King Olaf I of Norway's arrival to Norway. Based on drawing by Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1860.

“I accept thy challenge, Thor!”

Over a year ago I first shared a piece from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Tales from a Wayside Inn, “The Challenge of Thor,” in which a powerful, vengeful thunder god angrily challenges Christ to combat:

Thou art a God too,
O Galilean!
And thus single-handed
Unto the combat,
Gauntlet or Gospel,
Here I defy thee!

That poem stands alone well as an insight into how Longfellow viewed Thor, as a god and as a representative of the ancient faith, and to some extent, how his peers in the educated community of the mid-19th century saw him as well.

But Tales of a Wayside Inn is a massive work, and it’s worth sharing more of it than just this piece. And thus, it’s worth sharing a little background.

Longfellow's Wayside Inn, Sudbury, Massachusetts
Longfellow’s Wayside Inn, Sudbury, Massachusetts

The collection of poetry wasn’t written as one unit, but it has a theme: a group of travelers meeting at an inn and telling stories. The poems are arranged so that they seem as if they’re each coming from a distinct voice, with introductions and interludes and so on. The characters aren’t random: they’re based on real people.

“The Challenge of Thor,” and the poem shared here, “King Olaf’s Return,” belong to the “musician” character, which is based on the Norwegian violinist, composer, and famous emigrant to the United States Ole Bull. It’s treated as a tale told of Bull’s cultural history, and while Thor may not be so specific to Bull’s Norwegian ancestry, the tale of King Olaf is.

Olaf Tryggvason is credited as the king of Norway most responsible for converting that country to Christianity, often by force. The structure of the Musician’s Tale covers Olaf accepting Thor’s challenge here as Olaf returns from Ireland to his homeland of Norway, then later on consolidates power, begins his campaign to eradicate the true believers in the old faith, including drowning those who used magic, and eventually went to war, where he died at the battle of Solver in the year 1000 CE.

But this poem is merely an accounting of Olaf’s early life, a kind of prelude to the main story told later. Above all else, here Olaf accepts Thor’s challenge on behalf of Christ, to single combat, by gauntlet or gospel.

The Musician’s Tale:
The Saga of King Olaf II:
King Olaf’s Return

And King Olaf heard the cry,
Saw the red light in the sky,
Laid his hand upon his sword,
As he leaned upon the railing,
And his ships went sailing, sailing
Northward into Drontheim fiord.

There he stood as one who dreamed;
And the red light glanced and gleamed
On the armor that he wore;
And he shouted, as the rifted
Streamers o’er him shook and shifted,
“I accept thy challenge, Thor!”

To avenge his father slain,
And reconquer realm and reign,
Came the youthful Olaf home,
Through the midnight sailing, sailing,
Listening to the wild wind’s wailing,
And the dashing of the foam.

To his thoughts the sacred name
Of his mother Astrid came,
And the tale she oft had told
Of her flight by secret passes
Through the mountains and morasses,
To the home of Hakon old.

Then strange memories crowded back
Of Queen Gunhild’s wrath and wrack,
And a hurried flight by sea;
Of grim Vikings, and the rapture
Of the sea-fight, and the capture,
And the life of slavery.

How a stranger watched his face
In the Esthonian market-place,
Scanned his features one by one,
Saying, “We should know each other;
I am Sigurd, Astrid’s brother,
Thou art Olaf, Astrid’s son!”

Then as Queen Allogia’s page,
Old in honors, young in age,
Chief of all her men-at-arms;
Till vague whispers, and mysterious,
Reached King Valdemar, the imperious,
Filling him with strange alarms.

Then his cruisings o’er the seas,
Westward to the Hebrides,
And to Scilly’s rocky shore;
And the hermit’s cavern dismal,
Christ’s great name and rites baptismal
In the ocean’s rush and roar.

All these thoughts of love and strife
Glimmered through his lurid life,
As the stars’ intenser light
Through the red flames o’er him trailing,
As his ships went sailing, sailing,
Northward in the summer night.

Trained for either camp or court,
Skilful in each manly sport,
Young and beautiful and tall;
Art of warfare, craft of chases,
Swimming, skating, snow-shoe races,
Excellent alike in all.

When at sea, with all his rowers,
He along the bending oars
Outside of his ship could run.
He the Smalsor Horn ascended,
And his shining shield suspended
On its summit, like a sun.

On the ship-rails he could stand,
Wield his sword with either hand,
And at once two javelins throw;
At all feasts where ale was strongest
Sat the merry monarch longest,
First to come and last to go.

Norway never yet had seen
One so beautiful of mien,
One so royal in attire,
When in arms completely furnished,
Harness gold-inlaid and burnished,
Mantle like a flame of fire.

Thus came Olaf to his own,
When upon the night-wind blown
Passed that cry along the shore;
And he answered, while the rifted
Streamers o’er him shook and shifted,
“I accept thy challenge, Thor!”

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