The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok



The Sagas of Ragnar LodbrokThe Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok by Ben Waggoner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s not an easy read. The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok is patchwork of literary styles, genres, and stories. Add a lot of names and genealogies and a rather wordy translation, and you have a bit of work ahead of you.

But it’s worth it. The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok contains tree sagas, a list of Swedish kings, and a long poem, Krákumál. If you’re unaccustomed with the Old Icelandic literary style, you should start with the sagas: Read The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok first, then The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons, and Sögubrot last. Taken together, the sagas give the heroic legends of Ragnar and his sons: Ivar the Boneless, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, and the others.


The sagas tell the story of how Ragnar got his epithet “Lodbrok” (meaning hairy breeches), how Ragnar killed the snake and got his first wife Thora. They tell Aslaug’s story; how she came to Ragnar “neither clad nor unclad, neither sated nor hungy, not alone yet with one coming with her”. The sagas tell at length of Ragnar and his sons' heroic battles, their plundering and terror, of how Ivar the Boneless conquered Northumbria, of the shirt that made Ragnar invulnerable, and of how he nevertheless ended his life in King Ælle’s snake pit while he, as the snakes bite in on him, makes the poem Krákumál.

Aslaug meets Ragnar in the TV series Vikings
Aslaug meets Ragnar in the TV series Vikings
Aslaug, Ragnar’s wife, of course, is daughter of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer and Brynhild (told of in The Saga of the Volsungs), even if there are three or four centuries between Sigurd and Ragnar (or their quasi-historical models). But this is legend, or “lying sagas” as the Icelanders called them, and everything is possible. It is in these fornaldersagas (literally, tales of times past) that we find the roots of modern fantasy.

In the legendary sagas we meet dragons, enormous serpents, holy and powerful cows, talking birds and flying horses. Some people, the shape-shifters, have the ability to turn into animals or birds, and the berserkers turn into wolfs and raging bears. Here are giants, dwarfs, elves, spirits, and all kinds of magic; people who can foretell the future and visit the other worlds. In these sagas we meet Odin, the all-father, and Loki, the trickster, meddling and interfering with human fate, we meet soothsayers, seid-woman, shield-maidens, Valkyries and all kinds of rune magic and sorcery, charms, spell, cursed golden rings and magical swords. But first of all we meet human tragedy.

The legendary sagas tell stories of hate, vengeance, rivalry, murder of brothers, husband and children, incestuous relations, friendship, deceit, loyalty, and everlasting love. This is the world of J.R.R. Tolkien and the starting point of all Western fantasy. It is well worth a bit of hard work.


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