Today on the blog, we're sharing an excerpt from Chapter Two of The Last Viking, written by Don Hollway.
Wind we swiftly
Our war-winning weft.
When sword-bearing warriors
Rush to the standards,
Take care, maidens, to spare not
One life in the battle!
We death-choosing sisters
Have custody of the slain.
The Saga of Burnt Njal
When divining the battle of Fulford, the Fates – Urth (Past), Verthandi (Present) and Skuld (Future), the three otherworldly women who weave men’s destinies – must have come to the end of a strand and found it tied to its own beginning. Thirty-six years earlier, the story of Norwegian kings had been much the same. Having defied emperors, kings and his own subjects in ruthless pursuit of his personal ambition, a legendary ruler came out of the East to claim his land by virtue of blood and steel, only to have the people rise up in defiance of him. And at his side marched a young kinsman, barely old enough to have grown his first beard, but eager for his first taste of battle.
In the year 1030, wrote Snorri, Harald Sigurdsson was fifteen years old, “very stout and manly, as though full-grown,” son of a royal house and already a leader of men. That spring he rode at the head of an army. As many as 700 Norse warriors had followed him from the Oppland, the uplands of Norway near modern Oslo, some 200 miles into Jarnberaland, “the iron-bearing land,” modern Dalarna, Sweden. There camped Harald’s half-brother, the once and – if the two of them had their way – future King of Norway, Olaf II.
Twenty years older than Harald, Olaf, called “the Stout,” had first served as a teenaged mercenary fighting for England’s King Aethelred (sometimes called “the Unready” but more accurately “the Poorly Advised”). He had sailed his longships up the Thames River to London Bridge, fixed grappling hooks to the wooden span and, rowing hard downstream, pulled it into the water, allowing Aethelred to force Knut off the English throne. Olaf had admired the way the Frankish emperor Charlemagne had employed Christianity to unite his realm. When he took baptism and returned to Norway to wrest that throne from Knut himself, he proceeded to convert the country to the religion of peace, not caring whom he had to evict, maim, blind or kill to do it. Olaf had so alienated his nobles that they invited Knut, who had regained Denmark and England, to add Norway once more to his North Sea Empire, forcing Olaf into exile in Rus. But now Olaf, at the age of thirty-five, had returned with an army to reclaim his throne.
We can imagine the brothers’ embrace upon meeting again. Olaf’s exile could not have been easy for Harald, as kinsman of an outlaw king, particularly one who had left a trail of blood feuds and sworn vengeance in his wake. Norway was stirring restlessly on news of Olaf’s return. Harald, though, would have brought word that the resistance lacked leadership. Knut was not a king in residence, but ruled his empire from across the sea, in England. It was time for Olaf to steal the Norwegian throne out from under him again.
No one could blame young Harald for a certain amount of hero worship when it came to big brother Olaf. Both were the sons of kings. Olaf’s father, King Harald Grenski, had died before Olaf’s birth, having abandoned their mother Asta Gudbrandsdottir in pursuit of Swedish princess Sigrid the Haughty. (Living up to her name, to discourage his advances, Sigrid got Harald drunk at a great feast and, in literal overkill, had the hall burned down on top of him.) Both cheated and widowed, Asta had then married another petty king, Sigurd Halfdanarson, called Syr, and bore him two daughters and three sons, lastly Harald. But Norway, too long a profusion of petty kingdoms, was ready for unification. As the wife of two little kings, it was Asta who raised her sons to be great kings, and to make her the mother of their country. By the time she gave birth to Harald, Olaf was already making himself ruler of all Norway.
It was said that when Harald was aged three – perhaps on the occasion of the death of his father Sigurd – Olaf came to visit the royal estate at Ringerike, on the shore of Lake Tyri near modern Oslo. Asta presented Harald and his two elder brothers, Guthorm and Halfdan, to the king. (Harald’s sisters, Gunnhild and Ingerid, played little role in history.) When Olaf took the older boys on his knee, scowling in mock ire, they cast their gaze down before him. But when he did the same to Harald, the lad looked him straight in the eye, and when Olaf tugged his hair, Harald gave back in kind, tugging the king’s mustache. Olaf told him, “One day, kinsman, you will be a fighter.
The next day Olaf and Asta, walking about the grounds, came upon Guthorm and Halfdan playing at farming, building pretend houses and barns for sheep and cattle. Their father King Sigurd had never been as interested in royal power as in farming. His nickname “Syr” can be translated as “Sow,” as in female pig, as in one who digs in the earth and makes it fertile; it seems to have been meant, and taken, as a compliment. Little Harald was playing by himself, floating wood chips by the lakeshore, and when Olaf asked what the chips represented, Harald answered herskips – warships – at which the king laughed and replied, “The day may come, brother, when you captain ships.
He then asked Guthorm, “What do you desire most?”
Guthorm said, “Akra.” Fields.
“And how large would these fields be?” Guthorm gestured to the ness, the peninsula that protrudes south into Lake Tyri. “Every summer I would have the entire headland that goes out into the lake sown.”
Even in those days, there were ten farms on that headland. The king admitted, “That would yield a great deal of grain,” and turned to Halfdan. “And what do you want most?”
“Kyr,” said Halfdan. Cattle.
“So many that when they went down to the lake for water, they would stand shoulder to shoulder the entire way around the shore.”
“That would be a sizable herd,” agreed Olaf. “You take after your father.” Then the king said to Harald, “And you? What do you want most?"
Harald said, “Huskarla.” Housecarls.
“And how many?”
“So many,” answered Harald, “that they would eat all my brother Halfdan’s cows in one meal.”
Laughing, Olaf told Asta, “Here, mother, you are bringing up a king."
Now Harald learned from his big brother how a king goes to war. o Olaf had brought his personal retinue of some 200 warriors from the court of his brother-in-law King Yaroslav of Kiev (Jarizleif in Old Norse). His other brother-in-law, King Onund Jacob of Sweden, had provided 400 more, and further permitted Olaf to recruit as many as he could, including numerous exiled Norwegians residing in Sweden. One expatriate noble, Dag Hringsson, brought 1,200 men-at-arms for the promise of the return of his ancestral lands in Norway. Their exact total is subject to speculation. Snorri counted them at about 2,400, but prior to the spread of Arabic numerals in the 14th century the Norse used what’s now called the “long hundred” of six score – 120 – making Snorri’s total over 2,800. That was not an overlarge army for those days, but realms had been conquered with less.
Harald and Olaf set out from Selanger on Sweden’s Baltic coast, marching 4,300 feet up and 350 miles over the mountainous backbone of Scandinavia. Hoping to draw new recruits to the cause, Olaf imbued his campaign with the air of a religious crusade and attracted perhaps a thousand additional men along the way. Many, however, were no better than mercenaries and marauders looking to war for profit, and who furthermore followed the old faith. Olaf insisted they accept Christ and baptism: “We cannot depend on numbers. We must depend on God, for only with his power and mercy shall we gain victory, and I have no use for pagan men in my army.”
More than half of the recruits refused, and Olaf, true to his word, turned them away, though probably noting their names to be included in his next purge. The rest took the attitude of the brothers Gauka- horir and Afra-Fasti, according to the sagas “outlaws and brigands, commanding thirty men just like them. They were taller and stronger than other men. They lacked nothing for audacity and bravery.” When Olaf inquired of their religion, they told him, “We brothers have no other belief than in ourselves, our strength and our luck, which serves us well.”
For Olaf that was not enough. He insisted they convert. “Then you may follow me and I shall reward you with wealth and titles. But if you will not, then go back to your banditry.”
For his part Afra-Fasti (“Afra the Constant”) replied, “I will not turn back. If I am to go into battle for one side or another, to me it matters little which.”
Gauka translates as “Cuckoo,” which might imply “crazy” to modern readers, but to the Norse the referral was to the European cuckoo bird, a sly imitator that slips into other species’ nests to lay its eggs, leaving them to do the work of raising the chick; to ward off attack it mimics the coloration of the Eurasian sparrowhawk. From this we might take it that Gauka-Thorir was seen by his compatriots to be an opportunistic thief pretending to be a great predator. He told his brother, “If I’m to fight, then I want to help the king, for he needs it more. And if I am to believe in a god, is it worse for me to put my faith in the White Christ than in any other? Therefore I think we should have ourselves baptized, if the king thinks it so important, and then go into battle at his side.”
Then there was the outlaw Arnljot of Gelline, “so tall,” according to the Morkinskinna, “that no man stood taller than his shoulders. He was very handsome, with beautiful hair. He arrived well armed, with the finest helmet and mail coat, a scarlet shield, and an ornamented sword, and held a great gold-inlaid spear with a shaft so thick his fist could only just close on it.” Olaf did not object to his outlawry, but to his religion, to which Arnljot replied that he believed in his own strength and prowess, but that he had heard of Olaf’s Christ and was willing to be baptized if required to fight for the king. Olaf required it. All his men were to paint white crosses on their shields and helmets as a sign of recognition.
The army descended onto the lowlands at Stiklestad (“Stikla’s Farm,” after a Norwegian girl who had turned shield-maiden rather than submit to invading Danes) at the far northeastern end of the Trondelag, the Norwegian heartland. In those days Trondheim, “Throne Home,” then called Nidaros, was the capital of Norway. He who held it could rightfully call himself king. Olaf was not so naive as to expect his subjects, whom he had ruled with such a heavy hand, to welcome him back with open arms. Some of his reavers had urged a campaign of scorched earth, destroying every homestead and killing every person who would not join the cause, as the king had done to nonbelievers in the old days.
Olaf, however, maintained that treason against him was a lesser offense than treason against God. He forbade pillaging. Besides, if it came to battle and his forces lost, cattle and booty would only hamper their retreat, while in the event of victory all would be theirs anyway, and the worse for it if laid waste beforehand. So he sought agreement with the peasants, even taking aside one of the local farmers who had joined him and giving him silver, with orders to keep it hidden until after the battle and then give it to the church for the souls of the fallen in the peasant army.
By such means Olaf hoped to gain the peasants’ sympathies, but the old days now came back to haunt him. As his army arrived on the high ground at Stiklestad, they looked down to behold virtually every Norwegian male able to bear a weapon – lendermen (landowners), thegns (retainers), cottars (tenant farmers), bondmen (serfs), peasants, yeomen, even thralls (slaves) – “the whole people, free and unfree,” recorded Snorri, “so many that nobody in Norway at that time had seen such a large army in the field.” He counts them at “a hundred times a hundred,” which rather sounds like a convenient synonym for “many,” but in long hundreds works out to 14,400 – over four times the size of Olaf’s army.
King Knut was indeed not among them, but leading in his stead was Kalf Arnason, who Snorri admitted was “a great chieftain…a man of vision.” He was a scion of the Arnasynir clan – the sons of Arni – a powerful family sundered by allegiance to two different kings. His brothers had sided with Olaf, but Kalf, the eldest, had fallen out with the king and gone over to Knut. Now he led the peasant army along with his brother-in-law Harek of Tjotta and father-in-law Thorir Hund of Bjarkoy, who nursed their own grudges against the king in matters of feud, blood money and revenge.
Old Harek had quarreled with Olaf’s shire reeve – sheriff – for which the king judged against him. In reprisal, Harek had committed murder and, when it came to it, backed Knut. Kalf regarded him as “a man experienced in battle, who acts for honor alone,” and even suggested he command the army, but Harek declined: “I am now an old and decrepit man, and cannot put up much of a fight. Besides, King Olaf and I were once friends, and though that does not seem to matter much to him anymore, it would be wrong for me to lead an army against him.”
Thorir Hund – “the Hound” – of the Bjarkoy clan was one of the greatest chiefs of Halogaland on Norway’s northwest coast, and once loyal to the king as well. (His father Thorir had died with Olaf’s father Harald in Sigrid the Haughty’s pyre.) But Thorir’s nephew had become involved in a blood feud in which he beheaded a foe at King Olaf’s table, for which he himself was later speared through by a king’s man. Thorir carried that same spear and had sworn to sink it into Olaf’s body.
And one Thorstein Knarrarsmid – “knarr smith,” ship builder, “stout and strong,” wrote Snorri, “very ardent, and a skilled killer of men” – held against King Olaf the confiscation, over the matter of payment for a murder, of a fine trading ship he had built. He was welcomed into the forefront of Thorir Hund’s ranks, from whence he hoped to get within a weapon’s swing of the king. As a woodworker, Thorstein bore an axe.
“Everyone wanted Kalf to lead the army,” recounted Snorri, “and to assign to each man his place.” Kalf warned them that though Olaf had fewer men, the king was a great commander, and however large the peasant army, if its leaders showed fear or weakness their men would break and run, leaving the rest to throw themselves on royal mercy. “We must all be quick and unfailing,” he told them, “and lead the peasants with nothing but confidence, for they will take spirit when we ready the army for battle and encourage them to fight.”
Norway’s bishop, the firebrand Sigurd, who had been appointed by his uncle Knut, inveighed against Olaf, reminding one and all of the many injustices the king had committed in the name of God. Kalf added, “Any man who does not fight bravely today shall be called a worthless coward, for these are not innocents opposing us. Spare none, for they will not spare you.”
He ordered his flag raised in the center of the peasant army, with his and Harek’s men beneath it, and Thorir Hund and his less experienced men up front where it would be difficult for them to flee through the veterans. To either side stood picked fighting men, the best the land could offer, with the rest of the vast throng on either flank. “This section of the line was wide and thick,” recorded Snorri – meaning, a solid shield wall.
Harald stood by Olaf’s side as the king, carrying a spear and caparisoned as befit royalty, in a hauberk of chain mail, his helmet encrusted in gold, his white shield inlaid with a gold cross, and at his belt his gold-hilted sword, called Hneitir (“Striker”), addressed his soldiers thus: “We have many good men, and though the farmers may outnumber us, it is fate that decides victory. I swear that I will not flee from this fight, but will triumph, or die.”
He promised each man land and riches in victory or, in defeat, a greater reward in heaven. “We must attack first, and decide matters swiftly, for the numbers are against us. Only by attacking can we win. If we fight too long, with no reinforcement, their reserves will overpower us. But if we can force their front line to retreat, they will crowd into the men behind them, and the more there are, the more we will kill.”
Though the sagas do not explicitly say so, by their description it seems certain Olaf arranged his army into the Vikings’ traditional wedge formation, the svinfylking – the “boar snout.” According to the 12th–13th-century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, it was invented by Odin himself, but in reality it was probably just handed down from the caput porcinum, the “pig’s head” wedge of Roman days. (Some modern historians believe the svinfylking more resembled a column.) With the most heavily armored men in its tip, it was well designed to focus the attackers’ strength on one spot in a shield wall. And here is where the battle of Stiklestad differs from that of Fulford, thirty-six years later: In 1030 it was the invaders, not the defenders, who held the high ground. But to carry the day, they would have to abandon it, literally lowering themselves to wash their blades in the blood of peasants.
Olaf put Arnljot of Gelline, Gauka-Thorir, Afra-Fasti and their men on point. He awarded the thegn Thord Folason the honor of bearing his banner, white with the figure of a wyrm, a sea serpent, and took eye of god 43 position under it himself with his retainers. Bjorn – “the Bear” – was the king’s stallari, his marshal, his chief commander, an axe-fighting Swede and an old friend of Olaf’s Swedish queen Astrid; it was he who had journeyed to Rus bearing news to Olaf that Norway lay open to reconquest. And the young heir to the Earl of Orkney, Rognvald Brusason, had followed Olaf into exile and returned with him now. “Of all men Rognvald was among the most handsome,” claims the Orkneyinga Saga, “with a fine head of silken blond hair. At a young age he grew tall and strong, earning great repute for his cleverness and gallantry.”
Olaf commanded his court poets to shelter with him, behind the shields around his standard: “Stay here, and remember everything, so you will not include rumors when singing songs of it later.” The king’s favorite poet, Sigvat Thordarson, was not present at his lord’s hour of need, being on a pilgrimage to Rome – as noted with some derision by lesser skalds on the scene – but he was able to speak to survivors afterward, wrote extensively about the battle and is quoted at length by Snorri.
The Swedes would take Olaf’s left flank. Dag Hringsson’s Norwegians were still on the approach, along the northern side of the valley. Until they rejoined, Harald’s Opplanders would man the right flank. But, facing four-to-one odds in the coming battle – and knowing their mother had no other kingly sons to risk – Olaf announced, “I do not think Harald my brother should be in the battle, for he is still a youth.”
This had a predictable effect on the young princeling. Harald told Olaf, “I will certainly be in this battle. I’m not too weak to handle a sword. If necessary my hand can be strapped to the hilt. No one desires more than I to give these farmers a beating. I go where my men go.”
And here for the first time we see Harald the warrior poet, for he’s said to have come up with a stanza on the spot:
I will dare to defend
My place in battle,
According to my mother’s wish.
Let us redden our shield-rims in rage.
This young skald will stand, the last viking 44
Battle-maddened, before spears
And the swing of swords.
Men harden themselves in war.
Vikings loved nothing better than a man with the skill and nerve to compose verse while facing death. Young Harald got his way. And now he received his second lesson, in how a king leads his men into battle.
The armies convened at midday, but the combat did not immediately o commence. The peasant host was so vast it took time for them all to arrive, with Thorir Hund shepherding his least trustworthy farmers to the fore, lest they lose heart before the fight. It would have been the perfect time for Olaf to attack, but he was still awaiting the arrival of Dag Hringsson’s Norwegians. The pause was so long that the king actually lay down and took a nap. He resented being roused by Kalf Arnason’s brother Finn on the approach of the enemy, for he dreamed pleasantly that he was climbing a ladder so high that it reached to heaven, and had been mounting the top step when awakened.
Finn told him, “This dream seems less pleasant to me than it does to you.”
The two armies approached so close that it was possible for men on one side to recognize those on the other. Olaf spotted his former man-at-arms, Kalf. “What are you doing here, Kalf, when we were once friends?” he called. “It looks bad for you to fight against us, or to throw a spear into our army, since four of your brothers are with us.” (By tradition Norse battles began with a single spear cast into the enemy, in remembrance of the spear Odin, leading the mythical Aesir, threw into the opposing Vanir to begin the First War between the gods. As Olaf was at least nominally Christian, he and we might assume that Kalf would cast the first spear at Stiklestad.)
Kalf replied, “Things do not always go as we want. When you fled the country those of us you left behind were forced to seek peace. Though we face each other now, if I had my way we would be friends again.”
But Finn, Kalf’s own brother, reminded the king, “Everyone knows that Kalf says one thing, then does another.”
Olaf called back, “You may want peace, Kalf, but your farmers appear to think otherwise.”
A warrior named Thorgeir, from Kvistad in southern Norway, had risen high in Olaf’s service, but now stood with Kalf. He shouted back at the king, “You’ll get the peace you gave many of us.”
Olaf sneered, “You, whom I raised to power and title from nothing, will regret our meeting, for fate has not declared victory for you today.”
It was about half past one in the afternoon. The peasants had no reason to await the arrival of Dag Hringsson and his men. Thorir Hund, carrying the spear with which he had sworn to kill Olaf, and wearing no armor but a coat of reindeer hide said to have been charmed by Laplander shamans to ward off all blows, raised the war cry: “Fram, fram, buandmenn!” – “Forward, forward, bondmen!”
A shield wall was a defensive formation, meant to stay in place. In an advance, lest it lose integrity, it could only move one stride at a time. Slowly, rhythmically, inexorably, chanting in unison to stay in step, the ranks of peasants and farmers and slaves started up the hill toward the svinfylking under the serpent banner. As the distance between them closed, arrows and crossbow bolts and then javelins began arching over the intervening ground, and men cried out as they struck home.
It was not to Olaf’s advantage for his army to suffer that for long, and he would have soon raised his sword Hneitir high and given his battle cry. “Fram, fram, Kristsmenn, krossmenn, konungsmenn!” – “Forward, forward, Christ’s men, cross men, king’s men!”
On the right wing of the boar snout, young Harald raised his sword and his shield and started downhill with his men, slowly, keeping one eye on his brother’s flag, careful to hold precise formation with it. But unlike a shield wall, the svinfylking was all about momentum. As the troops broke into a trot they would have been less concerned with precision and more with sheer impact, growing louder as every man gave vent to his fear and rage and bloodlust, now screaming at the top of his lungs, knowing that death might swoop down in the next moments upon him and, if it did, that the only thing left to him was to die well. At the last instant those champions in the very tip of the wedge – so recently outlaws, robbers and vagabonds, and now on the forefront of a king’s holy crusade – would have raised their swords to the last viking 46 get in that first clean blow, as they reached a dead run and struck the shield wall like a human battering ram….
These days, when men kill each other from ever-increasing distances, there is no modern equivalent to ancient shield-wall warfare. Few people today – mostly athletes, professional ball players and fighters – have experienced an adult man slamming into them at full speed, and none of them with an edged weapon and the determination to use it. The overriding goal in a collision of shield wall and svinfylking would be to survive that initial impact – how many men were simply crushed in the press, or lost their footing and were trampled, will never be known – and after that to deal with the enemy man-to-man, to the best of one’s ability with a blade.
“Olaf the Stout killed many,” recorded his poet Sigvat. “Pressing forward in his armor, the brave lord sought a quick victory.” The great wedge cleaved the line of the peasant army like a headsman’s axe through the neck of the condemned. So overwhelming was the charge that the boar’s snout thrust completely through onto the far side of the field. “The van of the king’s formation stood upon ground where the rear of the farmers’ line had stood,” wrote Snorri, “and many of the peasant army began to flee.”
The farmers’ line had been cut entirely in two. Those on either flank were so stunned by the fury of the king’s assault that some of them took up the loyalist war cry, either in confusion or in an attempt to pass themselves off as Olaf’s men. Hearing this, others among their own army turned on them, and they fell to fighting each other.
But, having weathered the initial assault, Kalf, Thorir the Hound, Harek and their men stood firm, exhorting the peasants to fight. It is possible they even intended the shield wall to part for the svinfylking to pass through, for the boar snout was strong in attack, but vulnerable in defense. If its initial impact did not drive the defenders from the field, they remained on both sides of the wedge, perfectly positioned to achieve the holy grail of ancient warfare: the double envelopment.
“The peasant army pushed on from both sides,” Snorri reported.
“Those nearest the enemy hewed with their swords, those behind them thrust with their spears, and those in the rear shot arrows, threw eye of god 47 javelins, or cast stones, hand-axes, or sharp stakes. Soon many men began to fall on both sides.”
Inside the wedge there was no escaping the missiles raining in from two directions, barely any elbow room to raise a shield overhead for protection and, as both sides pressed in, the goal was not just to survive the enemy but simply to survive the crush. By the sheer weight of the peasant army, both wings of Olaf’s army were pushed inward, toward the king’s serpent banner. Somehow Harald kept his feet and held off the peasants; this we know because otherwise his story would have ended on the spot. The skald Thjodolf Arnorsson, who in later years would be Harald’s great friend and favorite poet, recorded, “By Haug [a hamlet just east of Stiklestad], I heard, the lord was hard-pressed in battle, but the Burner of Bulgars fought well for his brother.”
“I stood in battle, and my wounds bled,” Harald would write years later. “I saw the farmers reinforcing their host. Their swords dealt death.”
Many men’s stories did end there. The point of the wedge, a moment ago the strongest part of Olaf’s formation, was now the weakest, with enemies just a sword’s swing to either side. The men there took terrible losses. Arnljot, Gauka-Thorir, and Afra-Fasti are said to have each slain a foeman – in some cases two or more – but, beset like great bloody-antlered stags surrounded by a pack of wolves, all went down in the first going, and their men with them, no doubt praying with their last breaths that the White Christ would welcome their spirits to paradise fresh off a battlefield, as would have Odin.
The king ordered Thord Folason to him with his serpent flag. “Thord, I heard, fought fiercely beside Olaf, with spears,” reported Sigvat. “Bravely he held high before the Norwegian king the gold embroidered banner.” The king, with the best and boldest of his fighters, including Rognvald and Bjorn Stallari, broke out beyond the safety of his shield wall where they could get at the enemy. The look on Olaf’s face is said to have struck fear into the farmers – perhaps the blood-madness of the berserker was not precluded by Christian faith. But, goaded in by the lendermen, the peasants nevertheless pressed close upon him for the kill: “Shields, men’s hands and gory swords were red with blood, where the enemy strove against the mighty king.”
Olaf came up against Thorgeir of Kvistad, who had been so eager for their meeting, and struck him full in the face. The sword Hneitir cleaved the nose-guard on Thorgeir’s helm and his skull beneath the eyes, nearly shearing off the top of his head. As he fell Olaf chided, “Did I not warn you, Thorgeir, that when we met victory would not be yours?”
But Thord Folason received a fatal thrust. He planted Olaf’s serpent banner in Norwegian soil with such force that it stood on its own, and then fell down dead beneath it. As the enemy closed from both sides Olaf and his men were near to being surrounded. In the distance Dag Hringsson’s men could be seen, coming to the rescue, but before they could join the battle there came what everyone who survived remembered as a veritable sign from God, or from the gods.
“The weather was clear, and the sun shone brightly,” wrote Snorri, o “but when the battle began the sky and sun became red, and before it ended became dark as night.”
Overhead, the moon was moving in front of the sun. Modern scientists can turn back the astronomical clock to plot the exact time and path of its shadow across the earth, which reveals a great discrepancy in the story of the battle of Stiklestad. Snorri and the Norwegian monk Theodoricus, probably working from the same sources, both stated the battle fell on the “fourth day before the kalends of August”: July 29, which is when modern Norwegians commemorate its anniversary. According to astronomers, however, the only eclipse to appear over Norway in the year 1030 was a rare “hybrid” annular/total eclipse (which, depending on the exact angle and distance of the moon from the observer, from certain vantage points appears total, and from other points as a thin ring of light). It occurred over Stiklestad a month later, on August 31.
The discrepancy has been found to arise from a mistranslation of an ancient text, which sets the date of battle as “1029 years and 209 days after Christ’s birth.” But counting the days in Nordic long hundreds (two long hundreds plus nine = 249) from December 25 works out to August 31. So Norwegians today are in all likelihood celebrating an arbitrary date, the way Americans celebrate artificially eye of god 49 set presidents’ birthdays (and, it must be said, as the early Christian church arbitrarily set the date of Christ’s birth), but that matters less to Harald’s story than the ill fortune boded by the sky darkening over the battlefield at Stiklestad.
“For the prince,” admitted Sigvat, “a great omen appeared that day.” At Stiklestad the eclipse began around two in the afternoon, and little over an hour later the sun appeared in a dark sky as a great black hole within a thin, blazing ring of light, ninety-eight percent obscured. The battle turned into a night fight, so dark that Dag Hringsson couldn’t see to array his men as they arrived on the field. There could be no surer sign from above of momentous events. Adherents of the old gods must have felt themselves battling at Ragnarok, the final battle at the end of times, and that it was surely one-eyed Odin looking down on them. For Christians only one other such darkness at midday could be known – that one almost exactly a thousand years past, at Jerusalem – and that now, as then, a holy man’s death was at hand.
In that black confusion of blood and blades, curses and screams, Olaf met Thorir the Hound and dealt him a cut across the shoulders, but even Hneitir could not open the Hound’s reindeer-skin coat. The sagas put this down to Finnish witchcraft, but heavy stiffened leather is surprisingly effective against cuts, if not so much against the thrust. “Though the king’s sword did not cut where the reindeer skin protected him,” wrote Snorri, “still Thorir was wounded on his hand.”
Olaf called on his marshal Bjorn: “Strike this dog that iron does not cut!”
The Bear raised his axe but, rather than slice, reversed his grip and struck Thorir a hammer blow that staggered him. With his good hand, though, Thorir thrust his spear through the Swede, center-body, and as he fell cried, “This is how we slay the bear!”
And at that moment Thorstein Knarrarsmid, the vengeful shipwright, swung his axe and hacked into King Olaf’s left leg, just above the knee. Finn Arnason immediately slew Thorstein, but his vengeance was complete. Olaf sagged and fell across a large boulder on the field – to become famous as Olavssteinen, Olaf’s Stone – dropping his sword Hneitir and calling on God. (Unlike pagan Vikings, as a Christian Olaf did not need to die with sword in hand to the last viking 50 reach paradise.) Thorir the Hound saw his chance and ran his spear of retribution up under Olaf’s mail coat, into his belly. It was Kalf Arnason who finished it, striking the king in the left side of the neck. Any of these wounds might have been fatal. Together, they were the death of Olaf II. “And after he fell,” lamented Snorri, “there fell nearly everyone who had advanced with him.”
Nearly all. Somewhere in that nightmare blood-spattered darkness at midday lay young Harald Sigurdsson, wounded on the field, yet alive. As the enemy pressed his men back he had inevitably ended up near Olaf’s banner, close enough to witness his brother’s death.
Olaf had been right – Harald was yet a boy, and even farmers who went raiding once a year, but for years on end, had more experience in swordplay than he. The sagas do not reveal the nature of his wound, except that it was incapacitating. Was it a cut to the leg, like the one that crippled mighty Olaf and left him within his enemies’ reach? Or a blow to the head that rattled Harald’s brain, right through his helmet? We know only that a killing blow was never struck. Whoever wounded Harald must have thought him dead, or been distracted or struck down himself in the next instant of battle.
Harald was left powerless to escape. He could only lie there in shock, receiving his third lesson – how a Viking dies – as the peasant army overran the serpent banner and the black hole in the sun looked down like the very eye of God – or was it that of one-eyed Odin? And of what was to become of Norway, and of Harald’s destiny, and of his life, none but the Fates could foretell.
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