By Minjie Su
As a literary trope typical to riddarasögur (chivalric sagas), a Maiden King (meykongr) is the combination of two key elements of the genre: she is the saga hero’s desired bride – more often than not the saga ends with their wedding and ‘happily ever after’, but, far from being a damsel in distress, the Maiden King is a damsel who creates distress – wealthy, powerful, and proud, the hero often finds in her a formidable enemy, an obstacle that he must defeat in order to marry…well, this very obstacle.
It all boils down to power struggle between men and women. The Maiden King stories speak to an anxiety over women who refuse to conform to social norms. Through fictionalisation, this anxiety is rechannelled and, eventually, solved with the saga hero asserting his dominance over the haughty maiden; the saga readers/audience, expected to side with the saga author, would also rest relieved and reassured.
However, the Maiden Kings are by no means dull characters. Even though their endings are more or less the same and highly predictable, their personalities, mental activities, and characterisations can be drastically diverse and colourful.
One such Maiden King is Ingigerðr from Sigrgarðs saga frækna, ‘the Saga of Sigrgarðr the Valiant’. What makes Ingigerðr stand out among a sea of Maiden Kings is her ambiguity: unlike so many princesses who decide to crown themselves kings and execute their suitors just because they can, Ingigerðr is cursed by her stepmother Hlégerðr, who is in fact a troll, to be heartless, greedy, and cruel to her suitors. Ingigerðr may grow into such a character without the curse, for she is bold and lordly and, being the heir and eldest child to her father, she might as well take up the throne for herself. But with the curse everything is different: although Ingigerðr may suffer (and her younger sisters certainly do), she can get away with pretty much whatever she does. Just blame on the curse. In other words, the curse makes it hard to decide Ingigerðr’s agency and intention; it creates a grey zone of ambiguity within which Ingigerðr operates.
The curse goes like this: additional to Ingigerðr becoming what she does, her younger sisters are transformed into a sow and a foul respectively, to be maltreated by the herd and by Hlégerðr’s two trollish brothers. The curse will not be broken until the egg that contains Hlégerðr’s spirit is broken right under Ingigerðr’s nose. To fulfil this condition is apparently not easy, for Hlégerðr is not stupid enough to disclose to anybody where she hides the egg. The matter stands for eight years, during which Ingigerðr executes an awful lot of princes and kings who are bold enough to seek her hands in marriage.
Her reputation, however horrible it may be, attracts the attention of Sigrgarðr the Valiant, who, despite all his great deeds, is a great womaniser. Sigrgarðr is also a spoiled princeling, whose father gives him a castle and the title of an earl. Sigrgarðr decides to woo Ingigerðr with – for once – rather honourable intention: he respects her and wants to marry her. He thinks so highly of himself so that he takes it an easy job, never mind the corpses of his predecessors swinging under her tower; they are simply not good enough, unlike the valiant Sigrgarðr.
However, as it turns out, Sigrgarðr can never succeed as Sigrgarðr. The first time he enters Ingigerðr’s castle, he is so full of himself that he literally puts his identity on display: he carries a pompously huge pole with his banner, proudly announcing who he is and why he comes here. Ingigerðr pretends to favour Sigrgarðr’s proposal and agrees to sleep with him. But, for the first two nights, Sigrgarðr is put to sleep by Ingigerðr’s magical beddings, unable to perform what he is supposed to be very good at doing. Ingigerðr taunts Sigrgarðr ruthlessly in public, hitting him where it hurts most. Aren’t you supposed to be a lady’s man? Now I see why you are so unpopular with the ladies: they hate you not because you’ve dumped them, having had fun, but because there is simply no fun at all. When the third night comes, Sigrgarðr tears apart the bedding, but finds soldiers hidden behind the wall. He has to flee for his life, leaving all his treasures to the Maiden King.
Sigrgarðr is not going to give up after just one failure, but nor is he going to reflect on it. Instead, he goes to daddy asking for an army. The king suggests him to use his brain, since brutal force probably will not get him anywhere – the Maiden King, after all, has an army, too. Sigrgarðr therefore swaps appearance with a rich merchant Jónas, trades his castle and title of earl for Jónas’s treasures, including a flying carpet, and goes back to Ingigerðr. This time, the Maiden King, cursed to be greedy, agrees to meet ‘Jónas’ alone and unwittingly steps on the flying carpet. ‘Jónas’ reads out the inscriptions so that the carpet may fly away, carrying both him and the Maiden King. But Ingigerðr outsmarts him again: realising what is going on, she pushes ‘Jónas’ off the carpet and flies away alone (having heard the chanting, she has instantly figured out how to control it). Sigrgarðr goes home alone, no treasure, no castle, no bride.
In his third attempt, Sigrgarðr is finally directed on to the right track. He kills a malicious Viking called Knútr, swaps appearance with him without telling anyone, sends his daddy’s army home, and enlists the help of his two foster-brothers, who have been exiled by his father. Now he spreads the news that Sigrgarðr is dead, and the Maiden King sheds tears of blood over it. Then he enters the Maiden King’s palace as Sigrgarðr’s killer, Knútr. This time Ingigerðr sends ‘Knútr’ and his mates to fetch for her a sow and a foal and ‘a certain egg’. They complete the task, with enormous difficulty and hardship, and kill Hlégerðr and her brothers on the way back. The curse is broken, and the two princesses are restored to human forms – all done without Sigrgarðr’s knowledge.
Now Sigrgarðr reveals himself to Ingigerðr and threatens to kill her, to avenge all the sufferings she put them through. In a disturbingly violent moment, he is even ready to stomp on her face, if he is not checked by his foster-brothers. She was under a curse – they tell him – she herself meant him no harm. Having been persuaded, Sigrgarðr forgives Ingigerðr and decides to marry her; he even exonerates Ingigerðr in front of his father, who comes with an army to avenge Sigrgarðr’s ‘death’. He, too, blames everything on the curse.
But does Ingigerðr really have no agency at all in all of this? And those tears of blood, are they meant to betray her love towards Sigrgarðr, or are they meant to misguide those surrounding her? It is true that Ingigerðr has been cursed, but things also turn out incredibly well for her: in addition to having someone break the curse for her (i.e. doing all the hard jobs), she helps with Sigrgarðr’s maturation and turns him from a womaniser into a faithful husband.
What would you say?
You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter @minjie_su
Top Image: Photo by Martin Jacquet / Flickr