In the early 11th century, there reportedly lived a poet named Thormod, who was nicknamed Kolbrúnarskald, which can be translated as the Skald of Coalbrows. He was one of several Icelandic poets who joined the court of King Olaf II of Norway (r. 1015-1028), who later came to be known as Saint Olaf. Thormod Kolbrúnarskald proved himself to be a loyal court poet, sticking with Saint Olaf even when the tides of fate began to turn against the Norwegian king. In 1028, mighty Canute the Great—the king of England (since 1016) and Denmark (since 1019)—successfully executed a brilliant campaign that utilized diplomacy and threat of military force to usurp power in Norway from Olaf. As Canute’s forces moved in, Olaf decided to flee to fight another day, and consequently the transfer of power was rather bloodless. Nevertheless, Olaf did not intend to give up his throne without a fight. He returned to Norway in 1030 with an army of allies and supporters. Thormod Kolbrúnarskald was said to have been among the men who followed Olaf during his bid to reclaim Norway.
Unfortunately for Saint Olaf, not all Norwegians wanted the exiled king to reclaim his throne. Quickly after invading Norway, Olaf and his supporters ran into a large hostile army that had been raised to thwart Olaf’s return. Saint Olaf and his resistors clashed at the Battle of Stiklestad (1030), and Thormod Kolbrúnarskald was present on the battlefield, fighting alongside his king. Although Olaf and his forces fought valiantly, their opponents won the day. Saint Olaf was slain on the battlefield, and Thormod Kolbrúnarskald was severely wounded by an arrow. Olaf’s influential ally, Dag Hringsson, rallied the slain king’s forces and began an organized retreat. Skald Thormod, however, was too injured to join the withdrawal. Instead, he reportedly slipped away from the battlefield and made his way to a nearby farmstead. This farm must have caught the eye of many wounded warriors, for the estate’s house and barns were allegedly filled with numerous wounded men from both sides of the battle. Some tension and friction was caused because of the differing loyalties of the injured men, and Thormod personally was said to have fought off another injured man at the farmhouse who tried to steal a gold ring that Thormod possessed. Other than that incident, the makeshift farm hospital was supposedly a peaceful place, with the injured men coexisting together while they waited to die or recover.
Making his way inside the farmhouse, Thormod Kolbrúnarskald was able to find a nurse to inspect his arrow wound. The nurse, unfortunately, decided that she could do little to help him—she refused even to touch the arrow, as removing it would make the wound worse. Thormod, his fate sealed, evidently decided to spend his final moments doing what he loved best. He managed to scrounge together the means to write a poem, and reportedly composed a few verses about the Battle of Stiklestad and the wounds that he sustained during the fight. The Icelandic scholar, historian, and saga writer, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), recorded lines of poetry that were supposedly written by Thormod Kolbrúnarskald as he lay injured after the battle:
heeds my grievous wounds, though.
Pale I am with pangs of
gold, from deep wounds deadly
Danish arrows gave me.
Few from wounds grow fair-hued:
Found me the flight of arrows.
The ice-cold iron, linen-
elm, flew through my middle.
Hard by my heart, think I,
hit me the baleful weapon.”
(Thormod Kolbrúnarskald quoted in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 234)
After allegedly writing down these and other lines, Thormod reportedly tried to self-treat his wounds. Disregarding the nurse’s advice, the skald yanked out the arrow that was stuck in him. After removing the projectile, the poet must have felt that his condition was worsening. Looking at the gore-covered arrowhead, the skald was allegedly inspired to compose one more literary line. According to Snorri Sturluson, the wounded poet uttered, “Well has the king fed us. I am fat still about the roots of my heart” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 234). After uttering these alleged final words, Thormod Kolbrúnarskald fell unconscious and succumbed to his wounds.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (After The Battle (dated 1872), painted by Peter Nicolai Arbo (c. 1831–1892), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and Artvee).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.