Vikings assemble . . . for the greatest battle that never happened

“Then the trumpets sounded, and both sides engaged in battle with all their strength. The sky seemed to fall suddenly on the earth, fields and woods to sink into the ground; all things were confounded, and old Chaos come again; heaven and earth mingling in one tempestuous turmoil, and the world rushing to universal ruin. For, when the spear-throwing began, the intolerable clash of arms filled the air with an incredible thunder. The steam of the wounds suddenly hung a mist over the sky, the daylight was hidden under the hail of spears . . .”

So wrote Saxo Grammaticus, a 12th-century Danish historian, describing with ghoulish enthusiasm the legendary Battle of Brávellir (pictured above) in his famous tome Gesta Danorum. He describes in great detail the people involved in the battle; the numbers of casualties, the individual deeds of the warriors, and their deaths. But Saxo was no eye-witness, he was simply recording a great battle that was said to have taken place four hundred years earlier, some time in the middle of the 8th century – a battle that may well never have taken place at all.

Saxo (pictured below) had been commissioned to write a history of the Danish people by his patron Bishop Absalon, a 12th-century Danish politician, and the huge work was designed, Saxo admits, “to glorify our fatherland”. In his book, history and legend, myth and fact, imagination and poetry are blended pleasingly into a stirring adventure story. He was, in essence, writing an early type of historical fiction. 

The Battle of Brávellir may not deserve a place in the history books – but I do think it deserves to be commemorated in a historical fiction novel, and I have done so in my new Fire Born book King of the North. Saxo’s tale needs to be preserved because it is an attempt to describe an ancient culture that is lost, written by someone a lot closer in time to that culture than we are. It seems such a deeply weird battle when you look at in with 21st-century eyes but Brávellir perfectly encapsulates the alien mindset of the old Scandinavian, pre-Christian world. It is a pure Viking narrative of battle-glory, honour, courage, self-sacrifice and, naturally, the meddling of the Norse gods.

It goes like this. Harald Wartooth, King of the Danes, ruled a peaceful kingdom. He was well advanced in age and his greatest fear was that he would die in his bed and so be denied a post-mortem place in Valhalla, the hall of slain heroes. [Harald was apparently so by-named because he had an unruly tooth sticking out of his jaw at a strange angle, which some wag joked he could use to gore an enemy – a “war tooth”.]

The King of the Danes got in touch with Sigurd Hring, King of the Svear (Swedes), and asked him to meet the Danish army in one great final battle, so that Harald would not suffer such an inglorious demise. Sigurd agreed and they set a date for the battle – an astonishing seven years in the future – and both side began to prepare for this apocalyptic brawl.

Each king began to recruit mercenaries from all across the North to swell their ranks – men (and women) from Ireland, England, Frisia, Saxony, Norway, Finland, the Slavic lands of Europe and what would later become Russia. One of the things I particularly enjoy about Saxo’s descriptions is the colourful names of these heroes: Are the One-Eyed, Dag the Fat, Hothbrodd the Indomitable. Egil the Bald, Grette the Evil, Blig Bignose, Ragnvald the Wise Counsellor and Einar the Fatbellied . . .

The two sides agreed to meet on the Swedish border with Ostergotland, near the modern town of Norrkoping. This is a large piece of flat land between a deep inlet of the sea called the Braviken and a series of big inland lakes. To the north is a long, steep, heavily wooded ridge called the Kolmarden, which marks the beginning of Sigurd’s territory of Svealand. The location is perfect for a land battle, and is also easily accessible by sea, so Harald Wartooth could bring his troops right up to the front lines in their ships. And, what blows my mind, is that this time and place was agreed well in advance by both kings. It’s the equivalent of schoolboys saying, “Meet me after school, at 4pm, behind the bike sheds for a fight.”

Saxo claims both sides mustered armies of 200,000 warriors – an impossibly large number. He says 300 shield maidens were involved (but they probably didn’t look much like the woman in the pic below). And that 40,000 men were killed in battle. All of these figures, we can assume, were plucked from thin air. 

Harald Wartooth fought magnificently, Saxo says. He rode around the battlefield on a golden chariot with swords attached to the wheels – a là Boudicca – and slew a great many of the Swedish heroes. His faithful steward Bruni rode in the chariot beside his king and, when he deemed that Harald had earned himself enough glory, Bruni smashed him over the head with a club, killing him instantly. This was a good outcome, Saxo insists, because the god Odin, who was present, had pointed out Harald Wartooth in the fray to one of the Valkyries, to make sure he was chosen among the slain for entrance to Valhalla. 

So Harald Wartooth got what he wanted. And Sigurd Hring won the battle and became the ruler of both Sweden and Denmark. This double-monarchy was the genesis of my novel. I decided to invent an ancient title “King of the North”, the overlord of all the Scandinavian monarchs, and have both Swedish and Danish kings vying for it. I also made other significant changes to the Saxo narrative. I still have wonderful by-names for the warriors involved, but mine are called Egil Skull-Cleaver, Einar the Cruel and Lars Crookback, and so on. I still have a pre-arranged battle fought on the plain near Norrkoping as the climax of the book but my heroes Bjarki Bloodhand and Tor Hildarsdottir are instrumental in the outcome. And, in my tale, Harald Wartooth is the Jarl of Sjaelland, not the King of the Danes, and his story is quite different to that described by Saxo (so don’t worry too much about spoilers).

So did the great battle of Brávellir actually take place? We don’t know. I suspect that there was a big slaughter at some point – possibly at Norrkoping – but the identities of those involved and their motives have become completely obscured with the passing of time. Over the past 800 years the opinion of historians has swung back and forth but the consensus now is that the historicity of the battle is impossible to verify. 

Yet I think a battle or a war doesn’t have to be historical to be important. If you don’t believe me, ask Homer. We are still talking, writing and making movies about the fall of Troy some 3,000 years after Achilles supposedly sulked in his tent. We can enjoy King of the North – or Saxo Grammaticus’s “history” – simply for its portrayal of the old Viking virtues, which I admit still strike a deep chord with me today: contempt for death, the paramount importance of honour, and the knowledge that while life is fleeting, your reputation lives on, perhaps for ever. So I do hope you enjoy my new Viking novel, even if it is just historical fiction based on earlier historical fiction. 

King of the North (Fire Born 4) is available from Amazon in eBook, paperback and audio versions

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