Grimnir maskHRAUDUNG, KING OF THE GOTHS, had two sons, Agnar and Geirrod. One day when Agnar was ten winters old and Geirrod eight, the brothers gathered their tackle and went out rowing in the hope of landing some fish. But soon the wind began to bluster, and the boys were driven so far out to sea that they lost sight of land. The night-shadow grew long, and in the darkness the small boat tossed and spun and was smashed to pieces on a rocky shore. Standing bedraggled in the darkness, with waves breaking around them, Agnar and Geirrod had not the least idea where they were.

Next morning the two boys found a poor peasant and stayed with him and his wife through the winter. The woman busied herself with Agnar, and the man looked after the younger, Geirrod, and taught him many things. They often walked over the land together, and what they said to each other only they knew. When the spring came, the peasant gave Geirrod the new boat that he had carved, carpentered and pitched during the winter.

Then one day the man and his wife walked with the boys down to the shore and the man took Geirrod aside, put an arm round his shoulders, and had a few words with him. Agnar and Geirrod stepped aboard and, helped by a fair wind, and acting on the advice the couple had given them, they had the good fortune to fetch up again at their father’s landing stage.

Geirrod was in the prow of the boat. He snatched the oars and jumped out. Then he gave the boat a great shove, and yelled “Go where the trolls will get you!” His elder brother Agnar and the little boat drifted back out to sea.

When Geirrod walked into King Hraudung’s hall, he found that his father had died during that winter. He was surrounded by a great company, eager to know where he had been, marvelling that he had come back, shaking their heads when they heard from Geirrod that his elder brother Agnar, heir to the throne, had been drowned months before. Then Geirrod was acknowledged as king of the Goths; his father’s retainers now swore loyalty to him. And great things were expected of him as Hraudung’s son — all the more so after such a wondrous return. But the older Geirrod grew, the greater his faults became. It was not long before his nature — his sudden fits of anger and his cruelty and tyranny — became known throughout the Norse lands.

Odin and Frigg sat in the high seat, Hlidskjalf, and looked out over the worlds.

‘Do you see Agnar?’ said Odin, your foster-son? He’s coupling with a giantess in a cave. He’s fathering brutes. But my ward, Geirrod, is a king. He rules over a great country.’

‘He’s so miserly,’ Frigg replied, ‘that if guests visit him when he is already entertaining, he pretends to welcome them and then has them tortured.’

‘That is nothing but vile slander,’ said Odin.

Odin and Frigg agreed to put things to the test and Frigg swiftly sent her maidservant Fulla to Midgard with a message for Geirrod.

‘Beware,’ said Fulla, ‘of a magician who has come to your country and means to lay a spell on you. You will know him in this way: even the fiercest dog will not leap at him.’

Now, in fact, it was a slander that Geirrod was unwelcoming. For all his untrustworthiness, his moods and his violence, he was generous and kept an open house. All the same, he heeded Fulla’s warning and told his followers to detain the traveler whom no dog would attack. It was not long before this man turned up at Geirrod’s hall; he wore a dark blue cloak and said his name was Grimnir, the Hooded One. That, however, is all Grimnir would say. When he declined to explain where he had come from or where he was going, or to declare his purpose, or to exchange any other common courtesies. Geirrod became angry. He remembered Fulla’s warning. ‘If you will not speak,’ he said, ‘you must have reason not to.’

Still Grimnir said nothing.

‘If you will not speak of your own free will,’ he said, ‘I will make you speak.’

And still Grimnir said nothing.

Then the king had Grimnir trussed and slung between two roasting fires, like a pig on a spit. ‘Until you talk,’ said Geirrod.

Grimnir hung between the fires for eight nights, and said nothing.

King Geirrod had a son ten winters old, called Agnar after his brother. Everyone loved him: his father, the king; the retainers and their ladies; the servants in the court. When he saw how Grimnir was suffering, he suffered with him. And when everyone else in the hall was drunk and snoring, Agnar approached Grimnir and offered him a brimming horn. He said his father was wrong to torture Grimnir without cause.

Grimnir gratefully drained the horn. The fires had crept so close that they singed the cloak on his back. Then Grimnir began to talk. ‘Fall back, fire! You arc too fierce. My cloak is smoldering, flames scorch the fur. For eight nights now I’ve waited here, and I’ve been ignored by all except Agnar. Geirrod’s son will be hailed as ruler of all the Goths and Burgundians.

‘Greetings, Agnar! The Lord of Men greets you. You’ll never be better rewarded for the gift of a single drink.

‘Listen now! Where gods and elves live the land is hallowed; and Thor will live in Thrudheim until all the gods are destroyed. The other gods have halls too. The first is called Ydalir, dales where yews grow, and Ull lives there. The second is Alfheim, where the light elves live. The gods gave that place to Freyr when he cut his first tooth. The third is called Valaskjalf, Hall of the Slain; one god built it for himself, and with their own hands the others thatched it with silver. The fourth is Sokkvabekk, the sinking floor — it is lapped on all sides by cool murmur­ing water and there, every day, Odin and Saga drink joyfully from gold goblets.

‘The fifth is Gladsheim, home of gladness, and Valhalla stands near by, vast and gold-bright. Odin presides there, and day by day he chooses slain men to join him. Every morning they arm themselves and fight in the great courtyard and kill one another; every evening they rise again, ride back to the hall, and feast. That hall is easily recognized: its roof is made of shields and its rafters are spears. Breastplates litter the benches. A wolf lurks at the western door, and an eagle hovers over it. Andhrimnir the cook, smutty with soot, boils the boar Saehrimnir’s flesh in a great blackened cauldron. That is the finest of all food, though few men get to taste it. The War Father feeds his wolves, Freki and Geri, with hunks of meat; but wine alone is always enough for Odin’s own needs. Every morning the two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, are loosed and fly over Midgard; I always fear that Thought may fail to wing his way home, but my fear for Memory is greater. The torrent Thund roars beside Valgrind, Valhalla’s outer gate, and the sun — the fish of the wolf — dances in the water. The river looks so deep and wild that the slain fear they will not be able to wade across it. Behind Valgrind are the sacred inner doors; and although the gate is age-old, few know how to bolt it. Valhalla itself has five hundred and forty doors, and when the time comes to fight against Fenrir, eight hundred war­riors will march out of each door, shoulder to shoulder.

“The sixth is Thryrnheim, the place of uproar set in the mountains. That’s where the great giant Thiazi lived. Now it’s owned by his daughter, fair Skadi — she was Njord’s bride. The seventh is Breidablik, Broad Splendour: Balder has set up his hall there in beautiful country, blessed and untainted by any evil.

‘The eighth is Himinbjorg, the Cliffs of Heaven, and Heimdall is master of it. The watchman of the gods sits in his fine hall, drinking mead. The ninth is Folkvang, the Field of Folk, and Freyja decides who shall enter Sessrumnir, the hall there. Every day she shares the slain with Odin.

‘The tenth is Glitnir. It has pillars of red gold and its roof is inlaid with silver. That’s where Forseti is most often found, sitting in judge­ment and resolving strife. The eleventh is the harbour Noatun, and Njord, blameless ruler of men, presides there in his high-timbered temple. The twelfth is Vidi where Vidar lives, a land of long grass and saplings. But that brave god will leap down from his steed when he has to avenge his father’s death.

‘The goat grazing outside Valhalla is called Heidrun. She nibbles the shelterer Laerad’s branches and every day she is milked and fills a great pitcher with fine, clear mead; that pitcher seems quite bottomless. And the deer wandering outside Valhalla is Oak-thorned; he nibbles the branches of Laerad too, and from his horns a stream drops into Hvergelmir, the Roaring Cauldron. That is the spring from which runs every river in the nine worlds.

‘Listen to their names! Slow and Broad, Sekin and Ekin, Cool and Loud-bubbling, Battle Defiant, Fjorn and Rin and Rinnandi, Gipul and Gopul the torrent, Old and Spear-teeming, Vin and Hull and Tholl, Grod and Gunnthorin: these are the rivers that make their way across the fair fields of Asgard.

‘But that is not all: Vin and Vegsvin that knows where to go. Nyt and Naut and the river that sweeps people away, Nonn and Hronn, Slid and Hrid, Sylg and Ylg, Vid and Van, Vond and Strond, Gjoll and Leipt; they are the rivers that course through Midgard, and cascade from Middle Earth straight into Hel.

‘When the gods go each day to meet in council at the Well of Urd, Thor has to wade across the rivers Kormt and Ormt and the two Kerlaugs. All the other gods gallop over Bifrost and their steeds are called Joyous and Golden, Shining and Swift, Silver-maned and Sinewy, Gleaming and Hollow-hoofed, and Gold Mane and Light Feet.

‘The ash tree Yggdrasill has three roots. One is embedded in Niflheim, another in the world of the frost giants, the third in Midgard. All day and every day the squirrel Ratatosk scurries up and down its trunk; he is carrying insults between the eagle perched in the topmost branches and the serpent Nidhogg, the Corpse Sucker, in Niflheim. Four harts throw back their heads and stretch to nibble the tender topmost twigs; they are Dain and Dvalin, Duneyr and Durathror. And underneath Yggdrasill are more serpents than a slow-witted man would dream of: Goin and Moin, the sons of the gnawing wolf; Grabak and Grafvolluth; the Bewilderer and the Bringer of Sleep. They will gnaw at the roots of the tree until the end of time. Yggdrasill suffers greater hardship than men realize: the deer crop its crown, Nidhogg gnaws the roots, and the trunk itself is rotting.

‘In Valhalla, Shaker and Mist, Axe Time and Raging take it in turns to bring me my brimming horn. And nine other Valkyries bring ale to the slain warriors. Their names are Warrior and Might, Shrieking, Host Fetter and Screaming, Spear Bearer, Shield Bearer, Wrecker of Plans and Kin of the Gods.

‘Arvak the Early Waker and Alsvid, All Swift, are the names of the steeds whose wearisome work is to drag the sun across the sky. Long ago the gods took pity on them, and put bellows under their yokes. And in front of the sun, like a shield, stands Svalin. Should he let his guard slip, the mountains and the sea would burst into flames. Skoll is the wolf on the tail of the sun, and he will chase her until at last he runs her down in Iron Wood; and Hati, Hrodvitnir’s son, is the wolf in pursuit of the moon.

‘The earth was made from Ymir’s flesh and the oceans from his blood. The gods made the hills out of his bones, and trees from his hair, and the sky dome is his skull. They used his eyebrows to build the mountain wall, Midgard, as a safeguard for men; and out of his brain they shaped the welling dark clouds.

‘Ull and the other gods will smile on the first man to reach into these flames. They could all look through the vent, and see my plight, if someone would move that cauldron aside.

‘Long ago the sons of the mighty dwarf Ivaldi made Skidbladnir, best of all ships; it was a gift for Freyr. Likewise, Yggdrasill is the finest of trees, Odin the greatest of gods, and Sleipnir the swiftest of steeds; lid rust is the bridge of bridges and Bragi the best of word-smiths; Hobrok is the finest hawk, and Garm the fiercest hound. I have raised my face to the gods and they have heard me, all those who sit and drink at Aegir’s banquet.

‘I will tell you my names: I am Grim; Lam Gangleri; I am Raider and the Helmeted One, I am the Pleasant One and the Third; I am Thud and Ud; I am Death Blinder and the High One; I am Sad and Svipall and Sangetall; I am Glad of War and Spear Thruster; I am One-eyed, Flame-eyed, Worker of Evil; I am Fjolnir and Grimnir, the Hooded One, I am Glapsvid and Fjolsvid; I am Deep Hood and I am Long Beard; I am Sigfod and Hnikud; I am Allfather; I am Atrid and the Cargo God. I have never been called by one name alone since I first showed myself in Midgard.

‘In Geirrod’s hall I am known as Grimnir, and Asmund knows me as Gelding. I was called Keel Ruler when I travelled on a sledge, and at the council of the gods I am called Thror. Vidur is my name when I go into battle, and the gods have known me as Just as High, Fulfiller of Desire, Shouter, and Spear Shaker, Gondlir the Wand Bearer and grey-bearded Harbard. I took the names of Svidur and Svidrir to deceive the giant Sokkmimir; I slew him, Midvitnir’s famous son.’

The god turned his head from the young prince Agnar and turned his terrible gaze on King Geirrod.

‘You are drunk, Geirrod! You’ve drunk yourself stupid. Think of all you’ve lost. Neither I nor any of my slain warriors will raise a hand to help you now.

‘How little you have acted on all I once told you. The messenger you trusted betrayed you. And now I see my friend’s sword bared and shining with blood. Ygg, the Terrible One, will soon lay claim to your pierced body, for your life has come to an end. The Norns have nothing but death to offer you. Look at me — I am Odin! Draw your sword against me if you dare!

‘Now I am Odin. Once I was the Terrible One, the Thunderer, the Wakeful, the Shaker; I was the Wanderer and the Crier of the Gods; I was Father and Bewilderer and Bringer of Sleep. All these names are one name; they are names for none but me.’

King Geirrod sat and listened. His sword lay across his lap, half-sheathed. When he heard his guest reveal that he was Odin, he leapt up to release him. But the sword slipped from the King’s hand and fell hilt first to the ground. Then Geirrod stumbled and fell on his sword so that it skewered him and killed him.

Odin vanished then. And Agnar became king and ruled for a long time.