The Northern Way

Early Kings of Norway

CHAPTER IX.

KING OLAF THE THICK-SET'S VIKING DAYS.

King Harald Graenske, who, with another from Russia accidentally lodging beside him, got burned to death in Sweden, courting that unspeakable Sigrid the Proud,--was third cousin or so to Tryggve, father of our heroic Olaf. Accurately counted, he is great-grandson of Bjorn the Chapman, first of Haarfagr's sons whom Eric Bloodaxe made away with. His little "kingdom," as he called it, was a district named the Greenland (Graeneland); he himself was one of those little Haarfagr kinglets whom Hakon Jarl, much more Olaf Tryggveson, was content to leave reigning, since they would keep the peace with him. Harald had a loving wife of his own, Aasta the name of her, soon expecting the birth of her and his pretty babe, named Olaf,--at the time he went on that deplorable Swedish adventure, the foolish, fated creature, and ended self and kingdom altogether. Aasta was greatly shocked; composed herself however; married a new husband, Sigurd Syr, a kinglet, and a great-grandson of Harald Fairhair, a man of great wealth, prudence, and influence in those countries; in whose house, as favorite and well-beloved stepson, little Olaf was wholesomely and skilfully brought up. In Sigurd's house he had, withal, a special tutor entertained for him, one Rane, known as Rane the Far-travelled, by whom he could be trained, from the earliest basis, in Norse accomplishments and arts. New children came, one or two; but Olaf, from his mother, seems always to have known that he was the distinguished and royal article there. One day his Foster-father, hurrying to leave home on business, hastily bade Olaf, no other being by, saddle his horse for him. Olaf went out with the saddle, chose the biggest he-goat about, saddled that, and brought it to the door by way of horse. Old Sigurd, a most grave man, grinned sardonically at the sight. "Hah, I see thou hast no mind to take commands from me; thou art of too high a humor to take commands." To which, says Snorro, Boy Olaf answered little except by laughing, till Sigurd saddled for himself, and rode away. His mother Aasta appears to have been a thoughtful, prudent woman, though always with a fierce royalism at the bottom of her memory, and a secret implacability on that head.

At the age of twelve Olaf went to sea; furnished with a little fleet, and skilful sea-counsellor, expert old Rane, by his Foster-father, and set out to push his fortune in the world. Rane was a steersman and counsellor in these incipient times; but the crew always called Olaf "King," though at first, as Snorro thinks, except it were in the hour of battle, he merely pulled an oar. He cruised and fought in this capacity on many seas and shores; passed several years, perhaps till the age of nineteen or twenty, in this wild element and way of life; fighting always in a glorious and distinguished manner. In the hour of battle, diligent enough "to amass property," as the Vikings termed it; and in the long days and nights of sailing, given over, it is likely, to his own thoughts and the unfathomable dialogue with the ever-moaning Sea; not the worst High School a man could have, and indeed infinitely preferable to the most that are going even now, for a high and deep young soul.

His first distinguished expedition was to Sweden: natural to go thither first, to avenge his poor father's death, were it nothing more. Which he did, the Skalds say, in a distinguished manner; making victorious and handsome battle for himself, in entering Maelare Lake; and in getting out of it again, after being frozen there all winter, showing still more surprising, almost miraculous contrivance and dexterity. This was the first of his glorious victories, of which the Skalds reckon up some fourteen or thirteen very glorious indeed, mostly in the Western and Southern countries, most of all in England; till the name of Olaf Haraldson became quite famous in the Viking and strategic world. He seems really to have learned the secrets of his trade, and to have been, then and afterwards, for vigilance, contrivance, valor, and promptitude of execution, a superior fighter. Several exploits recorded of him betoken, in simple forms, what may be called a military genius.

The principal, and to us the alone interesting, of his exploits seem to have lain in England, and, what is further notable, always on the anti-Svein side. English books do not mention him at all that I can find; but it is fairly credible that, as the Norse records report, in the end of Ethelred's reign, he was the ally or hired general of Ethelred, and did a great deal of sea-fighting, watching, sailing, and sieging for this miserable king and Edmund Ironside, his son. Snorro says expressly, London, the impregnable city, had to be besieged again for Ethelred's behoof (in the interval between Svein's death and young Knut's getting back from Denmark), and that our Olaf Haraldson was the great engineer and victorious captor of London on that singular occasion,--London captured for the first time. The Bridge, as usual, Snorro says, offered almost insuperable obstacles. But the engineering genius of Olaf contrived huge "platforms of wainscoting [old walls of wooden houses, in fact], bound together by withes;" these, carried steadily aloft above the ships, will (thinks Olaf) considerably secure them and us from the destructive missiles, big boulder stones, and other, mischief profusely showered down on us, till we get under the Bridge with axes and cables, and do some good upon it. Olaf's plan was tried; most of the other ships, in spite of their wainscoting and withes, recoiled on reaching the Bridge, so destructive were the boulder and other missile showers. But Olaf's ships and self got actually under the Bridge; fixed all manner of cables there; and then, with the river current in their favor, and the frightened ships rallying to help in this safer part of the enterprise, tore out the important piles and props, and fairly broke the poor Bridge, wholly or partly, down into the river, and its Danish defenders into immediate surrender. That is Snorro's account.

On a previous occasion, Olaf had been deep in a hopeful combination with Ethelred's two younger sons, Alfred and Edward, afterwards King Edward the Confessor: That they two should sally out from Normandy in strong force, unite with Olaf in ditto, and, landing on the Thames, do something effectual for themselves. But impediments, bad weather or the like, disheartened the poor Princes, and it came to nothing. Olaf was much in Normandy, what they then called Walland; a man held in honor by those Norman Dukes.

What amount of "property" he had amassed I do not know, but could prove, were it necessary, that he had acquired some tactical or even strategic faculty and real talent for war. At Lymfjord, in Jutland, but some years after this (A.D. 1027), he had a sea-battle with the great Knut himself,--ships combined with flood-gates, with roaring, artificial deluges; right well managed by King Olaf; which were within a hair's-breadth of destroying Knut, now become a King and Great; and did in effect send him instantly running. But of this more particularly by and by.

What still more surprises me is the mystery, where Olaf, in this wandering, fighting, sea-roving life, acquired his deeply religious feeling, his intense adherence to the Christian Faith. I suppose it had been in England, where many pious persons, priestly and other, were still to be met with, that Olaf had gathered these doctrines; and that in those his unfathomable dialogues with the ever-moaning Ocean, they had struck root downwards in the soul of him, and borne fruit upwards to the degree so conspicuous afterwards. It is certain he became a deeply pious man during these long Viking cruises; and directed all his strength, when strength and authority were lent him, to establishing the Christian religion in his country, and suppressing and abolishing Vikingism there; both of which objects, and their respective worth and unworth, he, must himself have long known so well.

It was well on in A.D. 1016 that Knut gained his last victory, at Ashdon, in Essex, where the earth pyramids and antique church near by still testify the thankful piety of Knut,--or, at lowest his joy at having won instead of lost and perished, as he was near doing there. And it was still this same year when the noble Edmund Ironside, after forced partition-treaty "in the Isle of Alney," got scandalously murdered, and Knut became indisputable sole King of England, and decisively settled himself to his work of governing there. In the year before either of which events, while all still hung uncertain for Knut, and even Eric Jarl of Norway had to be summoned in aid of him, in that year 1015, as one might naturally guess and as all Icelandic hints and indications lead us to date the thing, Olaf had decided to give up Vikingism in all its forms; to return to Norway, and try whether he could not assert the place and career that belonged to him there. Jarl Eric had vanished with all his war forces towards England, leaving only a boy, Hakon, as successor, and Svein, his own brother,--a quiet man, who had always avoided war. Olaf landed in Norway without obstacle; but decided to be quiet till he had himself examined and consulted friends.

His reception by his mother Aasta was of the kindest and proudest, and is lovingly described by Snorro. A pretty idyllic, or epic piece, of Norse Homeric type: How Aasta, hearing of her son's advent, set all her maids and menials to work at the top of their speed; despatched a runner to the harvest-field, where her husband Sigurd was, to warn him to come home and dress. How Sigurd was standing among his harvest folk, reapers and binders; and what he had on,--broad slouch hat, with veil (against the midges), blue kirtle, hose of I forget what color, with laced boots; and in his hand a stick with silver head and ditto ring upon it;--a personable old gentleman, of the eleventh century, in those parts. Sigurd was cautious, prudentially cunctatory, though heartily friendly in his counsel to Olaf as to the King question. Aasta had a Spartan tone in her wild maternal heart; and assures Olaf that she, with a half-reproachful glance at Sigurd, will stand by him to the death in this his just and noble enterprise. Sigurd promises to consult farther in his neighborhood, and to correspond by messages; the result is, Olaf resolutely pushing forward himself, resolves to call a Thing, and openly claim his kingship there. The Thing itself was willing enough: opposition parties do here and there bestir themselves; but Olaf is always swifter than they. Five kinglets somewhere in the Uplands, [11]--all descendants of Haarfagr; but averse to break the peace, which Jarl Eric and Hakon Jarl both have always willingly allowed to peaceable people,--seem to be the main opposition party. These five take the field against Olaf with what force they have; Olaf, one night, by beautiful celerity and strategic practice which a Friedrich or a Turenne might have approved, surrounds these Five; and when morning breaks, there is nothing for them but either death, or else instant surrender, and swearing of fealty to King Olaf. Which latter branch of the alternative they gladly accept, the whole five of them, and go home again.

This was a beautiful bit of war-practice by King Olaf on land. By another stroke still more compendious at sea, he had already settled poor young Hakon, and made him peaceable for a long while. Olaf by diligent quest and spy-messaging, had ascertained that Hakon, just returning from Denmark and farewell to Papa and Knut, both now under way for England, was coasting north towards Trondhjem; and intended on or about such a day to land in such and such a fjord towards the end of this Trondhjem voyage. Olaf at once mans two big ships, steers through the narrow mouth of the said fjord, moors one ship on the north shore, another on the south; fixes a strong cable, well sunk under water, to the capstans of these two; and in all quietness waits for Hakon. Before many hours, Hakon's royal or quasi-royal barge steers gaily into this fjord; is a little surprised, perhaps, to see within the jaws of it two big ships at anchor, but steers gallantly along, nothing doubting. Olaf with a signal of "All hands," works his two capstans; has the cable up high enough at the right moment, catches with it the keel of poor Hakon's barge, upsets it, empties it wholly into the sea. Wholly into the sea; saves Hakon, however, and his people from drowning, and brings them on board. His dialogue with poor young Hakon, especially poor young Hakon's responses, is very pretty. Shall I give it, out of Snorro, and let the reader take it for as authentic as he can? It is at least the true image of it in authentic Snorro's head, little more than two centuries later.

"Jarl Hakon was led up to the king's ship. He was the handsomest man that could be seen. He had long hair as fine as silk, bound about his head with a gold ornament. When he sat down in the forehold the king said to him:

King. "'It is not false, what is said of your family, that ye are handsome people to look at; but now your luck has deserted you.'

Hakon. "'It has always been the case that success is changeable; and there is no luck in the matter. It has gone with your family as with mine to have by turns the better lot. I am little beyond childhood in years; and at any rate we could not have defended ourselves, as we did not expect any attack on the way. It may turn out better with us another time.'

King. "'Dost thou not apprehend that thou art in such a condition that, hereafter, there can be neither victory nor defeat for thee?'

Hakon. "'That is what only thou canst determine, King, according to thy pleasure.'

King. "'What wilt thou give me, Jarl, if, for this time, I let thee go, whole and unhurt?'

Hakon. "'What wilt thou take, King?'

King. "'Nothing, except that thou shalt leave the country; give up thy kingdom; and take an oath that thou wilt never go into battle against me.'" [12]

Jarl Hakon accepted the generous terms; went to England and King Knut, and kept his bargain for a good few years; though he was at last driven, by pressure of King Knut, to violate it,--little to his profit, as we shall see. One victorious naval battle with Jarl Svein, Hakon's uncle, and his adherents, who fled to Sweden, after his beating,--battle not difficult to a skilful, hard-hitting king,--was pretty much all the actual fighting Olaf had to do in this enterprise. He various times met angry Bonders and refractory Things with arms in their hand; but by skilful, firm management,--perfectly patient, but also perfectly ready to be active,--he mostly managed without coming to strokes; and was universally recognized by Norway as its real king. A promising young man, and fit to be a king, thinks Snorro. Only of middle stature, almost rather shortish; but firm-standing, and stout-built; so that they got to call him Olaf the Thick (meaning Olaf the Thick-set, or Stout-built), though his final epithet among them was infinitely higher. For the rest, "a comely, earnest, prepossessing look; beautiful yellow hair in quantity; broad, honest face, of a complexion pure as snow and rose;" and finally (or firstly) "the brightest eyes in the world; such that, in his anger, no man could stand them." He had a heavy task ahead, and needed all his qualities and fine gifts to get it done.

Footnotes:

[11] Snorro, Laing's Translation, ii. p. 31 et seq., will minutely specify. [Back]

[12] Snorro, ii. pp. 24, 25. [Back]

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