King Olaf’s Strange Encounter
by Will Vesper
ONE DAY King Olaf Tryggvisson and his men sailed south along the coast of Norway in the ship Long Dragon. When they came to the fjord of Nidaros, the men had to take to the oars, because the wind was too weak to fill the sails. But the king was not in a hurry. He was in a good mood and did all kinds of tricks for his men. He fought a mock duel with is banner-carrier, Ulf the Red. First, they fought in the usual manner with the sword in the right hand; then with the sword in the left hand; and, finally, with swords in both hands. Each time, the king advanced all the way to the backboard. Those were notable games. After that, King Olaf climbed up on the ship’s railing, while walking along juggling three unsheathed daggers. Nobody ever saw the king miss or a dagger fall into the sea. The men rowed with more enthusiasm and laughed.
King Olaf sat among his men on the aft deck and talked about this and that. There sat Kolbjörn the marshal and Thorstein Ochsenfuss; An Schätze from Jämtland and Bersi the Strong; Einar and Finn from Hardanger; Ketil the Tall and his brothers; men from all of Norway; from Iceland and from the islands in the west; an elite team, handsome fellows full of strength and daring. One could see that. None were over 60 years old, except for Bishop Sigurd, and none were under 20, except for Einar Bogenschüttler, who was just 18 but who was the best shot in all the land.
“Now I hold Norway in my hand,” said the king, and reached with his right hand into the sky, as if grabbing something the others could not see.
“Because you have received it from God’s hand,” commented Bishop Sigurd in seriousness.
“Yes,” agreed the king, from God’s hand and not yours, bishop. I force all to bow to Christ, peoples of all provinces: Stravanger and Hardranger, Vik and Sogne, Moere and Ramsdalen, the provinces on the sea and in the mountains, and now Helgaland and Upland, too. Those were the hardest to crack.”
“But you have the sharpest teeth for it,” interjected skald Hallfred, the Icelander. “Many have felt them.”
“That may be true,” Olaf replied, “but now Norway is one Reich, and church bells ring out over our entire realm.”
“I admit that,” Hallfred agreed. He laughed lightly and added, “Also, that it is hard for me to get accustomed to those bells. And many others feel the same way, even if they don’t say so.”
“You have sensitive ears, being a skald,” retorted King Olaf.
But Hallfred pointed to his heart and said, “In here, King Olaf, sits one who does not want to hear it. Christ took all-too-much time coming to us. All of us learned differently from our mothers.”
King Olaf looked at him a long time. Then he said, “Where the bells ring…is the Reich and the King’s dominion.”
“Which you received from God,” interjected the bishop again. “One is master. The one in heaven.”
“And one is king in Norway, Bishop,” retorted Olaf.
“One must be master and one must be king, unless the land it to become the booty of foreign kings. Always remember that.”
“There should only be one king in Norway and the islands,” said Hallfred. “And only one should be master in heaven. But I still feel sorry for those who had to leave everything,” and he slowly gestured with his hand toward the mountains, then across the sky and finally down toward the sea. All knew what he meant.
Bishop Sigurd looked at him angrily, “Those teeth still have to bite often and bite many, “he commented, “before these idols and wizards have been forced to leave all of Norway,”
All looked toward Olaf to see his reaction to Hallfred’s bold words. But his heart was light and good-natured today, the kind of mood which captivates everybody. Laughing, he showed his teeth and shouted, “Norway, homeland! Hail to him, who has given it to us to rule. We will hold it tight with our teeth. No one will rip it away from us for as long as we live!”
“Hail King Olaf!” shouted the men. And Hallfred began a poem about this hour:
“Scenting battle weather
Southward traveled the king…”
The ship glided close to the coast into the fjord and came upon a rocky cliff, which protruded far out into the water. The birds on the shore bank took to flight. A silver cloud of beating wings rose up like dust into the sky. A thousand birds called out.
The pine trees, which stand one after the other up along the side of the mountain, reflected sunlight as they swayed. Light bounced off all the branches. One heard the creeks babbling noisily down the gorges, and the light breathing of the sea.
Suddenly, they all heard the cry of a clear, sharp voice. A man stood on the rocky ledge close to the ship. The men lifted their oars and shifted them to the landward side. But before the ship had even gotten all the way there, they saw the stranger standing on the point of the prow, close to the golden dragon head. He nodded toward the king, who sat high on the aft deck. He looked like he was only swaying a little bit from his jump, and was still trying to catch his balance. Then he walked up among the men in the front of the ship: he appeared to be a farmer from the area, who probably just wanted to travel along with them for a while, as long as they would tolerate his company on the ship. He was not a merchant as they had first thought.
He was a very sturdy man in the old-fashioned dress of green coarse woolen cloth. Probably a man from deep in the mountains. Around his hip was a wide leather belt with a pretty copper buckle. In one of the belt loops he wore a two-sided hammer, the old farmer weapon: a nicely formed piece of handiwork. But the most noticeable thing about the man was his red beard, which was so thick and long that he divided it in two and tucked it into his belt, left and right.
He sat down on a rope coil and looked at the men who were sitting or standing around him, one after the other, completely without shyness. Each felt a little nervous from the blue fire of his gaze. It was as if he were looking them over – and had found some small flaw with each.
“That was not a bad jump which you made onto the ship,” acknowledged Vakr Ramnisson from Götälf.
“It wasn’t any greater,” replied the stranger, “than the one you made, Vakr, when you turned a friend of Thor into a Christian. All of you are good jumpers in that regard.”
What the man said was not comforting.
“Don’t you know who you are traveling with, farmer? Be careful! And where did we make your acquaintance, so that you think you know something about us?”
“An old friend told me,” he answered, “back from the time of your fathers. But forget it. Now I would like to travel with you for a stretch.”
“Where do you want to go?”
“Abroad,” the man answered sadly.
“You look capable for a military expedition.”
“I have many of them behind me, but now I want to rest.”
“You don’t look like it,” observed Bersi the Strong. According to his custom – as if it was not worth talking to a man before testing his strength – he reached for the stranger’s hand and tried to tear him off his seat. It was a short and sharp struggle, but then Bersi was laying on the ground. It was perfectly clear who was stronger. Bersi had not experienced that since his early youth. It hit everyone like fire and a drunkenness: each had to test out the stranger in a contest. But none could match him. The entire ship stared at the devilish fellow. His words also flew, sharp and fearless, and found their mark as unerringly as his movements. Each got his! Finally, he walked along the railing over the oars, which never stopped rowing, and he juggled not just three daggers (as King Olaf had done), but four daggers, with two in the air on one in each hand at all times. It was a fast game, as the daggers danced over his head like flames. The crew stared at this farmer, who played like this. He certainly knew his way around more than just oxen.
Finally, King Olaf called to him, and he climbed up the at deck of the ship, removed his cap and stood in front of the king. One saw that the hair on his head was also red, and how it stood like a fire above his forehead.
“If a stranger and farmer like you comes before Norway’s king, he bows,” instructed Thorgrim Thorsteinsson loudly.
The farmer turned to him and said, “You also descend from men, Thorgrim, who weren’t accustomed to bend their backs before other men – other than perhaps before the one after whom they were – like you – were named.
“You are a well-spoken and talented man,” said King Olaf as he gestured to the others to be silent. “Are you from this area?”
The Red Beard looked at King Olaf for a long time. The he laughed slightly, like one who has worry in his heart. “Yes,” he answered, “you could say that I’m from the area.
“From which province?” asked the king.
Then he made the same gesture that Hallfred the skald had made, when he spoke of the old gods. He pointed with his hand toward the mountain, then across the sky and finally down toward the sea. In one instant, everyone knew who he was. A wind howled down from the mountain and across the sun like a veil, and the water began to rise. But nobody was able to think about the ship, which suddenly began to dance close to the rocky cliffs. They all stared at the Red Beard, who now stood before their king great and mighty, and saw the holy hammer in his hand. A dull roar of thunder came from the sky, and they all stood like shadows in brimstone light. And then they heard the man’s heavy voice.
“Yes, King Olaf,” he spoke, “I’m from this province, from Helgeland and from Dronthiem, from Havanger and Stavanger, from all of Norway and from the islands, from the mountains and from the valleys, from the clouds and from the sea. And it is my work that there is such a land that gives you joy and of which you can be king. When I first came here, it was a land of ice under the feet of giants. But I slew the giants, who sat on the mountains. Trees grew and creeks flowed there. I strangled the trolls, who are the enemies of both gods and men. Flowers grew in the meadows and goats climbed the mountain paths. And people came and built huts and plowed the fields. I blessed their crops. They had bread. I blessed the sea for them. They had fish. I blessed their table. Their children grew. I and my kind, King Olaf, made this land inhabitable for the children of humans. That is why they honored me, men and women. And this was my folk, for a long time.
Then Bishop Sigurd took heart and showed courage. He lifted his cross from his chest and held it towards Red Bead. “Give way, you idol!” he demanded.
The man laughed, soft and bitter. It was like a crying in the wind.
“Yes,” he said, “and now another comes. My hour has passed, according to the will of the All-Ruler. It is hard for my friends. And you, Olaf, persecute and kill them, and fulfill fate. Eventually it happens to all of us. But I expected it to be different: the Wolf that devours us, the Snake than strangles us. Along comes the Gentle and overcomes the Powerful. But no one escapes destiny, and no one knows in advance. The hour will come for the man on the cross, too.”
“Give way, idol!” commanded the bishop again as he held his cross close to Red Beard’s eyes.
Then he raised his hammer, and a bolt of lightning struck down along the mast like a golden snake. But it was as if he seized it with his hand before it could do any harm. For a third time, one heard the bitter laughter. They never forgot it until death.
And they saw how the man threw himself overboard with a mighty leap, and, holding the hammer over his head, sank into the sea and disappeared.
At that moment everything changed. A light wind from the south blew, filled the sails and pushed the ship in sunshine along the softly rolling waves deeper into the bay. It seemed like they had all awakened from a dream or stupor. King Olaf rubbed both hands across his face. As Bishop Sigurd cleared his throat as if to speak, the king motioned for him to be silent.
In front of them were the houses of Nidaros, ships at the shore, the mighty roof of the king’s house and the new cathedral with its pointed summit and its wide tower. Evening had come. The sun sank into the sea. The bells rung softly across the water. All stood like the king and bared their heads.
“We pray for all who know how to die like men,” said the king.
From: SS Ideology, Hammer, 1988, USA, pp. 17-22.
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Source: Do Right and Fear No One