Norse scribes of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries left us an amazing body of stories about their past – the sagas. (Saga is an Old Norse word now appropriated into modern English.) Sagas told stories of both historical people and mythological, of gods and heroes and ordinary humans. The flavour of these tales underpins my own stories. More specifically, the following saga snippet inspired my soon-to-be-published romance.
(Note: The following is based on Gwyn Jones’s 1961 translation in Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas. Much of Jones’s wording is retained.)
The story must now be told how in Norway a king by the name of Hring ruled over Uppdalir. He had a son named Bjorn. The news now was that his queen died, and this appeared a great loss to the king as to many others beside. His countrymen and counsellors urged him to marry again, and it came about that he sent men into southern lands to find him a wife. But strong head-winds and mighty storms rose against them; they had to turn their prows and run before the wind, and they were driven north to Finnmark where they spent the winter.
The people of this northern region of Norway were referred to as ‘Finns’ (as distinct from modern citizens of Finland) and had a great reputation for sorcery …
One day the travellers went up inland and came to a certain house. Inside sat two women, handsome of countenance, who welcomed them courteously. These women were mother and daughter, and the latter was strikingly beautiful.
The travellers asked the women their names and the elder answered, “I am called Ingibjorg, and my daughter’s name is White. I am the Lapp king’s mistress.”
The king’s men were highly pleased with them, and they invited White to marry their king.
White murmured that she was in no hurry to answer, but her mother answered for her, decreeing that White would indeed wed the king.
And so White was carried south to Uppdalir.
The king was delighted with the lady and married her without more ado. He did not even care she was not rich. The king was getting on in years, and soon this was reflected in the queen’s behaviour.
A short way off from the king dwelt a commoner who had one daughter. Her name was Bera, and she was young and lovely to look upon. Bjorn the king’s son and Bera the commoner’s daughter played their childhood games together. The children were devoted to each other and were always together.
They years passed, and Bjorn the king’s son grew to full manhood. He was both big and strong, and skilled in all manly accomplishments. Meanwhile the king his father was continually away from his kingdom on Viking raids. White governed the country in his absence. She was by no means good friends with the people in general, but towards Bjorn she was more than kind. He, however, had little use for her.
During the king’s absences, White tried over and again to befriend the king’s son. Finally, frustrated at her continued failure, she approached him in a manner that could not be ignored.
“It would be a good stroke, king’s son, if you and I shared the one bed while the king is away. I weary of a man as old as Hring. Think how good our life would be together.”
Bjorn treated the queen to a great box on the ear, telling her to get out of his sight. He thrust her away from him.
White retorted: “You prefer, Bjorn, to embrace a churl’s daughter rather than to enjoy my love and favours? It might not come amiss though some punishment befell you for your folly.”
Then the queen struck him with her wolf-skin gloves, declaring he should become a cave-bear, fierce and savage.
“You shall enjoy no other food than your father’s stock. Never shall you win free of this enchantment!”
Whereupon Bjorn vanished from the sight of men, and nobody knew what had become of him. The king’s sheep and oxen were killed off by the score, and it was a grey bear, huge and savage, that made these inroads.
One evening it happened that the commoner’s daughter encountered this same savage bear in the woods. Bera was sure she would be eaten, but instead the bear went up to her and made friendly gestures to her. The beast then moved away from her, and she followed after it until they reached a certain cave. And when she entered the cave, she found no bear but a dearly beloved man standing there. She realised it was Bjorn Hringsson, and this was a great and joyful meeting of theirs. Bera declared she would not part from him; but Bjorn held it unseemly for her to stay because he was a beast by day and a man by night.
This tale of romance, royalty, and a vengeful stepmother is part of the saga of ‘King Hrolf and his Champions’. Unfortunately, Bjorn and his love do not live happily ever after and the enchantment is never broken. The Old Norse sagas are often tragic. But in the ashes of Bera’s despair, the seeds of a fresh story were sown – within the dark atmosphere of Uppdalir I would cast an alternative fairy tale to that of Bjorn and Bera.