Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks

Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek) is a legendary saga from the 13th century combining matter from several older sagas.[1] It is a valuable saga for several different reasons beside its literary qualities. It contains traditions of wars between Goths and Huns, from the 4th century, and the last part is used as a source for Swedish medieval history. Moreover, it was an important source of inspiration for Tolkien when shaping his legends of Middle-earth. However, the saga may be most appreciated for its memorable imagery, as seen in a quote from one of its translators, Nora Kershaw Chadwick, on the invasion of the Horde:

Hervör standing at sunrise on the summit of the tower and looking southward towards the forest; Angantyr marshalling his men for battle and remarking dryly that there used to be more of them when mead drinking was in question; great clouds of dust rolling over the plain, through which glittered white corslet and golden helmet, as the Hunnish host came riding on.

The commentary by the editor and translator Christopher Tolkien is generally accepted, and it agrees with this article, save where a note indicates differently. See [2]


Hervor's death
Peter Nicolai Arbo

The saga deals with the sword Tyrfing and how it was forged and cursed by the Dwarves Dvalinn and Durin for king Svafrlami. Later, he lost it to the berserker Arngrim from Bolmsö who gave it to his son Angantyr. Angantyr died during a fight on Samsø against the Swedish hero Hjalmar, whose friend Orvar-Odd buried the cursed sword in a barrow together with Angantyr. From the barrow it was retrieved by Angantyr's daughter, the shieldmaiden Hervor who summoned her dead father to claim her inheritance. Then the saga continues with her and her son Heidrek, the king of Reidgotaland. Between his sons Angantyr and Hlod, there is a great battle about their father's heritage and Hlod is aided by the Huns. However, Hlod is defeated and killed.

In the end, the saga relates that Angantyr, had the son Heidhrekr Ulfhamr who was king of Reidgotaland for a long time. Heidhrekr's daughter was Hildr and she had the son Halfdan the Valiant, who was the father of Ivar Vidfamne. After Ivar Vidfamne follows a list of Swedish kings, both real and semi-legendary, ending with Philip Halstensson, but this was probably composed separately from the rest of the saga and integrated with it in later redactions.[3]


Orvar-Odd and Hjalmar bid each other farewell
Mårten Eskil Winge (1866).

The saga is found in many MSs, but there are three distinct versions called H, R and U, of which H and R are preserved in vellums. H is preserved in the Hauksbók (A.M. 544, 4to), by Haukr Erlendsson (d.1334), from ca 1325. R, or MS 2845, 4to, is stored in the Danish Royal Library of Copenhagen and it is dated to the 15th century. There is also a version called U which is partially preserved as R:715 of Carolina Rediviva, the University Library of Uppsala, and as AM 203 fol. in the University Library of Copenhagen. This version is from the mid 17th century and was written by Síra Jón Erlendsson in Villingaholt (d. 1672).

However, these sources differ somewhat. For instance R is held to be closest to the original version and is more similar to U than to H, but lacks the first chapter and an ending. On the other hand, it includes Hjalmar's death song. H ends with Gestumblindi and R ends just before the end of ch. 12. However, there are two 17th century copies of H, AM 281, 4to (h1) and AM 597b, 4to (h2), and they preserve the riddles of Gestumblindi from the H version.

A slightly different version of the stemma has been reconstructed by Alaric Hall.[4]


Örvar-Oddr informs Ingeborg about Hjalmar's death
August Malmström (1859)

The matter on the Gothic wars with the Huns is of considerable age, and is based on events from the early or mid-4th century that were transmitted for almost 1000 years.

It is a testimony to its great age that names appear in genuinely Germanic forms and not in any form remotely influenced by Latin. Names for Goths appear that stopped being used after 390, such as Grýting (cf. the Latin form Greutungi) and Tyrfing (cf. the Latin form Tervingi). The events take place where the Goths lived during the wars with the Huns. The Gothic capital Arheimar is located on the Dniepr (...á Danparstöðum á þeim bæ, er Árheimar heita...), King Heidrek dies in the Horvatya (...und Harvaða fjöllum) and the Battle with the Huns takes place on the plains of the Danube (...á vígvöll á Dúnheiði í Dylgjudölum). The mythical Mirkwood which separates the Goths from the Huns, appears to correspond to Maeotian marshes.

Although, the names testify to a historical basis, the events themselves have proved harder to align with other sources.


There is much in this saga that readers of J. R. R. Tolkien's work will recognize, most importantly the riddle contest. There are for instance warriors similar to the Rohirrim, brave shieldmaidens, Mirkwood, haunted barrows yielding enchanted swords (see Barrow-downs), a mithril mailcoat, an epic battle, a flaming sword and two Dwarves named Dwalin and Durin. J. R. R. Tolkien's youngest son, Christopher, translated the work in 1960, entitling his version The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise (see bibliography).

Editions and translations

The standard scholarly edition of the different medieval recensions of Heiðreks saga is Jón Helgason's. The English translation (and for many purposes the edition) usually used is Christopher Tolkiens.


  1. The Battle of the Goths and the Huns. Christopher Tolkien, in Saga-Book (University College, London, for the Viking Society for Northern Research) 14, part 3 (1955-6), pp. [141]-63.
  2. C.J.R. Tolkien (1953–1954), "Hervarar Saga ok Heidreks Konungs", pp. vii–xxxviii.
  3. Alaric Hall (2005), "Changing style and changing meaning: Icelandic historiography and the medieval redactions of Heiðreks saga", Scandinavian Studies, 77: at p. 14.
  4. Alaric Hall (2005), "Changing style and changing meaning: Icelandic historiography and the medieval redactions of Heiðreks saga", Scandinavian Studies, 77: at p. 3.

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