Imagine becoming one of the most important poets and historians of your era. Now imagine that you were one of the few whose work survived over a thousand years into the modern era.
Now imagine that your nickname isn’t “The Great” or “The Eloquent” but instead is “The Plagiarist”.
That is the exact fate of Eyvindr (sometimes spelled Eyvind) Finnsson has faced. Despite being the author of two important skaldic poems from the 10th century and a crucial source in our understanding of the Norse faith, Eyvindr will forever be known as “The Plagiarist”.
But how did this happen? Was Eyvindr actually a plagiarist or was it a bad translation? Sadly, we may never really know.
What We Know About Eyvindr
Precious little is known about Eyvindr and his life. He lived around 915-990 AD and was born to a noble family.
He served in the court of Haakon the Good, a Norwegian king that ruled from 934-961, as a skald.
Skalds were poet-historians, responsible for remembering, reciting and, by Eyvindr’s time, writing down skaldic poetry to commemorate key events in Nordic history. Such poems were typically a mix of history and mythology but they still serve as crucial written records from the time.
Today, Eyvindr is best known for two of his surviving works. Hákonarmál, a recounting of King Haakon’s reception in Valhalla, and Háleygjatal, a recounting of Haakon’s ancestors.
In addition to those works, some 14 other stanzas of his writing also survived, all of which described historical events.
Haakon, as a king, is best known for two things. The first is defending Norway against repeated Danish invasions and the second is attempting to introduce Christianity to Norway.
In 961, Haakon died from an arrow wound while successfully defending against another such invasion. Eyvindr attempted to serve under Haakon’s’ successor, Harold Greycloak, but was unhappy and quickly left his court to join the court of another noble family that had been supportive of Haakon.
In short, Eyvindr lived a fairly normal (if somewhat long) life for a skald during this tumultuous era of Norwegian history. So, how did he become known as “The Plagiarist”?
Understanding Eyvindr The Plagiarist
Eyvindr was given the cognomen skáldaspillir. The literal translation of this is “spoiler (or destroyer) of poets.” Most, when translating this to English, simply translate it to Eyvindr The Plagiarist.
There is valid reason for this. Eyvindr was well-known for borrowing from the works of those who came before him. In fact, both of his famous poems were similar to earlier works.
Hákonarmál appears to have been based on after Eiríksmál, which was a skaldic poem, which was written at the behest of Norwegian queen Gunnhild in honor of Erik Bloodaxe, the king that Haakon succeeded and whose sons Haakon regularly warred with.
Háleygjatal follows the pattern laid down by Ynglingatal, an earlier Skaldic poem that lays down the lineage of Swedish kings. Both pieces aim to validate their king’s rule by describing a lineage and their claim to the throne.
While this seems to be a solid argument for dubbing him Eyvindr The Plagiarist, it’s important to remember that our ideals of authorship and originality largely stem from the Age of Enlightenment, which began some 700 years after Eyvindr’s writings.
Copying and reusing others’ work was viewed very differently in other Eyvindr’s time. Because of that, many believe that “Spoiler of Poets” is meant to be praise, saying that he was so good, other poets were spoiled by him.
While others think that such an argument is fairly weak, the truth is that where the name came from and what it was supposed to mean is unknowable. However, the fact it can be translated to mean “plagiarist” combined with the similarities between his works and works that came before him means that, rightly or wrongly, Eyvindr The Plagiarist has stuck.
Eyvindr’s Modern Image
While it’s certainly unfortunate to be saddled with the nickname The Plagiarist for all eternity, it really hasn’t hurt Eyvindr’s legacy all that much.
This country Harald united
with his army of heroes,
this country Haakon protected
whilst Eyvindr sung
(Note: I changed the name spellings to the English ones)
Also interesting is that Eyvindr gets an homage in The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt (a game that pulls heavily from Nordic history and lore). In the game, there is a non-player character named Eyvind (an alternate spelling for Eynindr) who is a skald that seeks Geralt’s (the game’s main character) help writing a poem about a legendary white whale.
However, in the game, Eyvind finds the creature but misses seeing it because he is too distracted talking with Geralt.
Still, it would seem that Eynindr has fared much better than most poets from his era. He is a poet more than a thousand years gone whose work not only partially survived but is still studied today. Even better, he is immortalized in his native country’s national anthem and is even homaged in video games.
Plagiarist or not, there’s no doubt he’s done well for himself and his legacy.
When we discussed the world’s first “plagiarism” case, which took place in the first century AD, we discussed the origins of the word and how it comes from the latin word “plagiarus”, which means to kidnap.
Applying our modern definitions of plagiarism and authorship to authors who wrote thousands of years ago is difficult at best. Especially when we are translating someone’s nickname literally and trying to determine why it was given to them.
While Eynindr The Plagiarist certainly seems to be the best theory as to what his name means, we can never be fully certain about it.
Still, it doesn’t seem to have harmed Eynindr’s legacy in any way. Plagiarist or not, he was still a skald writing for an important king in Norway’s history. His work was important to our understanding of history and, as such, his place in history seems to be very safe.
(Note: Sadly none of the images are of Eyvindr as no drawings or paintings were taken of him. The featured image at the top is of Haakon and his court so maybe he’s somewhere in there…)