Arinkjól doesn’t Mean ‘House’

16 September, 2013

To write c. 1500 words because one is not satisfied with the usual translation of an Old Norse word, a poetic kenning to be precise, is probably a sign of being bored by the view from the room of one’s own in the ivory tower (Humanities Tower No 60 in the lates World Ranking), so bored in fact that leaving room, let alone tower, is no alternative.

Nevertheless, Old Norse verse is interesting because it is complex and sometimes difficult to understand. We gather that the opaque meaning is important and this has led us to translate the strophes. First we start by translating the words. In this case it is a strophe of Þjóðólfr of Hvinir’s (c. 855-930 CE) i.e. Thjodolf.

text 00

When we know the words that Thjodolf used to convey his message we may start to condense and reduce its metaphors and kennings (a kenning is a metaphoric paraphrase). We do so because we think that some clarity may be needed. Reducing Thjodolf’s poetic expressions we draw on a scholarly textual tradition and start to simplify Thjodolf’s metaphors and paraphrases. And when we are at it why not bring the series of events described by Thjodolf into some sort of chronological order.

text 01

At this stage in the condensation, arinkjól, which is a relatively difficult kenning, is always translated ‘house’ (i.e. reduced to house) because Snorri Sturluson in Ynlinga Saga informs us in plain words that Visbur perished when the building where he lived was set on fire. True to his method Snorri backs up his own simplicity in Ynglinga Saga by quoting Thjodolf’s complexity in one of the strophes from Ynglingatal – and we become confident that arinkjól means ‘house’.

And we proceed:

text 02

And we may continue to clarifyi the strophe a bit more:

text 03

But we may as well stop here because we have already proved beyond doubt to ourselves that Thjodolf’s complexity covers something commonplace and seemingly an obsession with fire and repetition.

Nevertheless, it is a good rule of the thumb to ask ourselves, when we have reduced the past to the commonplace and its verses to art for fart’s sake, whether this can really be true. Did Thjodolf perhaps have an agenda when he chose his kennings and metaphors? Do they mean more than simply fire, son, body and house? Perhaps there are kennings and metaphors to explain, and a choice of poetic expression to discuss in relation to the material culture of the past and its reality.

In the strophe, kennings and metaphors come in pairs, but it will nevertheless be rewarding to begin by seeing them as two parallel series.

Vísburs vilja byrgi = Vilbur’s will fence /will’s fence  is the place where his mind and soul is enclosed and thus his body. But it must not be forgotten that archaeologically speaking the fence is also typical of the farm –  surrounding its buildings and yards. Around manors or a King’s residence fences are impressive and protective in a definite rather than formal way.

meinþjóf markar = the forest’s mean thief. This is fire. Mark means the wood, but not any wood. Rather it is the wood that delimits the settled area (the forested borderlands, i.e. the ‘mark’ we know from Den-mark – the border lands of the Danes). This kind of wood makes up the borders of the human landscape and since it borders on the foreign it is a little beyond our control. The fire in question is a fatal devastating event leaving but a few the black trunks standing in the smoke — long after the fire has died away.

í arinkjóli = in the hold of the hearth. In the Carolingian Iron Age, the hall with its slightly arched central ridge and convex long walls looks like a boat turned upside down. And there are similarities also in the way house and boat building were perceived. Since the hearth is placed on the floor, enlightening the hall room and its open roof construction, as if the floor was the deck of the upside down boat, it is possible to see the sloping inner roof of the hall as the hold of the ship. The word kjól means keel, but since ‘sailing on a loose keel’ means sailing with an empty ship, and since the preposition used here is ‘í’, i.e. ‘in’, kjól is also a metaphor for the space below the deck, i.e. the hold. Since the hall room may at times be empty or filled by (a cargo of) guests  arinkjól is a befittting kenning. In the manor, the hearth, moreover, is the centre of the hall, which means that this kenning brings us into Virbur’s hall, where he would be sitting in the high seat – Royal and content.

sævar niðr, the brother of the sea. The giant of the sea/water was Hle (Ægir). His brother, who was in charge of fire, was called Loge, i.e. Flame. Describing the fire in this way makes the verb ‘swallow‘ very appropriate because similar to water the fire as an element can be seen to swallow people when they disappear in the flames – in ‘a sea of fire’ – similar to people disappearing in the waves.

setrs verjendr, the defenders of the (high)seat (‘seat’ being a metaphor also for the residence). In this case the defenders are Visbur’s sons, Gisl and Åndur. Visbur left them and his wife their mother, when they were small children. She went back to her wealthy father with her sons and they were brought up abroad (i.e. not in Old Uppsala where Visbur is supposed to live). It is thus from the outside that these brothers return to defend their throne, which they suppose will be occupied or usurped by their junior half-brother Domnald. Since Gisl and Åndur are the heirs closest to the throne they defend it when necessary. The reason why they settle for ‘arson defence’ is not crystal clear – i.e. not sanctioned by the Security Council and the UN. Thus, by choosing this kenning Thjodolf gives us a glimpse of Gisl and Åndur’s rhetoric. Their foreignness is also implied by their names which means ‘ski pole’ and ‘ski’.

Gisl and Åndur

glóða garmr, the glow hound. Because dogs and hounds may be aggressive and dangerous attackers, the glow hound may well be a metaphor for the aggressive fire. However, when the magnate is sitting in his hall his dog is there too on the floor in the side aisle next to the hearth, and usually and ideally, but not in this case, the Master’s control of the beast is total.


If we are not aware of the way kenning and metaphor interact, mirror and develop the poetic understanding of Visbur’s fate, we miss something important and run the risk of making the past as simple minded as our translation of it. This is a mistake and one such is the usual translation of arinkjól ashouse’ rather than ‘hall’ or ‘hallroom’. Seen from the ivory tower, this is a grave mistake sabotaging Thjodolf’s careful poetic construction, its kennings and metaphors.

The three kenning+metaphor pairs, become more difficult and important to understand when Thjodolf zooms in on the very spot where Visbur, content in his high seat and hall behind his fence, understands that he has lost control and realizes that he will soon be swallowed by the fire. Thjodolf takes us from (1) the common fact that people can be burnt in fires when at home, i.e. behind their fences, over (2) the specific historical situation – i.e. the fateful retaliation brought about from abroad by the wronged sons that he once abandoned to (3) Visbur in his hall. The sons employ a foreign and brutal method befitting their father and worthy of their revenge. The contrast between Visbur and the dog — disturbed in their fenced hall content, and the inflated rhetoric of the seat-defending sons attacking from the woods, brings us in close contact with the attitudes of the antagonists and their character.

It has been pointed out before, but deserves to be repeated: conventional translations of skaldic verse belittle poets such as Thjodolf of Hvin. He may be accused of being too intellectual and perhaps he introduced setrs verjendr too bluntly, and perhaps this kenning is too ironic, but he is a better poet than most of his translators. And arinkjól doesn’t mean ‘House’.

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