Einarr Þambarskelfir

It occurs to me that there may be a few of you -- I trust not too many -- who are unmoved by the opening line of Mr. Walker's description of his book.  "Who is Olav Trygvasson," you few may be asking, "and why should I care that he is dead?"

Well, now!  You few have missed a tale.

Once, Olav Trygvasson sailed against the forces of a man, a man who had driven his own wife from his arms.  She had come to Olav, declared herself a free woman, and married him.  He in turn set out to defend her rights.  Yet she was the former wife of a powerful king, Burislav, who held her still to be his own; and she was the sister of the king of the Danemark, who wished to see Norway brought under his own command.

So it was that Olav's fleet came under the combined assault of Danish and Wendish fleets, with Swedish allies.  Olav sailed in the most famous Viking ship to grace the sagas, a mighty warship named Ormen Lange, "The Long Serpent."  He saw the enemy coming, and made ready for battle.

The Viking war-band, as the Anglo-Saxons before them, preferred to fight with a shield-wall.  This meant a band of men at the front of their effort locked shields together, and lashed over them with axe or sword or, most likely, spear.  Ranks of spearmen stood behind them to reinforce the shield-wall, to prevent cavalry from simply jumping it, and to step into the ranks of anyone killed.  The shield-wall formation was powerful as long as the cavalry opposing it did not overwhelm its ability to countermaneuver.  There are few horses on these ships, though, and so that danger is readily faced.

In order to facilitate the shield-wall, the warriors of each side lashed their ships together into long lines.  The business then was to drive into your enemy's line with your wall, and push to the rear, clearing the ship of your enemies by slaying them or driving them into the sea.  Olav Trygvasson was a great warrior and a successful, so that his men fought under the comforting weight of mail -- and this gave them great staying power against their foes.

Yet I do not come to praise Olav Trygvasson, but one of his loyal friends.  Einarr Þambarskelfir was a true master of his craft:  in his case, the craft of archery.  When the weight of the foes facing Olav brought the enemy even onto the Long Serpent, Einarr made the difference.  He stood at the rear of the ship, by Olav, and shot with his mighty bow so that no one could withstand him.  That, until:

Einar Thambarskelfir, one of the sharpest of bowshooters, stood by the mast, and shot with his bow. Einar shot an arrow at Earl Eirik [...] Then said the earl to a man called Finn, [...] "Shoot that tall man by the mast." Finn shot; and the arrow hit the middle of Einar's bow just at the moment that Einar was drawing it, and the bow was split in two parts. "What is that," cried King Olaf, "that broke with such a noise?" "Norway, king, from your hands," cried Einar. "No! not quite so much as that," says the king; "take my bow, and shoot," flinging the bow to him. Einar took the bow, and drew it over the head of the arrow. "Too weak, too weak," said he, "for the bow of a mighty king!" and, throwing the bow aside, he took sword and shield, and fought Valiantly.
Einarr, too strong for the king's bow, survived the battle that Olav Trygvasson did not.  In later years he made himself master of Norway by his own hand, and in spite of the designs of kings... but that, though true, is another story.

1 comment:

Lars Walker said...

Snorri Sturlusson seems to have been a little mistaken about Einar's nickname. He appears to have thought that "Thambarskelfir" (gut-shaker) referred to the plucking of his bowstring; linguists now are pretty sure it's a reference to his jiggly belly.

He had a son named Eindridi, who eventually (in a story omitted from "Heimskringla") would marry a daughter of my hero Erling Skjalgsson's, under pretty romantic circumstances. He eloped with the girl, and then had to make things up with her formidable father. In any case, the marriage cemented an alliance between two of Norway's most powerful families.