18th century

Ragnar’s Death Song | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo is a writer and historian based in Leeds, UK.[1]

The History Channel’s Vikings is one of the most popular medievalist television series to date. In the United States alone, the series has, as recently as its fifth series, managed to regularly attract an average of approximately 7.8 million viewers per episode.[2] The series has allowed its protagonist, Ragnar Lodbrok, a legendary Viking figure, to become a household name.[3]

Ragnar, played by the actor Travis Fimmell, is depicted as a thoughtful, firm but fair ruler who seeks not only to colonise new territory but also to forge alliances and build trading networks beyond the seas. This image of a Viking king forms an obvious contrast to the popular image of the Vikings that modern audiences generally hold. They are often thought of as having been a half-civilised and brutal race who lived in the “dark ages” and preyed on defenceless monasteries in England.

As Andrew Wawn has recently pointed out, this stereotype was unknown prior to the nineteenth century which is when this image of the Vikings first emerged, along other popular and long-lasting stereotypes of Vikings emerged, such as the “fact” that they wore horns on their helmets.[4] While the popular image of the Viking was constructed during the Victorian era, the heroes of the Viking age were not unknown in the preceding century.

Ragnar in the snake pit

During the Georgian era, Ragnar Lodbrok held a distinguished place in English popular culture, when ballads featuring him were incorporated into the ballad and poem collections of scholars such as Thomas Percy (1729–1811), and Thomas Evans (1739–1803). Lodbrok was also the subject of several historical essays by John Pinkerton (1758–1826), and it is during this era that English translations of Latin poems such as the thirteenth-century Death-Song of Ragnar Lodbrok were first published.[5]

There are several extant sources pertaining to Ragnar Lodbrok. The post-medieval history of sources such as The Saga of the Sons of Ragnar, and Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum have been studied in depth, especially in their nineteenth-century context.[6]

Scholars have paid less attention to the eighteenth-century publication of The Death Song of Ragnar Lodbrok, or Krákumál, to give the poem its proper name.

Legend has it that Ragnar composed this song as he lay in the pit of snakes waiting to die, the sentence upon him having been passed by the Anglo-Saxon Northumbrian King Aelle, a situation alluded to in the poem itself:

Fast to th’hereditary end,

To my allotted goal I tend.

Fix’d is the viper’s harm;

Within my heart, his mansion warm,

In the recesses of my breast

The writhing snake hath form’d his nest.[7]

Obviously it is unlikely that even the Ragnar, if he was real, was able to compose a poem while being bitten to death serpents. In any case, the poem itself first appeared in manuscript form c. 1400. It survives in several northern European languages but appears to have originated in the Orkney Isles, Scotland.

There is a good chance that The Death Song had circulated orally before having been set down in writing in the fifteenth century. It might have been forgotten had not Olaus Wormius translated it into Latin and placed it in the appendix of his Literatura Runica (1636). Wormius’s translation became an important source text for later antiquaries interested in Norse Romanticism from the late-eighteenth century onwards.[8]

The Death Song deserves renewed attention because the television series of Vikings recently resurrected the song and brought it to the attention of the viewing public; Einar Selvik performed a song inspired by The Death, which was played, most appropriately, in the episode entitled ‘All his Angels’, in which, according to legend, Ragnar meets his end having been dropped into snake pit by King Aelle.[9]

Context: Eighteenth-Century ‘Ancient’ Poetry

The Death Song was surprisingly popular with readers in an era that was marked by an enthusiasm for the ‘rediscovery’ of ‘lost’ songs and poems recounting the deeds of heroic northern European warriors.

Eighteenth-century folk song and ballad collections, the likes of which were compiled by Thomas Percy (1729–1811) and Joseph Ritson (1752–1803) showed British culture in its rude and allegedly uncivilised state. Yet books such as these had a purpose: not only did they aim to showcase the culture of the common people in times gone by, they also aimed to place historical British and northern European culture, on a par with the “civilised” culture of Ancient Greece and Rome, so admired during the eighteenth century and the admiration of which was responsible for the dominance of neoclassicism as a literary and artistic mode.[10]

Just because the songs collected by the likes of Percy and Ritson were ‘rude and uncivilised’, however, did not mean they, or the heroes represented in them, were inferior to works from antiquity. In the 1783 edition of Ben Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd (1641), the editor argues that Jonson’s medieval tale, and tales of heroism from English medieval history, can rival any of the epics from Greece and Rome.[11]

In Grâimur Jónsson Thorkelin’s Sketch of the character of His Royal Highness the Prince of Denmark (1791), he acknowledged the merits to be had in a study of the culture of Ancient Greece and Rome, but also asked an important question regarding the status of northern European ‘barbarian’ culture:

The polite arts never shone brighter than in those days when the field of Marathon and the coast of Salamis were immortalized by heroes, who, flushed with that spirit of liberty and independence,, which arise from a sentiment of conscious merit, have handed down to posterity, the most illustrious monuments of unrivalled bravery and refined taste … but why do we seek for great examples abroad, while we have so many proofs at home. What country has ever been a more illustrious mother and nurse of heroes and philosophers, than our own? Where has the union of Mars and Minerva been closer? Indeed, the warlike genius of our nation never interfered with the sublime and beautiful: courage and learning have been equally cherished in the bosom of liberty. Milton, the greatest prodigy of mortals, inferior to Homer only in age, was born and bred in the reign of Mars, “And spread Great-Britain’s name o’er land and seas, Whatever clime the sun’s bright circle wars.”[12]

Thorkelin then proceeded to focus upon the famous Viking hero, Ragnar Lodbrok and Thorkelin insisted that, ‘the poems of Ragnar Lodbrok, the Scandinavian Tyrtaeus, are equal to his bravery’.[13] The writer equated the Prince of Denmark with Ragnar Lodbrok.

Thorkelin’s argument was that, just as the allegedly ‘barbarous’ and ‘rough’ writings pertaining to Ragnar and other great northern European men from the medieval period were a sign that north Europeans in that era were an enlightened and civilised people in the past, so his Majesty, through his encouragement of the arts and sciences, will contribute to the cultural enrichment of Denmark.[14]

19th century illustration of Ragnar Lodbrok

Thorkelin’s work came at a time of intense scholarly interest in Denmark and Sweden in the history of the medieval inhabitants of those regions, most of which date from the 1770s. To John MacPherson (1745–1821), another contemporary antiquary, the existence of poems relating the sagas of Ragnar, were further evidence of ancient northern Europeans’ poetical genius.[15] Thorkelin’s work was originally published in Danish but he collaborated with an English antiquary named John Pinkerton to ensure that his work was published in England. The work was successful enough to warrant two English-language editions.[16]

Thus, the legendary Viking king, Ragnar, was conceived by Thorkelin as an early symbol of northern European ‘civilization’. This is certainly in contrast with the image of the warlike and often terrifying image of the Viking which emerged during the nineteenth century. The reason for this is that there was, in the English language at this point, no concept of a Viking for the word was not in common use in English, with its first recorded appearance being in 1807. Before this time, Ragnar and his sons are given various epithets. Ragnar is named as ‘the Celebrated Sea King’ in Sharon Turner’s History of the Anglo-Saxons (1799–1805), which is an image that is altogether more magisterial and refined than a simple raider.[17] It is as a ‘Sea King’ that Ragnar was designated in Edwin Atherstone’s The Sea-Kings of England (1830).[18]

In other publications, Ragnar was listed as a simple pirate. Percy, in the preface to his English translation of the French translation of The Death Song of Ragnar Lodbrok, calls him both a warrior and pirate.[19]Pirate’ is a term which, of course, carried its own connotations during the early Georgian period, the early part of which was the golden age of pirates and other types of criminals such as highwaymen. Such men were presented as debonair, stylish, but also manly and willing to use force when necessary to achieve their aims, while sailing the Seven Seas in search of booty.[20] Several works were published during the earlier part of the century which heroized and romanticised pirates’ ways of life such as Daniel Defoe’s Captain Singleton (1720) and most notably Captain Charles Johnson’s A General and True History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724). Johnson did not actually feature Ragnar in his collection of pirates’ biographies, although he did look back to the medieval period in his History of the Highwaymen (1734), in which he includes an account of the medieval English pirate, Thomas Dun. Stereotypes of pirates, constructed in large part by Johnson, remained current into the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when piracy had been in decline for some time.

Hugh Downman

Ragnar’s Death Song

One very popular work featuring Ragnar in eighteenth-century England was The Death Song of Ragnar Lodbrok, translated from Wormius’s Latin ‘original’ by Hugh Downman and published in 1781.[21] Downman’s main profession was that of a physician; in his leisure time he was a poet, translator, as well as historical researcher, was a minor figure in the world of eighteenth-century antiquarianism. He was born in Exeter and attended Balliol College, Oxford, but, as a result of a number of health problems throughout his life, he was forced to retire entirely from the medical profession in 1774 and it is from then that he devoted himself to his studies.[22]

Percy had indeed included a translation of the same song in his Northern Antiquities, but it was Downing’s translation that made an impact in the press, for which it received a very favourable review in The European Magazine.[23] It is unsurprising that Downman’s version should have made such an impact. While we noted previously that many eighteenth-century antiquaries’ works were expensive, Downman’s translation of The Death Song was sold as a thirty-three page pamphlet and retailed at the price of one shilling which would have made it affordable to a variety of readers.

Downman argues in his preface that Ragnar was a pirate who ‘rendered himself the terror of the northern parts of Europe’.[24] Yet Downman clearly admires his Ragnar and the poem itself because it tells of

‘heroick deeds […and] while the frequent return of the same images and expressions shews the author’s unacquaintance with nicer rules of composition, he exhibits a species of savage greatness, a fierce and wild kind of humility, and a noble contempt of danger and death’.[25] 

Downman’s translation was not a literal rendition from Wormius’s Latin text but a paraphrase designed to appeal to the general reader. Yet the text was also useful to readers educated in Latin, for Wormius’s ‘original’ text is placed side-by-side with Downman’s English. This is the opening of The Death Song, in which readers can get a sense of the extent of Dowman’s paraphrasing:

With our sword’s resistless might

We have thinned the ranks of fight,

In early life, his volum’d train

The crested serpent roll’d in vain.

Thora’s charms, the matchless prize;

Gothland saw my fame arise.

Thronging crouds the monster scan,

Shouts applausive hail me Man.

All his fierceness prompt to try,

The shaggy vestment cloath’d my thigh;

Soon transpierced in death he lay,

My falchion smote for splendid pay.

Pugnavimus ensibus

Haud post longum tempus

Cum in Gotlandia accessimus

Ad serpentis immensi necem

Tun impetravimus Thoram

Ex hoc vocarunt me virum

Quod serpentem transfodi

Hirsutam braccam ob illam coedem.[26]

The opening lines pugnavimus ensibus simply mean ‘we fought with swords’, and this is indeed how some later, more scholarly translations render it. Yet with Downman it is ‘With our swords resistless might’. This is clearly a translation that is faithful to Wormius’s Latin text in spirit, but which is also literary enough to inspire and engage readers.

Another translation of The Death Song was published by James Johnstone shortly after Dowman’s text, entitled Lodbrokar-Quida; or, The Death Song of Lodbrog (1782). In the early part of his life, Johnstone was the Chaplain to the government’s envoy at the Royal court of Copenhagen’. When he returned to England in 1780 to take up a position in the Church, he devoted himself to antiquarian pursuits, of which Lodbrokar-Quida was one result. This text gave an English “translation” of The Death Song, and also included Wormius’s Latin text as well as a copy of an Icelandic version of the song. The English translation in Johnstone’s publication is what he calls ‘a free English translation’, and is actually written in prose. This is the opening of The Death Song:

When we first landed on the Gothic shore, vengeance soon o’ertook the wily dragon miner of the ground – ‘twas then I won my Thora. Men called me Lod-Broc, from what time I slew the snaky dweller of the heath. At that assault, my point, inlaid with burnish’d gold, transfix’d the circling monster of the earth.[27]

Related in such a matter of fact manner, the heroic spirit of the poem is lost. It is unsurprising that this somewhat uninspiring translation of the poem, although it may have been more “accurate” than Dowman’s, was less engaging. Johnstone actually had this privately printed and included within it much scholarly apparatus such as lengthy notes, an exhaustive glossary, and a Latin-Icelandic dictionary. Even if a commercial publisher had undertook to print this work, it would likely have been expensive in contrast to Dowman’s cheap translation of The Death Song.

The success of Dowman’s translation can be judged by the fact that it was reprinted several times during the eighteenth century. The first instance was in the second, four volume edition of Thomas Evans’s Old Ballads, Historical and Narrative (1784). Evans’s purpose in assembling his collection of ballads was explicitly nationalist, as he aimed to ‘display the character of the nation in striking colours’.[28] And Evans’s collection went through several reprints during the nineteenth century. The English text of The Death Song, along with Downman’s preface, was also reprinted in Poems, by Hugh Dowman (1790).[29] When critical essays upon Viking history were being printed in the flourishing nineteenth-century periodical press, we find that Dowman’s text was still looked upon as an authority on Ragnar’s Death Song, even in 1829.[30]

[1] The following article is an extract from a recent book chapter I had published in Paul Hardwick and Kate Lister, eds. Vikings and the Vikings (McFarland, 2019). My full chapter is currently available on the Google Books preview.

[2] Denise Petski, ‘Vikings’ Renewed For Sixth Season By History’, Deadline Hollywood, online edn http://deadline.com/2017/09/vikings-renewed-sixth-season-history-1202167588/ [Accessed 17 February 2018].

[3] Debate surrounds the historicity of Ragnar Lodbrok. For an overview of contrasting scholarly positions see the following works: Magnus Magnusson, The Vikings: Voyagers of Discovery and Plunder (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2008); Hilda Ellis Davidson, ed., Saxo Grammaticus: The History of the Danes, Books I-IX (Cambridge: Brewer, 2008). However, it should be noted that eighteenth-century antiquaries, whose works this chapter discusses, never doubted that Ragnar Lodbrok was a historical person.

[4] See Andrew Wawn, The Vikings and the Victorians (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2000).

[5] Eighteenth-century sources spell ‘Lodbrook’ in a variety of different ways including Lothbrok, Lodbrook, Lodbroke. For consistency, unless I am citing the title of a published work which spells it differently, I am using Lodbrok throughout when referring to the historical figure.

[6] See Ármann Jakobsson and Sverrir Jakobsson, eds., The Routledge Research Companion to the Medieval Icelandic Sagas (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017); Andrew Wawn, ed., Northern Antiquity: The Post-medieval Reception of Edda and Saga (London: Hisarlik Press, 1994); Carol Clover, The Medieval Saga (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982); Jesse Byock, ‘Modern nationalism and the medieval sagas’, in Northern Antiquity: The Post-Medieval Reception of Edda and Saga, ed. by Andrew Wawn (London: Hisarlik Press, 1994), pp. 163-87; Judy Quinn, and Margaret Clunies Ross, ‘The image of Norse poetry and myth in seventeenth-century England’, in Northern Antiquity: The Post-Medieval Reception of Edda and Saga, ed. by Andrew Wawn (London: Hisarlik Press, 1994), pp. 189-210.

[7] Hugh Dowman, The Death Song of Ragnar Lodrach, or Lodbrog (London: Fielding, 1781), p. 34.

[8] See Robert W. Rix, ed., ‘Norse Romanticism: Themes in British Literature, 1760–1830’, in Romantic Circles: A Refereed Scholarly Website Devoted to the Study of Romantic-Period Literature and Culture, ed. by Neil Fristat and Steven E. Jones, online edn (Baltimore: University of Maryland, 2012), https://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/norse/index.html [Accessed 8 March 2018].

[9] ‘All his Angels’, Vikings, History Channel, 28 December 2016.

[10] On Georgian neoclassicism see the following: Joseph M. Levine, ‘Why Neoclassicism? Politics and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England’, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 25: 1 (2002), 75-101; Philip Hicks, Neoclassical History and English Culture: From Clarendon to Hume (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1996).

[11] Ben Jonson, The Sad Shepherd, ed. by F. G. Waldron (London: J. Nicolls, 1783), p. 3.

[12] Grâimur Jónsson Thorkelin, A Sketch of the Character of His Royal Highness the Prince of Denmark. To Which is Added, a Short Review of the Present State of Literature and the Polite Arts in that Country. Interspersed with Anecdotes. In Four Letters by a Gentleman Long Resident at Copenhagen to his Friend in London (London: J. Ridgeway, 1791), pp. 38-39.

[13] Thorkelin, A Sketch of the Character of His Royal Highness the Prince of Denmark, p. 39.

[14] Thorkelin, A Sketch of the Character of His Royal Highness the Prince of Denmark, p. 40.

[15] John MacPherson, Critical Dissertations on the Origin, Antiquities, Language, Government, Manners, and Religion, of the Antient Caledonians, their Posterity the Picts, and the British and Irish Scots (Dublin: Boulter Grierson, 1768), p. 196.

[16] Grâimur Jónsson Thorkelin, ‘Dr Thorkelin to Mr Pinkerton’, in The Literary Correspondence of John Pinkerton, Esq., ed. by Dawson Turner, 2 vols (London: Henry Colburn, 1830), 1: 273.

[17] Sharon Turner, The History of the Anglo-Saxons from the Earliest Period to the Norman Conquest, 3rd edn, 3 vols (London: Longman, 1820), 1: 439.

[18] Edwin Atherstone, The Sea-Kings of England: An Historical Romance of the Time of King Alfred, 3 vols (Edinburgh: Robert Cadell, 1830), 1: 1.

[19] Thomas Percy, Northern Antiquities (London: J. Dodsley, 1770; repr. Edinburgh: C. Stewart, 1809), p. 309.

[20] See Erin Mackie, Rakes, Highwaymen, and Pirates: The Making of the Modern Gentleman in the Eighteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

[21] For a general overview of English translations of Norse sagas in this period see the following: John Kennedy, Translating the Sagas: Two Hundred Years of Challenge and Response (Turnhout: Brepols, 2009).

[22] The European Magazine, and London Review; Containing the Literature, History, Politics, Arts, Manners and Amusements of the Age, 86 vols (London: Fielding, 1782–1826), 1: 29.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Dowman, The Death Song of Ragnar Lodrach, p. iii.

[25] Ibid., pp. iii-iv.

[26] Ibid., pp. 7-8.

[27] James Johnstone, Lodbrokar-Quida; or, The Death Song of Lodbroc; Now First Correctly Printed from Various Manuscripts, with a Free English Translation to Which are Added the Various Readings; a Literal Latin Version; an Islando-Latino Glossary; and Explanatory Notes ([n. p.]: Printed for the Author, 1782), p. 5.

[28] Thomas Evans, ed., Old Ballads, Historical and Narrative, 4 vols (London: T. Evans, 1784), 3: 108.

[29] High Dowman, Poems, by Hugh Dowman, 2nd edn (Exeter: Trewman, 1790), pp. 143-62.

[30] ‘ART. II.-Krakumal: Sive Epicedium Ragnaris Lodbroci Regis Daniae’, The British Critic, Quarterly Theological Review and Ecclesiastical Record, 5: 10 (1829), 303-24.