Kristofer Hivju i Birkebeinerne detail

The Birkebeiners in 1205

During Christmas 1205 a group of brave Norwegians set out on a perilous journey in order to bring the heir to the Norwegian throne to safety in Trondheim. Fifty years later the story was told by the king’s chronicler, forever turning the feat of the Birkebeiners into a national myth

During summer, after Inge had been taken to King, the Danish king and Bishop Nicholas got the faction of the Baglers to revolt. At that point Inga [who had slept with the king at Borg] stayed in Viken in a village, called Heggin on the farm called Folkensborg. There lived a priest called Traand. Here Inga fell ill and gave birth to a male child. But Traand priest knew that King Haakon Sverressøn was father to the boy. He baptized the boy and let him be named Haakon, but kept it so quiet that he trusted no one to bring the child to the baptismal font except his two sons and his wife. Traand priest brought up the boy quietly. A man named Erlend [lived at] Husabø. He was kin to king King Sverre and belonged to the kindred of Guttorm Greybeard. Traand priest walked over to Erlend and consulted with him about the boy; they agreed, that they should be as quiet about it as possible. The next twelve months, the boy stayed with the Traand, the priest. However, the following winter, Erland and Traand the priest decided to move from east to west. With them they brought the son of the king and his mother into the Opplands. At Christmas Eve [1205] they arrived at Hamar in Hedmarken. Here two Birkebeiners ruled. One was called Fridrek Slavse, the other Gjavvald Gaute, Both had a large retinue and ruled with a heavy hand [literally: through fear] as there were Baglers around in the Oppland.

Birkebeiners in the MountainsAt that point Ivar Bishop was in Hamar; he was always a mighty enemy of the kindred of Sverre and all the Birkebeiners. Even though they tried to keep it quiet, the bishop soon became aware of the presence of the son of a king. The bishop now invited the boy and his mother to spend Christmas with him and told them that he was kin; as indeed he was. However, the Birkebeiners were suspicious and told the bishop that the boy would be brought to him after Christmas as the he and his mother were tired after having travelled across country. As soon as Christmas day had ended, the Birkebeiner lords took three horses and led the boy and his mother away. And they did not rest until they had reached Lillehamar; from here they moved on through Østerdalene [the Eastern Valleys] from where they were planning to go to Trondheim.

In this venture they suffered much evil from foul and friezing weather and snow. During nights they stayed in forests or in the wilderness. One night a blizzard struck and they did not know their whereabouts. At this point they had two men, who were the best to ski, to run ahead with the boy; one was Torstein Skevla and another Skervald Skrukk. They got two peasants, who knew the way, to act as pathfinders. They ran as if it was a race, but they did not succeed in finding the village. Instead they came to a shieling where they struck a fire and rested the boy. Later the pathfinders went back to locate the rest of the party, who arrived at midnight. Now it became impossible to stay inside as the snow started to melt the ice off the roof of the shieling; it was better outside. They had nothing to feed the boy except melted ice. Where they stayed was called Navardal [perhaps near Neversjøen north of Lillehammar]. There, they met so much hardship, that they had to make way through the snow by using the staffs of their spears to stamp it. However, wherever they came [amongst people] in Østerdalene, the peasants helped them on their way, lending them horses and showing them the way to go…” (Translated from: Haakon Haakonsøns Saga. Translated by Alexander Bugge. I. M. Steinersens Forlag, Kristiania 1914.)

There is no doubt that the feat of the Birkebeiners has played a significant role in the national myth-making of Norwegian Identity. Here is a small group of people, who saves a baby boy, the future king of Norway, from southern rebels instigated by the Danish king. By enduring hardship during the cold winter, they succeed to bring him safely through the wilderness towards the sacred national centre, Trondheim. Especially one night is brought forward, the care and protection, the men give to the child in the midst of a blizzard, skiing cross country “as if it was a race”.

No wonder that since then the myth has gendered an enormous number of historians vying to give their spin on the history of the civil war in the beginning of the 13th century, the reign of Haakon Haakonson and the fame, he gathered in his lifetime. This is a myth of which heroes are created.

February 2015 a first film will premiere, which has cost 45 mill Nkr and which will tell the dramatic story once more. The plan is to follow it up with two grand film featuring the reign of Haakon Haakonson and his grandfather Sverre. At the same time local tourist offices are gearing up to ride on the (eagerly hoped for) success of the film, while cross- country skiing enthusiasts are gearing up to “sell” traditional skiing at a time when the Alps have to rely on snow canons and summer hiking.