foot and drove him lifeless to the ground.
But Ket received him with so sturdy a stroke of his sword, that it split the helmet and forced its way down upon the head. Stung by the wound (for a stream of blood flowed from his poll), he attacked Ket with a shower of nimble blows, and drove him to his knees.
Wermund said that his son had judged all things rightly, and bade him first learn the use of arms, since he had been little accustomed to them. When they were offered to Uffe, he split the narrow links of the mail-coats by the mighty girth of his chest, nor could any be found large enough to hold him properly. For he was too hugely built to be able to use the arms of any other man. At last, when he was bursting even his father's coat of mail by the violent compression of his body, Wermund ordered it to be cut away on the left side and patched with a buckle; thinking it mattered little if the side guarded by the shield were exposed to the sword. He also told him to be most careful in fixing on a sword which he could use safely. Several were offered him; but Uffe, grasping the hilt, shattered them one after the other into flinders by shaking them, and not a single blade was of so hard a temper but at the first blow he broke it into many pieces.
Both the warriors assaulted Uffe; but, distrusting his sword, he parried the blows of both with his shield, being determined to wait patiently and see which of the two he must beware of most heedfully, so that he might reach that one at all events with a single stroke of his blade.
Then, in order to try the bravery of the champion, he bade him not skulk timorously at his master's heels, but requite by noble deeds of combat the trust placed in him by his prince, who had chosen him to be his single partner in the battle. The other complied, and when shame drove him to fight at close quarters, Uffe clove him through with the first stroke of his blade. The sound revived Wermund, who said that he heard the sword of his son, and asked "on what particular part he had dealt the blow?" Then the retainers answered that it had gone through no one limb, but the man's whole frame; whereat Wermund drew back from the precipice and came on the bridge, longing now as passionately to live as he had just wished to die. Then Uffe, wishing to destroy his remaining foe after the fashion of the first, incited the prince with vehement words to offer some sacrifice by way of requital to the shade of the servant slain in his cause. Drawing him by those appeals, and warily noting the right spot to plant his blow, he turned the other edge of his sword to the front, fearing that the thin side of his blade was too frail for his strength, and smote with a piercing stroke through the prince's body. When Wermund heard it, he said that the sound of his sword "Skrep" had reached his ear for the second time. Then, when the judges announced that his son had killed both enemies, he burst into tears from excess of joy.
For his shield, which hung aloft from the rafter, instantly fell and covered his unarmed body, and, as if on purpose, covered it from impalement by the cutthroats. He did not fail to make use of his luck, but, snatching his sword, lopped off both feet of the nearest of them.
Geigad, moreover, dealt Hakon, who pressed him hard, such a wound in the breast that he exposed the upper part of his liver. It was here that Starkad, while he was attacking Geigad with his sword, received a very sore wound on the head; wherefore he afterwards related in a certain song that a ghastlier wound had never befallen him at any time; for, though the divisions of his gashed head were bound up by the surrounding outer skin, yet the livid unseen wound concealed a foul gangrene below.
Thereupon the Danes, decked in warlike array, led Starkad, who was to represent his king, out to the duelling-ground. Hame, in his youthful assurance, despised him as withered with age, and chose to grapple rather than fight with an outworn old man. Attacking Starkad, he would have flung him tottering to the earth, but that fortune, who would not suffer the old man to be conquered, prevented him from being hurt. For he is said to have been so crushed by the fist of Hame, as he dashed on him, that he touched the earth with his chin, supporting himself on his knees. But he made up nobly for his tottering; for, as soon as he could raise his knee and free his hand to draw his sword, he clove Hame through the middle of the body. Many lands and sixty bondmen apiece were the reward of the victory.
Then I uncovered and drew my sword, and as the smith fled I clove his privy parts; his hams were laid open, cut away from the bone; they showed his entrails.
Halfdan, though he had reached old age a bachelor, was stirred by the promise of the chief as much as by the insolence of the champion, and went to Norway. When he entered it, he blotted out every mark by which he could be recognized, disguising his face with splashes of dirt; and when he came to the spot of the battle, drew his sword first. And when he knew that it had been blunted by the glance of the enemy, he cast it on the ground, drew another from the sheath, with which he attacked Grim, cutting through the meshes on the edge of his cuirass, as well as the lower part of his shield. Grim wondered at the deed, and said, "I cannot remember an old man who fought more keenly;" and, instantly drawing his sword, he pierced through and shattered the target that was opposed to his blade. But as his right arm tarried on the stroke, Halfdan, without wavering, met and smote it swiftly with his sword. The other, notwithstanding, clasped his sword with his left hand, and cut through the thigh of the striker, revenging the mangling of his own body with a slight wound. Halfdan, now conqueror, allowed the conquered man to ransom the remnant of his life with a sum of money; he would not be thought shamefully to rob a maimed man, who could not fight, of the pitiful remainder of his days. By this deed he showed himself almost as great in saving as in conquering his enemy.
Meantime Ingild died in Sweden, leaving only a very little son, Ring, whom he had by the sister of Harald. Harald gave the boy guardians, and put him over his father's kingdom. Thus, when he had overcome princes and provinces, he passed fifty years in peace. To save the minds of his soldiers from being melted into sloth by this inaction, he decreed that they should assiduously learn from the champions the way of parrying and dealing blows. Some of these were skilled in a remarkable manner of fighting, and used to smite the eyebrow on the enemy's forehead with an infallible stroke; but if any man, on receiving the blow, blinked for fear, twitching his eyebrow, he was at once expelled the court and dismissed the service.
Hildigisl slunk off with a spear through both buttocks, which was the occasion for a jeer at the Teutons, since the ugliness of the blow did not fail to brand it with disgrace.
Then I put Waske to death, and punished the insolent smith by slashing his hinder parts;
So Hather smote sharply with the sword and hacked off the head of the old man. When the severed head struck the ground, it is said to have bitten the earth; thus the fury of the dying lips declared the fierceness of the soul.