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Olaf’s Church

Freda Isaksen

On the shores of the Baltic Sea there is a small country of about one million people, but at the time that the events of this story took place, some centuries ago, there was a much smaller population. The inhabitants were a hard-working content people, the country was beautiful with bountiful forests, so wood was plentiful. This product and farming provided a living for the populace. Nothing of great importance had ever occurred there, no resident had ever distinguished himslef enough to be recognised in the neighboring areas, so it was an independent country which provided for its own existence.

However the leaders of the government watched as tall ships passed in the distance but never came near their shores. They speculated that if they could do trade with other countries with the help of these ships it would increase their prosperity. The leaders decided that if they built a tall spire with a beacon on top of the church, the passing ships would see it and think that a country with such an impressive landmark must be important and wealthy. Then they would be eager to land there and investigate the possibility of trade.

A search was made throughout the land for a craftsman who could build such a structure, but no one came forth to do the work.

One day a stranger appeared at the state house, he spoke a foreign language so he was not of those parts. He offered to build the spire, a price was determined and plans were made. The spokesman asked his name, he only shook his head so they called him Master Builder. The man moved into a cottage with his woman who never conversed with anyone, so no one knew her name either.

The work was started with the wood of the forests. The workman was a tall man, powerfully built, and as he climbed higher and higher every day hundreds of eyes watched and it soon became apparent that he was very strong and skillful. As he labored the whole country admired the progress and the children called out, “Tell us your name!” but they were answered with silence.

As the Master Builder worked diligently the government searched for ways to make the money available when the spire was completed. Taxes were raised and there were appeals assuring everyone that their products would be carried by the ships to other countries and they would benefit materially. But as the work grew taller and taller it became apparent that they had not raised the amount of money agreed upon. So they kept urging the Master Builder to make a change here or there, stalling for time and hoping for a miracle.

All the time the young boys were taunting the worker, “You have no name.”

At last no one could ask for more improvements, the work was perfect. The church spire stood taller than anyone thought possible, only the beacon was not completed. Desperation was apparent amongst the leaders and the boys were calling out weird-sounding foreign names, trying to guess the right one. Suddenly Master Builder spoke. “If any of you can guess my name in six tries I will not take payment for my work!”

There was silence and amazement from the onlookers, the leaders quickly disappeared and held a meeting, then chose two boys. “You must hide outside the cottage and listen to the conversation inside,” they ordered. “Then you will surely hear his name.”

For several days and nights the boys hid in the bushes but inside the cottage the talk was muted and foreign, while the man crafted the beacon. On the seventh night they heard arguments and then the woman called out, “Olaf, the work is almost done, collect your wages and let us depart from here.”

With this information the elders were ecstatic, but they reasoned that if they told of their knowledge of the name the work might not be completed, so they kept silent.

Finally the hand-made beacon was completed and the craftsman climbed to the top of his masterpiece clutching the beautiful edifice. Crowds of people had gathered to watch this final episode, everyone gleeful that the miracle had occurred from the Master Builder’s own words. “If you guess my name you will not pay.” When he descends we will play with some names, they thought.

As the beacon was put in place someone called out, “Olaf, turn it a little, it’s not straight.” Olaf was so surprised that he dropped the beacon. As it fell the long way to the ground it broke into thousands of pieces which became embedded in the ground.

Slowly, while the onlookers were absolutely silent, Olaf climbed down from the great height, walked to his cottage, took his woman by the hand through the staring crowd and left the town. He was never seen or heard of again.

Today, centuries later, one can visit the church with the tallest spire in the whole region and walk over the partiallly buried pieces of the wooden beacon. There is a very worn plaque at the base which states Olaf’s Church.


Copyright Freda Isaksen 1986–2006. Permission to reuse for non-commercial purposes is granted, provided that the text is unaltered and the original source is acknowledged. For more information, contact isaksen at math.wayne.edu.