A particular ballad of interest is Sigmundskvæði, or the ”heroic ballad of Sigmund,” primarily because it has a counterpart saga in Icelandic. Though not much is known about the Faroese ballad, the Icelandic saga was written anonymously around 1200 AD, which is somewhat innacurate regarding the geography of the Islands. Though the original manuscript is lost, the current saga is built around three other documents: the saga of Ólavur Tryggvason, the Flateyjarbók (literally, ”flat-island book”--a medieval Icelandic manuscript written roughly from 1387-1394), and a manuscript registered as AM 62 fol. Of all the sagas, however, the Færeyinga saga seems to have several parallels to archeological evidence that fit within the time period of the piece.
Many translations exist of the Fæyeringa Saga, but the only one easily accessible was the edition by F. York Powell. Upon asking a friend about this translation, he stated that it was awkward at best and the sentence structure seemed ”backward” from the Icelandic version. Powell has a lengthy introduction regarding the saga, but the bulk of the text can be found online at the Icelandic Saga Database (without the introduction). It appears to be translated into the lofty Romantic-era format; lengthy and flowery speech are the mainstays of the work. However fitting for the renaissance of chivalry during the period, the word choices in the text can be somewhat distracting for the modern reader.
The saga opens with the lineage of the Gøtuskjeggar family, starting with Tróndur's father, Thorbearn ”Gate-beard,” as he was nicknamed, and his wife, Gudrun. They have two sons, named Thorlac and Tróndur (Thrond). After Thorbearn dies, Thorlac and Tróndur cast lots for the family homestead and Tróndur wins. Tróndur is, throughout the duration of the saga, depicted as ”a big man of growth, and red-haired he was, and red-bearded, freckled and grim of look, gloomy of mind, cunning and shrewd towards all men, bad to deal with, and ill-natured to most folk” (Powell, 2). Though he is the younger (and the weaker) of the brothers, he has a sharp wit and is generally up to no good.
Tróndur gains noteriety early in the saga when he provides counsel regarding resolution of a theft at a market. When money is stolen from two of the Norwegian king's henchmen, Tróndur suggests that everyone pay silver to the king to repay the loss, then let those who were stolen from be reimbursed from the money. The writer notes that this is the only place in the saga that Tróndur is shown for acting fairly to any other person—but only to those of higher estate than himself.
Continuing in the next few chapters is the lineage of Sigmund and how he becomes the focus of the saga. Chapter four introduces several new characters and their relation to Tróndur. Two brothers, Breste and Beine, are among them; they live in Skúvoy and are cousins of Tróndur. Each of them have a son; Breste fathered Sigmund, and Beine Thore. When a disagreement breaks out between Breste and Beine and another character, Halfgrim (the father of Ossur, who is important later on), Halfgrim approaches Tróndur for counsel. Tróndur agrees to help, but only for recompense. They approach Swiney-Bearne (again, another character important later on) and he asks for recompense as well. They travel to fight Breste and Beine; Swiney-Bearne and Halfgrim attack, but Tróndur hangs behind to egg Halfgrim on. In the end, Halfgrim, Breste, and Beine are killed. Tróndur tells Bearne to kill Sigmund and Thore as well (as they were present), but Bearne refuses. Tróndur takes them into foster.
Time passes and the boys are ”sold” to a man in Norway, who gives the silver from the transaction to Sigmund and Thore. As with Breste and Beine, Sigmund is the stronger and swifter boy, while Thore is eternally his right-hand man. Eventually, the boys attempt to travel to the new Norwegian king—only an Earl at the time of their fathers' deaths—to see if they can receive help. They end up getting lost in the middle of the forest and are near death when they encounter the cabin of an outlaw yeoman. When they arrive, the yeoman's wife and daughter are there and take Sigmund and Thore in. Once Wolf, the yeoman, returns, he allows the boys to stay until they are grown men.
Roughly eight years pass before Sigmund and Thore are ready to continue their journey; by this time, Sigmund is eighteen and Thore is twenty. Both have learned valuable skills from Wolf, and Sigmund has fallen in love with Wolf's daughter, Thurið. Before they leave, Thurið tells Sigmund that she is with child; Wolf acknowledges and approves of their relationship. Sigmund then asks for her hand in marriage, which Wolf also grants. It will be six years before Sigmund can return to marry Thurið.
Before Sigmund and Thore depart, they ask Wolf to relate his life story. They find out that Wolf's real name is Thorkell and that his wife was the daughter of man who was of much higher estate than Thorkell's family. Thorkell essentially kidnaps Ravengild and is declared an outlaw. He asks Sigmund to bring him into favor with the Earl.
Sigmund and Thore meet the Earl Hacon and have to prove themselves the sons of Breste and Beine. They accomplish this through several feats of combat skill. The Earl invites them to stay the winter and promises Sigmund a ship next spring to start Viking voyages. Once they are outfitted with a few ships and a crew of men, Sigmund and Thore begin their Viking career by heading south of Norway. At no time does Sigmund capture merchant vessels (unlike other Viking Norsemen); only as the summer is drawing to a close does he decide to test himself against another band of Viking raiders. The fight is an enormous victory for Sigmund—he captures the ”dragon-ship” and word begins to spread about the new Viking ”on the block.”
Sigmund and Thore return to Norway for the winter, then embark the next summer to Sweden to avenge the murder of twelve Norsemen that happened over the winter. Once they reach Sweden's coastline, they march on land and fight one of the Swedish armies—again securing a stong victory, this time using a ”battle wedge” formation with all shieldmen on the outsides, starting with one person in the front, then three, then five, et cetera and piercing through the Swedish army. The remaining army fled, but Sigmund did not pursue them.
After spending another winter in Norway, Sigmund is sent out a third time—this time to apprehend and kill Harold Ironplate, a man who appears to have been a thorn in Earl Hacon's side for a while. After sailing to the Orkneys, Sigmund fights Ironplate and finds they are equally matched; Harold suggests they team up, and at first Sigmund refuses, but Harold counters that the Earl Hacon isn't as honest as he seems. Sigmund agrees to team up and ask the Earl to grant Harold peace and bring him back into favor.
Back in Norway, the Earl is anything but pleased at the prospect. He was so angry, Sigmund threatened to leave and discontinue serving the Earl—a frightening prospect as he had made a number of enemies over the past summers. The Earl reconsiders and grants Harold Ironplate peace.
The next spring, Sigmund asks to go to the Faroe Islands to avenge the loss of his father. Upon departing, Sigmund and Thore are separated by strong storms. Eventually, Sigmund catches a fine wind and lands at Eysturoy. He raids the island and finds Swiney-Bearne, who reminds him that he pleaded for the boys' lives when Tróndur killed their fathers. Sigmund spares Bearne on the condition that he comes with the party on their travels to Skúvoy. Bearne agrees.
The island of Skúvoy has a ”one-man path” leading up to the usable ground. It is the only accessible route up. When Sigmund and his party arrive, they find that no one is guarding the path, so they work their way up the path, well-armed and ready for battle. Ironplate had earlier counseled Sigmund never to settle with Tróndur or his relations (i.e., Ossur, who was fostered by Tróndur), so when Ossur tried to reason with Sigmund, he would have nothing of it. A fight broke out, and Sigmund kills Ossur with a silver axe. After this, Sigmund gives the remaining men a choice: either be cut off from food and be burned alive, or else they could surrender. The men surrendered.
Thore joins up with Sigmund after this incident; he landed at Suðuroy. With the parties reunited, Sigmund seeks Tróndur and calls him to a meeting of resolution and weregild for the loss of his parents. Tróndur claims that no one can prove he was there, aside from Sigmund's words. Nevertheless he agrees to meet the following spring in Norway at Earl Hacon's stead, but never makes it—a ship comes from the Faroes saying that Tróndur never makes it--a ship comes from the Faroes saying that he had been driven back and his ship so broken he could not sail.
Sigmund wants to have Earl Hacon make the award between Sigmund and Tróndur anyway, even though he can't be there. Hacon agrees and gives the following weregild: "I will give thee a weregild for each of the two brethren, a third weregild for Thrond's counsel against you, when he would have had you slain after he had slain your fathers, a fourth weregild you shall have because Thrond sold you into thraldom. To the headship over a quarter of the Færeys, which thou now hast, thou shalt add as much out of Thrond's lot and of Ossur's heritage as shall make thine own lot half the islands. And half shall fall to my keeping, because Hafgrim and Thrond slew my house-carles Breste and Beine. Halfgrim shall go without weregild, because of the slaying of Breste, and his onslaught on sackless men. There shall no weregild be paid for Ossur, because he wrought no uprightly when he sat him down in thy heritage, where also he was slain. Thou shalt share the weregilds between thee and Thore thy kinsman as it likes thee. Thrond shall have his holding if he keeps this settlement. Thou shalt hold all the islands in fee of me,"said the Earl, "and pay me scot for my part" (York, 18).
More time passes and Sigmund collects the weregild from Thrond, who is reluctant to give it. He also asks Sigmund for a weregild for Øssur’s father, Halfgrim. Sigmund refuses. This happens twice before the story moves to the change of hands in Norwegian power. Earl Hacon was overthrown by Ólaf Tryggvason, who was Christian. Sigmund visited with the new king and became Christian as well, and Ólaf sent him to Christianize the Faroes. Sigmund initially declines, but ends up going anyway.
Wylie sums up the latter portion of the saga, stating that ”Tróndur was a pagan chieftan and Sigmundur a Christian who pledged himself to carry out the twin policies of Ólaf Tryggvason, who had made himself the King in Norway: conversion to Christianity and the further unification of the realm. In about 998, according to the saga, Sigmundur contrived to baptize Tróndur by force and so overcame the initial strong opposition to Christianity. Two years later the new religion was formally accepted by Faroese. This did not at once bring peace, however, and in 1005 Sigmundur met his death escaping an attack by Tróndur. Tróndur, Sigmundur's grandson Leivur Øssurarson, and a third chieftain then divided up the Faroes. Resistance to Norwegian influence ceased, and it is said that when Tróndur died, in 1035, Leivur received the Faroes as a fief from King Magnús the Good (Wylie, 10).
Much more backstory exists than the description above, and though it makes an excellent tale, the historical conversion to Christianity was nowhere near as pervasive as the saga depicts it to be. One must keep in mind that monks wrote down and illuminated the manuscripts, as was common during the period. Because of this, Sigmund is praised as the good Christian hero, while Thrond is biased against as the foul heathen. Notably, also, whenever Thrond was in control of the Faroe Islands, they were generally peaceful. Was Thrond really the villian, then?
Sigmund, by contrast, is perhaps not the glowing hero the monks write him to be. He was certainly self-serving, as he chose to swear fealty to three separate rulers of Norway, so long as it had some benefit to him. He became King Olaf’s hatchet-man of sorts when he forced Thrond to accept Christianity. He was also reluctant to give up the gold ring he received from the priestess during Earl Hacon’s reign (to which Ólaf told him it would be the death of him).
Sigmundskvæði eldra and yngra are included following the conclusion; one may find them difficult to follow without having read the Færeyinga saga first. This is, logically, because the ballads try to fit more information into a smaller narrative space than does the Icelandic saga. The Faroe Islands sadly only have these ballads left—other historical records were destroyed in fires, one in a southern island and the other at the Copenhagen library in Denmark. Still other boxes of information (twelve in all) were sent from the Islands to Denmark, but no one has heard where they ended up, or if they made it to Denmark at all.