Friday, 17 September 2021

Harald Finehair and the Jøtun Dovri

Here is a story about the (possibly legendary) Norwegian King Harald Fairhair or Finehair, pictured above as a youth with his father Halfdan the Black, King of Vestfold, in an illustration from the Icelandic Flateyjarbók The story tells of Harald's relationship with a troll, or jøtun (interchangeable concepts, but a jøtun is always a giant) who gave his name to the mountain range called the Dovrefjell. If Harald actually existed, he is said in the Heimskringla to have become king at the age of 10 after his father’s death in 860, and was clearly a character to whom tall stories became attached: this one is from  Flateyjarbók and deals with an episode of his brief childhood. Really, it’s a fairy tale... The translation is by William Craigie in his book ‘Scandinavian Folk-Lore’, 1896.



While King Halfdan sat in peace at home in the Uplands, it befell that much treasure and valuable things disappeared from his treasury, and no one knew who was to blame. The King was greatly troubled, for he thought that this would not be the only visit of the thief. He then had things so arranged – with cunning devices and powerful spells – that whatever man entered to take the treasure would have to stay there till someone came to him. He guessed that the one who did the mischief would be both big and strong, so he ordered men to make ponderous fetters of the hardest steel, and twisted leaden bands.

            One early morning when they came to the treasury, they found there a huge troll, tall and stout. They fell on him in a body and put the fetters on him, but he was exceedingly strong; sixty-four men were needed before he could be secured with the fetters. Then they bound his hands firmly behind his back with the leaden bonds, and after than he became quieter. King Halfdan asked him his name; he said he was called Dofri, and lived in the fell that is named after him.

            The King asked whether he had stolen his gold; he admitted it and asked pardon, promising to repay it three-fold, but the King said he would never pardon him; he should stay there bound until the Thing could be summoned, and there he should be condemned to a shameful death. He said too that he would give him no food, and whoever did so should lose his life. Then the King went home, and Dovri remained in his bonds.

            Soon after this, Halfdan’s son Harald came home, and learned all these tidings, and what his father had said. He was then five years old. Going to where Dovri was sitting with a grim and gloomy look, Harald spoke to him and said, ‘Hard stead are you: will you accept your life from me?’ ‘I am not sure,’ said Dovri, ‘whether, after what your father said, I ought to bring you into so great danger.’ ‘What does that concern you?’ said Harald, and with that he drew his short sword, which was of the best steel, and cut the fetters and leaden bands off Dofri – who, as soon as he was freed, thanked Harald for giving him his life, and took himself off at once: he took no long time to tie his shoes, laid his tail on his back, and set off so that neither wind nor smoke of him was seen.

            When Halfdan discovered this, he was so angry that he drove Harald away, saying he could go and look for help from the troll Dovri. Harald wandered about for four days in the woods, and on the fifth, as he stood in a clearing, worn out with hunger and thirst, he saw a huge fellow coming along in whom he thought he knew the troll Dovri.



          ‘You are in no good plight either, prince, as things are now,’ said Dovri, ‘and all this, one may say, you have fallen into on my account: will you go with me to my home?’          

           Harald agreed, and the jøtun, taking him up in his arms, carried him swiftly along till he came to a large cave. In entering, he stooped rather less than he intended and struck the boy’s head so hard on the rock that he was at once made unconscious. Dovri thought it would be a terrible accident if he had killed the boy, and was so deeply grieved that he sat down and cried over him. As he sat shaking his head and pulling wry faces Harald recovered, looked up at him and saw his mouth distorted, his cheeks swollen and the whites of his eyes turned up: - ‘It is a true saying, foster-father,’ said he, ‘that “few are fair that greet [cry]”, for now you seem to me very ugly. Be merry, for I am not hurt.’

            Dovri fostered Harald for five years, and loved him so much that he could oppose him in nothing. Dovri taught him much, both of learning and of feats of skill, and Harald increased greatly both in size and strength. There he stayed until the death of his father Halfdan, when Dovri sent him to succeed him as king. ‘I charge you,’ said he, ‘never to cut your hair or nails until you are sole king over Norway. I shall be present to assist you in all your battles, and that will be of service to you, for I shall do all the more harm in that I shall not easily be seen. Farewell now, and may everything turn out for your glory and good fortune, no less than if you had stayed with me.’

The Heimskringla lists Harald’s victories – over ‘Ringerik, Heddemark, Gudbrandsdal’ and other regions of Norway, on his way to becoming the first king over all of Norway, but it doesn’t mention Dovri the jøtun. It tells a different tale: Harald sets his heart on a young woman called Gyda, daughter of King Erik of Hordaland, but she sends him word that she will not take for husband a king with such a small kingdom as his to rule over:

Gyda spoke to the messengers and bade them bear her words to King Harald, that she would only become his wife when he had first for her sake laid under himself all Norway, and ruled over the kingdom as freely as King Erik of Sweden or King Gorm in Denmark, ‘for then for the first time,’ she said, ‘it seems to me that he can be called the king of a people.’

Inspired by her answer, Harald swore that as ‘the god that made me and rules all things shall be my witness, never shall my hair be cut or combed till I have possessed myself of all Norway – or else die.’ It took him ten years and he married a number of other women in the interim, but he succeeded and according to the tale, married ‘the great-minded maid’ Gyda too. After ‘subduing the whole country’, the story goes:

King Harald was feasting in Möre with Ragnvald the Jarl … there King Harald took a bath, and had his hair combed; and then Ragnvald the Bard cut off the hair, which had been uncut and uncombed for ten years. Hitherto he had been called Harald Tanglehair, but now Ragnvald gave him the nickname Harald Fine-hair and all who saw him said it was the truest name, for he had thick and beautiful hair.

When my viking trilogy ‘Troll Fell’, ‘Troll Mill’ and ‘Troll Blood’ came out, I used to tell school children this story of Harald’s vow not to cut or comb or wash his hair, and that he was nick-named ‘Tanglehair’ and finally earned a new tag that means something like ‘Splendid-Hair’ – for the Old Norse Harfargr does not imply any colour. The kids loved it; there were many screwed-up noses and cries of ‘Eeew!’ But back then I didn’t know the story of Dovri the jøtun, and his friendship with young Harald. It’s fascinating when two tales come up with such different explanations for the same thing, and it makes me think that maybe Harald really did exist – and really did perhaps swear such an oath. 


Picture credits

Halfdan and Harald - in the Icelandic Flateyjarbók

Skovtrold (Forest Troll) - Theodor Kittelsen, Wikimedia Commons 

The Ash-lad and the Troll - Theodor Kittelsen, Wikimedia Commons

The Troll who wondered how old he was - Theodore Kittelsen, Wikimedia Commons


Friday, 10 September 2021

Folklore Snippets: The Drac


I'm reviving an occasional series I used to run a few years ago called 'Folklore Snippets' - quite simply little bits of folklore I've found which are fun to share. You can find any and all of the previous ones by putting 'Folklore Snippets' into the search box near the top of the right-hand column. This one is all about the Drac!


The Drac is a French river-spirit of great shape-shifting ability. Perhaps we first hear of him in Gervase of Tilbury’s 12th century book Otia Imperialia or 'Recreation for an Emperor' written for Henry II's grandson Otto of Brunswick. Gervase writes how the townsfolk of Arles, where he lived for a time, claimed:

The Dracs assume human form and come early into the public market-place…  They have their abode in the caverns of rivers, and occasionally, floating along the stream in the form of gold rings or cups, entice women or boys bathing on the banks of the river; for while they endeavour to grasp what they see, they are suddenly seized and dragged down to the bottom: and this, they say, happens to none more than to suckling women, who are taken by the Dracs to rear their unlucky offspring…

Sometimes the women are kept for seven years in large and splendid palaces beneath the river. Gervase remarks that he himself knew a woman who was taken while she was washing clothes on the banks of the Rhone.

A wooden bowl floated by, and in endeavouring to catch it, having got out into deep water, she was carried down by a Drac and made nurse to his son below the water. She returned uninjured, and was hardly recognised by her husband and friends after seven years absence. 


This strikes me as - possibly - a handy excuse for absences that might have had alternative explanations: as in other fairy- and folk-lore. (Many a changeling tale may have had its roots in the wish to repudiate an ailing or unwanted child.) Gervase adds to the story the well-known and widespread coda in which the woman, back on land, meets the Drac in the market-place, greets him, and is blinded in the eye with which she sees him. He concludes:

On the banks of the Rhone, under a guardhouse at the North-gate of the city of Arles, there is a great pool of the river… In these deep places that say that the Dracs are often seen of bright nights, in the shape of men. A few years ago for three successive nights, the following words were openly heard outside the city gate, while a figure like that of a man ran along the bank: ‘The hour is passed, but the man is not come.’ On the third day, about the ninth hour, while that figure of a man raised his voice higher than usual, a young man simply ran to the bank, plunged in and was swallowed up: and the voice was heard no more.

These passages are taken from the English translation in Thomas Keightley’s ‘Fairy Mythology’ of 1828, and Keightley speculates that the name ‘Drac’ may be derived not from ‘Draco’ or dragon, but from the Norse ‘Duerg’ or dwarf, since: ‘the Visigoths long inhabited Provence and Languedoc’. While it’s true that the shape-shifting, river-inhabiting Dracs do not very much resemble dragons, neither do they very much resemble dwarfs. But they do  remind me of the Romanian Zmeu (Zmei, plural): a shape-shifting dragon-man-creature that appears in many fairytales. It – or he – can take human or giant human form, but can also appear as a fire-breathing, flying dragon. He likes to steal fair maidens, and is usually foiled by the Romanian hero Fāt-frumos. Translaters have had difficulty conveying all that the word implies: in 19th French translations the Zmeu becomes a génie, while English translations tend to use ogre or giant. But the Zmeu does seem to share some similarities with the Drac, so I suspect the draco derivation is the correct one after all. (See the foot of this post for a link to a story involving Zmei.)

Here are some much later folk tales about the Drac which demonstrate the wide range of his magical ability to assume other forms!

Fantastic animals, alone or associated with supernatural beings, sometimes haunt the running waters. The people of Boqueho (Côtes-du-Nord) assure us that, when it is moonlight, we hear the sound of mysterious horses drinking from the stream that flows below the menhir of Kergofï.

In the Auvergne, the Drac appears as a beautiful white horse, which can be easily ridden, and its back stretches out slyly and demurely. One day, when several children were riding one of these horses, it was heard to say: ‘I'm going to drown you all!’ and it took off towards the Allagnon. Fortunately an old woman who had recognised him shouted to the children to cross themselves. When they had done so, they found themselves on their feet a league away from the place from which they had set off.

In the Aude, a Drac had taken the form of a black donkey to cross a bridge; some children having seen him mounted on his back, which grew longer as each rider climbed on it. He went towards the river, but when he reached the middle of the river, he shook himself off and made the children take a forced bath.

When the girls of Marlenheim (Upper Alsace) come out of the spinning workroom at night, they often see white sheep walking in front of them. Whoever of them follows the animal, which keeps bleating, is lured to the stream and dragged into the water.

Paul Sebillot, Le Folk-Lore de France, 1904

Finally, these accounts of river serpents may be related to stories of Dracs, although they neither shape-shift, nor kidnap or drown people:

The legend of the snake which deposits its diamond on the grass before going to drink, is especially widespread in the East and North of France…

In Walloon Belgium, a story is told of a huge snake that used to strangle in its coils all creatures that passed through Morimont. He always wore a large diamond on his forehead, and only left it to bathe, when he would place it on a flat stone. At first he never let it out of his sight, but once his rampages had spread terror through the countryside, he became over-confident and would frolic in the sun for half an hour without paying any attention to the jewel. A charcoal burner working in the neighbourhood decided to try and get hold of the famous diamond. He began building a large kiln, and every day at the stroke of noon he would break off this long work and climb a large birch tree to watch the monster’s movements, and find out exactly where he placed his stone before entering the water. As soon as the charcoal burner was completely familiar with his habits, he sneaked up, and at the precise moment when the snake was happily bathing and the crackling of burning logs in the kiln prevented the beast from hearing, he seized the diamond and bounded away.

When he came out of the water, the snake flew into a terrible rage when he found that his jewel was missing. Hissing furiously he beat the bushes, twisting and breaking the branches and young trees in his anger. His search revealing nothing, he suspected where the thief had come from and headed for the charcoal burners' huts, but the frightened men had barricaded themselves in and blocked up the chimney-holes. After hours of fruitless effort, the monster realised he could not break in. Then, his passion rising to its height, he struck the earth with such violence that he crushed his own head – that very head in which he had worn the jewel.

Near the stream of Mossig, in the valley of Kronthal (Lower Alsace), one can often hear, in the quiet nights, a soft and melodious song; it comes from beautiful snakes which live on its banks, and whose golden crowns can be seen shining amongst the grass.

 Paul Sebillot, Le Folk-Lore de France, 1904


You can find a fairy tale involving more than one Zmeu here: Iliane of the Golden Tresses is a Romanian tale; I translated it from a French version, and stuck with the French translation 'genie', since these particular Zmei do nothing very dragonish. 


Picture credits:

Drac with human head: 19th C, unknown artist: wikimedia commons

The washerwoman and the drac: image from Légendes de France and

Fat-Frumos kills a Zmeu: by Nadia Bulighin, lmanahul Graficei Române 1928, Craiova, 1927