Wednesday, 30 October 2013

A Guide to 'Triquetra': 2. The Jelling Dynasty

Harald Bluetooth (King of Denmark 958-986, King of Norway 970-986)

Harald Bluetooth began ruling Denmark in 958AD & left the Danes a notable legacy. Whilst he did not get to England, he laid the foundations for his son to do so by consolidating and reinforcing Denmark as a single entity.
His achievements in this area form the core of his story and some of this is now key archaeology in Denmark.

The Jelling Rune Stones

One of the Jelling Stones in Denmark is a carved stone monument he erected in memory of his parents, which relates not just where and from whom he comes from personally but announces how he was the king to make the Danes Christian.
The 'Heimskringla', another important document once again penned by Snorri Sturluson, says the same thing. The Heimskringla is a series of sagas of Norwegian kings that takes other notable neighbouring kings into its annals.

The Kringla Leaf - c.1260

We spent a great deal of time with this document, working with several sagas for all three of our Danish kings.
Neil Oliver recently emphasised in his historical work on the Vikings that becoming Christian was highly politically advantageous, offering a certain amount of protection from Christian neighbours. Whether Harald was truly converted remains open to question, though he did build a church at Jelling.

Harald was also practical king, shoring up the land defences, or the Danavirke (Dane-work) against outside invaders. This extensive series of ditches still remain in parts of Denmark and were reinforced further during later eras.

We are told Sweyn Forkbeard, his son, decided he wanted something to rule over & requested to have part of Denmark for his own. Harald was going to keep his kingdom in one piece, no matter what.
Thus came Harald's downfall. Not taking "no" for an answer, Sweyn gathered forces to attack his own father, Harald was wounded and died. Sweyn took over the whole kingdom of Denmark & Norway in 986AD.

Sweyn Forkbeard (King of Denmark 986-1014, King of Norway 986-995, 999-1014)

Sweyn goes raiding, choosing England as a target. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us Sweyn raided for a considerable number of years. In Triquetra, there are extracts from the highly vivid descriptions of battle from the heroic Old English poem 'The Battle of Maldon', that actually took place in 991 in Essex.

Sweyn last came to England in 1013, 1000 years ago. The people, presumably ground down by raiding, accepted him as king.

Sweyn Forkbeard Coin

On Christmas Day 1013, Sweyn was officially declared King Of England, as well as already being King elsewhere. He didn't last long, about 5 weeks or so. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states he died around Feb 3rd 1014. His remains rested in York for a while before being transferred back to Denmark. Having achieved his prize he didn't live long enough to really enjoy it or leave any lasting personal influence.

With this irony came, for me, a little Anglo-Saxon philosophy. Life, they believed, was on loan, nothing lasts forever. Death awaits us all. Triquetra sums this up prior to Sweyn's demise in a passage from Beowulf to convey this attitude of the times.

A page of Beowulf from the British Library

Cnut The Great (King of England 1016-1035, King of Denmark 1018-1035, King of Norway 1028-1035)

Cnut became King of England eventually in 1016, after re-conquering England as Aethelred had returned to England when Sweyn died.

Cnut's ruling style was somewhat different to his predecessors. In order to be accepted by the English people, he chose to be like them. He supported the Christian church, spent money and made a very public show of paying due respect. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dutifully records this activity. He transferred the bones of St Alphege, the Anglo-Saxon archbishop of Canterbury killed by vikings in 1012, to Canterbury. He paid for new bells at Winchester Cathedral.

Cnut gives a cross to Hyde Abbey

In 1020, he wrote a ground-breaking letter now preserved in the York Gospels, declaring the kind of Christian king he intends to be and how he believes his people should also behave. This letter is not written in Latin, the language of the church and scholars, but in Old English, the language of the people.
By now, he was king of England, Denmark, Norway and had parts of Sweden and Scotland also. Where Gorm the Old started with little, Cnut had the North Sea Empire to rule.
As a powerful Christian figure he could attend important European functions, such as the crowning of Conrad II as the new Holy Roman Emperor.

In 1035, after 20 years of a highly successful reign, Cnut died and was buried in Winchester Cathedral, where his remains still rest today.

A Guide to 'Triquetra' - 1. Creating The World

The best stories start with "once upon a time" and this is no different.
Once upon a time, there was nothing, so says the Prose Edda, before it begins to describe the creation of the world, from the meeting of the realms of Fire and Ice and how that created the germs of Life in water droplets through to the fallen giant Ymer giving his very flesh and bones to the creation of the material world. If that wasn't enough, Othin casts down the Midgard serpent Jormungand, that gigantic offspring of Loki, into the ocean around Midgard, surrounding this new earthly creation by biting his own tail.

18th Century title page for the Prose Edda

This story, written down in the 13th century, is believed to have strong roots back into earlier older stories, passed via oral traditions, from the pre-Christian period of Scandinavian history.
For us, and for Triquetra, we wish to charter the story arc of the change from paganism to Christianity and so found this a natural starting point. Such dramatic storytelling from the quill of the 12th-13th century skald Snorri Sturluson also finds a natural mirror in the interpretation of meteorological and cosmic phenomena of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The Chronicle is a determined attempt to document the history of the English people. Begun in the late 9th century during the reign of Alfred the Great, himself a champion of the ideals of literacy and the spreading & storing of knowledge, it was maintained long after his passing and contains a detailed and colourful interpretation of the perceived ill omens & final devastating effects of the first viking raid on Lindisfarne in 793 AD.

Lindisfarne Abbey today

This is the first point England really felt viking presence and raiding activity and as such, we felt it worth drawing real life and myth together, the fiery dragons in the sky and the dragon headed ships coming from overseas.

To get a good detailed idea & explanation of the sheer power of the Old Norse language here as well as the Old English counterpart, I recommend this recent BBC Radio 3 broadcast on 'Nightwaves'. This short piece (starting at 22:45) features extracts from the Triquetra sound piece alongside Dr Eleanor Barraclough's excellent piece on the sound of spoken Norse and Old English word, how colourful and descriptive they are, hinting at what makes them compelling for so many people.

Triquetra at the Illuminating York Festival

Triquetra: The Shield Wall

Ross Ashton (of The Projection Studio) and myself were delighted to have won a commission from the Illuminating York Festival this year to bring the early medieval period of Scandinavian & English history to life.
For followers of my blog and my work, you will know that this is not unfamiliar territory for me - 'Contours', a quadrophonic sound installation focusses on the sounds of the languages of Old Norse, Old English and their modern descendants in Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, English and Icelandic. It also worked specifically with the poetry of the Poetic Edda and Beowulf to construct a sonic atmosphere that worked with the roots of skaldic storytelling and ritual. The aim was to focus on the father of the Norse gods, Othin/Odin as the generator of myth, story & tradition through a digital oral tradition.

Triquetra takes a different view. This time we position ourselves firmly in history to look at the fascinating story of Harald Bluetooth, Sweyn Forkbeard & Canute the Great, the three kings of the Jelling dynasty who oversaw enormous political and religious change amongst the lands that connect to the North Sea.
I decided from the outset to return to the original languages of Old Norse and Old English and I feel enormously privileged to have been supported by volunteer academics and students from a number of universities, who really wanted to support this project. The knowledge base this country holds of this material is rather humbling and worthy of mention, so my thanks go to the universities of Aberystwyth, Cambridge, Sheffield, Warwick and York for being the home and teaching centres for such an amazing period of literature and history. Named thanks will come to those individuals later!

I decided to let the texts themselves tell the story and when you listen you're as likely to hear history chronicles as well as poetry, not to mention some solid sagas from Iceland. It took 6 months of research and reading to select the parts that referred to the story specifically, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as well as passages which capture something of the attitude and philosophy of both the vikings and the Anglo-Saxons they set out to plunder and rule over!
I was able to build on the knowledge base I had built through 'Contours' and take it out even further. The sharp-eared amongst you will also hear me re-visit certain fragments of early music that were heard in Contours, re-arranged and placed into a new context within this piece.

The audio experience, I hope, is a rich one.
The visual experience is a striking one and already many images of the projection are circulating through all forms of media.

I finish this post with some links to some of those images and articles before I present you with my online guide to Triquetra & its history for the curious!

I do hope those who are able to come to York over the next four days will be able to experience this piece which is very special to both Ross and myself.

Triquetra projected onto Clifford's Tower.

Written article on some background to how Triquetra came to be

PDF brochure of Illuminating York 2013

Illuminating York website

To see more pictures, go here for Ross' photostream of The Projection Studio works.

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