Historical Tales: 9—Scandinavian - Charles Morris

Olaf the Saint and His Work for Christ

The story of Olaf the Saint, the Norse king who comes next into our view, illustrates the barbarous character of the heathen people with whom we are dealing. Few warriors in those days died in their beds, death coming to them in some more violent form. Olaf's grandfather, a son of Harold the Fair-Haired, was killed by his brother, Erik Blood-Axe, and his father was burned alive by a royal widow whom he sought to marry. Many wooers came to seek her hand and she got rid of them by setting on fire the hall in which they slept.

"I'll teach these little kings the risk of proposing to me," said this viking widow.

A proud little fellow was Olaf, hot of temper and bearing no opposition. He knew that he was of kingly birth, and despised his step-father Sigurd Syr, also a descendant of King Harold, but caring more for his crops than for the dreams of ambition. Once, when Olaf was ten years old, Sigurd sent him to the stable to saddle and bring out his horse. When he came out he led a big goat, on which he had placed the saddle.

"Why do you do that?" he was asked.

"Oh, the goat is good enough for him, for he is as much like a king as a goat is like a war-horse."

The boy was only twelve when he began to take part in the cruises of the vikings, and in these quickly showed himself brave and daring. When he grew to a ripe age and found that the rule of Norway was divided between two young men, successors of the Olaf whose story we have last told, he determined to strike for the throne.

The story of how he won the throne is interesting, but must be dealt with here very briefly, as we have rather to do with the story of how he lost it. Olaf was fortunate at the start, for he captured a ship on which Earl Erik, one of these boy kings, was sailing along the coast.

A beautiful youth he was, tall and shapely, with silky golden hair which fell in long curls over his shoulders. Proud he was too, and answered his captor's questions with manly resolution.

"Your luck has left you and you are in my power," said Olaf; "what shall I do with you?"

"That depends on you," answered the fearless young earl.

"What will you do if I let you go unharmed?"

"What do you wish me to do?"

"Only this, that you leave your country and renounce your claim of kingship, and that you swear never to make war on me."

To this young Erik agreed and sailed away to England to join his uncle, Canute the Dane, who was then king of both Denmark and England.

With the other young king, Earl Sweyn, Olaf did not find his task so easy, since Sweyn fought for his rights in a naval battle in which he had forty-five ships and three thousand men, while Olaf had less than half that number of men and ships. Olaf won the battle by a shrewd stratagem. He told his men to act at first only on the defensive, holding back their weapons until the enemy had thrown away theirs.

On came Earl Sweyn's fleet, fiercely attacking that of Olaf, a cloud of spears and arrows filling the air. As none came back from Olaf's men, their opponents fancied they were afraid, and rushed on them eagerly. But by this time their spears and arrows had grown scarce, and when a storm of these came from the opposite side they were taken by surprise and many of them killed. Wild with fear, they now sought to escape, and in the end their whole fleet broke and fled, leaving victory to the new king.

Sweyn fled to Sweden, whose king promised him help to regain his kingdom. But he died before his plans were ripe and Olaf was left without a rival except the king of Sweden, who had won a part of Norway in a former battle and now held it. This source of trouble was settled by the Swedes themselves, who had no fancy for fighting to help their king's ambition, and forced him to agree to yield his claim and give his daughter Ingegerd to Olaf for wife. So by a marriage Olaf won the remainder of his kingdom and became ruler over all Norway; but not by marrying Ingegerd, for he chose instead her sister Aastrid.

There is a pretty story told just here in the sagas, or historical tales of the Icelanders. Thus it reads: Sigurd Syr, who had married Olaf's mother Aasta, died in 1018, and Olaf came to her house to help in settling her affairs. She had three boys, Guttorm, Halfdan, and Harold, whom she brought into the hall to introduce to their half-brother, the king. Olaf put the two older ones on his knees and made so fierce a face at them that they ran away sadly scared. Then he took up little Harold and stared at him in the same way. The brave youngster was not so easily frightened as his brothers and stared back at the king. Then Olaf pulled his hair, but the daring youngster pulled his beard in exchange.

"He will do," said Olaf, setting him down with a laugh.

The next day the king and his mother watched the boys at their play. The older two amused themselves by building barns, in which they put toy cows and sheep; but Harold launched mock boats on a pond and watched them drift away.

"What do you call them?" asked Olaf.

"Ships of war," said the boy.

"Good lad," answered the king; "the day will come when you will command real ships."

Calling the boys to him, he asked Guttorm, the oldest, what he most wished for.

"Land," said the boy.

"How much?"

"Enough to sow as much grain every summer as would cover the headland yonder."

Ten large farms covered the headland in question.

"And what do you most desire?" the king asked Halfdan.

"Enough cows to cover the shores of the headland when they went to the water to drink."

"So; one wants land and the other cattle; and what do you want, Harold?"

"Men," said the boy.

"How many?"

"Enough to eat up in a single dinner all brother Halfdan's cows."

"Come, mother," said Olaf, laughing; "you have here a chap in training to make himself a king."

So it proved, for in later days Harold rose to be king of Norway.

But now we have to tell from what the king gained his title of Olaf the Saint. It came from his warm endeavors to make Norway a Christian land. The former King Olaf had forced his people to be baptized, but the most of them were heathens at heart still and after his death many began to worship the old gods again. It was the second Olaf that made the Christian secure in the land, and this still more by his death than by his life.

When he was still an infant the former King Olaf had baptized him and given him his own name, and the time came when his little namesake took up and finished his work. What most troubled the kings of Norway in that age was the power held by the tribal chiefs, who were difficult to control and ready to rebel; and this power came from the fact that they were not only chiefs, but were the priests of the old religion. As priest-kings their people followed them blindly, and no king could be sure of his crown while this system prevailed.

Olaf, who had been brought up in the new faith, set himself earnestly to spread the true principles of Christ's teachings through the land and for years he worked at it earnestly. But he had hard metal to deal with. It is said that one chief, when about to be baptized, turned to the priest and asked him where were his brave forefathers who had died without being baptized.

"They are in hell," said the priest.

"Then hell is the place for me," answered the chief. "I would rather be there with Odin and my hard fighting and noble fathers than in heaven with cowardly Christians and shaven monks."

This was the spirit of the chiefs. A heaven in which there would be no fighting and mead-drinking had no charms for them, and to live forever with the souls of men who had never drawn sword and struck blow was too dreary a prospect for their turbulent tastes.

But Olaf was ardent in the new faith and persistent in his endeavors, travelling from end to end of the land in his efforts to break up the old idolatry. Here is one of the stories told of this missionary work of the king.

He was then in Nidaros, whose peasantry, called Trönders, were said to be celebrating in secret the old pagan festivals and offering sacrifices to Odin and Frey for bountiful crops. When King Olaf came among them they took arms against him, but afterwards agreed to hold a public assembly and deal in that way with the religious question that was troubling the kingdom.

On the day they met it was raining hard. When the king asked them to believe in the God of the Christians and be baptized, Dale Guldbrand, their leader, replied:

"We know nothing of the being you speak of; a god whom neither you nor any one else can see. Now we have a god whom you can see every day, except a rainy day like this. If your god is so powerful, then let him arrange that to-morrow we shall have clouds but no rain."

When they met again the next day the weather was what they had asked for, clouds but no rain. Bishop Sigurd now celebrated mass and preached to the people about the miracles which Christ had wrought when on earth. On the third day it was still cloudy. The people had brought with them a great wooden image of the god Thor, and their chief spoke as follows:

"Where is your god now, King Olaf? You do not look so bold as you did yesterday, for our god, who rules over all things, is here now and scaring you with his fierce eyes. You scarce dare look at him, but you would be wiser to believe in the god that holds in his hand your destiny."

"Your god does not frighten me," answered the king. "He is blind and deaf and cannot move from the spot where you have set him without he is carried. He will soon meet his fate. Look yonder to the east. There in the flood of light comes our God."

[Illustration] from Historical Tales - Scandinavian by Charles Morris


To the east all eyes were turned, and at that moment the sunlight burst from the clouds and spread over the scene. As it did so a sturdy warrior, at a signal from the king, sprang forwards and struck the idol so fierce a blow with his club that it was shattered to pieces. Out from its hollow interior sprang great rats, snakes, and lizards, which had grown fat on the food with which the idol had been fed daily.

On seeing these loathsome things squirm from the interior of their god the peasants fled from the spot in a panic of fear, rushing to the river where their boats lay. But King Olaf, forecasting this, had sent men to bore holes in the boats so that they would not float. Unable to escape, the frightened peasants came back, quite downcast in spirit.

"You see what your god is worth," said the king. "Has he eaten the bread and meat you fed him, or has it gone to fatten rats and snakes? As for the gold and silver you gave him, there it lies scattered. Take up your golden ornaments and hang them no more on worthless logs. Now I give you your choice: you shall accept the faith I bring you, or you shall fight for your own. He will win to whom his god gives the victory."

The peasants were not prepared to fight, and therefore were obliged to accept baptism. Priests were sent to teach them the tenets of the new faith they had accepted, and Dale Guldbrand signified his honesty by building a church to the Christian deity. Other provinces were also won over to Christ, but there was one great and bold chieftain, Erling by name, and a sturdy heathen in his faith, who remained hostile to the king and a war between them became inevitable.

While the king and the earl were making busy preparations to fight for their faiths, a warrior king and conqueror stepped in to take advantage for himself of the quarrel. This was King Canute, monarch of Denmark and England, who was eager to add Norway and Sweden to his dominions and make himself one of the most powerful of kings. He secretly sent presents to the discontented Norse chiefs and took other means to win them to his cause. It was not long before Olaf learned of these underhand doings, and he at once made an alliance with King Anund of Sweden, whose sister he had married, and whom he told that Canute would attack him if he should win Norway. In his turn, Canute sent ambassadors to King Anund, with splendid presents, hoping to win him over.

Two candlesticks of gold were placed before him by the ambassadors.

"Pretty toys those," said Anund, "but not worth enough to break me from my good friend Olaf."

Then they brought forth a golden platter, of artistic finish and adorned with jewels. King Anund gazed at it with covetous eyes.

"A handsome bit of work," he said; "but I will not sell King Olaf for a dish."

Finally two magnificent rings were offered. King Anund laughed when he saw them.

"Keen and shrewd is King Canute," he remarked. "He knows I love golden toys, but he does not know that I love honor better. I have known King Olaf since he was a boy; he is my friend and my sister is his queen. I will not forsake him to please your king."

On hearing this, King Canute laid aside his plots and made a pilgrimage to Rome. During his absence his brother-in-law, Earl Ulf, rebelled against him and allied himself with Kings Olaf and Anund, who sent fleets to his aid. As it proved, King Canute was not the man to be caught napping. Back from his pilgrimage he travelled in haste and came near to capturing both the kings. They fled with all speed, pursued by him with a more powerful fleet, and went up a little river in southern Sweden, which they closed by a dam against their strong foe. Canute came soon after and found the harbor deserted and the river closed against him.

That night orders were given by the kings to break the dam and the heaped-up water ran down in an immense flood on the Danish ships, doing them great damage and drowning many of the people on board. But no attack was made on the disabled fleet, for Earl Ulf now turned traitor to his allies and joined Canute with his ships, making him too strong to attack.

This ended the war for the time, Canute returning to England. But he had won over many of the Norse chiefs by his bribes and the next year came again, sailing north to Nidaros, where the assembled chiefs, whom he had gained to his side, proclaimed him king of Norway. He appointed Earl Haakon, grandson of the famous Earl Haakon of a former tale, regent in his stead, and sailed away again.

In this manner Olaf lost his kingdom, for with all the powerful chiefs sold to the great King Canute and supported by him, little hope remained. He kept up the struggle for a short time, but was soon forced to flee to Sweden, whence he made his way to Russia and to the court of King Jaroslov, who was his brother-in-law, for he had married Princess Ingegerd of Sweden, once affianced to Olaf.

Thus easily had Norway been conquered by Canute, but it was not long to remain under Danish rule at this time. Olaf, it is true, never won the throne again, though he made a strong effort to regain it. In Russia he grew more and more given to religious thoughts, until he became looked upon as a holy man. This made him open to believe in visions, and when in a dream he saw the former King Olaf, who bade him to go back to Norway and conquer it or die, he did not hesitate.

Word had been brought him that Earl Haakon was dead and Norway with no immediate ruler, and against the advice of Jaroslov he set out for his late kingdom, leaving his son Magnus at the Russian court.

In Sweden the king gave him permission to gather recruits, but now his religious fanaticism stood in the way of his success. He would have none but baptized men in his army, and thus rejected many brave warriors while taking some known to be outlaws and thieves. On reaching Norway he showed the same unwisdom. He had but four thousand men under his command, while the army he was soon to meet numbered ten thousand. Yet Olaf rejected five hundred of his men because they were heathens and, thus weakened, marched to the unequal fray.

"Forward, Christ's men, king's men!" was the battle-cry of Olaf's army as it rushed upon the foe. "Forward, peasant men!" cried the opposite army, charging under its chiefs.

The king's men had the best of it at the opening, but the peasants held their ground stubbornly, and as the battle went on Olaf's ranks thinned and wavered. Finding the day going against him, he dashed forward with a small band of devoted men. One by one they fell. The standard changed hands again and again as its bearer was struck down. Olaf, severely wounded, stood leaning against a rock, when he was cut down by spear and sword. And strangely, at that moment, the sun began to grow blood-red and a dusky hue fell over the field. Darker and darker it grew till the sun was blotted out and terror filled the souls of the peasants, who saw in this strange darkness a token of the wrath of Olaf's God. But the eclipse came too late to save the king, who lay dead where he had fallen.

Olaf was gone but tradition built a halo around his name. It was reported that miracles were wrought by his blood and by the touch of his lifeless hand. Tales of marvel and magic grew up about him, and he became a wonder-worker for the superstitious people. In time he grew to be the national hero and the national saint, and lives in history as Olaf the Saint, while his tragic death and his enthusiasm for the cause of Christ gave him a strong hold on the people's hearts and aided greatly in making Norway truly a Christian land.