Dreams in Old Norse-Icelandic Royal Biographies as Representations of the Dynastic Identity: The Case of the Fairhair Dynasty
By Takahiro Narikawa
The 15th International Saga Conference: Sagas and the Use of the Past (Aarhus University, 2012)
Introduction: Two Old Norse royal biographies (Kings’ Sagas), Fsk. and Hkr., relate a well-known prophetic dream concerning the rise of the medieval Norwegian Dynasty. The accounts share the same basic outline: King Hálfdan dreams one day, in a pigsty, that he becomes a man with the finest hair, although the color and length of each ringlet vary. One curl excels in color, brightness and length, signifying St. Olaf, national saint of Norway. A wise man interprets this dream for the king: Hálfdan will have many offspring, and they will rule Norway with great honor, although one will be crowned with more glory than the others. The purpose of the dream is clear: to qualify the paternal offspring of King Hálfdan the Black (and those of King Harald Fairhair, the only son of Hálfdan and legendary founder of a united Norwegian kingdom) as legitimate future kings of Norway. The ringlets represent the dynastic identity of those related to Harald and Hálfdan. Snorri Sturluson also incorporated a different dream to (seemingly) reinforce the ideology of the Fairhair dynasty in his Hkr. narrative. In the dream, Queen Ragnhild, mother of Harald and wife of Hálfdan, takes a thorn from her garment and holds it in her hand; the thorn gradually grows into a tall, stout tree, whose crown covers the whole land of Norway and further. Three different colors distinguish its trunk: the lowest part is red as blood, the upper part is bright green, and the twigs of the crown are snow-white. According to Hkr., this dream signifies the fate of Harald and his progeny: the red part of the trunk anticipates his deeds as an excellent warrior, the bright green symbolizes prosperity in his kingdom, the white twigs in the crown mean his long reign, and the wide expanse of the crown anticipates the flourishing of his descendants.
Recent historical researches have begun to challenge this traditional view of King Harald Fairhair as a historical founder both of a unified kingdom and of ruling family in Norway. Instead, they tend to underline the late development of the tradition. While this new scholarship believes the identity of Fairhair’s dynasty to be fictive, however, few researchers have explored the political-ideological motive behind the development of the tradition. Furthermore, although some scholars have considered the dream motif in Old Norse literature, few have analyzed its symbolical, political-ideological meaning. The question I would like to explore is whether these two dreams express the ‘same’ ideological concept of the Fairhair dynasty. Indeed, previous researchers have often muddled them up, and sometimes tried to ascribe both of dreams’ concepts to Snorri. But it is the earlier tradition, that also appeared in Fsk., not Snorri, which originally employed the ringlet dream – in order to promote the fame of St. Olaf. The incorporation of the dream into Hkr.’s narrative seems to suggest that Snorri was not hostile to such a typological-hagiological view of Norwegian history, but attention should also be directed to the other dream. Hkr. diverges from Fsk. by inserting the analogy of the tree instead than of the ringlets into the dynastic historical narrative.