Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Wise Crow

We've been talking about a lot of very divine ladies lately, but it's been a little while since we talked about a lady hero who spends most of her time meddling in the affairs of humanity. Today, I want to tell you all about an awesome seeress and mental badass named Aslaug, Queen of Denmark and Sweden and general winner.

Aslaug is the daughter of Sigurd, one of the greatest heroes of Norse myth mostly famous for slaying the dragon Fafnir, and Brynhildr, the valkyrie who helped guide him to victory, so already she's got a pretty impressive pedigree. Sigurd and Brynhildr are out adventuring and being famous for the first few years of her life, but unfortunately they get killed when she's around three years old, which leaves her orphaned and staying with Heimir, king of Hlymdalir. Heimir was Brynhildr's foster-father, so he's understandably all torn up over her death, and he swears to protect her daughter at all costs.

But he's a guy in a Norse myth, so as you might expect, he has some pretty strange logical reasoning skills. He decides that the evil powers that be are clearly going to come for Aslaug, and that he won't be able to protect her inside his ginormous fortified castle, so the only thing to do is to go take her with him to become a wandering minstrel so no one will find them. And since he can't have people seeing her, since at three years old she's already incredibly beautiful and everyone will instantly know she came from a special bloodline, he figures the obvious solution to this problem is to build a harp so massive that he can hide her inside it along with his valuables and no one will ever know.

So Aslaug and Heimir travel the world for a while, with her stuffed inside a giant instrument and audiences presumably wondering what this skald is compensating for with that huge-ass harp. Aslaug only gets to come out when Heimir happens across a waterfall or river in which he can take her out and bathe her, but since this is her life from age three onward, she doesn't really understand that that's kind of weird. And anyway, she gets to sit in among a lot of treasure and hear harp music all the time, so she figures it could be worse.

Everything goes fine for a while, until Heimir happens to stop at the home of a peasant couple named Aki and Grima, from whom he begs food and a place to stay for the night. Grima notices that there's some weirdly fine cloth sticking out of the side of the harp and that Heimir seems to be wearing some pretty fancy jewelry for a beggar, so when Aki comes home that night, she tells him about all the possible riches in store and suggests they rob him (and points out that being a peasant sucks, and she's going to leave with the rich dude if he doesn't rob him, so he'd better step up). The peasants take an axe to Heimir, who wakes up for long enough to throw a huge dying tantrum, during which he possibly realizes that this was kind of a flawed plan on his part to start with.

Aki and Grima are somewhat nonplussed, once they get the harp open, to discover a child in it, probably because who puts children inside musical instruments? They try to ask Aslaug who she is, but Aslaug has never learned to talk on account of being in a harp her whole life, so she can't tell them, and eventually they settle on naming her Kraka, meaning "crow", a foreshadowing name since crows and ravens are associated with prophecy and ruin.

Aki and Grima figure it's the least they can do to raise this poor girl now that they've killed her foster-father, although they have to do a lot of disguising shenanigans such as shaving Aslaug's head and rubbing tar on her so people won't realize that she clearly does not look anything like them, and Aslaug grows up as a poor peasant girl. Despite the best efforts of her new adoptive parents, there's no hiding Aslaug's beauty under mud or making excuses: she's an obviously royal and magical person at first sight, and she starts avoiding being at home.

At this point, King Ragnar, who is technically the boss of Denmark and Sweden but who has recently lost his wife and is trying to wash away his sorrows with some good old-fashioned pillaging and looting, turns up in their general area with his men on a raiding expedition, and demands that Aki and Grima let him and his men stay at their farm. Aslaug, who has seen them coming from afar, goes out and washes herself in defiance of her foster-mother's orders, and when she comes home the men are severely bowled over by her awesomeness. Because they're Viking raiders and they're not really about subtlety, they demand she work as a cook and servant for them, mostly so they can constantly ogle and bother her while she tries to make food, which results in most of the meal being inedible.

When they take their burned food back to Ragnar, he's offended by how terribly it was made and demands to know who cooked it, which is of course part of Aslaug's plan. The men explain to Ragnar that there's a woman at the farm that might be the most beautiful woman ever to live; Ragnar gets offended on his dead wife's behalf, but decides to take a look himself, saying he'll forgive him if Aslaug is actually as hot as they say she is. The wind has mysteriously become unfavorable for sailing, so they can't go to her, so he tells the men to go back on foot and tell Aslaug that she should come visit; but because he wants to see if she's all that, he sends a message saying she has to come neither dressed nor undressed, neither fed nor unfed, and neither alone nor with any other person.

But of course Aslaug is not impressed by his tomfoolery, and easily defeats his demands. She arrives at the meeting wearing a fishing net, thus being both clothed and not clothed at the same time, having eaten a single bite of food so that she's neither unfed nor fully fed, and with a dog for a companion, so she's neither alone nor with any other person.

Ragnar is impressed enough to invite her aboard his ship, but Aslaug is not stupid and knows how Vikings can be, and forces him to first take an oath of peace that he won't touch or harm her if she does so. When he immediately tries to lay hands on her anyway, her dog bites the hell out of his hand (and, unfortunately, gets put down for it), and she points out that he has to honor his promise or she's going to have nothing to do with him. Aslaug's beauty is such that Ragnar can't forget her, but she weaves promises and skillful wordplay around him until he has to promise to let her go home and to only come back after he's done with his raiding trip, so she can be sure he really wants her to go live with him and isn't trying to just trick her into a quick assignation.

Because she knows she's about to leave when Ragnar comes back, Aslaug then goes home and cheerfully informs Aki and Grima that she's fully aware that they murdered Heimir, and she curses them for it that each day of their lives will be a little more unlucky for them than the one before it, until they die on the worst day of their lives. She then swans off with Ragnar, who she continues to keep in agony by refusing to sleep with him until he gets back to his kingdom, gives her a proper wedding feast and crowns her queen, because she's not about to deal with his Viking shenanigans without some insurance.

Once they're married, Ragnar is ready to go, but Aslaug warns him that she has seen a prophetic vision and that if they consummate their marriage tonight, evil will come of it. Ragnar is fed up by this point, however, and points out that the peasants he thinks were her parents were definitely no prophets, and they end up consummating anyway. Aslaug's prediction is of course correct, however; their children are very strong but the eldest is born with only cartilage in his body, no bones, and one assumes Ragnar is uncomfortable about it whenever he remembers that this is kind of on him.

After a little while, Ragnar, in his endless trips to harass and plunder and occasionally have dinner with his neighbors, happens to stop in the court of King Eystein of Sweden, who has an exceptionally beautiful daughter named Ingibjorg. Because he has the same kind of decision-making skills as all Norse kings seem to have in this story, he decides he wants to marry her because she's very beautiful and the daughter of a king, and while Aslaug is beautiful, she's just a peasant so he should be able to do better. He promises to marry Ingibjorg and then heads home, where Aslaug meets him at the gates and asks if he has anything to tell her.

He says no, but Aslaug is persistent. She also asks him if he has anything to tell her when they sit down for dinner that night, and again when they go to bed. When he says no each time, finally she says okay, she'll tell him, and then informs him that she knows he's gotten engaged to someone else in spite of already being married. Ragnar demands to know who told her, and she says not to bother trying to punish any of his men; she heard the tale from three crows that watched him make the vow, and he is suitably creeped out by once again realizing that he's sort of accidentally married a magical wife who isn't interested in letting him jerk her around.

At this point, Aslaug reveals that she's actually the daughter of Sigurd, king and mightiest of heroes, and Brynnhildr, a freaking valkyrie, and if he thinks he can do better than her he's out of his mind. She tells him the entire story of how she came to be at the peasants' house, but Ragnar declares that she's insane and that she's just rambling a made-up story to make herself feel better. Aslaug is not interested in his bullshit, and makes a prophetic proclamation that the baby she's carrying right now will be born male and with the mark of a dragon in his eyes to signify his relation to Sigurd, and if he knows what's good for him Ragnar had better not go gallivanting around with Ingibjorg before waiting to see if this is true.

And then she does have a baby boy, who is called the serpent-eyed because he does indeed have a magical eye condition that links him to Sigurd, and Ragnar gives up and decides that he doesn't need to date anyone else anyway, because Aslaug is liable to start flinging curses if he doesn't start behaving himself. He figures having more wars with Ingibjorg's father is way safer.

Alas, as is the way of wars, one of Aslaug's sons eventually gets killed on his military campaigns, and Ragnar and the other sons remain out in the field trying to get things under control while messengers are sent back to Aslaug to inform her of the situation. She sheds the only tear of her life, which escapes her eye as a solid jewel made of blood, and then declares she's going to wreak the most epic vengeance as soon as her sons and step-sons get home and can tell her exactly what happened. Once they do, she not only convinces them to get back out there and start fighting again, but decides to go ahead and go with them, explaining that none of them understand exactly what steps have to be taken to get the most truly awesome vengeance. She also changes her name to Randalin, meaning "shield-protection", because she is not fucking around. She leads the land cavalry while her wons lead the navy, and together they decimate King Eystein's kingdom and destroy all his magical protections.

Ragnar, who has been doing a lot of battling but not keeping up on things at home, has no idea this is going on until Aslaug comes home and kicks off their marital reunitement by dolefully predicting that he should cancel the trip he's currently planning to England, because his boats won't make it and he's going to end up getting himself killed. Ragnar is feeling kind of insecure right now, though, because Aslaug and his sons seem to be being better at conquest than him, so he refuses to listen to her and goes anyway. When she realizes he won't be swayed, Aslaug also tries to help him out by making him a magical shirt to wear, which prevents any blades from penetrating it or any wounds of the person wearing it from bleeding, and he does take that, because hey, free magical armor.

Predictably, Ragnar's ships mostly sink on the crossing to England, and he ends up with insufficient troops to avoid being defeated and captured by King Ella, who tosses him in a snakepit to die. Ragnar sticks it out for a little while because of Aslaug's magical shirt, but eventually Ella figures out what's keeping him alive and strips him of it, whereupon he is bitten by like a zillion snakes and dies ignobly far from home. The text doesn't actually say that Aslaug says I told you so, but she does spend the rest of her life ruling his kingdom while his sons continue the warring tradition.

Not bad for a kid who spend most of her formative years stuffed into a harp-frame. Aslaug is a fantastic example of the Norse seeress; she knows things no one else can known and wields the power of curses at her whim, and is intelligent, cunning and dangerous even to those men who are considered strongest and most powerful in the world. She has no reason or need to fear anyone, and no matter how much chest-beating and weapon-clashing the warrior men around her do, when she says jump, they run to get the trampoline.

Alas, nobody ever listens to her prophecies... but as we saw above, bad decisions are the foundation of Norse mythological plots.