A War Of Words And Wit: A Literary Analysis Of The Hárbarðsljóð


by Casey AOR

Contrary to mainstream belief of Old Norse culture, intelligence was a highly valued characteristic of men, sometimes even more so than strength and power. Therefore, it is no surprise that the chief god of the Norse, Odin, disguised here as the ferryman Harbarth, is the patron of not only warriors but also the wise. In the Eddic lay Hárbarðsljóð (Harbarth’s Lay in English), the theme is hidden behind a traditional mannjafnðr, or a “matching of men against one another with respect to accomplishments and prowess” (Hollander 74), most likely chosen to exemplify the parable that intelligence and cunning will always triumph over sheer brawn and muscle.

In the story, Thor is returning home from Jotunheim, the realm of giants, when he comes upon a river with a ferryman on the other side. Not wishing to get his clothes wet, he calls across the river to the ferryman to take him over the river. What Thor doesn’t realize is that the ferryman is actually his father, Odin, in disguise. What ensues is a fierce war of words, which is enriched with deep symbolism and kennings.

As with many Eddic stories, the Lay of Harbarth serves a dual purpose, the most obvious for entertainment and learning, but beneath the surface is a story steeped in symbolism and archetype creation. The most outward symbol present manifests itself in the form of the main conflict: Harbarth against Thor. The comparison of deeds gives insight to the archetypical roles of the two gods, Odin being the god of the nobility, and Thor being the everyman’s god. As Hollander mentions in the foreword of the lay, this conflict trickles down to the realm of men as a real life social struggle between the upper class and the lower class in Norway during the period when this lay was most likely written. Harbarth consistently taunts Thor with his superior deeds and vocabulary, such as in stanza

“The Ferryman said:
‘In Valland (Land of Battlefields (Hollander, nt 17)) was I and waged battles,
urged in the athelings, nor ever made peace.
Gets Odin the earls slain by edge of swords,
But Thor, the breed of Thralls.’ “.

This passage alludes to many characteristics of Odin, both as himself and in the guise of Harbarth. The fact that Harbarth mentions that he was in “Battle-land, waging battle without making peace” shows where the importance lies for the true warrior of Northern European culture, as Harbarth is supposed to symbolize the aged Viking (74). The third line alludes again to the importance of being slain in battle for the Norse culture and the warrior’s ties to Odin, holding the belief that those killed in battle feasted with Odin in Valhalla until Ragnarok. The fourth line is a blatant insult to Thor, claiming that his primary followers are of the slave class, the Thralls. The class of Thralls historically was the lowest social class, made up primarily of slaves. Unlike other forms of slavery, the status of thrall was not determined by ethnicity, but bestowed upon the poor, prisoners of war, and various criminals (Nicholson, para 2). By making this insult, Harbarth insinuates Thor’s unimportance by grouping him with the lowest of the low in Viking-age Scandinavia.

Thor’s naivety is exemplified in a boast and retort over stanzas 20 and 21. When Harbarth tells Thor that he tricked women into loving him and a Giant into giving him his magical wand (Hollander 77-78, stanza 20), Thor naively responds “Then thou gavest back ill for good” (78, stanza 21). This shows where Thor’s focus is; On what is moral and just, rather than intelligence and cunning. Harbarth wastes no time in ridiculing Thor for his simple mind, and cites his reasoning as “One man’s ill is the other man’s luck!” (Stanza 22).
The final clue that infers Thor’s dimwittedness as compared to Harbarth is the repetitiveness of his boasts. Of Thor’s five boasts, every one of them mentions fighting a giant or group of giants. This is a strong indication to the reader that Thor is only capable for fighting, unlike Harbarth who is an accomplished trickster, warrior, and wooer of women. This repetitiveness eventually leads to Thor’s loss, as Harbarth sneaks more and more insults at Thor for his dullness.

Despite the intense symbolism, the entertainment value of the Lay of Harbarth is not to be questioned either. A quick glance through the story and it is obvious that the author intended to humor the reader or listener at Thor’s expense by showing him in a very comical role. His dull wit and repetitive tasks can’t stand up to Odin’s, whose taunts are at a constant, and his quick temper both intensifies the conflict and adds to the tale’s comedy. Odin’s mocking tone can be witnessed in stanza 38, which reads,

“The Ferryman said:
‘ ‘Twas unworthy of thee to war on women.’ ” (80).

Here it seems Odin was continuing to undermine Thor’s deeds by questioning his honor, in effect demoralizing him and rousing his anger even more. With every insult cast by Harbarth, Thor’s threats intensify. The most descriptive of these threats is in stanza 47,

“Thy glibness of tongue I would gag full soon,
so soon as I wade o’oer the water;
than the wolf louder I ween thou would’st howl,
if the hammer struck thy head.” (81).

The intensity in Thor’s threat represents the climax of the story, bringing upon the ultimate and final personal attack from Harbarth, who slanders Thor and his wife, Sif, by saying,

“With Sif someone sleeps in her bower;
thy strength thou should’st stake against his!” (stanza 48, 81).

Thor becomes more enraged than ever, but fails to strike back with anything more than an accusation of lying, which Harbarth comically denies. When Thor changes the subject to being held ransom by Harbarth, it is a subtle indication to both Harbarth and the reader that Thor has admitted defeat, reluctantly acknowledging victory to Harbarth’s keen wit. To add to the story’s comical nature, when Thor asks for directions around the river, he is set up by Harbarth to go on a menial trek across the land of men, hence taking the long way around a short path. As icing on the top of Harbarth’s victory, Harbarth throws in a final tease, making it undeniably clear of who won the flyting.

In the Lay of Harbarth, the comedic elements and symbolic elements that have little independent literature value combine to form a framework of a story, subtly embellished by minute hints and details to give the story a realistic argumentative nature. An honest examination reveals that Thor was doomed to fail from the beginning, whereupon demanding a fare with haughty overconfidence. Because of Thor’s initial pretentiousness, Harbarth taught Thor a lesson in humility with his cunning tongue, meanwhile exposing Viking age values and virtues. As the insults flew, both the intensity and hilarity of the story increased, up until a dramatic threat and insult climax. However in the end, even the might of Thor wasn’t enough to budge Harbarth and his barge across the river.

Works Cited
Hollander, Lee M. The Poetic Edda. Austin, University of Texas, 2006
Nicholson, Andrew. “Viking Social Organisation”
Regia Anglorum – Viking Social Organisation. 8 April 2003. Regia Anglorum. 1 Nov. 2009. http://www.regia.org/viking2.htm