The Greatest Gift: The Tale of Audun and His Bear
Illustrated By: Jesse Einhorn-Johnson
This folktale from Iceland is about a boy and a treasured gift which he gives away. In return for his generosity, he receives the greatest gift of all.
A thousand years ago in the western fjord of Iceland lived a youth named Audun. While Audun lived a simple life with his widowed mother, he yearned for adventure in faraway lands.
The young man's chance came late one summer when a merchant from Norway decided to stay in Iceland over the winter rather than to risk the winter seas. So Audun worked for the captain of the ship all winter in exchange for passage aboard his ship back to Norway the following spring.
When the ice started to crack and the days got longer, the day of the voyage was at hand. Audun gave all his savings to his mother. "This will take care of you until I return," he said.
"And when will that be, my son?" said his mother, fearing the dangers of long sea voyages.
"Three years from now," said Audun. He kissed her, they wept a little and said their goodbyes.
So Audun sailed west with the captain of the ship to Greenland, where they traded for almost a year. In Greenland, Audun was amazed by the raw beauty of the huge white polar bear, and before they set sail for Norway, he gave all his savings and everything he owned but the clothes on his back to buy one of these majestic animals and take it with him. "What a fine gift," he thought with excitement, "this treasure of a bear will be for the king of Denmark, King Sven."
But the captain's ship was bound for Norway, and so Audun was obliged to stop there first.
The place where they docked was not far from the castle of King Harald, the King of Norway. Word soon got out about Audun's amazing bear, and King Harald sent a messenger to Audun with an invitation for him to visit the castle.
"I heard about this treasure of a bear you have," said King Harald to the young man. "Indeed, it's a treasure fit for a king!"
"Yes, sir," said Audun uneasily, realizing the king may be expecting the gift for himself. "With all due respect, sir, I purchased the bear to give to King Sven of Denmark."
The king stiffened. "You must know," he frowned, "that Norway and Denmark are at war, and our two countries are mortal enemies." The royal guards whipped their swords out of the sheaths and stared at Audun.
"Yes, your majesty," said Audun, trying not to look about.
"Yet in my own royal hall, you dare to suggest that you intend to give this bear to King Sven of Denmark?"
"Yes, that is my intention, your majesty," said Audun. A long moment passed.
"Very well," said the king finally, with a wave of his hand.
The guards relaxed their grips, though they still stared at Audun.
"Then go in peace, I will not stop you. But I require one thing."
"What is that, your majesty?"
"When you return, you must stop by and tell me how King Sven rewarded you for that treasure of a bear." Audun agreed, and was more than a little bit relieved. He left as quickly as he felt it was polite to do.
Audun gave his last penny for passage to Denmark, and there he presented King Sven with his treasure of a bear.
The king was delighted. "How do you expect that I will reward you for such a fine gift?" said the king.
"Only by accepting it," said Audun, bowing.
"Yes, yes, of course," said the king. "But you sacrificed a great deal to bring me this bear. The least I can do is to offer you a position as my royal cup-bearer, with honors besides, and my personal invitation to remain at the palace for as long as you wish."
And so Audun lived comfortably at the palace of the King of Denmark for many months, until he remembered that if he was to return to his mother within three years, he had best set sail that spring. So he asked the king permission to take his leave.
When his ship was at the wharf and ready to sail, King Sven accompanied him to the harbor. "Normally, I am not pleased when a member of my court asks to leave," said the king, "but as you must return to your mother, certainly that is a worthy goal. Tell me, son," said the king, pointing to the largest of the ships getting fitted out for a voyage, "what do you think of that one?"
"She's the finest ship I ever did see," said Audun. "She is yours," said the king. "My gift for that astounding treasure of a bear." Audun was speechless. "And what do you suppose fills the ship?" said the king.
Audun still did not reply, so he went on.
"It is filled with cargo, and all of it is yours." Audun was more stunned than before. "Surely you must know that I couldn't allow you to leave without an appropriate reward," said the king. Audun bowed his head and thanked the king as best as he knew how. "Yet there is one thing I worry about," said the king. "I hear the reefs and rocky islands along the coast of Iceland are dangerous to ships. Even the finest ship can sink and its cargo would be lost.
If that happened to you, how would others believe that you had once enjoyed the protection of the king of Denmark? So I give you this purse of silver." King Sven handed Audun a large purse marked with his royal crest and bulging with silver coins.
"Your majesty, you are more than generous," said Audun.
"And yet still I worry," said the king. "Purses can be stolen, even become lost. If your ship and its cargo were sunk and I dare say you had the misfortune of losing the purse and you were forced to swim ashore to save your life, how would others know that you had once done a great favor for the king of Denmark? Therefore, I give you this ring." At that, King Sven removed a thick, golden signet ring from his finger. "This ring is yours, unless you feel compelled someday to give it to a great man for a great favor, and then do not hesitate to give it away. Now, Audun, farewell."
So Audun set sail and his journey was favored by steady winds and good weather. However instead of directly returning to Iceland, he stopped by Norway to see King Harald as he had promised.
King Harald sat in the royal hall, and the king recognized him at once. "Audun, come," he said, "sit down and drink with us." After a few minutes, King Harald said, "So! I presume you presented your treasure of a bear to the king of Denmark." Audun nodded.
"And how did my worthy opponent reward you for such a princely gift?"
"He gave me a fine ship, filled with cargo," said Audun.
"Did he?" said the king, stroking his beard. "I dare say I would have done the same."
"And a purse of silver as well, in case I lost both ship and cargo and had to swim ashore to a new land."
"A thoughtful gesture," said the king. "I believe I would have considered the ship and cargo quite sufficient. Was there anything else?"
"A ring," said Audun, "that I was to keep as a remembrance and not ever to part with except as payment to a great man for a great favor. And now I give the ring to you."
Audun took off the ring and handed it to the King of Norway. "You could have taken my life and that of my bear, but you allowed me to go in peace when others would not have done so." King Harald, touched by Audun's gesture, heaped all the greatest gifts as it is proper for a king to give to a man who has brought him much honor.
Then Audun prepared his ship and possessions for Iceland. He had a good passage out to the western fjords, where he was reunited with his mother, who was overjoyed to see him.
For the rest of his life Audun was esteemed by all who knew him as the most deserving and fortunate of men.
- Why did King Harald of Norway let Audun go, knowing he would give the treasure of the bear to the enemy of Norway - King Sven of Denmark?
- Tell about a time when you were angry but held back from doing something mean, and then later you were glad you did.
Morkinskinna, the first full-length chronicle of the kings of medieval Norway (1037-1157). The text was written in Iceland at the end of the 13th century and includes the tale "Audun Buys Himself a White Bear."
Retold by Elaine L. Lindy, ©2005. All rights reserved.
- "Authun and the Bear" from Scandinavian Legends and Folk-tales by Gwyn Jones, published by Oxford University Press, Great Britain, 1956), pp. 143-152.
- Audun and His Bear, a picture book by Barbara Schiller (Holt, Rinehart and Winston: New York, 1968).