Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology


12.7.12
  Theodor Fontane, Gorm Grymme, 1864

Here's another translation of a ballad by Theodor Fontane. He not only liked Scottish subjects but took up the occasional Scandinavian (hi)story as well, like this tale about Gorm the Grim, better known as Gorm the Old (Gorm Gamle), a king of Denmark.
(The German original can be found in the comments)

King Gorm rules over Danemark;
He's ruled for thirty years.
His mind is sound, his hand is strong,
But white has turned his hair.

White are his bushy eyebrows now
That silenced many men.
An irate look he oft assumes;
They call him Gorm the Grim.

Reconstructed Viking ship, Roskilde

And the Jarls held feast at Jul's high time;
Gorm Grymme sits in the hall
And beside him on her bone carved chair
Sits Thyra, Denmark's pride.

Quietly, they hold each other's hand
And look in the other's eye;
There is a smile in both regards -
Gorm Grymme, what softens your mind?

Down the hall and near the gate,
Long curls are flying wild.
Young Harald plays with stick and ball,
Young Harald, their only child.

His frame is slender, blond his hair,
His tunic golden-blue.
Young Harald has seen fifteen years,
And both parents love him true.

Oseberg ship, Viking Ship Museum Oslo

They love him both, but foreboding
Darkens the noble Queen's heart.
But Gorm the Grim points t'wards the gate,
To Young Harald he extends his hand.

He stands to speak, his crimson cloak
Slides softly to the ground,
"Whoever tells me he is dead
Will die this very hour."

Another view of the Oseberg ship

And moon's times pass. Snow melted long,
And summer came as guest.
Three hundred longships set to sea,
Young Harald stands by the mast.

He stands by the mast and sings a song
Unitl the wind lifts it off,
The last sail vanished beyond the horizon;
Gorm Grymme followed its trail.

And moons did pass. Grey autumn day
Lies over sound and sea;
Three ships sail slowly homeward way
With tired rowmen's beat.

Black are their pennons; on Brömsebro Moor
Lies Harald in his blood. -
Who dares to bring the king this news?
Not one man was so bold.

Gokstad ship, Viking Ship Museum Oslo

Queen Tyra walks down to the sound,
She had just seen the sails.
She says, "and if your courage fails,
I'll tell him of this tide."

She lays aside her gemstones fair
And the coral rings and straps.
A robe she dons of deepest black
And strides into the hall.

Into the hall. Along pillar and wall
Hang golden tapestries;
Black curtains now with her own hands
Drapes all across the queen.

She lits twelve candles; their flick'ring light
A sombre glow but give.
And she spreads a weaving black and tight
Over the chair of ivory.

Remains of a sunken Viking ship, Roskilde

Enters Gorm Grymme with trembling gait,
He walks like in a dream.
He stares along the hall, black-veiled;
The candles he barely sees.

He says, "the air is sweltry here,
I'll go to sea and strand;
Give me my cloak of red and gold,
And then lend me your hand."

She handed him a fine-made cloak
That was not gold nor red.
Gorm Grymme said, "what no one dared,
I will speak: he's dead."

Gorm Grymme sat down where he stood;
A gust swept through the house.
Queen Thyra held her husband's hand,
The candles all blew out.

A dragon head from a ship prow (Viking Museum Oslo)

We know but little about King Gorm. He died in 958/59 according to dendrochronological dating of his burial site, and he erected a rune stone - the smaller Stone of Jelling - for his wife Thyra, Pride of the Danes (Danebod).

Historiographic evidence by Snorri Sturluson (Heimskringla, about 1230) says that Gorm was a son of Hardaknut who first conquered Denmark (or more likely, what today is Jutland), that he had at least two sons, Knut and Harald - later known as Harald Bluetooth - and a daughter, Gunhild, who married Erik Bloodaxe. Knut must have died rather young because his brother inherited their father's lands alone, but he left behind a son, Harald the Golden, named so for the riches he gained in his Viking excursions. Gorm also survived his wife, else he would not have made a runestone in her memory.

There is a legend that Gorm swore an oath to kill whoever brought him the news of his son Knut's death and that Thyra managed to make him guess the sad news himself by hanging the hall with black cloth. But the legend is not, as some websites say, to be found in the Heimskringla. I found a version in Charles Morris' Historical Tales ('Gorm the Old', vol. 9, 1908), he may have used the same sources as Fontane.
 
Comments:
The German Original

König Gorm herrscht über Dänemark,
Er herrscht' die dreißig Jahr,
Sein Sinn ist fest, seine Hand ist stark,
Weiß worden ist nur sein Haar.

Weiß worden sind nur seine buschigen Brau'n,
Die machten manchen stumm;
Im Grimme liebt er dreinzuschaun, –
Gorm Grymme heißt er drum.

Und die Jarls kamen zum Fest des Jul,
Gorm Grymme sitzt im Saal,
Und neben ihm sitzt, auf beinernem Stuhl,
Thyra Danebod, sein Gemahl.

Sie reichen einander still die Hand
Und blicken sich an zugleich,
Ein Lächeln in beider Augen stand, –
Gorm Grymme, was macht dich so weich?

Den Saal hinunter, in offner Hall,
Da fliegt es wie Locken im Wind,
Jung-Harald spielt mit dem Federball,
Jung-Harald, ihr einziges Kind.

Sein Wuchs ist schlank, blond ist sein Haar,
Blau-golden ist sein Kleid,
Jung-Harald ist heut fünfzehn Jahr,
Und sie lieben ihn allbeid.

Sie lieben ihn beid; eine Ahnung bang
Kommt über die Königin,
Gorm Grymme aber, den Saal entlang
Auf Jung-Harald deutet er hin.

Und er hebt sich zum Sprechen, – sein Mantel rot
Gleitet nieder auf den Grund:
»Wer je mir spräche, 'er ist tot',
Der müsste sterben zur Stund.«

Und Monde gehn. Es schmolz der Schnee,
Der Sommer kam zu Gast,
Dreihundert Schiffe fahren in See,
Jung-Harald steht am Mast.

Er steht am Mast, er singt ein Lied,
Bis sich's im Winde brach,
Das letzte Segel, es schwand, es schied, –
Gorm Grymme schaut ihm nach.

Und wieder Monde. Grau-Herbstestag
Liegt über Sund und Meer,
Drei Schiffe mit mattem Ruderschlag
Rudern heimwärts drüber her.

Schwarz hängen die Wimpel; auf Brömsebro-Moor
Jung-Harald liegt im Blut, –
Wer bringt die Kunde vor Königs Ohr?
Keiner hat den Mut.

Thyra Danebod schreitet hinab an den Sund,
Sie hatte die Segel gesehn;
Sie spricht: »Und bangt sich euer Mund,
Ich meld ihm, was geschehn.«

Ab legt sie ihr rotes Korallengeschmeid
Und die Gemme) von Opal,
Sie kleidet sich in ein schwarzes Kleid
Und tritt in Hall und Saal.

In Hall und Saal. An Pfeiler und Wand
Goldteppiche ziehen sich hin,
Schwarze Teppiche nun mit eigener Hand
Hängt drüber die Königin.

Und sie zündet zwölf Kerzen, ihr flackernd Licht,
Es gab einen trüben Schein,
Und sie legt ein Gewebe, schwarz und dicht,
Auf den Stuhl von Elfenbein.

Ein tritt Gorm Grymme. Es zittert sein Gang,
Er schreitet wie im Traum,
Er starrt die schwarze Hall entlang,
Die Lichter, er sieht sie kaum.

Er spricht: »Es weht wie Schwüle hier,
Ich will an Meer und Strand,
Reich meinen rotgoldenen Mantel mir
Und reiche mir deine Hand.«

Sie gab ihm um einen Mantel dicht,
der war nicht golden, nicht rot,
Gorm Grymme sprach: »Was niemand spricht,
Ich sprech es: Er ist tot.«

Er setzte sich nieder, wo er stand,
ein Windstoß fuhr durchs Haus,
die Königin hielt des Königs Hand,
die Lichter loschen aus.
 
I like that last line 'the candles all blew out'. Very final.

Thanks for your historical note. It's very helpful to see where poetic license has diverged from what little history there is.
 
Gabrile

A great ballad and good notes.

I liked the ship pictures to.
 
Thank you, Carla and Hank.

Carla, I wish I could find out where the story about Knut's death and his mother's way of getting it to the father originates; I don't think Morris made that story up. Though I suspect the replacement of Knut with Harald (and making him an only child) was Fontane's idea. As was probably the place Brösmebro Moor; Knut most likely fell during a - historical - campaign in Northumbria and York where some relations of his family were involved.
 
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Miscellaneous musings of an aspiring Historical Fiction and Fantasy author. Illustrated essays on Roman, Dark Age and Mediaeval history, Mediaeval literature, and Geology. Some poetry translations and writing stuff. And lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes from Germany, the UK and Scandinavia.

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I'm a writer of Historical Fiction living in Germany. I got a MA in Literature, Scandinavian Studies, Linguistics and History, I'm interested in Archaeology and everything Roman and Mediaeval, an avid reader, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, and photographer.

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