This drawing, by the Danish artist Lorenz Frølich (c. 1820 – 1908), depicts the demise of the Norwegian king, Olaf I Tryggvason (r. 995-1000). The end of his reign and his life came after King Olaf I was confronted by a coalition of Danes, Swedes and dissident Norwegians at the sea battle of Svold or Svolder. In the battle, King Olaf’s forces were overwhelmed and surrounded, ending with the king’s flagship, the Long Serpent, being boarded by opposing warriors. According to the medieval legends, King Olaf I leaped overboard into the sea when it became apparent that his ship was being overtaken, and in a mysterious ending to his life’s tale, he disappeared beneath the depths, never to be seen again. The poet, historian and saga-writer, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), described King Olaf’s final plunge as the Long Serpent was being boarded by the king’s enemy, Earl Eirik:
“And because so great a host of the earl’s men had come aboard the Serpent—as many as there was room for—and because his ships surrounded the Serpent on all sides and there was but a small band of defenders against so many, even though they were both strong and brave, most were cut down in a short while. But both King Oláf himself and Kolbjorn leapt overboard, each on his side. The earl’s men had surrounded the Serpent with small skiffs and killed those who leapt overboard; and when the king himself had leapt into the sea they wanted to take him prisoner and bring him to the earl. But King Oláf held his shield over his head when he plunged into the sea…it was soon said by many that King Oláf probably had cast off his mail-coat under water and dived out of sight of the warships…But howsoever that be, King Oláf Tryggvason never thereafter returned to his kingdom in Norway” (Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Oláfs saga Tryggvasonar, chapters 111-112).
It is this story of King Olaf Tryggvason’s defeat at the Battle of Svold or Svolder that is re-created in Lorenz Frølich’s artwork. Olaf can be seen leaping from his overcrowded ship while warriors on a distant boat watch from the background. The king holds in his right hand the shield that he would use to deflect enemy attacks and obscure the sight of whatever was transpiring beneath the waves. Mimicking Snorri Sturluson’s account, Lorenz Frølich left his artwork ambiguous concerning the king’s demise, not hinting at what occurred after Olaf Tryggvason sank beneath the water’s surface. Either way, if he met a watery grave or miraculously escaped to a peaceful retirement, Olaf Tryggvason disappeared from the historical record and never was seen again in Norway or the courts of the neighboring Nordic power-players of the age.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.