Poetry and Conversion in the Viking Age, Part 1: Hallfreðr ‘troublesome-poet’ Óttarsson’s Conversion Verses

Hallfreðr Óttarsson, known as vandræðaskáld (‘troublesome-poet’), was an Icelandic court poet at the turn of the eleventh century who spent much of his time in Norway. Court poets in the Viking Age were known as skalds (Old Norse skáld) and seem to have been highly mobile figures, plying their trade across the North Sea region for any number of powerful rulers, who would keep them as part of their retinue in return for appropriately flattering verse. Hallfreðr composed praise poetry for powerful figures like Jarl Hákon Sigurðarson and King Óláfr Tryggvason of Norway at a time of significant cultural and social change as Christianity began to spread across Scandinvia. King Óláfr himself was a missionary king who converted to the new faith and encouraged its spread in his own lands, as well as in Iceland, and stood as sponsor to Hallfreðr at his baptism.

The skald, however, was something of a reluctant convert: one of his most famous works is a series of so-called conversion verses that recount his own anxiety as he grappled with his change in religion, and are alleged to have been composed in front of King Olaf himself. They contain a number of references to Odin and the rest of the pre-Christian pantheon, as well as several examples of kennings. As with much skaldic verse, there are questions over the stanzas’ authenticity, but if they are genuine then they represent a remarkable insight into the mind of a Viking Age convert to Christianity. Dr Erin Goeres at UCL has argued, convincingly to my mind, that they are also not a coherent whole and were instead stitched together a later saga author. This is something we will explore in the part 2, where I present the poetry as it exists within the text of Hallfreðar saga.

I’ve been working on and off on a translation of the verses since the beginning of the year, occasionally posting snippets to Twitter; below is the entire series for the first time. Kennings and other circumlocutions are glossed (look out for an asterisk). The full Old Norse text can be found at the Skaldic Poetry Database hosted by the University of Aberdeen.

Once it was I’d offer
up gifts to the sharp-witted
lord of the lofty high seat;*                          *Odin
mankind’s luck has splintered.

I call to mind the wondrous
works of our ancestors—
how folk wrought ringing
verse to win Odin’s favour
—and I hesitate,
for the skald got solace
from Viðrir’s* skill.                                         *Odin
Sure, I serve Christ now,
but must Frigg’s first husband                      *Odin
be honoured with hatred?

Champion of men*, I reject                            *King Olaf
the chieftain of the raven-feast,*                  *Odin
the false one who harboured
flattery in heathen times.

I let go Njǫrðr’s deceit last year,
now Freyr and Freyja have left me;
fiends take mercy on Grímnir*,                      *Odin
oh fierce one*, and the almighty Þórr.          *King Olaf
I’ll wish my grace from God
alone and Christ his son,
he who holds famed power
under the father of earth*;                              *God the father
his anger overwhelms me.

It’s the way with the foremost
of the Sogn-fjorders*                                         *King Olaf
that all sacrifice is ended;
we must shun many
of the norns’ shapings,
the keep of old customs.
All people fling Odin’s
own family to the winds;
I’m impelled to leave Njǫrðr’s
kindred and invoke Christ instead.

________________________________________________________________________

Notes

Stanza 1: ‘offer up gifts’ translates blóta, which means ‘to sacrifice’. Splintered translates the verb skipta, which has a number of meanings including ‘to change, turn; to divide’ (and is cognate with Modern English shift). Given that conversion to Christianity affected the Scandinavian peoples in varied ways, rather than being a straightforward, all-encompassing transfer of belief, I like the messy fragmentation implied by splinter.

Stanza 2: I reorganise the syntax significantly in this stanza, especially in the first half. The adjective ringing is an additon by me, but doesn’t affect the meaning too much. ‘I hesitate’ is more of a departure, translating en trauðr, which is literally but [I am] sorrowful (Diana Whaley goes for but with sorrow). Hallfreðr is nothing if not hesitant, so I think my interpretation works, though it might not be to everyone’s taste.

Stanza 3: The verses are rooted to their performance context by appeals to the onlooking King Olaf, here ‘champion of men’ (Old Norse hǫlða reifir).

Stanza 4: I found this verse the toughest to translate. Grammatically, I interpret gramr as a another gesture to Olaf, meaning something like ‘fierce one’. There’s some linguistic subtlety in this stanza that is difficult to convey adequately in English; for example, Hallfreðr wants ‘fierce ones’ (> ‘demons’, ON grǫm) to grant mercy to Odin even as he invokes Olaf himself as ‘fierce one’ (ON gramr). Given his troublesome reputation and anxiety at leaving his old beliefs, this seems a deliberately pointed stylistic parallel by Hallfreðr, using two different grammatical forms of the same word. I toyed around with this for ages before settling on an aural association between fiends and fierce one, but it isn’t perfect.

Stanza 5: In the original, the reference is just to Sogn, which is a region in western Norway – I extended it to Sogn-fjorders for metrical reasons. The norns were a group of female beings analogous to the three fates in classical tradition. I thought about rendering the line ‘we must shun many/ of the Norns’ shapings’ as ‘we must untangle ourselves/ from the Norns’ weavings’, but the notion of the Norns as weavers of fate is not actually in the poem and I felt it would probably be too misleading. ‘The keep of old customs’ is a rather free rendering of the word fornhaldin, and these lines are more properly something along the lines of Diana Whaley’s ‘we must renounce many an anciently held decree of norns’. I also follow Whaley in translating láta… fyr róða as something along the lines of ‘cast to the winds’.

References

Erin Michelle Goeres, ‘The Many Conversions of Hallfreðr vandræðaskáld’, Viking and Medieval Scandinavia, 7 (2011), 45–62.

Diana Whaley, ‘The “Conversion Verses” in Hallfreðar saga: Authentic Voice of a   Reluctant Christian?’, in Old Norse Myths, Literature and Society, ed. by Margaret Clunies Ross (Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2003), 234–57.

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