On a Nordic Legend

Scandinavia is an area filled with lore and legends. The Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian languages–and, by extension, the Icelandic language as well–boast a varied and fascinating mythology. Many of the stories from Scandinavian legends have been created from actual historical characters. These real people have had their lives changed, magnified, and transmogrified over time by singers, painters, and writers for reasons that range from the political to simply for fun.

One such legend that most likely has historical origins is the story of a Scandinavian lord named Amloda or Amleth (depending on the language used). In Old Norse, the name might have meant trickster, prankster, or even fool. Scholars aren’t sure if this was the lord’s name or if it more described his personality. Similar words/names such as amhlair can be found in old Gaelic and can mean stupid or mad–as in crazy.

12th Century Latin versions of Old Norse poems from two centuries earlier are among the first to mention this man. In these early stories, the lord was reported to be the grandson of the governor of Jutland. He was seen for some unknown reason to be a threat to the king, and his life was threatened. The story goes on to say that it was his madness or foolishness that ultimately saved him from the king’s paranoia. If he was this silly, this stupid-crazy, how much of a threat could he really be? This may be why scholars are confused about the name–was it actually the young man’s name or was it merely a description of his personality?

At any rate, the tale continues and includes murders, a love interest, faithful and faithless men and women, and all the swordplay that should be included in any good medieval legend. After he survives the jealousy of the king, the story ends with the lord marrying a nice princess and then dying heroically in battle. Was any of it true? Did this young lord actually live? Scholars believe so. The story is found across several cultures in Scandinavia, far too many for the tale to not have had its origins in truth.

By the 1500s, the popular story had made its way to France and then to England. A writer in Elizabethan times in England knew about this story, and he decided to use it as an inspiration for a new play he was working on. It’s a story that the world today knows well.

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

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