Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Unheated Darkness

 As things are no longer going backwards here, but slowly, albeit very slowly, returning to normality, I thought I'd say a few things about the recent Texas crisis.

There are a few things that are important to grasp. First, unlike most states, Texas has an independent electrical grid. This grid is managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, a non-profit organization overseen by the Public Utility Commission of Texas (the general regulatory agency for utilities). Second, February and March are in normal years the least problematic months for the electrical grid in Texas; most of Texas has mild winters most of the time, and heating is largely done by propane and natural gas, so it's standard for significant energy maintenance to be done in February -- local utilities ask ERCOT for permission to power down plants for maintenance and upgrades, and ERCOT assesses the impact on reliability (for instance, you don't want to have all the plants in one place shutting down at the same time) and gives its permission. As you might expect, this is something that has to be done considerably in advance for maintenance and upgrades actually to be done. During the storm, they suddenly started getting peak demand from all over, and had to ask local utilities to start up powered-down plants again; sometimes this was possible, sometimes it was not because of the cold weather. Third, starting February 13, a winter storm, commonly called Winter Storm Uri, developed in the Pacific Northwest and swept across the entire United States. This storm was an unusual event. For the first time, the National Weather Service put all 254 counties of Texas under Winter Storm Warnings. The entire area experienced very low temperatures; when I had a chance to check on Monday morning, we were at 9 degrees Fahrenheit (-12 degrees Celsius). To put that in perspective, our average low for this time of year is 44 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius). Here in Austin we didn't quite beat the record low for Februry (8.8 degrees in 1996), but keep in mind that getting close to or even beating the lowest temperatures on record is going on all over the state, not just in one part.

I mention all of these things because most people get their news from political sources, and it's good to have a baseline so one can assess; if you thought you understood the situation and did not know most of the previous paragraph, then I'm sorry to say that, regardless of what sources of information you have been using, you are in reality as ignorant as you were before you began.

From this point on, what I experienced at ground level. I went to bed on Sunday knowing that temperatures were expected to drop even further than they had and that some people had had outages as the storm swept across the state. Because there was a likelihood of blackouts, my college had canceled all classes by that point for both Monday and Tuesday. At 1:40 am on Monday, my power went out, and I received a text at 2:16 am from Austin Energy saying:

Due to record electric demand, Texas electric grid operator is directing rotating outages to protect electric grid reliability. Outages typically 40 mins or less. Length and frequency depend on severity of event. Prepare for possible power interruptions due to mandated rotating outages.

(That was the last direct text received until Wednesday.) I went back to sleep. Just before 7 am, when I woke again, the power was out, it was getting quite cool in my bedroom, and I used my phone to look online to see how things were going. The only thing that the Austin Energy twitter account had tweeted other than 'conserve energy' tweets was a 3:30 tweet that rotating power outages were lasting longer than expected and a 5:40 tweet that rotating power outages were lasting longer than expected; then there was a 7:15 series of tweets that gave a bit more information by identifying the problem as ERCOT requiring that all non-critical circuits shed load. I had meanwhile, to reduce the chances of things going bad, thrown my essential refrigerator stuff in bags in the snow outside, and would a few hours later throw my essential freezer stuff out there as well. But so far, everything still clearly stated that the outages were rotating, and a common theme was that places still with power should shut down non-essential uses so that they delay in rotation could be shortened. This, I think, was a very grave mistake, since it was essentially a message to people that the reason they were sitting in the dark in increasingly cold rooms was that other people were hogging the electricity. This does not seem to have been true -- there is really no amount that the critical circuit people could have conserved that would have changed anything, given the shed-load requirements. But it is one of the things that I think intensified people's anger. At 10:45 am, the message changed: "To serve critical loads and protect the overall reliability of the grid, customers experiencing an ERCOT-directed outage will remain out until conditions improve." So for nine hours, Austin Energy was telling people that they were going to do rolling blackouts, but the rolling never came. And they did not explain what was meant by "until conditions improve". When they had a press conference at 12:30 pm, they still said "until conditions improve" and did not explain what that meant. It was remarkable reading the Twitter threads, as it began to dawn on everyone that the most probable meaning was "until the storm ends", which by that point we all knew would by sometime on Wednesday. You can imagine the fury, particularly since "critical loads", while including areas with hospitals, also included a lot of downtown Austin and some very wealthy people in nice high-rise apartments that remained very noticeably bright and shining and infinitely out of reach.

In retrospect, I spent far, far too much of my phone battery trying to get updates from organizations that managed not to communicate anything of importance in a timely and useful fashion. But at that point, I realized that there was nothing to do but batten down and try to outlast it.

My condominium-style apartment is sandwiched between two others and the insulation is mostly not bad. The weather was subfreezing and windy on Monday; my thermostat had an independent battery, so I could at least tell the temperature inside, and it got down to 44 degrees Fahrenheit (about 7 degrees Celsius). My water heater is natural gas, so I still had hot water, which was much more than most people had at that point. I layered up and put my good sleeping bag on the bed along with the covers, and slept that night wearing a ski mask. In the morning the temperature was 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius), which would end up being the low point -- the drop in wind helped a great deal, and the sun occasionally would peak through the window. But it remained very cold. And then on Tuesday evening, the pipes in my garage broke with a CRACK! I rushed out to the garage and it was literally like a rainstorm had broken in the garage, with water pouring down on my car through every join and cut in the sheetrock and trickling down the walls from the corners of the ceiling. After a lot of scrambling, I found the internal cut-off, and now had no water. I shut down the water heater and, exhausted, went to bed much less convinced that I could in fact outlast anything.

I woke up in a less dark mood, and began to assess what I could do with no power and no water, indefinitely. I had six gallons of emergency drinking water laid up for hurricanes and the like. A work order had been put in for a plumber to make an emergency fix, but it was entirely uncertain how long it would take -- with no power, plumbers were limited in what they could do, and already by that point the cases of burst pipes were mounting up on an impressive scale. (And in fact the plumber came in the middle of my writing this post on Saturday.) I considered a hotel, but (1) finding a hotel is very difficult when neither you nor the hotel have any electrical power and (2) the hotels were already packed. Fortunately, the Darwins helped me link up with a family in the area that had power intermittently and still had water, so I stayed there for the night. In the morning I went home to do some clean-up, then back to sleep and shower. Because of the condition of the roads and the lack of traffic lights (either nonexistent or flashing red), and the fact that we were still having subfreezing nights, I went back while it was still daylight. The same thing on Thursday; I got home at about 10:30 am, and when I got there the power had been on for about thirty minutes. I checked the basics -- light, heat, refrigeration, internet (the internet was not a luxury, because it was another line of communication and extends the battery on my phone, which uses the wifi when I'm at home) -- and then, since I still had no water and did not know yet if the power was going to be consistent, went and stayed with my hosts one more night. Friday it was clear that the power was steady, so I stayed in my apartment last night.

Water was still a worry, so I scraped up all the snow in my little backyard for the toilet -- snow, of course, takes up much more volume than liquid water, so all of that snow melted to water for about three emergency flushes. As I noted, I had a good amount of drinking water, although that needed to be rationed if it was going to cover drinking and cooking both for the indefinite future. I wasn't too worried about showers -- wet wipes for the body and corn meal for the hair are actually more than adequate. (The former is a camping trick and the latter is what people used on the frontier and in the Great Depression, and can sometimes be found as a beauty spa hair treatment to this day.) Brushing teeth would require water, but it doesn't require much -- currently, in fact, the standard advice from dentists is not to wet your brush and use only enough water to rinse out the toothpaste and clean your brush, and frankly, while toothpaste helps hygiene in the long run, it's not a necessity for brushing. Because of COVID, I don't have to go many places, so washing clothes was not really an issue. The big, big problem, the one that I spent a lot of time thinking about, was cleaning dishes. There are camping tricks to minimize water when cleaning dishes, but I had very little of what would I'd need to implement those. Unless you can sand-blast your dishes, it's almost impossible to clean dishes without water, and the less water you use, the more important it is to sanitize, which (beyond a small bottle of alcohol and the last of a small bottle of bleach) I did not really have. Without distilled water for cleaning, there would really be no recourse but to set some of the drinking water aside for cleaning, as well, but I really needed a better solution.

I took thought about what I could do with respect to this. My nearest grocery store, while generally very good, was obviously under a lot of strain, and I probably would not be able to get much from it before a few days were out. In Texas, practically every major corner has either a gas station or pharmacy, so if you live in the city, there's almost always one in walking distance. I actually live within easy walking distance of at least three corner pharmacies and  at least five gas stations. So on Friday I walked down to Walgreens, the closest pharmacy, to see whether any options would open up to stretch my water out; my thought was that I could then visit all the pharmacies and gas stations and, scrounging up something from each, put together a plan that would work until more options opened up. The Walgreens was operating under limited capacity -- their pipes had burst too -- but they were open; and today I walked to the second closest pharmacy, CVS, and picked up some more things. Finding anything that would help directly wasn't possible -- water, for instance, was sold out, as were the more obvious things like bleach -- but indirectly I picked up a few things to stretch the water out, like a greater variety of food that didn't require cooking or could be cooked without water, and non-water things to drink. And so was the state of my plan; I was going to keep trying over the next several days to find an available hotel room, even if only for a single night, which would help. I figured that as power and water came back across the city, at least some people would filter back out of hotels and go home (which indeed seems to be the case). But, as I said, I got a call from the plumber in middle of writing this post, at about 5:00 pm. They did an emergency fix of the problem in the garage -- it was four distinct breaks that had occurred roughly around the same time, three in the ceiling, one in the wall. No wonder it had been raining in the garage. They finished up about 7 pm. The first thing I did was start the dishwasher. 

Things are not quite back to normal. We have been under a Boil Water Notice since Wednesday -- since I had no water at all, I had not had to worry about that -- although it's mostly at this point a precaution. I do have another minor leak in a bathroom, but it doesn't require shutting off all water; I can just use the other bathroom until things calm down and I can get a plumber in to look at that much more minor, although somewhat more complicated, problem. I'm still keep the snow-water for a few days, because at this point who knows whether anything else will break. And the devastation has been extraordinary. The plumbers were talking about how they'd been working all day and had least nine other homes in the area with similar problems, and needed to try to get as many done that day as they could. I work at a college that has twelves campuses; nine of them have serious plumbing issues and the other three are still being assessed. The sanctuary at my church was flooded this week, calf-high, and most of the other churches in the dioceses have had similar problems. Churches, of course, are big open buildings that tend to get cold if not heated in winter, and they are required to have sprinkler systems for fires; and the fire system cannot be completely insulated and still meet city code. Businesses all over the region were flooded when their pipes burst in the unheated darkness. While most of the serious problems have been solved, there are still people without electricity because of downed powerlines, and there are still people without water, because water mains broke. Plumbers and other tradesmen will be busy for the entire next week just solving the most essential emergency problems.

When I started looking around yesterday and this morning, I found that a lot of the discussion was not devoted to anything of any practical use, but was chatter about Senator Cruz having early on in this mess taken his family to Cancun. And I confess I felt something a bit like rage that, of all the things people could have focused on in this tragedy, this was the thing they latched onto. What moral and mental disease, I thought, leads people to treat all of this as a point for partisan propaganda, and not recognize that in doing so they are very bad people? Have people, if I may use a bit of Texan vulgarity, put their self-absorbed heads so far up their cavernously windy asses that this is what they think is important? Senator Cruz is not a Texas state official; he has no authority over ERCOT or local utilities. He has no personal influence over any decisions concerning the Texas electrical grid. He certainly is not able to stop the weather. There was nothing he could have done in Texas itself that would have been of practical use at the time. Speaking as someone who went through it, if it had been put to a vote, I would have voted for any family who could getting out the region, without exception, and been glad that that was one more family spared the whole thing. No doubt there are people who like misery to be spread around, especially in the direction of their political opponents. No doubt, too, there are things he could have done that would be more useful for political campaigning, although Cruz has the secure political position he does not because he is likable but because he is famously difficult to like, so people know that he will drive Democrats crazy; perhaps he could have done fundraising somewhere; perhaps he could have stayed as a purely symbolic thing. But it made me quite angry that in the face of all this, so many people still play their catty partisan games rather than focus on anything of any practical value whatsoever. Much of this, however, was from putting it side by side with having had to sleep under a pile of blankets and sleeping bag in a house cold enough that not doing so would have been a hypothermia risk, not knowing how long my emergency water would last. That was perhaps not a fair juxtaposition. Having come out the other side only slightly worse for wear, I am inclined to interpret it all a little more charitably. No doubt things look very different when viewing it all from elsewhere, and I have no problem with the jokes and memes (a few of which are even funny) or even the political swipes (some of which are even fair game) on their own; and it is true, too, I have a different temperament from most people, and thus cannot assess them entirely by my own sense of things. And perhaps more importantly, for some people it's a way of lightening things, which is not a bad thing at all. I still won't take people seriously who take the matter to be some gravely serious one, though.

And it's important to keep a sense of proportion over all. I would have gotten through regardless. The last I looked at the death toll, it was about 70 people, mostly from hypothermia, mostly from going outside for unknown reasons. Having family in Montana (and thus a decent set of winter gear), having done my share of camping over long years, having a stoic temperament, having a good (if not, in retrospect, completely adequate) set of emergency supplies laid in, I was well off and well prepared, more than many who got through it as well. I was not really worried or distraught at any point, except for a short period Tuesday night, and that was mostly due to exhaustion. I even enjoyed some (although not all) of the problem-solving and improvising. And I had friends who could make connections for me that made it go much more easily. Everybody I have met yesterday and today has been cheerful at getting, finally, to the point of clean-up and repair. This world is a world of challenges, and this challenge has been met. On to the next.

Friday, February 19, 2021

A Poem Draft


I'd wake you,
marble maiden fashioned
by my hand
from willing stone,
but the power of the spirit
none may have but God,
and God alone.
Work of man,
by skill ensculpted,
may you be a higher thing,
will and reason
be your blessing
down from heaven's endless ring.
A breathing form
of sweet spiration
you have come to me
in dreams;
as if softly sighing
your face to vision seems.
May it be, and be so real,
but, ah! I worry,
if inspired turns your kiss,
that I should then expire
from a storm of fatal bliss!

Thursday, February 18, 2021

O' Mice an' Men

  So my power and heat are back on, although we don't know yet how consistently, and, of course, the water will be the big bugbear. Building after building after building has had plumbing problems, so it's anyone's guess how quickly things will move. Things are still busy in the meantime.

To a Mouse
by Robert Burns

On Turning her up in her Nest, with the Plough, November 1785.

Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickerin brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An’ fellow-mortal!

I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen-icker in a thrave
’S a sma’ request:
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
An’ never miss ’t!

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane,
O’ foggage green!
An’ bleak December’s winds ensuin,
Baith snell an’ keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste,
An’ weary Winter comin fast,
An’ cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro’ thy cell.

That wee-bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the Winter’s sleety dribble,
An’ cranreuch cauld!

But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!

Gang Aft Agley

 If I seem to have fallen off the face of the earth, in a sense I have. Central Texas is currently in a major crisis due to a winter storm. My power went out at 1:40 am on Monday, and a lot of others at the same time, with the expectation that the blackouts would be rolling; however, due to grid problems, it never came back on. My pipes burst from freezing yesterday, another problem people are commonly having, so there went water as well. I am currently staying with friends in an area in which blackouts have actually been rolling, so I am well taken care of for now. I’ll post about it in more detail when things stabilize, but things will be sparse around here for a bit.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Fortnightly Book, February 14

Es lassen sich Erzählungen ohne Zusammenhang, jedoch mit Association, wie Träume, denken; Gedichte, die bloss wohlklingend und voll schöner Worte sind, aber auch ohne allen Sinn und Zusammenhang, höchstens einzelne Strophen verständlich, wie Bruchstücke aus den verschiedenartigsten Dingen.

George MacDonald's first prose work is perhaps his most influential. It was published in 1858 under the title, Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women. It was one of the earliest works in the nineteenth-century Arthurian revival, and has had considerable influence on writers of the fantastic ever since, including, of course, C. S. Lewis, who was particularly moved by it. And it is the next fortnightly book.

The work itself, an attempt to write a fairy tale for adults, is heavily influenced by Romanticism, particularly that of Novalis, whose comment above is part of a number of quotations at the beginning of the book. The part quoted above is given the following translation in my edition:
One can imagine stories without rational cohesion and yet filled with associations, like dreams; and poems that are merely lovely sounding, full of beautiful words, but also without rational sense and connections--with, at the most, individual verses which are intelligible, like fragments of the most varied things.

Dream-like it certainly is. Anodos (whose name means 'path upward' or 'ascent', but is also could be read, by a play on words, as 'pathless') after his twenty-first birthday finds himself in Faerie, where he seeks his ideal woman, the Marble Lady. He will have to unlearn his ideals in order to find what is really worth having. He is, like many Victorian gentlemen, inspired by a conception of chivalry, but he finds that this conception does not actually make him fit for genuine chivalry and knighthood. We forget that the word 'knight' literally just means 'servant'; the heart of it is the nobility not of birth but of service.


George MacDonald, Phantastes, Wm. B. Eerdmans Company (Grand Rapids, MI: 1997).

Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla


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.

Favorite Passage: 

...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).