Harald Sohlberg: Painting Norway @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

Harald Sohlberg

Harald Sohlberg (1869 to 1935) was one of Norway’s greatest painters. He is best known for works which evoke the wildness of the Nordic landscape, which show brooding scenery illuminated by midwinter light, and realistic depictions of the wood buildings of old Norwegian towns.

This is the first major UK exhibition of Sohlberg’s works, celebrating 150 years since the artist’s birth, and it reveals that there’s much more variety – in subject matter, treatment and quality – than a first glance would suggest.

Self Portrait (1896) by Harald Sohlberg. Private collection

Self Portrait (1896) by Harald Sohlberg. Private collection

Biography

The exhibition proceeds in straightforward chronological order. Born in 1869 the eighth of 12 children, Sohlberg early wanted to be a painter but his father insisted he learn a craft and apprenticed him to a master scene painter and decorator, Wilhelm Krogh. When he went on the National College of Art and Design, where he developed his printmaking skills, it was also to discover the great art trends of the day, namely symbolism and nationalism.

Nordic mystery

For me, these are founding facts for understanding Sohlberg’s style, because all of the 100 or so works in the six rooms of the exhibition display a tension between two poles or ends of a spectrum. At one end is a series of works which explore light and colour and capture the peculiar twilight mood of Scandinavia, a half light in which moon and stars appear in still glimmering skies, and are seen through spectral pine forests.

Fisherman's Cottage (1906) by Harald Sohlberg. Art Institute of Chicago

Fisherman’s Cottage (1906) by Harald Sohlberg. Art Institute of Chicago

Many of this type of painting stylise shapes and outlines in order to reveal strange gloopy patterns in the natural world, reminiscent of the style of his close contemporary Edvard Munch (b.1863).

Sun Gleam (1894) by Harald Sohlberg. Gard forsikring, Arendal

Sun Gleam (1894) by Harald Sohlberg. Gard forsikring, Arendal

The mermaid pictures

Most immediately Munch-like are the heavily stylised depictions of mermaids which Sohlberg made obsessively throughout his career. The wall labels tell us that he made scores of drawings, sketches, prints and paintings all reworking the same basic image of a ‘mermaid’ emerging from water, sometimes by the light of the moon, sometimes by the light of a blood red sun.

It is striking how blurry, shapeless and ill-defined these mermaids often are. The subject and treatment seemed to me to be Sohlberg’s closest approach to capturing the ominousness of Symbolism, with its terror-stricken image of the femme fatale who comes to us in dreams and visions, a devouring harpy, the herald of the new age – a portentous figure.

The Mermaid (1896) by Harald Sohlberg. Private collection

The Mermaid (1896) by Harald Sohlberg. Private collection

Life drawing and portraits

On the basis of the three variations on the mermaid subject in the first room I had drawn the conclusion that Sohlberg was rubbish at drawing people, which helped to explain the predominance of people-less landscapes in his oeuvre.

But how wrong I was. The very next room is devoted to a profusion of drawings, sketches, drafts and prints which, among other things, show you that he was a portraitist and life artist of great skill and sensitivity.

Four portraits by Harald Sohlberg. Photo by the author

Four portraits by Harald Sohlberg. Photo by the author

These four portraits (apologies for my terrible photo) are works of tremendous draughtsmanship. The character and quirks of each of the four faces (one is a self portrait, at top right) are captured with a thoroughness and sweet lifelikeness which reminded me of Holbein.

Next to them is a series of drawings from life including one of a classical sculpture, a stunningly sensuous charcoal drawing of a female nude, and a set of sketches of a woman wearing a button-up coat, which are staggering in their skill and accuracy.

Homo absconditus

All of which makes it the more mysterious, or pointed, that so many of the finished oil paintings rigorously exclude human figures of any type, close up or even in the distance.

So much so that a chapter in the catalogue is titled ‘Homo absconditus’ i.e. absent humanity, and the audioguide is at pains to emphasise the issue of absence in so many of his classic paintings.

Look at the rough-hewn road bumping towards the mountains in the distance behind which emanates a mysterious crepuscular glow. It is a man-made object, as are the telegraph poles lining it and yet… where have the people gone?

Detailed draughtsmanship

Mention of the manmade brings me to the other pole of his oeuvre, the other end of the spectrum from Sohlberg’s best-known images of looming Nordic mystery, and this is his astonishingly detailed, draughtsmanlike depiction of buildings.

Even in his landscapes Sohlberg apparently didn’t begin painting until he had completely mapped out the motif in precise detail using graphite, pen and ink, in sketchbooks and drawings. Many of these sketches are on show in the exhibition’s several display cases, alongside letters, maps and some contemporary photos of the locations he painted.

Architectural accuracy

An aspect of this surprising architectural approach is a whole thread through his early and middle period of astonishingly accurate paintings of buildings – the kind of wood-framed houses which characterised the Norway of his time – which are done with fantastic graphic realism and attention to detail.

For example in the first room of the show there are several paintings of the view from a terrace or verandah of a wood-built building looking out over a fjord. The lake water and mountain on the other side are done with the rich colouring and sense of depth and mystery we are by now familiar with. What is striking is the highly detailed depiction of the wooden terrace, balustrading, walls and windows

One early example of this style was never finished and allows us to see the immaculate grid of lines which Sohlberg had laid out across the canvas in order to create the image, and then the meticulous care with which he was painting in the fine detail.

Winter on the Balcony by Harald Sohlberg

Winter on the Balcony by Harald Sohlberg

This love of the architectural detail comes into its own when, in 1902, Sohlberg went to live in the 17th century copper-mining town of Røros up towards the Arctic Circle. Røros is today a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its heritage of evocative historic wooden buildings, a subject perfect for Sohlberg in fine-draughtsman mode.

Street in Roros in Winter (1903) by Harald Sohlberg. The National Museum of Arts, Architecture and Design, Norway

Street in Røros in Winter (1903) by Harald Sohlberg. The National Museum of Arts, Architecture and Design, Norway

Later falling off

Not all of his works are good. A set of blue skyscapes and orange seascapes in the fourth and fifth rooms struck me as cheesy and badly executed. In fact I had the strong feeling that after about 1910 his paintings went off, meaning his best work comes from the 1890s and 1900s, a suspicion fuelled by the way the exhibition ends abruptly about 1914. Did he not paint during the First World War? Did he stop painting altogether? We are not told.

And my dislike of the later, bigger and more loosely executed works explains why I didn’t respond as I am supposed to to Sohlberg’s single most famous work, the enormous painting titled ‘Winter Night in the Mountains’.

Winter Night in the Mountains (1914) by Harald Sohlberg. The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway

Winter Night in the Mountains (1914) by Harald Sohlberg. The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway

Apparently this has been voted Norway’s most favourite painting which is, I think, an interesting insight into how that country sees itself. The work dominates the sixth and final room and is hung next to three or four other oil paintings of the same view, plus preparatory pencil works and sketches. He worked at it repeatedly and produced scores of versions of this view in various media.

But unlike motifs which other famous painters of the period worked on again and again (Monet and his lily pond, Cézanne and Mont St Victoire) the multiple versions do not, I think, take you any closer to the subject matter nor display new and exciting aspects of the art of painting itself.

I don’t like it because

  1. The mountains have been childishly simplified, rounded and cartooned, like a so-so illustration of a children’s book.
  2. The star shining in the cleft of the mountains is not eerily symbolic, but as obvious and trite as the star on ten thousand cheap Christmas cards.
  3. I like trees, some of my favourite artworks are depictions of trees, but the trees in the foreground of this painting are badly drawn.

This final room really brings out the point I made earlier, that there are two strings to Sohlberg’s bow, two basic styles of painting he made – one the symbolic landscape and the other the minutely detailed building.

So the other half of the sixth and final room is devoted to a whole series of sketches, drawings and paintings he made of the huge church which dominated the town of Røros then as it does now. He sketched and painted the church again and again, particularly  the view from the churchyard looking onto the church and then across the town down to the river.

Night, Røros Curch (1903) by Harald Solhberg

Night, Røros Curch (1903) by Harald Solhberg

It’s hard to compare this and the night mountain and believe that they’re by the same artist, the same mind and eye and technique, but they very much are.

Conclusion

This is a fabulously enjoyable exhibition. Not all of it is great but what is good, is very very good. It introduces you to what you could call the Athena print world of Solhlberg, to his famous and best known paintings of Nordic landscapes and snow-covered streets – but it also includes his little known sketches and drawings, to create a really well-rounded portrait of Norway’s favourite painter.

My personal favourite was the set of two preparatory sketches and then a large finished drawing he made of ‘the girl from Schafterløkken’ which took my breath away, but which I can’t show you because it doesn’t seem to exist anywhere the internet.

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Nikolai Astrup: Painting Norway @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928) is one of Norway’s favourite painters, but a well-kept secret everywhere else. This typically thorough, persuasive, well-hung and attractive exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery is the first major show of his work in the UK and a wonderful opportunity to explore a rare and beguiling sensibility.

Astrup grew up in a remote part of coastal Norway, born in the village of Ålhus in Jølster, where his father was the Lutheran pastor. One of his early paintings shows a funeral procession to the local graveyard, set against the stunning scenery of the place. His father is the isolated figure at the front, still wearing the black robes and white tunic of the 17th century.

Funeral Day in Jølster by Nikolai Astrup (Before 1908) The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE

Funeral Day in Jølster by Nikolai Astrup (Before 1908) The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE

Nikolai was one of eight children. They grew up in a cold damp climate in a cold damp wooden parsonage, which was later condemned and demolished, but not before many of the Astrup children died of childhood ailments (scarcely believably, no fewer than three died in one traumatising week). Nikolai was a sickly child and spent a lot of time in bed, staring out of the windows.

The parsonage

The views of the lake and surrounding mountains, and the feeling of warmth and security, impressed themselves deeply on his childhood mind. When a young man he travelled to Paris, to Berlin, to study contemporary art, but his heart was always here in his native country, where he returned and lived and painted until his early death, aged 47 in 1928.

The Parsonage by Nikolai Astrup. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE

The Parsonage by Nikolai Astrup. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE

Repetition

Based in the same valley (he moved in adult life to a village across the lake) and haunted or inspired by those childhood memories, Astrup painted the same views, the same scenes, from different perspectives or viewpoints, over and again. Repetition with variations is a key aspect of Astrup’s art.

Thus the first room contains a selection of early works, the most impressive of which are half a dozen versions of the same view – from the lakeside looking back at the village nestling in the shadow of its hills. Seen from this vantage point the most striking thing is the pattern of bright yellow marsh marigolds forming a striking yellow diagonal across the canvas.

A Clear Night in June by Nikolai Astrup (1905-1907) The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen.Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE

A Clear Night in June by Nikolai Astrup (1905-1907) The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen.Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE

Night works

These marigolds appear in numerous paintings and prints and, in another characteristic motif, often at night. The parsonage at night, the village at night, the marsh at night, even housework, even sowing and planting crops, a surprising range of activities are depicted being done at night. And then you realise – it’s Norway, with a short growing season and long, long nights. Of course night life, in this broadest of senses, would be a subject for him. And hence the large number of shimmering mysterious scenes painted by moonlight.

Landscape

So Astrup’s art is entirely rural: there is nothing urban at all in these images, no towns let alone cities. Painting at the turn of the century, he is the opposite of the cosmopolitan Fauves and Expressionists and Futurists who were grabbing the headlines and who are the artists we mostly remember from that period. Astrup paints archetypal scenes of Norway – a lake, a snow-capped mountain and the brief spring and summer when the yellow marigolds and foxgloves blossom. A wet, green and often breath-taking country.

March Atmosphere at Jølstravatnet by Nikolai Astrup (Before 1908) Private Collection, Oslo. Photo © Anders Bergersen

March Atmosphere at Jølstravatnet by Nikolai Astrup (Before 1908) Private Collection, Oslo. Photo © Anders Bergersen

People

Astrup’s human figures are not his strong point and could be described as naive or clumsy – at one point the commentary compares some distant figures to Lowry’s matchstick men – elsewhere the commentary mentions his liking for the paintings of the super-naive French painter, ‘le Douanier’ Rousseau, which he saw in Paris. There is something unrealistic about the hang of his subjects’ bodies and the faces are vague or unseen. But in this he was not unlike the more experimental contemporary painters who were abandoning a Renaissance-inspired, scientific accuracy of human depiction, in favour of shaping the human form into emblems, patterns or motifs in an art work.

In this as in so many ways, Astrup’s work shimmers with the influence of his radical contemporaries, incorporates hints of it, but goes its own way. Take one of his most famous images, apparently a famous print in Norway, Foxgloves.

Foxgloves by Nikolai Astrup (1927) Colour woodcut on paper. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Anders Bergersen

Foxgloves by Nikolai Astrup (1927) Colour woodcut on paper. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Anders BergersenPicture 008

Would it be better without the two girls picking mushrooms? Are they emphasising the gawky naivety of much of the detail in the image, or helping place it in a naturalistic tradition? This, like many of the other paintings, gave me a warm, happy, childhood feeling. His occasional clumsiness, the imperfection of the figures, just doesn’t matter compared to the warmth of his vision.

Marriage and home

Astrup married Engel, a farmer’s daughter from across the lake. She was just 15 so he would be arrested, named and shamed and called out on social media these days, but in those less intrusive and judgmental times it developed into a full and loving marriage. After some renting and moving about, in 1913 he bought a plot of land and buildings on the opposite side of the lake from Ålhus, at a place called Sandalstrand.

In the following years he and his wife had no fewer than eight children. They built more buildings on the plot and planted and tended a wonderful garden. The roofs were covered in turves to keep them warm, on which the couple planted wild flowers. It looks magical and the exhibition includes enchanting black and white photos from the time showing loads of little children playing in what must have seemed a fairy land.

Here Nikolai designed, planted and tended his beautiful garden (reminding me of the continent-wide passion for gardening which is recorded in the Royal Academy’s current show, Painting the Modern Garden). In fact he became well known in the area for cultivating over ten varieties of rhubarb and from the tasty wine he made from them. The buildings and garden are there to this day and have been turned into a museum, named Astrupnet. The exhibition has some stunning photos of them.

Engel became a designer in her own right, showing an Arts and Crafts style interest in ‘the House Beautiful’, designing tapesties and carpets, curtains and rugs, ensuring the house was always full of flowers and fruit. Photos of the house show the very table cloth featured in this painting.

Still Life Interior by Nikolai Astrup

Still Life Interior by Nikolai Astrup

Mystery and symbolism

But often there is something extra in these paintings. Hints and suggestions of the uncanny. He was aware of the Symbolists working in Paris and of other mystical trends in contemporary art and philosophy. But like the other influences of the time – the bold colour of the Fauves, the nonchalant attitude to human figures of the post-Impressionists – they are only hinted at, and only in some of Astrup’s work. The naked figure in the painting above: is she one of Astrup’s daughters come down for a midnight feast? Or something more arcane: a pixie or sprite from local folklore?

Paganism

Probably the image in which he lets himself go to express his native mysticism or paganism is the much-repeated image of a pollarded tree willow by a lake. The exhibition shows four or five versions of it, painted on canvas, and then made into a woodcut. The willow tree is obviously turning into a… what? A troll? A goblin? A human figure? A distant relative of the screaming man in his older contemporary, Edvard Munch’s, most famous painting?

Spring Night and Willow by Nikolai Astrup (1917/after 1920) Colour woodcut on paper. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen

Spring Night and Willow by Nikolai Astrup (1917/after 1920) Colour woodcut on paper. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen

The (sensitive and informative) commentary tells us that Astrup himself pollarded the trees on his property and deliberately crafted them into semi-human shapes. It goes on to explain that the mountain on the horizon, painted in off-white, can be interpreted as the body of a naked woman lying on her back. He didn’t invent this, it’s actually what it looks like and was known in the vicinity as the ‘Ice Queen Mountain’.

The Ice Queen wasn’t alone. In another painting of an apparently mundane village scene with hill, the commentary points out how you can make out in the snow-capped hilltop the features of an old friend of Astrup’s who had recently died. Most striking of all is the painting known as Grain poles, in which a group of spindly straw poles have magically been given eyes, and one has a stick leaning against it, like the walking stick of an old man. The paganism, if that’s what it is, the sense that the landscape is somehow responsive to human presence, is so subtle it is barely there. It flickers at the edge of the paintings’ consciousness.

Midsummer bonfire celebration

The sixth and final room in the show explores this side of Astrup, his understated pagan feel for the world around him and which is embodied in his numerous paintings of the Midsummer bonfire festival, which took place in all the surrounding valleys. His strict Lutheran father tried to keep young Nikolai and the other children away from this obviously pagan event, with its licentious music and the scandalous mingling of men and women, dancing to the leaping light of the shimmering flames. What a scene it must have made, and what a variety of ‘naive’, colourful and stylised images Astrup has made of it.

Midsummer Eve Bonfire by Nikolai Astrup (After c.1917) The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen

Midsummer Eve Bonfire by Nikolai Astrup (After c.1917) The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen

This is one of the many images which exist as oil paintings and as woodcuts, giving you the chance to see which medium you prefer. Astrup depended for his livelihood on woodcuts and prints, hussling friends to buy them or publicise them. The exhibition features many of these woodcuts and explains in fascinating detail how they were made and the arduous technical and physical difficulties Astrup faced (not least because the heavy wood he laboriously carved his images into sometimes warped, making the process of pressing paper against it to get a full, clean image, sometimes impossible, and always difficult).

Since he reworked the same subjects over and over, you are able to directly compare the paintings and the woodcuts of similar viewpoints, ideas and motifs. Because I’ve always like strong lines and composition, I found myself warming to the woodcuts a bit more than the oils.

Midsummer Eve Bonfire woodcut

Midsummer Eve Bonfire woodcut

Favourites

Among so many to choose from, I liked:

  • A clear night in June (See top of this review) The commentary points out that you can see the silhouettes of two large figures in the foreground, which Astrup subsequently painted over. Maybe he lacked confidence in his human figures; maybe he realised the landscape was enough. Whatever the reason, they shed a typically ambiguous ghostly presence onto the scene.
  • Growing season in Sandalstrand A later image which he recycled as black and white and colour prints, an image of simplicity, peacefulness and beauty.
  • The moon in May
  • Birthday in the garden A party of laughing children. Note Engel’s dress which, like many, she made herself.

I wanted to feature several more but none of them were available on the internet.

The contemporary scene

Compare and contrast Astrup with similar scenes from a) the lingering 19th century figurative tradition:

and b) the bold new avant-garde of someone like Cezanne

to see how Astrup reconciles the influences of his time, simplifying the human figure, using unnaturally bright and primary colours, but not departing in feel from a faithful naturalistic depiction of the scene in front of him. One of the pleasures of his paintings is the way they hold the powerfully conflicting influences of turn of the century art in such a delicate balance. They foreshadow much of the simplified rural art of between the wars, the childlike, book-illustration quality to be found in this country in the work of Paul Nash, or simpler, in Eric Ravilious.

Conclusion

Astrup is not an instant classic. You don’t go Wow yes! at the sight of many of his paintings, and it is easy to pick out flaws of composition and colouring, especially of the people. But cumulatively, this gorgeous exhibition gives you a powerful sense of the landscape and climate and customs and quiet beauty of this under-explored part of the world and of a unique artist who ‘recorded Norway for the Norwegians’, but also left a legacy of lovely, colourful, life-affirming pictures for all of us.

The video

Related links


Other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

The Blue Ice by Hammond Innes (1948)

The bumf at the front of this book explains that when Innes’ previous novel, The Lonely Skier, was made into a movie, Snowbound (1948), the income from that film gave him the financial freedom to fulfil his dream of travelling, ideally by yacht. One of his first destinations was Norway, where he travelled much of the territory which features in this novel. His first-hand knowledge is evident in the very detailed descriptions: of the yacht they sail in, the whaling station they stop at, of the glacier and mountains they climb and ski across in the long snow-bound chase which is the climax of the book.

A mystery

This is another first-person narration: ‘Big’ Bill Gansert has been for eight years Base Metals and Industry (BM&I)’s production chief at their alloy plant in Birmingham. During that time he had opened a nickel mine in Canada, and helped BM&I develop a new lightweight alloy from thorite although sources in the States were so meagre, he’d been forced to abandon it. The story opens as he’s quit BM&I to go sailing in the Mediterranean in his yacht, Diviner. But at the last minute he is persuaded by BM&I’s chairman, Sir Clinton Mann, to change his plans and go to Norway because of a mystery.

The mystery is that Sir Clinton has been sent a great chunk of thorite from Norway, wrapped in whale blubber with a note apparently signed by one George Farnell. Everyone thought Farnell was dead. He was a leading metallurgist before the war but in 1939 was convicted of defrauding his business partner for £10,000 in order, he said, to fund mineralogical expeditions to Norway. Convicted and sent to prison, Farnell managed to escape his escort and flee the country.

Now, recent Norwegian newspapers reveal that he fled to Norway where he adopted a new identity and became a hero in the anti-Nazi resistance but that his dead body has just been found as if fallen from a notorious glacier in the central mountains. Gansert had known Farnell from a spell working together in Rhodesia, and he knew Farnell knew those mountains better than any Norwegian. Could his death have been foul play? Why?

Hooked by this mystery – and tempted by the apparent discovery of a new source of thorite – Gansert then discovers Sir Clinton had cheekily put an advert in the papers saying he was sailing to Norway, before the decision was even finalised, asking anyone with information about Farnell to come and see him at the yacht’s berth by the Tower of London.

With the result that a motley crew of four strangers arrives on his yacht, each in their way curious about Farnell. To sort it all out Gansert, in cavalier fashion, simply casts off and sets sail for Norway with them all aboard, with no warning. They are allowed to cable their companies or hotels but most accept it meekly and settle down to the three-day sail to Norway. And along the way we get to know more about each of the characters, their (sometimes poisonous) relations among each other, and with the deceased Farnell.

These characters are described in the Dramatis personae below.

There is some drama caused by poisonous enmities aboard such a small yacht, but the real action starts when Gansert arrives at the whaling station, Bovaagen Hval, where Farnell’s message and sample of thorite appear to have been sent from. How could it have been sent on the 9th and yet his body discovered on a glacier miles away on the 10th? Is he actually dead or faking it somehow? But why?

The Innes voice

To be honest, Gansert’s voice is pretty much the same as every Innes hero, tough, resourceful, mature, well-travelled, but also puzzled, blocked, feeling his way in the dark, trying to formulate a plan, solve the problem. But always indomitable. Fundamentally unsinkable. He never gives up. We are safe in his hands, in the tense but ultimately comforting cradle of the narrative. Not least because all these narratives start out by explaining that they are being written after the successful conclusion of the case. We know the author survives. Because of this no amount of jeopardy really scares us; all the novels carry this underlying reassurance.

The plot thickens

Once the crew arrive in Norway more characters join the chase, notably the fat, jolly, untrustworthy whaling captain Lovaas. He it is who captures a a man trying to hide under a false identity on his whaling boat and turns round to return him to the whaling station where the other characters are waiting. They think he is Hans Schreuder, supposed witness to Farnell’s death.

But Schreuder eludes them all by jumping overboard then disappearing in thick fog. As they steam back after failing to find him, they notice a crew of divers operating from a boat not so far away and suspicion falls on them. So much so that it becomes a chase to track down the main diver, Sunde, down, and our heroes grab him at gunpoint from Lovaas’s crew, and whisk him off in the yacht to interrogate him: Who was Schreuder? Why was he so scared he jumped into the freezing sea? Why is Sunde so nervous? Did he have some arrangement to pick up and hide Schreuder? Where is Schreuder now?

Finding the answers to these questions takes Gansert further into the Norwegian coastline, up the mountains to the glacier of blue ice, deep into the treacherous legacy of the Nazi occupation of Norway which still casts a long shadow, and finally into a long agonising chase across icy mountain heights to track down the man who has the key to all the questions.

Thrillers carry wartime mentality into peacetime

These first post-War novels are heavy with its legacy: blackmailed deserters in Killer Mine; Nazi gold in Lonely Skier; Russian silver in Maddon’s Rock; the bitterness between Nazi collaborators and resistors in Blue Ice. Tending to confirm the theory I developed in reading Alistair MacLean, that the modern thriller carries the violence, tension, excitement and absurdity of wartime into peacetime situations. Thrillers are like the outbreaks of miniature wars, accompanied by all their corollaries – sudden violence, desperate situations, strangers thrown together, horrible deaths.

After shooting the man who had them at gunpoint in the high mountain saeter, Sunde, the diver who turns out to be a veteran of the Norwegian resistance, comments:

‘Anybody’d fink we was at war again.’… To Sunde this was just one more man killed up in these mountains. This was the sort of thing he’d been doing all through the war. (p.176)

Quite.

In the end of The Blue Ice there isn’t a direct clash between goodies and baddies, between collaborators and resistance. In the end different parties all with something at stake converge on a skiing-climbing chase of the missing man, for hours and hours, climbing snowy  mountainsides, skiing down them, blundering across glaciers, with shoot-outs in isolated mountain huts. When the climax comes it is tragi-comic, accidental, absurd, and the narrator struggles at the end of the book to make sense of Farnell’s obsession and achievement.

Love interest

And all the time Gansert, exactly like Innes’ previous heroes, is slowly falling in love with the only nubile woman in the drama, 26 year-old Jill Somers, tall, active, a proficient sailor. She had had a brief fling with Farnell, but adversity brings her and Garsent conveniently closer together.

She looked cold and remote and delicately lovely in her navy blue ski suit and red socks and scarf. Red woollen gloves lay on the floor at her feet. She was the sort of girl that never let up once she had decided on something. (p.195)

There are some amusingly sexist moments which would give a modern feminist fits, like when he despatches her to the galley to fix the meals, something all the rest of the crew and she herself take for granted. But in among the lovey-dovey stuff, there’s an interesting exchange about the difference between men and women:

‘You, for instance. Have you never been in love?’
‘Many times,’ I answered.
‘But not really. Not so that it was more important than anything else.?’
‘No,’ I said.
Her hands suddenly tightened on mine so that I could feel her nails biting into my palm. ‘Why?’ she cried softly. ‘Why? Tell me why? What is there more important?’
I didn’t know how to answer her. ‘Excitement,’ I said. ‘The excitement of living, of pitting one’s wits against everyone else.’
‘Meaning a wife is an encumbrance?’
‘For some men – yes.’ (p.132)

‘The excitement of living’. That’s not a bad summary of Innes’ thrillers. Far-fetched though most of the plots are, and a bit too reliant on madmen to provide the narrative drive, nonetheless the books are filled with plenty of incidental moments which convey the beauty of the natural world and the sheer joy of being alive in it, of swimming, sailing, skiing, rejoicing in the wonder of existence.

Mad Innes baddies

  • The Trojan Horse  – Nazi spy Max Sedel
  • Wreckers Must Breathe – the frothing Gestapo man
  • The Killer Mine – old man Manack who kills almost everyone
  • The Lonely Skier – the maniac who stole Gilbert Mayne’s identity and tries to kill everyone
  • Maddon’s Rock – mad Captain Halsey kills one ship’s crew and most of another
  • The Blue Ice – obsessed mineralogist George Farnell
  • The White South – mad Erik Bland who rams our hero’s ship and mad Dr Howe who gets his revenge

In fact the women, the heroines of these stories, although clothed in 1940s/50s attitudes, stand out as pretty much as tough as the men (and a lot less bonkers). Maybe not physically as strong, but as skilled and brave and resolute.

Strong Innes women

  • The Trojan Horse – Freya Schmidt, sailor.
  • Wreckers Must Breathe – Maureen Craig, feisty journalist.
  • The Killer Mine – Kitty Manack, strong swimmer.
  • The Lonely Skier – the countess is a strong feisty woman, if not the love interest
  • Maddon’s Rock – Jenny Sorrell
  • The Blue Ice – Jill Somers

Jenny Sorrell in Maddon’s Rock and Jill Somers here are both very capable sailors (as is Freya Schmidt) and it is no accident that it is at sea, in the freedom of a boat on water, that these relationships blossom. Innes writes with tremendous gusto about physical activity. There is energy and vim in his descriptions of the natural world and especially of his favourite means of seeing it, from a sailing boat.

Sailing

Innes was a very experienced sailor and it shows. A large part of Maddon’s Rock describes in great detail the journey by yacht to the cursed rock. Here, about two-thirds of the text describe the journey of the Diviner from Tower Bridge, down the Thames and up the North Sea, along the Norwegian coast and then into the fjords.

Innes’ writing about sailing combines technical detail with poetic description. The combination of experience and deep feeling behind these passages goes a long way to help make the sometimes implausible plots seem much more realistic, urgent, convincing.

As soon as [Jill] had relieved Dick, I called to Carter and we got the mainsail up. The canvas cracked as the boom slatted to and fro in the weird red and green glow of the navigation lights on either side of the chartroom. As soon as peak and throat purchases were made fast and the weather back-stay set up I had the engine stopped and I ordered Jill Somers to steer up Barrow Deep on course north fifty-two east. The mainsail filled as the ship heeled and swung away. In an instant we had picked up way and the water was seething past the lee rail. By the time we had set jib, stays’l and mizzen the old boat was going like a train, rocking violently as she took the steep seas in a corkscrew movement that brought the water gurgling in the scuppers at each plunge. (p.36)

The machine of grab

Innes used this phrase in an earlier book and now again, here.

Nothing to Jorgensen was a man who had no power over other men. Power was what he loved more than anything. Power over men, possibly women, too. The sleek smoothness of the man! Even in borrowed clothes he achieved a kind of bourgeois respectability. And yet behind it all was this violent delight in power. It was there in his eyes, in the quick, down-drawn frown of his thick eyebrows. But never exposed, never revealed. The iron claw in the velvet gloves. I’d seen it all my life. This man belonged to the ranks of the controllers of the machine of grab. (p.65)

He is not a socialist as such: the world is full of corporations which his heroes work for with no qualms. He is not as overtly anti-Big Business as Ambler. But he dislikes the greed and power-lust which so often hide behind the veneer of bourgeois respectability.

And his heroes are regularly outsiders, lawbreakers. Jim Pryce in Killer Mine is a deserter; Jim Vardy in Maddon’s Rock is convicted of mutiny; George Farnell in this novel is an ‘ex-convict, swindler, forger, deserter, murderer’ and yet the hero of the story, a man whose artist’s passion for minerals redeems him.

Prolepsis/anticipation

As usual the text is sprinkled with ominous anticipations of doom, or at least bad events which the text foreshadows. To build tension and anticipation. To underpin the idea that this is a chronicle set down in peace and quiet after it is all over, ie the author knows what the final outcome will be.

The fat, jovial voice with the sing-song intonation of Eastern Norway had left me with the impression of a big man – a big man who enjoyed life and was also a rogue. I was to get to know that voice too well in the days that followed. But I was never to revise my first impression. (p.69)

These anticipations colour our perception – of the individuals or moments to which they’re attached – but also confirm the author’s authority as master of his narrative.

His air of command had taken me by surprise. Before the next few hours were out Alf Sunde was to give me several surprises. (p.160)

You English…

Most of Eric Ambler’s pre-War novels set, as they are, abroad and featuring, as they do, many foreign characters, also feature moments where the characters gently laugh at the Englishman’s political naiveté or emotional frigidity. This is also true of Innes’s novels. It happened at a couple of prominent moments in The Lonely Skier and happens in this novel, too. Does it reflect a general view the English held of themselves in the 1930s and 40s? Or is it a convention of the thriller genre that foreigners are allowed their little joke at our expense? Or is it simply inevitable that anyone concocting dialogue for foreigners will at some point slip in one or two jokes about us Brits?

‘You English – you are like bulldogs. You never let go. You can ignore anything and concentrate on the one thing that matters to you.’ [Dahler] (p.56)

Dramatis personae

  • ‘Big’ Bill Gansert: for eight years BM&I’s production chief at their alloy plant in Birmingham, developed a nickel mine in Canada, worked with Farnell in southern Rhodesia. Packs it in to go sailing in the Mediterranean but at the last minute is persuaded by
  • Sir Clinton Mann: Chairman of BM&I
  • George Farnell: aka Bernt Olsen: the missing man, the McGuffin, the motor for the plot. Dark and short and convicted for defrauding his business partner, before escaping and assuming a Norwegian identity and becoming a war hero. BM&I come into possession of a lump of thorite sent wrapped in whale blubber with a quote from Rupert Brooke’s farewell sonnet, The Soldier. What does it mean?
  • Bill’s crew
  • Dick Everard: 28, tall, freckled, talented Navy captain, demobbed and at a loose end.
  • Carter: the quintessential Scottish naval engineer, never happier than tinkering with the engines. ‘Ye dinna ha’ to fash yersel’ aboot the engine, Mr Gansert.’ (p.26)
  • Wilson: other crew member
  • Visitors
  • Jill Somers: 26, tall, active, competent sailor. Daughter of Walter Somers, partner in Petersen and Somers.
  • Major Curtis Wright: heavily built, red hair, regular Army. Farnell’s commander at the Malöy Raid, after which Farnell went deliberately awol.
  • Dahler: Norwegian, half-paralysed, once owned a fleet of coastal steamers, bitterly hating Jorgensen who he accuses of collaborating with the Nazis. But then Jorgensen accuses Dahler of collaborating with the Nazis.
  • Knut Jorgensen: powerful confident CEO of a Norwegian mining company, wants to do a deal with Gansert and BM&I.
  • Norwegians
  • Captain Lovaas: fat, jolly, untrustworthy whaling captain. Once he realises there’s big money involved he’s prepared to use his harpoon gun against the Diviner if he thinks it will gain advantage.
  • Sunde: weak and scared salvage diver, who transforms in the second half of the book into super-capable ex-Resistance fighter, skiier and tracker.
  • Kielland: manager of the Bovaagen Hval whaling station who gives our heroes an in-depth tour of the facilities and explanation of the whaling business.
  • Hans Schreuder: Austrian Jew who escapes to Norway, collaborates with the Nazis. He enrolled as crew on Lovaas’s boat but was recognised, locked up and escaped just as Gansert came alongside, jumped overboard and disappeared.

Related links

White Circle Pocket edition of The Blue Ice

White Circle Pocket edition of The Blue Ice

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

The Saga of the Jomsvikings

Classifying sagas

Hundreds of long prose texts were composed in Iceland in the 13th and 14th centuries, the texts we call sagas. Modern scholars bring some order to this profusion by classifying them as:

  • sagas of Icelanders (Íslendinga sögur) – just over 40 texts describing what purport to be the true exploits of ordinary figures from the early settlement of Iceland, the so-called Saga Period, from 870 to just after the Christianisation in 1000 – this is the category which includes all the famous sagas ie Njal, Grettir, Laxdaela and so on
  • short tales of Icelanders (Íslendingaþættir) – around 66 items, often very short, often abstracted from the longer kings’ sagas
  • kings’ sagas (Konungasögur) – lives of Scandinavian kings, most notably the famous Heimskringla
  • contemporary sagas (Samtíðarsögur) – contemporary to their 13th century time of composition, written soon after the events they describe, most preserved in the compilation Sturlunga saga
  • legendary sagas (Fornaldarsögur) – dealing with deep myths and legends of the Northern peoples, most notably the Völsunga saga
  • chivalric sagas (Riddarasögur) – frequently copied from southern, mostly French chansons de geste
  • saga of the Greenlanders (Grænlendingasögur)
  • saints’ sagas (Heilagra manna sögur)
  • bishops’ sagas (Biskupa sögur)

Jómsvíkinga saga is told in the flat, objective style of the sagas of Icelanders but deals with chieftains and kings and high politics, so is more of a king’s saga.

Summary

Jomsborg is founded on the north German coast by the legendary Danish hero, Pálni-Tóki. It is a fraternity of vikings who raid around the Baltic. After Pálni-Tóki’s death the new leader, Sigvaldi, kidnaps King Svein of Denmark and tricks him into marrying Gunnhild, daughter of the Wendish king Búrisleif. Svein’s revenge is to invite the vikings to a feast at which he gets them drunk and encourages them to vow to conquer Norway and its ruler Earl Hákon Sigfurdsson. At the resulting Battle of Hjörungavágr the Jomsvikings are soundly beaten and, in a famous scene, 70 of them are lined up and executed until Eirik, Hákon’s son, is moved by their bravery to spare them.

Accretions

The Battle of Hjörungavágr is the core of the story and yet it only occurs in the last ten or so chapters of the 38-chapter long text. Over the centuries the oral tradition and the scribes (endless controversy about how much of each) have added on 20 or more chapters of build-up stretching back some 150 years before the main event, introducing, for example, the series of prophetic dreams (rather garbled and ineffective in the event, as they don’t actually foretell many key events). As with all the sagas events are told in the same flat style with little or no explanation which means you have to reread the text since, only when you’ve got to the end, do you find out what it’s about, which bits are important and which bits are fun and fanciful but unnecessary to the ‘plot’.

History and non-history

As the scholar N.F. Blake writes in his thorough and academic introduction to this 1962 edition, despite the highly detailed nature of the text which appears to be all about kings and battles, ‘The Jómsvíkinga Saga is not a historical text and has no value as a historical document. The main claim that the saga has to our attention is its literary excellence.’

Maybe so, but the saga is densely packed thoughout with real historical personages and, although their relations may be cast in fairy tale terms of three dreams and three visits and trick oaths and miraculous storms, nonetheless a lot of it is meaningless unless you have a good grasp of the power relations between the various kings and earls of Norway and Denmark – a challenging feat since the sources are meagre and even the best modern scholarship is dismayingly speculative about much of this period.

However, the overall affect is similar to other substantial sagas in that the mere effort involved in trying to follow the story leads you to become emotionally attached to some of the protagonists (for example, the venerable Bjorn the Welshman who is quietly effective throughout), even when their actions are repellent, even when their characters are almost non-existent – so that by the time the tragic end arrives the reader is moved partly out of sheer exhaustion at having stuck with the text till the bitter end.

Versions

Apparently the saga exists in five versions which are quite different in detail. This translation is from version H. There are also a number of other texts retailing the adventures of the Jomsvikings, which give completely different versions of key facts, for example about who founded them and where Jomsborg even was. This saga doesn’t give the definitive account, the reverse: reading this saga would be only the beginning of a journey towards a full understanding of the subject…

Detailed synposis

1 – In Denmark ruled King Gorm the Childless. His friend Earl Arnfinn holds a fiefdom in north Germany from Charlemagne (d.814). The earl has an incestuous relationship with his sister who bears a son. Slaves are told to expose it but, as always in this fable, leave it where it will be found by King Gorm and his hirdmen hunting. The babe is found in rich fabric knotted into a tree, so Gorm calls him Knut (knot) and adopts him and leaves him his kingdom. Knut himself has a son he names Gorm who will later be known as Gorm the Mighty.
2 – In Holstein rules Earl Klakk-Harald. His daughter Þyri has no equal in beauty. King Gorm comes with his army seeking her hand, but Harald wisely invites him to a feast at which Þyri herself says he must come again with gifts, build a house where none has stood, and sleep three nights in winter, having three dreams. Gorm goes away, builds the house, sleeps there on three consecutive nights and has dreams and tells Þyri who says she can marry him. Big wedding feast.
3 – Gorm tells his dreams: 1. He is looking out over his kingdom, the sea has receded to dry up. He sees three white oxen come out of the sea, eat all the grass, and return to the sea. 2. Three red oxen with large horns come up from the sea, strip all the grass, and return to the sea. 3. Three enormous black oxen come from the sea, eat all the grass, and return. Then a loud crash as the sea rushes back to where it had been. Þyri interprets: three white oxen are three heavy winters covering the land with snow. Three red oxen mean three winters with little snow but not good. The three black oxen mean a dire famine. The crash of the sea means civil war between great men close to Gorm. The queen pledges to prepare for the famine and when it comes there is enough food to feed all, whence she becomes known as the wisest woman alive and the Glory of Denmark.
4 – King Gorm invites Earl Harald to visit him at Christmas but the earl and men see a tree covered with blossom and decide it is a bad omen and turn back (symbolising the change from heathenism to Christianity in Denmark). Next year another Christmas invite but when they board a ship the earl and his men hear whelps barking in their mothers’ wombs (the rebellion of Svein against his father). Next year another invitation but this time the earl and his men see waves crashing and the sea turning red (the conflict between Knut and Harald – this never happens as Knut is killed by a Saxon arrow – see below). The king is all for attacking and ravaging Holstein but his wife calms him and invites her father who explains what kept him home three times and interprets the events as warning that boys yet unborn will cause great strife.
5 – Earl Harald bestows his land on  his foster-son Knut and goes on pilgrimage never to return. Aethelstan is king in England (925-39). The Danish army led by Gorm’s sons Knut and Harald invades and ravages Northumberland. Aethelstan gathers an army and defeats the Danes near Scarborough. One day the men were swimming by their ships when English men attack with bows, mortally wounding Knut. The English rally and the Danes are decisively expelled. They return to tell King Gorm who dies of heartbreak and is buried at Jelling (930? 940?). Harald Gormsson is elected king who will become known as King Harald Bluetooth (958-986).
6 – At this time Norway is ruled by Harald Greycloak (960-970?), the son of Eirik Bloodaxe, and his mother, Eirik’s wife Gunnhild, who had expelled Earl Hakon Sigurdarson, who takes 10 ships and to a Viking life. During winter King Harald Gormsson/Bluetooth and Earl Hákon plot treachery against King Harald Greycloak of Norway and in the spring he is killed (970) by dead Knut’s son Gull-Harald (who Hákon then string up on a gallows for his trouble). Then the Holy Roman Emperor Otto comes on an expedition (974), gets Olaf Tryggvasson to help him and they force King Harald Bluetooth and Earl Hákon to become Christians.
7 – There was a man named Tóki who lived in Fyn in Denmark. He has three sons, the illegitimate Fjolnir (sneak), legitimate Áki (hero) and Pálnir (father of the legendary Pálni-Tóki). When Tóki  dies the two legitimate sons divide his property, offering Fjolnir a third of the chattels but not property. Angered he goes off to serve King Harald, rising to become his counsellor. Áki Tókason becomes the most successful viking raider in the land but Fjolnir feeds King Harald a steady diet and criticism and paranoia. When they learn Áki is at a feast in Gotland the king sends 10 ships and 600 men who successfully kill all Áki’s 120 men. Fjolnir has had his revenge.
8 – When Áki’s brother learns this he takes to his bed in despair since he cannot carry out the required revenge against so powerful a man as the king. His foster-brother Sigurdr advises asking the hand in marriage of Ingibjorg, daughter of Earl Ottar of Götland. He says yes and travels to Fyn for the grand wedding feast. That night in their wedding chamber Ingibjorg has a dream she is weaving on a loom the threads of which are weighted with human heads. One falls down and it is the head of King Harald Gormsson/Bluetooth. Good sign.
9 – Pálnir and Ingibjorg have a son Pálni-Tóki who grows up big and strong. (Apparently Pálni-Tóki is a legendary figure, comparable to William Tell and other heroes.) When his father dies he goes a-viking every summer. Wales is ruled by Stefnir who has a daughter Álof. Pálni-Tóki plans to raid there but Stefnir and his adviser Bjorn the Welshman quickly send emissaries inviting him to a feast and to be friends. Not only does Pálni-Tóki attend but he proposes to Stefnir’s daughter, Álof. Stefnir makes Pálni-Tóki an earl and gives him half of Wales. After a year Pálni-Tóki says he wants to return to Denmark, so leaves his half the kingdom in control of Bjorn the Welshman.
10 – King Harald Bluetooth progresses round his land. He stays with Pálni-Tóki. As a result of his carousing a servant woman, Saum-Aesa, falls pregnant and bears a son (960). When Pálni-Tóki learns it is by the king he adopts the child and calls it Sveinn. (He will grow up to be the Sven Forkbeard who rebels against his father and conquers England in 1013.)  Next time the king is visiting they present him the three year-old boy but the king is angry and doesn’t want to know. Pálni-Tóki vows to bring him up royally.
11 – When he is 15 Pálni-Tóki advises him to go ask for ships from his father so he can go raiding. He harries Denmark and the farmers complain. Next spring he asks for more ships and harries fiercely all summer. When he meets his father he threatens him and Harald buys him off with more ships. Pálni-Tóki congratulates him: he is becoming strong and threatening. Pálni-Tóki goes to check his lands in Wales.
12 – Svein harries, burning and looting. Finally King Harald sets off with 50 ships to confront him.  The fleets meet off Bornholm. Day-long battle is inconclusive and the ships anchor. Harald goes ashore. Pálni-Tóki arrives back from Wales with 24 ships. Harald goes ashore with a handful of men and makes a fire. Pálni-Tóki shoots him dead with a golden arrow and sneaks away. Fjolnir keeps the arrow and Harald’s retainers agree to lie that the king fell in battle. Next day the naval fight resumes; Svein and Pálni-Tóki’s forces break through Harald’s blockade and sink more ships at which point everyone learns that Harald is dead. Svein and Pálni-Tóki give his followers the choice between fighting on or pledging their allegiance to Sveinn. They choose the latter and Sveinn progresses to an Assembly at which he is voted new king of Denmark.
13 – Svein is now king (986-1014). He invites Pálni-Tóki to a feast but three times (as in all good folk tales) he refuses, claiming he has to manage his affairs in Wales. Finally, under threats from Svein, Pálni-Tóki arrives with three ships and 120 men. Big feast. Fjolnir (the same sneak who persuaded King Harald to kill his uncle Aki) whispers to the king the story of Pálni-Tóki killing his father.
14 – Fjolnir gives a page the golden arrow and tells him to pass it round the room till someone claims it. Pálni-Tóki claims it and openly declares he shot and killed Svein’s father. Svein (Pálni-Tóki’s foster-son, after all) tells everyone to seize and kill Pálni-Tóki. Everyone leaps to their feet. Pálni-Tóki chops his bad uncle Fjolnir in two (cheers). But Pálni-Tóki and Bjorn the Welshman escape, though Bjorn goes back to rescue a man they’d left behind.
15 – The next summer Pálni-Tóki’s wife dies. He is restless in Wales, so leaves it to Bjorn the Welshman to manage and goes a-viking the coasts of Scotland and Ireland for three years, gaining great loot and then sets sail east to Wendland. The king of the Wends, Búrisleif, is understandably worried and offers Pálni-Tóki a base at a place named Jóm. Pálni-Tóki builds a castle there with a harbour that can hold 360 longships and has iron doors and catapults. (This all sounds fantasy from a long time later.) He calls it Jómsborg.
16 – Laws of the Jomsvikings: age 18-50; no refusing to fight; avenge each as a brother; never speak a word of fear; all valuable goods seized to be taken to the banner(?); no starting fights; news to be mentioned only to Pálni-Tóki; no women in the city; no-one absent for more than three days; if blood feuds exist between brothers Pálni-Tóki makes final agreement. They went harrying every summer. They were known as the Jomsvikings.
17 – A number of new families are introduced. Pálni-Tóki’s son is Áki, living back on Fyn in Denmark. Áki marries Thorgunn, daughter of Véseti, they have a son named Vagn who is tough and hard to handle.
18 – Sigvaldi and Thorkell, sons of Strut-Harald, ask his permission to go join the Jomsvikings and sail with 120 men via Bornholm where they land and raid farms owned by Véseti, then sail on to Joms. Pálni-Tóki stands on the battlements over the harbour and asks them their provenance. He knows their kin and half the men are accepted, half rejected.
19 – Meanwhile Véseti complains to King Svein about his farms being raided. Sveinn summons Earl Strutt-Harald who says his son’s actions are no responsibility of his. Véseti with 240 men plunders Harald’s farms, who complains to Sveinn but Sveinn says Harald wanted to act alone: so Harald goes raids three of Véseti’s farms.
20 – Sveinn calls a great assembly at which all parties arrive with ships and short-tempered men and it looks like a full-scale civil war might erupt, except Svein  declares a just settlement, Búi will return Harald’s cloak and riches (though not the chests of gold he insists on keeping) and awards Strut-Harald’s daughter to Véseti’s son Sigurd-kapa. All sides as reconciled.
21 – Then Búi and his brother Sigurd-kapa decide they want to go join the Jomsvikings. They sail there and are also asked questions by Pálni-Tóki on the tower. Sigvaldi and Thorkell want to be assured the feud between the families is settled.
22 – Vagn is such an unruly child that by the age of nine he has killed three men. Age 12 he asks Aki for a ship and sails to Jom. Long dialogue with Pálni-Tóki on the tower, involving Búi and Sigvaldi. Nobody wants to admit Vagn. Pálni-Tóki offers him rule in Wales, he says no. Then he challenges Sigvaldi to come out with two ships and fight it out.
23 – Sigvaldi and Vagn’s ships fight, first with hails of stones, then with swords. Sigvaldi is forced to retreat and loses thirty men. Pálni-Tóki is watching, stops the fighting and admits Vagn to the crew, even though he is only 12. He turns out a mighty warrior.
24 – Pálni-Tóki dies. Before passing he consults with King Búrisleif who gave them Jom about who should replace him. They agree Sigvaldi who is delighted. Vagn is given half of Wales to rule and goes there. But under Sigvaldi the Jomsvikings’ discipline deteriorates.
25 – King Búrisleif has three daughters. Sigvaldi asks for the hand of the Astrid. The King agrees but Astrid is not keen and says she’ll only do it on condition that Sigvald manages to liberate their country from the tribute they have to pay Denmark or, alternatively, brings King Svein there himself. They confirm the arrangement with oaths. Sigvald sails with three ships and 360 men to Sjaellund ie his home territory, learning that King Svein is holding a big feast nearby. Sigvald tells Sveinn he is dying and needs to tell him something important. King Svein comes onboard Sigvald’s ship at which Sigvald grips him and orders his men to raise anchor and row off hurriedly. He takes the king to Jomsborg where the vikings swear loyalty to him. Then Sigvald says he has pledged him (Svein) to King Búrisleif’s other daughter Gunnhild who will only accept him if he cancels the tribute which King Búrisleif has to pay him. Svein agrees and there is a mighty wedding feast. The wives wear veils until the next day when the king can see their faces and realises Sigvald was lying when he said Gunnhild was the most beautiful. Still, he sails back to Denmark with his new bride, thirty ships and fine gifts and Sigvald sails to Jom with his new wife.
26 – Earl Strut-Harald, father of Sigvald and Thorkell, dies. King Svein says the brothers should return for the funeral feast. People warn him against it but the brothers return to Sjaelland with 180 ships. Big feast, lots of drinking: Svein gets the vikings drunk then suggests they make oaths. He swears to defeat Aethelred and take England within three years (he does so in 1014). Sigvald swears that he will drive Earl Hákon out of Norway or die in the attempt. Thorkell the Tall vows to follow his brother. Búi vows to follow Sigvald. Sigurd-kapa vows to follow his brother. Vagn vows to follow his kinsmen, and then to go to bed with Ingibjorg, daughter of Thorkell leira. Bjorn the Welshman (surely getting on a bit by now) vows to follow Vagn. In the morning the sober vikings can’t remember their vows but his wife, Astrid, reminds Sigvald, and promises to help him make plans.

[In a footnote, N.F. Blake says that a man making an oath at a feast gets up from his seat and goes and puts one foot on a stone in the feast hall.]

Sweyn and the Jomsvikings at the funeral ale of his father Harald Bluetooth by Lorenz Frølich, 1886 (Wikimedia Commons)

Sweyn and the Jomsvikings at the funeral ale of his father Harald Bluetooth by Lorenz Frølich, 1886 (Wikimedia Commons)

27 – Next day King Svein reminds the now-sober Sigvald of his vow. They squabble about how many ships the king will give him, and agree to set off soon. Astrid promises help to her husband, and Tóva gives her husband Sigurd some fighting men. The Jomsvikings depart.
28 – The Jomsvikings sail to the Vik and attack Tønsborg in Norway, murdering and burning. It is managed by Geirmund the White who flees to an outhouse with retainers then, when attacked, leaps out a window and has his arm chopped off by Vagn Akisson, but nonetheless flees to the woods and makes his way north to Earl Hakon who he tells of the attack. When the earl doesn’t believe him, he shows his stump.
29 – Hákon sends round the war arrow and musters troops. He raises his sons Svein and Eirik. The fleet of 360 ships assembles at a creek called Hjörungavágr. The Jomsvikins sail north plundering. The incident of Vagn and Ulf ie Vagn goes ashore on an island and finds a farmer tending three cows and 12 goats and asks him if he’s seen the Norwegian forces and he says he’s seen the king in one boat and the Joms force him to direct them and when he thinks they’re going t orealise he was lying he dives overboard but Vagn kills him with one spear throw.
30 – Detailed list of the men lined up on either side. For some reason space is devoted to one of Hákon’s skalds, Skjald-meyjar-Einarr, who recites a poem saying he’s going to leave. The earl gives him an elaborate set of magic scales and he stays. (This poet is mentioned in Egils saga as one of Hakon’s court poets and is also unhappy with his boss in that account.) And two verses from another Icelander named Vígfúss.
31 – The Battle of Hjörungavágr – detailed description of the battle lineup.
32 – Earl Hakon convenes with his sons and agree it looks like they’re losing. He goes ashore at Prímsign and prays to the heathen godesses, Thorgerd Holgabrudr and Irpa. He offers sacrifices which are rejected until he offers his seven-year-old son Erling who is then killed.
33 – He rallies his troops to rejoin the fray. As the day proceeds it clouds over until completely dark when lightning, thunder and hailstones break out. Many had taken off their clothes earlier in the day because of the heat and now begin to freeze. Whatever the Jomsvikings threw rebounded back on them plus the hail. The vikings with second sight see that a witch is throwing arrows at them. Hákon calls on his pagan goddess Thorgerd once again and the hailstorm is renewed, and those with second sight now see two witches fighting agains them. Sigvaldi concedes defeat. They didn’t vow to fight witches. Thorkell midlang leaps aboard Búi’s ship and hits him in the face with an axe, slips and Búi chops him in two; then Búi seizes his famous chests of gold (see chapter 20) and commands his men to abandon ship. Vagn, disgusted with Sigvald for abandoning his oath, makes an insulting poem about it then flings a spear at him which pins his steersman to the gunwale. Once Sigvald is gone, Thorkell the Tall, Sigurd-kapa and the rest all flee.
34 – Only Vagn fights on though many of his men are killed. When night falls the Norwegian earls take the oars from Vagn’s ship, anchor and weigh the hailstones sent by the pagan godesses Thorgerd and Irpa. Vagn’s men manage to float on the mast & sail to nearby skerries but many are wounded, it is bitter cold, and ten men die.
35 – At first light a viking arrow kills Gudbrand, kinsman of the earl. They search the abandoned viking ships and it came from Hávard the hewer whose feet have been cut off. They kill him. Earl Eirik asks Thorleif skuma why he looks so rough and Thorleif replies he seems to have been wounded when he attacked Vagn. Then he dies. This exchange seems to be there solely to justify what is, presumably, an old piece of skaldic verse attributed to Einarr skalagramm.
36 – Execution of the Jomsvikings The Norwegians see Vagn’s men on the skerry, row out and being them back prisoner, tie all 70 of them with ropes. Thorkel leira is appointed to execute them and, one by one, they ask whether they are afraid to die. They say no and one by one are beheaded, each one being asked the question and giving some kind of witty or ironic reply. One wants to be struck in the face so as to see death. Another is disappointed he won’t get to have sex with the earl’s wife, and so on.
37 – The famous story of the viking who requests a thrall to hold his hair up as he’s executed and who, as the blow falls, jerks his head down so that the thrall’s arms are chopped off above the wrist, and who then jokes, ‘Whose are these hands in my hair?’ He is killed and Earl Hakon orders all the others executed without delay. When they come to Vagn he replies he will only die content if he fulfils his vow: what was that? To kill Thorkel leira and lie with his daughter Ingibjorg without his consent. Thorkel is so furious he lunges at Vagn; Bjorn the Welshman pushes him over so the blow misses, Thorkel stumbles and the sword cuts through Vagn’s rope, freeing him, so that he grabs the sword and kills Thorkel with one blow. Hakon orders him killed on the spot but Earl Eirik overrules him on this and, in general, requests the rest of the Jomsviking be spared. Eirik asks old white-haired Bjorn the Welshman if he’s the brave man who returned to rescue a man from the hall (in chapter 14). When he says yes Eirik says will you accept your life from me and Bjorn says only if Vagn and all the others are spared. The Jomsvikings’ bravery in face of death and legendary solidarity are confirmed.

38 – Aftermath Earl Eirik grants Vagn his freedom and his wish, namely to marry Ingobjorg. He returns to Denmark, to his estates at Fyn, and lives to old age and many famous men are descended from him. Bjorn returns to rule Wales with a mighty reputation. Sigvaldi returns to his estates in Sjaelland and his wife Astrid. He rules wisely, as do the others ie Thorkell the Tall, Sigurd-kapa etc. But Búi, who had leapt overboard with no hands, is said to have turned into a serpent and ever afterwards guarded his gold. Earl Hákon gains great fame from his victory but doesn’t live much longer. Christian Olaf Trygvasson arrives in Norway and the fiercely pagan Hákon, on the run, is murdered by his own thrall while hiding in a pigsty (995). Olaf rules and converts all of Norway to Christianity.

‘That is the end of the story of the Jomsvikings.’

Related links

The Jomsvikings in a naval battle by Nils Bergslien, 1900 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Jomsvikings in a naval battle by Nils Bergslien, 1900 (Wikimedia Commons)

Other sagas

%d bloggers like this: