The Northern Way



My intentions with this work have been to reconstruct, as far as possible, the lost legendary history of the Anglo-Saxon people. All the groundwork was done long ago, by scholars like HM Chadwick and RW Chambers, but to my knowledge no one has transformed their superlative scholarship into a generally accessible narrative.

I have used the genealogies of the Anglo-Saxon kings as a basic framework, fleshing this out with information from later sources that preserve identifiable fragments of the legendary history of the Anglo-Saxons. In the following notes I will explain this in further detail.



Main Sources: The Chronicle of Æthelweard (Ed. A. Campbell),

Malmesbury: the Kings before the Norman Conquest (Ed. J Stevenson)

In most of the surviving Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies, Sceaf appears at the point where they change from Biblical characters to heathen mythical heroes and gods. Said to have been "in the Ark with Noah", this is usually regarded as a later monastic reinterpretation of the original heathen myth. More information is provided by writers such as the tenth century chronicler Æthelweard, who speaks of the child Sceaf's arrival in a boat full of weapons, and how he became ancestor of Woden's dynasty, and thus the later Anglo-Saxon kings. The twelfth century writer William of Malmesbury adds that the boat lacked oars and that Sceaf's head was resting on a sheaf of corn, hence the name (OE sceaf = sheaf). His progeny are recorded by the genealogists.



Main Sources: Snorri Sturluson: Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway (University of Texas)

----------------: Edda (Everyman, 1996)

Little is known of the Anglo-Saxon myths concerning Woden. What remains corresponds roughly with the fuller accounts of Norse myth, although not absolutely. The god appears here as a magician in the Nine Herbs Charm, there as a maker of idols in Maxims I B. He can also be found in the word Wednesday (Wodnesdæg), and various placenames in England connected with his cult - Wednesbury, Wansdyke, Wenslow. But the best-documented myth concerning the god recorded after the Conversion identifies him as the ancestor of almost all the Anglo-Saxon royal houses.

The original form of the myth is unknown. By the time it was recorded in Anglo-Saxon England, Woden had clearly been euhemerised into an ancient king. It goes against the Eddic mythology, where Odin's father and grandfather, Borr and Buri, represent the full extent of the god's ancestry. Most serious historians use Woden's presence in the genealogies to cast doubt on their veracity, and often regard them as little more than propaganda. From a mythologist's point of view, however, they are invaluable.

I have filled in the gaps with Snorri Sturluson's later account in his Heimskringla and Edda, both of which show influence from Anglo-Saxon genealogy, although there is little to suggest that he knew anymore about Old English myth than we do. However, his versions are the oldest and fullest forms available. In them Woden / Odin is presented as an ancient king, in accordance with contemporary mores, but I have taken the liberty to 'restore' the tale to a more heathen form.



Main Sources: Saxo Grammaticus: History of the Danes (Ed. Oliver Elton)

Snorri Sturluson: Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway (University of Texas)

In the genealogies, one of Woden's many sons is known as Bældæg. Many writers, from Æthelweard onwards, have identified this son as the Norse god Baldr. I have followed this, despite some reservations, but adapted the version in Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum rather than Snorri's Atys-like account, under the assumption that it preserves an earlier form. Also, with its Danish origin and locale, it is perhaps closer to the story the Anglo-Saxons knew. Saxo's account also fits better with the notion of the visit of Woden and his sons to the world of Men, and the founding of the Woden-descended royal houses. But since its anti-Baldr bias is not in keeping with my own approach to the tale, I have made certain changes.

The story of the wooing of Hrind and the avenging of Bældæg / Baldr follows directly on in Saxo, but the final episode in which Woden returns to the halls of the gods is adapted from Heimskringla.



Main Sources: Snorri Sturluson: Edda (Everyman, 1996),

Saxo Grammaticus: History of the Danes (Ed. Oliver Elton),


Earendel is a very good example of the elusive and fragmentary nature of the subject matter. A number of different accounts exist regarding characters with forms of this name - Aurvandill in Iceland, Horwendill in Denmark, Orendel in medieval Germany, Earendel in Anglo-Saxon England. Each account tallies in only the vaguest of ways, but most scholars posit a single lost original for all three.

In the Edda, Snorri preserves an account of how Thor rescued Aurvandill the Brave from captivity among the giants and flung his frost-bitten toe into the sky where became one of the brightest stars (identified by some with a Corona Borealis, by others with the Morning Star); Saxo's Horwendillus is the original of Old King Hamlet in Shakespeare's play, a heroic warrior-king noted for his expeditions into the east (traditional location of giantland); the peerless knight Orendel in German tradition sailed east on a crusade and passed through many supernatural perils to rescue the most beautiful woman in the world, who became his wife; and Earendel is mentioned by the poet Cynewulf in connection with the morning star. All these names are etymolgically one and the same. This mythical character, or medley of characters, inspired Tolkien to construct his entire Lord of the Rings mythology (where he appears as Earendill).

I have used the basic story of Orendel with elements inspired by Snorri, rounding off my version with Saxo's account of the homecoming of Horwendill and more than a little artistic license. It is by no means a definitive reconstruction of the ur-Earendel saga. But it does lead quite smoothly into the next tale.



Main Sources: Saxo Grammaticus: History of the Danes (Ed. Oliver Elton),

Frisian rune-inscription from Westeremden

Amluth - the form recorded on a Frisian rune-stave from Westeremden, c.800 - was known to Saxo as Amleth, and is more famous as Shakespeare's Hamlet. It may come as a surprise to readers that the Dane appears as an Anglo-Saxon ancestor. But bear with me.

The stories of Amleth and Uffo (see below) appear in Saxo's Danish History where they are rulers in Denmark. Uffo has been positively identified as Offa I of the Mercian genealogy, and it soon becomes apparent that a portion of Anglo-Saxon legendary history has become detached and placed out of context in the legends of Denmark. Amluth is said to be son of the præfectus of Jutland, from which it can be assumed that he was a Jute. There is evidence (see Appendix C of Tolkien's Finn and Hengest) that the Jutes had come under the rule of the Angles, apart from a group who had fled to Frisia. Much of this can be reinforced by archaeological evidence. Tolkien suggests that the Jutes were already tributary in Earendel's time. I have altered this a little, and moved the conquest forward to the death of Amluth. Other changes I have made include altering the nationality of Eormenthryth (Saxo's Hermithruda) from Scottish to Pictish, since this is more in keeping with the period of the story, which I presume to be some time in the fourth century AD. It is tempting to suggest that the Amluth saga indicates some recollection of the "barbarian conspiracy" of 367? Could the ruler of Britain who is so friendly with a Jutish king be one of the Germanic soldiers recorded as holding high posts in Britain at the time? Alan Bliss suggests Wihtlæg, Amluth's killer, was born around 300 AD. In this case, could Amluth be linked with the Saxons in Britain during the reign of Carausius? But this is no more than speculation.



Main Source: Saxo Grammaticus: History of the Danes (Ed. Oliver Elton),

The identification of Saxo's hero Uffo with Offa of the Mercian genealogies has been made by better scholars than I - H.M Chadwick (Origin of the English Nation), R.W. Chambers (Beowulf, Widsith), J.R.R. Tolkien (Finn and Hengest) et al. I have retold Saxo's story more or less verbatim, but in an Anglo-Saxon context.


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