Saturday, June 10, 2023

Saturday Snippet: How long hair saved a captive


Frans G. Bengtsson's novel of Viking times, "The Long Ships", has been in print ever since it was first published in the 1940's.

I've had a copy in my library ever since I discovered it in the 1970's.  It's among my favorite books, and I re-read it every year or so.  It's filled with tongue-in-cheek humor, as well as being a historically reasonably accurate portrayal of where the Vikings went and what they did when they got there.  I highly recommend it.

For this morning, I've chosen a tale about the experiences of a Jomsviking prisoner at the hands of Jarl Haakon of Norway.

On the next day, when the eating was over and the torches had been carried in, Sigurd Buesson told them of his adventures at Jörundfjord, and how he had been saved by his long hair. They all knew about this expedition; how the Jomsvikings, with men from Bornholm, had sailed out in a mighty fleet under the command of Strut-Harald’s sons, with Bue Digre and Vagn Akesson, to win Norway from Jarl Haakon, and how few had returned from that enterprise; so Sigurd did not waste many words on this part of his story, and made no mention of how Sigvalde had fled with his ships from the battle. For it would have been churlish to have spoken of Sigvalde when Thorkel the Tall was among his audience, though they all knew Thorkel to be a bold fighter and were aware that he had been struck on the head by a large stone during the battle soon after the opposing navies had come to grips, so that he had not been conscious when his brother had rowed away.

Sigurd had been aboard his father’s ship, and confined himself to such parts of the battle as he himself had been directly concerned in. He told them of his father’s death; how Bue had fought fiercely, but at last, when the Norwegians had boarded his ship in overwhelming numbers, had received a slash on his face from a sword which had taken away his nose and the greater part of his jaw; and how he had then seized up his great treasure-chest and leaped overboard with it in his arms. He told, too, how Bue’s kinsman, Aslak Holmskalle, had gone berserk, casting aside his shield and helmet, which was something one seldom saw nowadays, and hewing about him with both hands, impervious to the touch of iron, until an Icelandic bard, a follower of Jarl Haakon’s son Erik, had picked up an anvil from the deck and with it had split his skull.

“After that,” continued Sigurd, “for such of us as remained alive on my father’s ship, there was little left to do; for we were few in numbers and very fatigued, and all our ships had now been over-powered, save only Vagn’s own ship, which still fought on. We were hemmed in the forecastle, so weary that before long we could lift neither hand nor foot; and at last there were but nine of us left, all wounded, and there they pinned us with their shields and so took us. We were disarmed and brought ashore; and soon the survivors of Vagn’s ship were dragged to join us, Vagn himself being among them. Two men carried him, and he bore both sword- and spear-wounds, and was pale and weary and said nothing. They made us sit on a log on the beach, with our legs tied together with a long rope, though they left our hands free; and there we sat and waited, while men were sent to Jarl Haakon to discover what should be our fate. He commanded that we were instantly to be put to death, and Jarl Erik, his son, and many of his followers came to watch our end; for the Norwegians were curious to see how Jomsvikings would conduct themselves in the face of death. There were thirty of us on the log, nine from Bue’s ship, eight from Vagn’s, and the rest from other ships. Vagn himself sat on our extreme right; and I shall tell you the names of such of the others as were known to me.”

Then he gave them a list of all those whose names he knew, in the order in which they sat on the log; and all the company in the great hall listened in silence, for many of those he named were men whom they had known, and some of his listeners had kinsmen among the dead.

He continued: “Then a man came with a beard-ax and stood in front of Vagn and said: ‘Do you know who I am?’ Vagn glanced at him, but did not seem to notice him and said nothing, for he was very weary. Then the other man said: ‘I am Thorkel Leira. Perhaps you remember the vow you made to kill me and bring my daughter Ingeborg to bed?’ Now this was true, for Vagn had vowed thus before setting out, since he had heard that Thorkel’s daughter was the most beautiful girl in Norway, besides being one of the richest. ‘But now,’ continued Thorkel Leira, with a broad grin, ‘it looks rather as though I am going to kill you.’ Vagn curled his lip and said: ‘There are yet Jomsvikings living.’ ‘They shall not live long,’ replied Thorkel, ‘and I shall see to it myself, so that there shall be no mistake. You will see all your men die beneath my hand, after which you will shortly follow them.’ Then he went to the other end of the log and proceeded to behead the prisoners, one after another as they sat there. He had a good ax and went to work with a will; and he never needed to strike twice. But I think that those who were watching the scene had to admit that Vagn’s and Bue’s men knew how to conduct themselves in the face of death. Two who were seated not far from me began a discussion as to what it would feel like once one’s head was off, and they agreed that it was one of those things that are difficult to foretell. One of them said: ‘I have a brooch here in my hand. If my brain is still working after I have lost my head, I shall stick it into the ground.’ Thorkel arrived at him; but as soon as the blow fell on his neck, the brooch dropped from his hand. That left only two men between Thorkel and myself.”

Sigurd Buesson smiled quietly at his listeners, who sat in silent excitement. He raised his cup and drank a deep draught.

King Harald said: “I see that you still have your head on your shoulders; and anyone can hear by the sound of your swallowing that there is nothing wrong with your neck. But that was a sorry situation you were in on that Norwegian log, and it is no easy thing to guess how you managed to escape to tell the tale, however long your hair. This is a fine story, and do not keep us waiting to know how it ended.”

They all raised a shout of agreement, and Sigurd Buesson continued: “As I sat there on the log, I do not think I was more frightened than the others were; but I felt it would be a pity to die without having done something worthy for men to speak of after I had gone. So when Thorkel came to my place, I said to him: ‘I am afraid for my hair; I do not want it to be stained with blood.’ So saying, I drew it forward over my head; and a man who was walking behind Thorkel—I heard later that he was his brother-in-law—ran forward and wound my hair round his fingers and said to Thorkel: ‘Now, strike!’ He did so; but in the same instant, I pulled my head back as quickly as I could, so that the ax fell between me and his brother-in-law and cut off both his brother-in-law’s hands. One of them remained hanging in my hair.”

Everyone in the hall burst into a great roar of laughter. Sigurd himself laughed with them; then he proceeded: “You may well laugh, but your laughter, loud as it is, is as silence compared with the merriment of the Norwegians when they saw Thorkel’s brother-in-law writhing on the ground, with Thorkel standing scowling above him. Some of them laughed so much that they fell over. Jarl Erik came forward and looked at me and said: ‘Who are you?’ I replied: ‘My name is Sigurd, and Bue was my father; there are yet Jomsvikings living.’ The Jarl said: ‘You are truly of Bue’s blood. Will you accept your life from me?’ ‘From such a man as you, Jarl,’ I replied, ‘I will accept it.’ Then they untied me. But Thorkel, ill-pleased at this, roared: ‘Shall it be thus? Then it were best I lose no time in dispatching Vagn.’ Raising his ax, he rushed toward him as he sat quietly on the end of the log. But one of Vagn’s men, named Skarde, a good man from Kivik, was seated four places from Vagn; and it seemed to him wrong that Vagn should lose his head before his proper turn arrived. So he threw himself forward over the foot-rope as Thorkel rushed by him, so that Thorkel fell full length over his body and lay at Vagn’s feet. Vagn leaned forward and took up the ax, and there was little weariness to be seen in his face as he buried it in Thorkel’s head. ‘I have fulfilled half my vow,’ he said; ‘and still there are Jomsvikings living.’ The Norwegians laughed louder than ever; and Jarl Erik said: ‘Will you have your life, Vagn?’ ‘If you grant it to us all,’ replied Vagn. ‘It shall be so,’ said the Jarl. So they freed us all. Twelve of us escaped from the log with our lives.”

Sigurd Buesson was loudly acclaimed for his story, and everyone praised the good use he had made of his hair. They all discussed his story across the tables, admiring his good luck and that of Vagn; and Orm said to Sigurd: “There is much that is common knowledge in these parts which Toke and I are ignorant of, because we have been out of the country for so long a time. Where is Vagn now, and what happened to him after he escaped from the log with his life? From all that you say, his luck sounds to me greater than that of any other man I ever heard tell of.”

“That is so,” replied Sigurd, “nor does it stop halfway. We rose high in Jarl Erik’s favor, and after a while he sought out Thorkel Leira’s daughter, whom he found to be even more beautiful than he had imagined her; nor did she offer any objection to helping him to fulfill the remainder of his promise; so that now they are married, and are well contented. He is thinking of coming back to Bornholm with her, as soon as he can find the time to do so; but the last heard of him was that he was still in Norway and was complaining that it would be many months before he could return home. For he became master of so many fine houses when he married the girl, and of so many great estates attached to them, that it will be no swift matter to sell them for the prices they deserve to command; and it is not Vagn’s custom to sell things cheaply when he does not have to do so.”

Toke said: “There is one thing in your story that I cannot help wondering about. I mean, your father’s, Bue’s treasure-chest, which he took with him when he jumped overboard. Did you fish it up before you left Norway? Or did someone else get there before you? If it is still lying on the sea-bed, I know what I should do were I to go to Norway. I should drag the sea for that treasure-chest, for Bue’s silver must have been worth a great fortune.”

“They fished long for it,” said Sigurd, “not only the Norwegians, but also such of Bue’s men as survived. Many men dragged for it with grappling hooks, but they caught nothing; and one man from the Vik who dived down with a rope was never seen again. Then all of us concluded that Bue was such a Viking as would wish to keep his treasure with him on the sea-bed, and that he would have no mercy on any man who tried to take it from him; for he was a strong man, and he loved his wealth. Wise men know that those who dwell in the Great Halls are stronger than when they were alive; and this may also be true of Bue, though he does not dwell in the Great Halls but on the deep sea-bed beside his treasure-chest.”

“It is a pity that so much silver should be lost,” said Toke. “But, as you say, even the boldest of men would not willingly choose to be at the bottom of the sea with Broad Bue’s arms locked about his waist.”

So that evening drew to its close.

The Vikings were renowned (and greatly feared) for their matter-of-fact approach to life and death.  It's well portrayed in this book, and of course in the movie "The 13th Warrior", which is also a classic of its kind.



Jen said...

Great story Peter, thanks!

Anonymous said...

The first half of the book of the 13th warrior is historic, as far as can be determined, as it is a retelling of the voyage record of Ibn Faldn, an Arab trader who went upriver to Novgorod to trade with the Rus Vikings there.
John in Indy

Beans said...

Ah, the stories of Red Orm. Excellent. Haven't read it in a while, need to re-read it.

Highly recommend it. It should be a recommended book in junior high level, but in this fallen world there are lots of college students who couldn't read it due to lack of skills, not the least all the 'triggers' in it.

Old NFO said...

Definitely a great read!

todd galle said...

The 13th Warrior film is based on the novel by Michael Chrichton 'Eaters of the Dead', which he wrote due to a wager that he couldn't write a Beowulf saga for modern consumption. I think he succeeded. I have gone through several paperback editions and have worn them out.

Glenn555 said...

Stolen and sent to my sister Annika (Kicka) in Sweden!