Thomas Percy, "The Dying Ode of Regner Lodbrog" (1763)

Thomas Percy (1729–1811)

1.        Thomas Percy, churchman and Bishop of Dromore from 1782 to 1798, became one of the leading scholars on literary and antiquarian matters. He edited a number of publications, including translations from Chinese, analysis of Hebrew scripture, and an aborted collection of Spanish songs on Moorish subjects. However, the work that made his name was the publication of a manuscript which he discovered (c. 1753) in the house of his friend Humphrey Pitt. The maids were using its leaves to light the fire. The manuscript contained versions of traditional ballads, probably compiled in the mid-17th century. Reliques of Ancient English Poetry: Consisting of Old Heroic Ballads, Songs and Other Pieces of Our Earlier Poets (Chiefly of the Lyric Kind) Together with Some Few of Later Date was published by the bookseller Robert Dodsley in 1765 and was an immediate success, with a fourth edition published in 1794. Reliques was instrumental in encouraging the collection and study of English ballads. But poets such as William Wordsworth, Walter Scott, and S. T. Coleridge also cited Percy’s work as a source of inspiration for their fiction. [1] 

2.        The antiquary Joseph Ritson attacked Percy for his editorial practices. Although Percy did not fake anything, he certainly interfered with the ballads by rewriting, conflating, and adding to them. This was revealed when the manuscript from which he worked was published in full by J. W. Hales and F. J. Furnivall as Percy’s Folio MS (1867). After his preferment as bishop, Percy increasingly dissociated himself from the role of pioneer in the study of vernacular antiquities.

3.        Two years before the first edition of Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), Percy published Five Pieces of Runic Poetry Translated from the Islandic Language (1763). Like all seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British translators of Old Norse poetry, Percy relied on Latin intermediaries. But to check the translations, Percy enlisted the help of Anglo-Saxon and Gothic scholar Edward Lye (1694–1767). In Five Pieces, “The Death Song of Ragnar Lodbrog” (today often referred to as Krákumál or the Song of Kraka) was translated in full for the first time. Since Ragnar was seen to epitomize the heroic and superstitious attitudes of the Gothic forefathers, it became the Old Norse text most frequently translated, abstracted and referred to in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The principal source of transmission of the poem was the Danish antiquary Ole Worm (Lat. Olaus Wormius), who printed it in Latin translation, with a transcription into runes, in his [Runer] seu Danica literatura antiquissima (1636, rev. 1651). The misapprehensions that marred this Latin version determined the interpretation of the practices and belief of Germanic ancestors, especially in regard to the mistranslation that makes the speaker look forward to carousing with drinking vessels made of human skulls (see stanza VIII below).

4.        The speaker in the poem is the semi-legendary Scandinavian king, Ragnar Lodbrog (Ragnarr Loðbrók), who recalls his warrior feats from a pit of poisonous snakes, into which he has been thrown by his enemy, King Ella of Northumberland. In the course of the first twenty-one stanzas, Ragnar recounts his many battles. The remainder of the poem is spoken in the poetic present, as he is succumbing to the effects of venom. With undaunted confidence, Ragnar expresses his anticipation of joining other fallen heroes in Odin’s Valhalla, and he sets out the hope that his sons will avenge his murder.

5.        The poem is a skaldic song (i.e. it belongs to a courtly tradition), written in a variation of the poetic metre dróttkvæði. The stanzas were transmitted in connection with Ragnars saga loðbrókar, which it follows in a vellum from around 1400.

6.        In the text below, Percy’s original notes to the poem have been preserved, since some of these are indicative of his attempts to provide a “readable” version for an English public. This is especially a case of rewriting the kennings, which require knowledge of Norse mythology in order to make sense. Percy displays a degree of scholarly sincerity as he frequently marks passages that were difficult to understand with either triple or, when really problematic, quadruple asterisks (as it can be seen in several lines below). However, a great number of modifications of the original and unwarranted additions are passed over in silence.

7.        It was the antiquary James Johnstone who produced the most philologically accurate edition of the eighteenth century. Johnstone had the aid of the distinguished Icelandic scholar Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin, who was National Archivist in Copenhagen. In the notes to the poem, he provides an overview of the allusions to Baltic geography and the region of Britain. Relevant information from Johnstone’s work is extracted below for each of Percy’s stanzas. (The interpretation of some of the place names in the original remains a matter of dispute.)

  • I. Gothland. Sweden.
  • II. “Describes an engagement in the Straits of Eyra, now the Sound near Elsinore [Denmark]”
  • III. “An Expedition to Duina a river in Livonia”.
  • IV.Helsing was a district of Sweden”.
  • V.
  • VI. “Scarpa-sceria i.e. the sharp rocks, probably Scarpey near Spangaheidi, in Norway, the scene of many of Regner’s adventures”.
  • VII.Indyriis is thought to be the Inderö isles in the bay of Drontheim [Norway]”.
  • VIII. Uppsala. Sweden
  • IX.Burgundar-holm, now Bornholm, an island in the Baltic”.
  • X.Flemingia-veldi, included the antient Belgium, now Low-countries”.
  • XI. “All the rest of the poem relates to Regner’s expeditions round the British isles. Engla-nes means English cape, probably on the coast of Kent …”.
  • XII.Bartha-firthi seems to have been the mouth of the Tay, near Perth [Scotland]”.
  • XIII.Hedninga bay is supposed to have been in the Orkneys”.
  • XIV. Northumberland.
  • XV. The Hebrides.
  • XVI.Regner makes an expedition to Ireland”.
  • XVII.
  • XVIII. Isle of Sky.
  • XIX. Hebrides.
  • XX.Lindiseyri is by some thought to be Lindisnes in Norway, but, as the Irish are mentioned, it is more probably Leins-tir in Ireland”.
  • XXI. “Records a battle, at the mouth of a river in Anglesey …”. [2] 


The Dying Ode of Regner Lodbrog (1763)


1.        King Regner Lodbrog was a celebrated Poet, Warrior, and (what was the same thing in those ages) Pirate; who reigned in Denmark, about the beginning of the ninth century. After many warlike expeditions by sea and land, he at length met with bad fortune. He was taken in battle by his adversary Ella king of Northumberland. War in those rude ages was carried on with the fame inhumanity, as it is now among the savages of North-America: their prisoners were only reserved to be put to death with torture. Regner was accordingly thrown into a dungeon to be stung to death by serpents. While he was dying he composed this song, wherein he records all the valiant atchievements of his life, and threatens Ella with vengeance; which history informs us was afterwards executed by the sons of Regner. [3] 

2.        It is, after all, conjectured that Regner himself only composed a few stanzas of this poem, and that the rest were added by his Scald or poet-laureat, whose business it was to add to the solemnities of his funeral by singing some poem in his praise. L’Edda par Chev. Mallet, p. 150

3.        This piece is translated from the Islandic original published by Olaus Wormius in his Literatura Runica Hafniæ 4to.1631.— Ibidem, 2. Edit. Fol. 1651.

4.        N. B. Thora, mentioned in the first stanza, was daughter of some little Gothic prince, whose palace was infested by a large serpent; he offered his daughter in marriage to any one that would kill the monster and set her free. Regner accomplished the atchievement and acquired the name of Lod-brog, which signifies ROUGH or HAIRY-BREECHES, because he cloathed himself all over in rough or hairy skins before he made the attack. [Vide Saxon Gram. pag. 152, 153.] —This is the poetical account of this adventure: but history informs us that Thora was kept prisoner by one of her father’s vassals, whose name was Orme or Serpent, and that it was from this man that Regner delivered her, clad in the aforesaid shaggy armour. But he himself chuses to commemorate it in the most poetical manner.

5.         Vide Chev. Mallet Introd. a LHist. de Dannemarc. pag.201.


We fought with swords: *** when in Gothland I slew an enormous serpent: my reward was the beauteous Thora. Thence I was deemed a man: they called me Lodbrog from that slaughter.*** I thrust the monster through with my spear, with the steel productive of splendid rewards. [4] 


We fought with swords: I was very young, when towards the East, in the straights of Eirar, we gained rivers of blood† for the ravenous wolf: ample food for the yellow-footed fowl. There the hard iron sung upon the lofty helmets. The whole ocean was one wound. The raven waded in the blood of the slain.

† Literally “Rivers of wounds.”—By the yellow-footed fowl is meant the eagle.


We fought with swords: we lifted high our lances; when I had numbered twenty years, and every where acquired great renown. We conquered eight barons at the mouth of the Danube. We procured ample entertainment for the eagle in that slaughter. Bloody sweat fell in the ocean of wounds. A host of men there lost their lives.


We fought with swords: we enjoyed the fight, when we sent the inhabitants of Helsing to the habitation of the gods†. We failed up the Vistula. Then the sword acquired spoils: the whole ocean was one wound: the earth grew red with reeking gore: the sword grinned at the coats of mail: the sword cleft the shields asunder.

† Literally, “to the hall of Odin.”


We fought with swords: I well remember that no one fled that day in the battle before in the ships Herauder [5]  fell. There does not a fairer warrior divide the ocean with his vessels. *** This prince ever brought to the battle a gallant heart.


We fought with swords: the army cast away their shields. Then flew the spear to the breasts of the warriors. The sword in the fight cut the very rocks: the shield was all besmeared with blood, before king Rafno fell, our foe. The warm sweat run down from the heads on the coats of mail.


We fought with swords, before the isles of Indir. We gave ample prey for the ravens to rend in pieces: a banquet for the wild beasts that feed on flesh. At that time all were valiant: it were difficult to single out any one. At the rising of the sun, I saw the lances pierce: the bows darted the arrows from them.


We fought with swords: loud was the din† of arms; before king Eistin fell in the field. Thence, enriched with golden spoils, we marched to fight in the land of Vals. There the sword cut the painted shields.†† In the meeting of helmets, the blood ran from the wounds: it ran down from the cloven sculls of men.

Din is the word in the Islandic original. Dinn greniudu brottan.  [6] 

†† Literally, “the paintings of the shields.”


We fought with swords, before Boring-holmi. We held bloody shields: we stained our spears. Showers of arrows brake the shield in pieces. The bow sent forth the glittering steel. Volnir fell in the conflict, than whom there was not a greater king. Wide on the shores lay the scattered dead: the wolves rejoiced over their prey.


We fought with swords, in the Flemings land: the battle widely raged before king Freyr fell therein. The blue steel all reeking with blood fell at length upon the golden mail. Many a virgin bewailed the laughter of that morning. The beasts of prey had ample spoil.


We fought with swords, before Ainglanes. There saw I thousands lie dead in the ships: we failed to the battle for six days before the army fell. There we celebrated a mass of weapons†. At rising of the sun Valdiofur fell before our swords.

† This is intended for a sneer on the Christian religion, which tho’ it had not gained any footing in the northern nations, when this Ode was written, was not wholly unknown to them. Their piratical expeditions into the southern countries had given them some notion of it, but by no means a favourable one: they considered it as the religion of cowards, because it would have corrected their savage manners.


We fought with swords, at Bardafyrda. A mower of blood rained from our weapons. Headlong fell the palid corpse a prey for the hawks. The bow gave a twanging found. The blade sharply bit the coats of mail: it bit the helmet in the fight. The arrow sharp with poison and all besprinkled with bloody sweat ran to the wound.


We fought with swords, before the bay of Hiadning. We held aloft magic shields in the play of battle. Then might you see men, who rent shields with their swords. The helmets were mattered in the murmur of the warriors. The pleasure of that day was like having a fair virgin placed beside one in the bed. [7] 


We fought with swords, in the Northumbrian land. A furious storm descended on the shields: many a lifeless body fell to the earth. It was about the time of the morning, when the foe was compelled to fly in the battle. There the sword sharply bit the polished helmet. The pleasure of that day was like killing a young widow at the highest feat of the table.


We fought with swords, in the isles of the south. There Herthiose proved victorious: there died many of our valiant warriors. In the mower of arms Rogvaldur fell: I lost my son. In the play of arms came the deadly spear: his lofty crest was dyed with gore. The birds of prey bewailed his fall: they loft him that prepared them banquets.


We fought with swords, in the Irish plains. The bodies of the warriors lay intermingled. The hawk rejoiced at the play of swords. The Irish king did not act the part of the eagle***. Great was the conflict of sword and shield. King Marstan was killed in the bay: he was given a prey to the hungry ravens.


We fought with swords: the spear resounded: the banners shone† upon the coats of mail. I saw many a warrior fall in the morning: many a hero in the contention of arms. Here the sword reached betimes the heart of my son: it was Egill deprived Agnar of life. He was a youth, who never knew what it was to fear.

† Or more properly “reflected the sunshine up on the coat of mail.”


We fought with swords, at Skioldunga. We kept our words: we carved out with our weapons a plenteous banquet for the wolves of the sea†. The ships were all besmeared with crimson, as if for many days the maidens had brought and poured forth wine. All rent was the mail in the clash of arms.

† A poetical name for the fishes of prey.


We fought with swords, when Harold fell. I saw him strugling in the twilight of death; that young chief so proud of his flowing locks†: he who spent his mornings among the young maidens: he who loved to converse with the handsome widows. ****

† He means Harold Harfax king of Norway.— Harfax (synonymous to our English Fairfax) signifies Fair-locks.  [8] 


We fought with swords: we fought three kings in the isle of Lindis. Few had reason to rejoice that day. Many fell into the jaws of the wild-beasts. The hawk and the wolf tore the flesh of the dead: they departed glutted with their prey. The blood of the Irish fell plentifully into the ocean, during the time of that slaughter.


We fought with swords, at the isle of Onlug. The uplifted weapon bit the shields. The gilded lance grated on the mail. The traces of that fight will be seen for ages. There kings marched up to the play of arms. The mores of the sea were stained with blood. The lances appeared like flying dragons.


We fought with swords. Death is the happy portion of the brave†, for he stands the foremost against the storm of weapons. He, who flies from danger, often bewails his miserable life. Yet how difficult is it to rouze up a coward to the play of arms? The dastard feels no heart in his bosom.

† The northern warriors thought none were intitled to Elizium, but such as died in battle, or underwent a violent death.


We fought with swords. Young men should march up to the conflict of arms: man should meet man and never give way. In this hath always consisted the nobility of the warrior. He, who aspires to the love of his mistress, ought to be dauntless in the clash of arms.


We fought with swords. Now I find for certain that we are drawn along by fate. Who can evade the decrees of destiny? Could I have thought the conclusion of my life reserved for Ella; when almost expiring I shed torrents of blood? When I launched forth my ships into the deep? When in the Scottish gulphs I gained large spoils for the wolves?


We fought with swords: this fills me still with joy, because I know a banquet is preparing by the father of the gods. Soon, in the splendid hall of Odin, we (shall drink Beer † out of the sculls of our enemies. [9]  A brave man shrinks not at death. I shall utter no repining words as I approach the palace of the gods. [10] 

Beer and Mead were the only nectar of the northern nations. Odin alone of all the gods was supposed to drink Wine. Vid. Bartholin.


We fought with swords. O that the sons of Aslauga† knew; O that my children knew the sufferings of their father! that numerous serpents filled with poison tear me to pieces! Soon would they be here: soon would they wage bitter war with their swords. I gave a mother to my children from whom they inherit a valiant heart.

† Aslauga was his second wife, whom he married after the death of Thora.


We fought with swords. Now I touch on my last moments. I receive a deadly hurt from the viper. A serpent inhabits the hall of my heart. Soon mall my sons black their swords in the blood of Ella. They wax red with fury: they burn with rage. Those gallant youths will not rest till they have avenged their father.


We fought with swords. Battles fifty and one have been fought under my banners. From my early youth I learnt to dye my sword in crimson: I never yet could find a king more valiant than myself. The gods now invite me to them. Death is not to be lamented.


‘Tis with joy I cease. The goddesses of destiny are come to fetch me. Odin hath sent them from the habitation of the gods. I mail be joyfully received into the highest seat; I mall quaff full goblets among the gods. The hours of my life are past away. I die laughing. [11] 


[1] For a general overview, see Kathryn Sutherland, “The Native Poet: The Influence of Percy’s Minstrel from Beattie to Wordsworth”, Review of English Studies 33 (1982): 414–33. BACK

[2] Source: Lodbrokar-Quida; or the Death Song of Lodbrog, Now First Correctly Printed from Various Manuscripts, ed. James Johnstone (Copenhagen, 1782), 95–111. BACK

[3] This revenge, Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian histories tell us, took place when warriors, who are said to be Ragnar’s sons, invaded northeast England in 867. BACK

[4] The first stanza, about the victory over a supernatural creature, is strangely out of sync with the descriptions of ordinary, human battles enumerated in the rest of the poem. It was likely introduced as part of a different tradition associated with Ragnar. In Percy’s essay “On Ancient Metrical Romances &c”, prefixed to the third volume of Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, Percy used Ragnar’s one-off knightly achievement in this stanza as evidence of English metrical romances being founded on Norse tradition. He says this despite the fact that the poem does not otherwise refer to Ragnar in connection with any romantic endeavours. BACK

[5] Ragnar’s father-in-law. BACK

[6] This editorial note on the similarity between the Norse dinn and the English din appears to give no essential information to the reader apart from highlighting the closeness of Percy’s translation to the original. It may also serve to back up his claim in the preface to Five Pieces, in which he speaks of the near affinity between Norse and Anglo-Saxon tradition, referring to Icelandic as a “sister dialect” of English. However, the annotation is based on a misreading. Percy’s source, Worm’s Literatura runica, had Hett greniudu hrottar. This is also how the line is rendered in the transcript of the Icelandic original which Percy included in the appendix to his anthology. BACK

[7] The apparent continuity between Ragnar’s bellicosity and his amatory sentiments arrested eighteenth-century commentators. This was a result of a mistranslation in Worm’s edition of a Norse negation, which unfortunately made it appear as a simile with positive implications here, as well as in stanzas 14 and 18. In fact, the Norse –at suffix in the original (vasat) makes the sentences negative (“it was not as”). What was created was the picture of a warrior whose thoughts of war were imbued with romance, whereas, in the original, the construction is used to set up a contrast between fighting on the battlefield and the comfort in domestic and erotic idyll. It was not before 1806, in William Herbert’s Select Icelandic Poetry that this mistake was corrected by an English translator. BACK

[8] Percy, following Ole Worm, refers to Harold I (called “Fairhair”) of Norway (Haraldr hárfagri, c. 840–933). However, there is no legend mentioning Ragnar killing Harold, who would also have lived nearly a century too late for the two men to meet in battle. The appellation must refer to King Aurn, a Gaelic ruler of the Western Isles, whose name is mentioned in the original. BACK

[9] One of the most striking images in Worm’s translation was the phrase ex concavis crateribus craniorum (“the hollow cavity of the skulls”). These lines were annotated with the comment: Sperabant heroes se in aula Othini bibituros ex craniis eorum quos occiderant (“The heroes hoped they would drink in Odin’s hall from the skulls of those they had killed”). This interpretation was based on the misconstruction of a kenning, i.e. a metaphorical compound phrase forming the basis of much skaldic poetry. The Old Norse ór bjúgviðum hausa [literally, “from the curved wood of heads”] is simply a substitution for drinking vessels made from animal bone. This misunderstanding came to play an unwarranted role in the perception of Viking culture, as this line was often quoted. BACK

[10] Odin’s Valhalla. The poem remains somewhat of an aberration in respect to the tradition of brave heroes going to Valhalla, since only a few cases in the whole body of Old Norse literature point to a non-battle death as making the hero eligible for a place in Valhalla. BACK

[11] In the original, Ragnar’s concluding line, læjandi skalk deyja, literally translates as “laughing I shall die”. These famous last words were often used to epitomize the idea of northern death-defiance. An illustration of this is S. Ferguson’s translation in Blackwoods Edinburgh Magazine 33 (1833): 915, which emphasized Ragnar’s celebration of death by introducing an emphatically jubilant interjection (with no basis in either Norse or Latin source texts): “E’en on my dying day,/ I’ll laugh one other laughter yet – / Yet ere I pass away, Hurrah – hurrah – hurrah!” BACK