Historical Tales: 9—Scandinavian - Charles Morris

Harold Fair-Haired Founds the Kingdom of Norway

To the far-off island of Iceland we must go for the story of the early days of Norway. In that frosty isle, not torn by war or rent by tumult, the people, sitting before their winter fires, had much time to think and write, and it is to Iceland we owe the story of the gods of the north and of the Scandinavian kings of heathen times. One of these writers, Snorri Sturlasson by name, has left us a famous book, "The Sagas of the Kings of Norway," in which he tells of a long line of ancient kings, who were descended from the gods. Here are some of their names, Aun the Old, Ingjald Ill-Ruler, Olaf the Wood-Cutter, Halfdan Whiteleg, and Halfdan the Swarthy. There were others whom we need not name, and of these mentioned the names must suffice, for all we know of them is legend, not truth.

In those times there was no kingdom of Norway, but a number of petty provinces, ruled over by warriors who are spoken of as kings, but whose rule was not very wide. Most powerful among them was Halfdan the Swarthy, who was only a year old in 810 when his father was killed in battle.

He lived for many years, and he and his wife Ragnhild had strange dreams. The queen dreamed that a thorn which she took out of her clothes grew in her hands until one end of it took root in the ground and the other shot up into the air. It kept on growing until it was a great tree, so high that she could barely see its top. The lower part of it was blood-red, higher up it was bright green, and the spreading branches were white as snow. So widely they spread that they seemed to shade the whole country of Norway.

King Halfdan did not like it that his wife had such strange dreams and he had none. He asked a sage why this was so, and was told that if he wanted to have dreams as strange he must sleep in a pig-sty. A queer recipe for dreams, one would think, but the king tried it, and dreamed that his hair grew long and beautiful and hung in bright locks over his shoulders, some of them down to his waist, and one, the brightest and most beautiful of all, still farther down.

When he told the sage of this dream, the wise man said it meant that from him was to come a mighty race of kings, one of whom should be the greatest and most glorious of them all. This great hero, Snorri tells us, was supposed to be Olaf the Saint, who reigned two hundred years later, and under whom Christianity first flourished in Norway.

Soon after these dreams a son was born to the queen, who was named Harold. A bright, handsome lad he grew to be, wise of mind and strong of body and winning the favor of all who knew him. Many tales which we cannot believe are told of his boyhood. Here is one of them. Once when the king was seated at the Yuletide feast all the meats and the ale disappeared from the table, leaving an empty board for the monarch and his guests. There was present a Finn who was said to be a sorceror, and him the king put to the torture, to find out who had done this thing. Young Harold, displeased with his father's act, rescued the Finn from his tormentors and went with him to the mountains.

On they went, miles and leagues away, until they came to a place where a Finnish chief was holding a great feast. Harold stayed there until spring, when he told his host that he must return to his father's halls. Then the chief said:

"King Halfdan was very angry when I took his meat and ale from him last winter, and now I will reward you with good tidings for what you did. Your father is dead and his kingdom waits for you to inherit. And some day you will rule over all Norway."

Harold found it to be as the Finn had said, and thus in 860, when he was only ten years old, he came to the throne. He was young to be at the head of a turbulent people and some ambitious men there were who sought to take advantage of his youth, but his uncle guardian fought for him and put them all down. Harold was now the greatest among the petty kings of Norway and a wish to be ruler of the whole land grew up in his soul.

Here comes in a story which may not be all true, but is pretty enough to tell. It is to the effect that love drove Harold to strive for the kingdom. Old Snorri tells the story, which runs this way.

King Erik of Hördaland had a fair daughter named Gyda, the fame of whose beauty reached Harold's ears and he sent messengers to win her for himself. But the maid was proud and haughty and sent back word:

"Tell your master that I will not yield myself to any man who has only a few districts for his kingdom. Is there no king in the land who can conquer all Norway, as King Erik has conquered Sweden and King Gorm Denmark?"

This was all the answer she had for the heralds, though they pleaded for a better answer, saying that King Harold was surely great enough for any maid in the land.

"This is my answer to King Harold," she said. "I will promise to become his wife if for my sake he shall conquer all Norway and rule it as freely as King Erik and King Gorm rule their kingdoms. Only when he has done this can he be called the king of a people."

When the heralds returned they told the king of their ill success and advised him to take the girl by force.

"Not so," Harold replied. "The girl has spoken well and deserves thanks instead of injury. She has put a new thought into my mind which had not come to me before. This I now solemnly vow and call God to witness, that I will not cut or comb my hair until the day when I shall have made myself king of all Norway. If I fail in this, I shall die in the attempt."

[Illustration] from Historical Tales - Scandinavian by Charles Morris


Such is the legend of Gyda and the vow. What history tells us is that the young king set out to bring all Norway under his rule and prospered in the great enterprise. One after another, the small kings yielded to his power, and were made earls or governors under him. They collected taxes and administered justice in his name. All the land of the peasants was declared to be the property of the king, and those who had been free proprietors were now made the king's tenants and were obliged to pay taxes if they wished to hold their lands. These changes angered many and there were frequent rebellions against the king, but he put them all down, and year after year came nearer the goal of his ambition. And his hair continued to grow uncut and uncombed, and got to be such a tangled mass that men called him Harold Lufa, or Frowsy-Head.

There was one great and proud family, the Rafnistas, who were not easily to be won. To one of them, Kveld-Ulf, or Night-Wolf, Harold sent envoys, asking him to enter his service, but the chief sent back word that he was too old to change. Then he offered Bald Grim, old Night-Wolf's son, high honors if he would become his vassal. Bald Grim replied that he would take no honors that would give him rank over his father.

Harold grew angry at this, and was ready to use force where good words would not prevail, but in the end the old chief agreed that his second son Thorolf might be the king's man if he saw fit. This he agreed to do, and as he was handsome, intelligent and courtly the king set much store by him.

Not only with the Norway chiefs, but with the king of Sweden, Harold had trouble. While he was busy in the south King Erik invaded the north, and Harold had to march in haste to regain his dominions. But the greatest danger in his career came in 872, when a number of chiefs combined against him and gathered a great fleet, which attacked Harold's fleet in Halfrs-Fjord. Then came the greatest and hottest fight known to that day in Norway. Loudly the war-horns sounded and the ships were driven fiercely to the fray, Harold's ship being in the front wherever the fight waxed hottest. Thorolf, the son of Night-Wolf, stood in its prow, fighting with viking fury, and beside him stood two of his brothers, matching him blow with blow.

Yet the opposing chiefs and their men were stout fighters and the contest long seemed doubtful, many brave and able men falling on both sides. Arrows hissed in swift flight through the air, spears hurtled after them, stones were hurled by strong hands, and those who came hand to hand fought like giants. At length Harold's berserkers—men who fought without armor, replacing it with fury of onslaught—rushed forward and boarded the hostile ships, cutting down all who opposed them. Blood ran like water and the chieftains and their men fell or fled before this wild assault. The day was won for Harold, and with it the kingdom, for after that fatal fray none dared to stand up before him.

His vow accomplished, all Norway now his, Harold at last consented to the cutting of his hair, this being done by Ragnvald, the earl of Möre. The tangled strands being cut and the hair deftly combed, those who saw it marvelled at its beauty, and from that day the king was known as Harold the Fair-Haired. As for Gyda, the maid, the great task she set having been accomplished, she gave her hand to Harold, a splendid marriage completing the love romance of their lives.

This romance, however, is somewhat spoiled by the fact that Harold already had a wife, Aasa, the daughter of Earl Haakon, and that he afterwards married other wives. He had his faults and weaknesses, one of these being that he was not faithful to women and he was jealous of men who were growing in greatness. One of the men whom he began to fear or hate was Thorolf, who had aided him so mightily in battle and long stood highest in his favor.

Thorolf married a rich wife and grew very wealthy, living like a prince, and becoming profuse in his hospitality. He was gracious and liberal and won hosts of friends, while he aided the king greatly in collecting taxes from the Finns, who were not very willing to part with their money. Despite this service Harold grew to distrust Thorolf, or to hate him for other reasons, and the time came when this feeling led to a tragedy.

Thorolf had been made bailiff of Haalogaland, and when Harold came to this province his bailiff entertained him with a splendid feast, to which eight hundred guests were invited, three hundred of them being the king's attendants.

Yet, through all the hilarity of the feast, Harold sat dark and brooding, much to his host's surprise. He unbent a little at the end and seemed well pleased when Thorolf presented him with a large dragon ship, fully equipped. Yet not long afterwards he took from him his office of bailiff, and soon showed himself his deadly foe, slandering him as a pretext for attacking him on his estate.

The assailants set fire to Thorolf's house and met him with a shower of spears when he broke out from the burning mansion. Seeing the king among them Thorolf rushed furiously towards him, cut down his banner-bearer with a sword blow, and was almost within touch of the king when he fell from his many wounds, crying: "By three steps only I failed."

It is said that Harold himself gave the death blow, yet he looked sadly on the warrior as he lay dead at his feet, saying, as he saw a man bandaging a slight wound: "That wound Thorolf did not give. Differently did weapons bite in his hand. It is a pity that such men must die."

This would indicate that King Harold had other reasons than appears from the narrative for the slaughter of his former friend. It must be borne in mind that he was engaged in founding a state, and had many disorderly and turbulent elements with which to deal, and that before he had ended his work he was forced to banish from the kingdom many of those who stood in his way. We do not know what secret peril to his plans led him to remove Thorolf from his path.

However that be, the killing of the chief sent his father to his bed sick with grief, and he grew content only when he heard that the king's hand had slain him and that he had fallen on his face at his slayer's feet. For when a dying man fell thus it was a sign that he would be avenged.

But the old man was far too weak to attack Harold openly, and was not willing to dwell in the same kingdom with him; so he, with his son Bald Grim and all his family and wealth, took ship and set sail for Iceland. But long he lingered on Norway's coast, hoping for revenge on some of Harold's blood, and chance threw in his way a ship containing two cousins of the king. This he attacked, killed the king's cousins, and captured the ship. Then Bald Grim, full of exultation, sang a song of triumph on the ship's prow, beginning with:

"Now is the Hersir's vengeance

On the king fulfilled;

Wolf and eagle tread on

Yngling's children."

There were other chieftains who sought refuge abroad from Harold's rule, men who were bitterly opposed to the new government he founded, with its system of taxation and its strict laws. They could not see why the old system of robbing and plundering within Norway's confines should be interfered with or their other ancient privileges curtailed, and several thousand sailed away to found new homes in the Orkneys, the Hebrides, and Iceland.

One of the chief of these, Rolf, or Rollo, son of the king's friend, Ragnvald of Möre, defied Harold's laws and was declared an outlaw. His high birth made the king more determined to punish him, as an example to others, and no influence could win forgiveness for Rolf the Walker, as men called him, saying that he was so tall and heavy that no horse could carry him.

We must follow the outlaw in his journey, for it was one destined to lead to great events. Setting sail with a fleet and a large number of followers, he made his way to the coast of France, and fixed himself there, plundering the people for several years. Charles the Simple, king of France, finding that he could not drive the bold Norseman off, at length gave him a large province on condition that he would become a Christian, and hold his land as a vassal of the king. The province was given the name of Normandy, and from Rollo descended that sturdy race of kings one of whom conquered England in the following century. Thus the exile of Rollo led to events of world-wide importance.

When the proud Norseman was asked to kiss King Charles's foot in token of fealty to him, he answered: "I will never bend my knee before any man, nor will I kiss any man's foot."

He could hardly be persuaded to let one of his men kiss the king's foot as a proxy for him. The man chosen strode sturdily forward, seized the foot of the king, who was on horseback, and lifted it to his lips so roughly that the poor king turned a somersault from his horse. The Norsemen laughed in derision while the king's followers stood by grim and silent.

But despite his unruliness at home, Rollo, when he got a kingdom of his own, ruled it with all the sternness of King Harold, hanging all robbers that fell into his hands, and making his kingdom so secure that the peasants could leave their tools in the fields at night without fear of loss. Five generations after him came to the throne William the Conqueror, who won himself the kingdom of England.

To go back to Harold, the builder of the kingdom of Norway, we shall only say in conclusion that he built his rule on sure foundations and kept a court of high splendor, and died without a rebel in his realm in 933, seventy-three years after he succeeded his father as ruler of a province.