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Books  >>  History

James Reston

The Last Apocalypse [With Photograph Inserts]

James Reston The Last Apocalypse [with Photograph Inserts]
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Country of final manufacture:

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Excerpt from book:

As Olaf Trygvesson sailed across the North Sea toward home, he must have felt the nobility and the grandeur of his holy mission.  He was a hybrid of Odysseus and Michael, avenger, exile, and zealot all in one.  He was coming, in justice and in glory, as the royal scion of Harald Fairhair's race, as the king of whom great deeds were predicted in the name of Norway and in the name of Christ.  He was returning to avenge the death of his father, the exile of his mother, the slavery of his youth.  His passion was to convert his heathen homeland, and he was prepared for holy war.  By his athletic stature, by his superior skill in the martial art, by his campaigns across the Baltic and through England, and by his zealot's faith, he was the Viking warrior non pareil: bold, cruel, and skilled.

As he approached Norway's shore, Olaf possessed no fine sense of what Christianity meant, especially its gentler side.  But he must have had some sense of the calendar.  The world was approaching the thousandth year after Christ's birth, and with it, Christ the King would come a second time.  There would be a final climactic battle between the forces of good and evil.  It was not hard for Olaf to view Earl Hacon as the Antichrist.  The earl was the murderer of his father, the rapist of Norway's daughters, and the high priest of heathenism.  Nor was it hard to imagine Hacon's soldiers as the forces of Gog and Magog.

If there was any imagery in the Christian bible to which a Viking warrior, raised in the heathen tradition, could relate, it was the magical language of Revelation.  For beasts and monsters, giants and trolls were the most familiar of notions.

"And as I stood upon the sand of the sea and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy," reads Revelation 13 about the first beast.  "And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion; and the dragon gave him his power, and his meat, and his great authority."

How different was that from the apocalypse of the heathens?  For in the villages and temples of Olaf's upbringing, in Norway and in Russia, there had been talk of Ragnarok, that terrible end-time when the world sinks into moral chaos, into anxiety and greed, into an intoxication with gold, when brothers kill brothers and incest is rampant.  In this wolf's age, Odinn becomes an agent of violent death and is himself killed violently, when war breaks out between the Vanir and the Aesir, and the gods mete out punishment to oath breakers, murderers, rapists.

In the day of Ragnarok, the wolf will swallow the sun.  Another wolf will seize the moon.  The earth and the mountains will tremble so violently that trees will be uprooted, mountains will crash down. The sun will go black.  The earth will sink into the sea.  And the heavens will lose their stars.

In this final battle between the good and the evil gods, all will die.  There are no winners, only losers.  Into this chaos and conflagration, Inn riki, the Mighty One, will ride triumphantly.  And with him the world will be renewed and purified, and afterward, only innocent gods will rule.

When Olaf Trygvesson finally approached the nose of Norway, he touched land offshore on Moster Island, pitched a tent, and held a great mass.  Afterward, he considered his situation.  Should he make a big noise in the land or try to take Earl Hacon by surprise?  He decided on the latter course and moved quietly up the coast to the mouth of the Trondheim fjord.  On its southern point, he sent a few spies inland, and they came back with excellent news.  Earl Hacon was indeed in the area, and he was up to his old escapades.  He had just tried to seize the wife of a respectable farmer and had been turned back by a rabble of the farmer's friends.  Now the earl was feasting at a place called Medalhus and could not leave well enough alone.  He had sent his slaves to seize the beautiful wife of another freeholder named Orm.  But Orm was no more compliant.  He delayed the earl's messengers with food and drink while he sent a call to arms, and the farmers were gathering in great anger, ready to kill Earl Hacon.  Olaf could scarcely have wished for better intelligence.

Moving stealthily into the fjord with his five ships, he spotted the earl's three ships, lying at anchor near Vigg.  The earl's handsome son was watching over the royal fleet, and when he saw Olaf's sea stallions bearing down on him, he weighed anchor and tried to get away.  But Olaf caught up and hurled a tiller at the young man, striking him on the head and killing him instantly.  Soon after, Olaf made contact with the rebellious peasants, who by this time had blocked off the roads and were ready to pounce on the lecherous earl.

But Earl Hacon was already on the fly.  His own troops having deserted him, he took refuge in the area with his mistress, an estimable woman of great power named Thora.  Her cozy relationship with the earl was well known and it could be expected that Olaf and his farmers would come to look for the fugitive there first.  So Thora had her slave dig a hole beneath her pigsty.  Logs were placed over the hole, and manure on top of the logs.  With his slave named Kark, the earl crawled into the poke, hoping to wait out the trouble, if he could stand the smell.

As expected, Olaf soon turned up.  His rebels searched the house inside and out, and when they could not find the earl, Olaf climbed up onto a large rock next to the pigsty and gave a speech to his troops, promising great reward and honor to anyone who could find the earl and kill him.  Earl Hacon and his slave Kark heard the speech through the seeping timbers, and the earl turned on his slave suspiciously.

"Why are you so pale?" he whispered.  "Do you have a mind to betray me?"

"By no means, master," Kark replied.

"Remember this," the earl said.  "We were born on the same night.  The time between our deaths will be short."

After Olaf went away and the night came, the earl and his slave tried to sleep.  But Kark had a bad dream, and at his moans, Earl Hacon woke him up.  "What on earth is the matter with you?"

"I had a bad dream," the slave replied.  "I was at Lade, and Olaf Trygvesson was laying a gold ring around my neck."

"It will be a red ring Olaf lays around your neck if he catches you," the earl snapped.  "Take care.  From me you will enjoy good things, so do not betray me."

They tried to go back to sleep, but each was now so suspicious of the other, they tried to keep an eye open.  Eventually, the earl dropped off, and he too slept so fitfully that he cried out in his sleep.  Horror-struck, Kark woke up with such a fright that he pulled a knife from his belt and plunged it into Earl Hacon's throat, killing him.  Then thinking of the reward and honor that Olaf Trygvesson had promised from the rock, Kark cut off the earl's head, took it to Lade, and presented it proudly to Olaf.

Olaf thanked him, gave him a gold ring, and then had him beheaded.

In 996 A.D., a nat


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