Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Turbulent Life of Kalf Arnason

"Brother against brother." A classic description of the American Civil War. It's an adage that we in modern day find astonishing. How could a man try and kill a relative? In our Civil War, the answer is complex yet brief: both sides believed so strongly in their cause. The North aimed to keep this nation from tearing apart. The South believed it had every right to take its business elsewhere and govern a new country all to themselves. Yet, if the belief wasn't there, would we still wonder at the violence? If, instead, it was a politically strategic move carried out by an ambitious individual, we'd be left scratching our heads instead of marveling at the violence with eager interest. Before there Civil War, before even the Europeans came to America, we find a man in Norway perpetrating just such a scheme. His name was Kalf Arnason.

Kalf's story really begins with an Icelandic poet named Stein. Olaf the Stout, later known as St. Olaf, was the king of Norway. He wanted his greedy little paws in every body's cookie pot, so he invited some of the leading men of Iceland to visit him. Those men showed up, and King Olaf decided that until all of Iceland converted to Christianity, as well as pay him some cool taxes, no one was leaving. As a result, Stein was on edge. He longed for home and couldn't quite shake the feeling that he was a hostage. One day, he got in a tussle and killed one of King Olaf's bailiffs. Seeing his end sight, Stein ran for it. He came to the house of Thorberg Arnason, but found home alone the woman of the house, Ragnhild. She took in the terrified poet and promised him help.

When Thorberg found out that his wife had taken in a murderer, not to mention a murderer of a royal servant, he was none too pleased. The couple argued over Stein's future, but it becomes obvious that Ragnhild wore the tunic in this relationship. So Stein stayed. And soon, Thorberg received an ominous summons from King Olaf to join him at his court. Thorberg did what any man in his situation would do: he begged his family for help. He approached three of his brothers for advice and assistance. Both Finn Arnason and Arni Arnason chided their brother for marrying such a heard-headed woman and refused to help. His brother Kalf Arnason, however, required no explanations. He left at once to aid in his brother's case against the king. And so our first glimpse of Kalf is that he is a loyal family man. And even though Finn and Arni show up in the end, Kalf has no hesitation in supporting his brother...or opposing the king.

The Brothers Arnasons gather a large force and go with Thorberg to meet King Olaf. Think about this: These brothers are sticking their necks out for some Icelandic poet none of them even know, just because their sister-in-law wouldn't shut up! They were risking treason! Olaf was not happy to see the brothers up in arms. Finn offered compensation for the bailiff that Stein killed, as well as compensation for Thorberg for harboring a criminal. Olaf agreed, only if the brothers swore oaths of allegiance to him. Finn, Arni, and Thorberg all gave themselves over to the king's service. Kalf did not. He did not like the idea of swearing allegiance to anyone and went his own way.

Now at this time, our favorite bad-ass was stirring up trouble across the sea in England. King CNUT remained a constant threat throughout King Olaf's reign. If someone was dissatisfied with Olaf's rule, he would often times threaten to leave for England and serve CNUT the POWERFUL. And indeed, many of those who ran afoul of King Olaf did just that. CNUT wasn't idle however. He had his eye on Norway and slyly began formulating his plan for conquest. His first order of business was to plant some of his men in Olaf's circle, or, better yet, bribe some of Olaf's men to side with him. One of these traitors was Thorir, former foster son and later step-son of Kalf Arnason. CNUT put a golden ring on Thorir's arm in exchange for his service. When Olaf found out, both Thorir and his brother were put to death.

Kalf took the death of Thorir to heart. He had raised the boy as his own, had tried to offer compensation to the king, and had to watch as the king's men took Thorir's life. Thorir's biological father, Olivr of Egg, had also been killed by Olaf's men years ago for refusing to give up his heathen religion. All around Kalf was death at the hands of King Olaf, and it ate away at him. The rest of Norway was shaken up by Thorir's death. A popular and promising youth, Thorir had been taken in haste. This death was a turning point for many Norwegians. They went from being annoyed with their king to being furious with him. Thorir was a rallying point if not quite a martyr. There just wasn't yet any place for them to put their anger.

King Olaf began losing steam. Rumors of an invasion by King CNUT had him on edge. Soon those rumors turned into a massive Danish and English fleet waiting at Norway's doorstep. Between CNUT's huge force and the turned backs of his angry subjects, Olaf had no choice but to flee. CNUT was accepted as the King of Norway while his predecessor ran for his life. Chasing after him was a man named Erling Skjalgsson, the father-in-law of Kalf Arnason. Olaf pulled off a great maneuver and challenged Erling, even though he was outnumbered. Erling was killed at the end of the battle, against the will of King Olaf. And we are told just after the battle that the Brothers Arnason were with the king up this point. And while Erling probably meant little to Finn, Arni, or Thorberg, he was another kinsmen of Kalf's. Did Kalf fight against his father-in-law? Did this man who came unquestioning to the aid of his brother throw relations out of the window to fight for a king who had already killed three friends and to whom he swore no allegiance? What kind of turmoil was Kalf Arnason going through at this point?

He seems lost, caught in the ebb and flow of unlucky circumstances. But I think that Kalf was biding his time, unwilling to commit to Olaf because there was nothing in it for him. His true colors came out just after the battle with Erling. Kalf urged the king to sail back up to Norway to take on Earl Hakon, the man left in charge by King CNUT who had gone back to England. Olaf didn't have the numbers and instead fled to Sweden. Kalf then returns home where he finds his wife in a terrible temper. She lost her father, her first husband, and two sons to King Olaf, and she demanded that Kalf do something about. So Kalf turns a 180, sailed up to where Earl Hakon was a swore fealty. Then, he sailed to England to offer himself to King CNUT. What the fuck, Kalf? Was his wife's goading really that bad? Was he just a bumbling idiot who did whatever anyone told him? No, I think Kalf had a plan, and that plan was to stay on the winning side, even if that meant serving different kings. CNUT also made him a promise. If Kalf defended Norway from Olaf, the earldom would be his. Kalf would rule Norway in the name of CNUT.

King CNUT made this same promise to another prominent man from Norway. His name was Einar. But he, unlike Kalf did not trust King CNUT. First of all, Earl Hakon already filled that position. Secondly, CNUT had a baboon of a son named Svein, sitting in Denmark, just hankering to really fuck something up. Kalf left England and quickly returned to Norway to prepare the people against an invasion by Olaf. Einar, however, took his time. This move would prove to pay off ten-fold. 

Soon after Kalf's meeting with CNUT, Earl Hakon drowned at sea, which left Norway extremely vulnerable. Kalf waited for word from England that the position was his, but no word came. Instead, a rumbling from the east told him that Olaf was indeed returning. The death of Hakon was like an open invitation. Olaf began gathering followers while Kalf began whipping the farmers into shape. Without a legit leader, Kalf took it upon himself to incite the Norwegians. He would remind them all of the hardships Olaf had caused, would rant about the grievances they all held against their old king. Olaf, on the other hand, was collecting highway robbers, criminals, and a borrowed force from Sweden. And by the time he got back to Norway, three brothers joined his ranks: Finn, Arni, and Thorberg.

The forces faced off at Stiklarstath. Kalf on one side with Thorir the Hound, Harek, and the farmers. King Olaf stood on the other side with Kalf's brothers and the band of misfits who wanted to restore the rightful king back to the throne. Olaf stood no chance. His force was greatly outnumbered. Kalf not only fought against his brothers but quite possibly was the man who dealt King Olaf his death blow. After the battle, Kalf sought out his kin. He found all three brothers wounded but alive. Finn threw his sword at Kalf and swore he would kill him. But Kalf bore them all off the battlefield and nursed them back to health. What kind of man were you, Kalf?!

After the fall of King Olaf, Kalf watched his plans and his promises crumble as CNUT's son Svein took control of Norway. He watched as Svein imposed heavy taxes and harsh new laws that broke the farmers' spirits. He watched too as Einar sailed back to Norway, also holding onto CNUT's broken promises but blameless in expelling and defeating his own king. In fact, Einar became very popular as he pushed the church to recognize the sanctity of the late Olaf. Kalf seemed more lost than ever. His brothers hated him. The people blamed him. It was he after all who pushed them to expel Olaf in favor of CNUT. So Kalf does the only thing he can think of to repair some of the damage he did. He, along with Einar, sails to Germany to where Olaf's son Magnus is hiding and swears an oath of loyalty to the son of the king he killed.

The wonder of brother on brother violence is lost in the story of Kalf Arnason. There is no clear, strong belief available for us to accept that type of treachery. Instead, we get a glimpse of a wonderfully broken and struggling human being in the midst of the medieval warrior facade. So often a Viking is portrayed as tall, handsome, skilled. Seldom do we see this type of internal struggle, this back and forth, this thirst for power yet unmistakable regret. Kalf Arnason is a small character in the overall Saga of St. Olaf, but it is one that I found more fascinating than Olaf himself. These sagas truly are wonderful works of prose, and I'm excited to see where Magnus the Good takes us. Stay true, History Fans.