Viking 3 kings man, p.33
Viking 3: King’s Man, page 33
It took almost a full year for me to regain my strength because I had been badly hurt. There was a gaping gash on my skull – how I acquired it, I do not know – and it led my healers to suppose that my wits were addled by the blow. I had the good sense to encourage their error by pretending that I was not yet sound of mind and speaking little. Naturally I used the interval to watch and listen and acquire the information which allowed me to present myself as an itinerant priest swept up in Harold Godwinsson’s lightning advance to the battlefield at a place called Stamford Bridge. This deception was made easier by my advanced years, for all the world knows that old people mend more slowly than the young, and later, when I made mistakes in my pretended guise, the errors were ascribed to an approaching dotage.
This prolonged convalescence gave me ample time to marvel at the gullibility of the monks of York. Not only did they think I was a devout and maundering colleague, but they readily swallowed the pap of misinformation fed to them in the official accounts of what had happened in the struggle for the throne of England. Frequently my tonsured companions would assert that all good Christians should give their unstinting support to the new king, William, because Christ had clearly shown himself to be on his side. Apparently William of Normandy – no one called him William the Bastard now – had disposed of Harold Godwinsson on the battlefield further south, in Hastings, just as effectively as Godwinsson had crushed Harald Sigurdsson nineteen days earlier. The proof of their God’s favourable intervention, according to the monks, was that William’s invasion fleet was held back on the north coast of Frankia by a headwind until ‘by the grace of God’ the wind changed to the south and allowed his barges to cross the sea unscathed to a landing unopposed by Godwinsson. I knew, of course, that ‘the grace of God’ had nothing to do with it. William the Bastard stayed on the Frankish coast until he knew his stratagem had succeeded and Harold had marched away to face the Norwegian army. In short, King William was not a virtuous believer rewarded for his piety, but a sly double-dealer who betrayed his ally.
But then, history – as is well known – is written by the victors, if it is written at all. It was with that commonplace in mind that I began to pen this account of my life which is now nearly at an end, and I suspect that Odinn himself had long prepared me for this task. It cannot have been entirely coincidental that I met the imperial chronicler, Constantine Psellus, when I was in the Varangian guard and observed his passion for telling an unvarnished history of the rulers of Miklagard. And I must admit that I enjoyed posing as a royal chronicler when I was on my way across Normandy to Duke William’s court, even though that imposture was brief before I was exposed as a fraud. Now it amuses me that my deception is reversed: I find myself a genuine reporter of events, but one who writes in secret and cloaks his identity behind a monk’s humility.
A question which has been puzzling me as I write my chronicle was answered as I composed these final pages. I used to wonder how the ways of the White Christ, apparently so meek, came to overwhelm the more robust tenets of my Elder Faith. Then, only yesterday, I was present when one of the local monks – it was the junior almoner – was recounting with breathless wonder how he had been in London and witnessed the court ceremony when a local magnate swore allegiance to the new sovereign, our pious and amulet-wearing William. The monk mimed the ceremony for our benefit: the solemn entrance of the nobleman, the king seated on the throne, the approach between ranks of courtiers, the bending of the knee, and the kissing of the regal hand. As the monk went down on his knees to illustrate the moment of homage, I noted the easy familiarity of his action. It was a gesture he repeated each day before the altar, and I recalled my lord Harald prostrate in submission on the marble floor before the throne of the Basileus, a ruler also declared to be a chosen instrument of that same God. Then I knew: the worship of the White Christ suits men who seek to dominate others. It is not the belief of the humble, but of despots and tyrants. When a man claims he is specially selected by the White Christ, then all those who follow that religion must treat him as if they are revering the God himself. That is why they go down in obedience before him. Often they even clasp their hands together as if in prayer.
This is a contradiction of all that the God is meant to stand for, yet I have witnessed how, among rulers of men, it is the truly ruthless and the ambitious who adopt the Christian faith, then use it to suppress the dignity of their fellows. Naturally this opinion would horrify the inoffensive monks around me, and some of them are genuine and selfless men. But they are blind to the fact that even here, within the minster, they bow the head in obedience to their superiors, whatever their quality. How different it was for those who followed the Elder Faith. As a sworn follower of Harald of Norway, as his king’s man, I never had to bend the knee to him, either in an act of submission or to acknowledge his leadership. I only knew that he was more suited to rule than me, and that I must serve him as best I could. And when I was a priest of the Elder Faith among the Old Believers of Vaster Gotland, I would have been shocked if those who came to me to ask for guidance or to intervene with the Gods had believed that I was divinely appointed. I was judged only for my knowledge of the ancient lore.
So this is the ultimate power of the White Christ faith: it is a belief suited to despots who would curb men’s independence.
I will never abandon my devotion to Odinn, though some might say he has abandoned me, just as he and the Gods have forsaken all those who followed the Elder Faith. Our world may have come to an end, but we never expected our Gods to be all-powerful and eternal. That sort of arrogance is reserved for the Christians. We knew from the very start that one day the old order would collapse, and after Ragnarok all would be swept away. Our Gods did not control the future. That was ordained by the Norns, and no one can alter the final outcome. While we are on this earth, each individual can only live his life to the best of his ability, strive to mould daily existence to best advantage, and never, like the unhappy Mac Bethad of the Scots, be duped by outward signs and appearance.
Still, it grieves me that the body of my king Harald was taken back to Norway and placed in a Christian church. He should have received a true funeral in the old style, been burned on a pyre or interred within a barrow grave. That is what I had in mind when I tried vainly to rescue his body from the battlefield. I know that it was an old man’s folly, but at the time I was sure that the Valkyries had already carried away his soul to Valhol, or that Freyja’s servants had selected him and he was now in her golden hall, Sessrumnir, as befits the warrior whom some are already calling the last of the Vikings.
I myself do not expect to go to Valhol nor to Freyja’s hall. Those palaces are reserved for those who fell in battle, and – truth be told – I have never been a warrior, although I did my military training with the brotherhood of the Jomsvikings and have been present at the great battles: in Clontarf when the Irish High King fell, when the great Greek general Maniakes smashed the Arabs in Sicily, and of course at the bridge in Stamford. But I was never really a fighting man. When I took up arms, it was usually for self-defence.
The thought of Sessrumnir has reminded me yet again of the twins, Freyvid and Freygerd. What has happened to them, I wonder? The last report I had was when their uncle Folkmar took them and fled for safety into the fastnesses of Sweden. It is too late for me to go to seek them, but in my bones I feel sure that they have survived. Once again I believe this is Odinn’s wish. He taught that after Ragnarok, when all has been consumed by fire and destruction, there will be two survivors, twins who have sheltered beneath the roots of the World Tree and survived unscathed. From them will spring a new race of men who will populate the happier world that emerges from the ruins. With that knowledge I can console myself that my line may again bring the return of the Elder Ways.
So, in these closing days of my life, I am content to set down on paper my gratitude to Odinn for the guidance he gave me. Odinn Gangradr, the journey adviser, was always at my shoulder. He showed me many marvels: the
I am still restless, even at my advanced age. When I was at my weakest and sat feebly in the herb garden next to the small infirmary, I would notice the high-flying birds passing overhead on their distant journeys, and wanted to rise and follow them. Now that my body is mended and I have reached the conclusion of my chronicle, I will add these final pages to the cache of writing that I have concealed within a secret hiding place in the thick stone wall of the scriptorium. When the opportunity presents itself, as it surely will if I keep my allegiance to Odinn, I will slip away from this minster and make a new life somewhere in the outside world.
Where will I go? I cannot be precise. That is not a vision that has been given me. All I know is that my fate was decided long ago, at the time of my birth, and by the Norns. They were kind to me. I have enjoyed my life, and even if I had been able to change its course, I would not have done so.
So I will leave this minster with a sense of happy expectation and my twins in mind. I will find a place where, in my final duty as a devotee of Odinn, I shall preach, and instruct my listeners that there will be a second coming of the Old Ways.
TIM SEVERIN, explorer, film-maker and lecturer, has made many expeditions, from crossing the Atlantic in a medieval leather boat to going out in search of Moby Dick and Robinson Crusoe. He has written books all about them. He has won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, the Book of the Sea Award, a Christopher Prize, and the literary medal of the Academie de la Marine. He made his historical fiction debut with the hugely successful Viking series. Pirate: Sea Robber is his third Hector Lynch novel.
Also by Tim Severin
The Brendan Voyage
The Sindbad Voyage
The Jason Voyage
The Ulysses Voyage
In Search of Genghis Khan
The China Voyage
The Spice Island Voyage
In Search of Moby Dick
Seeking Robinson Crusoe
Viking: Odinn’s Child
Viking: Sworn Brother
Pirate: Sea Robber
My lord abbot, If you will forgive this final notation, I must report that two years past our monastery received occasional reports of an unidentified preacher known locally as the ‘the black priest’. This man established himself at a remote spot on the moors, and the common folk flocked there to listen and pay their devotions. It seems that he was greatly revered, though what he preached is unknown. Now he is seen no more, and it is presumed that he has departed this life. His parishioners, if they may be called that, come almost weekly to us to importune that we build and consecrate a chapel at the place of his hermitage. They say he was some sort of saint. I tremble at the possibility that with such an act we may be serving the Antichrist. But the people are most insistent, and I fear that if we spurn their request, they will be deeply vexed, to the detriment of our own foundation.
In this, as in all things, I seek your blessed guidance.
Sacristan and Librarian
First published 2005 by Macmillan
First published in paperback 2006 by Pan Books
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Copyright © Tim Severin 2005
The right of Tim Severin to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
The extract from King Harald’s Saga: from Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson, translated with an Introduction by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson, copyright © Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson, 1966, is reproduced by permission of Penguin Books Ltd.
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Tim Severin, Viking 3: King’s Man
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