Gateway to the Classics: Stories of the Vikings by Mary MacGregor
Stories of the Vikings by  Mary MacGregor

Earl Hakon the Pagan

Now the sons of Eirik were glad when they heard that Hakon had made them rulers over Norway. King Harald, who was the eldest, sat on the throne and had more power than his brothers. Eirik's sons had been baptized in England, but they took little trouble to spread the Christian faith in Norway. Yet they pulled down the temples of the idols and forbade the people to offer sacrifices, and because of these things they were disliked by the people.

Moreover the sons of Eirik were greedy, and spent much money on their court, and wasted the goods of the subjects. Sometimes to increase their wealth King Harald and his brothers would go on Viking expeditions and gain much booty. For if they were greedy they certainly were not lazy, but fierce and active Vikings.

In the Throndhjem district the brothers found that they had little power. For Earl Sigurd, who you remember was a great friend of King Hakon, had left a son named Hakon behind him when he fell in battle. This Earl Hakon refused to pay "scat" to Eirik's sons, and many of the people of Throndhjem followed his example. For this reason, numerous battles were fought between Eirik's sons and the people of Throndhjem.

The peasants and their crops suffered so greatly from this warfare that at length Eirik's sons and Earl Hakon agreed to live at peace with one another, and they took vows to do so before many witnesses. Thus for three years, from nine hundred and sixty-five until nine hundred and sixty-eight, there was peace in the district.

During these years trading vessels sailed from Iceland to Norway. Once an Icelander brought in his boat skins and furs which he hoped to sell, but no one in Norway seemed willing to buy his merchandise. Then the merchant went to King Harald to tell him of his bad luck.

Now Harald was in a good-natured mood, and he promised himself to look at the furs. He took with him to the Icelander's boat a fully manned warship.

"Wilt thou give me one of these gray skins?" he said to the merchant when he had admired his goods.

"Willingly, king," answered the merchant. Then Harald wrapped himself up in the skin and went back to his ship.

Now in those days, as in these, the fashion was set by royalty. So every man, when he saw the king, was eager to have a gray skin too, and before Harald ordered the ship to be rowed homewards all on board had bought a skin from the merchant, who was now greatly pleased with his good fortune. From that day Harald was named Harald Grayskin.

King Harald was a great Viking, and not a summer passed without some great expedition being carried out in which he gained enormous booty. At length in nine hundred and sixty-eight he went, in spite of his vow, to fight against Earl Hakon in Throndhjem.

Hakon, however, did not wait to meet him. Hearing of his approach, he plundered and wasted many districts in Norway and then sailed away to Denmark. Here, too, a king named Harald was ruling. He welcomed the earl and kept him in his realm all that winter.

In spring he sent a great army to Norway with Hakon, and in the battle that was fought Harald Grayskin was slain.

Norway was now subject to Harald of Denmark, and he gave part of the country to Earl Hakon that he might rule over it. Thus, though not a king in name, Hakon became a king in reality. The sons of Eirik who were still alive fled to the Orkney Islands, for since their brother Harald Grayskin's death Earl Hakon was stronger than they.

Like his father Sigurd, Hakon believed in the ancient gods. He journeyed through his dominions in Norway, commanding the people to restore the temples and offer sacrifices as of old. And the people rejoiced, and a time of good harvest followed. In the fiords that abounded round the coast the herring, too, were plentiful.

Five years later the Emperor Otto sent a message from Germany to the Danish King Harald, saying, "Thou, and the people thou dost rule, shalt take the true faith and be baptized, otherwise, I will march against thee with an army."

The King of Denmark was well content with his own faith, so instead of being baptized as the emperor commanded, he ordered the Danish wall to be fortified and the war-ships to be assembled. He also sent a message to Earl Hakon bidding him come to his help with all the men he could muster.

Hakon at once raised a great army, and he, with many other Viking chiefs, joined the Danish king.

Meanwhile the emperor prepared to carry out his threat; with a force gathered from Germany, France, and other countries, he marched into Denmark.

The defence of the Danish wall had been intrusted to Earl Hakon, and so well did he guard it that the emperor's hosts were forced to retreat without making a single breach in the rampart.

Then Earl Hakon went back to his ships, meaning to sail to Norway, but an unfavourable wind delayed him.

The emperor had in the meantime met the King of Denmark, and, after a fierce fight, had defeated him, and Harald was forced to flee.

A truce was, however, arranged, and the emperor and Harald met. The emperor brought with him a bishop, who after instructing Harald in the Christian faith, baptized both him and his whole army.

The king then sent for Earl Hakon and his men, and compelled them also to baptized. This, as you know, would make Hakon, if not very sorry, at least very angry. When Hakon and his men had been baptized, Harald brought priests and other learned men to the earl, and bade him take them back to Norway, that they might teach the people the Christian faith.

Well, Earl Hakon concealed his wrath and marched away to his ships. The priests and learned men he took on board with him and his Viking crew. But when a fair wind arose and Hakon knew that he would be able to sail away to sea, he sent the priests and learned men back to land and sailed away without them.

He vented his wrath on Harald by plundering along the coast of Scania, which was part of Denmark. Then, still dissatisfied, he landed on a great rock, and there he offered a sacrifice to his gods. As he did so, two ravens flew past croaking loudly, and Hakon believed that they had been sent by Odin to tell him that his offering had been accepted. Thereupon he set fire to his ships, and with his army went all over Harald's realms, leaving behind him misery and ruin.

Otto, the emperor, and Harald of Denmark meanwhile became great allies. Nor did the king ever forsake the faith taught to him by the emperor.

After he had reigned eight years Harald was slain in battle against his own son. As for Earl Hakon, he grew more and more powerful, until at length he had sixteen earls under him. His fame was sung by many a skald, and here is one of their songs about this famous Viking.

"Who before has ever known

Sixteen earls subdued by one?

Who has seen all Norway's land

Conquered by one brave hero's hand?

It will be long in memory held

How Hakon ruled by sword and shield,

When tales at the Viking's mast go round,

His praise will in every mouth resound."

But though, during the first part of his reign, Hakon was a great favourite, in later years he grew cruel and harsh, so that his subjects refused to keep him as their king and drove him away from Throndhjem.

The old Sagas tell us that Hakon's misfortune was caused by his trust in the ancient gods, "for the time was come when heathen sacrifices and idol worship were doomed to fall, and holy faith and good customs to come in their place."

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