By Minjie Su
An accursed king of Gotland is betrayed by his queen to an untimely death. The young prince, the legitimate heir to the throne, is imprisoned in a burial mound of a blood-drinking (un)dead shieldmaiden until a girl who have loved him from afar willingly takes his place, even though she knows that he will not retain any memory of her once he steps out of the mound (which is part of the curse). Meanwhile, the Prince’s friends are fighting Berserkers and chasing after enchanted cranes on the faraway shores of Bretagne, their lives in grave danger…
All this seems to be taken from an excellent fantasy novel or a TV show no less exciting than the Game of Thrones, but it is the story of Úlfhams rímur, an Icelandic narrative poem. The manuscript, AM 604 h 4to, is dated to around mid-16th century, but the poem itself can be traced back to the 14th century; the story is probably drawn from a now lost fornaldarsaga (legendary saga) composed in the same century.
Although five of the six rímur – or ‘fits’ – are devoted to the (mis)adventures of Prince Úlfhamr, the poem in fact tells two stories, one of the father, the other of the son. It starts with a rushing introduction of all the major characters, then briefly tells us that King Halfdane, nicked named ‘Vargstakkr’ (wolf-coat), becomes a wolf and lives in the woods every winter. The curse, the poet reveals later, is cast by a shieldmaiden named Vörn. Vörn once invaded the country but was defeated by Halfdane’s army. The belligerent girl was killed, but not before she could curse Halfdane and his men to turn into werewolves; she was buried near the sea in a great mound, which no living creature would dare to approach.
Years later, Halfdane’s queen Hildr becomes fed up with her husband’s double identity as king and wolf. She is probably also quite tired of taking charge of a headless country every six months – just imagine, with the king and his men running in lupine forms every winter, the land must be left vulnerable. One day, when Halfdane returns from the woods, Hildr prepares a lavish banquet and beheads the king when he is exceedingly drunk. Then she proposes marriage to her son Úlfhamr, presumably because she wants to remain in power and keep the matter ‘within family’. When the young man, disgusted by his incestuous and murderous mother, flees to the woods with his besties, Hildr claims the throne and becomes the sole ruler of the land.
Although at this moment it never really occurs to Úlfhamr to avenge his father and reclaim what is his birth-right, Hildr decides to rid of him once and for all. Pretending to wish for peace, she invites the Prince and his friends to a banquet (as she did to Vargstakkr). Amid the feast, she reveals the origin of Vargstakkr’s curse and curses Úlfhamr and his three friends. One is to die soon, she declares, the other two are to go to Bretagne and to desire after birds instead of women. As for the Prince, he is to enter Vörn’s mound to keep her company and stay there until a girl stupid enough to sacrifice herself for his sake. She has barely finished when Dagbjört, her daughter, stands up against her. Dagbjört has not been really doing much in the story so far, but she appears in a last-minute, fairy godmother-like fashion. She orders Hildr to be tossed into fire, which is carried out by her slaves. Yet there is nothing she can do about the curse; Úlfhamr and his friends have already left the court to follow their destiny.
All seems to go according to Hildr’s prophecy, until Ótta, a girl who literally comes out of nowhere, takes Úlfhamr’s place in the mound. Once freed, the Prince summons an army to Bretagne just in time to save his two friends, Hermann and Skjöldr, who are sons to a powerful earl. They also discover that the cranes that the brothers are in love with are in fact maidens under spell, which is broken when their crane-skins are burned. On their way back, they sail by Vörn’s mound. One of the crane-maiden prepares a magic potion to awake Úlfhamr’s memory. Dagbjört comes, too. She orders to slaughter four richly dressed slaves and erect the corpses on pikes in front of the four doors of the mound. The Undead could not resist the smell of fresh blood and human flesh; Vörn creeps out to feast on the offering, but only to be hacked down by Hermann and Skjöldr. Meanwhile, Úlfhamr grasps Ótta and snatches her out of the mound. The poem ends of celebration of marriages and all the couples happily lived ever after.
Although the poem centres on Úlfhamr, his storyline shows striking similarity to that of his father’s; even his name, ‘wolf-skin’, is a synonym to his father’s nickname. Both stories involve a curse, an evil woman who are defeated in battle in similar manners, and a man being mentally tortured and wasting away. The all-enclosing wolfskin seems an echo to the all-enclosing burial mound; both Vargstakkr and Úlfhamr are temporally ‘erased’ from the world. It would not be unfair to say that the father’s tale is a prototype to the son’s, or the son’s an elaborative and expanded version of the father’s.
What is more interesting, however, is women’s role in the story – Hildr’s not the least. Indeed, the rímur might well be called Hilds rímur rather than Úlfhams or Vargstakks rímur, as it is now known. Hildr, though cast as the ultimate evil of the story, is the one who keeps the plot going. She is also quite a match-maker – it is through her curses that all the other major characters meet their other halves. Even the cranes desired by the brothers turn out to be beautiful girls fitting enough to be brides to an earl’s heirs. If Hildr really wants to mess things up, why not make the brothers chase after some real birds? The other women – Dagbjört, Ótta, and the two crane-maidens – are no less important to the narrative development. Without them, Úlfhamr would never make it out of the mound. But more importantly, they make Úlfhamr a better king – they make him grow up. When Hildr usurps the throne, all Úlfhamr does is to escape and have fun in the woods. It is through the series of misfortunes that he learns to think less of himself but to take responsibility over his kingdom. The women may not be action heroes in the tale (except, apparently, Vörn), but they are definitely the masterminds behind all the fighting and monster-slaying; they are the thread that keeps the story from falling apart.
You can follow Minjue Su on Twitter @minjie_su
Top Image: Úlfhams rímur on a page from MS AM 604 h 4to – image from Handrit.is / National and University Library of Iceland