Hild, unable to bear the deaths of her lover and father, raises their bodies with the bodies of their warriors, leading to an endless cycle of slaughter.
It has the makings of a great gothic romance. Unwilling to accept the loss of her slain love, she reanimates him night after night until the twilight of the gods. But it gets better. She also reanimates his enemies so he can defeat them in battle. And every day they will slaughter each other again.
This is the story of Hild, usually known as the story of her father, Hagen and her lover Heoden, or by the war they endlessly fight, the Hjaðningavíg, in English, the Battle of the Heodenings. And if Gothic Viking zombie mayhem is your jam, you’ll be surprised to hear that this is a very old tale that seems almost lost to time. Sure, it’s referred to in two Old English poems, a few Scandinavian image stones, the Gesta Danorum and several Norse and German sources, but why did Shakespeare miss it? Surely a Brontë could have done a bang-up treatment of it. Or Wagner: what opera has a story of tragic love and vengeance and reanimated Viking armies? It would serve as a great backstory for a graphic novel or Marvel movie.
Hild and the Never-Ending Battle
There are several versions of the story, but in all of them, Heoden runs off with Hild and is sought after by her father Hagen, who corners them on an island. Both men are backed by armies. Hild tries to reconcile her father to the man she sees as her husband, but something in her manner leads to Hagen’s refusal. There is a battle the next day and then Hild begins to revive the dead, who rise the following day to fight again. The extant details are priceless storytelling, and the fogginess allows us to guess at what must have gone wrong to end in such a circle of violence. The Hjaðningavíg, the never-ending battle, including Hild, strikes me as an excellent metaphor for the generational cycles of blood feud between families in Old English poems like Beowulf, and the typical tragic failure of a peace bride, called a peaceweaver, who is meant to knit the feuding families together. One can read about generations of Beowulf’s family or Hrothgar’s family fighting with a traditional enemy, or one can read about the same two men dying and returning to life and making the same mistake over and over forever.
The Endless Battle
Hild’s father and lover are doomed to fight and kill each other for all time.
There are several versions of the tale, which was known in England, Scandinavia and Germany. Snorri tells us that the never-ending battle became a kenning, or metaphor, “the storm of the Hiadnings (Heodenings),” for battles in general. Weapons were called the “Hiadnings’ fires” or “Hiadnings’ rods.” It must have been an immensely popular tale throughout the middle ages. The later medieval German version from Kudrun weaves in the sea giant Wade, a tantalizing figure, born of a mermaid, and the singer known in Old English as Heorrenda, who was famous enough to be mentioned in the poem “Deor.” In this version, Heoden wins Hild’s love and elopes with her with the help of these extraordinary figures from a jealous Hagen unwilling to part with his daughter. This version of the story ends happily and omits the never-ending battle. While the Kudrun version represents a late telling of the story (c. 1250), Raymond Wilson Chambers points out the close proximity between Heoden, Hagen and Wade in “Widsith,” on lines 21 and 22 respectively. “Widsith” would be the earliest literary reference to the tale and the “Widsith” poet clearly placed character names from well-known tales in proximity of one another. Chambers argues that this suggests that Wade and Heorrenda were part of the story in its earliest known traditions.
Wade the Boatman
The tantalizing figure Wade, the boatman, was always associated with the sea. The Saga of Didrik of Bern says that he was born of a king and a mermaid and that he was a giant. Chaucer refers to his magic boat, which was called Guingelot. Wade is the father of the more famous Weland, the legendary smith, and grandfather to the hero Wideke (Wudga in Old English).
Snorri’s version of Hild makes her a sort of antagonist in the story, a bloodthirsty, vengeful figure who seems to want to punish her father. In Snorri’s Edda, she becomes “the woman full of evil” who “purposed to bring…the bow-storm to her father.” It is not clear at all why she is angry, but that can be fun to imagine. The “Sörla þáttr,” a short story version from the Flateyjarbók, introduces a second female figure of evil intention, who bewitches Heoden into killing Hagen’s queen and looting his kingdom, in addition to kidnapping his daughter, whom Hagen would have freely given to Heoden to wed. Hild knows that Heoden is under a spell and still tries to reconcile him to her father. In this version, the never-ending battle continues until a Christian warrior of King Olaf kills every combatant, exorcising the evil for good.
Whatever version of the never-ending battle one chooses as their favorite, they will find magic and romance and in most versions, tragedy. They will usually find a cinematic battle fought by men continually raised from the dead by a woman stuck in the middle of a cycle of violence and wrath. But currently, this story needs to be sought out in fragments from many old sources. It has not been brought into the modern era. And clearly, it should be. I can only hope that my efforts to hand off the tale to modern readers may find some success in inspiring a creator to pick it up and bring it to more people.
Reading My Sources
The most useful source, to me, in studying the different versions of Hild and the never-ending battle is Chambers’s Widsith, a Study in Old English Heroic Legend. Of course, this is an in-depth study of the Old English poem, but I haven’t seen another source that investigates the different versions of this story and comments on them as intelligently—and Chambers does this for every story referred to in “Widsith.” Chambers is also my source for the Kudrun version of the tale, though that can be read in synopsis online. Snorri’s version (scroll to page 188 in link or search “Hjadnings”) from the Edda can be found in many places online. I did not find an English translation of “Sörla þáttr” online, but Olivia E. Coolidge’s 1951 Legends of the North (out of print, but available) has a version of the tale that seems most in line with it, including the bewitching woman. If you are interested in reading about the sea giant Wade, and his family, (and many other Germanic heroes) in a more romantic, Arthurian style, I would recommend Ian Cumpstey’s The Saga of Didrik of Bern.
My years-long effort to share the excellent stories known to the author of the Old English poem, “Widsith.”
I am, of course, engaged in the tale because it is referred to in the Old English poem “Widsith,” a compendium of the great old stories of the north that I have been studying and sharing for almost a decade. “Widsith” is a poor poem to seek out an understanding of the tale of Hild and the never-ending battle. It refers to stories by referring to names, and Hagen and Heoden are mentioned, along with the sea giant Wade. That said, without “Widsith,” I wouldn’t have encountered this story and many others that were so popular and well known in the middle ages that just hearing the names of characters from them would conjure the tales for the listener. These tales were frequently tragic and violent and forced the main characters into positions where they had to choose allegiances when no answer was correct. This is also not the only tale referred to in “Widsith” that involves raising the dead. I plan next to tell the story of the shieldmaiden Hervor, who raises her father from his barrow to claim his cursed sword, from The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek.