Tag Archives: Heimskringla

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.