In his Heimskringla, the Icelandic chief, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), ambitiously sought to write an entertaining, but historically inspired, narrative that traced the royal line of Norway from the ancient fog of myth all the way to the reign of Magnus Erlingsson (r. 1162-1184). Sturluson achieved his goal, ultimately producing a book that not only contained vital information about medieval Scandinavia (especially through his preservation of Skaldic poetry), but was also skillfully written in a pleasant and enjoyable way. Nevertheless, the Heimskringla was a series of sagas, and while sagas feature historical subjects and people, they also often take great artistic license for the sake of storytelling, or otherwise use myth and folklore to spice up the tale. The Heimskringla, though an admirable work of great importance, was no exception. Take, for example, the odd story of Saur, the magical talking dog of Norway.
The bizarre tale of Saur appears as an interesting digression in the Saga of Hákon the Good, the fourth saga contained in the Heimskringla. It is quite a big digression, for although the saga is about Hákon the Good (king of Norway, r. 934/940-961), the tale of Saur was set more than a century earlier, in the time before Norway was unified under a single monarchy. The haphazard placement of Saur’s story in the saga conjures up an image of Snorri Sturluson having this fun folklorish tale in his possession, but not knowing where it would best fit in the narrative. Therefore, when he happened to write about Hákon the Good interacting with Trondheim, the setting of Saur’s story, Snorri Sturluson decided to include the tale of the dog in the saga, even if it was a bit chronologically awkward, just because it was that entertaining.
As the story goes, there lived a certain minor king called Eystein the Powerful in Uppland who, according to tradition, lived around the early 9th century. Eystein the Powerful allegedly invaded the region of Trondheim and brought the district under his influence. With the area conquered, the king needed to appoint someone to govern the newly acquired land. He apparently offered the names of two possible candidates for the job, and let the people of Trondheim decide which of the two would be their new overlord. One option was Thórir Faxi, a trusted thrall of Eystein. The other choice was Saur—a dog.
Trondheim, of course, chose the dog as their new governor, thinking that they could remain autonomous if a mere animal was their appointed ruler. Yet, when Saur padded his way into Trondheim, the locals soon realized that this was no ordinary dog. According to the tale, Saur was a magical creature with three times the intelligence of an average man. He could also allegedly speak in human tongues after having barked twice; although, how understandable this speech was is unknown, for Snorri did not say if the dog spoke full sentences or just one word between barks.
Saur must have either impressed or frightened the people of Trondheim, because the locals began to heap luxurious gifts upon their magical hound. A collar and chain of gold and silver were crafted for the furry lord. He was also supposedly given a dog bed fit for a king, which was placed on a hill where the rulers of Trondheim once held their court. Additionally, the people of Trondheim reportedly carried Saur on their shoulders when he wished to travel, ensuring that his noble paws were never dirtied by mud. All in all, he lived a pampered life.
Saur, however, was a dog of his times—no Norse ruler, including the magical mutt of Trondheim, wanted to be thought of as soft or weak. Therefore, when a threat occurred in his domain, Saur would bare his teeth and boldly scamper toward the danger. As the story goes, this noble nature eventually led to Saur’s death. One day, a pack of wolves attacked a flock of sheep in Trondheim. Upon hearing of this attack, Saur heroically rushed to the flock’s defense. Unfortunately, the brave hound did not wait for reinforcements, but instead chose to carry on alone. Although he was a magical dog, Saur was no match for the pack of wolves, and his bizarre tale ends with him sadly being ripped apart by his canine cousins.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Medieval illumination of a dog, 14th century, from a Codex in the Czech Republic, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.