Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Óláfsdrápa — Hfr ÓldrI

Hallfreðr vandræðaskáld Óttarsson

Diana Whaley 2012, ‘(Introduction to) Hallfreðr vandræðaskáld Óttarsson, Óláfsdrápa’ in Diana Whaley (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 1. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 387.


The six stanzas printed here as the ÓláfsdrápaDrápa about Óláfr’ of Hallfreðr vandræðaskáld (Hfr Óldr) are among the twenty-eight complete stanzas and ten helmingar which are traditionally taken as Hallfreðr vandræð̀askáld’s praise of Óláfr Tryggvason. One of these, a stanza referring to a twelve-year-old ruler and (proleptically) king of Norway sailing well-equipped warships from Garðar (Russia), has been printed in Skj and elsewhere as Hfr Óldr 1, but this can be dismissed at the outset since the only medieval evidence attributes it to Hallar-Steinn (see HSt Frag 1 and its Introduction). The remaining stanzas are all credited to Hallfreðr; all are cast in the past tense and lack apostrophes. Twelve helmingar (variously configured in mss and editions) describe Óláfr’s far-flung viking exploits, before he challenged for rule in Norway, while the remainder give extensive coverage of his final battle at Svǫlðr and its aftermath. The first, ‘viking’ set is preserved as a unit in two sources (see below), and for this reason, and because it is natural to assume that Hallfreðr did not wait for his lord to die before eulogizing him, it is printed in this edition as Óldr, distinct from the erfidrápa ‘memorial drápa’ (Hfr ErfÓl) focussing on Svǫlðr. This is also the traditional position. Guðbrandur Vigfússon (CPB II, 90, 94, 575), for instance, distinguished ‘The Older Praise of Olaf’ (our Óldr), which he called ‘a mere bald jingle-register of battles and peoples’, from the erfidrápa, which he titled ‘Óláfs-Drápa; or, Olaf’s Dirge’. The winter of 996-7 AD has been suggested as the date of the earlier poem (SnE 1848-87, III, 478). The title Óláfsdrápa has medieval authority: see the Note to st. 2/5-8. However, the evidence of the prose sources is ambivalent, since they do not speak of more than one Óláfsdrápa. Further, HSt Rst 34/7 in the twelfth century refers to Hallfreðr’s drápa in the singular, and the only relevant narrative depicts Hallfreðr composing a poem after he has learned of Óláfr’s death. It is therefore conceivable, as mentioned by Fidjestøl (1982, 106), that the present poem formed an introduction to the erfidrápa (see further Introduction to Hfr ErfÓl). Whatever their original status, the Óldr stanzas are (despite Guðbrandur Vigfússon’s disparagement) of great historical value, being the only contemporary skaldic source for Óláfr’s early raiding career. Hallar-Steinn’s Rekstefja (HSt Rst) and the Anonymous Óláfsdrápa Tryggvasonar (Anon Óldr) are much later and pass rapidly over this phase.

Even assuming two separate poems, the reconstruction of Óldr is problematic, and therefore needs extended discussion here. If, as normal, drápa implied a lengthy, formal poem with stef ‘refrains’, only a small portion is extant. The backbone of the poem as it survives, a triumphal catalogue of targets of the hero’s campaigns, is agreed by the main medieval sources: Fsk, ms. 310 of ÓTOdd, Hkr and ÓT. However, there are also significant differences between the poem as preserved in Fsk and ms. 310 on the one hand (henceforth Fsk-310) and Hkr on the other. ÓT follows Hkr, with only some minor improvements, and most modern scholars have favoured the Hkr arrangement, in SnE 1848-87, III, 478-9; CPB II, 94-5; and Skj (retained in Skald). The present edition follows Fsk-310 (and Fidjestøl 1982, 107, 171).

The following table and notes set out the main geographical indicators in each stanza.

Fsk-310, SkP Hkr, Skj
[Later, st. 4] 2 at Holmi; í Gǫrðum
1/1-4 í stað mǫrgum ---
1/5-8 Jamta kindir; ok Vinða 4/1-4 Jamta kindir; ok Vinða
2/1-4 Gotar; Skáney 4/5-8 Gotar; Skáney
2/5-8 í Danmǫrku; fyr Heiðabý sunnan 5 í Danmǫrku; fyr Heiðabý sunnan
3/1-4 hræ Saxa 6/1-4 hræ Saxa
3/5-8 Frísa ... blóð 6/5-8 Frísa ... blóð
4/1-4 at Holmi; í Gǫrðum [Earlier, st. 2]
4/5-8 Valkera?; Flæmingja 7 Valkera?; Flæmingja
5/1-4 Engla; Norðimbra 8/1-4 Engla; Norðimbra
5/5-8 brezkrar; kumrskar þjóðir 8/5-8 Skotum; Mǫn
6/1-4 Mǫn; Skotum 9/1-4 eyverskan; Íra
6/5-8 eyverskan; Íra 9/5-8 brezkrar; kumrskar þjóðir

(Cf. similar tabulations in Fidjestøl 1982, 107-8 and, for Hkr only, SnE 1848-87, III, 478-9.) The principal differences between the two medieval traditions are as follows (with stanza numbering according to this edition). (1) The stanzas are cited uninterruptedly in Fsk-310 but are punctuated by prose narrative in Hkr; this is a major reason why the Fsk-310 tradition has been assumed to be the more original (Krijn 1931, 52; Fidjestøl 1982, 107). (2) Hkr lacks st. 1/1-4. (3) The way that helmingar are paired to form eight-line stanzas differs. (4) The sequence of stanzas differs, in particular: (a) The helmingr Hilmir lét at Holmi appears first in Hkr but much later in the sequence in Fsk-310, being paired with Rógs brá rekka lægir to form st. 4. (b) The stanzas at the end of the sequence, concerning the British Isles, are ordered differently. (c) The ordering of the two couplets, and hence of Mǫn and Skotum, in st/ 6/1-4 differs. (5) We may also note that there is textual variation at the level of individual words or phrases, though not of such a radical kind as to suggest oral variants.

In general, the stanzas of Óldr as ordered in Hkr reflect the same geographical logic as the prose that links them; Fidjestøl (1982, 107-9) sees this agreement as a product of rationalisation. Similarly, the proper names in the prose match those of the stanzas almost exactly and clearly derive from them. There are, however, some subtle discrepancies between the prose and verse in Hkr. Valland (France) in ch. 30 has no counterpart in the poetry, and if Suðreyjar (Hebrides) in the same chapter is Snorri’s interpretation of the adjective eyverskan ‘from the islands’ (st. 6/6), the ordering of raids is slightly different: Scotland – Suðreyjar – Man in the prose whereas st. 6/1-4 has Scotland – Man consecutively, with the islanders mentioned in the following helmingr (which in Hkr belongs to a different stanza). Of still more historical importance is the fact that the poem gives no indication that Óláfr was fighting for anyone else, whereas the Danish campaign in st. 2 is attached in Hkr, albeit at a slight distance, to the campaign of Ótta keisari of Saxland and his allies (including Óláfr). A further minor point is that Snorri seemingly did not interpret Valkera in st. 4/6 as an ethnic name referring probably to the people of Walcheren, as at least some editors do.

Insofar as the sequences of stanzas in Fsk-310 and Hkr agree (as seen in the table above), they present a reasonably coherent geographical sequence of raiding in the eastern Baltic, Denmark, the north-west coast of continental Europe, and the British Isles, and this serves as a starting-point for the reconstruction of the poem. Beyond that, however, the stanzas themselves give little indication of the order of events. The remark in st. 1/5-8 that Óláfr accustomed himself to such things [victories] snemma ‘early’ probably places that stanza early in the poem, but the same stanza also presents probably the greatest single puzzle: why Óláfr is said within one and the same helmingr to have attacked Norwegians, specifically the people of Jamtaland (Jämtland; Jamta kindir ‘kin of the Jamtr’), and Wends (ok Vinða). The explanation in Hkr, that this was a merchant ship of Jamtr encountered off Gotland, seems rather thin. Stanza 4 is also problematic because it appears to document action in Bornholm (at Holmi, l. 1) followed by action in north-west Russia (í Gǫrðum, l. 4), a sequence that is difficult to account for (see Note to st. 4/1-4).

As to other kinds of evidence for the arrangement of stanzas, there are various ways in which one or other ordering of Óldr might be considered poetically or logically more satisfactory, but these are rather subjective and far from conclusive. Óláfr’s youth is also covered in the twelfth-century anonymous Óláfsdrápa (Anon Óldr) and Hallar-Steinn’s Rekstefja (HSt Rst). Both poems envisage triumphs in Garðar followed by attacks on England and Scotland; Rst also reports attacks on Wendish cities (borgir Vinða) in st. 5/3 and adds byggðir Íra ‘settlements of the Irish’ to the mention of Scotland in st. 6/1. But these are presumably derivative, as well as suffering from distance from the events, and Rst also has its own uncertainties of ordering (see Introduction).

Overall, then, the original ordering of Óldr remains uncertain, but the possibility that Hkr got the stanzas from Fsk (quite likely the earlier compilation), omitted st. 1/1-4 and partially reordered the remainder seems strong enough to warrant following the ordering of Fsk-310 (and Fidjestøl 1982, 171) rather than that of Hkr and Skj. The following table compares the ordering in the present edition (SkP) with that of Skj; the opening word of each helmingr is given.

SkP Skj
1 Svá + Endr 3+4/1-4
2 Hættr + Bǫðserkjar 4/5-8+5
3 Tíðhǫggvit + Vinhróðigr 6
4 Hilmir + Rógs 2+7
5 Gerðisk + Barði 8/1-4+9/5-8
6 Ýdrógar + Gerði / Eyddi 8/5-8+9/1-4
HSt Frag 1 Tolf + Hlóðu Hfr Óldr 1

Although problematic in various ways, the fragments of Óldr are preserved rather consistently in a group of texts. They all appear in Fsk and ÓTOdd, and all except st. 1/1-4 in Hkr and ÓT. The following mss are used in this edition: the Fsk mss FskBˣ and FskAˣ (with the addition of 51ˣ in st. 1, where FskBˣ has lacunae); the ÓTOdd ms. 310; the Hkr mss , F, and J1ˣ (for sts 1/5-8, 2-6), plus 39 (for a subset of these); the ÓT mss 61, 54 and Bb (for sts 1/5-8, 2-6), plus 53, 62 and Flat (for subsets of these). Within the Hkr group, J1ˣ is used in preference to J2ˣ to represent the almost lost J, since it is a generally careful transcript and the relevant leaves of J2ˣ are copied not from J but from the vellum K. Ms. 761bˣ contains stanzas from Óldr, but its readings are not of independent value (Kjartan G. Ottósson 2006, 752).

The choice of base ms. is especially difficult for this poem, given that the ordering of stanzas differs so greatly between ÓTHkr and ÓT on the one hand and Fsk and 310 on the other. The texts within these groupings also differ to some extent (e.g. lét/vann in sts 3/1 and 4/1, hræskóð/hjalmskóð in st. 4/2, on which see Notes below), though in general there is a high level of agreement. As explained above, the ordering of the Fsk-310 grouping has been adopted in this edition, and it would therefore be desirable to choose the best representative of that grouping as the base ms. However, there is not a clear ‘best’ ms. Ms. 310 has a mainly very good text, but also a few readings that are clearly out of line with the rest of the paradosis, while among the witnesses to Fsk, FskBˣ, normally regarded as the best, has small lacunae in st. 1 and some clearly aberrant readings, especially in sts 5 and 6, and FskAˣ has a roughly equal quantity of eccentric readings. The best ms. of Hkr, , has by contrast a text that is consistently (if not invariably) sound and supported by the rest of the paradosis, and it has been chosen as the main ms., except that FskBˣ is the main ms. for st. 1/1-4, which is lacking in Hkr. In the ordering of the remaining mss, the Fsk mss are given precedence over ms. 310 of ÓTOdd because Óldr is seemingly not original in Oddr’s text but has been added in 310 alone (see further below).

The ‘Contexts’ for skaldic stanzas (i.e. summaries of the prose narratives in which they are preserved) are normally presented in this volume, as throughout SkP, within the editions of individual stanzas. However, the exceptional complexity of the preservation of the Óldr stanzas makes it preferable to give an account of their Contexts here as part of the Introduction.

In the Fsk-310 branch of the tradition, all the stanzas are cited in an unbroken sequence with a prelude. Fsk (ÍF 29, 141-4) quotes them within its first chapter devoted to Óláfr, which tells of Óláfr’s fostering in Garðar by King Valdamarr (Vladimir). Óláfr is set over the military force charged with defending and expanding the realm of Garðar, and he triumphs both there and widely in the lands to the east, south and west. The stanzas are then introduced, Óláfr vann margs konar frægð í Garðaríki ok víða um Austrvega, í Suðrlǫndum ok í Vestrlǫndum, sem segir Hallfrøðr vandræðaskáld ‘Óláfr won fame of many kinds in Russia and widely around the Baltic, to the south, and in the British Isles, as Hallfreðr vandræðaskáld “Troublesome-poet” says’.

Ms. 310 of ÓTOdd preserves stanzas of Hfr Óldr continuously in a freestanding chapter, one of four constituting an appendix to the saga which is preserved only in 310 and which is generally considered not to belong to Oddr’s original saga (Andersson 2003, 26; Ólafur Halldórsson in ÍF 25, clxxxii). The stanzas are prefaced by a brief sentence introducing them as Hallfreðr’s review of the lands in the south and the west where Óláfr had campaigned (farit herskildi). This chapter is printed (as ch. 82) in ÓTOdd 1932, 247-8, but not in ÍF 25, and it is not translated in Andersson (2003).

The Hkr-ÓT branch of the tradition, by contrast, embeds the stanzas within prose narratives of variable length, as summarised here, following the order of Hkr-ÓT. The numbering of the present edition, which follows Fsk-310, is given first, with the Skj numbering, which follows Hkr-ÓT, in brackets.

4/1-4 (2). In Hkr, after some years of fosterage and distinguished military service under the wing of King Valdamarr in Garðar (Vladimir in Russia), Óláfr steers his fleet south through the Baltic and successfully attacks Borgundarhólmr (Bornholm). He proceeds to Vinðland (Wendland), where he overwinters in honour, marries the king’s eldest daughter Geira, and rules the land jointly with her. In ÓT, the placing of the stanza attaches it specifically to the Bornholm encounter.

1/5-8+2/1-4 (4). In Hkr, Óláfr launches punitive winter raids against regions of Wendland that have withdrawn loyalty and taxes from Queen Geira (cf. above). He then wins victories in Skáney (Skåne) and twice in Gotland, the first time in a fight against a merchant ship owned by Jamtr, i.e. men of Jamtaland (Jämtland). ÓT is virtually identical.

2/5-8 (5). In the chapters preceding the stanza, Hkr recounts how Ótta, Emperor of Saxland (Saxony), putting pressure on Haraldr of Denmark to convert to Christianity, ranges an alliance against him which includes Óláfr Tryggvason. A mighty battle is fought around the great Danavirki (Danevirke) rampart, then a sea-battle off Jótland (Jutland) followed by a peace-treaty and the baptism of Haraldr and his followers (including his Norwegian ally Hákon jarl Sigurðarson, whose conversion is however shortlived). Óldr 2/5-8 is then cited. ÓT has virtually identical material, though more is made of Óláfr’s role.

3 (6) and 4/5-8 (7). Hkr tells how, after Óláfr has been based for three years in Wendland, Geira dies. In sorrow, he leaves to raid in Frísland (Frisia), Saxony and as far as Flæmingjaland (Flanders). In ÓT, there is no mention of Geira, rather of Óláfr’s Christian inclinations. Stanzas 3 and 4/5-8 (6 and 7) are cited without interruption in both sources.

5 (8/1-4+9/5-8) and 6 (8/5-8+9/1-4, with 8/5-8 couplets in reverse order). In Hkr, Óláfr raids widely in England, sailing to Norðimbraland (Northumbria) and Scotland, then to the Suðreyjar (Hebrides), Man and Ireland. Thence he heads for ‘Bretland’ and ‘the place called Kumraland’ (cf. Note to st. 5/5, 8), then to Valland (France). Returning to England, he lands on the Syllingar (Scilly Isles). Stanzas 5 and 6 follow with no break between them, then there is a sentence summarising Óláfr’s four years of raiding between leaving Wendland and arriving in the Scilly Isles. ÓT retains the narrative but adds HSt Rst 6/5-8 about the attack on Ireland, mentions Bretland but not Kumraland, and positions the stanzas more sensibly: they supplement a very brief statement about Óláfr’s harrying in Bretland and Valland and precede the mention of the Scilly Isles, which are not named in the stanzas.


  1. Bibliography
  2. SnE 1848-87 = Snorri Sturluson. 1848-87. Edda Snorra Sturlusonar: Edda Snorronis Sturlaei. Ed. Jón Sigurðsson et al. 3 vols. Copenhagen: Legatum Arnamagnaeanum. Rpt. Osnabrück: Zeller, 1966.
  3. Skald = Kock, Ernst Albin, ed. 1946-50. Den norsk-isländska skaldediktningen. 2 vols. Lund: Gleerup.
  4. Andersson, Theodore M., trans. 2003. The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason: Oddr Snorrason. Islandica 52. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
  5. Fidjestøl, Bjarne. 1982. Det norrøne fyrstediktet. Universitet i Bergen Nordisk institutts skriftserie 11. Øvre Ervik: Alvheim & Eide.
  6. CPB = Gudbrand Vigfusson [Guðbrandur Vigfússon] and F. York Powell, eds. 1883. Corpus poeticum boreale: The Poetry of the Old Northern Tongue from the Earliest Times to the Thirteenth Century. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon. Rpt. 1965, New York: Russell & Russell.
  7. ÓTOdd 1932 = Finnur Jónsson, ed. 1932. Saga Óláfs Tryggvasonar af Oddr Snorrason munk. Copenhagen: Gad.
  8. ÍF 29 = Ágrip af Nóregskonunga sǫgum; Fagrskinna—Nóregs konungatal. Ed. Bjarni Einarsson. 1985.
  9. Kjartan G. Ottósson. 2006. ‘Árni Magnússons samling av skaldedikt i AM 761 a-b 4to: Ein førebels rapport’. In McKinnell et al. 2006, II, 749-58.
  10. SkP = Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages. Turnhout: Brepols.
  11. Krijn, S. A. 1931. ‘Halfred Vandraedaskald’. Neophilologus 16, 46-55, 121-31.
  12. ÍF 25 = Færeyinga saga; Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar eptir Odd munk Snorrason. Ed. Ólafur Halldórsson. 2006.
  13. Internal references
  14. Kari Ellen Gade 2009, ‘Heimskringla (Hkr)’ in Kari Ellen Gade (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 2: From c. 1035 to c. 1300. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 2. Turnhout: Brepols [check printed volume for citation].
  15. Diana Whaley 2012, ‘Fagrskinna (Fsk)’ in Diana Whaley (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 1. Turnhout: Brepols, pp. clix-clxi.
  16. Diana Whaley 2012, ‘The Greatest Saga of Óláfr Tryggvason / Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar in mesta (ÓT)’ in Diana Whaley (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 1. Turnhout: Brepols, pp. clxiii-clxvi.
  17. Diana Whaley 2012, ‘Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar by Oddr Snorrason (ÓTOdd)’ in Diana Whaley (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 1. Turnhout: Brepols, pp. clxxiv-clxxv.
  18. Diana Whaley 2012, ‘(Biography of) Óláfr Tryggvason’ in Diana Whaley (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 1. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 383.
  19. Kate Heslop 2012, ‘(Introduction to) Anonymous, Óláfs drápa Tryggvasonar’ in Diana Whaley (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 1. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 1031.
  20. Rolf Stavnem 2012, ‘(Introduction to) Hallar-Steinn, Rekstefja’ in Diana Whaley (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 1. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 893.
  21. Kate Heslop 2012, ‘(Introduction to) Hallfreðr vandræðaskáld Óttarsson, Erfidrápa Óláfs Tryggvasonar’ in Diana Whaley (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 1. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 400.
  22. Rolf Stavnem (ed.) 2012, ‘Hallar-Steinn, Rekstefja 6’ in Diana Whaley (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 1. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 903.
  23. Diana Whaley (ed.) 2012, ‘Hallar-Steinn, Fragment 1’ in Diana Whaley (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 1. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 940.
  24. Rolf Stavnem (ed.) 2012, ‘Hallar-Steinn, Rekstefja 34’ in Diana Whaley (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 1. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 937.
  25. Diana Whaley (ed.) 2012, ‘Hallfreðr vandræðaskáld Óttarsson, Óláfsdrápa 1’ in Diana Whaley (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 1. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 392.

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