Monday, April 7, 2014

Norwegian History: Harald Harfagre (c.850-932) Part 2

So, the next installment of Harald's adventures consist more or less of a rapid series of conquests and battles, at least according to the old sagas.

The first target was in the Opplands, the coastal area of southern Norway, where, as we have seen, Harald's dynastic powerbase had been located.

The Oppland territories

Specifically, it was the valley of Gudsbrandsdal that first tasted the young king's wrath, and after he approached, he ordered the entire countryside laid waste and burnt. Most of the inhabitants fled, but some begged for peace and became members of the king's retinue.

Gudbrandsdal (Credits: Richard James Smith, Wikipedia).

Harald then faced battle in the land of Orkdal with the king Gryting; as has become the pattern for these narratives, Gryting was taken prisoner, and all his men were killed who didn't join king Harald.

It was shortly after the battle in Orkdal that Harald made one of his most significant announcements, one that completely changed the foundation of Norwegian society for the rest of its history.

For the king, in an unprecedented move, declared that all the land in his domains belonged solely to him, and any who were living upon it, be they noble or farmers (bonde in Norwegian), were in some respects his tenants, and owed him land dues and tax-income. He also set a jarl (a word that became 'earl' in old English) loyal to him to rule and judge legal disputes over every district, for which service they would be awarded one-third of the tax income due to the crown.

It's difficult to overstate how great a tyranny this would have appeared in Old Norse society. Unlike mainland Europe, which was rapidly developing the social system that would become feudalism around this time, the king was not seen as divinely appointed in the Norse world, but simply the man most qualified, by birth or ability, for the role. Furthermore, there was no notion of a national monarchy in Norway before Harald, and the sheer numbers of fellow 'kings' that Harald had to fight for control of the country testifies to this fact.

I have no idea what this picture has to do with anything...But it kinda fits, no?

Instead, the standard was that each ruler had the sole right over their own lands, particularly in pagan Norse society, where the chieftains were often also the 'priests' (gothis) who maintained the rites to the gods, many of whom more than likely reckoned their ancestry to the gods as Harald's line did, making them equal to him in descent. So one can imagine how insane one man claiming all the land of Norway solely as his property must have looked!

And indeed, the period in which Harald Harfagre united all of Norway was traditionally seen as the beginning of the Norwegian exodus and settlement of the sparse and far-flung islands around them, from the Faroe islands and Iceland, to the Hebrides, Shetland isles, and the Isle of Man in Britain, many of which were traditionally thought of as founded and settled by those who either took great offense to Harald's claims or had made enemies of the king, although history seems to show that, in many cases, settlement began long before Harald's reign.
Just another day in Iceland.

At any rate, after the king's pronouncements, he went on more campaigns of conquest (what else?), this time to the west of his country, his hair growing all the while. First up was Stjordal, where he killed two kings, and then Trondheim, where four rival kings of the surrounding countryside came out to meet him.

The red represents roughly the size of Harald's kingdom at this point.
A victorious king Harald then claimed Trondheim as his home, and married Asa, the daughter of Hakon Grjotgardson, one of his leading jarl's. Confusingly enough for modern sensibilities, Asa was not the woman for whom he had begun to grow his hair out for (as mentioned here in the previous post), but rather, a completely different woman. Harald did not give up his hopes for Gyda, however, but still wanted her for his concubine, which was a common enough practice for Norse kings.

Regardless, Trondheim, situated far to the west of Norway, became not only Harald's capital but the capital of all the Norwegian kings following him until Danish rule of Norway in the late Middle-Ages. When Christianity came to Norway, it also became the center of Norwegian Christianity, a title it retained even after the Reformation.

Trondheim's Nidaros cathedral, as it looked during the 19th century.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Norwegian History: Haraldr Hárfagri (c.850-932), Part 1.

As promised, here is the next installment of my attempts to document the history of the kings of Norway. The next king in order of succession after Halfdan the Black (c. 810-c. 860) is also one of Norway's most famous, Harald Harfagre (Harald Fairhair), who lived from around 850-932 CE, the first king to unite Norway and rule it as one kingdom. Tellingly, Harald has one of the largest sections of the Heimskringla dedicated to his story (nearly 45 chapters!), and, as a result, I'll have to break his tale into different segments over the coming days.

So, after king Halfdan of Vestfold's death (mentioned in the previous historical post), as was typical for medieval kingdoms, a ten year-old king Harald found himself surrounded by enemies, as many of his father's allied chiefs and the kings that he had subdued made land-grabs for whatever territory they could, and especially any land that had been taken from them by Halfdan.

A wide-scale image of Norway and Oppland during Harald's time. Harald's lands are in red.
A closeup of 'Oppland' in the south of Norway, where most of the following battles took place.

Since Harald was too young to command, his maternal uncle Guthrom was elected as the ruler of Harald's household and armies, and it was he that led the charge against the family's abundant enemies. These included (as one might expect) the wily king Gandalf of Vingulmark and his surviving son Hake, the sons of the dead king Eystein of Hedemark, Hogne and Frode, and a newcomer, Hogne Karuson from Ringerike.

Gandalf's family struck first, with Hake sending 300 men through Vingulmark to the Vestfold territory to attempt to ambush and kill the young king Harald, while Gandalf assembled his army to cross the fjord separating Vingulmark from Vestfold.

Harald and Guthrum met Hake on the march and were victorious in battle. The two then turned their army back and then made for Hedemark, where word had reached them that other kings of the Oppland regions were meeting to conspire against king Harald at the residence on Hogne Karuson.

Accordingly, Harald and Guthrom approached Hogne Karuson's house in the night with their army, barricaded all the doors, and then set fire to it while he and Eystein's sons slept.

While Hogne Karuson and his household burned, Hogne and Frode Eysteinson managed to slip out with some men, and fought until they were killed. Harald and Guthrom then went on a large campaign and (re)captured  the territories of Hedemark, Ringerike, Gudbrandsdal, Hadeland, Thoten, and Romerike. They also fought king Gandalf in several battles and eventually killed him as well, and took the northern part of Vingulsmark, up to the river Raum.

'Raum' river, now known as the modern Glomma river.
After all of his wars had been fought (for the time being; there were many more to come, as we will see), Harald turned his mind to love, and set the grounds for the anecdote for which he would be best remembered.

For the young king soon sent an embassy to Gyda, daughter of king Eirik of Hordaland and a woman of great beauty and spirit, requesting her hand. Unfortunately for him, however, she refused to be the wife of any man who was not king of the entirety of Norway, as her words are recorded in the Heimskringla:

 "Now tell to King Harald these my words. I will only agree to be his lawful wife upon the condition that he shall first, for my sake, subject to himself the whole of Norway, so that he may rule over that kingdom as freely and fully as King Eirik over the Swedish dominions, or King Gorm over Denmark; for only then, methinks, can he be called the king of a people."

King Harald's diplomats were stunned at the girl's audacity, but returned to their liege with the news regardless. Yet he was not enraged, as they expected he would be; instead, he seemed strangely delighted.

A medieval rendition of King Harald.

"This girl has not spoken or done so much amiss that she should be punished, but rather she should be thanked for her words. She has reminded me of something which it appears to me wonderful I did not think of before. And now, I make the solemn vow, and take God to witness, who made me and rules over all things, that never shall I clip or comb my hair until I have subdued the whole of Norway, with the land-tax, and duties, and domains; or if not, have died in the attempt."

And from that day forward, Harald stayed true to his promise, never cutting or combing his hair during all the many years of warfare that followed, and so was he given the title 'Harfagri,' or 'Fair-hair' (also sometimes known as 'Tangle-hair'), for the great mane of hair that he grew to win Gyda's hand.

But more on that to come!

The king and his hair in all of its splendor! (Credits:

Friday, March 14, 2014

Springtime in Maine: A Photographic Journey

Yeah, remember how I said that it was starting to warm up and the snow was starting to melt?

Not so much, turns out.

It snowed for the past two days, more or less without stopping, and dumped somewhere around a foot of snow on the city (I think; I never actually heard how much snow fell in total, but my Mainer instincts tell me it was around that).

Luckily, I love winter with a deep, abiding passion; actually, I think the only reason my city exists is the snow, since it tends to make it look cozy and Christmas card-looking, as opposed to how it usually looks (i.e., somewhat depressing; keep in mind that Stephen King based the book IT on my city). So, on my walk to the library today through the downtown area of our fair city, I decided to snap some photos to make all of those in warmer areas of the world grateful (or envious, if you love the snow as I do).

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Norwegian History: Halfdanr Svarti (810-860), King of Vestfold.

So, first off, I must apologize for breaking my earlier promise to write here every day! Life's been a little crazy lately, and I definitely needed the time to take a break yesterday.

But to make up for it, I've decided to start a series of posts describing all of the Norwegian kings, both past and present. I, like most Norwegian-Americans that I know, know very little about Norwegian history in general, so I'll be writing just as much for myself here as anyone else!

Halfdanr Svarti (i.e., Halfdan the Black, for his 'raven' black hair), who lived c.810-c.860 ACE, was a Norwegian king of the Norse state of Vestfold, which would later form the basis for a united Norway. Halfdan is best known, however, for being the father of the first king of that united Norway, Harald Harfagre ('Fair-hair').

(As a heads up, the following piece might seem a little dull and 'historical' sounding. I really did try to be as concise as possible though).

All the kingdoms of Halfdan's reign. Vestfold is in red.

As the book of Norwegian kings tells (the Heimskringla, as cited from Project Gutenberg), Halfdan was a year old when his father, the semi-mythical Gudrod the Hunter (a member of the Yngling dynasty, later to be known as the Fairhair dynasty, supposedly founded by the Norse god of abundance, Frey) was killed in his kingdom of Vestfold. He and his mother Asa then fled to her father's kingdom of Agder, where the boy was raised.
Frey, son of Odin, god of abundance, and creator of the line of Yngling kings.

When the boy turned 18, he and his brother Olaf united the Vestfold kingdom, and then spent many of the following years fighting rival Norwegian kings, first battling against king Gandalf (mentioned in an earlier post) of Vingulmark, who gave him half of that land after his defeat, and then against king Sigtryg of Hedemark for control of the territory of Romerike.

Halfdan was victorious against Sigtryg, who died in battle against him, but spent years following their great battle fighting king Sigtryg's brother Eystein who retook Romerike from him. Of course, Halfdan was victorious in a number of battles against Eystein, causing him to flee north and sue for peace. Out of fairness for his family, Halfdan gave Eystein half of Hedemark while he kept the rest.

The king of Vestfold then married Ragnhild, the daughter of king Harold Gulskeg (goldbeard; you gotta' love those old Norse names), king of Sogn. Long story short, Halfdan has a son, that son is raised in Sogn and given control of the kingdom by his grandfather on Harold Gulskeg's deathbed. Ragnhild then dies shortly after he father, and then her son dies shortly after her, making Halfdan the king of Sogn as well.

Sogndalsfjorden (Sogn's fjord). (Credits: Tim Bunce, Wikipedia)

Anyway, this is getting a little lengthy; needless to say, Halfdan fought Gandalf's sons again, killed two out of three, took all of Vingulmark, and the third son (Hake) fled to the kingdom of Alfheimar and his lands at Hadeland. Halfdan then gets married to a second Ragnhild, whose father had been king of the kingdom of Ringerike (before getting killed by Hake). She was captured by Hake and taken to his lands of Hadeland; Halfdan hears of it at Yule (still a pre-Christian Norse pagan festival at this point), at then captures her back and makes her his wife, and makes himself king of Hadeland as well.

Some supernatural things happen after that, and just before his son is born, Halfdan has a dream prophesying the greatness of his family. The son is named Harold, and would later become Harold Fairhair, first king of Norway.

 Also, a number of years later, Halfdan was having another Yule feast in Hadeland, when all of the meat and mead suddenly disappeared from his table as if it had never been. Startled, the king captured a wise 'Finn' (really, a member of the Sami people, the indigenous inhabitants of Norway, whose language is related to that of the Finn people of Finland; in Norwegian epics and folktales, they're generally acknowledged as having magical, non-Christian powers of enchantment) and tortures him to tell him the truth of what happened to the food and drink at his feast.

A Norwegian Sami family, circa 1900.

His son Harold (about 10 years old at this point) lets the 'Finn' escape against his father's wishes, and travels with him to his chief's lands, staying with the 'Finns' until the next spring. The man that Harold rescued then tells him that he did in fact steal king Halfdan's provisions, but that the king is now dead, and Harold is now the new king of Halfdan's lands.

As it turns out, Halfdan was traveling back from his feast in Hadeland over a frozen lake in the middle of a spring thaw, with predictable results. He and much of his army fell through it, and he died around the age of 40.
Randsfjord, where Halfdan drowned.

Interestingly enough, when his body floated ashore at Ringerike, the leading folk of all the united kingdoms of his lands began to argue about where the body would get buried, since they all thought that wherever it would be interred would be guaranteed a good harvest (keep in mind that Halfdan was supposed to be the descendant of Frey, the god of abundant harvests). So, his nobles did what any rational folk would do; they chopped the body up into four pieces and buried them in four mounds around the country, with the head going to the land of Stein in Ringerike.

One of 'Halfdan's mounds' at the Hadeland folk museum. (Photo: Anders Einar Hilden, i.e. Kagee, Wikipedia).

And thus were the foundations of a united Norway laid!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Norwegian Folktale: The Cat On The Dovrefell, Or, Quick And Easy Ways To Protect Yourself From Trolls.

The following tale comes from the great Norwegian folklorists Peter Christen Asbjørnsen (1812 —1885) and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe (1813 – 1882), to whom we owe the vast majority of our knowledge of Norwegian folktales, translated into English by Sir G.W. Dasent and adapted from my beloved Project Gutenberg:

Once upon a time there was a man up in Finnmark who had caught a great white bear, which he was going to take to the King of Denmark. Now, it so fell out, that he came to the Dovrefell just about Christmas Eve, and there he turned into a cottage where a man lived, whose name was Halvor, and asked the man if he could get house-room there for his bear and himself.
“Heaven never help me, if what I say isn’t true!” said the man; “but we can’t give anyone house-room just now, for every Christmas Eve such a pack of Trolls come down upon us, that we are forced to flit, and haven’t so much as a house over our own heads, to say nothing of lending one to anyone else.”
“Oh?” said the man, “if that’s all, you can very well lend me your house; my bear can lie under the stove yonder, and I can sleep in the side-room.”
Well, he begged so hard, that at last he got leave to stay there; so the people of the house flitted out, and before they went, everything was got ready for the Trolls201the tables were laid, and there was rice porridge, and fish boiled in lye (lutefisk), and sausages, and all else that was good, just as for any other grand feast.
So, when everything was ready, down came the Trolls. Some were great, and some were small; some had long tails, and some had no tails at all; some, too, had long, long noses; and they ate and drank, and tasted everything. Just then one of the little Trolls caught sight of the white bear, who lay under the stove; so he took a piece of sausage and stuck it on a fork, and went and poked it up against the bear’s nose, screaming out:
“Kitty, will you have some sausage?”
Then the white bear rose up and growled, and hunted the whole pack of them out of doors, both great and small.
Next year Halvor was out in the wood, on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, cutting wood before the holidays, for he thought the Trolls would come again; and just as he was hard at work, he heard a voice in the wood calling out:
“Halvor! Halvor!”
“Well,” said Halvor, “here I am.”
“Have you got your big cat with you still?”
“Yes, that I have,” said Halvor; “she’s lying at home under the stove, and what’s more, she has now got seven kittens, far bigger and fiercer than she is herself.”
“Oh, then, we’ll never come to see you again,” bawled out the Troll away in the wood, and he kept his word; for since that time the Trolls have never eaten their Christmas brose with Halvor on the Dovrefell.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

On Lazy Sundays, Coffee Addiction, and Writing About King Arthur.

And so another lazy Sunday passes here in Maine!

I don't know what it is exactly, but I've never been able to get it together on Sundays, even when I was a kid. It has always felt like it was the longest, slowest day of the week. If it weren't for black coffee, I don't know if I would survive them week after week.

This man knows what I'm talking about!
Apparently, I still haven't been able to shake it, since other than my blogging duties and some zazen, I've done more or less nothing today. On the one hand, I know that spending time doing nothing is an important and necessary part of my life, and that I absolutely need the time to recharge, even if it is just zoning out in front of Youtube videos. On the other hand, Americans have an insane work ethic generally, and New Englanders and Mainers even more so, so I never can feel entirely comfortable if I'm not working at something.
It looks peaceful, but you can bet that there is some existential angst going down in that Maine lighthouse when Sunday rolls around.
In some ways this works in my favor, especially as I prepare to dive into my research for my next big writing project, centered around King Arthur. I've already written one short book of Arthurian tales, but I quickly realized as I was writing it what a bottomless, and yet wonderfully rich and fulfilling, study it is to research Britain's Once and Future King, and how the research I had done for that book just skimmed the surface of the Arthurian world.

In fact, I hold Arthur as one of the most important figures in all of Western literature, given that the writing of the great Arthur and Tristan romances at the height of the Middle-Ages, with their emphasis on individualism and personal choice, even to the detriment of social or religious opinion, helped give voice to the developing humanistic sentiment in the West (of course, as to whether there was a 'West' at the time of the Middle-Ages is up for debate). And the Arthur myths were some of the first pan-Western tales told that were popular more or less everywhere in Western Europe, from Spain and Italy to France and Germany and Scandinavia.

As a result, I think he is an incredibly important figure today, particularly as one of the uniting symbols of Western life born in the proto-secular age, and I absolutely love writing about him for that reason.  So on Monday or Tuesday it will be off to our city library (which is far better than the standard for small American cities; once again, I believe Mr. Stephen King has a big role in that, and I know he donates to it quite frequently) to see what I can dig up.I'm hoping to dive-in to the early Welsh material that provided a backdrop for later tales, and try to uncover the mythic heart of the Arthur legends to be used later in the stories I'm planning right now.
The Bangor library; my refuge. (Credits:
And with that, I bid a happy and enjoyable Sunday to you all! Hopefully, it is more productive for you than it has proven for me.

If you are capable of enjoying Sundays like a sane person is meant to, instead of running around in a big impotent circle of guilt, please treasure it. Treasure every last beautiful second.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Gandalf, A Bridge Between Old Norse and Old English Culture; Or, The Post Where I Nerd Out Over Tolkien

It's finally warming up here in Maine; you can practically feel spring coming around the corner! Even I, a huge hermit normally, had to tear myself away from my various writing projects and other business to go bask in the warm weather yesterday.

Behold the coming of spring! 

Alright, so maybe it wasn't so warm, but compared to how the winter has been for us, it was glorious.

Which brings us to Tolkien...(Yeah, I just wanted to talk about him today and couldn't think of a good transition).

It isn't necessary for me to write about how much J.R.R. Tolkien has influenced modern literature (even far beyond the fantasy genre), or for me to write about how much the man has inspired my own writing (indeed, my most recent novel on Norse Britain was partially my own humble attempt to provide a mythic expression for the Norwegian-American experience, in Tolkien's vein). 

Tolkien in his 1914 WWI uniform. 
But even the man himself had his sources.

Check out this passage from the old Icelandic saga of Norwegian kings, the Heimskringla (uploaded lovingly from Project Gutenberg, of course):

When he was eighteen years old he took his kingdom in Agder, and went immediately to Vestfold, where he divided that kingdom, as before related, with his brother Olaf. The same autumn he went with an army to Vingulmark against King Gandalf. They had many battles, and sometimes one, sometimes the other gained the victory; but at last they agreed that Halfdan should have half of Vingulmark, as his father Gudrod had had it before. Then King Halfdan proceeded to Raumarike, and subdued it. 

Raumarike (Credits: Tommy Gildseth, Wikipedia)
And again, later on: 

After Halfdan the Black's death, many chiefs coveted the dominions he had left. Among these King Gandalf was the first; then Hogne and Frode, sons of Eystein, king of Hedemark; and also Hogne Karuson came from Ringerike. Hake, the son of Gandalf, began with an expedition of 300 men against Vestfold, marched by the main road through some valleys, and expected to come suddenly upon King Harald; while his father Gandalf sat at home with his army, and prepared to cross over the fiord into Vestfold. 

As it turns out, Gandalf was an old Norse name that was also the name of a famous dwarf/elf from Norse mythology who was king of the Elves in the Eddas, from whence most of our knowledge of Norse mythology comes.

Apparently, the name "Gandalf" comes from the words gandr meaning staff or cane, and alfr, meaning Elf, hence, 'wand elf.'

Not only that, but in Lord of the Rings, Gandalf was called by many different names depending on his location, many of which had to do with traveling ('The Grey Pilgrim', etc.). Interestingly enough, so did Odin, the chief of the gods in Norse mythology, who was often called 'The Wanderer' by humans for the god's love of wandering the earth with his big hat (pulled down over his left eye, which he pulled out to drink from the well of's a long story) and cane.
A picture of Odin circa 1886. I think I've seen this guy somewhere before.

Indeed, Tolkien himself apparently conceived of Gandalf as an "Odinic wanderer."

Which is why, though Tolkien originally set out to create a mythos for the English people, I think he also inadvertently created a bridge between English and Norwegian, or at the very least, Old English and Old Norse culture, for those living in a culture somewhere between those spaces.
Greensted from the side
Greensted church; one of England's only stave churches from the Anglo-Saxon era, and one of the few stave churches ( I believe) outside of Norway.