Thursday, June 30, 2022

 Viking Study Essay A Very, Very Small Progress

 A Very, Very Small Progress

Excerpt from the Heimskringla Saga - "The citizens had plenty of food and whatever else they needed to withstand a siege. So Harald hit on a plan. He had his fowlers catch some little birds which nested in the city and flew out to the forest during the day to find food. Then he had chips of resinous wood, smeared with wax and brimstone, attached to the birds’ backs and set alight. The instant the birds were released, they all flew straight back to the city to seek out their young and their nests in the thatched roofs. The fire then spread from the birds to the house-thatches, which were made of reeds or straw. Even though each bird carried only a small spark of fire, there was soon a huge conflagration as lots of birds brought fire to thatches throughout the city. One house after another burst into flames until the whole city was ablaze.

The inhabitants abandoned the city and begged for mercy, even the ones who had often spoken haughtily and dismissively about the Greek army and its leaders. Harald spared everyone who asked for mercy and took control of the city. …" (McDonald 297).

It is intriguing to see a modern-like treatment of the enemy by vikings when no one is explicitly depicted as injured or killed in a siege, only, maybe, implied. That is not very common for a viking saga. The writer is the friendly Icelandic diplomat Snorri Sturlusson to Norway at the turn of the twelfth century. Harald refers to Harald The Hard Ruler, a future viking king of Norway at the time of the action. No one is harmed by the constraint of resources because “plenty of food and whatever else '' are available during the siege in the viking king’s early military training career (McDonald 297). The writer receives a substantial “gift” from the Norwegian royal family and discloses the gift (Byock 15). He openly declares that another saga, Lay of Ragnar, is dedicated to “honor” the gifting royal family (Byock 15). 

The besieged city in question is in Sicily, which is one thousand and five hundred miles southeast of Norway, and the year is 1038. For a diplomat to compose a summary report, Snorri succeeds in negotiating and navigating between pros and cons of accurate descriptions and empathetic condolences to reconcile all parties involved, when “asked for mercy” and “spared” are said, instead of words like “granted” by the trainee king, a prince by definition (McDonald 297). For this particular saga, the audience includes the royals of the very characters of the saga, the nobles that served the royals, and the ruled commoners. The readership is diverse, and it is a matter of checks and balances between Snorri’s light-hearted words, such as “whatever else”, on his mind and the serious, business side, work product.

In the first sentence, the siege is set in motion by the Byzantine Empire’s effort to consolidate power, to establish a hierarchical society, where piety is paramount. It has been at least five hundred years since the fall of the empire-sized Rome government to the story’s action time. Ever since the fall of Rome, the isolated, small, and unstable societies treat each other “dismissively” (McDonald 297). And countries dismissing one another can lead to wars.

From the second to the fifth sentence, as promotional material for the royal family, the military skills of The Hard Ruler appear godly resourceful, defying calculation of power of resources when local “resinous wood” is utilized as zero-cost weapon, and “little birds'' become projectors with perfect range and precision when “they all flew straight back to the city” (McDonald 297). Snorri Sturlusson’s diplomatic mission must have been successful for the hosting country to gift him. With his new generation’s novel prose, vernacular form of writing, he can speak his mind directly, not very different from twenty-first century science paper writing. 

People know that sagas often hint on the outlines of historical facts, and outright trivialization can add insults to injury. So near the ending sentence, the politically correct way is said that the “Greek army” wins their battle (McDonald 297). Norse or Rus is not named as the army. There are a few options for the name of the “Greek army” (McDonald 297). According to modern research, the army in the saga is actually a joint force of the Varangian nordic mercenaries to Byzantine and local Greek soldiers, and the mercenaries either trade goods for silver as a side job or straight out rob silver (Haywood 109). Foreign legionnaires is the modern term for mercenaries. Legionnaires navigate through their ranks in a foreign country, negotiating between personal sacrifices and meager gains on a daily basis. And the young Harald is therefore a legionnaire in such a situation when “silver mines became exhausted” “around 965” (Haywood 108). 

Specifically, the Heimskringla saga is in the genre of kings saga, which are meant to be glorious. The Hard Ruler is a very ambitious king bent on conquering England to form a united Norway-England country. His plan is well-known by historians. But with the ambitious king recently deceased, the Heimskringla may appear as an obituary in some readers’ minds, albeit a mixed-emotion one, with an “ablaze” motif of norse funeral cremation in the excerpt (McDonald 297). However, in the roller coaster of emotions, the lesson of history is still preserved. The exact actions and details are not likely accurate in the saga. But it is said that the Heimskringla saga provides “valuable insight of Scandinavian mercenaries in the East” (McDonald 297). 

Reading the whole passage, critical readers can see the tell-tale signs of progress, the smart military tactics at play in the writing. Berserkers are not mentioned in the 1038 siege. Instead, the traditional hit-and-run viking tactics morph into something more modern-like with “took control of the city” instead of taking booties of the city (McDonald 297). But modern tactics require resource management, logistics that can not defy laws of physics or mathematical calculations on economy. When vikings become modern-like, centralized forces, resources can not be stretched indefinitely. In the decade of laying the siege, Scandinavians have both eastward Swedish Kievan Rus integration and westward migration to escape well known forced religious conversion, a religious persecution, with new “tax” schemes to slow down the human resource drain (Haywood 108) (McDonald 312). It does not appear sustainable for the Scandinavian power, as a whole, to expand eastward and westward simultaneously, let alone Norway expanding on both spheres by itself. Norway does not have enough resources left to take over England in the 1066 monarch vacuum in the west after resource drain, both human and economical. As a result of the shortcoming, Norway suffers heavy losses in the war for the English throne in 1066 when the story’s character, the beloved young king, is killed abroad. The supposed united Norway-England country becomes a lost cause, marking the end of the viking age by modern view.

But progress is made nonetheless. “Heimskringla” translates to “The Circle Of The World” (McDonald 297). And the unintended value of the saga is not limited to the “insight ” of mercenary life of the era (McDonald 297). It gives concerned learners in the future a reality check about the consequences of social unrest and religious persecution. It shows the consequence of intolerance. It contributes to understanding the year 1066. It shows that the outcome of the war could have been different with understandable change. 

But progress, however small, is progress.

Vafthrudnir 2022

Works Cited

McDonald, R. Andrew, and Angus A. Somerville. The Viking Age: A Reader. University of Toronto Press, 2020. 

Byock, Jesse L. The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer, Penguin Books, London, 2012, pp. 15–15.

Haywood, John. The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings. Penguin Books, 1995. 

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