I’ve shared several poems from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow now, and it’s a good tradition to continue. This poem is from his collection Tales of a Wayside Inn, which is a series of stories written as if they were stories told by travelers at an inn, only preserved as poems by Longfellow. This poem, seventh in the saga of King Olaf, tells a mostly self-contained story that is also a reasonable allegory of the Norwegian conversion to Christianity in addition to being a well-related story.
The Musician’s Tale; The Saga of King Olaf VII: Iron-Beard
Olaf the King, one summer morn,
Blew a blast on his bugle-horn,
Sending his signal through the land of Drontheim.
And to the Hus-Ting held at Mere
Gathered the farmers far and near,
With their war weapons ready to confront him.
Ploughing under the morning star,
Old Iron-Beard in Yriar
Heard the summons, chuckling with a low laugh.
He wiped the sweat-drops from his brow,
Unharnessed his horses from the plough,
And clattering came on horseback to King Olaf.
He was the churliest of the churls;
Little he cared for king or earls;
Bitter as home-brewed ale were his foaming passions.
Hodden-gray was the garb he wore,
And by the Hammer of Thor he swore;
He hated the narrow town, and all its fashions.
But he loved the freedom of his farm,
His ale at night, by the fireside warm,
Gudrun his daughter, with her flaxen tresses.
He loved his horses and his herds,
The smell of the earth, and the song of birds,
His well-filled barns, his brook with its water-cresses.
Huge and cumbersome was his frame;
His beard, from which he took his name,
Frosty and fierce, like that of Hymer the Giant.
So at the Hus-Ting he appeared,
The farmer of Yriar, Iron-Beard,
On horseback, in an attitude defiant.
And to King Olaf he cried aloud,
Out of the middle of the crowd,
That tossed about him like a stormy ocean:
“Such sacrifices shalt thou bring;
To Odin and to Thor, O King,
As other kings have done in their devotion!”
King Olaf answered: “I command
This land to be a Christian land;
Here is my Bishop who the folk baptizes!
“But if you ask me to restore
Your sacrifices, stained with gore,
Then will I offer human sacrifices!
“Not slaves and peasants shall they be,
But men of note and high degree,
Such men as Orm of Lyra and Kar of Gryting!”
Then to their Temple strode he in,
And loud behind him heard the din
Of his men-at-arms and the peasants fiercely fighting.
There in the Temple, carved in wood,
The image of great Odin stood,
And other gods, with Thor supreme among them.
King Olaf smote them with the blade
Of his huge war-axe, gold inlaid,
And downward shattered to the pavement flung them.
At the same moment rose without,
From the contending crowd, a shout,
A mingled sound of triumph and of wailing.
And there upon the trampled plain
The farmer Iron-Beard lay slain,
Midway between the assailed and the assailing.
King Olaf from the doorway spoke.
“Choose ye between two things, my folk,
To be baptized or given up to slaughter!”
And seeing their leader stark and dead,
The people with a murmur said,
“O King, baptize us with thy holy water.”
So all the Drontheim land became
A Christian land in name and fame,
In the old gods no more believing and trusting.
And as a blood-atonement, soon
King Olaf wed the fair Gudrun;
And thus in peace ended the Drontheim Hus-Ting!