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


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