Helping unravel the Earl's poetry

The best known of these is perhaps his exclamation of affection for Viscountess (or: Countess) Ermingerd of Narbonne, which the Penguin translation of the Orkneyinga Saga renders as follows: “I’ll swear, clever sweetheart, you’re a slender delight to grasp and to cuddle, my golden-locked girl: Ravenous the hawk, crimson-clawed, flesh-crammed; but now,heavily hangs the silken hair.” Personally, I must say I’m rather fond of George Mackay Brown’s translation of the poem: “Golden one/Tall one/Moving in perfume and onyx/Witty one/You with the shoulders/Lapped in long silken hair/Listen: because of me/The eagle has a red claw.” Although the perfume and onyx are George Mackay Brown’s own invention, it really brings the spirit of the poem across: Praising the lady in luxurious terms based on 12th Century European aesthetics, while also bragging about himself using war-like Norse aesthetics.

However, when looking at the original, it gets a bit more complex. This is Judith Jesch’s more literal translation: “Truly excel far for the better/women, well-tasselled with Frodi’s milling/your tresses, wise lady./The hawkland’s prop lets hair fall on/her shoulders - /I reddened the greedy eagle’s /claw – yellow as silk.” Here we can see the Old Norse poetic tradition much more clearly. For example, phrases which leap out as having a distinctly Norse flavour are “Frodi’s milling” and “The hawkland’s prop”.

These are examples of what is called a “kenning”, which is a special type of metaphor. A kenning always consists of two parts, where one is usually a noun and the other is a word specifying that noun, so it’s the “something’s something” or the “something of something”. A kenning is like a riddle, giving you clues to what the real meaning is. But you never get the solution to the riddle in the poem itself, so you have to rely on your own judgement to decide whether you have found the right answer. The clues are either based on some form of association, for example “fire” can hint to gold because of the colour, or “of the fish” could hint to the ocean, and so on. Or the clue may rely on your knowledge of old lore and legends, which makes it difficult for us today, of course, since we are less likely to know these tales.

There is one tale which we Orkney-folk are still likely to know, though: That is the tale underlying Rognvald’s first kenning quoted above – “Frodi’s milling”. You may have come across the story where king Frodi of Denmark owns a magical quern stone which can grind out anything: Peace, prosperity, gold. Sadly, the quern gets stolen and ends up grinding out salt for the ocean at the bottom of the Pentland Firth, creating the whirlpool there. If you haven’t heard it, or are keen to hear more stories, there is a storytelling festival coming up during the October break. So when Rognvald compares Ermingerd’s hair to Frodi’s milling, he means that her hair is like gold. By bringing in this tale of his home isles, he is also comparing the French noblewoman’s beauty to that of Orcadian women.

So, what is “the hawkland’s prop”? Now we have to think back to mediaeval noble society. They used tamed hawks for hunting. The hawk would come and sit on their arm, so the hawk’s “land” is an arm. Women have arms and their arms are obviously attached to their bodies, so the arm’s “prop” is the whole woman. She lets her hair fall on her shoulders, and after an interpolated boast about Rognvald’s skills in battle (the eagles feed on the bodies of the enemies he has killed) we also get to hear that her hair is yellow like silk.

On another occasion, Rognvald was shipwrecked at Gulberwick in Shetland. What do you do when you are washed up on the shore with bits of your ship scattered all around you? You compose poetry, of course! “As usual Earl Rognvald bore up better than anyone else and he was so cheerful he kept twiddling his thumbs and making up poetry all the time. He took a ring from his finger and made this verse” the Orkneyinga Saga says, portraying him as a man who can spout poetry spontaneously in the worst of situations. And not only that, but also the poem is a tour-de-force of kennings: “I hang the hammer-rounded/Hanged man of the ptarmigan’s tongs/For Grimnir’s drink, on the gallows/Of the serpent of the hawk’s bridge./So has the tree of the gleaming voice of /The cave’s Gautar gladdened me,/That I play with my hollows/Of the bay’s towering feller.” (Translated by Judith Jesch).

This is not easy to understand for a modern audience, because it relies on extensive knowledge of Old Norse myth and legend. Also, we can see that his kennings here are not only two-word riddles. He has broken each of those two words up into further kennings, so “the hammer-rounded/Hanged man of the ptarmigan’s tongs” can be read as a binary tree where the “ptarmigan’s tongs” is a tong-like thing belonging to a grouse, which is a female bird, so the solution to that part of the riddle is a woman’s hand. The hand’s “hanged man” would be something which is encircled by a crag, and this thing is also “hammer-rounded”, so we can guess it refers to a ring. The combined kenning therefore means a ring for a woman’s hand. So what we have got so far is “I hang the RING for …”.

What is “Grimnir’s drink”? This is where knowledge of Old Norse myth and legend comes in. We need to know that Grimnir is an alternative name for the god Odin, and that his “drink” refers to the magical Mead of Poetry filling the drinker with divine poetic inspiration. So “Grimnir’s drink” is a kenning for poetry.

Then we get “the gallows/Of the serpent of the hawk’s bridge”. We already know that the “hawk’s land” is an arm, so the “hawk’s bridge” is probably an arm as well. A serpent is something that coils around something, in this case the arm. When we know that rings were not only worn on the fingers, but also around the arms, we can guess that the “serpent of the hawk’s bridge” is an arm-ring. So what it the arm-ring’s “gallows”? Gallows are for hanging on, and an arm-ring hangs on an arm, so the arm-ring’s gallows is the arm itself. So far, we have “I hang the RING for POETRY on the ARM.”

Then he starts talking about someone who has gladdened him, and this someone is “the tree of the gleaming voice of /The cave’s Gautar”. Again, we have to go to Old Norse myth and legend, where there is a story about a family of giants (“cave’s Gautar”) who are arguing about how to share out some gold between them. Eventually, they find a clever solution: Each giant is to take as much gold as he can keep in his mouth, and each is to take the same number of mouthfuls. Therefore, the voice or speech of giants is a kenning for gold, Snorri Sturluson tells us in his guide to Old Norse poetry.

What can a tree of gold be, then? According to Old Norse poetic tradition, a tree or anything related such as a wand or stick is usually a person. A person on whom you would hang gold is a woman. So “the tree of the gleaming voice of /The cave’s Gautar” resolves to “woman”. So far we have “I hang the RING for POETRY on the ARM. So has the WOMAN gladdened me …”.

Well, she has gladdened him so that he plays with his “hollows/Of the bay’s towering feller”. Here we have to imagine being on board a longship, being rowed by massive oars. The “bay’s towering feller” is an oar falling down on the water from above. The oar’s “hollow” must be the hand of the rower, holding on to it. So the whole kenning means “hands”.

Now we have reached the end of the poem, and with the kennings resolved it reads: “I hang the RING for POETRY on the ARM. So has the WOMAN gladdened me that I play with my HANDS.”  What first seemed daunting and cryptic turns out to be a nice, little love poem. The identity of the woman, however, is never revealed.

Imagine making all that up while soaking and cold, amongst the smashed remains of your ship! Was Rognvald really such a remarkable person, or has the saga writer somehow gotten mixed up about the context in which the poem was made? One can only speculate. Remarkable he was nonetheless.



Ragnhild Ljosland