The sun is shining more strongly now and the first of the brave birds are beginning to trill in the mornings. Yet I cannot let the winter pass without one more snuggly reading of The Race of the Birkebeiners by Lise Lunge-Larsen and illustrated by Mary Azarian.
The Birkebeiners were medieval Norwegian warriors, mostly peasants loyal to the king. They were called “Birchleggers” after the homemade armor they wore. They resisted the Baglers: rich and noble landowners who would have plunged the kingdom into disunity and war for their own interests. When the king died, he left behind an unborn son as his rightful heir. The Baglers disputed this and sought to seize the child and his mother. The escape of young Prince Håkon across the snowy mountains to the Birkebeiner stronghold of Nidaros is the stuff of legend.
As Lunge-Larsen accurately relates, Inge (the royal mother) skied with her infant in a sheepskin pack as far as she could, with a small band of warriors and a priest escorting her. When a storm struck the fleeing party and they were lost in the blinding snow, she bravely decided to entrust her tiny son to the Birkebeiners, that the two strong warriors might race on ahead in an effort to save the young Prince’s life.
Thanks to the valiant efforts of these two faithful men, the Prince survived. His legitimacy was established, the civil war was ended, and he went on to rule for many years in what has become known as Norway’s golden age. Since 1932, a challenging cross-country ski race has been held in Norway commemorating the famous journey that saved his life and preserved the peace of the kingdom, with skiers carrying an 8-lb. pack symbolic of the infant prince.
This legendary story from the early thirteenth century is historical fact, and based on an account written in 1264. Lunge-Larsen’s version for children, so beautifully told, gives a clear explanation of the actual events yet allows the traditional epic quality to shine through. She describes terms simply and offers pronunciation guides for a few unfamiliar names. She remains true to the factual account without giving way to confusing detail or losing the original spirit.
This saga from the Middle Ages is appropriately accompanied by Azarian’s gorgeous woodcut illustrations. With heavy lines and bright jewel-like colors, the pictures are reminiscent of a stained-glass window. Full of details, they evoke the essence of an age when men and women were obliged to live simply and wage war against both the elements and the constant threat of oppression.
I value stories that preserve and celebrate cultural heritages from across the globe. It’s fascinating to see how people have made sense of the world around them, and how they all seem to have developed some sort of moral code. To read the myths, legends, and fables of the generations before us is to understand something of the human yearning for a divine source. There is a bit of Truth in such stories.
If anything strikes me amiss about this inspiring retelling, it is that perhaps the blending of history, myth, and religion is a bit confusing. It is very clear that the incredible tale is a real one, but superstition nudges uncomfortably against faith. In order to prove Prince Håkon’s royal lineage, his mother is compelled to endure the Ordeal of the Burning Irons (which are placed in her hands). A nun oversees this ritual, and after three days Inge’s unscarred hands are deemed a miracle and a testament to her truthfulness. I absolutely believe in God’s power to perform miracles, but I question the validity of these sorts of tests. And yet perhaps it is a reasonable depiction of Christianity in a place and time when popular piety mixed readily with folk wisdom and a crude sense of justice.
Nevertheless, this story is a stunning tribute to the struggle for freedom and peace that has motivated people since the beginning of time. It mingles sinewy strength and military cunning with the tenderness needed to save a baby’s life; and a hardscrabble existence with the courage to build a prosperous and unified kingdom.
And still it is a riveting legend that can capture even the youngest mind that longs for stability and a happy ending. Outdoor enthusiasts will appreciate the daring beginnings of a revered sporting event, and history buffs will want to learn more about northern Europe in the Middle Ages. On the whole, it’s a splendid and exhilarating adventure for any age that loves a good story.
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