Medieval Icelandic Literature

The Tale of Ragnar's Sons

13th century, Old Norse.

The snake grows and grows until it surrounds the building where Earl Herraud's daughter lives, biting its own tail.

‘Here is a really peculiar one,’ said Quintin. ‘The tale of Ragnar’s Sons, one of those medieval Icelandic stories that are sort of historical but also mythological. King Ragnar, of Denmark and Sweden, has a vassal named Earl Herraud who gives his daughter a snake in a box. The snake grows and grows until it surrounds the building where she lives, biting its own tail. It is so large and so terrifying that no one dares to go near it, except for her servants. Her father, Earl Herraud, lets it be known that he will only consider a man as her suitor if he can kill this snake or dares to speak with his daughter beside it. So King Ragnar goes to visit this Earl who has given his daughter this ridiculous pet, goes to see the Earl's daughter, cuts off the snake’s head and marries the girl.’

‘It sounds a little bit like Brynhild when Sigurd Sigmundsson arrives laden with the treasure that he seized when he killed the dragon Fafnir,’ said Miranda. ‘She was inside a building surrounded by flames, and would only marry the man who had the courage to ride through the fire and win her.’

‘But why a snake?’ asked Quintin.

‘As an ordeal, perhaps. Like going through fire.’

‘But the snake can be a symbol of reincarnation,' said Quintin. 'It sheds its skin and appears to renew itself. Perhaps that's why there are so many snakes around in the first place – in mythology, I mean. And why they often bite their own tails, so they go round and round in a circle. An endless circle that renews itself. Sometimes two snakes bite each others’ tails, and one of them has wings because the soul can fly. Hence the dragon.

'But why kill a dragon when it should be a symbol of hope, like in the old Chinese religion?’ asked Miranda.

‘It's also an emblem of death,' replied Quintin, 'so by facing a dragon perhaps you can prove that you are unafraid of facing death. And because these stories were all recorded in Christian times, the dragon had already become a creature that all good people were expected to thoroughly enjoy destroying!'

Commentary on the medieval Icelandic tale of Ragnar's Sons.

See for yourself

Icelandic saga – Wikipedia

Legendary sagas – Wikipedia

Tale of Ragnar's Sons – Wikipedia

Ragnar Lodbrok – Wikipedia

The Tale of Ragnar's Sons – Modern English translation by Peter Tunstall, 2005

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