Category Archives: Uncategorized

For your Spectation

I have a new column (as of Sunday) at The American Spectator Online. It’s the article on Hans Nielsen Hauge I’ve been warning you about.

I had the chance to meet a scholar recently, a woman from Norway. I went to hear her talk about a historical figure I’ve written about on this site before — Hans Nielsen Hauge (pronounced “HOW-geh”), the early 19th-century Norwegian lay revivalist.

In conversation after the lecture, someone brought up an undocumented but well-attested story — that it was a tradition at a nearby liberal seminary for some of the students to celebrate the anniversary of Hauge’s death with a drinking party where they would make fun of him.

The speaker said this surprised her. “In Norway,” she said, “Hauge is a hero to both sides. The conservatives admire him for his religious activities. The liberals admire him for being one of the founders of their movement.”

The Tale of Erling and Eindridi

A knarr, such as Eindridi would have sailed.

No book to review tonight. No great thoughts bubbling in my mind. What shall I post about?

Well, I’ve been reading the Flatey Book in the Norwegian translation, and I came on a little-known story about Erling Skjalgsson (it wasn’t new to me; I’d seen it before). To the best of my knowledge, it’s the only surviving story about Erling not also told in Heimskringla. I’ll be working it into a novel eventually, but there’s no harm telling it to you now. No doubt I’ll fiddle with it in my version, as is my wont.

It involves a young man named Eindridi, who was the son of Einar Tambarskjelvar (Gut-Shaker). Einar was a great chieftain in the Trondelag. If you’ve read The Elder King, you may recall him as a character in that timeless work. In TEK, he and Erling are good friends. In The Tale of Erling and Eindridi, things get a little touchy.

Erling had a daughter named Sigrid, whom he’d fostered out to the steward at Avaldsnes, the royal farm on Karmøy Island.

When (Saint) Olaf Haraldsson came in and started reorganizing the country, he took that stewardship away from Erling’s friend and gave it to a freedman named Tore the Seal (they also appear in TEK). He demoted Erling’s friend and sent him up to a less important farm further north. Sigrid went along with him, but chafed at being separated so far from her family.

One day a merchant ship docked near their farm, on its way south. Sigrid went to chat with the crew, and found that it was the ship of Eindridi, son of Einar Gut-Shaker. She asked him if she could hitch a ride south to her home at Sola. Eindridi was preoccupied, and let her join them without really registering whose daughter she was. Once they were under way, he realized he’d made a mistake (because she was supposed to be in her foster-father’s care, I think). But they had a fair wind, and there was nothing to do about it.

On the way south a storm blew up, and they had to run into an island, taking shelter in a fishermen’s shack. It was cold and wet, and the girl slept beside Eindridi, though they had no contact beyond a kiss. (At least that was their story.)

When they finally arrived at Sola, Erling was not at home. Eindridi was given a loft room to sleep in, and Sigrid came to join him, but he sent her away. Just then Erling Skjalgsson burst in, accusing Eindridi of dishonoring his daughter.

Eindridi fiercely denied touching the girl (beyond that kiss), and offered to go through the iron ordeal to prove his honor. Erling agreed to this, and Eindridi passed the trial with flying colors, carrying the glowing iron nine steps, and then having his burns examined after three days. Verdict: innocent. Erling then wished to be reconciled and offered him gifts, but Eindridi was deeply offended and prepared to sail home.

Erling’s son Skjalg went to him and told him he needed to make peace with Eindridi, because they couldn’t do without his father Einar’s support in their political struggle with Olaf. “What can I do?” Erling asked. “I’ve offered him gifts.”

“You need to offer a greater gift,” said Skjalg. “You need to offer him Sigrid as a wife.”

Erling hesitated at this. “A man of my rank,” he said, “does not offer his daughter to other men. Other men come and bid for his daughter.”

“And that’s why Eindridi will agree,” Skjalg answered. He did not say that it would be interpreted as an apology, something Erling couldn’t make in so many words. And – perhaps – he’d noticed that the two young people liked each other.

Erling sent Skjalg to make that offer, and Einar – realizing its significance – happily agreed. He was indeed taken with Sigrid, and she with him.

Sailing home, Eindridi met his father, who’d gotten word of events and was prepared to challenge Erling for his son’s honor. But when Eindridi explained the marriage offer, Einar immediately understood, and was pleased.

So Eindridi and Sigrid were married. (Though other sources name a different woman as Eindridi’s wife, so it’s not unlikely she died young.)

Not an exciting Viking story. But it is interesting in that it illustrates the kind of social limitations honor culture placed on even powerful men, and how they were able find ways of working around them.

The power of paper

Photo credit: Annie Spratt @ anniesprat

Okay, I’ve got another thing to write about Hans Nielsen Hauge (look a few inches down for my first post on him. It’s the one with the Sissel song), the Norwegian lay revivalist of the early 19th Century. (I’m doing my article for the Spectator too, but this is extra.) As was noted by the lecturer I talked to last week, Hauge is a hero both to the right and to the left in Norway – to the right for his religious influence, and to the left for being one of the founders of their movement.

Because in those days of yore, liberalism had little or nothing to do with socialism. It had nothing to do with sexual practices or the size of government.

Liberalism was about whether the common people should be allowed to participate fully in society. To move out of the social classes they were born into, and aspire to higher ambitions. Even to politics.

One thing our speaker mentioned that I hadn’t appreciated before was Hauge’s sideline in manufacturing paper.

I’d known that he established a paper mill, called the Eker Paper Mill. In it he employed unemployables – the blind, the crippled, amputees – allowing them to live productive lives and contribute to the community. I thought that a very nice thing.

What I didn’t realize was the significance of the paper mill itself.

Cheap paper was a new thing in those days. Paper use had formerly been limited to the elite, and the paper they had was often of poor quality. But new manufacturing techniques involving paper pulp permitted a larger public to get hold of the stuff.

Hauge immediately recognized the wider significance of cheap paper.

It was usual in those days for the common people to be able to read. They had to be able to read to finish “Confirmation,” the Lutheran process that gave young men and women access to the Bible and the Catechism, in order to be full church members.

But those people generally could not write. (I’d never thought about this, but writing is a very different skill. Only the upper classes [and not all of them] could write in those days.)

Hauge had a vision of “awakened” (his term) Christians corresponding with each other all over the country. They could share inspiration, news, and practical information, forming what we’d call today a Haugean “network.”

In order to make that happen, he did two things. One, he built a paper mill (perhaps more than one; I’m not sure), and he organized classes to teach people to write.

This, by the way, was alarming to the authorities. They saw no reason why people should have any regular contacts outside their home parishes. Revolution was abroad in Europe, after all; you never knew what those peasants might get up to. This accounts for some of the hostility Hauge encountered, leading to his ten year incarceration.

But his followers kept writing on Hauge’s paper. Eventually they started newspapers and publishing houses. And today he is a hero of literacy and liberal politics in Norway.

The importance of being Urnes

The Urnes Stave Church, by I. C. Dahl

Dendrodating indicates that part of Urnes Stave Church, which was estimated built before 1100, was constructed using timber from 1069 and 1070. The slightly younger part of Urnes is dated to 1129-1130.

For the sake of clarity: dendrochronology can date the year a tree was felled for the stave churches. The likelihood is that the felling year was also when the construction began.

Recently I’ve given a couple lectures about the conversion of Norway to the Christian faith. In those lectures I argue for a “revisionist” view (based on the arguments of Bishop Fridtjof Birkeli) that questions the traditional narrative, which credits two violent 11th Century missionary kings with the conversion. The view I’ve adopted holds that the conversion was a gradual, centuries-long process, and mostly a peaceful one. Much of the credit for that process arguably belongs to the 10th Century king Haakon the Good, whom the sagas tend to dismiss as a missionary failure.

That view gained a little credibility recently, when results of new research on the famous Norwegian stave churches was released by the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage. New findings push the dates for some of the oldest stave churches back several decades. As stated above, wood in the Urnes stave church, previously dated to just before 1100, has now been re-dated to about 1069. That’s three years after King Harald Hardrada died – within spitting distance of the Viking era.

As you can see in the drawing above by artist I. C. Dahl, the Urnes church is far from the most beautiful of the stave churches – a fair amount of remodeling has gotten done on it over time, smoothing out some of the distinctive features. But the wall panel you can see has caused the “Urnes” name to be given to a whole era of Viking art – an elegant fusion of Norse and Celtic styles which I consider delightful.

Dendochronology has been an important and invaluable scientific tool for archaeologists for a while now. By identifying patterns in tree rings (a little like fingerprints) they’re able to date ancient wood to the exact year when the tree was cut. But to make dendochronological comparisons, you need to either be able to examine the end of the log, or to do a bore sample – and obviously nobody wants to drill a sample hole in a stave church pillar. The new technology of Photodendrometry allows scientists to examine the rings without destruction to the material – and to do it more accurately.

You can count on me to keep you updated on advances in Viking scholarship – whenever they confirm my own prejudices.

November on my mind

Photo credit: Beliaikin @ belart84

November is a juvenile delinquent, hanging out on a street corner, looking tough. Not one of those innocent, baby-faced delinquents who’ve only made a few mistakes and can still be salvaged, but a tough, street-smart young thug on his way to incarceration and/or an early death. Soon he’ll grow into December, and then he’ll be a made man.

November is, in poetic perspective, a season of death. The midlife crisis of fall is declining into a slow old age. I went to a sort of a wake tonight. There were three deaths in my life last month, and this was the only one involving a gathering I was able to attend. It wasn’t a drunken wake in the classic tradition, nor a religious wake in the Christian tradition. Just some people gathering to support a family which had lost its central heart.

Yesterday was cold and rainy. Today, bright and cool. It kind of works out the same either way, though, because the night falls early now and makes itself at home.

The only good thing I have to say about November is that it’s not quite winter yet.

Yes, But Spurgeon Didn’t Say That

“The Word of God is like a lion. You don’t have to defend a lion. All you have to do is let the lion loose, and the lion will defend itself.”

Many places attribute this quotation to C. H. Spurgeon, and the great preacher did say something like it, but not this exactly. The Spurgeon Center has this and five other quotations in a post on things Spurgeon did not say. What he said was that we might imagine a caged lion and soldiers who have gathered to defend him. Why are they fighting for this powerful cat when the best approach is to let him out of his cage? “And the best ‘apology’ for the gospel is to let the gospel out.”

Also, “A lie travels around the globe while the truth is putting on its shoes.” That’s something Spurgeon said in an 1855 sermon, describing it as an old proverb. Other men, including Jonathan Swift, said it first, and it could have been a common saying when Spurgeon got around to it.

Did he say, “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages”? Did he say, “I take my text and make a beeline to the cross”? Take a look.

Harvest time

Photo by Jamie Street @jamie452

[Sorry I didn’t post last night. I did a lecture, and when I came home I found this site unresponsive. Short report: I spoke to a Cub Scout pack, and they were a good audience.]

I am wondering how much my perceptions of the world are influenced by the aphorisms I’ve learned, more than actual experience.

This is what I mean: Some time ago, one of my brothers said, referring to a couple deaths in the autumn, “Well, Dad always used to say, ‘It’s fall – harvest time.’”

I actually have no memory of Dad ever saying this (not that I doubt my brother’s word – lots of things go over my head). But ever since then, when someone dies in the fall, I think about it, and respond (on some barely conscious level), “There it is. Fall, harvest time.”

Except I know it isn’t true. People die all year round. Dying in fall is just thematically harmonious.

That said, there’s been a lot of harvesting this fall, in my world.

The first death was particularly sad. A lovely Christian couple I know, who live in another state, had a little son who suffered severe disability from birth. For the years of his short life they’ve done everything possible to care for him and cherish him. Love being true riches, that boy was richer than a king. But his small body finally wore out not long ago. I mourned with them in spirit.

Some weeks ago, I’ve just learned, my uncle died. We weren’t informed for a while because his widow (a lovely woman) has been too overwhelmed to handle the notifications. I don’t begrudge it. We all have to deal with these things the best we can.

He was the last survivor of my dad’s siblings, and one of my favorite relatives. He was the brother who made good – went to work for IBM and rose to an upper management position on the Saturn Project at Cape Canaveral.

And a friend’s mother died the other day. He’s not a close friend, except in proximity. But his family has had a sad time watching their parent fail for some time now. Ironically, this is the only memorial service of the three I’ll be able to attend.

Of course, fall isn’t over yet.

Leftist vs. liberal

Note: The following is probably twaddle. I’ll think of five ways to say it better by Monday.

I’ve been thinking about writing this for a couple weeks, and in that time I think I’ve found several different angles on it. Let’s see what comes out when I write it down here and now.

What’s the difference between a liberal and a Leftist? It’s an important distinction, I think. I’ve been trying to avoid lambasting liberals for a while now, and targeting Leftists instead. Because there’s a distinction.

A lot of us conservatives call ourselves classical liberals, and I consider that an important point.

Leftism, I think, goes back to Jean Jacques Rousseau, the Swiss philosopher. (I’m not an expert on Rousseau, but he’s come up a lot in my reading – mostly in Allan Bloom and Paul Johnson.) Rousseau was one of those people who, regardless of their own merits, tipped the historical scales. After him, everything was different.

I used to help out with the History and Aims class at the seminary where I worked. And one point I always emphasized was that, regardless how conservative our church body is today, our denominational forebears started out as flaming liberals.

But liberalism was different back then.

What liberalism meant in the 19th Century, I told them, had nothing to do with sexual ethics (at least in the realm of Christian liberalism – secular liberalism was different, thanks in large part to Rousseau). Liberalism had nothing to do with one’s view of Scripture. It had nothing to do with the size of government.

Liberalism was about the place of the common people in society.

Conservatives back then believed in social class. There were the “better people” and the “common people.” The better people, the nobility and the higher clergy, were ordained by God to run the world. They were wise and educated, and deserved to call the shots. The common people should pray, pay, and obey.

Liberals, on the other hand, believed that the common people were every bit as good as their betters. All the common people needed was good moral and practical education.

America, as a social experiment, was based on that belief.

Rousseau was the guy who popularized that view. He differed from Christians in having his own myth of Creation and Fall. Originally, he said, Man was a Noble Savage, living in a State of Nature. He was virtuous without effort.

Then along came civilization. Civilization brought rules and laws and social differentiation. And somehow (he never explained how) Virtuous Savage Man became Corrupt Civilized Man. It was all the fault of the laws and customs that came with civilization. (The Greens hold a variety of this doctrine today.)

I’m not sure Rousseau was looking for the kind of revolutionary uses the French would make of his theories. The whole French Revolution was an attempt to tear down the old corrupt order and replace it with a new rational order, in which the virtue of the Noble Savage might flourish again.

They got the Savage part right.

As the Rousseauean experiment in liberalism made its bloody progress through history, there was also a parallel kind of liberalism. This was the liberalism of Evangelicalism.

John Wesley was its prophet in England. England (it has been argued, and I believe it) avoided a revolution like the French largely because of Wesley. The converted Methodists carried on a practical experiment in social advancement through virtue – and it worked. His followers gave up gambling and drinking and vice in general. They worked and saved. And they prospered. “I can’t keep these people poor,” Wesley is supposed to have complained.

For a long time, the Evangelicals and the Rousseaueans were able to work together, against a common enemy – the classist old order that wanted to keep the commoners down.

But as the commoners were liberated, and moved into the middle class, the two strains parted.

The Evangelicals and classical liberals believed that Man was created in the image of God. They believed (or learned) that liberty was a divine gift, and that government should be limited, because government is made of sinful men, and neither the people nor the rulers should be left unchecked.

The Rousseaueans believed that Man was a corrupted noble savage. All that was needed to restore the State of Nature was a rational reordering of society, so that Man’s natural virtue might blossom. The government that promoted this reordering would automatically be wise and virtuous. Therefore all power could be trusted to it. Marx was an apostle of this view.

The Rousseauans took a while to abandon their old belief in personal freedom – “I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,” as Voltaire didn’t say (but it’s commonly attributed to him).

But they found that personal freedom is like a monkey wrench thrown into the machinery of the Ideal State the Rousseueans envision. Individual thinkers are hard to regiment. So personal freedom has to go (as the Communists decided early on). As personal freedom has lost its appeal to them, the liberals have become Leftists.

And that’s what I mean when I criticize Leftists. I mean people who hold such faith in the potential of the State for good that they consider freedom too dangerous to permit.

Which leaves us in an odd reversal. The Left, which once championed freedom of thought, now promotes the criminalization of all unsanctioned views. And the Evangelicals, who have now stepped into the space formerly occupied by conservatives, are (generally) championing freedom of thought. Not perfectly, I’m sure, but far more than the Left.

And so genuine liberals need to re-evaluate the situation, and decide whether they will follow freedom of thought, even if it leads them to the Right.

Back from Minot

Got back last night from my more-or-less annual trip to Minot, North Dakota for the Norsk Høstfest. I haven’t made as much of it this year — sorry if you were curious — but everything went fine. As one of my friends said, “Nobody got hurt and nobody yelled at anybody.” And I sold most of the books I bought.

My heart wasn’t really in it, though, for reasons I won’t explain here. (Don’t ask in Comments; I won’t discuss it publicly). Enough to say that I’m looking for a side gig again. Suggestions welcome.

Back tomorrow with a book review.

The Tale of Tormod, KolBrun’s Skald

A stupid 19th Century conception of a Viking skald.

In Trapped, the Icelandic miniseries I reviewed last night, both in the first season (which I reviewed) and the second (which I’m watching now), there’s a female character named Kolbrun. It was a familiar name to me, and by coincidence I came to the Tale of Tormod Kolbrunarskald in my reading of the Norwegian translation of Flatøy Book. Obviously this was a sign from heaven that I should share Tormod’s story with you.

Tormod Kolbrunarskald is an important character in the Saga of St. Olaf. He doesn’t appear in my novel, The Elder King, but I expect he’ll show up in a later book, because he’s an important character and has one of the most memorable deaths in saga literature. But that’s not my topic tonight. My topic is his backstory.

I’d always assumed that he got his nickname, which means “dark-brow poet,” because he had dark eyebrows. Turns out that’s not true. His nickname actually means, “Dark-Brow’s Poet”

This is the tale (in highly condensed form).

Tormod Bersesson was living at his father’s farm in Laugabol, Iceland. Nearby, at a farm called Ogr, there lived a widow named Grima who had a beautiful daughter named Tordis. Tormod got in the habit of visiting Ogr, and spending time in private with the girl.

Eventually Grima, the mother, took Tormod aside and suggested that he should either ask for the girl’s hand honestly, or leave her alone for the sake of her reputation. Tormod hemmed and hawed, so to show she was serious, Grima sent a thrall to kill Tormod, but the poet escaped with a wounded hand.

After that, Tormod relocated to a fishing station his father had at Bolungarvik. Nearby lived another widow, named Katla, who had a daughter named Torbjorg, who was nicknamed Kolbrun because of her dark eyebrows.

Tormod thought Kolbrun not quite as pretty as Tordis, but nevertheless he started spending time with her. To gain her favor he wrote a series of poems, the “Kolbrun Poems.”

Later, when winter came, Tormod moved back to Laugabol, and renewed his visits with Tordis. At first she was distant. “I heard that you wrote a series of poems for a girl at Bolungarvik named Kolbrun,” she said.

“Oh, no!” Tormod lied. “That story is completely wrong. I didn’t write those poems for Kolbrun. I wrote them for you.” He immediately recited them for her, but changed the words so they now praised Tordis. Tordis was pleased with this.

But that night, Tormod had a terrible dream. He saw Kolbrun floating in the darkness in front of his bed. She said, “You have broken your word to me. It’s dangerous to break your word to a witch. I will now lay this curse on you – your eyes will swell up and grow terribly painful. They will swell so that if it isn’t stopped they’ll pop right out of your head. The only way you can prevent this from happening is by announcing in public that the poems are mine, not Tordis’s, and that you lied.”

Tormod woke in terrible pain, and slept no more that night. As soon as he could he assembled family and friends and confessed his lie. Immediately his eyes improved, and soon he was well again.

But forever after he was known as Tormod, Kolbrun’s Poet.

Blessed aches and pains

It’s one of the most delightful and inspirational stories of American history. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who started as political allies in the Continental Congress – where they worked together on drafting the Declaration of Independence – became the bitterest of political enemies after independence had been won. Their approaches to government were very different, and their perceptions of dangers to the republic widely separated. The lies and vitriol both men (and especially their spokesmen) employed against each other in election campaigns make the ugliness of today’s politics look courtly and tame.

And yet, in their old age, the two men began corresponding, and became friends again. Amazingly, they died on the very same day – and that day was the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration. (Seriously. It’s true. Look it up.)

I’m recalling that story today, not for political purposes, but just to talk about old age – a subject of increasing interest to me.

I haven’t read the Adams-Jefferson letters (I know, I should). But I wonder if part of their reconciliation, beyond the fact that they were nearly the sole survivors of their generation, was the reconciling power of shared aches and pains.

I had opportunities recently to spend time with a couple of people from my youth. One of the particular tribulations to which a just Providence has subjected me in my dotage has been that pretty much every one of the friends of my youth, the people I was closest to, have walked away from the beliefs we shared. I have not changed (much). They have changed their views in almost every way.

And yet we spent time together in amity. Thinking it over afterward, I realized that we spent a lot of the time discussing our health complaints.

This is a topic that never fails among the old.

I remember being young (my memory is still that good), and I recall that one of the things we laughed about when talking about old people was how they couldn’t shut up about their aches and pains, their digestions and their prescriptions.

And I understand. I have no wish to impose tales of my dry skin and digestive habits on the healthy young, who should have their minds set on higher things.

But when we oldsters are together, ailment talk is great. It bridges divisions, awakens sympathy, and arouses our helpful instincts.

All part of God’s plan, no doubt. He has a wry sense of humor.