Tag Archives: Heimskringla

Eystein’s therapy

King Eystein I of Norway, carving in the Bergen Museum. Photo credit: Nina Aldin Thune, Creative Commons LIcense.

I’ve been doing a little translation lately (I’ll tell you more about it later) which reminded me of one of my favorite passages from Snorri Sturlusson’s Heimskringla.

This story involves King Eystein I, far from the most renowned of Norway’s kings, but very possibly the most likeable.

He was part of a set, sharing a joint monarchy with his brother, Sigurd Magnusson. They were both the sons of King Magnus Bareleg, who never got the memo that the Viking Age was over, and died young and outnumbered in Ireland, declaring, “Kings were made for glory, not for long life.”

Eystein and Sigurd were very different men. Eystein, the older, was handsomer and friendlier, as well as more thoughtful. Sigurd was taller and stronger, and mercurial in his temperament. Some historians suspect, based on saga descriptions, that he may have suffered from bipolar disorder.

Sigurd was actually the first European king to go on a crusade, heading out in 1108 and returning in 1111. He fought in various places in the Mediterranean before helping King Baldwin of Jerusalem capture Sidon. He went home by way of Constantinople. Meanwhile, Eystein stayed home and watched the store.

One memorable scene in their saga has them together at one of Eystein’s estates in the Upplands. During the feasting they decide to amuse themselves by “mannjevning,” what we might call “ranking” today. A bragging competition.

Sigurd boasts about his prowess in war. He tells of his battles in the Holy Land, and all the honors he received from great princes.

This is how Eystein answers:

“I have heard that thou hast won many battles in foreign lands, but it might have been more useful for the land what I meantime did at home. North at Vagar I built booths for the fishing folks, so that poor people could get help, and earn their living. There I founded a priest’s garth and endowed the church. Before this the place was almost heathen. These men will remember that Eystein was King of Norway. The road from Trondheim went once over Dovre-fell, where people were lost in bad weather or had to sleep out of doors and suffer hardships. There I built a mountain inn and gave it an income; those people will know that Eystein has been King of Norway. At Agdenes there is a dangerous rocky coast and no harbour; and many ships were lost every year. There is now a harbour and a landing place for wintering ships, also a church. Afterwards I raised beacons on the high fells and this I hope will be useful for the country. I built at Bergen a king’s hall and the church of the Apostles, with an underground passage between the two. The kings that come after me will remember my name for that.

“I built St Michael’s Church and a monastery besides. I have also, my brother, shaped the laws so that the people can now obtain justice, and when the laws are kept the country will be better ruled. I have set a warping pole with iron rings in Sinholm sound. The Jämtland people are again under the Norse king’s rule, and this was brought about by blithe words and wise persuasion and not by force or fighting. Now these matters are of small importance, still I do not know, if the people in the land are not better served by them, than if thou hast killed black men in Serkland and sent them to hell…”

As good a “guns vs. butter” argument as I’ve ever read, I think.

But though that’s a memorable story, it’s not the best Eystein story. That comes earlier {and is not included in some translations). It represents one of those weird moments you occasionally experience in reading old books when time contracts and you encounter a historical character who seems like someone you might know, and would like to know, today.

There was an Icelandic poet in King Eystein’s court whose name was Ivor Ingemundson. Ivor was a witty conversationalist, and the king enjoyed his company. But a time came when Ivor’s mood changed. He grew quiet and sad, and the king noticed it.

The whole passage is quite long (in Monsen’s translation), but the essence of the story is that Eystein spoke to Ivor privately. Ivor was reluctant to talk at first, but the king asked a series of questions, finally working out through deduction that Ivor was lovesick. He had counted on marrying a particular girl back home, one he couldn’t help thinking about, but his father had arranged for his brother to marry the girl.

King Eystein then proposed a series of remedies – he offered to introduce him to suitable young women; he offered give him property; he offered money to enable him to travel. Ivor replied that none of those things appealed to him. So the king says this:

“I have suggested everything that comes to my mind. There is but one thing else that might help thee, although it is little compared to what I have offered thee. Every day when I am not taken up with important matters, thou shalt come to me and we will talk over this matter about the maid, for it often happens that sorrow shared is sorrow lessened, and every time I shall give thee something before thou goest away.”

The saga says that Ivor agreed to that. “He was thereby consoled in his sorrow and became glad again.”

Talk therapy. We Norwegians invented it.

The Lighting of the Beacons

I’m sure you recognize this clip from The Two Towers, in which the beacons are lit in Gondor, to call for help from Rohan.

I believe (I could be wrong) that the inspiration for this plot element in The Lord of the Rings was the following passage from Heimskringla (here in Lee Hollander’s translation) and the Saga of King Haakon the Good:

After this battle King Haakon incorporated into the laws for all the land along the seas, and as far inland as the salmon goes upstream, that all districts were divided into “ship-levies”; and these he parcelled out among the districts…. Along with this it was ordered that whenever there was a general levy, beacons were to be lit on high mountains, so that one could be seen from the other. It is said that news of the levy travelled from the southern-most beacon to the northernmost borough in seven nights.

If anyone knows of an earlier example of such a beacon signalling system, which might have inspired Tolkien, let me know.

Viking deeds

Here’s a famous scene from the 1958 film The Vikings, where Kirk Douglas runs on top of the oars along the side of his ship.

I wonder how many people know that this scene was pulled directly from a passage in Snorri Sturlusson’s Heimskringla. Snorri writes of King Olaf Trygvesson:

King Olaf was in all bodily accomplishments the foremost of all the men in Norway of whom we are told. He was stronger and more agile than anyone else…. One of these is that he climbed the Smalsarhorn and fastened his shield on the top of the mountain; and another that he helped down one of his followers who had before him climbed the mountain, and now could get neither up nor down…. King Olaf could walk along the oars outside the Serpent [his ship] while his men rowed. He could juggle with three daggers, with one always up in the air, and he always caught them by the hilt. He wielded his sword equally well with either hand, and hurled two spears at the same time.

You may have noted that Kirk Douglas did not quite match Snorri’s account of Olaf, as he had the men hold the oars horizontal and rigid while he ran, while Olaf (reportedly) did it while they were rowing. I’m pretty sure that latter thing is impossible, though, and what we see in the movie seems more likely.

Kirk Douglas turned 102 years old last December. Whenever I see a picture of him today, I think of this scene, in which he seems the epitome of physicality and masculine vigor.

And I’m not getting any younger myself.

‘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.