Brian's Saga

by Robin Gordon

Auksford crest: a great auk displaying an open book with the words "Ex ovo sapientia"

-  Auksford, 2006  -

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Chapter 5

Brian borrows a book

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©  Copyright Robin Gordon, 2006

          If Mouse had had time to think he would probably not have lent his copy of Gogfran Davies' reconstruction of the legend of St Sweyne to Brian, but Mouse had little or no time at all to think on that particular Friday evening.  Not only did he have to spend a great deal of time being politely non-committal to Janice Greenwood, who had, as usual, sought his guidance on her spiritual development and presented for his approval the self-flattering portrayal of her week of Christian witness wielding the date-stamp at the Central Library, he had also had the additional embarrassment of knowing that her obvious ambition to become a minister's wife, and his of avoiding entanglement, was affording no small amusement to a visiting friend of his, Trevor Williamson, who had interrupted his journey from the outskirts of London to an evangelical house-party in the hospitable town of Dunoon to look up an old chum in Christ, Victor Mouse.

          When Janice eventually desisted from her siege of the curate and moved off to counter the influence of her rival, Claire, over some of the younger members of the YPF, Trevor began to twit Victor on the perils of a clergyman's life, beset by pretty and determined girls, and of the impossibility of celibacy even to the most determinedly single-minded.  Mouse gladly seized on Brian's approach to change the subject.

          "Ah, Brian!" he said.  "Come and meet Trevor!  Brian's one of our most loyal members," he explained.

          Trevor clasped Brian's hand in both of his.

          "Hello, Brian!" he cried fervidly.  Brian winced.  Trevor pumped his arm enthusiastically.

          "I was just telling Victor about the show I was in -- I'm in an amateur dramatic society -- we did The Arcadians, a musical, you know, all about truth stripping off the trammels of society.  I was only in the chorus, of course.  Had to prance around wearing a sort of Ancient Greek skirt thing.  'Course I don't tell everyone that.  Let people know you're a dancer in a show and you could get taken for a heterosexual.  Why don't you and the chaps get up a show, Victor?  Jolly good way of putting across the Christian message, don't you think?"

          "Oh, Victor," interrupted Janice, "I nearly forgot to tell you.  I met this boy …"

          "Oh good …" began Mouse.

          " … and he's very dissatisfied with the sort of life he's been leading and I thought I ought to do all I could to try to bring him to Christ."

          "Capital idea!  What do you think, Brian?" said Trevor.  "I mean, if we can get a real troupe together we can put on Christian plays."

          "I think it would be really worthwhile," continued Janice. "He's in a sort of a gang, in fact, from what he tells me, I think he's the leader, so if I could bring him to the Lord …"

          "I only wanted to ask about St Sweyne," murmured Brian unhappily.


          "We haven't finished our game yet!" roared a boy.

          "Oh dear," said Mouse.

          "It's always dancing at half-past eight!  MAKE THEM STOP!"

          "We've got to finish our game!"

          "Yeah!  You lassies are always moaning!"

          "Nag, nag, nag!"

          "You started that game just before half-past!  You always do!  You do it deliberately!  You know it's dancing at half-past and the tables have to be put away!  That's just typical of you boys!  You're selfish, that's what you are!  You're really selfish!!"

          "Nag, nag, nag!"


          "We'd be finished quicker if you stopped interrupting!"

          "… so if you see me going round with this boy, Victor, I hope you won't get the wrong idea," simpered Janice.

          "What about a musical version of Moses leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt," said Trevor.

          "WHAT ABOUT ST SWEYNE?" Brian yelled at Mouse.

          "Jolly good idea!" said Trevor.  "That's the saint your church is named after, isn't it?  What did he do?"

          "I don't know," said Brian.  "I'm trying to find out.

          Mouse was occupied in trying to bring peace to the warring factions.  He compromised.  The game would go on to its end but the girls would have extra time at the end to compensate for what they lost.  But if the boys were to have an extra ten minutes for their table-tennis, the girls wanted an extra ten minutes for dancing and listening to records to make it fair, and arguing time had to be allowed for too.  Mouse gave way.  There would be no prayers or hymns at the end, only a quick blessing, and no chairs to bring out and stack away again, so thay could all have what they wanted and be out of the building and home at the usual time.

          "But please," he said, "please, don't anyone tell Canon Tollgate!"

          "Brian wants to put on a musical about St Sweyne," said Trevor.

          "No I don't," muttered Brian, but no-one heard him.

          "Oh, Victor, how exciting!" cried Janice, wondering what she should wear for her role as heroine.  Victor would, of course, play St Sweyne, and she would be the Christian lady who inspired him.  He'd have to renounce all carnal love at the end, she knew that of course, but they would love each other spiritually until the end of time and through eternity.

          "I don't know that it's really suitable for a musical," said Mouse.

          "Well of course," said Trevor, "you're the best judge of that.  I'm afraid that I don't know anything much about St Sweyne, except that he's your patron saint.  Was he local?"

          "Oh yes," said Mouse.  "I've just been reading this book about him. It's really fascinating."

          "What did he do?" asked Trevor.  "Anything with theatrical possibilities?"

          "Well," said Mouse, "quite a lot really.  Viking stuff, you know, pillaging and so forth.  I'm not sure that it's all suitable, though there was the dragon …"

          "Like St George?"

          "Well, I suppose so, in a way."

          "But there's no such things as dragons," said Brian.

          "Well, it is a sort of legend, and perhaps we've got to take it as symbolic," said Mouse.  "I don't suppose there really was an actual fire-breathing monster in Baldersdale …"

          "Baldersdale!!!" cried Brian.

          "Er … yes," said Mouse, surprised that so quiet a boy as Brian should have shouted out so loudly.

          "Sounds just the sort of thing we need," said Trevor.  "With a dragon you've got a part for everybody.  It's like an infinitely extendable pantomime horse.  Any spare actors?  You just put them in the dragon.  Then you've got St George … I mean St Sweyne: shining armour, all that sort of thing.  If you're doing it outside you could have a real horse -- unless you want to do it in modern dress.  St Sweyne rides up on a motorbike, how about that?"

          "Oh I don't like that idea," said Janice, who saw herself in a medieval gown and wimple being rescued from the fiery dragon by a shining-armoured Mouse.

          "I've been trying to find out what St Sweyne had to do with Baldersdale," said Brian, "and why they bring the sticks for the beating of the bounds to our church for blessing, and why he's sometimes called Sweyne Wormbane."

          "Oh that means dragon-slayer," said Mouse.

          "I know," said Janice.  "Worm could mean dragon in Old English, couldn't it, Victor."

          Mouse nodded.

          "Are you going to play St Sweyne in the pageant?" said Janice, who now saw herself riding a white palfrey through the centre of Halden and being rescued at intervals -- in the town hall square, on the cathedral lawns, in front of the castle -- by the heroic Mouse.

          "No," said Mouse.

          "Oh, Victor!" wailed Janice.

          “Casting comes later," declared Trevor.  "First of all we've got to settle the storyline and the characters, and anyway, it's Brian who's in charge.  He'll decide who plays what.  I expect he'll write the script too, won't you Brian?"

          Brian blushed and mumbled and failed to notice the venomous look Janice gave him just before she smiled sweetly, told him how clever he was, and gave him to understand that he could rely on her backing and moral support.

          "Better give him the book, Victor, and let him get on with it," Trevor suggested.

          "Well … I …" began Mouse.

          "They've started another game!" wailed one of the girls.

          "Oh … er … just coming."

          "Is it in your briefcase?" said Trevor.

          "Yes … but …"

          "OK, I'll get it.  You're needed elsewhere."  Trevor waved him airily away to quell the riot around the ping-pong tables and began to rummage through his briefcase.  Mouse hesitated.  One of the tables fell with a crash.  An unfortunate youth let out an agonised yell.

          "OW!  ME FOOT!  ME BLOODY FOOT!"

          "Tst tst!  Language!" said Janice Greenwood.

          Mouse examined Jimmy's foot and thought his toe was broken.  Trevor had a look too.  Jimmy screamed when Trevor touched the suspect toe.  Trevor confirmed Mouse's diagnosis and offered to take Jimmy to hospital in his car which was parked outside.

          Janice soothed the patient's fevered brow and offered to accompany Mouse and Trevor on their mission of mercy.  Mouse glanced round the YPF and said that he couldn't possibly leave it unsupervised.  Trevor chuckled and agreed.  Janice, who knew that her place was at Mouse's side, announced that she had done all she could for the patient now that she had alleviated his initial agony.  Trevor would need a boy to help get the patient to the car and then into the hospital.  Jimmy's friend Mick, who had been so appalled at Jimmy's accident that he had bitten his knuckles till they bled, cleared his throat to offer his services, but Trevor took charge.

          "Brian will come with me," he said.  "I want to talk to him about this musical of his.  Bring the book, Brian, and let's get going."

          Mouse didn't see Brian again that night.  The hospital confirmed that Jimmy had broken a bone in his foot.  They set it and plastered it while Brian and Trevor hung around in the waiting room.  Brian glanced through some ancient copies of Punch and watched Trevor, admiring his technique.  What Trevor did was to ensure that the Gospel came to all the unfortunates in the casualty waiting room.  He introduced himself to each in turn, seemed delighted to meet all of them, talked for a few fervidly enthusiastic minutes, and seemed to leave each and every one of his new friends better, happier, and eager to turn up at St Sweyne's on Sunday to hear the rest of the story from Mouse and Canon Tollgate.

          When Jimmy reappeared Trevor took him home.  Then he drove Brian home, advising him, before he left, to pay particular attention to the music and the choreography and not to take a role himself as it only caused friction if the director was also an actor.  Then, wishing Brian luck and hoping he might be able to come to see the production, he disappeared into the darkness, leaving Brian to mumble to no-one in particular that he didn't know anything about musicals.

          Trevor arrived back at St Sweyne's church hall to find Mouse trying to usher the last few stragglers out into the street.

          "Come on, chaps and chapesses," the curate was pleading.  "Some of us have got to get up in the morning, you know."

          "Not you, Victor," said one.

          "Cushy job being a vicar," said another.  "They only work Sundays."

          Mouse didn't know how Trevor did it.  He just moved in among them.  There was a lot of laughter, and suddenly they were all out in the street calling cheery goodbyes, and he was locking the door and resisting a mad impulse to wave a happy salute to the window opposite where the curtain had twitched slightly, showing that certain elderly parishioners, whom Canon Tollgate would not name when he passed on their complaints, had again risen from their beds to investigate the goings-on.

          "How was it?" asked Trevor, half hoping to hear that the ping-pong boys and the dance-mad girls had clashed in open battle.

          "Pretty quiet really," said Mouse, relapsing into gloom.  "They were all so shocked at what had happened to Jimmy that we had special prayers for him at Quiet Time."

          "I thought you weren't going to have a QT this week."

          "They wanted it after all," said Mouse.  "How is Jimmy?"

          "Oh, he'll live," said Trevor.  "It's only a bone in his foot.  They plastered him up and I took him home."

          "I should have asked you to take Mick instead of Brian," said Mouse.  "He was really upset."



          "Too bad.  Still, can't be helped.  Jimmy didn't seem to mind.  Brave lad!  And I had a good chat with Brian.  Interesting boy.  Really keen on this idea of a musical."

          "I'm not really happy about lending him that book," murmured Mouse.  “I mean, he's only fourteen, and it's a bit … well … fruity in parts."

          Trevor guffawed heartily.

          "You really are amazing, Victor," he chortled.  "You've got all the girls chasing you as if you were a film star or one of these new-fangled rock-and-roll singers, you let your YPF half kill each other, and now you're lending dirty books to choirboys!  Where will it end?"

          "Oh … oh dear … oh I hope Canon Tollgate doesn't find out!" wailed Mouse.

          Trevor roared with laughter.


          Gogfran Davies might have been upset to hear his Life of St Sweyne described as a dirty book, but more probably his grey-green eyes would have lit up with amusement beneath his bushy brows, the only hair anywhere on his round and bronzed head, which jutted tortoise-like from his turtle-necked sweater and the sagging carapace of his overlarge suit.  Although written for, and published in, one of the more popular journals devoted to the cultural anthropology and folklore of the British Isles, it was nonetheless a scholarly piece of work, or so he felt.  An introductory preface explained the author's methods, and the difficulties he had found in tracing the source material from which the story had been reconstructed.  Scattered Old Norse poems and sagas from Denmark, Norway, the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland had been found to contain references to the Worm that had menaced the Viking settlements in Swardale.  Puzzling references in certain Latin documents from Jarrow and Monkwearmouth had been found to belong to the tradition, and a short Manx poem concerning Balder's balefires had been seen in a new light.  Linking these disparate elements was an unpublished collection of Swardale, and particularly Baldersdale, folklore and rural customs collected by an enthusiastic eighteenth-century parson whose inclinations were towards the pursuit of scholarship rather than that of the fox.  This rich compendium threw light not only on the past but also on surviving folk traditions, many of them only dimly understood, if at all, by those who still maintained them.  The preface closed with acknowledgements for help received.  Brian skimmed idly through them, noting only the biblically-named Boot family, Isaiah, Joel and Malachi -- until his eye was caught by a familiar name: Canon Tollgate, Rector of St Sweyne's Church, Halden.  Well, if the article were guaranteed by Canon Tollgate, thought Brian, it could not fail to be accurate, morally wholesome and doctrinally pure.  Coming at last to the story itself, he began to read.

Sigurd raids Swardale

Sigurd sailed to Swardale
from Norway westwards over the North Sea
The Faroes and Scotland skimming rimwards
fell from the edge, Earth lost them.

Man stood to starboard.
The black coast called him east. 
He burned towns, he took gold. 
He took slaves, sons he begot.

The huts burned, blazed red.
The sword bit deep, dead lay the men.
Harshly hewed hammer and axe.
Women wailed, woefully trapped.

Young Sweyne, son of the Jarl,
swung his sword, slew men,
fired houses, hanged captives
Sigurd got sons, and Sweyne likewise.

Songs of home

Sweyne then sang the songs of home:
weeping women wait on shore

for sails over the sea, sweeping across the bay;
home are their husbands

Joyful meeting, mead flows
women dancing doubt no longer.
They bring their children, bid them sing.
Home are their husbands.

Babes in arms, born since parting,
greet their fathers, fearsome men,
bloodstained axemen, awesome warriors,
bringing booty.

Women watch, wives count
golden coins, come from the ships,
the serpent-prowed longships, sped from afar,
bringing booty.

The Vikings drank draughts of mead.
Since sailing they had seen no woman.
Red-blooded bodies bound eagerly
to greet a girl.

At the song of Sweyne they shut their eyes
and dreamed of home in heartfelt longing,
so sweet his song,
they smiled and seemed
to greet a girl.

Sigurd flees from Norway

When Sigurd the Jarl sailed to Norway,
bringing gold in the belly of his ships,
Olaf, the King, his overlord,
had given his lands to Gunnar the Earl.

Sigurd took wife unwillingly to ship,
wasted the town of the woeful king,
burned longships, barracks and houses,
seized slaves and sailed westward.

The King and the Earl came with a fleet,
followed the flight of fleeing Sigurd.

Scotland shunned Sigurd the Jarl.
Iceland would not welcome him.

England's earls urged him to leave them.
No-one loves a landless chieftain.
The keepers of the coasts cast him off,
what they had, they held fast.

Sigurd sailed to Swardale.
The black coast called him landward,
where he had burned towns and taken gold.
Ill-omen overhung overcast Swardale.

Christian Angles kept the shore.
Cunning Celts kept the hills.
Deep in the Dale
druids dwelt,
skilled in spells,
mighty in magic,
the readers of runes.

        The picture we are given in these fragments of alliterative poetry is of a band of freebooting pirates who ravaged the lands of the Celtic tribes and the Anglo-Saxon incomers, showing neither mercy nor remorse.  "Earl" Sigurd, their leader, the father of the future St Sweyne, appears to have been one of the worst of an extremely violent and bloodthirsty crew of villains, who turned from pillage and plunder to invasion and settlement only because dispossessed by a king, who was probably not the rapacious and greedy tyrant portrayed here, but a man exasperated beyond measure by the depredations on the legitimate -- that is to say legitimised by royal command -- trafficking of his own henchmen.  Just who this king was, it is difficult to say.  The fragment refers to him as Olaf, but he is mentioned elsewhere, notably in the late Old Norse fragments of a Saga of Grimnir, as Haakon the Just, and in the Faroëse ballad of "Sweyne Wormbane's youth" as Haakon Bloodhand.

Haakon Bloodhand

Wroth was Bloodhand Haakon
as Sigurd came to land:
With blood of Sigurd's children
I'll stain the fair white strand.

Sweyne stood to fight against him
and swung his father's sword.
While Haakon Bloodhand baffled stood
the bairns were safe aboard.

The gallant ship stood out to sea,
Sweyne sprang into the waves
and swam to board the dragon ship
and let who would be slaves.

Then Bloodhand Haakon strode the shore,
his men fell to their knees,
but Sweyne and Sigurd sailed away
beyond the western seas.

        Among the Monkwearmouth parchments the fragmentary "Chronicle of the Scribe of Unthank" describes the sufferings of the local populace under the sway of the Jarle Thorskild and Thorsten, and makes particular mention of the arrival in the mouth of the Tyne of a band of Viking pirates whom even the rapacious earls denounced as thieves, cut-throats and murderers.  Rejected by the ruling Viking establishment, Sigurd made for Swardale, a thinly populated area, which he and a few others had raided, finding -- in spite of the brave words of the poems -- scant pickings, an area where Norseman had never thought it worth their while to settle.

        The battle can scarcely have been as bloody as the poems suggest, for Sigurd's fleet can have consisted of no more than half a dozen vessels, many of the occupants of which were women and children, while the heroic freedom-fighters of the Swardale plains were no more than peasant farmers, struggling with axes and hoes to defend their fields and smallholdings, their cattle and their few pigs against the marauding invaders.

        The mass-rape of beautiful women, in which the fifteen-year-old Sweyne took a full part, was no doubt, a violent, brawling and totally disgusting scene in which the Vikings rapidly slaked their lusts on a few frightened, half-starved peasant girls before falling into a drunken stupor.  Luckily for them such men of the local inhabitants as had not been killed in the battle had fled to the hills and so missed the chance of a dire revenge.

        There can be no doubt that, even in these reduced circumstances, Earl Sigurd proved a strong and energetic ruler.

Sigurd built a stockade
and strengthened it safely.

the ballad reports.

        The site he chose was the old Romano-Celtic fortress of Calodunum, which the Vikings called Halðan.  Energetic anti-guerilla measures reduced the local population to quiescence except for a small pocket of resistance hidden in the inhospitable Vale of the Druid.  How much the midnight sorties of these desperate diehards contributed to the legend of the nameless evil reputed to lurk in the valley, it is impossible to say.  It is, however certain, that the Vale of the Druid, or Derwydd's Dale, was shunned not only by Vikings but by the Angles, the Romans and many of the Celts, who claimed that not even Iul Kessar himself, the first Roman invader and the founder of the Imperial line of Caesars, would have dared to spend a night there.

The Druid stood by the Afanc's lair.
Beware!  Beware!

        Whether it were fear of the Druid and his mysterious priesthood, or a deeper, deadlier fear, Earl Sigurd forebore to invade the Derwydd's last domain -- or perhaps he reflected that, as long as the shadow of evil lay over the Swardale plain, his fellow Vikings would be content to leave him in peace, disdaining his ill-gotten gains.

        Nonetheless Earl Sigurd's rule was far from peaceful, and his son Sweyne soon had to repeat his defence of his mother and young brothers and sisters.

Sweyne, son of Odin

Sweyne's sword
sung songs,
killing like cattle
awesome Angles,
cruel Celts.
Fifty fell at his feet,

Mighty men
made mounds,
killed like cattle,
from Druid's Dale
cruel Celts,
doomed to doleful death
on Sweyne's sword.

Speak, Sweyne,
say sooth.
What mighty magic
steels thy sword,
makes thee man,
thou bashful, blushing boy,
feller of fifty?

"Hunting with hounds
the hind on the heath,
I saw a stranger,
one eyed,
broad brimmed
the hat on his holy head,
a wise wayfarer.

"He spat on my sword,
spake sooth:
Sweyne's sword
shall sing
in bloody battle.
The one eye of Odin
shines on his son."

        From that moment Sweyne was recognised as one of Odin's specially protected sons.  Though aged only sixteen he was put in command of a ship.  By his mid-twenties he had a whole fleet.  Sweyne ravaged the coast north and south of Swardale, and successfully engaged and destroyed a fleet sent out to root out the pirates' nest.

        It was on one such raid down the coast that he burned a Christian village in southern Swardale, and put the men to the sword, apart from their leader, whom he had nailed to a tree, jesting that no greater honour could come to a man than to imitate his god in death and at the same time to serve as a sacrifice to Odin.  Another Latin fragment from among the Monkwearmouth parchmants records:

"The Vikings fell upon the village like ravening wolves.  The men they put to the sword, but the priest they nailed to a tree, mocking him, calling on him to imitate Christ and forgive them.  While they thus mocked him, some women whom they destined for slavery, fled into the forest.  The Vikings took dogs to hunt them like wild beasts.  Some were torn to pieces by the hounds, others perished on the sword, and one fell prey to the cruel lusts of the Vikings' leader, a man named Sven, whom they called a son of that foul devil Odin, and she expired even as he raped her."

        Sweyne's ambitious spirit next took him across the North Atlantic, as recorded in another manuscript now in the National Library of Scotland.

Sweyne's explorations

Odin's son sailed to Orkney,
westward he went over the wide ocean.
Iceland he saw, the island of Odin.
Nameless Greenland greeted his passage.

Sweyne sailed to sunset over the ocean,
where the elves have flown, for ever away,
beyond the bounds the beast has set,
the Midgard Serpent's might he dared.

Men say he found fur-traders from the north,
and beardless men, like boys, with copper skins,
who flew with wings of feathers on their shoulders
and worshipped a spirit, sky-dwelling god.

Southward now sailed the son of Odin.
He found islands floating in the sea,
and men as black as Byzantine slaves,
baked like bread by the burning sun.

He came to a coast where a king ruled
in the city of gods, gold and bejewelled.
The great one was girt in a green feathered cloak,
as wise as the serpent, wily and guileful.

The king was captured by the cunning son of Odin.
Aboard the dragon-ship they dragged the serpent king.
Wealth they wanted as warrant for his life.
Great was their greed.  Gold filled the ships.

Archers from the land shot arrows at the ships.
Spears they hurled, sparking fire.
Smoking Mirror seized the kingdom,
who had stood at the king's side with sly counsel.

Many men were maimed or killed.
The king was pierced by a poisoned arrow.
The longships withdrew and left the coast.
The king died, his counsellor ruled.

They sank the king's body in the silent ocean,
with his feathered cloak and crown of gold,
and left that land, longing for home,
with the holds of their ships heavy with gold.

North they sailed, star-guided.
The winged men made war against them.
The friendly fur-traders fled from them.
Snow and ice attacked their ships.

Odin's son sailed to Orkney.
Over the ocean eastwards he came.

Scotland scowled scornfully at him.
The billows beat on the bleak shore.

The Midgard Serpent's mighty wrath
raised the ocean, overtopping the land.
The dragon-ships were shaken asunder.
The sea swallowed sailors and ships.

The red gold that greed had won
was lost on the seabed, sunk for ever.
All died but Odin's son,
cast naked on the coast of Swardale.

Chapter 6: Brian is disgusted

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