Authun and the Bear, Part Three

In which our Intrepid Hero gets to Denmark

A few days later, Authun began the journey south. He negotiated again with a merchant to be taken with his bear east of Oslofjord to Denmark. He had, by now, exhausted his few remaining coins and when he disembarked the merchant ship, he was forced to beg, borrow or steal food for himself and the bear, who was now becoming really rather hungry. Authun was looking more and more tasty as food became scarcer.

As Authun and the bear along Danish roads, they came to the home of King Sweyn’s steward, a man named Áki. Authun begged some food of him, for the bear if not for himself.

“I want, you see, to give the bear to King Sweyn,” he explained.

Áki considered Authun and his bear. “I can sell you food and lodging, if you’d like?” he offered.

“I have nothing to give you in exchange. I gave everything that I might present this bear to the king,” Authun said.

“Well then,” replied Áki, “I can give you lodging for tonight and enough food to get you to the king’s halls, in exchange for half the bear. Remember that without this food the bear will surely die before you reach the king and then you would have nothing,” he added warningly.

Authun hesitated. He knew that Áki was right – the bear would surely die, or eat somebody, if it wasn’t fed soon – and yet, he disliked the idea of exchanging half of it for bed and board. And would Áki demand the front half or the rear? Or the head and back or the legs? How would the bear be divided?

However, after his deliberations, Authun found himself in accordance with the steward’s suggestion, dismissing the problem of dividing the bear as a problem to be solved by the king. Áki agreed reluctantly that Sweyn should adjudicate on this matter.

The next day, Áki led Authun and the bear to King Sweyn’s halls. Authun was apprehensive now that he had reached his destination. It had seemed such a good idea in Greenland, his plan, but in the presence of the tall (but not as tall as Harald), clearly strong man to whom he was presented, he felt a moment of panic. He was slightly surprised to see that Sweyn walked with a limp. No word of this had reached Iceland and naturally Authun had not imagined that this king, of whom report spoke well, might not be less than a great warrior.

Sweyn Estridsen put most of his weight on his good leg. He tried not to let the puzzlement which he felt show on his face, in which he was largely successful. He wondered who this man might be, who accompanied his steward with a bear. At least, he presumed it was a bear. Somehow in his travels he had never seen such a creature, although men spoke of the great lumbering animals in tones of awe and fear.

As his steward and the unknown man came to halt before him, Sweyn asked: “Who are you?”

The unknown man seemed to seek reassurance from Áki before replying, “I am an Icelandic man, lord; my name is Authun. I come now from Greenland, via Norway, with this bear, which I had intended to present to you as a gift. I gave all my possessions for it, but now there is a great problem which I am struggling to solve: I own only half of the bear. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I was forced to sell half of it to this man in exchange for food and lodging last night, to prevent the bear from starving.”

As Authun explained the problem to Sweyn, it was evident to all that Sweyn’s brow was becoming ever darker and more forbidding. When Authun ceased speaking, the king turned to Áki and demanded, “Is what he says true?”

“Er, yes, lord, it is true,” he replied uncomfortably.

“You, whom I have raised to become a great man, thought that it was right to obstruct or hinder a man who tried to bring me a great treasure, who gave all he had to own it, and whom even King Harald, who is my enemy, considered it right to give him safe passage to our land? Think then how fair it is on your part to prevent this man from carrying out his intention! You deserve that I should have you killed! But this I shall not do. Instead, you must leave this land immediately and I never wish to set eyes on you again within my borders! You are banished henceforth.”

Áki had blanched at Sweyn’s tone from the start of this speech, but now that he understood his punishment to be exile rather than death, he seemed positively relieved and scrambled to run from the room before he incurred Sweyn’s wrath any further. The crowd of men which had gathered around out of curiosity parted easily as Áki hastened to the doors.

Sweyn turned back to Authun. “But to you, Authun, I extend such thanks as if you had presented me with the whole bear, and I bid you to stay here with me in my court.”

Without any understanding of the complexities of keeping bears, Sweyn was delighted with the gift which Authun had presented him. Authun was pleased merely that his imagination and impulse had not led him astray now that he had finally arrived at Sweyn’s court. He gladly accepted the king’s offer to stay in the royal halls, a guest of the king.

“I know! Just the thing with which to reward you, Authun: you shall have Áki’s lands, now that he no longer needs them,” Sweyn pronounced.

“Um, thank you, lord,” said Authun, hoping that he never annoyed the king.

The following spring, after spending a very happy and profitable summer and winter in Denmark at the king’s court, Authun came before the king.

“Lord,” he began, “I wish to leave your court and I have come to ask your permission to do so.”

Sweyn was astonished. He had not expected the Icelander to wish to leave his presence so soon. He was therefore somewhat slow to respond to Authun’s request, but when he did, it was merely to pose a question. “But what will you do, if you will not stay with us?”

“I have the intention to travel south,” said Authun, meaning, of course, Rome (but where else is south?).

Comprehension dawned on Sweyn’s face. “If you were not intending so noble a destination, then I would be exceedingly displeased by your desire to leave us, but since you intend to go south, then am I glad to allow you to go.”

Authun gratefully prepared for his journey south, aided by the king, who made many arrangements for the travels. He also bade Authun return to his court once he had completed his pilgrimage. Before he left the Danish court, King Sweyn bestowed upon Authun a great many coins to aid him on his travels.

In the Eleventh Century North Sea

For a change, I thought I’d share with you a Norse story. But first, some context is needed because I’m going to make the assumption your knowledge of Scandinavian history is sketchy at best. My apologies if this is incorrect.

So, the story is an English translation of an Old Norse short story. It’s about an Icelander and a polar bear (or “ice bear” in the literal translation). The translation, and thus any embellishments, is mine. I take full responsibility for any mistranslation.

But before the story begins, the first part of which I shall post in a day or two, the historical context. For it is a “true story”, honest. It’s true in the sense that it might have happened; that the main character, Authun, might have lived; and that the two Kings certainly did, and at the same time. It’s not uncommon for reality to be a bit blurred in the “historical” sagas and for kings to be living when they shouldn’t.

The main characters are:

Authun – a poor Icelander

King Harald Hardrada – King of Norway

King Sweyn Estridsen – King of Denmark

The events take place somewhere in the 1050s. Authun’s background is, perhaps, unnecessary, since he seems to be in the role of ‘local boy made good’.

The two kings, though, are more fun. They have an interesting history.

I shall start with Harald Hardrada. You may know of him. He died in 1066, at Stamford Bridge, defeated by Harold Godwineson, two weeks before Harold was defeated at Hastings. Harald Hardrada (or “Hard-Ruler”) was the much younger half-brother of a previous King of Norway, Olafr, who became the Norwegian King-Saint after being killed in battle in 1030 (and Norway passing into the hands of Knut the Great of Denmark).

Now, really, Harald shouldn’t have been become King of Norway. Not only did Knut the Great have sons, but so too did St Olafr. Knut’s son Svein and his mother were unpopular regents of Norway, so the throne passed to Magnus, Olafr’s son. After Olafr’s death, you see, Harald had gone abroad. To Byzantium. Where he became quite rich, fighting in the Varangian Guard (the Byzantine Emperor’s personal bodyguard, largely made up of Norsemen), and plundering the empire when emperors died. Of which three did during his sojourn in the south.

While he’s busy getting rich there, Sweyn’s story. Through his mother Estrid, he was the nephew of Knut the Great. Apparently he had a limp, but this didn’t stop him from becoming a decent military leader. However, Knut’s son Harthaknut was King of Denmark after Knut’s death. He didn’t last long, and then Magnus (remember him?) managed to wrench Denmark into his control. Compensation for the death of his father, you see. Sweyn bided his time and rose to the rank of Jarl (Earl) under Magnus.

Anyway, having become quite rich, Harald returned to Scandinavia in the 1040s. Magnus had, by now, also become King of Denmark. After making a pact with Sweyn Estridsen and harrying the coast of Norway, they persuaded Magnus to split Norway with Harald. And to agree to let Sweyn have Denmark when he was done with it.

Fortunately for the pair of them, Magnus died in 1047. Somehow. The jury’s still out on precisely how, since reports vary from illness to falling overboard and drowning to falling off a horse.

But the end result is that Norway has Harald and Denmark has Sweyn. You’d think this was the end of this tale, wouldn’t you? Except it’s not. Of course it’s not. Otherwise I wouldn’t be telling all this, since Authun’s story is a decade later.

Because Harald decided that he wasn’t happy being just King of Norway. He wanted Denmark as well. In fact, as is seen in 1066, he wanted England too. He wanted what Knut had. A North Sea Empire. Because, you know, being King of one country, and having all that lovely Byzantine treasure, just isn’t enough for one man.

So the really important fact that you’ll need to remember while reading about Authun and his bear in a few days’ time is this. Denmark and Norway are at war. Harald and Sweyn are no longer friends.

But don’t worry. All of this short history will be there for your referencing convenience. Or, you know, Wikipedia.