Norsemen featured heavily in my childhood reading: mostly Henry Treece and some C. Walter Hodges, with a bit of Rosemary Sutcliff and Jill Paton Walsh. Looking back, this was probably because my mother bought books that linked into my history curriculum – I was home-schooled – but the early years of British history particularly attracted me. An odd word, that, ‘attract.’ I was aware their behaviour included enslaving, killing and robbing, but my books, fiction and history text books, were written for children and did not go into detail, and maybe as a child in a safe, loving home I didn’t really think about the horror faced by the men, women and children who suffered the fury of the Norsemen.
I will make my disclaimer again: I haven’t researched for this article beyond visiting the sites and reading the plaques carefully, so don’t treat me as a historian. I haven’t done extensive research into current thinking about Viking behaviour. What strikes me each time I visit a country inhabited by the descendants of this fearsome race is how civilised they are. The people are polite, kind, and more than tolerant of tourists who can’t speak their language, their streets are clean and their children well-behaved. Our visit to Oslo, and to the museum of polar exploration, only served to enforce this impression.
Oslo spreads itself round several harbours on a low shelf in the south of Norway. Its reach is wide, but from the promenade you can see wooded islands rising out of the water, and a trip to the end of the Metro line takes you to Nordmarka, the ‘city park,’ miles of mossy woodland where you can follow the broad track with families and dog-walkers or strike off into paths laced with roots and studded with slippery rocks. Autumn colours of yellowing leaves lightened the green.
The city centre itself is, to my untutored eye, a mix of 19c and 20c: apartments blocks with fine frontages in russet, caramel or dove grey; a few brutalist wonders; and the shining flanks of the Barcode, a set of modern towers that show the best of Scandinavian design. It positively rattles with museums, celebrating its history and culture. I’m going to run through some highlights in historical order, rather than in the order we saw them.
The Viking Museum took a trip out by bus to reach. Here, four burial ships are displayed proudly, with the goods that had accompanied the dead – yes, and some bones that survived of the two women buried in one of them. The boats are wide and shallow, the curve of their prows proud and graceful. Most of the excavated items were wooden, and often intricately carved, serpents weaving loops with warriors. Dragons? Yes, I found most of the dragon heads familiar to me from a childhood blessed with well-illustrated history books. There were two for a tent frame, one for a bedpost and four that astonished me for being so small. I’d always thought these fearsome carvings to be huge beasts designed for the prow head. Not one of these would have fitted on a shop, and the last four are thought to be meant for a burial rite, with metal rattles attached to them to clash and ring. Many of the goods were practical, including a milk churn for the two women. The dead weren’t going to go hungry, but I do wonder how the women felt when they woke up and realised that being dead only meant more housework.
Perhaps it was the women who persuaded the Viking nations to convert to Christianity, not just to keep up with the neighbours but for a better afterlife. It must have changed the values of at least some of the citizens of Oslo, because its patron saint is valued for protecting a slave woman – and being killed in the process. St Hallvard is honoured in the manholes all over the city – and doubtless elsewhere, but this is where we found him. It’s thanks to Google Images that I traced the legend. Hallvard was a merchant, just setting out on his boat when a slave woman came running up to the bank, screaming for help. She’d been accused, wrongly, she said, of robbing a home, and three men were after her. Hallvard believed her and took her on board. But the three men chased them, shot at them, and killed them both, tying a millstone to Hallvard’s neck to make his body sink. Saints, however, are known not for being safe from violence but for the curious behaviour of their remains, and Hallvard’s body floated. His friends found him and buried him. On the manhole cover you can see he holds the arrows in one hand and the millstone in another, while the woman lies beneath his feet.
Conversion to Christianity did not mean abandoning those dragons. In the Historical Museum a room is dedicated to the 12c onwards, with saintly figures and surrounds saved from those impressive buildings, the stave churches. Once more, serpents writhe through the wood grain and their huge eyes gleam in the shine of the material. Here you can see the church porch that features the blood-and-thunder story of Sigurd, immortalised by Wagner in the Ring Cycle. The story starts at the bottom right as we look at it, with Sigurd forging his sword, and moves up the right, across to bottom left and up to the top with Gunnar in the pit of snakes, being killed by Atli (Attila the Hun) for the famous treasure of the Nibelung.
The shopping centre is named after a king of Norway who was actually French. Karl Johan started life as Jean Bernadotte, one of Napoleon’s marshals. He was offered the crown of Sweden after the French retreat from Moscow, and went on to lead the Swedes against Bonaparte. In 1814 Sweden forced Norway to accept him as king of their country too. This might seem a bad start to his reign over the Norse, but he appears to have been popular in his time, and firmly on the side of his subjects rather than his former master. His palace displays itself in a wide park and he sits astride his horse looking over the heads of the tourists, who come to watch the guards in their dark uniform marching up and down in front of the steps.
The Fram Museum, a short walk away from the Viking Museum, really shows a different side to the Norwegian character. Whether or not their ancestors were savage robbers, Norway can be proud of Roald Amundsen. The makers of the museum certainly are, and it would seem rightly so. Amundsen led various expeditions into wild territories, and his success in the Antarctic was thanks to patient preparation and an openness to learning more and more about survival techniques. He and his crew befriended Inuit locals as they prepared for their journey to the North Pole, and through mutual respect and trust gained valuable knowledge on how to live in arctic conditions. Brave, resilient and humane – now that’s a hero to be proud of.
Three days in the city and it was time to go home, with a new respect for this country just across the water from me. We will be coming back!