Note: If you purchase anything from links on this site, I may make a commission.
Join our Facebook page.
Old Rane, the helmsman, whose fierce mustaches and shaggy shoulder-mantle made him look like some grim old Northern wolf, held high in air the great bison-horn filled with foaming mead.
"Hail and health to the Viking!" rose his exultant shout. From a hundred sturdy throats the cry re-echoed till the vaulted hall of the Swedemen's conquered castle rang again.
"Hail and health to the Viking!" and in the centre of that throng of mail-clad men and tossing spears, standing firm and fearless upon the interlocked and uplifted shields of three stalwart fighting-men, a stout-limbed lad of scarce thirteen, with flowing light-brown hair and flushed and eager face, brandished his sword vigorously in acknowledgment of the jubilant shout that rang once again through the dark and smoke-stained hall: "Hail to the sea-wolf's son! Health to Olaf the King!"
Then above the din and clash of shouting and of steel rose the voice of Sigvat the saga-man, or song-man of the young viking, singing loud and sturdily:
"Olaf the King is on his cruise,
His blue steel staining,
Rich booty gaining,
And all men trembling at the news,
Up, war-wolf's brood! our young fir's name
O'ertops the forest trees in fame,
Our stout young Olaf knows no fear.
Though fell the fray,
He's blithe and gay,
And warriors fall beneath his spear.
Who can't defend the wealth they have
Must die or share with the rover brave!"
A fierce and warlike song to raise in honor of so young a lad. But those were fierce and warlike days when men were stirred by the recital of bold and daring deeds--those old, old days, eight hundred years ago, when Olaf, the boy viking, the pirate chief of a hundred mail-clad men, stood upon the uplifted shields of his exultant fighting-men in the grim and smoke-stained hall of the gray castle of captured Sigtun, oldest of Swedish cities.
Take your atlas and, turning to the map of Sweden, place your finger on the city of Stockholm. Do you notice that it lies at the easterly end of a large lake? That is the Maelar, beautiful with winding channels, pine-covered islands, and rocky shores. It is peaceful and quiet now, and palace and villa and quaint Northern farmhouse stand unmolested on its picturesque borders. But channels, and islands, and rocky shores have echoed and re-echoed with the war-shouts of many a fierce sea-rover since those far-off days when Olaf, the boy viking, and his Norwegian ships of war ploughed through the narrow sea-strait and ravaged the fair shores of the Maelar with fire and sword.
Stockholm, the "Venice of the North," as it is called, was not then in existence; and little now remains of old Sigtun save ruined walls. But travellers may still see the three tall towers of the ancient town, and the great stone-heap, alongside which young Olaf drew his ships of war, and over which his pirate crew swarmed into Sigtun town, and planted the victorious banner of the golden serpent upon the conquered walls.
For this fair young Olaf came of hardy Norse stock. His father, Harald Graenske, or "Gray-mantle," one of the tributary kings of Norway, had fallen a victim to the tortures of the haughty Swedish queen; and now his son, a boy of scarce thirteen, but a warrior already by training and from desire, came to avenge his father's death. His mother, the Queen Aasta, equipped a large dragon-ship or war-vessel for her adventurous son, and with the lad, as helmsman and guardian, was sent old Rane, whom men called "the far-travelled," because he had sailed westward as far as England and southward to Norvasund (by which name men then knew the Straits of Gibraltar). Boys toughened quickly in those stirring days, and this lad, who, because he was commander of a dragon-ship, was called Olaf the King--though he had no land to rule--was of viking blood, and quickly learned the trade of war. Already, among the rocks and sands of Sodermann, upon the Swedish coast, he had won his first battle over a superior force of Danish war-vessels.
Other ships of war joined him; the name of Olaf the Brave was given him by right of daring deeds, and "Hail and health to the Viking!" rang from the sturdy throats of his followers as the little sea-king of thirteen was lifted in triumph upon the battle-dented shields.
But a swift runner burst into the gray hall of Sigtun. "To your ships, O king; to your ships!" he cries. "Olaf, the Swedish king, men say, is planting a forest of spears along the sea-strait, and, except you push out now, you may not get out at all!"
The nimble young chief sprang from the upraised shields.
"To your ships, vikings, all!" he shouted. "Show your teeth, war-wolves! Up with the serpent banner, and death to Olaf the Swede!"
Straight across the lake to the sea-strait, near where Stockholm now stands, the vikings sailed, young Olaf's dragon-ship taking the lead. But all too late; for, across the narrow strait, the Swedish king had stretched great chains, and had filled up the channel with stocks and stones. Olaf and his Norsemen were fairly trapped; the Swedish spears waved in wild and joyful triumph, and King Olaf, the Swede, said with grim satisfaction to his lords: "See, jarls and lendermen, the Fat Boy is caged at last!" For he never spoke of his stout young Norwegian namesake and rival save as "Olaf Tjocke"--Olaf the Thick, or Fat.
The boy viking stood by his dragon-headed prow, and shook his clenched fist at the obstructed sea-strait and the Swedish spears.
"Shall we, then, land, Rane, and fight our way through?" he asked.
"Fight our way through?" said old Rane, who had been in many another tight place in his years of sea-roving, but none so close as this. "Why, king, they be a hundred to one!"
"And if they be, what then?" said impetuous Olaf "Better fall as a viking breaking Swedish spears than die a straw-death [Footnote: So contemptuously did those fierce old sea-kings regard a peaceful life that they said of one who died quietly on his bed at home: "His was but a straw-death."] as Olaf of Sweden's bonder-man. May we not cut through these chains?"
"As soon think of cutting the solid earth, king," said the helmsman.
"So; and why not, then?" young Olaf exclaimed, struck with a brilliant idea. "Ho, Sigvat," he said, turning to his saga-man, "what was that lowland under the cliff where you said the pagan Upsal king was hanged in his own golden chains by his Finnish queen?"
"'Tis called the fen of Agnefit, O king," replied the saga-man, pointing toward where it lay.
"Why, then, my Rane," asked the boy, "may we not cut our way out through that lowland fen, to the open sea and liberty?"
"'Tis Odin's own device," cried the delighted helmsman, catching at his young chief's great plan. "Ho, war-wolves all, bite ye your way through the Swedish fens! Up with the serpent banner, and farewell to Olaf the Swede!"
It seemed a narrow chance, but it was the only one. Fortune favored the boy viking. Heavy rains had flooded the lands that slope down to the Maelar Lake; in the dead of night the Swedish captives and stout Norse oarsmen were set to work, and before daybreak an open cut had been made in the lowlands beneath Agnefit, or the "Rock of King Agne," where, by the town of Sodertelje, the vikings' canal is still shown to travellers; the waters of the lake came rushing through the cut, and an open sea-strait awaited young Olaf's fleet.
"Unship the rudder; hoist the sail aloft!" commanded Bane the helmsman. "Sound war-horns all! Hail and health to the Viking!"
A strong breeze blew astern; the Norse rowers steered the rudderless ships with their long oars, and with a mighty rush, through the new canal and over all the shallows, out into the great Norrstrom, or North Stream, as the Baltic Sea was called, the fleet passed in safety while the loud war-horns blew the notes of triumph.
So the boy viking escaped from the trap of his Swedish foes, and, standing by the "grim, gaping dragon's head" that crested the prow of his warship, he bade the helmsman steer for Gotland Isle, while Sigvat, the saga-man, sang with the ring of triumph:
"Down the fiord sweep wind and rain;
Our sails and tackle sway and strain;
Wet to the skin
We're sound within.
Our sea-steed through the foam goes prancing,
While shields and spears and helms are glancing.
From fiord to sea,
Our ships ride free,
And down the wind with swelling sail
We scud before the gathering gale."
What a breezy, rollicking old saga it is! Can't you almost catch the spray and sea-swell in its dashing measures?
Now, turn to your atlases again and look for the large island of Gotland off the southeastern coast of Sweden, in the midst of the Baltic Sea. In the time of Olaf it was a thickly peopled and wealthy district, and the principal town, Wisby, at the northern end, was one of the busiest places in all Europe. To this attractive island the boy viking sailed with all his ships, looking for rich booty, but the Gotlanders met him with fair words and offered him so great a "scatt," or tribute, that he agreed not to molest them, and rested at the island, an unwelcome guest, through all the long winter. Early in the spring he sailed eastward to the Gulf of Riga and spread fear and terror along the coast of Finland. And the old saga tells how the Finlanders "conjured up in the night, by their witchcraft, a dreadful storm and bad weather; but the king ordered all the anchors to be weighed and sail hoisted, and beat off all night to the outside of the land. So the king's luck prevailed more than the Finlander's witchcraft."
Then away "through the wild sea" to Denmark sailed the young pirate king, and here he met a brother viking, one Thorkell the Tall. The two chiefs struck up a sort of partnership; and coasting southward along the western shores of Denmark, they won a sea-fight in the Ringkiobing Fiord, among the "sand hills of Jutland." And so business continued brisk with this curiously matched pirate firm--a giant and a boy--until, under the cliffs of Kinlimma, in Friesland, hasty word came to the boy viking that the English king, Ethelred the Unready, was calling for the help of all sturdy fighters to win back his heritage and crown from young King Cnut, or Canute the Dane, whose father had seized the throne of England. Quick to respond to an appeal that promised plenty of hard knocks, and the possibility of unlimited booty, Olaf, the ever ready, hoisted his blue and crimson sails and steered his war-ships over the sea to help King Ethelred, the never ready. Up the Thames and straight for London town he rowed.
"Hail to the serpent banner! Hail to Olaf the Brave!" said King Ethelred, as the war-horns sounded a welcome; and on the low shores of the Isle of Dogs, just below the old city, the keels of the Norse war-ships grounded swiftly, and the boy viking and his followers leaped ashore. "You come in right good time with your trusty dragon-ships, young king," said King Ethelred; "for the Danish robbers are full well entrenched in London town and in my father Edgar's castle."
And then he told Olaf how, "in the great trading place which is called Southwark," the Danes had raised "a great work and dug large ditches, and within had built a bulwark of stone, timber, and turf, where they had stationed a large army.
"And we would fain have taken this bulwark," added the king, "and did in bear down upon it with a great assault; but indeed we could make naught of it."
"And why so?" asked the young viking.
"Because," said King Ethelred, "upon the bridge between the castle and Southwark have the ravaging Danes raised towers and parapets, breast high, and thence they did cast down stones and weapons upon us so that we could not prevail. And now, sea-king, what is your counsel? How may we avenge ourselves of our enemies and win the town?"
Impetuous as ever, and impatient of obstacles, the young viking said: "How? why, pull down this bridge, king, and then you will have free river-way to your castle."
"Break down great London Bridge, young hero?" cried the amazed king. "How may that be? Have we a Duke Samson among us to do so great a feat?"
"Lay your ships alongside mine, king, close to this barricaded bridge," said the valorous boy, "and I will vow to break it down, or you may call me caitiff and coward."
"Be it so," said Ethelred, the English king; and all the war-chiefs echoed: "Be it so!" So Olaf and his trusty Rane made ready the war-forces for the destruction of the bridge.
Old London Bridge was not what we should now call an imposing structure, but our ancestors of nine centuries back esteemed it quite a bridge. The chronicler says that it was "so broad that two wagons could pass each other upon it," and "under the bridge were piles driven into the bottom of the river."
So young Olaf and old Rane put their heads together, and decided to wreck the bridge by a bold viking stroke. And this is how it is told in the Saga of King Olaf the Saint:
"King Olaf ordered great platforms of floating wood to be tied together with hazel bands, and for this he took down old houses; and with these, as a roof, he covered over his ships so widely that it reached over the ships' sides. Under this screen he set pillars, so high and stout that there both was room for swinging their swords, and the roofs were strong enough to withstand the stones cast down upon them."
"Now, out oars and pull for the bridge," young Olaf commanded; and the roofed-over war-ships were rowed close up to London Bridge.
And as they came near the bridge, the chronicle says: "There were cast upon them, by the Danes upon the bridge, so many stones and missile weapons, such as arrows and spears, that neither helmet nor shield could hold out against it; and the ships themselves were so greatly damaged that many retreated out of it."
But the boy viking and his Norsemen were there for a purpose, and were not to be driven back by stones or spears or arrows. Straight ahead they rowed, "quite up under the bridge."
"Out cables, all, and lay them around the piles," the young sea-king shouted; and the half-naked rowers, unshipping their oars, reached out under the roofs and passed the stout cables twice around the wooden supports of the bridge. The loose end was made fast at the stern of each vessel, and then, turning and heading down stream, King Olaf's twenty stout war-ships waited his word:
"Out oars!" he cried; "pull, war-birds! Pull all, as if you were for Norway!"
Forward and backward swayed the stout Norse rowers; tighter and tighter pulled the cables; fast down upon the straining war-ships rained the Danish spears and stones; but the wooden piles under the great bridge were loosened by the steady tug of the cables, and soon with a sudden spurt the Norse war-ships darted down the river, while the slackened cables towed astern the captured piles of London Bridge. A great shout went up from the besiegers, and "now," says the chronicle, "as the armed troops stood thick upon the bridge, and there were likewise many heaps of stones and other weapons upon it, the bridge gave way; and a great part of the men upon it fell into the river, and all the others fled--some into the castle, some into Southwark." And before King Ethelred, "the Unready," could pull his ships to the attack, young Olaf's fighting-men had sprung ashore, and, storming the Southwark earthworks, carried all before them, and the battle of London Bridge was won.
And the young Olaf's saga-man sang triumphantly:
"London Bridge is broken down--
Gold is won and bright renown.
Hildar shouting in the din!
Odin makes our Olaf win!"
And perhaps, who knows, this wrecking of London Bridge so many hundred years ago by Olaf, the boy viking of fifteen, may have been the origin of the old song-game dear to so many generations of children:
"London Bridge is fallen down, fallen down, fallen down--
London Bridge is fallen down, my fair lady!"
So King Ethelred won back his kingdom, and the boy viking was honored above all others. To him was given the chief command in perilous expeditions against the Danes, and the whole defence of all the coast of England. North and south along the coast he sailed with all his warships, and the Danes and Englishmen long remembered the dashing but dubious ways of this young sea-rover, who swept the English coast and claimed his dues from friend and foe alike. For those were days of insecurity for merchant and trader and farmer, and no man's wealth or life was safe except as he paid ready tribute to the fierce Norse allies of King Ethelred. But soon after this, King Ethelred died, and young Olaf, thirsting for new adventures, sailed away to the south and fought his way all along the French coast as far as the mouth of the River Garonne. Many castles he captured; many rival vikings subdued; much spoil he gathered; until at last his dragon-ships lay moored under the walls of old Bordeaux, waiting for fair winds to take him around to the Straits of Gibraltar, and so on "to the land of Jerusalem."
One day, in the booty-filled "fore-hold" of his dragon-ship, the young sea-king lay asleep; and suddenly, says the old record, "he dreamed a wondrous dream."
"Olaf, great stem of kings, attend!" he heard a deep voice call; and, looking up, the dreamer seemed to see before him "a great and important man, but of a terrible appearance withal."
"If that you are Olaf the Brave, as men do call you," said the vision, "turn yourself to nobler deeds than vikings' ravaging and this wandering cruise. Turn back, turn back from your purposeless journey to the land of Jerusalem, where neither honor nor fame awaits you. Son of King Harald, return to your heritage; for you shall be king over all Norway."
Then the vision vanished and the young rover awoke to find himself alone, save for the sleeping foot-boy across the cabin door-way. So he quickly summoned old Rane, the helmsman, and told his dream.
"'Twas for your awakening, king," said his stout old follower. "'Twas the great Olaf, your uncle, Olaf Tryggvesson the king, that did call you. Win Norway, king, for the portent is that you and yours shall rule your fatherland."
And the war-ships' prows were all turned northward again, as the boy viking, following the promise of his dream, steered homeward for Norway and a throne.
Now in Norway Earl Eric was dead. For thirteen years he had usurped the throne that should have been filled by one of the great King Olaf's line; and, at his death, his handsome young son, Earl Hakon the Fair, ruled in his father's stead. And when young King Olaf heard this news, he shouted for joy and cried to Rane:
"Now, home in haste, for Norway shall be either Hakon's heritage or mine!"
"'Tis a fair match of youth against youth," said the trusty helmsman; "and if but fair luck go with you, Norway shall be yours!"
So from "a place called Furovald," somewhere between the mouths of Humber and of Tees, on the English coast, King Olaf, with but two stout war-ships and two hundred and twenty "well-armed and chosen persons," shook out his purple sails to the North Sea blasts, and steered straight for Norway.
As if in league against this bold young viking the storm winds came rushing down from the mountains of Norway and the cold belt of the Arctic Circle and caught the two war-ships tossing in a raging sea.
The storm burst upon them with terrific force, and the danger of shipwreck was great. "But," says the old record, "as they had a chosen company and the king's luck with them all went on well."
"You able chief!" sings the faithful saga-man,
"With your fearless crew
You meet with skill and courage true
The wild sea's wrath
On your ocean path.
Though waves mast-high were breaking round,
You find the middle of Norway's ground,
With helm in hand
On Saelo's strand."
Now "Sael" was Norse for "lucky" and Saelo's Island means the lucky island.
"I'll be a lucky king for landing like this upon the Lucky Isle," said rash young Olaf, with the only attempt at a joke we find recorded of him, as, with a mighty leap, he sprang ashore where the sliding keel of his war-ship ploughed the shore of Saelo's Isle.
"True, 'tis a good omen, king," said old Rane the helmsman, following close behind.
But the soil of the "Lucky Isle" was largely clay, moist and slippery, and as the eager young viking climbed the bank his right foot slipped, and he would have fallen had not he struck his left foot firmly in the clay and so saved himself. But to slip at all was a bad sign in those old, half-pagan, and superstitious times, and he said, ruefully: "An omen; an omen, Rane! The king falls!"
"Nay ,'tis the king's luck," says ready and wise old Rane. "You did not fall, king. See; you only set fast foot in this your native soil of Norway."
"You are a rare diviner, Rane," laughed the young king, much relieved, and then he added solemnly: "It may be so if God does will it so."
And now news came that Earl Hakon, with a single war-ship, was steering north from Sogne Fiord; and Olaf, pressing on, laid his two ships on either side of a narrow strait, or channel, in Sandunga Sound. Here he stripped his ships of all their war-gear, and stretched a great cable deep in the water, across the narrow strait. Then he wound the cable-ends around the capstans, ordered all his fighting-men out of sight, and waited for his rival. Soon Earl Hakon's war-ship, crowded with rowers and fighting-men, entered the strait. Seeing, as he supposed, but two harmless merchant-vessels lying on either side of the channel, the young earl bade his rowers pull between the two. Suddenly there is a stir on the quiet merchant-vessels. The capstan bars are manned; the sunken cable is drawn taut. Up goes the stern of Earl Hakon's entrapped warship; down plunges her prow into the waves, and the water pours into the doomed boat. A loud shout is heard; the quiet merchant-vessels swarm with mail-clad men, and the air is filled with a shower of stones, and spears, and arrows. The surprise is complete. Tighter draws the cable; over topples Earl Hakon's vessel, and he and all his men are among the billows struggling for life. "So," says the record, "King Olaf took Earl Hakon and all his men whom they could get hold of out of the water and made them prisoners; but some were killed and some were drowned."
Into the "fore-hold" of the king's ship the captive earl was led a prisoner, and there the young rivals for Norway's crown faced each other. The two lads were of nearly the same age--between sixteen and seventeen--and young Earl Hakon was considered the handsomest youth in all Norway. His helmet was gone, his sword was lost, his ring-steel suit was sadly disarranged, and his long hair, "fine as silk," was "bound about his head with a gold ornament." Fully expecting the fate of all captives in those cruel days--instant death--the young earl nevertheless faced his boy conqueror proudly, resolved to meet his fate like a man.
"They speak the truth who say of the house of Eric that you are handsome men," said the king, studying his prisoner's face. "But now, earl, even though you are fair to look upon, your luck has failed you at last."
"Fortune changes," said the young earl. "We are both boys; and you, king, are perchance the shrewder youth. Yet, had we looked for such a trick as you have played upon us, we had not thus been tripped upon your sunken cables. Better luck next time."
"Next time!" echoed the king; "don't you know, earl, that as you stand there, a prisoner, there may be no 'next time' for you?"
The young captive understood full well the meaning of the words. "Yes, king," he said; "it must be only as you may determine. Man can die but once. Speak on; I am ready!" But Olaf said: "What will you give me, earl, if at this time I let you go, whole and unhurt?"
"'Tis not what I may give, but what you may take, king," the earl answered. "I am your prisoner; what will you take to free me?"
"Nothing," said the generous young viking, advancing nearer to his handsome rival. "As you said, we are both boys, and life is all before us. Earl, I give you your life, if you but take oath before me to leave this my realm of Norway, to give up your kingdom, and never to do battle against me again."
The conquered earl bent his fair young head.
"You are a generous chief, King Olaf," he said. "I take my life as you do give it, and all shall be as you will."
So Earl Hakon took the oath, and King Olaf righted his rival's capsized war-ship, refitted it from his own stores of booty, and thus the two lads parted; the young earl sailing off to his uncle, King Canute, in England, and the boy viking hastening eastward to Vigen, where lived his mother, the Queen Aasta, whom he had not seen for full five years.
It is harvest-time in the year 1014. Without and within the long, low house of Sigurd Syr, at Vigen, all is excitement; for word has come that Olaf the sea-king has returned to his native land, and is even now on his way to this his mother's house. Bright stuffs decorate the dull walls of the great-room, clean straw covers the earth floor, and upon the long, four-cornered tables is spread a mighty feast of mead and ale and coarse but hearty food, such as the old Norse heroes drew their strength and muscle from. At the door-way stands the Queen Aasta with her maidens, while before the entrance, with thirty "well-clothed men," waits young Olaf's stepfather, wise Sigurd Syr, gorgeous in a jewelled suit, a scarlet cloak, and a glittering golden helmet. The watchers on the housetops hear a distant shout, now another and nearer one, and soon, down the highway, they catch the gleam of steel and the waving of many banners; and now they can distinguish the stalwart forms of Olaf's chosen hundred men, their shining coats of ring-mail, their foreign helmets, and their crossleted shields flashing in the sun. In the very front rides old Rane, the helmsman, bearing the great white banner blazoned with the golden serpent, and, behind him, cased in golden armor, his long brown hair flowing over his sturdy shoulders, rides the boy viking, Olaf of Norway.
It was a brave home-coming; and as the stout young hero, leaping from his horse, knelt to receive his mother's welcoming kiss, the people shouted for joy, the banners waved, the war-horns played their loudest; and thus, after five years of wandering, the boy comes back in triumph to the home he left when but a wild and adventurous little fellow of twelve.
The hero of nine great sea-fights, and of many smaller ones, before he was seventeen, young Olaf Haraldson was a remarkable boy, even in the days when all boys aimed to be battle-tried heroes. Toughened in frame and fibre by his five years of sea-roving, he had become strong and self-reliant, a man in action though but a boy in years.
"I am come," he said to his mother and his step-father, "to take the heritage of my forefathers. But not from Danish nor from Swedish kings will I supplicate that which is mine by right. I intend rather to seek my patrimony with battle-axe and sword, and I will so lay hand to the work that one of two things shall happen: Either I shall bring all this kingdom of Norway under my rule, or I shall fall here upon my inheritance in the land of my fathers."
These were bold words for a boy of seventeen. But they were not idle boastings. Before a year had passed, young Olaf's pluck and courage had won the day, and in harvest-time, in the year 1015, being then but little more than eighteen years old, he was crowned King of Norway in the Drontheim, or "Throne-home," of Nidaros, the royal city, now called on your atlas the city of Drontheim. For fifteen years King Olaf the Second ruled his realm of Norway. The old record says that he was "a good and very gentle man"; but history shows his goodness and gentleness to have been of a rough and savage kind. The wild and stern experiences of his viking days lived again even in his attempts to reform and benefit his land. When he who had himself been a pirate tried to put down piracy, and he who had been a wild young robber sought to force all Norway to become Christian, he did these things in so fierce and cruel a way that at last his subjects rebelled, and King Canute came over with a great army to wrest the throne from him. On the bloody field of Stiklestad, July 29, 1030, the stern king fell, says Sigvat, his saga-man,
"beneath the blows
By his own thoughtless people given."
So King Canute conquered Norway; but after his death, Olaf's son, Magnus the Good, regained his father's throne. The people, sorrowful at their rebellion against King Olaf, forgot his stern and cruel ways, and magnified all his good deeds so mightily that he was at last declared a saint, and the shrine of Saint Olaf is still one of the glories of the old cathedral in Drontheim. And, after King Magnus died, his descendants ruled Norway for nearly four hundred years; and thus was brought to pass the promise of the dream that, in the "fore-hold" of the great dragon-ship, under the walls of old Bordeaux, came so many years before to the daring and sturdy young Olaf of Norway, the boy viking.