Thursday, 9 July 2009

Ragnar: Character in Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Series

Ragnar Lodbrok (Ragnar "Hairy-Breeks", Old Norse: Ragnarr Loðbrók) was a Norse legendary hero from the Viking Age who was thoroughly reshaped in Old Norse poetry and legendary sagas.
The namesake and subject of “Ragnar’s Saga”, and one of the most popular Viking heroes among the Norse themselves, Ragnar was a great Viking commander and the scourge of France. A perennial seeker after the Danish throne, he was briefly ‘king’ of both Denmark and a large part of Sweden, (possibly from around 860 AD until his death in 865 AD). A colorful figure, he claimed to be descended from Odin, married the famous shield-maiden Lathgertha, and told people he always sought greater adventures for fear that his (possibly adoptive) sons who included such notable vikings as Björn Ironside and Ivar the Boneless would eclipse him in fame and honour. Ragnar raided France many times, using the rivers as highways for his fleets of longships. By remaining on the move, he cleverly avoided battles with large concentrations of heavy Frankish cavalry, while maximizing his advantages of mobility and the general climate of fear of Viking unpredictability. His most notable raid was probably the raid upon Paris in 845 AD, which was spared from burning only by the payment of 7,000 lbs of silver as Danegeld by Charles the Fat. To court his second wife, the Swedish princess Thora, Ragnar traveled to Sweden and quelled an infestation of venomous snakes, famously wearing the hairy breeches whereby he gained his nickname. He continued the series of successful raids against France throughout the mid 9th century, and fought numerous civil wars in Denmark, until his luck ran out at last in Britain. After being shipwrecked on the English coast during a freak storm in 865, he was captured by Saxon king Aella and put to death in an infamous manner by being thrown into a pit of vipers.
Although he is something of a hero in his native Scandinavia, reliable accounts of his life are very sketchy and heavily based on ancient Viking sagas. Even the dating of his reign is not certain; there are sources that date it from 750–794, and others from 860–865. Neither really matches with what is known of him, though he may perhaps have held power as a warlord from approximately 835 to his death in 865, perhaps only being recognized as king in the last five years of his life.

A historic Ragnar Lodbrok is held to have been a jarl at the court of the Danish king Horik I (814-854), and this Ragnar participated in the Viking plunderings of Paris in 845.
A certain Reginheri attacked Paris with a fleet of 120 ships. The warriors belonging to the army of Charles the Bald, were placed to guard the monastery in St. Denis, but fled when the Danish Vikings executed their prisoners ferociously in front of their eyes.
After receiving a tribute of 7000 pounds of silver from Charles the Bald, Ragnar went back. By mysterious circumstances, many men in Ragnar's army died during the journey and Ragnar died soon after his return.

Contemporary sources

Paris at the time of Ragnar's attack.

Ragnar apparently spent most of his life as a pirate and raider, invading one country after another. One of his favorite tactics was to attack Christian cities on church feast days, knowing that many soldiers would be in church. He would generally accept a huge payment to leave his victims alone, only to come back later and demand more riches in exchange for leaving.
But as the extent of his supposed realm shows, he was also a gifted military leader. By 845, he was a powerful man and most likely a contemporary of the first ruler of Russia, the Viking Rurik. It is said he was always seeking new adventures because he was worried that his freebooting sons would do things that would outshine his own achievements.

In 845 he sailed southward, looking for new worlds to conquer. With an alleged force of 120 ships and 5,000 Viking warriors, he landed in what is now France, probably at the Seine estuary, and ravaged West Francia, as the westernmost part of the Frankish Empire was then known. Rouen was ravaged and then Carolivenna, a mere 20 km from St. Denis. The raiders then attacked and captured Paris. The traditional date for this is 28 March, which is today referred to as Ragnar Lodbrok Day by certain followers of the Asatru religion. The King of West Francia, Charlemagne's grandson Charles the Bald, paid Ragnar a huge amount of money not to destroy the city. Ragnar Lodbrok, according to Viking sources, was satisfied with no less than 7,000 pounds of silver in exchange for sparing the city. However, that did not stop Ragnar from attacking other parts of France, and it took a long time for the Franks to drive him out.
Later, Ragnar's sons were to return for more booty. Among their feats was destroying the city of Rouen several more times. Ultimately, many of them settled there permanently, in a land that became known as Normandy (deriving from the expression "Nordmenn" , or 'Northmen' ('Norsemen'), which was - and indeed still is - both the name the Norwegians called themselves and also the name the Franks used for the Scandinavians).

After he was done with France, and after his supposed death in 845, he turned his attention to England. In 865, he landed in Northumbria on the north-east coast of England. It is claimed that here he was defeated in battle for the only time, by King Aelle II of Northumbria.
Aelle's men captured Ragnar, and the King ordered him thrown into a pit filled with poisonous snakes. As he was slowly being bitten to death, he is alleged to have exclaimed "How the little pigs would grunt if they knew the situation of the old boar!", referring to the vengeance he hoped his sons would wreak when they heard of his death.
Alternative versions of the story say that he landed by accident in East Anglia and there befriended King Edmund before being killed by a jealous courtier. The murderer escaped to Denmark and blamed Edmund for Lodbrok's demise.

Death Song
As he was thrown into the snake pit, Ragnar was said to have uttered his famous death song:

"It gladdens me to know that Balder’s father makes ready the benches for a banquet. Soon we shall be drinking ale from the curved horns. The champion who comes into Odin’s dwelling does not lament his death. I shall not enter his hall with words of fear upon my lips. The Æsir will welcome me. Death comes without lamenting… Eager am I to depart. The Dísir summon me home, those whom Odin sends for me from the halls of the Lord of Hosts. Gladly shall I drink ale in the high-seat with the Æsir. The days of my life are ended. I laugh as I die."

One Viking saga states that when his four sons heard the manner of his death, they all reacted in great sorrow. Hvitserk, who was playing tafl, gripped the piece so hard that he bled from his fingernails. Björn Ironside grabbed a spear so tightly that he left an impression in it, and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, who was trimming his nails, cut straight through to the bone.
Although these stories may not be accurate, like virtually all tales concerning Ragnar Lodbrok, his death had serious consequences. His other sons, Ivar the Boneless (alias Hingwar) and Ubbe soon learned the details of their father's death and swore that they would avenge his killing, in time-honoured Viking tradition. In 866, Ivar and Ubbe crossed the North Sea with a large army (The Great Heathen Army), sacked York, met King Aelle in battle, and captured him. He was sentenced to die according to the custom of Rista Blodörn (Blood eagle), an exceedingly painful death.
They then moved south to East Anglia, on the way attacking the monasteries of Bardney, Croyland and Medeshampstede where, according to tradition, their army slew 80 monks. Eventually they captured King Edmund and had him shot by archers and beheaded. These wars were a prelude to the long struggle of the Saxons of Alfred the Great against the Danes a generation later.

Bragi Boddason is said to have composed the Ragnarsdrápa for the Swedish king Björn at Hauge. However, this does not correspond to what we know about the historical Ragnar. It is consequently said that in the Norse sagas, he was identified with a Swedish king Ragnar (770-785), the son of Sigurd Ring. According to legend, he married Aslaug and became the son-in-law of Sigurd the Völsung.

In Popular Culture
Harry Harrison's Hammer and Cross series includes the death of Ragnar and the subsequent responses of his sons.
In the 1958 film The Vikings, Ragnar is played by Ernest Borgnine.
In Ayn Rand's famous novel Atlas Shrugged, it is said that her character Ragnar Danneskjöld, a pirate who steals from government relief ships, is named after the famous Viking.
In the re-imaged version of Battlestar Galactica, Ragnar is a gas giant planet which Ragnar Anchorage, a munitions station, orbits in the shows miniseries/pilot episode.
In the computer games Civilization III (2001) and Civilization IV (2005), Ragnar Lodbruk represents the Vikings.
Bernard Cornwell's novel The Last Kingdom

McTurk, Rory (1991), Studies in Ragnars saga loðbrókar and its major Scandinavian analogues, Medium Aevum Monographs 15, ISBN 0-907570-08-09
Ulrike Strerath-Bolz, Review of Rory McTurk, Studies in "Ragnars saga loðbrókar" and Its Major Scandinavian Analogues, Alvíssmál 2 (1993): 118–19.
Forte, Angelo, Richard Oram, and Frederik Pedersen. Viking Empires. Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Schlauch, Margaret, trans. The Saga of the Volsungs: the Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok together with the Lay of Kraka. New York: American Scandinavian Fndn., 1964.
Waggoner, Ben (2009), The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok, The Troth, ISBN 978-0-578-02138-6

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