Tuesday, 25 September 2012


In Poul Anderson's Hrolf Karki's Saga (New York, 1973):

"In the morning the holmgang took place." (p. 117)

So far, a straightforward narration although we need to know what a "holmgang" is but we might guess this from the context. A man called Svipdag has just challenged the king's berserkers to single combat one at a time.

The text continues:

"This is a usage among the heathen, when men wish to fight out a challenge." (p. 117)

This confirms that the holmgang, like a duel, is the formula for fighting a challenge. It also reminds us, after just over a hundred pages, that the reader is not being addressed by an omniscient narrator. Instead, a Danish woman is addressing an English Christian court several centuries after the events described. That is why she pauses to explain to her audience that the holmgang is a "...usage among the heathen...," where Anderson or his readers might have said "a Norse custom."

The holmgang practice is then described in detail to an audience unfamiliar with it:

a holm is a small island where the antagonists are isolated;
four willow wands mark a field;
an antagonist loses if he is driven beyond them;
the blows go by turns till first blood, yielding or death.

As noted of Saxo and Starkad in the previous post, readers of Anderson's sf have already encountered this term. In a story called "Holmgang," two space suited men agree to fight on an asteroid. Anderson has a unique ability to project the past into the future for story purposes as well as to speculate about possible futures differing qualitatively from previous history.

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