Historical Tales: 9—Scandinavian - Charles Morris

How Olaf, the Slave-Boy, Won the Throne

Many sons had Harold the Fair-Haired, and of some of them the story has been told. One of them, Olaf by name, left a son named Tryggve, who in turn had a son to whom he gave his father's name of Olaf. Wonderful was the story of this Olaf in his youth and renowned was it in his age, for he it was who drove the heathen gods from Norway and put Christ in their place. But it is the strange and striking adventures of his earlier days with which this tale has to deal.

Prince Tryggve had his enemies and by them was foully murdered. Then they sought his dwelling, proposing to destroy his whole race. But Aastrid, his wife, was warned in time, and fled from her home with Thorold, her foster-father. She hid on a little island in the Rand fiord, and here was born the son who was afterwards to become one of Norway's most famous kings.

The perils of Aastrid were not yet at an end. Gunhild, the sorceress queen, was her chief enemy, and when her spies brought her word that Aastrid had borne a son, the wicked old woman sought to destroy the child.

The summer through Aastrid remained on the little isle, hiding in the weedy bushes by day and venturing abroad only at night. Everywhere Gunhild's spies sought her, and when autumn came with its long nights, she left the isle and journeyed with her attendants through the land, still hiding by day and travelling only under the shades of night. In this way she reached the estate of her father, Erik Ofrestad.

The poor mother was not left in peace here, the evil-minded sorceress still pursuing her. A body of murderers was sent to seek for her and her son on her father's estate, but Ofrestad heard of their mission in time to send the fugitives away. Dressed as beggars, Aastrid and her child and Thorolf, her foster-father, travelled on foot from the farm, stopping at evening to beg food and shelter from a peasant named Björn. The surly fellow drove them away, but they were given shelter farther on by a peasant named Thorstein.

Meanwhile the murderers were hot on their track. Not finding Aastrid at her father's house, they traced her to Björn's farm, where they were told that a handsome but poorly dressed woman, carrying a young child, had asked for help that evening. It chanced that a servant of Thorstein overheard this and when he reached home he told it to his master. Suspecting the rank and peril of his guests, Thorstein roused them from sleep with a great show of anger and drove them out into the night. This was done to deceive the servants, but Thorstein followed the weary fugitives and told them the reason of his act. He had driven them out to save them, he said, and he gave them a trusty guide who could show them the best hiding places in the forest. They found shelter for that night amid the tall rushes by the side of a small lake.

When the troop of murderers reached Thorstein's house he set them astray on the wrong scent and he fed the fugitives in the forest until the murderous gang had given up the search. In the end he aided them to make their way to Sweden, where they took refuge with a friend of Prince Tryggve named Haakon the Old.

Still the wicked queen did not let them rest in peace. Learning where they were, she sent two embassies to King Erik of Sweden, demanding the surrender of the mother and child. Each time Erik gave them permission to capture the fugitives if they could, saying that he would not interfere. But Haakon the Old was not the man to surrender his guests. In vain Gunhild's ambassador came to him with promises and threats. The dispute at length grew so hot that a half-witted servant seized a dung-fork and rushed at the ambassador, who took to his heels, fearing to have his fine clothes soiled. The angry thrall pursued him till he was driven off the estate, Haakon looking on with grim mirth.

Such were the early days of little Olaf, whose life began in a series of adventures which were the prologue to a most stirring and active life. Few men have had a more adventurous career than he, his whole life being one of romance, activity and peril. He became a leading hero of the saga writers, who have left us many striking stories of his young life and adventures.

Aastrid and her son remained with Haakon the Old until Earl Haakon came into power in Norway. As he was not of royal blood, she feared that he might seek to destroy all the descendants of old King Harold, and, in doubt if her present protector was strong enough to defend her, she decided to seek refuge in Russia, where her brother Sigurd had risen to a place of power.

With this voyage young Olaf's later series of adventures began. The merchant ship in which they set sail was taken by a viking pirate craft, some of the passengers being killed and others sold as slaves. Thorolf and his young son Thorgills, with the boy Olaf, were sold to a viking named Klerkon, who killed Thorolf because he was too old to bring any price as a slave, but kept the boys, whom he soon traded away in Esthonia for a big ram. As for Aastrid, she was offered for sale at the slave-market, and here, despite her ragged and miserable plight, she was recognized by a rich merchant named Lodin. He offered to pay her ransom if she would become his wife. The poor woman, not knowing what had become of her son, was glad to accept his offer and returned with him to his home in Norway.

To return to the story of the boy slaves, the man who had bought them for a ram, soon sold them for a coat and cape to a man named Reas. The new master put Thorgills to hard labor, but took a fancy to Olaf and treated him much more kindly, the young prince remaining with him for six years and growing up to be a handsome and sturdy youth.

Sigurd Eriksson, Aastrid's brother, and the uncle of Olaf, was a man of prominence in Esthonia, and one day rode on business of King Vladimir through the town in which Reas lived. Here he saw some boys playing, one of whom attracted him by his manly and handsome face. Calling him to his horse's side, he asked his name.

"Olaf," said the boy.

Olaf! The name was significant to Sigurd, and a few words more taught him that the lad was his lost nephew. Seeking Reas, he offered him a good price for his two young slaves and took them home with him, bidding Olaf not to tell any one else who he was.

The boy was now well-grown, active, and strong for his years. Walking one day about the town he saw before him the viking Klerkon who had killed old Thorolf, his foster-father. He had at the moment an axe in his hand and, with no thought but that of revenge on the murderer, he struck him a blow that split his skull and stretched him dead on the ground.

The boy was in peril of his life for this impulsive deed. Death was its legal penalty, and a crowd quickly gathered who demanded that the boy murderer should be killed. His uncle heard of the act and ran in haste to his rescue, taking him to Olga, the queen, and telling her who he was, what he had done, and why he had done it.

The queen looked at the beautiful and bright-faced lad and took a great fancy to him at sight. She took him under her protection, and gave him a training in the use of arms and warlike sports, such as beseemed the scion of a royal race. When twelve years of age King Vladimir, who esteemed the boy highly, gave him some armed ships and sent him out to try his hand in real war, and for some years he roved abroad as a viking. He also served the king well by conquering for him a rebel province.

Olaf might have won high rank in Russia but for the enemies who envied him and who made the king fear that he would yet find a rival for the throne in the ambitious boy. Fearing trouble for her protege, Queen Olga advised him to leave the kingdom and he sailed for the land of the Wends, on the Baltic shores, where King Burislav received him as a distinguished young warrior. He did not tell who he really was, but went under the name of Ole the Russian, and as such married the daughter of the king, who fell in love with him for his valor and beauty. Many were the valiant deeds he did for King Burislav, with whom he stayed until the death of his wife, he being then twenty-one years of age.

The young warrior now grew eager for new adventures, and in response to a dream determined to go to Greece and become a Christian. His dream served the cause of Christianity better than this, if the story is true that he sent a missionary bishop to Russia who converted both King Vladimir and Queen Olga to the Christian faith.

[Illustration] from Historical Tales - Scandinavian by Charles Morris


From Greece Olaf wandered to many countries, including France, Denmark, Scotland, and Northumberland, and his adventures were very numerous. He was twenty-five years of age when he reached England and here he met with an adventure of a new type. The Princess Gyda, sister of an Irish king, was a widow, but was still young and beautiful and had so many suitors that it was hard for her to choose between them. Among the most importunate was a warrior named Alfvine, a great slayer of men.

So many were they and so much did they annoy the fair widow that at last she fixed a day when she would choose a husband from among them, and numbers of them came before her, all in their most splendid attire. It was a championship that attracted many lookers on and among them came Olaf with some of his companions. He was plainly dressed, and wore a fur hood and cape. Gyda stood forth and looked over her throng of lovers with listless eyes until at length she saw among the spectators the tall stranger with the hood of fur. She walked up to him, lifted the hood, and gazed long into his eyes. What she saw there riveted her fancy.

"I do not know you," she said; "but if you will have me for a wife, then you are my choice."

Olaf must have seen as much in her eyes as she had in his, for he warmly replied:

"I know no woman who equals you, and gladly will I accept you."

At once their betrothal was published, but Alfvine, burning with wrath, challenged the fortunate stranger to mortal combat. Fierce and long was the fight, but Norse blood and valor conquered and Gyda was enraptured with the courage and skill of her spouse. They were duly wedded and Olaf spent several years in England and Ireland, winning fame there as a doughty champion and growing ever more earnest in the Christian faith.

In the chronicles of the time we are told much of the doings of the doughty Olaf, who won fame as the chieftain of a viking fleet, which in 994 made many descents upon the English coast. In the end he landed in Southampton and fixed his winter quarters there, living upon the country. He was finally bought off by King Ethelred with £10,000, which he divided among his men. He received confirmation in the Christian faith the same year, King Ethelred being present, and took a solemn vow, which he never broke, that he would never again molest England and her people.

Olaf's name was no longer concealed and the fame of his deeds reached Norway, where they gave no small trouble of mind to Earl Haakon, who dreaded this young adventurer of royal descent, knowing well how much the people loved King Harold and his race. Haakon went so far as to try to compass his death, sending his friend Thore Klakka to Dublin, where Olaf then was, to kill him if he could, otherwise to entice him to Norway when he would himself destroy him.

The latter Thore did, finding Olaf ready for any new adventure, and under Thore's treacherous advice he sailed with five ships and landed in Hördaland, where Haakon's power was the greatest, and thence sailed northward to Tröndelag where the earl was and where he hoped to take him by surprise.

Thore had represented that Olaf would find friends in plenty there, and much to his own surprise found that he had told more truth than he knew; for, as told in the last tale, the peasants were then in arms and in pursuit of the recreant earl. They gladly accepted Olaf as their leader, on learning who he was, and helped him in the quick and sudden downfall and death of Haakon, as already described.

All the chiefs and peasants of the district were now summoned to meet in assembly and with one voice they chose Olaf Tryggvesson, great-grandson of the renowned Harold, as their king. All Norway confirmed their action and thus easily did the adventurer prince, who had once been a slave-boy, sold for half a fat ram, rise to the throne of Norway.