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The Tale of Auðunn of the Westfjords

With our theme this month of the Westfjords, we discuss this Þáttir (short story) of "Auðunn of the Westfjords". Sometimes this story is called "Auðunn and the Bear".

The Westfjords outlined in red
The Westfjords outlined in red

Auðunn is a poor farmhand who works for his kinsman Þorsteinn in the Westfjords of Iceland. He lives with his mother and takes care of her. Auðunn tries to escape poverty in Iceland by working for a ship's captain in exchange for passage overseas. Before leaving, he saves up 3 years' salary to provide his mother with adequate resources while he is gone.

Auðunn spends two years working on the crew of the ship and things go well. However, in his third year, while in Greenland, Auðunn decides that it would be wise to trade everything he owns for a polar bear! This idea sounds crazy. Auðunn is putting all his eggs in one basket. Why would anyone sell everything to buy a polar bear? But he does it and has a plan in mind. After buying the bear, Auðunn gets a ride to Norway on the ship on which he works.

Photo by Thomas Hawkes (Creative Commons License)

Auðunn's plan is to bring the bear to Denmark as a gift to the king, King Svein. However, Auðunn has landed in Norway which is controlled by Harald Hardrada the Norwegian king who is at war with Denmark. Auðunn knows that King Harald will not like his plan, so he tries to lay low while in Norway. Of course, it is hard to lay low when you have a polar bear with you. So fairly quickly, King Harald gets word that there is an Icelander in town who keeps a polar bear as a pet. In response, he summons Auðunn to him.

Auðunn agrees and visits King Harald. King Harald begins by trying to buy the bear. First, he offered the price paid. When Auðunn refuses, he offers double the amount paid. But, Auðunn still refuses. King Harald then asks what are his plans with the bear.

Auðunn confesses that he wants to give the bear to King Svein in Denmark. This of course angers King Harald. Auðunn says, with respect, that what happens to him is in the hands of King Harald, but that he has no intention of changing his plans.

King Harald is intrigued by this poor but determined Icelander from the Westfjords. He instructs him to go to the King of Denmark under the condition that he return to Norway to tell his tale and to reveal how King Svein reacted to this gift. Auðunn agrees to this plan.

The bear and Auðunn eventually get to Denmark. However, Auðunn has run out of money. To survive, Auðunn has to beg for food to feed both himself and the polar bear. Auðunn begs a man named Aki, a steward to King Svein. Aki refuses to help Auðunn unless they share ownership. Aki wants to own half the bear. Auðunn agrees to share ownership of the bear.

King Svein welcomes Auðunn into his court but is furious that Aki had taken half the bear rather than facilitating the gift of the bear to the king. Aki is expelled from the country. Good riddance Aki. In contrast, Auðunn is celebrated and is allowed to stay in the King´s court.

Eventually, Auðunn gets tired of living in Denmark and decides to go to Rome on a pilgrimage. Auðunn heads off, but becomes ill and loses all his money. Auðunn was so sick that he lost a lot of weight and all his hair. He is forced to beg to stay alive in Rome.

Eventually, he makes his way back to Denmark. However, no one recognizes him because of his illness. Auðunn tracks down King Sveinn but is still embarrassed to present himself to the king given how he has changed physically since becoming ill. So, he hangs around outside of the event at which the King is present. However, the King spots him and asks him to step forward. King Svein does not immediately recognize him. However, eventually, he does and provides him with food, clothing, and lodging so that he can restore his health.

One day, Auðunn tells King Svein that he must return to Iceland to help take care of his mother. The King of Denmark agrees. And, the King in support offers a ship. When the ship is ready, King Svein brings him to the docks and Auðunn learns that King Svein is actually giving him the ship, a beautiful and well-stocked ship at that. In addition, King Svein gives Auðunn a pouch of silver and also an arm ring to show others that he has met and pleased King Svein. These gifts are insurance so that if things go badly and his ship is wrecked he has some evidence he knew King Svein.

Auðunn first heads back to Norway to visit King Harald as promised. When Auðunn reaches King Harald´s court he is treated with respect. King Harald asks what Auðunn received in exchange for the bear. Auðunnn explains all that was given to him. King Harald is impressed with the gifts. He further rewards Auðunn.

The story emphasizes the intelligence and fortitude of a poor Icelander and his dealings with kings. But, one cannot help but notice that the story may represent something deeper. At this time in history, Iceland was becoming a poorer country while Norway and Denmark were becoming richer. Iceland had also been under the rule of Scandinavian kings. Auðunn is defiant of royalty, a point of pride among Icelanders who created the first democracy. The story may be encouraging Icelanders to not back down with regard to their hopes of independence. Or, it may encourage them simply to stand strong against the adversity of monarchic rule and continue to carve their own path to success.


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