You know the old saw, “A real Viking never drinks under a blackened roof ridge.” No? Well, neither did I. I learned it while translating the famous nineteenth-century Swedish epic, “The Viking,” by Erik Geijer. It was the sister of my Swedish professor at Harvard who recalled the adage, which refers to the idea that a true Viking can never be domesticated, that is, cannot live in rooms darkened by soot from hearth fires. This information was crucial to making sense of line 44, just one of the 118 that had me stumped. You could also say that it speaks to the heart of the poem, that a free and fearless spirit cannot be tamed, as well as its dark flip side, that the bloody warrior cannot be restrained.
Translating a poem, especially one written over two hundred years ago, is not only a linguist riddle, it is a historical whodunit. And like any pleasing puzzle, “The Viking” only became more complex the more I opened it up.
Erik Gustaf Geijer (1783–1847) is a highly regarded figure in Sweden. A professor at the prestigious Uppsala University, he was a philosopher, historian, composer, and poet. Geijer’s collected works include several volumes of Swedish history, theories of personality and national culture, poetry, chamber music, and a variety of songs, some set to the words of Schiller and Goethe.
There are a few things to know about “The Viking.” The first is that when it was published in 1811, it marked a departure from the poetry being written in Sweden at the time. Geijer was one of the first to introduce Romanticism into Swedish poetry; although he continued to adhere to traditional forms, gone were the high diction and abstractions of earlier poetic movements. In “The Viking,” he employs a comparatively loose poetic form: sixteen seven-line stanzas with a rhyme scheme of ABABCCD, including a short repeating refrain at the end of each (the last stanza, the seventeenth, has no refrain). Metrically, the poem has the feel of a ballad, falling between iambic pentameter and the dactylic hexameter often used for epics.
Geijer also wrote poetry that appealed to broader segments of society and introduced new themes. Just prior to writing “The Viking,” he had traveled to England, where he had seen at least four plays by Shakespeare. He was the first to translate Shakespeare into Swedish (into blank verse, no less!), choosing the bloody play of succession Macbeth. In his letters home, Geijer wrote that he was moved by what he had encountered in England, especially as it concerned a sense of identity and nationhood, something that was flagging in his own native land.
“The Viking” was an exercise in Swedish mythmaking and a seminal work in establishing the Viking identity. By glorifying certain character traits and reconnecting with a storied past, the poem stoked the Swedish national imagination. Until this time, the word “viking” had been used as a verb meaning “to forage” or “to pillage.” At the time of the poem’s composition, the Swedish crown had just suffered a resounding military and political defeat, losing Finland to Russia. Swedish writers and poets, with Geijer at their front, borrowed a page from the German Romantic movement, also founding a society dedicated to the celebration of Swedish antiquity called the Geatish Society or the Gothic League, whose members where known for, among other things, gathering to drink mead from horns.
“The Viking” is also a coming-of-age tale: a restless fifteen-year-old boy leaves a dull rural life, becomes king of the sea, and, though dead by twenty (spoiler alert), has acted with valor. Having fulfilled his destiny, he will be remembered among the greats and rewarded by the gods. Not surprisingly, the poem is rife with symbolism. Viking swords were rare—only for the wealthiest, most influential families—and had a personal identity; they were handed down as heirlooms and were often named. So when our hero picks up the rusted sword of his missing father, it is both an attempt to rehabilitate his own family and a larger symbolic rehabilitation of Sweden. Similarly, successful Viking leaders would often call themselves “king,” and here we have a boy who, through victory in battle, could claim status equal to that of the disgraced King Gustav IV.
Then there’s the notion of destiny in the poem. My old seam-torn dictionary translated Nornorna as “the Fates,” leading me at first to the Greek Fates, whose prognostications were irreversible. But the Norse Norns were a bit different: three sisters representing the past, present, and future (uncannily similar to the three sisters in Macbeth), while the web they weave represents a fluid concept of time and interconnectivity. Not only does the past inform the present and future, but time can somehow move backward as well. This is oddly fitting, since Geijer himself “altered” his own past with a revisionist poetic history, and with this translation we bring that altered past forward to a new present.
A translator faces many choices. My first was whether to attempt to replicate the rhyme scheme of the poem. I hauled the manuscript up to the Bread Loaf Translators' Conference, where one faculty member suggested I try a rhyme scheme of ABCB. This got me all in a lather, so much so that I penned the letters on my palm in black ink, like some runic code. But, alas, this didn’t seem to want to work. Swedish has more natural, unintentional rhyme than English. Once I gave this up, the poem, already heavy with repetition in the original, filled with internal rhyme.
“The Viking” has an old-fashioned sensibility, and the modernist in me was salivating to compress and enjamb the heck out of it. At Bread Loaf I was talked out of this, and I decided that rhythm was the propulsive force moving this long ship of a tale through the waters, across miles and years, from kingdom to castle.
A few observations on word choice in the poem. In Swedish, the common word for sea or ocean is hav. Geijer occasionally used sjö, which is really a large lake, but only when he needed to rhyme with both "die" (dö) and "virgin" (mö), two key elements of the poem. But most often he used the word “wave.” There are a few choices for “wave,” one being våg (pronounced with a long o), or the lovelier word bölja (pronounced "bull-yah," similar to the German cognate bulge), which, when made plural and definite, becomes böljorna, with the stress on the first syllable. It has the same rhythm as “billowing”: a pleasing instance of onomatopoeia, the word enacting the motion of waves. Böljor also means “swells,” again a word conjuring an image of ceaseless motion, whereas perhaps våg is a more static word.
And what of the sea? As a metaphor, it is a contradictory and generative space. The ocean is both friend and foe, calming and wild, beautiful and perilous. It is also unpredictable and beyond human control. Water, like time, moves in cycles and is never ceasing. All these meanings are present throughout the seventeen stanzas of “The Viking.” The sea is further personified in the poem insofar as it is constantly singing (though I was told by my family that, in Sweden, the hills and flowers and lakes do truly sing). In “The Viking,” the sea’s song varies from a pleasant traveling tune, to an incantation, to a siren call, and finally to a dirge.
The last experiment I performed on the poem was a word frequency test, since it felt like I kept bumping into water, water everywhere. But out of the 750 words in the poem, a variant of “I/me/mine” appeared most often, about sixty times, reinforcing that this is an epic of a very personal nature, so I largely honored the original with its use of personal pronouns.
On my own Viking quest, I have had many helpers. In addition to my former professor and her above-mentioned sister, I am grateful to my Swedish mother for schooling me on the “feeling-sense” of many Swedish words. My journey also led to the discovery of a long-lost cousin with a great deal of literary knowledge, to the rare book room at Columbia University’s library, and to the Barn at Bread Loaf, where—I am happy to report—my manuscript, printed in blue and red, sturdily withstood the deluge of a spilled gin and tonic.
Click anywhere below to read the poem in the original Swedish.
When I was fifteen my hut grew cramped,
There where I lived with my mother.
Tending to goats made the days so long;
My mind was unsettled, in flux.
My thoughts and dreams wandered but nothing was sure,
Gone was the gladness I felt once before
in the woods.
With a sudden urge, I rushed to the summit
Saw below me the ocean unbounded.
So lovely, what pleasure, the song of the waves,
Rising up from the froth and the spray.
Billowing waves come from far foreign lands,
No shackles can hold, nor ropes bind
out at sea.
One morning from shore, I spotted a ship;
Into the bay it shot like an arrow.
My heart swelled and my mind grew fevered,
What was missing was clear to me now.
I ran from the goats, from my mother as well,
And the Viking took me aboard a ship
bound for sea.
Forceful winds filled the sails;
We flew on the backs of the waves.
Into deepening blue, the mountaintops sank
I felt such a thrill; I was dauntless.
Taking in hand my father’s rusted sword
I swore I would conquer for kingdom and country
out at sea.
When I turned sixteen, I slew that Viking
Who dared scold me as spineless and weak.
I became the sea-king and the waters drew me
Straight into the blood-games of war.
When I stepped ashore, I won castles and palaces,
Gambled the spoils with my warrior band
out at sea.
From horns we drained the dark must of mead,
Slaked our thirst on the storm-driven seas.
Riding the waves we ruled every coast—
In Valland, I found me a maid—
For three days she cried, but then was content,
Our wedding was held—a joyous event
out at sea.
Once even I ruled over countries and castles,
And drank under soot-darkened timbers,
Tended my kingdom, watched over my people,
And slept behind walls, behind locks.
It felt endless—this winter of home and hearth,
And though I was king, my world became cramped
by the sea.
I did nothing wrong, but could find no peace,
Besieged with requests for my aid,
To protect, like a fortress, the farmers’ homes,
Like a lock on the beggars’ sacks.
About fines and oaths, robbing and thieves
I’d heard my fill—how I longed to be far away
out at sea.
So I prayed—but the long winter finally ceased,
And the shores now were strewn with wildflowers,
And the waves once again playing their tune
Calling out: to the sea, to the sea!
Spring winds raced through valley and hill,
And the wild streams tumbled in delight
out to sea.
Gripped by some ancient, invisible bond,
I was lured by the rising waters,
Strew my riches all over the fields and towns,
And shattered my crown into shards.
Then poor as before, with a ship and a sword,
My future unknown, I resumed my Viking quest
out at sea.
Like the unbridled wind, we frisked and caroused
On the distant, rollicking surf.
We saw how people on all foreign coasts,
In the same way as us live and die.
Worries also take root when men settle down;
But the Viking path knows no regret
out at sea.
Once more, I stood watch with my warrior crew
for ships in the faraway blue.
Were Viking sails seen—then that meant blood;
If a merchant ship—that was free passage.
But a bloody victory the brave man is owed,
And Viking friendship is sealed with swords
out at sea.
If by day I stood on the rolling prow,
A shining future lay before me;
As calm as the swan in swaying reeds,
I would ride on the surge of waves.
My due was the bounty that happened my way,
Unfettered and free were my hopes
out at sea.
But if at night I stood on the rolling prow,
And heard the roar of a solitary wave,
It was surely the Norns, weaving their weft,
In a storm that shot right through space.
Like the fate of men are the swells that break:
Best to be ready for what may befall
out at sea.
I was twenty years old—then calamity struck,
The waters demanded my blood.
The sea knew it well, having drunk it before
Where the hottest battles raged.
The fervid heart races fast,
But soon will be cooled in the icy realm
of the sea.
But I don’t regret that my days were numbered:
My journey was quick, then, but true.
There are many paths to the place of the gods;
And better to reach there soon.
The waves murmur their deathsong as they flow;
On them I’ve lived—and there my grave waits
out at sea.
So sings from a lonely mountain hall,
The shipwrecked Viking in the churning surf—
The ocean draws him down—
And the waves, the waves chant their song,
And the carefree wind keeps changing its course;
But the remembrance of valor still lives.