Behold, the Dog King! A dog that once was king sounds like the pitch for a Disney movie, but according to legend—which is a little like saying, according to whatever the hell you want to believe in—a dog did sit (and roll over, and play dead) as king of a conquered people in either Norway or Denmark during the age of the Vikings.
I’m from the land of the Vikings. Not Scandinavia, home of the conquering warrior tribes, but Minnesota, home of the notably less conquering NFL franchise. In my youth the Vikes held the record for the most fruitless trips to the Super Bowl and continue to frustrate fans with mad dashed hopes and endless despair year after agonizing year. The team got their name from Minnesota’s concentrated Scandinavian population, which is known mostly for their curious way of saying “oot and aboot,” “oh yeah dere,” “oh, y’know, can’t complain,” and the ever-present “uff da!”—uttered as though one had just been punched in the stomach—which I heard so often and used unconsciously growing up that I always assumed it was a natural sound people made, like “ow!” instead of actual words imported from Norway. The Scandinavians I grew up with bore little resemblance to their fierce berserker predecessors, and were more Garrison Keillor and Marge Gunderson then Erik the Red and Leif Ericsson.
The fierce—not to mention bloodthirsty—image of the northern warrior has been revived lately by Alexander Skarsgård as the Viking vampire Eric Northman on True Blood. And regardless of what the Coen Brothers might have done to the Scandinavian brand with their depiction of Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, there was a time when this same race hacked, slashed and otherwise brutalized their way across northern Europe, through Great Britain and all the way to Newfoundland, on their quest to reach Austin, Minnesota, in order to fulfill their destiny as the inventors of SPAM. (Not historically accurate.) In any case, it is in the context of a combative and brutally vindictive warrior people that the stories of the dog king need to be understood.
In one version of the story, from Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson’s “Heimskringla” (“Circle of the World”), there was once a king of the Uplands named Eystein. He was known as either Eystein the Bad, or Eystein the Great, and was in this conflicted esteem not unlike your average American President. After Eystein conquered Trondheim, Norway’s main city, he installed his son Ostrund as king. When his subjects decided they really weren’t very fond of Ostrund and killed him, Eystein went medieval on the upstarts and “ravaged the land far and wide, and subdued it.”
After this, Eystein the Now-Pissed-Off, in order to communicate his contempt for the people, gave them a choice for their next ruler: either Thorer Faxe, his servant, or Saur, his dog. Saur is pronounced “Say-err” and translates from the Icelandic as “excrement,” giving us a colorful picture of the kind of person Eystein was, namely the kind that would name his dog “Crap.” The conquered people chose the dog as their ruler, assuming that they would be rid of the dog faster.
The Dog King Saur, or King Crap, possessed “three men’s wisdom” and when he barked, he spoke one word and barked two (though it’s unclear whether he sounded more like Gilbert Gottfried or R. Lee Ermey). He wore a collar and chain of gold and silver, and his courtiers carried him on their shoulders “when the weather or ways were foul.” He had a throne like a normal king, and lived in an island mansion, in a place that became known as Saurshaug, or, literally, “Shit Pile.” Sturluson noted that the name was still used for the area in his day, centuries later. King Saur met his end when wolves broke into the royal cow pen; prodded by his courtiers he ran in to defend his own cattle, and the wolves tore him to pieces.
In modern America, so far, dogs have only made it as far as the mayor’s office, becoming mayors of towns that barely exist as legal entities. Rabbit Hash, Kentucky (Population: 5) started their tradition of dog mayors in 1998 when they first elected as mayor a mutt called Goofy with a penchant for laying in the middle of the road blocking traffic. Lucy Lou, the third in the town’s proud line of canine mayors, holds the office today. But the tiny, unincorporated town of Sunol, California gets bragging rights as the first town to elect a dog as mayor, a Labrador retriever named Bosco. There is a statue of Bosco on the back counter of the town’s main bar. When the bartender raises its back leg, it pees beer.
Rabbit Hash, the subject of a 2003 documentary of the same name, is less an independent town and more a crossroads for other communities bearing equally memorable names like Big Rock Lick, Beaver Lick and Sugar Tit, a name that Jude Gerard Prest, the director and narrator of the film, finds himself compelled to say repeatedly. While the film spends plenty of time on the elections that were held for Goofy, the real, genuine pleasure of the documentary is its depiction of the local citizenry, who talk about Rabbit Hash being the “center of the universe,” who want to make it clear that they aren’t “hillbillies or ‘hill jacks’” but more a welcoming lot of creative kids and aging hippies, and whose members include—among other creative luminaries—William R. Burleigh, the former CEO of media giant E. W. Scripps.
In the mayoral election, corruption being actually encouraged, the citizenry literally bought their votes for a dollar a piece. Goofy’s opposing candidates were another dog, a pot-bellied pig, and Rabbit Hash’s version of a village idiot (albeit one with an incredible ability for woodcarving). You have to love a town where the losing candidate’s slogan was “The Perfect Politician: HE DOESN’T TALK,” while the winning mayor’s campaign slogan was the blunt and unapologetic “If you can’t eat it or fuck it, piss on it.” Which is exactly what the town seemed to be doing with this election, in a gentle way, pissing on the corrupt excesses of the American democratic process.
While the dog mayor seemed to be the story of a people thumbing their collective noses at the whole concept of political power, it becomes clear that the Scandinavian dog king—in each variation—was about a ruler thumbing his nose at a conquered people.
The version of the story from the Danish Histories of Saxo Grammaticus tells the story of Gunnar, “bravest of the Swedes,” bravery being curiously defined by Saxo as the level of passion one has for slaughtering entire regions of men not for any political or financial reason, but merely for the pleasure of watching one’s enemy die in the throes of excruciating pain. After conquering Norway, brave, psychotic Gunnar forced the Norwegians to submit to a dog as governor. As Saxo explained, “What can we suppose to have been his object in this action, unless it were to make a haughty nation feel that their arrogance was being more signally punished when they bowed their stubborn heads before a yapping hound?” Gunnar also threatened that if anyone defied the rule of the dog governor, or failed to do tribute to him, that subject would have his limbs removed—an act which Gunnar the Brave would have definitely wanted to witness personally. “Thus he burst the bubble of the Norwegians’ conceit, to make them feel clearly how their pride was gone, when they saw themselves forced to do homage to a dog.”
I encourage you to relate to this story in terms of the political years 2001 to 2008: pride-crushed Norwegians = Liberals and Democrats, Gunnar the Psychotic = Karl Rove, yapping hound = George W. Bush. Fill in those names above and you’ll see what I mean.
A final version of the story describes the Swedish king Athils (Hakon) installing a dog to rule over the proud Danish people, once again in an act of intended humiliation. King Athils declared that when the dog died, whoever told him of the death would be killed. When the dog did die, a crafty shepherd named Snio (Snow) was sent to inform the king, and, through a clever deception—a bizarre exchange too long and incomprehensible to include here—managed to get the king himself to say that the dog had died. Having tricked Athils, Snio was made king of Denmark. But—absolute power corrupting absolutely, and so on—as king, Snio the clever shepherd ended up proving himself a real dick. He was eventually sent a “gift” from his people, a pair of gloves that were infested with lice. When he pulled the gloves on, “the lice covered his body and ate him.” Some lice! Political assassination was a lot more colorful in the good old legendary days.
Sweden, Norway and Denmark still have monarchies. I know this mainly because Prince Christian of Denmark was born eight days after my daughter, and we immediately made plans to start having her learn Danish (because YOU NEVER KNOW). Norway is the only one of the three whose current monarch, Harald V, descends directly from the country’s first king, whose historical name, Harald Fairhair, proves that books like Game of Thrones aren’t making up that goofy crap.
Regarding Harald V, there is actually a Facebook group called “Bring Back King Saur” with the slogan “Join if you agree that the current King of Norway Harold V, should removed (sic) from power and replaced by any living ancestors of former monarch Saur.” Harald V’s position on the throne is probably safe, however, since the group is listed as “Humor—Inside Joke.” I am one (newly joined) of only 20 members, and the British and Norwegian undergrads who started the group haven’t posted since 2008. And while it isn’t exactly how I picture the Dog King, the group’s profile pic is a charming photo of a shaggy sheepdog looking very amiable in what looks to be a crown from Burger King.