information in english

the birkebeinerspelet play


Norway is ravaged by civil war, and the King’s illegitimate son is guarded in deep secret. Half the kingdom is out to kill the boy, and two men have to protect him with their lives. Birkebeinerspelet is the story of the narrow escape that changed the history of Norway.

This 60 minute live action experience tells this true story in real Viking style. The play takes place outside in a spectacular winter landscape, and features well-known Norwegian actors, live fighting, fire, snow and lots of Icelandic horses. Seated in an amphitheatre made of snow, this is a not-to-be-missed event for any visitor enjoying Norway in winter.


BIRKEBEINERSPELET 2020: See the story of the flight across the mountains brought to life in this unforgettable winter spectacle. Performance dates for 2020: Opening night: 14th February 2020 Performances: 15th, 20th, 21st and 22nd February 2020 Book your tickets here! For queries, please contact us at


The play is performed in Norwegian. Please contact if you would like to arrange for a separate presentation of the English synopsis.

The Market

There is a market held every night both before and after the play. Here you can purchase traditional food, enjoy various refreshments and obtain souvenirs and locally produced crafts. More information here.


Mesna is situated a short 30 minute drive from the Olympic town of Lillehammer. The play taks place outdoors in the grounds of Mesna Farm, by the shores of Lake Mesna. The short walk from the farm to the arena (about 300 metres) forms part of the performance.

Transport and accommodation

Accommodation is available in the local area. Why not make a weekend of it, and sample more of the winter wonderland that the region has to offer? Clarion Collection Hotel Hammer in the centre of the town of Lillehammer offers a hotel package complete with coach transfer to Mesna and tickets to the play. Find out more here. Ask for the "Birkebeiner spel package" on booking, or email Prices 2020:
Double room NOK 1150.- per person Single room NOK 1500.- per person Prices for triple rooms or extra bed available on request. Buses for each performance leave from Lillehammer, Moelv, Sjusjøen and Ljøsheim. See this page for pick-up and return times. If you are arriving by private transport, please follow directions to the car parking area, which is located a short walk from the farm. To arrange for disabled drop-off or parking contact

Synopsis - the plot

The year is 1205. Norway is ravaged by civil war. Two fractions, the baglers and the birkebeiners, both claim the throne. The birkebeiner King Håkon Sverresson rules, but things are about to take a dramatic turn…

The play begins at the market up at the farm. In the royal house at Bjørgvin (Bergen), King Håkon Sverresson talks to the crowd. He has been trying to make peace with the church, but the baglers, local nobles who support of the ruling bishops, are harassing people across the land. Now King Håkon and his loyal supporters, the birkebeiners (literally “birch legs”, so called because they supposedly were so poor they had to cover their legs in birch bark to keep warm) want the help of the Swedish king to break with the church. But there is a plot against King Håkon, and he is poisoned by an unknown traitor, and falls dead.

Next, we turn to the bagler camp, where Bishop Nikolas Arnesson is very pleased to hear of the death of the king. Now the baglers have a clear path to the throne. But a bagler nobleman, Olav of Varteig, appears and tells the bishop that his daughter, Inga of Varteig, has born King Håkon Sverresson a son, out of wedlock. This illegitimate prince, little Håkon Håkonsson who is now just over a year old, can give the birkebeiners a rival claim to kingship. The bishop calls forth his henchman, the ruthless bagler leader Orm, and promises a rich reward to whoever can bring him the head of the little prince. The hunt is on.

On the other side lies the fortified town of Folkenborg, where the loyal priest Trond has kept Inga and her little son hidden since the boy was born. Now two birkebeiner warriors, Torstein Skevla and Skjervald Skrukka, appear to warn Trond and Inga that they are being hunted. They all leave to try to reach the safety of Nidaros (Trondheim) where the birkebeiners will keep the boy safe until he is old enough to rule.

The audience leave the market in a torchlit procession, and follow the ravages of the bagler soldiers along the way.

We arrive at the arena. Skjervald and Torstein are making a detour to Skjervalds farm, where Skjervald's wife, Ylva, and their little boy Eirik have been waiting. Skjervald has promised Ylva that his warrior days are over, Torstein will follow the little prince to Nidaros. But the baglers have followed them, and now they believe Ylva and Eirik to be the little prince and his mother. When Inga and Trond catch up with them, Skjervald has paid dearly for the mistake. He swears revenge, and together with Torstein and two local guides he sets off to bring little Håkon across the mountains to a safe house at the farm of the birkebeiner nobleman Audun Gyrdsson.

At Audun’s farm, people are preparing the midwinter feast when Inga appears on horseback - she got separated from Skjervald and Torstein when the baglers attacked. The drunk and lecherous Lauge recognises Inga and starts harassing her, but Inga brushes him off, and tells Audun about the hunt for the royal child. Soon Skjervald and Torstein appear with little Håkon – they ran into a troop of baglers on the mountain, and Torstein is wounded, but Håkon is safe. But the bagler tropps are closing in. Audun gathers his men and prepare an ambush, and when Orm and the baglers appear, a bloody battle ensues. The birkebeiners win a narrow victory.

Finally, Inga, Torstein, Skjervald and little Håkon reach the safety of Nidaros, where the royal warden, Inge Bårdsson, can welcome the true heir to the throne of Norway.


For general information about Birkebeinerspelet, please send your e-mail to Would you like to bring your colleagues along and make an evening of it? For enquiries about sponsorship or company offers, please e-mail May-Britt Bergundhaugen, Sales and corporate sponsorship, at

Birkebeinerspelet 2021 cancelled because of Covid-19!

It is with a heavy heart that we have been forced to cancel the 2021 season of the Birkebeinerspelet play. Given the long-term consequences of the strict measures taken to combat the Corona pandemic, the risk of putting on a major cultural event in February is too great. We would liketo thank our enthusiastic 2020 audiences, and rest assured that we will spend the coming year preparing an even better event for you in 2022!

the birkebeinerne story

The History of the Birkebeiners

The Viking age in Scandinavia is generally considered to have ended in the year 1066, when the King of Norway, Harald Sigurdsson, was killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge as he attempted to reclaim a portion of England. This defeat marked the last major Viking incursion into Europe. Within 50 years of this, however, Norway became the scene of a bloody and bitter civil war that was to last for over one hundred years. The unification of Norway from a collection of chiefdoms to a unified state was almost complete by the early 1100s. However, succession laws in Norway were never clear, making any descendant from the male line of King Harald Fairhair (850–932) a potential royal candidate. Verified legitimacy was not considered necessary. This set the scene for conflict as different factions backed different possible kings. When King Sigurd the Crusader died in 1130, the country was co-ruled for four years by his son Magnus and Harald Gillekrist. Harald had arrived in the late 1120s from Ireland, claiming to be a son of Sigurd’s father. After Harald successfully went through an ordeal by fire to prove his claim, King Sigurd recognised him as his brother but forced him to swear an oath not to claim the title as long as Sigurd or his son were alive. In 1134 Harald broke that oath and open warfare ensued, with warring factions supporting opposing bloodlines. By 1135 Harald had captured Magnus, who had been blinded, castrated, mutilated and imprisoned in a monastery. The following years saw treachery and bloodletting on a grand scale, a true-life Game of Thrones, as various people claimed the throne and were just as quickly dispatched. Two major political parties emerged during this period. The Birkebeiners had their political base in the province of Trøndelag, in the ancient city of Nidaros (now Trondheim). They were a tough breed, including a number of wild men from the central border zone with Sweden. Many were very poor and forced to wear leggings made of birch bark, and so became known as Birkebeiners (or Birchlegs in English). The opposing faction were known as the Baglers, the Croziers, because of their close alliance with the Catholic Church, and they were based in the area around Oslo. In 1204 King Håkon Sverresson, leader of the Birchlegs, died at age 27, supposedly poisoned. There was no apparent heir, so the Baglers immediately took a much stronger position. But then it was discovered that King Håkon had an illegitimate son. Håkon Håkonsson had been born the year as King Håkon died, to one of his mistresses, Inga from Varteig. When the Birkebeiners learned of this 18-month-old heir to the throne, they launched a mission to find the boy and take him to Nidaros, where he could live under the protection of the reigning Birkebeiner King Inge Bårdsson, and eventually take over the throne himself. The baby was in great danger, living with his mother in Folkenborg (now Eidsberg), in the depths of the Bagler-controlled Østfold region. Should the Baglers, who were supported by the Danes, find the child first, he would immediately be put to death. The Birchlegs and Baglers both actively searched for the boy. The Birkebeiners found Håkon and sped him and his mother away towards Lillehammer, with the Bagler soldiers of Danish King Erling Stonewall in hot pursuit. As a numbingly cold winter storm fell upon the region, it was decided that the two best Birkebeiner skiers should take the baby across the mountains to Østerdalen and then on to Nidaros. Torstein Skjevla and Skjervald Skrukka set off in the storm. Pursued by the Baglers, they successfully reached Østerdalen and eventually the safety of Nidaros. Håkon had been saved by the Birkebeiners. At the age of 12, after the death of King Inge Bårdsson, he claimed the throne. During his reign from 1217 to 1263 King Håkon Håkonsson ended the civil war and saw in a new golden age for a now unified Norway. The King built a formidable fleet, and added Iceland and Nordic Greenland to his kingdom. He died in December 1263, at Kirkwall on the Orkney Islands. This text (C) taken from The Birkebeinerne Location Guidebook, published in 2016 by Ian J Brodie and available for purchase at the Birkebeinerspelet).

The Birkebeiner Ski Race

In 1932, the Norwegian love of the mountains, skiing and heritage led to the birth of a unique event — the Birkebeiner Ski Race between Rena and Lillehammer. Honouring the historic journey of Håkon Håkonsson in 1206, all participants have to carry a 3.5 kg backpack — a symbol of the young royal baby. Both the Birkebeiner Ski Race and the Birkebeiner MTB Race follow the same 54 km route from Rena to Lillehammer. The ski race is held every year in March, and has over 16,000 participants, amateurs as well as professionals. Most are Norwegians, but there are also people from other countries taking part. In 1993, the Birkebeiner MTB Race was held for the first time. Everyone from teenagers to 70-year-olds, both women and men, cycle the 82 km from Rena market square to Håkon's Hall in Lillehammer. Interest in the race has increased every year, and the event is always fully subscribed. The cyclists also carry a 3.5 kg backpack, which should only contain equipment useful as you cross the mountain (food, drink, clothing, puncture repair kit, etc.). The largest mountain bike race in the world, it attracts almost 25,000 participants to its various events — the actual MTB Race, FredagsBirken, UltraBirken, UngdomsBirken (youth) and BarneBirken (children). The Birken events are made up of 21 different races in the disciplines of cross-country skiing, mountain biking and cross-country running, offering challenge and adventure. For many Norwegians, completing one or more of these events is an important goal and is a strong motivational factor in their everyday training.

The Film

In 2016 this true story was immortalised in film. Released as Birkebeinerne in Norway, it was renamed The Last King for international distribution.

mesna in winter

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birkebeinerne film trailer

from middle-earth to mesna

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Photographer and author Ian Brodie has many years’ experience in the film industry. He has specialised in film location tourism, and has published a number of location guidebooks that showcase the beautiful places in his native New Zealand where both the The Lord of the Rings  and the The Hobbit film trilogies were shot.

In 2012 he was invited to speak at a film tourism conference in Lillehammer, having never been to Norway before. At the conference he met representatives from the Norwegian film industry including Paradox Film. In 2014 they asked him to be unit stills photographer on Birkebeinerne. The rest, as they say, is history. Ian now spends many months every year in Norway working on a number of varied projects.

- I fell in love with Norway immediately, says Brodie. – To me, it was a lot like home, like New Zealand, another Middle-earth, but with a long history and a broad mythology that actually inspired Tolkien.

- The people, too, are similar: sensible, practical, reserved till you get to know them, but very dependable. Norway and New Zealand are the only places in the world where I can sign a contract with a handshake, laughs Brodie. – It sounds old-fashioned, but I love that.

Coming to Mesna to work on the Birkebeinerne sets, Brodie also had to get close to the horses.

- I was really very nervous of horses! Says Brodie. – But coming here and seeing how they behave, how smart they are, how sensitive and how gentle, I fell in love with them too. And of course, the Icelandic horses are not so big, he smiles. – Photographing them, I got to know how unbelievably controlled they are, they can come charging at the camera and stop dead with the smallest of signals. I learned to trust the horses. And the riders!

- And of course I met this incredible couple, Camilla and Kristoffer. They had worked with their horses on the Birkebeinerne film, got hold of some of the sets from the movie and wanted to develop film location tourism at Mesna. They got funding from Innovation Norway, and brought me in as a mentor and advisor. And sitting around the table with the family, the idea of an outdoor play came up. And so it grew from there.

Brodie had no previous experience of outdoor plays. He had been to see Peer Gynt at Gålå, but nothing in the winter. When he told people back in New Zealand about the idea they just thought “those crazy Norwegians!”

- But at the same time, their eyes were like dinner plates, says Brodie. – A play outside in winter, with horses, and fire, and live action… It has an obvious world-wide appeal! I mean, wow!

So it doesn’t matter that the actors speak Norwegian?

- Not at all! The spectacle, and the amazing location by the lake, it makes it a unique event regardless of whether you can follow the dialogue. The main thread of the story is universal, the protection of a baby, and the Viking associations also makes the story accessible to an international audience. The emotion is there and keeps your attention all the time, and the action happens right in front of you!

What is it about this place, and about Norway, that you think might appeal to an international audience?

- I am a landscape photographer. I love the quiet of Norway in the winter, and the stunning landscapes, that are even more stunning in the winter, the starkness of the snow, and the way the sky becomes even bluer... There are colours here in the winter that you wouldn’t get anywhere else. But what is also special here is the connection of people to these landscapes – everywhere there are traces of people you can see that history is there, mythology becomes real. And that is also what you get when you watch this play from your hay-bale seat up on the snow tribune: you not just being entertained, you are part of something that’s alive and unique.