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Interview with Bragi

Poetry and Politics: Advice for Skalds

by Bragi, court poet of the Asgard


Only a few centuries ago, I worked with the middle-earthling writer Snorri Sturluson on a book called Skáldskaparmál, a history of poetry which included a thesaurus of common poetic terms and phrases. The response to this little volume was overwhelmingly positive. I received many letters from other court poets thanking me for what one called, "the ultimate handbook for skalds everywhere."

But many people also wrote to me with questions that were not about poetry. Instead, skalds everywhere wondered what advice I could give to a young poet just beginning his career. How, they asked, could an artist trained only in word-craft get an "in" with the king and royal court? This book is for you, young poets! Together with its companion volume, Skáldskaparmál, it contains everything you need to know to embark upon a successful court career. Skoal!

Chapter 1: Getting a Job

So you've finished your poetic training. You know everything there is to know about kennings and alliteration and half-lines. You know all the tricks to reciting thousands of lines of poetry by heart. But how do you get a job? Simple: just follow these three easy steps.

(1) Go to a court. Hang around the hall and get to know all the major players. Keep track of who's in favor with the king.

(2) Write poems praising the battle deeds of the king and those in favor with him.

(3) Wait for the current skald to fall out of favor with the king.

And voilà! You'll have a job in no time flat!

Chapter 2: Keeping your Job

Now that you've got a job as a court poet, your most important task is to protect it from other young skalds, who will also be following my advice (naturally). But don't get carried away. You should always be polite to other skalds in your court. You can even mentor young up-and-comers, as long as you make sure never to lose the king's favor. To avoid such a catastrophe, you must do the following:

  • Become best bros with the most important warriors in the king's posse. 
  • Don't think that you can just spend your days holed up in your study writing whatever tickles your fancy! No, your job is to get important people to like you. Which brings us to my next point.
  • People will like you if you praise them. This is where your poetic training comes in. Has Erick Bloodaxe just brought in a particularly rich haul? Describe his bling for all to hear! Has the king's nephew suffered a particularly humiliating defeat? On your nimble tongue, it becomes a victory!

In sum, my friend, you have creativity and word-craft in spades. Use it to make the powerful feel good about themselves, and they will feel good about you.

Chapter 3:Your Skaldic Duties

When you are not cultivating important relationships, you have several other basic duties.

(1) Suck up to the king. Kings love to hear poetry about their battle victories. Set these compositions to music, and you can perform them in the hall during long winter nights.

(2) Greet the visitors to your king's hall with poetry praising their deeds and valor. This duty is lesser-known, but super important.

For example, when Odin wanted to welcome Hákon the Good to Valhalla, he sent me to greet him. I praised him as "enemy-of-earls" and promised that he would drink ale with the Aesir. Just like that, I became the king's official host. And I got in with another powerful king. All skalds had better follow my example if they want to be a success at court!

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