The Tale

of Toki Tokason

 

© Peter Tunstall, 2005

 

In the days when Olaf[1] was king in Sarpsborg, it once happened that a large stranger came before the king and greeted him. And the king received him well and asked him his name. The man said he was called Toki, son of Toki, the son of Toki the Elder. He asked if he could stay awhile among the retainers. The king granted him that and assigned to him a very worthy seat. Toki was quiet, kept himself to himself, and seldom drank much. He was pleasant and polite and well liked by all. The king found Toki to be both wise and inquisitive, answering all questions well and with good sense. The king enjoyed his conversation. People saw that Toki was an old man, and yet they could also see that he must once have been an exceptionally big and handsome man.

One day the king was talking with Toki and asked how old he was. Toki said he wasn’t really sure, “But this much I do know: I was fated to live two times the human span, and it seems to me likely it’ll end soon, given the length of most men’s lives.”

The king said, “You must remember King Half and his heroes, then, or Hrolf Kraki and his champions.”

Toki answered, “I remember each of them, because I was with them both.”

The king enquired, “Who do you think was best?”

Toki answered, “That’s for you to say, lord, but I will tell you a tale about it. I was a lively fellow in those days, and travelled from land to land, and I had a band of picked men with me, but only those who matched my standards, because I was counted then among the bravest sort. It was also true that at that time there wasn’t much I considered impossible. So I journeyed far and wide, wanting to test the hospitality of chiefs and the fame of their champions.

“Along with the lifespan, a doom was laid on me that I’d never enjoy more than twelve months in one place, and I found that to be true. Then I heard about Hrolf Kraki, his generosity and kindness, fame and feats, and the prowess of his champions: that they weren’t like anyone else you could name, for strength or any skill. I became eager to meet this king and his men. So off I went, taking my comrades along too, till I came to Denmark and King Hrolf. I went before him and I greeted him. And he received me well and asked who I was, and I told him. He asked what I wanted, and I said I wanted to stay the winter with him. And he said he never refused food to any man and he wasn’t going to start with me and my band.

“I asked then where I should sit. He told me to sit wherever I could make a space and pull a man off his seat. I said I was much obliged. I was very confident. I went straight for the place where Bodvar Bjarki sat. The king had ordered them not to fight back. So I grabbed hold of Bodvar and braced my feet against the footboard. I hunched my shoulders and strained with my arms. I tried then with all my strength, but he sat perfectly still and there was no way I could budge him. And one moment he was red as blood, and the next white as bast, or blue as death, or pale as a corpse, just like that, he kept turning all these colours.

“Next I took hold of Hjalti the Gallant. Each of us strove as well as we could. I managed jerk him to the edge of the dais, but then he always righted himself and sat back down again before I could. This went on a while, till I gave up. Next I settled on Hvitserk the Keen and gave it my best shot. I jerked him forwards and likewise each of the others. In this way I went right around the hall and pulled everyone out of their seats. After that I and my men could sit where we wanted. We all got the most important seats. There was real grandeur apparent in everything there, and hospitality, and it seems to me like the best place anywhere. But when summer came, I went to King Hrolf and thanked him for my winter stay, and I said that I must be off now. And he begged me to stay, but I wasn’t content there.

“Then I went on, travelling far and wide once more, till I heard tell of King Half and his heroes. Much was made of them, what valiant men they were. So I went on some more till I came to Norway and met King Half. I went before him and greeted him and he received me very well. And I asked to stay the winter with him, and he said certainly, I could stay there as long as I wanted. So then I asked, where should I and my men sit? He gave me the very same terms as Hrolf Kraki offered, and told me to sit wherever I could drag a man out of his place. I go over to where Jarl Utstein was sitting beside the king, took hold of him and tried to wrench him out of his seat. I strained with all my might, and didn’t get anywhere. After that, I went to Jarl Innstein, then to Rook the Black, then Bjorn, then Bard. I didn’t manage to dislodge any of them. In this way I went round the whole hall, not pulling anyone out their seat. And it’s true to say, my lord, the least man there, the one furthest down the hall, was not affected any more than Bodvar Bjarki. Finally I went back to the king and asked where I should sit, since I’d not been able to shift anyone out of their places. He said then that I’d be sitting a step lower than his men. So I went to my seat, to the places assigned to me and my men. Joy was not lacking there, for any who needed it, and I was happy too, except for one thing: the fact that I had to look up to other men, and other men down at me. Apart from that it would have seemed the best to me. It’s up to you now, lord, to say which was better.”

“That’s obvious,” said the king, “King Half’s heroes were much stronger, but no one would seem to me to have been a better or more open-handed king than Hrolf Kraki, in his day. But are you a baptised man or not?”

Toki answered, “I’ve been prime-signed,[2] but not baptised, as I’ve spent my time among both heathens and Christians, although I believe in the White-Christ.[3] In fact, that’s also the reason I came to see you, because I want to get baptised and to have the gospel you are offering, as I doubt I could have it from a better man.”

The king was glad that he wanted to be baptised and serve God. Toki was baptised then by King Olaf’s own bishop and died in white.[4]



[1] Saint Olaf (Óláfr inn helgi). Missionary king of Norway, 1015-1030.

[2] prímsigndr. He had received the prima signatio, a preliminary to baptism in the early church consisting of being marked on the forehead with the sign of the cross. Many heathen Scandinavians underwent this ritual as it allowed them to have dealings with the Christians abroad, e.g. as merchants or mercenaries.

[3] Jesus, so called because of the prevalence of white in Christian worship: in vestments, churches, etc.

[4] That is, in his Christening robe: within a week of being baptised.