Posted: October 19, 2014 in Chat
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Author Ian Crockatt has just published these translations of Norse Skaldic verse, with Ark Publications.

CRIMSONING THE EAGLE’S CLAW is a new translation of the Norse poems of Rognvaldr Kali Kolsson, Earl of Orkney.
Rognvaldr Kali was nephew of Earl Magnus of Orkney. Both were Norwegian by birth, and inherited the titles of Earl and the lands of Orkney, incorporating Shetland, and parts of Sutherland. Both also became saints. Rognvaldr Kali established St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, where both he and Magnus were interred.

Rognvaldr Kali’s exploits were recorded in the Orkneyinga Saga.


Rognvaldr Kali has been translated before; we have versions in ‘THE TRIUMPH TREE, Scotland’s Earliest Poetry, 550-1350’. The collection is edited by Thomas Owen Clancy, and published by Canongate Classics, 1998.
There is also another version of translations, available online at the Skaldic Project:

What is special about Ian Crockatt’s book, a lovely production by Arc complete with illustrations by the author’s accomplished partner Wenna Crockatt, is that these translations have been made using the actual Skaldic metres and verse forms.

Ian Crockatt has divided Rognvaldr Kali’s oeuvre into nine sections: Early Poems; Incidents in the Earl’s Daily Life; Shetland Shipwreck; The Lady Ermingerd; Seafaring and Piracy; Jerusalem; Sailing to Byzantium; Illness, Loss; In Praise of Rognvaldr (this last is a collection of poems by other skalds in praise of Rognvaldr Kali).


The verse form is, the Introduction notes, ‘defined entirely by sound pattern and rhythm’. It has not been possible to use the exact rhyme forms, or reproduce the actual authentic sound of the originals (although for cognoscenti originals in old Norse are printed here per poem) so compromises have been sought. Crockatt has been scrupulous in this; he has not deviated from the original forms of metre, rhyming scheme or line length.

To give an example of the strict measures he reproduces Crockatt gives us this example:

Muck, slime, mud. We waded
for five mired weeks, reeking,
silt-fouled bilge-boards souring
in Grimsby bay. Nimbly
now, our proud-prowed, Bergen-
bound Sea-Elk pounds over
wave-paved auk-moors, locks horns
with foam-crests, bows booming.

(reproduced with permission of author)

He keeps this level of patterning and beat throughout each of the forty-one poems he has translated here. This is surely a tremendously skillful feat!

The poems are written as couplets, stitched together as a unit and as a quatrain, with sound, metre and image. It can be seen that the eight line poems break into two, not always exact, halves. In the above example we have predicament/description, followed by resolution. In general the poems act as subject address/ rumination/ open statement, and personal response.

One distinctive element of the poems is the use of the lacuna/intercalation; most poems incorporate an aside, comment, apostrophising of the subject of the verse, that is interpolated mid sentence.

There are one or two problems in such concentrated forms: no poem is longer than eight six-syllable lines, the poem construction follows strict rules of rhyme, alliteration, half-rhyme, internal rhyme and trochaic ending per line.
Such concision depends upon kennings to communicate fully. Ian Crockatt lists the one’s used at the end of the book eg foam-stallions for ships etc.
The book title Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw is taken from a kenning used by Rognvaldr Kali. To crimson the claws comes from providing corpses for the eagle’s to feed on, that is, the killing of enemies.
Can we ask Why eagles, and not crows, or ravens even? Is it eagles because the enemies slain were another king’s favourite warriors? Or were eagles more plentiful on the battlefield than the crow family? Might it be a reflection back on the prowess and status of the victor himself, that whomever he kills is made up to better status by his act?
I suspect it is the latter: the poems are in essence boasting poems.

Also, if we take into consideration that poetry was considered Odin’s mead, and that Odin appeared at times in the guise of an eagle… then we have the eagle providing the inspiration, and the skald providing the corpses for the eagle: the poems as the remnants of that inspiration. These poems by Rognvaldr Kali are those corpses.

This gives an example of how complex a keening can be. What we read into, behind, beside, each poem is a wealth of back-story. If we read the Ermingerde poems in this way, do we begin to glimpse the woman herself, the woman in relation of the northern warrior, an Earl maybe, yet one from a different climate/world ?

On one occasion this concision and kenning does trouble the translation. How are we to read the poem His first encounter with the monks on Westray (page 32)?

The Skaldic Project gives us:

I have seen sixteen [women] all at once, denuded of {the old age {of the ground of {the serpent-field}}} [GOLD > WOMAN > BEARD], and [they had] a fringe on their forehead, walking together. We bore witness to the fact that, here in the west, most maidens are bald; that island lies out in the direction of storms.

The Triumph Tree:

I’ve seen sixteen women1
at once with
forelock on forehead1,
stripped of the old age2 of the land3
the serpent-field4, walk together.
We bear witness
that most girls here —
this isle lies against the storms
out west — are

1 Religious clothing, and Celtic tonsure
2 clean shaven
4 gold on which dragon’s lie
5 tonsured

Tonally it all hinges on the last few lines: Ian Crockatt has:

…… We skaldsmen
guffaw — gales of laughter
goad them west — Shaven! Blessed!

The versions shift between bewildered acceptance, outright scorn, and mockery that borders on acceptance.

It is hard for us now to imagine a world where for each man to go out killing on such a scale, of barely met others, was accepted and expected. What must this have done to their sensibilities?
The scale of grief and grieving must have been deafening to any with ears to hear it.
Here we begin to detect the challenge to sensibilities in the meeting with the monks. Of the need for the monks also, to begin to approach a sense of solace, perhaps.

In France – Ermingerde’s home – it was the time of amour courtois, of the Troubadours and Trouveres already well established when Rangnvaldr Kali came on the scene. It is also the period of a flowering of Arabic and Jewish poetry, philosophy and music.

I think the music of Ragnvaldr Kali’s poetry can now, thanks to Ian Crockatt, take its place amongst them.


  1. Thanks for putting me onto this – it looks like a fascinating attempt to achieve the almost impossible! Judith Jesch has written on Old Norse bird-kennings/beasts of battle; and some writers (Eric Lacey, Marijane Osborn, Noel Adams) touch on this in the volume I’ve edited which is due out next year from Boydell and Brewer (Representing Beasts in Early Medieval England and Scandinavia). Eagles were associated with Imperial Rome, so had – as you rightly suggest – connotations of very high status.

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