Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
The Last Fight of Olaf Tryggveson
By Thomas Carlyle (17951881)
From Early Kings of Norway
BY such persuasions and reiterations, King Svein of Denmark, King Olaf of Sweden, and Jarl Eric, now a great man there, grown rich by prosperous sea robbery and other good management, were brought to take the matter up, and combine strenuously for destruction of King Olaf Tryggveson on this grand Wendland expedition of his. Fleets and forces were with best diligence got ready; and, withal a certain Jarl Sigwald, of Jomsburg, chieftain of the Yomsvikings, a powerful, plausible, and cunning man, was appointed to find means of joining himself to Tryggvesons grand voyage, of getting into Tryggvesons confidence, and keeping Svein Double Beard, Eric, and the Swedish king aware of all his movements.
King Olaf Tryggveson, unacquainted with all this, sailed away in summer, with his splendid fleet; went through the Belts with prosperous winds, under bright skies, to the admiration of both shores. Such a fleet with its shining Serpents, long and short, and perfection of equipment and appearance, the Baltic never saw before. Yarl Sigwald joined with new ships by the way; Had, he too, a visit to King Burislav to pay; how could he ever do it in better company? and studiously and skilfully ingratiated himself with King Olaf. Old Burislav, when they arrived, proved altogether courteous, handsome, and amenable; agreed at once to Olafs claims for his new queen, did the rites of hospitality with a generous plenitude to Olaf; who cheerily renewed acquaintance with that country, known to him in early days, the cradle of his fortunes in the viking line, and found old friends there still surviving, joyful to meet him again. Jarl Sigwald encouraged these delays, King Svein and Co. not being yet quite ready. Get ready! Sigwald directed them, and they diligently did. Olafs men, their business now done, were impatient to be home; and grudged every day of loitering there; but, till Sigwald pleased, such his power of flattering and cajoling Tryggveson, they could not get away.
At length, Sigwalds secret messengers reporting all ready on the part of Svein and Co., Olaf took farewell of Burislav and Wendland, and all gladly sailed away. Svein, Eric, and the Swedish king, with their combined fleets, lay in wait behind some cape in a safe little bay of some island, then called Svolde, but not in our time to be found; the Baltic tumults in the fourteenth century having swallowed it, as some think, and leaving us uncertain whether it was in the neighbourhood of Rügen Island, or in the Sound of Elsinore. There lay Svein, Eric, and Co., waiting till Tryggveson and his fleet came up, Sigwalds spy messengers daily reporting what progress he and it had made. At length, one bright summer morning, the fleet made appearance, sailing in loose order, Sigwald, as one acquainted with the shoal places, steering ahead, and showing them the way.
Snorro rises into one of his pictorial fits, seized with enthusiasm at the thought of such a fleet, and reports to us largely in what order Tryggvesons winged Coursers of the Deep, in long series, for perhaps an hour or more, came on, and what the three potentates, from their knoll of vantage, said of each as it hove in sight. Svein thrice over guessed this, and the other noble vessel to be the Long Serpent; Eric always correcting him, No, that is not the Long Serpent yet, and aside always, Nor shall you be lord of it, king, when it does come. The Long Serpent itself did make appearance. Eric, Svein, and the Swedish king hurried on board, and pushed out of their hiding-place into the open sea. Treacherous Sigwald, at the beginning of all this, had suddenly doubled that cape of theirs, struck into the bay out of sight, leaving the foremost Tryggveson ships astonished, and uncertain what to do, if it were not simply to strike sail, and wait till Olaf himself with the Long Serpent arrived.
Olafs chief captains, seeing the enemys huge fleet come out, and how the matter lay, strongly advised King Olaf to elude this stroke of treachery, and, with all sail, hold on his course, fight being now on so unequal terms. Snorro says, the King, high on the quarter-deck where he stood, replied, Strike the sails; never shall man of mine think of flight. I never fled from battle. Let God dispose of my life; but flight I will never take. And so the battle arrangements immediately began, and the battle with all fury went loose; and lasted hour after hour, till almost sunset, if I well recollect. Olaf stood on the Serpents quarter-deck, says Snorro, high over the others. He had a gilt shield and a helmet inlaid with gold; over his armour he had a short red coat, and was easily distinguished from other men. Snorros account of the battle is altogether animated, graphic, and so minute that antiquaries gather from it, if so disposed, which we but little are, what the methods of Norse sea fighting were; their shooting of arrows, casting of javelins, pitching of big stones, ultimate boarding, and mutual clashing and smashing, which it would not avail us to speak of here. Olaf stood conspicuous all day, throwing javelins, of deadly aim, with both hands at once; encouraging, fighting, and commanding like a highest sea-king.
The Danish fleet, the Swedish fleet, were, both of them, quickly dealt with, and successively withdrew out of shot range. And then Yarl Eric came up, and fiercely grappled with the Long Serpent, or, rather with her surrounding comrades; and gradually, as they were beaten empty of men, with the Long Serpent herself. The fight grew ever fiercer, more furious. Eric was supplied with new men from the Swedes and Danes; Olaf had no such resource, except from the crews of his own beaten ships, and at length this also failed him; all his ships, except the Long Serpent, being beaten and emptied. Olaf fought on unyielding. Eric twice boarded him, was twice repulsed. Olaf kept his quarter-deck; unconquerable, though left now more and more hopeless, fatally short of help. A tall young man, called Einar Pamberskelver, very celebrated and important afterwards in Norway, and already the best archer known, kept busy with his bow. Twice he nearly shot Yarl Eric in his ship. Shoot me that man, said Yarl Eric to a bowman near him; and, just as Pamberskelver was drawing his bow the third time, an arrow hit it in the middle and broke it in two. What is this that has broken? asked King Olaf. Norway from thy hand, king, answered Pamberskelver. Tryggvesons men, he observed with surprise, were striking violently on Erics; but to no purpose, nobody fell. How is this? asked Tryggveson. Our swords are notched and blunted, king; they do not cut. Olaf stepped down to his arm chest; delivered out new swords, and it was observed as he did it, blood ran trickling from his wrist; but none knew where the wound was. Eric boarded a third time. Olaf, left with hardly more than one man, sprang overboard, one sees that red coat of his still glancing in the evening sun, and sank in the deep waters to his long rest.