Tag Archives: Erling Skjalgsson

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.

Viking news, and Erling’s grave

Archaeologists in Vestfold county, Norway, recently discovered what they’re pretty sure is a Viking Age ship burial.

A burial site featuring what seems to be a complete viking ship has been discovered in the Vestfold county in Norway. Many spectacular finds have been unearthed in the region over the years, including the famous Oseberg and Gokstad ships now housed in Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum. The latest discovery of the grave in Borreparken was announced at a press conference in the Midgard Viking Center in Horten.

“The data clearly shows the shape of a ship, and we can see weak traces of a circular depression around the vessel. This could point to the existence of a mound that was later removed,” said a spokesperson for cultural heritage in Vestfold county. Researchers will now carry out detailed investigations to assess the size of the find.

Read the rest here.

It’s interesting that the article says nothing about any plans to actually excavate the ship. All the work so far has been done by georadar. That’s cool – it’s definitely a conservative (conservative is always good) way to prevent damage to the site. But it seems to me they’ll want to actually look at possible grave goods at some point. Don’t expect to see the ship resurrected like the ones in the museum in Oslo. Those were very special cases, where the vessels were buried in anaerobic (I think that’s the right word) blue clay, which prevented rotting of the wood. Most Viking ships found in modern times are pretty much decomposed, and you recognize them from the way the iron rivets are distributed in the earth.

Vestfold has always been an important part of Norway – it has good agricultural land and it’s close to the shipping lanes. The king of Denmark generally considered himself the rightful ruler of Vestfold (and often of Norway as a whole) in Viking times. Cultural development and foreign influences were both rich in Vestland.

I hope they dig it up in time. I’m not like Native Americans; it doesn’t offend me if somebody excavates my ancestors’ graves. Especially if they find cool stuff.

In case you’ve ever wondered about Erling Skjalgsson’s grave, it’s never been identified. A history of Sola which I read related a local legend: During a period of hard times, when erosion had stripped much of the topsoil in the area, the farmer at Sola decided to dig up an ancient mound on his property, and distribute the dirt in his fields. Rumor said that he came into sudden wealth at that time. Some suspected he’d found a rich Viking grave, and sold off its treasures.

However, if the story’s true – which is questionable in itself (we had a not dissimilar legend about the farm where I grew up in Minnesota, and it was also dubious) – there’s no reason the grave would have been Erling’s. As a Christian he would have been buried in the churchyard, not in a mound, and with minimal or no grave goods. It would be more likely to be his father, Thorolf Skjalg’s – or that of any of a number of other powerful ancestors.

Raising my profile

I clicked over to the Amazon listing for The Elder King today, and was delighted to see that I already have 6 reader reviews, all glowing.

Thanks to everyone who took the trouble write a review. It does matter, and it is appreciated.

It occurs to me that I could appeal to madness of crowds, and ask for promotional tips.

What methods would you suggest for a writer with not too much money to draw attention to his work?

We all know, of course, that the better the advice, the less likely I am to take it. Because really useful promotional techniques generally involve a degree of chest-puffing, arm-waving, and horn-tooting that’s simply beyond my capacity.

But at least you can say you tried.

‘If looks could kill’

Happy Friday. I’ll kick off the weekend with another Erik Werenskjold illustration of a moment in the life  of Erling Skjalgsson, hero of my Viking novels. This is an event I plan to describe, not in my next book (which is being prepared for publication), but in the one after that. It must have been the most satisfying event in Erling’s life, though its ultimate consequences were bloody and tragic.

I won’t tell you the whole story. If you’re familiar with Heimskringla, you know it already. If you’re waiting for my book, I won’t spoil it for you.

What you see above is a gathering at the royal farm at Avaldsnes (which was the scene of the snippets I posted recently). The short man you see through a gap in the ranks on the left is (Saint) Olaf Haraldsson. The tall man near the door of the hall on the right is Erling, elevated by the height of his schadenfreude. He has just outmaneuvered Olaf, who wanted to hang the young man in the hat on the right, and is about to humiliate him.

You can’t see much scenery in this picture, but Werenskjold has taken a chance in including a tree in the background. There’s some dispute among historians as to whether Karmøy island (where Avaldsnes is) had any trees at all in the Viking age. The place was denuded by sheep grazing for a very long time. But I think a few trees, especially around the royal farm, is a reasonable assumption.

‘The Good Farmer’

I’m going to be a while reading Jane Austen’s Emma. So in the meantime, I must think of things to write about that are consistent with the purposes of this blog – whatever those are.

I thought I’d share a few noted illustrations featuring Erling Skjalgsson, hero of my Viking novels. These pictures come from the classic edition of Heimskringla, the Sagas of the Norwegian Kings, by Snorri Sturlusson.

In 1900, the Norwegian Parliament authorized a new translation of Heimskringla. This was not a politically neutral act, as the stories in Heimskringla were the basis for many arguments used by activists agitating for independence from Sweden. The book came to be about as common as the Bible and Luther’s Small Catechism in Norwegian homes, the three of them often constituting the whole family library. (I have a copy.)

Especially for this edition, the government authorized a series of woodcut illustrations to be done by prominent Norwegian artists. Among them was Erik Werenskjold (1855-1938), who is perhaps most famous for a series of remarkable illustrations he did, along with Theodor Kittelsen, for collections of Norwegian fairy tales by Asbjørnsen and Moe.

Werenskjold did many of the illustrations for the section of Heimskringla containing the story of Erling Skjalgsson.

The picture above is perhaps the most famous picture of Erling ever done. It pictures him as Snorri describes him, as a “good farmer,” directing his thralls in the fields. We know from the saga that these men are working for their freedom, and will all be free in three years at most. Werenskjold did some research to make this picture authentic. The landscape is what Jaeder looks like – I expect the location could be identified, with some work. I’m guessing that’s Hafrsfjord in the background. The spades the thralls are holding would be made of wood. Up until recent times, farmers in Jaeder routinely used such spades to turn the earth before planting – they didn’t use plows, because the extremely rocky ground would break them. Erling looks as tall and handsome as, by all accounts, he was.

‘The Elder King,’ Snippet 3

Reconstructed longhouse at Lofotr Viking Museum. Photo 2008 by
Jörg Hempel

I raised my face to look at him. “Why have I never heard of this?” I asked. “I’d think Augvaldsness would be a place of pilgrimage for the whole north – for the English and the Franks as well.”

            “We’ve been chary of the great Roman church here in Rogaland,” said Baard. “They keep throwing that Arian thing you touched on in our faces, when they notice us at all. We’d as soon not have them looking too closely at our ways. We’ve learned that when the Romans look for error, they generally find it, whether it’s there or not.”

            “As an Irishman, I know what you mean,” I said.

            Baard slipped the cover back on the reliquary, and we went back out into the dark. You’d think that that revelation would be my chief memory of that night, but it pales in recollection, because of what followed.

            As we stepped back through the entry and into the hall, a figure filled my view, dark against the light, haloed like a saint in some eastern icon. She sidestepped right to let me pass, and I stepped left to let her pass, and so we did that foolish dance you do in narrow places, each trying to make way for the other. At last we both stopped and laughed, and by now I could see her face.

            It was the loveliest face I’d ever seen on human head. She was woman in her full bloom, but slender. A few strands of hair that peeked from under her headcloth were light brown, and her eyes – those eyes! I see them even now – large and blue under dark brows slightly curved. Her face was longer than an oval, rather triangular in shape to make room for those great eyes,   and her lips were full, but not to excess.

            At that very moment I felt my stomach lurch, as if I’d stepped down a well in the dark.

            I closed my eyes and shook my head, fearing I’d eaten something bad and was about to shame myself before this woman, through being sick. The feeling passed.

            Then I looked back in her eyes, and my stomach went whump again.

            I looked away. All was steady.

            I looked back at her.

            Whump.

            I was lost for words to say, but Baard moved up from behind me and broke the moment.

Continue reading ‘The Elder King,’ Snippet 3

‘The Elder King,’ Snippet 2

“I was always told that the Centurion was a Roman named Longinus,” I said.

            “You were told wrong. The centurion was a Norseman named Vidfarna. Maybe they called him Longinus in the army. I know not. And the proof of my story –ˮ he paused for a lick – “is the Nail.”

            “The nail…” I said.

            “Yes.”

            “A nail from the crucifixion?” I gaped.

            “None other.”

            I stood up from the bench. “This has gone far enough,” I said. “I know I’m a mere foreigner, an Irishman among the Norse and a butt for jokes, but I wasn’t born after breakfast today. I’ll give you this, though – you tell a good tale.” I’d been looking for the chance to take a walk anyway – I needed to drain off my bladder.

            Baard stood with me and tugged the sleeve of my robe, getting grease on it. “I’ve had priests tell me the same thing before. But I can show you.”

            “You have it with you?”

            “It’s over in the church.”

            I looked at him. “You’re serious,” I said.

            “Before God I am.”

Continue reading ‘The Elder King,’ Snippet 2

‘The Elder King,’ Snippet 1

Avaldsnes (Augvaldsness) today. This church did not exist in Erling Skjalgsson’s time.

Thought I’d do a snippet of the new novel tonight. Not sure how long it will take to publish it, but it’s essentially written. Probably going to my Publishing Gremlin tomorrow. lw

Part One: The Crying Stave

Chapter I

            I recall it as the night of two visions. One vision was for the land, the other for me. Together they marked a turning place.

            And neither was for the better.

           We were feasting at Augvaldsness. If God blessed our efforts, matters would now be less tangled in the land. Jarl Erik Haakonsson, with whom Erling Skjalgsson could never be at peace, had returned again to England to serve his lord, Prince Knut the Dane. This freed Erling to renew his friendship with Erik’s brother Jarl Svein, whom he rather liked. Svein sat now as lord of the north of the land, under Denmark. We were crowning their friendship by handfasting Erling’s son Aslak to Svein’s daughter Sigrid. The two were young, but such betrothals were common, and the young people liked each other well enough.

Baard Ossursson, steward of Augvaldsness, was a man who liked his boiled pork. It was his habit to take a chunk from the platter in his big hand, squeeze it so the fat ran out between his fingers, and slurp the greasy runnels off as they oozed out. He was playing at that as we sat side by side, just to Erling’s right at the high table in the hall.

            “This is an important place, Augvaldsness,” Baard said to me between slurps. “The man who controls the strait here at Kormt Island can stop traffic up and down the North Way like a plug in a jar. The kings of Augvaldsness in olden times were the mightiest along the North Way. You can run outside the island, take the sea way to the west, but the weather out there’s chancy.”

            “I’ve heard of King Augvald,” I said. “The one who worshipped his cow.”

Continue reading ‘The Elder King,’ Snippet 1

Dark Day

It was 990 years ago today that Erling Skjalgsson (hero, in case you missed it, of my Viking novels) was treacherously killed by one of St. Olaf Haraldsson’s men at the battle of Boknafjord.

My new Erling book is coming along, thanks for asking. I’m nearing the end of another draft, which I thought would be the final one. Not sure now. I’ll keep you posted.

Erling would have known this as St. Thomas’s Day. It’s the shortest of the year.

Reading report: ‘En Herse, Tre Konger,’ by Edvard Eikill

En herse tre konger

What was I reading while I spent the week in Decorah, Iowa doing back-to-the soil, Mother Jones craft stuff? No doubt you’ve been wondering. Obviously it would have to be something pretentious, to show off my erudition to other participants, to compensate for my abysmal artisanal skills. And so it was.

I was reading a Norwegian novel sent to me by the author: En Herse, Tre Konger, (One Hersir, Three Kings) by Edvard Eikill. Mr. Eikill is a retired dentist who has turned his energies to fiction and translation. He’s the translator of the massive, elegant Norwegian translation of the Icelandic Flatøybok that I’ve written about here before. We’re friends on Facebook, and he asked me if I’d read his novel about Erling Skjalgsson. I didn’t know anyone else had ever written fiction about Erling, so I was interested to read the book, which he kindly sent me.

Edvard Eikill is a rather different kind of novelist than I am (though he is a Christian). He spends less time with details and setting scenes. His book surveys Erling’s life more or less at the 30,000 foot level, moving fast through Erling’s life, hitting the highlights. Oddly (to me), far more time is spent on Olav Trygvasson’s five-year reign than Olav Haraldsson’s reign of about twelve years.

But it had to be useful to me to read a book about Erling by someone who lives in Erling’s area (though I did catch what I believe to be one historical error – Mr. Eikill thinks they harvested grain with scythes in Jaeder in the Viking Age, but my research indicates they only ever used sickles). There were historical details and relationships that had sailed over my head. I’ll probably clarify some things in my Work In Progress based on this book.

Also, Erling’s priest was an interesting contrast. Here, Erling’s priest is an Englishman named Alvgeir (which seems to be the name written on Erling’s memorial cross). Eikill imagines him as a slave, taken by Erling on a raid, and freed by him after his conversion by Olav Trygvasson.

Thanks to Mr. Eikill for sending En Herse, Tre Konger to me. It was enjoyable and illuminating.

How Erling Skjalgsson helped to protect England

Viking Legacy

The publishers of Viking Legacy (which, in case I forgot to mention it, I translated), are pleased with the sales results of my article at The American Spectator Online yesterday (see below). So I thought I’d share a snippet of the book tonight. I chose this excerpt pretty much at random, except that I made a point of finding one concerning Erling Skjalgsson. This one deals with an aspect of Erling’s relationship with King Olaf Trygvesson that never occurred to me when I wrote The Year of the Warrior. It starts by discussing Olaf’s treaty with King Ethelred the Unready of England, entered into before he left for Norway. This treaty is documented (you can read it in the book), and it involves, among other things, a promise by Olaf to restrain Norwegian raiding in England.

When Olav returned to Norway in 995, he lacked the necessary authority to convince the chieftains of western Norway to abandon their traditional plundering economy, based on raids in England. Plunder was an important source of income for the communities of western Norway. Only Erling Skjalgsson, as the foremost chieftain of the Gula Thing, had the power to enforce Olav’s agreement so far as the people of western Norway were concerned. Erling was thus the key to Olav’s hopes of maintaining a positive and enduring relationship with England. But Erling in his turn would have to make sure of the other chieftains’ support. It would have been no easy task for him to keep his followers on a leash in order to guarantee Olav’s English agreement. Breaking off the raids in England would deprive the great men of part of their economic and political base.

For that reason Olav had to have some means of substantially compensating the people of western Norway if he was to persuade them to leave England in peace. He had procured the economic means to do this – among other things tons of silver, including what he had plundered himself. It is nearly impossible to estimate what Olav’s entire fortune would have been worth in today’s money, but we can assume that Olav Tryggvason in 996 was the richest man in Norway. Olav would have used these financial resources to woo the chieftains – while expounding the terms of his agreement with King Ethelred….

It was in Olav’s interest to avoid war with the inhabitants of western Norway. The terrain was difficult to control, with numberless fjords and mountains. Olav was effectively a foreigner in Norway. The people of western Norway would have been capable of setting a number of traps to defend their region, and it goes without saying that Erling’s willing cooperation was crucial to Olav. With Erling at his side as a loyal ally, the nation-building project would be much simpler than if he were a hostile or half-hearted vassal. He could hardly hope for a more influential collaborator.

Prospects for trade with England may also have played a part in the debate. Nor could Olav have been stingy when it came to the question of his sister’s [Erling’s wife’s lw] dowry. Miserliness in this matter would have weakened his reputation as a trustworthy man, and so Astrid must have brought a tidy sum of English silver into the marriage. This would have increased Erling’s fortune, as well as his influence, considerably.

Saint Thomas’ Day

Erling Skjalgsson's Death

For a change, I’m going to write a day-specific post the day before, so that if you read it tonight, it can depress you all day tomorrow.

December 21 is Saint Thomas’ Day, the shortest day of the year (though they didn’t know that in the Viking Age. They always figured St. Lucia’s Day, December 13, was the shortest of the year. I’m not sure why. Centrifugal force, maybe).

The death of Erling Skjalgsson (“hero, as you know,” he said, “of my Viking novels”) at the sea battle of Boknasund (Soknasund in the sagas, but that’s probably a scribal error) on December 21, 1028, is one of the earliest datable events in Norwegian history. The earliest is another event in which Erling was involved, the battle of Nesjar, on Palm Sunday (March 25) 1016. Erling didn’t come out too well on either occasion, though the defeat at Nesjar was hardly his fault. Jarl Svein Haakonsson was his commander in that battle, and Svein did not distinguish himself against their enemy, the wily Olaf Haraldsson (later Saint Olaf).

Erling fell victim to a ruse the day he died, again fighting against Saint Olaf’s men. I won’t go into the details; suffice it to say that Erling died with honor and Olaf went away frustrated, soon to flee the country altogether.

Before you ask, yes, I’m toiling away at my next Erling book, which still lacks a final title. As I’ve told you before, it’s a hard book for me to write. I think there are two reasons.

One, Erling’s nemesis, Olaf Haraldsson, appears in this book. This is the beginning of Erling’s long final struggle, a Game of Thrones-like political duel with the young, arrogant Olaf. I like Erling, and do not look forward to depicting his fall.

Two, I’ve gotten into the habit of thinking, “I’ve got to finish the Erling books before I die.” I don’t expect to die any time soon, though the actuarial tables are beginning to catch up with me. But I think I have the subconscious idea that once I do finish the Erling books, I will die. Which is nonsense, but that’s the way my mind works. I’m a fantasy author.

So remember Erling Skjalgsson tomorrow, on the 989th anniversary of his death (think Davy Crockett at a maritime Alamo). Or if you’re doubtful about that, you could remember Saint Thomas the apostle.