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“A king shall stand for his country’s honour and glory, but not for long life.”—King Magnus Barelegs, Heimskringla
Heimskringla is a massive medieval history book, recounting the lives of the kings of Norway from the days when the Aesir dwelt among men to 1177 AD. It was written c. 1230 AD in Iceland, purportedly by the most famous medieval Icelandic author, Snorri Sturluson.
In Asia, east of the Black Sea, lies the city of Asgard, home of the Aesir people and ruled by Odin, a near-invincible warlord. But when the Romans start to conquer Asia, Odin uses his soothsaying skills and foresees that his destiny lies in the North. With many of his people, he emigrates from Asgard to carve out a new empire in the Northlands, and finally settle down in Sweden. When Odin dies, his kingdom is inherited by Njord, then by Freyr, also called Yngvi, and afterwards by Yngvi-Freyr’s descendants, the Ynglings. For twenty generations they rule Sweden, while their people worships the Aesir as gods.
But the Ynglings of Sweden come to an end through their descent into tyranny and kin-slaying, and only an exiled prince, Olaf the Tree-Feller, escapes westward, becoming the ancestor of a line of Norwegian petty kings that eventually spawns Harald Finehair, the man who unites Norway under his iron fist – for the love of a woman. But Harald has many sons, and it will take five generations, a hundred years of fighting and kin-slaying, and the coming of a new faith before the Norwegians learn to stand together and realize who their true enemy is: Those meddling Danes.
Heimskringla is the single most famous work of the Icelandic Kings’ Sagas. The title is an artifact: It was formed in 1697 from the first two words of what was, at the time, the only manuscript in existence: “kringla heimsins”, meaning “the circle of the earth”. The book consists of seventeen individual sagas, but it is internally consistent and forms a continuous narrative.
As there are very few sources on the history of Norway before it started to develop its own literature from the mid-12th century onwards, the Kings’ Sagas and especially Heimskringla for centuries formed the chief authority on Norwegian history of the Viking Age and the following 150-odd years after the Conversion. Only in the early 20th century, historians have acknowledged the artificial dimension of the sagas, and have come to see them as a mixture of fact and fiction rather, influenced by the time they were written in. From a modern perspective, it is, rather than a chronicle, a narrative moving from pseudohistory through Historical Fiction to history. Of course, at the time the book was written, there existed no formal distinction between these genres, as in Old Norse, saga can mean "history" as much as "story".
The climax and centrepiece of Heimskringla -- making up a third of the whole book -- is the saga of Saint Olaf, otherwise known as Olaf Haraldsson "the Stout", who, as the central figure of the Conversion, and supposedly restitutor of Harald Finehair’s kingdom, was by the 13th century considered Norway’s Patron Saint and national hero. Other high points that stand out and are sometimes published separately are the sagas of Olaf Tryggvason, Saint Olaf’s spiritual predecessor, and Harald Hardrada, whose ambitions to subdue England ended sordidly in 1066 on the battlefield of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire.
Heimskringla ends rather abruptly in 1177, when a young King Magnus Erlingsson triumphed over the rebellious Birkebeinar (“Birchlegs”); this could be mere coincidence, but it is quite likely that Heimskringla was consciously devised as a Prequel to Sverrir’s Saga, which begins just where Heimskringla ends. So if you wanted to, you could start reading Heimskringla, move on to Sverrir’s Saga, then to the long version of Saga of the Baglers and finally the Saga of Hakon Hakonsson the Old, and thus read a continuous history of medieval Norway from the Time of Myths to 1263 AD.
Tropes in Heimskringla:
- Absurdly Sharp Blade: Hakon the Good once cleaved a millstone half in two with his sword Quernbiter (hence the name).
- Age Without Youth: King Aun/Ani of Sweden prolongs his life by sacrificing his sons to Odin, even though he becomes increasingly decrepit nevertheless.
- Arch Enemy:
- Svein Forkbeard to Olaf Tryggvason, Canute the Great to Saint Olaf. Generally, Denmark under the Knytlings towards Norway.
- Olaf the Holy and Olof Skötkonung of Sweden. Olof the Swede hates Olaf with such a passion that everyone in his vicinity is forced to refer to the Norwegian king as "The fat man". After a long pointless war and a "The Reason You Suck" Speech from Torgny the Lawspeaker , Olof is forced by the people at the thing to make peace with Norway. Olof promises to do so, but needless to say he breaks this promise too, and is promptly dethroned for it.
- Awesome Moment of Crowning: The crowning of Magnus Erlingson, the first crowning ceremony held in Norway.
- Badass Army: The Jomsvikings who invade Norway in the reign of Jarl Håkon. The same story is told more in detail (and from the opposite perspective) in Saga of the Jomsvikings.
- Badass Creed: Magnus Barelegs' creed “A king shall stand for his country's honour and glory, but not for long life.”
- Badass Crew: The crew of the Long Serpent, Olaf Tryggvason's flagship, is listed in the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason.
- Badass Preacher: The Saxon priest Thangbrand, who was sent as a missionary to Iceland and “was the death of three men before he returned”.
- Ban on Magic: Having been taught magic by the Aesir, the Swedes eventually realize that magic makes everything too easy and thus, men are becoming too soft. So they make a law that only women are allowed to learn magic.
- The Bard: Snorri relied extensively on the works of the skalds, i.e. the court poets of old. Some of these skalds play active parts in the narrative, such as Thorbjorn Hornklofi in the "Saga of Harald Finehair", Eyvind Skaldaspiller in "Saga of Hakon the Good", Sighvat the Skald in "Saga of Saint Olaf", and several others.
- Better to Die Than Be Killed:
- When the Battle of Svold is lost, Olaf Tryggvason jumps overboard rather than letting himself be captured.
- Also King Ingjald of Sweden and his daughter, who burn themselves in their hall rather than facing their enemy Ivar Widefathom in battle.
- The Conqueror: Harald Finehair, who conquers all of Norway, Orkney and Shetland. Also Magnus Barelegs with his plan to carve out a colonial empire on the British Isles, but his campaigns of conquest are cut short when he falls into an ambush in Ireland.
- Conspicuous Consumption: During his stay in Constantinople, Sigurd the Crusader has his horse shoed with gold and orders a fire to be fueled with walnuts, for no other reason than to impress the Greeks.
- Conspicuously Public Assassination: Ivar the White murders Jarl Ulf in church while the latter is waiting for Mass to begin.
- Cool Boat: The Dragon (Harald Finehair), the Long Serpent, the Short Serpent, the Crane (Olaf Tryggvason), the Iron Ram (Jarl Erik), the Bison (Saint Olaf), and others.
- Devil in Disguise: A mysterious old, one-eyed, seemingly all-knowing stranger visits Olaf Tryggvason at Agdvaldsnes, and when he departs leaves behind a hunk of meat that turns out to be poisonous. The man, of course, is Odin.
- Disproportionate Retribution: When a farmer kills King Dag of Sweden's pet sparrow in the town of Vörva of Reidgotaland, Dag mounts a raiding expedition to devastate Reidgotaland and burn down the town Vörva.
- Dreaming of Things to Come: Several, but most importantly the dream of Queen Ragnhild, which symbolically foretells the history of the Kingdom of Norway.
- Drowning Pit: After inviting a bunch of sorcerers to a Nasty Party, Olaf Tryggvason has them tied up and marooned on a below-flood level skerry at low tide.
- The Empire: The expansive Danish empire under the Knytling kings Harald Gormsson, Svein Forkbeard and Canute the Great, always trying to subdue Norway.
- Ethnic Magician: "Finns" (by which the book means: Sami) are sorcerers, no exceptions.
- Evil Matriarch: Queen Gunhild Mother-of-Kings, wife of Erik Bloodaxe and the mastermind behind her sons Harald Greyfur and his brothers.
- Evil Uncle: Inverted with Håkon the Good and his nephews, the sons of Erik Bloodaxe. The just and popular Håkon has supplanted his tyrannical brother Erik compliant to the will of the people, and his rule is challenged by the sons of Erik who are just as evil as their father.
- Eye Scream: Harald Hardrada, as captain of the Varangian Guard, personally puts out the eyes of the deposed Emperor of Constantinople. Magnus Sigurdson, when defeated by his uncle Harald Gilli, is blinded, thus becoming Magnus the Blind.
- False Friend: Jarl Håkon to Gold-Harald.
- A Fate Worse Than Death: Captured by his rival Harald Gilli, Magnus Sigurdson is maimed, blinded, castrated, and Locked Away in a Monastery.
- Fisher King: In accordance with the ancient belief that the richness of the harvests are determined by the king's personal favour with the gods, the tyrannical rule of Harald Greyfur and his brothers causes a famine in Norway, while the harvests under Jarl Håkon, a devoted worshipper of the Aesir, are excellent. Curiously, the Christian Snorri seems to back up this intrinsically pagan idea.
- Flaying Alive: The fate of the pretender Sigurd Slembe.
- Founder of the Kingdom: Harald Finehair.
- God Save Us From the Queen: Gunhild Mother-of-Kings, wife of Erik Bloodaxe, is a sorceress and, after Erik's death, the mastermind behind her sons, who establish an oppressive regime over Norway.
- Good Is Not Nice: Magnus the Good is not exactly a nice guy -- rather, a warrior king who pursues an aggressive expansionism.
- Good Is Not Soft: Håkon the Good, the most popular of all Kings of Norway, but also the greatest warrior and best fighter of them all.
- The Good King: Håkon the Good -- obviously. Whether you think Magnus the Good is this trope more doubtful, due to Values Dissonance. King Eystein Magnusson is also a really nice guy.
- Hero Antagonist: Jarl Erik to Olaf Tryggvason. He is morally faultless, as Olaf killed Erik's father and brother, and avenging them would be a duty for any son or brother.
- Hero of Another Story: Hrolf the Walker is outlawed by Harald Finehair for pillaging in Norway, and thus sets sail to fight in France, where he becomes Rollo, the founder of Normandie.
- Heroic Vow: Olaf Tryggvason announces that he will make all of Norway Christian "or else die". Later he also vows to never retreat from Svein Forkbeard, which becomes a plot point.
- Honour Before Reason:
- Harald Greyfur sails to Denmark on Harald Gormsson's invitation even though he realizes it is an Obvious Trap.
- Olaf Tryggvason refuses to retreat from superior numbers when he is waylaid by Svein Forkbeard and his allies at the island of Svold.
- Horrible Judge of Character: Gold-Harald seems to think Jarl Håkon is his best friend, even though the latter only manipulates him to his own advantage, and in the end kills him without qualms.
- Human Pincushion: The Birchleg rebel that sneaks into King Magnus Erlingson's camp right after the Battle of Re and attempts to kill him. He fails, "and then weapons were so thick round the Birchleg that he could hardly fall down."
"They then saw that he dragged his guts after him over the floor and the man's hardiness was much praised."
- Human Sacrifice: When ancient Sweden is afflicted with a severe drought, the Swedes turn to sacrificing humans. When it doesn't help, they resolve to sacrifice their King Domaldi, and this helps.-- Also, King Aun of Sweden sacrifices his sons to Odin to prolong his life.
- Hundred-Percent Adoration Rating: Håkon the Good is so popular that “both friends and foes wept over his death and said that never again would such a good king come to Norway.”
- Immortality Immorality: King Aun a.k.a. Ani of Sweden one by one sacrifices nine of his sons to Odin to prolong his life. When he is about to sacrifice his tenth and last son, the Swedes stop him, causing him to die, two hundred years old.
- Important Haircut: King Harald Halfdansson vowed not to cut his hair until he ruled all of Norway. As the project took several years, he became known as Harald Shaggyhead. When he had completed the task, he had his hair cut publicly, thus transforming into Harald Finehair.
- The Kingdom: Norway.
- Last Stand: Erik Bloodaxe's last battle at Stainmore in England, Harald Greyfur's death in a Danish ambush at Limfjord in Denmark, Olaf Tryggvason in the naval battle of Svold.
- Locked Away in a Monastery: After his defeat in the Civil War, Magnus the Blind is maimed and imprisoned in a monastery.
- Made a Slave: The child Olaf Tryggvason is captured by Estonian vikings and spends seven years as a slave in Estonia.
- Modest Royalty: When Olaf Haraldsson returns from his viking trips, he finds his stepfather King Sigurd Syr of Ringerike busy with farmwork. This serves to lampshade the contrast between the down-to-earth Sigurd and Olaf's high-flying ambitions.
He was not fond of display and he was rather a man of few words.
- Moe Greene Special: In battle on the coast of Wales, Magnus Barelegs kills the Norman earl Hugh the Proud by shooting an arrow through his eye.
- Mutual Kill: Alrek and Erik, the sons of King Agni of Sweden, strike each other dead with horse bridles quarreling over a horserace. The same way, Alrek's sons Yngvi and Alf inflict lethal wounds on each other when Alf's jealousy induces him to attack Yngvi.
- Named Weapon: Hel, Saint Olaf's battle-axe, later wielded by his son Magnus. Quernbiter, the sword of Håkon the Good. Then, there's Harald Hardrada's mail armor called ... Emma.
- Names to Run Away From Really Fast: Erik Bloodaxe.
- Nasty Party: Many of them. "Invite them for a feast, get them sloshed, then set fire to the house while they are snoring and bar the exits" is a standard method to get rid of enemies in Heimskringla, and even lauded rulers like Olaf Tryggvason and Saint Olaf are allowed to use it. The unsurpassed master of this trope is, however, Ingjald Ill-ruler, the last Yngling king of Sweden, who, over the course of his life, kills twelve other kings, most of the Swedish aristocracy and finally himself, together with all his unsuspecting followers, in this way.
- Nautical Knockout: When his enemy King Skjöld of Varna makes a magical wind, King Eystein of Vestfold is swept overboard by a sail boom and drowns.
- Nice Guy: King Eystein. Even cares for lovesick bodyguards!
- Non-Action Guy: Olaf Kyrre (the Peaceful) and Eystein Magnusson.
- Patron Saint: Olaf Haraldsson is promoted to Saint Olaf after his death.
- Rated "M" for Manly
- Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: The slave Kark is enticed by Olaf Tryggvason's promises of rewards to murder his master Jarl Håkon; but when he brings Håkon's head to Olaf, the latter has him decapitated.
- Right in Front of Me: The English rider that negotiates with Earl Tostig and Harald Hardrada before the Battle of Stamford Bridge is, as Harald learns later, King Harold Godwinson himself.
- Sketchy Successor: Arrogant, greedy, and stupid Magnus Sigurdson (later Magnus the Blind) to his father, the famous war-hero Sigurd the Crusader. Magnus' shortcomings are instrumental in triggering the Civil War after Sigurd's death.
- Soulsaving Crusader: Olaf Tryggvason and Saint Olaf, the two missionary kings.
- The Southpaw: Olaf Tryggvason fights equally well with both hands.
- Total Eclipse of the Plot: Upon the death of Saint Olaf in the battle of Stiklestad, the sun eclipses.
- Trap Is the Only Option: Even though he senses that it is most likely a trap, Harald Greyfur sails to Denmark on Harald Gormsson's invitation, where he is promptly ambushed.
- Undignified Death: King Fjölnir of Sweden, son of Freyr, drowns in a vat of mead after a night of boozing with King Frode of Denmark.
- Untranslated Title: The book's original title, if it had one, is unknown, but "Heimskringla" has stuck. Alternative titles, like Lives of the Kings of Norway or something similar, are sometimes used, but the book is never called "The Circle of the Earth".
- Unwitting Pawn: Poor Gold-Harald is manipulated by his cousin Harald Gormsson to off Harald Greyfur, then sold out by him to his own False Friend Jarl Hakon.
- Viking Funeral: The funeral of King Haki of Sweden in "Ynglinga Saga" is a textbook example.
- Villainous Valour: Displayed by Erik Bloodaxe, Harald Greyfur, and Harald Hardrada in their respective Last Stands.
- Villain Protagonist: While most of the kings are on the morally ambivalent side, and, due to Values Dissonance some may appear as villains that were never intended to be such, this trope is nowhere more prevalent than in the saga of Harald Hardrada.
- Warrior Poet: Harald Hardrada likes to compose poetry.
- Warrior Prince: Most of them, in accord with the customs of the times -- it is much easier to list the kings that are Non Action Guys.
- Weather of War: During the naval battle of Hjörunga Bay, a hailstorm arises that is instrumental in turning the battle against the Jomsvikings and securing the Norwegians' victory.
- Won the War, Lost the Peace: Harald Hardrada fails in subduing Denmark, even though he is mostly victorious in battle with his rival Svein Estridsson, because Svein is popular with the Danes while they curiously loathe Harald just the more the more he attacks them. The trope is later lampshaded by Earl Tostig in conversation with Harald.
- Worthy Opponent: Harold Godwinson to Harald Hardrada, Jarl Erik to Olaf Tryggvason.
- Youngest Child Wins: From the twenty-odd sons of Harald Finehair, it is the youngest, Håkon the Good, that finally overthrows his evil older brother Erik Bloodaxe and inherits the kingdom.
- ↑ Image is "King Olaf's wedding journey to Land's End" by Christian Krohg (1899)
- ↑ Some editions have preferred more descriptive titles like The Lives of the Norse Kings, History of the Kings of Norway, Chronicle of the Kings of Norway etc.
- ↑ In case you wonder, the animal in question is the European Bison or Wisent.
- ↑ Snorri tells the episode in a way that leaves it ambiguous whether he believes in its factuality.
- ↑ Constantine Monomachos according to Heimskringla, but this is a mix-up with Michael V.
- ↑ Depending on your translation, also "Shockhead" or "Tanglehair".
- ↑ The nickname means "sow" and probably comes from him 'digging the earth' like a hog (= being a farmer).
- ↑ Hugh of Montgomery, 2nd Earl of Shrewsbury