Opening Passage: From the author's foreword:
In this book I have had written down old accounts about the chieftains who had dominion in the North and were speakers of the Danish tongue, basing myself on the information given me by well-informed men; also, on some of their genealogies according to what I have learned about them, some of which information is found in the pedigrees which kings or other persons of exalted lineage have about their kin; and still other matter follows ancient lays or legends people have entertained themselves with. And although we do not know for sure whether these accounts are true, yet we do know that old and learned men consider them to be so. (p. 3)
Summary: In the Saga of the Ynglings, we learn of the rise of the royal dynasties of Scandinavia, as the Aesir under the warlord-magician Óthin invade the Scandinavian lands and begin a violent and terrible war with the Vanir. The war eventually burns itself out, and both sides agree on a peace treaty and exchange of hostages, and the Vanir hostages among the Aesir are Njorth and his son Frey, whome Óthin sets the task of making the sacrifices for the Aesir. After Óthin's death, Njorth becomes king of the Swedes; after Njorth, Frey. Frey establishes his capital at Uppsala, and becomes an immensely prosperous king. Because another of Frey's names is Yngvi, the dynasty becomes known as the Ynglings. (To situate this a bit more clearly with respect to other literary works: Freyr is a god of plenty and harvest in Norse myth, these Ynglings are the same as the Scylfings mentioned in Beowulf, and Yngvi is the source of the name Inwë, the foremost king of the Elves in Valinor in Tolkien's mythos.) Their time is mostly a very violent and disunified time, but it is the half-mythical age in which the customs and expectations of Scandinavian society are laid down. With the Saga of Hálfdan the Black we slowly begin to tip over from a mix of myth and history into something more like history, the legendary period. Háfldan becomes ruler of the kingdom of Agder (the very southern tip of Norway) at the age of eighteen and begins a compaign of military conquest, eventually taking over the kingdom of Vestfold, half the kingdom of Vingulmork, and with considerable difficulty (but crucially, as it is the seed around which the kingdom of Norway will eventually take shape), Raumaríki. He will eventually die by accident when his sleigh falls through the ice. The Saga of Harald Fairhair gives us the life of his son as continuing the legend of the unification of Norway. Harald falls in love with the beautiful maiden Gytha, but as it turns out she has high standards, and won't marry a king so lowly that he only ruled a few counties. But she promises that she'd come to his bed if he were king of all Norway, so Harald goes about conquering all the other little kingdoms, and eventually becomes the ruler of all the little coherent kingdoms of the area. (The flight of nobles from his conquests becomes the seed of Norse colonization of the westward islands, including Iceland.) He then takes Gytha as one of his several wives. Having many wives means having many sons, and Harald's bright idea about what to do with them is to make sure they are all given the title of king and divide up his unified kingdom among them. Unsurprisingly, this is a complete disaster as none of the sons of different mothers get along with each other, and the whole realm collapses into mutual plunder, being held together only by Harald's ability to put out fires almost as quickly as they arise. It is within this context that Harald has an illegitimate son with the wife of Hákon Grjótgarthsson, one of his most important supporters. When Harald has a dispute with the Saxon king Aethelstan of England, he is able to force Aethelstan to terms, and one of his terms is that Aethelstan foster the illegitimate son, whose name is also Hákon (Haakon, as it is often spelled today). The absolutely fundamental thing that will result from this is that young Hákon will become Christian.
After the death of Harald, Eirík Bloodaxe will seize control of the kingdom from his brothers. However, in the Saga of Hákon the Good, we learn that Aethelstan sets Hákon up with a fleet and army, and Hákon comes back to Norway just as Eirík is finishing things up. The young man seizes his moment and promising the farmers in Trondheim that he will roll back some of the harsher and more oppressive laws that had been established by Harald, including the all-important one in land-conscious Norway, Harald's claim of possession of all ancestral estates. This goes over wildly well, and Hákon is declared king of Trondheim and makes good on his promise. Not only this, but word spreads like wildfire of this claimant on the crown who is like Harald but more benevolent, and the Uppland regions also declare him king; he is able to ally with other members of his family who have been scattered by Eirík's violence, and all of this makes him relatively powerful in a very short time. He is able to force Eirík to flee. Hákon remains watchful, but when Eirík eventually dies, Hákon has a ready army with no immediate threats, and uses it to subdue and harry his more aggressive neighbors, getting wealthy in the process. This allows him to consolidate in a way that had not been possible before. And the consolidation is as interesting as the conquest. Hákon is the first Christian king of Norway. The people he rules are very, very pagan, and expect their kings to do pagan things. The good will between them is extraordinary: Hákon genuinely wants what is best for his people, and he is very popular with them, being literally the best king they have ever had. Both sides want this very much to work. But over and over again it causes problems: Christian aims conflict with pagan aims, Hákon as Christian king has difficulty doing the pagan things that his people associate with their allegiance and demand that their kings do, the pagans are not happy with Hákon's pushing of this bizarre foreign religion, and none of the attempts at compromise on either side manage to satisfy anyone. The fundamental problem of the Kingdom of Norway -- that it cannot properly unify without Christianity and that Christianity is incompatible with its pagan ways -- has been set, and it looks insoluble.
Hákon eventually dies due to a wound sustained in battle with the sons of Eirík. But Hákon, looking at his options for successors, comes to an unexpected conclusion. He has no sons, so he gives the kingship to the sons of Eirík on the condition that they not harm his family and supporters. The oldest son of Eirík is called Harald, and the Saga of Harald Graycloak is the tale of his attempt to impose some order on the again-disunified Norway. It also sees the creation of another complication in the birth of Norway as a nation: the sons of Eirík had been heavily reliant on their uncle, Harald Bluetooth, who became a major power in Denmark. Thus Norway becomes in effect a vassal of Denmark. Harald Graycloak is able to expand both his power and influence in Norway, but there's only so much that can be done, and he is eventually tricked into a situation in which he is murdered.
All of this so far is, as it were, a prologue, a setting of the problem. The next stage will be the Christianization of Norway by the two Olafs, Óláf Tryggvason and St. Óláf Haraldsson. In the Saga of Óláf Tryggvason, the young Óláf is born under very inauspicious conditions, his mother being pursued by the minions of his relative Harald Graycloak, a flight that results in Óláf becoming a slave in Estonia. He is eventually rescued by a passing tax collector for King Vladimir of Rus -- the ruling house in Kiev is also Norse, of course. Óláf grows up in Vladimir's court, but eventually Vladimir begins to get suspicious of this talented and ambitious boy and rather than tempt fate, Óláf sets out to make his fortune. He will marry a Wendish princess (the Wendish royal houses are also Norse, of course). This marriage will lead him into a military alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto II, whom he will help to defeat Harald Bluetooth. After his wife dies, Óláf is distraught and takes to the sea again, raiding the islands around Britain. On the Scilly Islands, he hears about a local seer, whom he unsuccessfully tries to trick. The seer then gives him a fateful prophecy:
You will become a famous king and work famous deeds. You will bring many men to the true faith and baptism, and in so doing benefit both yourself and many others. And lest you doubt my answer, let this be a token: when you come to your ships you shall encounter a traitor band, and that will lead to fighting, and you will put to death some of the band, and you will yourself receive a mortal wound and be borne on your shield to the ship. Btu you will recover from his wound within seven days and be baptized soon thereafter. (p. 171)
This is exactly what happens, and Óláf Tryggvason becomes Christian, certain that his destiny is to bring many men to Christianity and that he will benefit from doing so, so that he will be a great king achieving great deeds because of it. He will spend some time becoming important and influential and then will seize an opportune time to return to Norway and seize it from the powerful Earl Hákon, who has been ruling it as vassal of Harald Bluetooth. Óláf easily defeats Hákon, who was not popular, and as King of All Norway begins actively demanding that people be baptized as Christian or else defeat him in battle. This might sound odd to delicate modern ears, but the medieval Scandinavians didn't see religion, as modern minds are inclined to see it, as a sort of private belief; they saw it (more correctly) as an allegiance. It was why Hákon the Good, decent and generous man though he was, largely failed to achieve anything lasting, and it was why the arrogant and ambitious Óláf Tryggvason succeeds. The people had liked Hákon's results, but nothing he said made any sense. Óláf, however, marching up and down the land saying, "Be baptized or fight me!", made perfect sense. Becoming Christian was a major change of allegiance. Why would you change allegiances just to change allegiances? But a Christian king fighting for Christians, Christians making peace and security together, that was an allegiance in visible form. Many converted voluntarily. Many more fought agains it, and only converted when defeated. But they all understood it. Call it 'acculturation', if you want, but they all understood it.
Óláf will largely succeed at the things to which he sets his hand, but his greatest success will be to have laid the foundations for an apparently less successful but much greater Óláf. Óláf Tryggvason will marry again, and his new wife, Thyri, will get him involved in a war with the Wends. He will largely be successful at this, as well, but will be fatally wounded in a battle, and Norway again collapses back into a bunch of petty jurisdictions under the thumb of the kings of Denmark. Saint Óláf's Saga is about a talented young man, Óláf Haraldsson, more commonly known in his own days a Big Óláf, or Óláf the Stout, or Óláf the Fat, depending on how you wish to translate the word digri. As a teenage of a lesser royal background, he became involved in military expeditions, and thence developed the ambition to become the next King of Norway. As he is returning home, he stays a while in Normandy (Normans, of course, being Norsemen), where he is baptized as a Christian in Rouen. He comes back to Norway and gets the support of the minor Uppland chieftains. He will turn out to have an absolutely extraordinary luck, and after a chain of events will defeat Earl Svein, the primary vassal of the Danes at the Battle of Nesjar, and thus established himself firmly on the throne. But it's a precarious throne. To the east is the powerful kingdom of Sweden under the perpetually irate Óláf Skötkunung, who takes an almost obsessive dislike to the young upstart, to such an extent that he refuses to let people call Óláf of Norway by his own name 'Óláf', insisting that he always be referred to as "That Fat One". The eventual reconciliation that St. Óláf is able to achieve on this end, marrying the King of Sweden's younger daughter, becoming friends with Óláf himself, and allying with Óláf's son, King Onund, is almost a miracle in itself.
But the more serious problem is to the south and west, in the Kingdom of Denmark and England, ruled by that unstoppable military and economic juggernaut, Knút the Great. Denmark has become far and away the greatest power in the region, and Denmark regards Norway as a vassal state. Óláf of Norway manages to avoid problems for a few years, but Knút is coming. When the storm breaks, he is able to hold him off a while -- no mean achievement in itself -- but Knút is able easily to subvert the Norwegian nobility, who are often already unhappy with Óláf's heavy-handedness, with large bribes, and Óláf soon loses his kingdom, becoming an exile in Kievan Rus.
After such success, an utter failure, and a swift one at that -- less than fifteen years all told, from Óláf's first declaration of his intention to become King of Norway to his loss of the kingdom. But for Óláf himself, it in some sense was the best thing to happen to him. Óláf had been a Christian king, and a devout one, but he had always put the Kingdom of Norway first, driven mostly by his ambition and, at times, his wrath. Having lost the Kingdom of Norway, he begins to put the Kingdom of Heaven first; no longer a king, he begins to become a saint, which is a much greater thing, and the means by which he will truly unify Norway and solve the problem that had never managed to be solved since Hákon the Good. Óláf considers giving it all up and taking a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but is stopped by a vision that tells him that his role is be a king for his people. So in 1029, when the major Danish vassal ruling Norway vanishes suddenly at sea, Óláf sees an opening and returns. It is not easy -- nobody wants to cross the Danes directly, and some, like Bishop Sigurth, speak directly against him, regarding him as a wicked man -- but he pulls together support, and takes the kingdom again. Which he again loses, when he dies in the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030 against pro-Danish Norwegian forces, brought down by three warriors. Failure again! But things have changed, and this is perhaps symbolize by St. Óláf's first posthumous miracle: When the blood is not yet dried on his corpse, he heals one of the men who killed him.
The process of Óláf coming to be recognized as a saint is an interesting one. Knút sends his son, Svein, to be the new King of Norway, and Svein imposes harsh laws; the people of Norway are very unhappy, and nothing makes people remember an old king with fondness than misery under a new king. The people of Trondheim, Óláf's major base of support, begin to talk of Óláf as a saint, and miracles and rumors of miracles begin to spread as a result of invoking him. People who are unhappy with the acts of King Svein slowly begin to talk the same. Bishop Sigurth ends up having to flee to Denmark, and is replaced by a bishop who had known Óláf, Bishop Grímkel, who opens an investigation into Óláf's sanctity. This is actively opposed by supporters of Svein's regimes, but the latter eventually run out of excuses not to accept the signs of Óláf's sanctity, and Óláf is pronounced a true saint. More miracles, more rumors of miracles. And St. Olaf after death will achieve what everyone had failed to do before him, including himself: he shall make Norway a true kingdom and nation in its own right.
The nine sagas after Saint Óláf's Saga serve as a kind of denouement in which we see this slowly but surely happening. Óláf's illegitimate son, Magnus the Good (named after Karla Magnus, Charlemagne), is raised in Kievan Rus and is able to take the throne after five years of Svein's reign; he is able to force a peace with Hartha-Knút, Knút's son and successor, with a peace treaty in which each is recognized as the legitimate successor of the other. Harta-Knút dies first, and so Magnus becomes King of Norway and Denmark. This takes some consolidation (Svein is still in Denmark), and there is serious trouble from the Wends; but Magnus wields his father's battle-axe, Hel, in battle and has a resounding victory over the latter, and this gives him room to force Svein to concede, at least in outward show. Óláf's brother Harald, meantime, has been with the Kievan Varangians in Míklagarth, which is the Norwegian name for Constantinople, a city wealthy beyond the imaginations of any petty Norwegian chieftain. He serves as a mercenary for Empress Zoe, quickly becoming a leader among the Varangians the Empire hires, and learns an extraordinary number of new things about warfare. He is immensely successful, and returns wealthier than any Norwegian king has ever been, and with proven military cunning and ability. Things could have gone very bad, since Harald thinks he should be king, but Magnus, putting the kingdom above himself, offers to give him co-kingship, with full rights of a king, on the one condition that Magnus be recognized ceremonially as first between them. Harald recognizes that just being handed this is far better than trying to seize the whole thing through a nasty war, and accepts. The two tend not to agree; there are lots of troublemakers on both sides; and they find that it's much harder to agree on what counts as ceremonial priority than it sounds. But when Magnus dies soon after, Harald becomes the new King. He finds that Magnus's kingdom is too much to hold; he loses Denmark to Svein and struggles to keep England. Initially successful at the latter, he is killed in a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, and thus ends the great Viking Age.
Óláf the Gentle succeeds as King of Norway, and Norway alone; he is a peaceful fellow, and things are relatively prosperous during his reign, with the Church becoming stronger and devotion to St. Olaf becoming increasingly central to the lives of Norwegians. He is succeeded by Magnus Barelegs, his illegitimate son, who is the exact opposite in temperament to his father, and who initiates a massive series of very aggressive military projects. Except for the British Isles and Ireland, where he had significant successes for a short time, most of this came to nothing, but Magnus Barelegs would be the last King of Norway to die in battle. In the meantime, St. Óláf had been doing a miracle here, a miracle there among the common people.
Magnus Barelegs is followed by the sons of Magnus, most notably Sigurd Jerusalemfarer; in 1107, he led a Norwegian army on Crusade to Jerusalem. He came back fabulously wealthy, with a relic of the True Cross; but in his absence, his brother Eystein had done well himself, having established the trade and military of the kingdom on a solid footing. After Eystein's death, Sigurd becomes sole king. A man from Ireland, named Harald Gilli, begins claiming to be an illegitimate son of Magnus Barelegs; it is put to trial by ordeal, and Harald Gilli passes the ordeal. Sigurd accepts this, but Sigurd's son, Magnus regards Harald Gilli with hatred. After Sigurd's death the kingdom splits into civil war. Bearing the relic of the True Cross, Magnus defeats Harald Gilli temporarily, but Harald vows to Saint Óláf that he will build him a church in Bergen if Harald defeats Magnus there, and Harald has a stunning victory; Magnus is taken and both blinded and maimed, which gives him his epithet of Magnus the Blind. Harald Gilli's death, however, leads to civil war between his sons, a long-lasting, continual civil war of attrition among them. In 1152, however, Norway is visited by a significant foreign dignitary, Nicholas Breakspear, a Cardinal sent from Rome. Cardinal Nicholas makes peace -- a tottering peace, but a peace -- among the different factions, regularizes the structure of the Church in Norway, and makes the Church of St. Óláf in Nítharos an archiepiscopal see. (He then goes back to Rome and is made Pope Adrian V.) It is a major event. Here in the middle of these endless civil wars of kings, the nation is given a unified character not by the victories of any of those kings, but by St. Óláf, who has become the patron saint of all Norwegians both in practice and in the eyes of the universal Church. This only intensifies in the reigns of Hákon the Broadshouldered and Magnus Erlingsson, who with the help of the Church consolidate the civil rule of Norway again, with the increasing unity of the Norwegians under St. Óláf becoming more and more clear; Magnus stabilizes the royal succession, and thus is the history brought up almost to Snorri's own day.
It is a tale long in the telling (821 pages in my edition). But it moves swiftly. And one reason I've given such a lengthy summary here is that I think it is more unified in theme than one might at first think; and the theme is not merely Norwegian kings in general but how the Norwegian monarchy came to be fully established, St. Óláf being, despite only fifteen tumultuous years as king, the fundamental turning in that story. He is not the only element, although he is the most important. The history is not simple and it is not a straightforward path. But the forging of a people into one never is.
...There was such fierce hatred against Earl Hákon among the Tronders that no one might call him by any other name than the evil earl. And that name stuck to him for a long time. But the truth of the matter is that he had many qualifications for leadership: first, an exalted lineage, and therewith shrewdness and sagacity to use his power, briskness in battle as well as a lucky hand in winning the victory and slaying his enemies. As says Thorlief Rauthfeldarson:
160. Hákon, heard we under
heaven no doughtier earl than
thou--but greater grew thy
glory from wars--to govern.
Athelings nine to Óthin--
feeds the raven on flesh of
fallen men--spread far thy
fame aye--thou didst send forth.
Earl Hákon exceeded everyone in generosity, and it was great ill fortune that a chieftain such as he should have died as he did. But the reason for this was chiefly that the time had come when heathen worship and idolators were done away with and Christianity took their place. (pp. 192-193)
Recommendation: Highly Recommended.
Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Lee M. Hollander, tr., UT Press (Austin: 2018).