Hey, Toli here, to tell you another tall tale. But being tall doesn’t mean it’s not true. See, it has to be true else we Angles, those soft southern Saxons, and even the long-bearded Lombards, we’d all be liars. And we’re not. So, grab you a wench and tub of beer and sit yourself comfy-like. Now we’ll begin.
The Boy In The Boat
Now this story begins long years ago, before we Angles ever came to this land. That long ago, we none of us yet had heard of a Roman, much less of their Christ.
In those days there was a flood, and it was more than the sea rising up, its iron-tipped waves invading our land. That would have been nothing, a mere drowning of crops; it had happened before. But no, this time the sea did us worse.
See, the flood, having laid a full ten-day, then receded . . . well where was the land? Those wretched waves had stolen it. Gone. Sucked away on the ebb. Nothing remained. Some fool folks thought it was Ragnarok, when the Earth will sink again into the sea. But had any heard the clashes of men and gods fighting? No. No, this was disaster. O, disaster and woe to us all. What were we to do, where to go? I tell you, a good third of our land had been stolen away, a good third of our people drowned. But others had fled and that was good, for it left more land for those who remained.
A few days later, those who remained saw a little boat bobbing about in the water, right close to the wave-rim. There was a scramble to be at it, to claim it as salvage. See, it might have contained valuable food – ‘cos after the flood, you can tell, we were starving.
Well, the king got there first – Magni his name, brother of Modi, the two sons of Thor. But he had a shock. Ay, there was food, right enough; there was a glorious sheaf of barley-grain. Full headed, mind. But upon it lay a youngling, a very young boy.
Now, when a man’s belly is yelling of want, king or no, and there’s a woman and five bairns back in the house yelling as much . . . well, a stray, unnamed, youngling, afloat in a boat, begins to look mighty much like a porkling. Oh, our King Magni, he was mighty tested as to whether he’d slice that stray babe’s throat. So easily done. There even were seaxes all around that youngling, laid amongst the gold treasures, and inviting the king to lift one and . . . well. But King Magni did not. No, King Magni did three wise and right things.
First, he hauled the skiff ashore.
Second, having set aside a third of the barley for later sowing, and a third for the brewing, he then doled out to his people all that remained so all of his people might shared in the barley bread.
Third, he took the youngling home and set him to his own wife’s breast despite his own five sons did squawk of it.
Such a charmer, the lad, as he grew. Hair like a crown of corn. Face as fair as the sun. By disposition, too, he was sunny. Never did they know him to groan. They named his Sceaf, for where he’d been found, on the grain.
Though King Magni had five sons to educate too, he skimped for nothing when it came to this one. He sent Sceaf to every king in the region, one after the other, armed and clothed as befitted a king’s son. He learned every craft. He learned of trade. He learned proper use of the iron-blade. And as he grew, our Sceaf attracted the offers of women and eagerly did he learn of those too. I tell you, there’s not a people for far around who doesn’t claim descent from this one.
But the years passed, as they do. And Sceaf, full grown and a babble of babies nipping his knees, returned to our land. Oh alas, how his heart hurt. For he found there the old king, Magni, was dying. And that brought troubles for it meant the new king must be chosen. And in those days the choosing of kings was not as it is now. No, I tell you, that Bastard King William wouldn’t have made it through to a throne to sit his arse on. No, not at all. See, a king was elected by all of the people in those best of days. But to be elected he needed, first, one qualification. He must be a grandson of an Æsir.
Much to the chagrin of King Magni’s other sons, every one wanted their new king to be Sceaf. But no one knew who his true father was – and didn’t his foster-brothers shout about that! What was to be done?
The goði was called, he who served as a priest. “Well, the answer is easy,” he said. “There has to be some clue to his identity in the way Sceaf arrived.”
“And that answers that,” said his foster-brothers, all five together. “He arrived from the sea so most likely the marine serpent, Jormungand, is his father.”
“Hmm,” considered the goði. “That does not disqualify him. Though it does make his grandsire the tricky Loki.”
Well, there was outcry at that. No one, but no one, wanted Loki’s grandson sat on the high-seat, being their king.
“Na,” said the goði. “I don’t see that as the answer. Na, his people were wealthy, witness the gold pieces laid around him. What of the wave-riding Njord; isn’t he renowned for his boat, his wisdom and wealth? So I say likely that’s who’s Sceaf’s grandsire.”
“Ho!” cried the dying king’s eldest son. “Then that fully disqualifies him. For raised with the Æsir, ay, Njord was. But Njord is Vanir, through to his bones.”
“Now hold you there,” said the goði. “So, true, Njord is Vanir-through. But ever since the Æsir-Vanir War, the Vanir have been accepted as part of the Æsir.”
“Part,” scoffed the youngest king’s son. But none paid him heed.
“Ay, here’s our answer,” said the goði, grown now excited. “Our Sceaf is Njord’s own grandson, arrived in Njord’s own little skiff, packed with Njord’s treasures. For it’s Njord’s own Vanir who most deal with the harvests and a family’s well-being, and no one can deny those, too, are Sceaf’s gifts. Ay, Sceaf the Seed, Sceaf the Foaming, Sceaf arriving upon the Wave – to deliver to us the Hush of the Winds. That’s him.”
“Vanir,” spat the dying king’s eldest. “We don’t want no Vanir here with their incestuous ways.” For everyone knew that Njord’s own wife was also his sister, and his son Freyr had married the same. While the Æsir, it’s said, were forbidden to wed their own kin.
But a goði, he’d not be quieted by a jealous son’s whittlings. “You’d do well to remember the gift that Njord brought to the Æsir – the Vanir’s wise powers. And this Sceaf shows signs of bringing, the same. You’d be fools, you all, if you refuse him. My lot’s on him.”
And so the election began. And, ay, all lots bar five fell upon Sceaf and Sceaf was named for our king. Then wise was his rule, and abundant our crops. Our people grew rich, for Sceaf was a strong warrior, the scourge of the tribes, and high were the tributes piled unto him. Many, too, the skalds who sang of him. Ay, Sceaf was one good king.
But the time came for him to depart the land, to return to his grandsire and ride the waves with him. And though Toli tale teller I am, yet here I can do no better than to quote off Beowulf’s skald, for Shield Sceaf – as there he is named – was grandsire of the Dane Hrothgar, too:
His warrior-band did what he bade them
when he laid down the law among the Danes:
they shouldered him out to the sea’s flood,
their chief they revered who had long ruled them.
A ring-whorled prow rode in the harbour,
ice-clad, outbound, a craft for a prince.
They stretched their beloved lord in his boat,
laid out by the mast, amidships,
the great ring-giver. Far-fetched treasures
were piled upon him, and precious gear.
I never heard before of a ship so well furbished
with battle-tackle, bladed weapons
and coats of mail. The massed treasure
was loaded on top of him: it would travel far
on out into the ocean’s sway.
They decked his body no less bountifully
with offerings than those first ones did
who cast him away when a child
and launched him alone out over the waves.
And they set a gold standard up
high above his head and let him drift
to wind and tide, bewailing him
and mourning their loss. No man can tell,
no wise man in hall or weathered veteran
knows for certain who salvaged that load.
Although Toli has already acknowledged the source of those lines, I would further add that the translatuin is by Seamus Heaney, from his book Beowulf (published by Faber and Faber, 1999: ISBN 0-571-20376-0). The rest of Toli’s tale was drawn from divers Germanic, Old English and Old Norse sources, but mostly, I’m sure, from his own imagination.