#5 – The Tale of Halldor Snorrason

The tale of Halldor Snorrason is one of the short tales called ‘Íslendingaþættir’, written in Iceland in the 13th and 14th century. This story describes the friendship between king Harald Hardrada of Norway and the Icelander Halldor Snorrason. It is not an epic tale about grand battles, but rather an amusing short story about two friends who argue a lot.

Who was king Harald Hardrada?

King Harald Hardrada was king of Norway in the 11th century, but he had to work hard to earn his crown. His half-brother Olaf1 had actually been king before, but he was defeated and exiled by the Danish king Cnut the Great. When Harald was only fifteen years old, he fought with his brother Olaf against Cnut in the battle of Stiklestad, in an attempt to regain the Norwegian throne, but Olaf was killed and Harald was forced into exile to Kievan Rus. Harald started fighting in the army of Yaroslav the Wise, grand prince of Kiev, after which he moved to Constantinople and worked his way up to commander of the Byzantine Varangian Guard. In this position he managed to gain enough wealth to organize a new campaign to reclaim the Norwegian throne. This time he was successful.2

Who was Halldor Snorrason?

The Icelander Halldor Snorrason was one of the men who had fought alongside Harald, both in Constantinople and in Norway, which earned him much honour and respect from the king. In the saga he is described as “…a large handsome man, the strongest and most courageous of men in battle.”3 He was the son of Snorri the Godi, a chieftain in Western Iceland, and a descendant of the Icelandic historian, politician and poet Snorri Sturluson.4

Disagreements

The tale of Halldor Snorrason takes place at the court of Norway, after king Harald has claimed his throne. While the king has a lot of respect for Halldor, somehow the two friends don’t get along as well at court as they used to in battle. They get into arguments over all sorts of things, like payments and drinking rules. The disagreements usually end in another man, Bard, acting as a mediator and convincing the king to give Halldor what he wants.

Straight ahead or change course?

On one occasion, Halldor and the king argue about the direction in which they should steer the ship on which they are sailing. The king doesn’t listen to Halldor’s advice and because of that the ship sails straight into a rock. Halldor is so offended by this that he wants to leave the travel company and go back to Iceland. He is also dissatisfied with the way the king pays his men, namely in ‘silver’ coins that are actually partly copper. Bard intervenes and persuades the king to pay Halldor a decent amount of silver.

This is a picture of where Harald and Halldor sailed their ship into a rock.
Or it’s just a picture of my holiday in Norway.
You choose 😉

Not in the same boat

After receiving the silver Halldor says that he still won’t return to the king’s ship. “If he wants my company any longer, then I want a ship of my own to command.”5 Bard talks with the king again, which results in king Harald ordering a man called Svein to give Halldor his ship. So Halldor takes over the command of this ship and they continue their journey. However, Svein is not happy about this, especially since he is a landowner and of a higher status than Halldor6. The king solves the matter by giving Halldor the option to sell the ship to him (to the king), after which the king will give the ship back to Svein. Halldor agrees and the king pays him the amount they agreed on, except for half a mark of gold.

That awkward situation when a friend owes you money

That winter Halldor doesn’t make much of an effort to get the half a mark of gold from the king, but when spring comes he tells the king he would like to receive it, because he is planning on returning to Iceland. The king is evasive about it however. So one night Halldor enters the king and queen’s bedroom, wakes them up and demands the queen’s ring as payment. The queen gives it to him, because she thinks Halldor might kill them otherwise. Halldor leaves with the ring, gathers his travel companions and departs hastily to Iceland. They are pursued by several of the king’s ships, but they manage to lose them.

The highest place

A few years later Halldor receives a message from the king, saying that if Halldor would come back to Norway to serve him again, he would get more respect than ever and receive a higher place than any other man of low birth. However, Halldor declines the offer, saying: “I know perfectly well that he would carry out his promise to place no man in Norway higher than me if I went to meet him, because he would place me on the highest of gallows if he had any say in the matter.”7

Doing your old friend a favour

And so the two former friends never meet again. But when king Harald reaches an advanced age, he sends Halldor a request for fox-skins, because he wants to make a warm blanket out of them. Upon receiving the message Halldor says: “The early rooster is getting old.”8 But he does send the skins.

This was the tale of the Icelander Halldor Snorrason and his friendship with king Harald Hardrada. I enjoyed reading it, because it shows a very human side of these historical figures. I found Halldor rather ‘high maintenance’ in his requests, and on the other hand king Harald seemed a bit of a cheapskate. What is your impression of the two men? And do you think the king really intended to have Halldor hanged? Or did he just want his old friend back at court? And is it even possible to be friends when there is such a big difference in power?

1 Both Olaf and Harald are said to be descendants of the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olaf_II_of_Norway
2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olaf_II_of_Norway
3 Gunnell, T. (2001). “The tale of Halldor Snorrason II”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 693.
4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tale_of_Halldor_Snorrason_II
5 Gunnell, T. (2001). “The tale of Halldor Snorrason II”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 690.
6 Despite Halldor being the son of Snorri the Godi, one of the most powerful men in Iceland at that time, he is regarded as a ‘commoner’ by the other characters in the tale. It could be that Norwegians thought Icelanders in general to be of ‘low status’. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tale_of_Halldor_Snorrason_II
7 Gunnell, T. (2001). “The tale of Halldor Snorrason II”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 693
8 Gunnell, T. (2001). “The tale of Halldor Snorrason II”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 693.

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