According to the Heimskringla and several other Norse sagas, the small West-Norwegian town of Hjørungavåg witnessed a fierce battle between the forces of jarl Hakon Sigurdsson and an invading Danish fleet captained by Svein Forkbeard. Scholars have estimated that this half-historical, half-legendary battle took place in the year 986. The confrontation ended in a victory for Hakon, who, according to the saga of the Jomsvikings, received help from two female deities or Valkyries “shooting arrows from each finger.”
The little-known poet Peter Marius Petersen (1845 – 1917), a chemistry and art teacher by education, based a one act play on this historical episode, which was published in book form in 1879. I Hjørungavåg would never be performed by a professional theater and quite rightly so, as it is indeed clearly the work of a little-known poet. His old-fashioned Romanticist poetics was painfully out of tune with the realism made popular by contemporaries like Henrik Ibsen. However, it is very well possible that the play was staged by amateur companies in later years, especially in the area around Hjørungavåg during the jubilee celebrations in 1886. Petersen, by the way, unjustly – as we know now – situated the battle in the year 994.
The story in I Hjørungavåg is told from the perspective of two women, Astrid and Ingeborg, mother and daughter, who fearfully await the outcome of the battle that is raging outside their door. They are rooting for both teams, so to say: father Thorkel fights on the side of Norwegians, cousin Vagn in the Danish army. To make matters even more complicated, Ingeborg and Vagn are in love, and Vagn has sworn an oath to kill Thorkel – once again: her father – who twenty years earlier killed his (Vagn’s) father, who also happened to be Astrid’s brother… do you still follow?
Long story short: after a lot of dressing-up and disguises and all the confusion that comes with it – including the intervention of an one-eyed oldster (i.e. Odin) – Vagn kills Thorkel and gets the girl. They receive the blessing of the victorious Norwegian chieftain Erik – Hakon’s son – who acknowledges that Vagn, although his enemy, has acted honorably. All Vikings bring a toast to Erik. Curtains close.
Remarkable about I Hjørungavåg is the stereotypical division that Petersen draws between Denmark and Norway. The contrast that is presented between a rough and uncultivated Norway and a charming and cultured Denmark echoes the discourse of the culture wars of the 1830s – or indeed one half of that discourse – and seems a bit anachronistic for Petersen’s own day. Halfway through the play, Vagn maintains that “the Norwegian mountains defy the sun’s warmth; here, feeling freezes in snow and ice”, and he contrasts this to Denmark, “where beauty is so powerfully concentrated.” Denmark is a land of flowers, Norway a land of rocks. The below words spoken by Thorkel directed towards Vagn express the same divide between cultivation and coarseness:
You can hear that you come from the flower country!
Your speech smells like a rose-tree.
Such a shame, that I cannot answer you
In the same pretty language. That is because
Norway is a country lacking of flowers.
But there is iron in Norway’s cold mountains,
Yes, iron, which can be forged into sharp swords;
Because I will answer you with this tongue.
The references made to language may suggest that Petersen took a stance in the fierce language debates of the time, against those who propounded the acknowledgement of the dialect-based Landsmål as the official written standard, alongside or replacing the existing Danish-based Bokmål or Riksmål. This might also explain why he picked Hjørungavåg as a subject: the town is located in the Landsmål heartland along the Norwegian west coast. The above scene could then be read as an allegory in which the “iron” Norwegian tongue – cold and sharp – would be the dead of the charming Danish inflection. In other words: Norwegians should cherish the Danish influences on their culture as these represent their cultivated side and not seek to destroy it.
The image for this article is taken from the richly illustrated edition of the Norwegian King’s Sagas that was marketed in 1899 – 1900. It captures the terrible storm that according to the saga broke out during the battle. The illustrator of this particular image was Halfdan Egedius (1877 – 1899), who died from a bacterial infection at the age of 22, shortly before the book was published.
Ellisiv Steen, Det norske nasjonalhistoriske drama (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1976).