Great Game XXIV: Olaf Tryggvason

Although I’ve written mainly in the style of the sagas, this is the only episode where I deliberately retell one with only minor changes. It was an interesting exercise, in particular translating the poem “Broad sails” (of a much later period than the sagas, to be sure!). But I think it falls a bit flat as game writing; it’s not as though I improve on the original, and all you can tell about the course of the game is that I’m losing badly.

Now Richard of Flanders had brought his host north to meet Eystein, and the armies met outside Bremen, the prize of the last war. Eystein set up his men on a hill, with his archers in the back, so that they could shoot over the heads of the men in front. When Richard saw this, he remarked “Now we shall see if Norwegians can keep to a hill better than Saxons or Poles”; and he sent his horse to attack the Norwegian right and feign retreat, hoping to draw the men there down the hillside. But Eystein had placed bannermen everywhere with long axes, of the kind men call Danish or Lochaber, and they had instructions that any man who broke ranks should be killed; so the shield-wall did not tumble down into the valley as at Senlac. Bjarne Gormsson, who was King Eystein’s skald and stood beside him at that battle, speaks of this :

South I went
with the raven-feeder
to fight the Flanderns.
There I saw
how Norse hold hard
when a foeman presses.
Little luck had the southrons.

Then Richard said, “Well, if they won’t come down, we shall have to go up”; and he led his host forward hoping to break the shield-wall by a single hammerblow. But the Norwegians stood firm, and many men fell to their arrows. Now night was approaching, and both armies were hungry and tired; so a truce was arranged until next morning, and both sides lit fires and ate, each on their own side of the field.

Now in the morning King Eystein held a counsel, and Inge Raude said “Now I think we should move to attack. For yesterday we had the better of the Flanderns; today they will fear our men the more, and run.” But Eystein replied, “No man is better than the Norwegian in a shield-wall; but we have few who are mounted. In the plains the fight would not go in our favour.” Then Inge said, “Are not you the man who mocked me for cowardice? Now who is afraid?” Then Eystein drew his bow, and aimed an arrow at Inge; but he said, “Shoot the other way, Sire King; it is more needed there.” Eystein did not shoot him, but instead said, “Very well, we shall try it your way.” And so the horns were blown for attack.


But now it went as Eystein had said : On the move, the Norwegian wall became disordered, and Richard’s knights charged into the gaps and opened them wider, and many were killed. Also the few mounted Danes and Germans that Eystein had with him were driven off, and the flanks of the Norwegian host lay open to attack; here there was much hard fighting, but the Norwegians were beset on two sides, and had the worse of it; so in the end, there was no choice but to retreat.

Now while Richard besieged Bremen, Eystein marched his army to Lubeck, and there he heard word from the east and south. Because the Bohemians and Poles had not guarded their southern borders, but instead had sent all their armies north, the men Eystein had thought would be able to hold his foes at bay had instead been defeated, and been forced to retreat to the coast, and many had died.

Therefore Eystein called together his counsellors, and said to them, “This war has not gone well for us. Let me now hear your thoughts on how we should proceed from this pass.” First to speak was Inge Raude : “Sire King, if we had had more men at Bremen, we should have had the victory there. Let us therefore gather all our armies here, and march west to meet Richard of Flanders again in battle, and this time destroy him. And then when this is done, we can turn east to deal with the Poles.” “That is well said”, said Eystein, “I wish you had thought as deep before Bremen. But now let us hear what others have to say.”

Next spoke Saru, the Mad Bishop : “Sire King, I believe our best course is to remain here, and defend these cities. Here we have strong walls and loyal men; let the southerners grind their teeth on those stones. Then when they are weak, and our allies strike from the south – that will be our time to strike.” To this Eystein said “You speak well, friend Saru; the walls of Lubeck are indeed strong. Now let me hear from Koza; what news of our allies?” For Koza of Podlasie was King Eystein’s chancellor, and sent men far abroad to bear tidings and hear news. But before he could speak, Ursula von Nordheim interrupted : “Sire King, I have news that you must hear before you decide. A messenger ship reached us today : Kazimierz has stolen a march; he has landed in Skåne, and burns the land there!”

“That is grim hearing,” said Eystein, “no army has broken the peace there since the Three Crowns were united. We had best sail north, and look to our defenses.” And so it was ordered; and the dragons sailed north, leaving a small garrison to hold Lubeck.

King Eystein’s counsel :

Koza, my chancellor. A good man with the charming smile; pay no attention to that dagger, he just likes scratching his back with it.

Saru, the Mad Bishop. If the truth were told, I didn’t actually notice his madness until I loaded up the game to take these pictures. But I think I’ll keep him on; it has a bit of a ring to it. 😀

Ursula the Spider, my spymaster. Those of you who have been following this game for long enough will be aware that the von Nordheims gained a reputation as the Spiders of Europe after Duuk managed to marry into every Christian royal house several times. Ursula carries on their proud tradition of working from the shadows and bringing down proud kingdoms. But there is absolutely no truth to the rumours of witchcraft; plain old poison is good enough for her, if a heir is, shall we say, inconvenient.

Another Inge Yngling – there are dozens of the buggers. This one is my steward. If you believe everything I’ve told you about the rest of my council, he has this nice bridge he’d like to sell you. 😀


Olaf hight a man, who was chief of the hird to Jarl Håkon of Agder. Olaf was a very tall man, skilled with sword and bow and all kinds of weapons. His father was named Tryggve, and for this he had many mirthful words in his youth, when the Saga of Olav Tryggvason was recounted. But Olaf did not take these words to heart; instead he ran and swam, and the summer he was fifteen he went in East-viking with his father. And there he astounded the men by running twice around his father’s ship on the oars, without falling even once. After this there was little laughing about his name.

The second Olaf Tryggvason. It is, of course, inevitable that there are one or two hanging around; it is my good luck that he actually was someone’s marshal, and plainly rather formidable at that.

Now at the time of the Polish War, Olaf owned several ships, which he had brought south to serve King Eystein; he commanded the largest himself, which he had named the Long Serpent after his namesake’s ship. Because Olaf had fought well at Bremen, and also because of Eystein’s quarrel with Inge, his own hird-chief, Olaf was given the command of the second fleet that was to sail north; for the Norwegian fleet was too large to be kept together if a storm should come up, and Olaf thought it safer to sail in three smaller fleets that one man might command.

Homeward bound
The Norwegian fleet heads for home.

While Eystein was outfitting his fleet to return to Skåne, Kazimierz did not rest idle; hearing word of the plans of the Norwegian King, he took his own fleet and lay off Rugen to wait in ambush. But contrary winds delayed him, while Eystein going the other way had fair sailing; so that when the dragon-heads hove into view of Kazimierz, it was not Eystein’s fleet he saw, but Olaf’s. As the Polish ships were many more in number, Kazimierz immediately ordered attack.

Olaf had not expected to see enemy ships in waters so close to the Norwegian-held coast; but he jested grimly, “It looks almost as though there were unpeace in the land,” and ordered his fleet made ready for war. And this was done in this manner : The Long Serpent was put in the middle, and the other ships were made fast on each side of it, so that they formed a single line, and men could walk dry-shod from ship to ship for a quarter mile. Now Olaf asked, “Whose ships are those in the foe’s center?” Harald Short, who had traveled in Poland in his youth, replied “Those are the Krakowskiye, under King Kazimierz.” Then Olaf said “Of them I am not afraid; they are city-dwellers and not fighting men. But who is there on their left?” Again Harald said, “Those are the men of the Dvina.” And again Olaf replied “We shall have little fighting there; they are river-pirates and no true seagoers. But who holds their right?” Then Harald said “Those are the Gotings, whom our king seeks to bring under his rule.” Olaf frowned, and said “There we shall have hard fighting, for they are Norse like ourselves. Let all keep watch on the foeman’s right.”

Now the fleets came together, and it went as Olaf had said in the center; for his Long Serpent was such a tall ship, that his men could throw down spears and arrows on Kazimierz’ ships below, while the Poles could not fight back; and soon the Poles began to heave away, and refused to come to grips at close quarters. And Olaf’s men took heart from the success of their leader. But seeing this, the Gotings brought three of their ships against the Raven, that was outmost on Olaf’s left, and boarded it and cleared it; there the fight went fiercely with sword-blows, but the Norwegians were fewer in number, and the Gotings came at them from three sides. Then from the Raven, the Gotings went aboard the next ship in line, and also brought their other ships around to attack from front and stern; and in this manner they cleared many ships.

Now on their left the Poles hung back, and lay at long bowshot and exchanged fire with the Norwegians; and although there did not fall so many as on the right where the Gotings fought with sword and axe, still the Poles had many archers, and the shafts flew thick. In the stem of the Long Serpent stood Olaf and Harald; both were good archers, but Harald shot harder than any man. Now Olaf said to him, “See you that ship with the White Eagle on its sails? That is the banner of Poland, and the man who stands so tall on its castle must be their King. Now I think it would be a good service for Norway if he were to fall in this battle.” Then Harald shot at Kazimierz, and the arrow hit the sternpost beside him and went in to the vanes. At this Kazimierz said, “They have good archers in Norway; but let us see if we can teach them how it is done in Poland.” And he took up his great bow, that was of the Mongol style, of horn hardened with strips of bone, and he shot at Harald as he was drawing back another shot; the arrow struck Harald’s bow in the middle, and it burst. Then Olaf turned to his friend and asked, “What broke so loudly?” “Life from our hands,” said Harald. “Surely it was not so loud a break; take my bow, and shoot with that,” replied Olaf. But when Harald bent back Olaf’s bow to the length of his arm, the arrow did not rest on his bracer, but hung loose in the air. “Too weak, too weak is Olaf’s bow,” cried Harald, and took up sword and shield and fought on with that.

Now by this time the Gotings had cleared every ship on the Norwegian left, up to the Long Serpent itself; and seeing this, the Poles took new heart and drew up close, and there was hard fighting all along the line. But the Poles had greater numbers, and the Norwegians therefore got somewhat the worse of it; so that by sunset only the Long Serpent still held out against the foe. Olaf stood in the bow and shot, as he had done all day; sometimes he threw spears, sometimes he used his bow. But now seeing that his men were having little luck with their blows, although they swung full hard, he shouted, “Why do your swords not bite?” And some one replied to him “They are dull from long fighting.” At this Olaf ducked down into the bow-room, and found some good sharp swords and passed them around; and as he was doing this men saw that there was blood coming out the sleeve of his mail shirt, though he complained of no wound.

The Gotings boarding the Long Serpent.

Now it happened that as Norwegians fell, the ranks along the Long Serpent’s sides became thin, and the Gotings were able to gain entrance. Therefore all those who still stood and could ward themselves retreated to the high bow and stern of the Serpent, and there the fighting was hard and there was much blood spilt. But now there pressed Polish ships around the Serpent from all sides, and there were not many left aboard to fight against such a large army; so it was not long before they fell, although all were strong and brave men, and well equipped.

When he saw that there was no hope left, Olaf laughed, long and loud; and he said “I see now that the Norns have spun me a life-thread longer than my namesake’s; but it is the same colour, and it ends in the same way.” Then he sprang overboard, with his shield held over his head, and he sank.

Here ends the saga of Olaf Tryggvason.

Now in the north, King Eystein had reached safe harbour in Kalmar, and there he waited for Olaf’s fleet; two days and two nights he waited thus. But when at length ships were sighted to the south, they were Polish and not dragons; and then Eystein knew that a third of his army was lost, and that he could not save Skåne, but must instead retreat to the forests and fight there as his ancestors had done against the Germans. Bjarne speaks of this :

Broad the sails across North Sea go
High on the cliff-top, the dawn-lights show
Erling Skjalgsson of Sola
Watching south to sea.
What stays the Long Serpent?
Comes not Olav Tryggvason?

Six and fifty the dragons lay
fell the sails then;
towards Denmark play
the eyes of men.
What stays the Long Serpent?
Comes not Olav Tryggvason?

But when sun in the second light
rose from a sea without mast in sight
’twas as a storm to hear :
What stays the Long Serpent?
Comes not Olav Tryggvason?

Still-struck then,
all quiet stood the warrior-meet;
for from the deep water below
whispered a sigh to the fleet :
Taken is the Long Serpent.
Fallen is Olav Tryggvason.

After this, for a hundred years
at Norwegian ships the sea-draug sneers
(though mainly on moonlit nights) :
Taken is the Long Serpent.
Fallen is Olav Tryggvason.


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