It's fair to say that Sir Patrick's none too thrilled at receiving his orders from the king, though his initial reaction is one of mirth. When he reads the first line of the letter, he actually laughs. Clearly there's something about going to Norway that he finds so terribly amusing. But as he continues to read the particulars of his fateful commission, his eyes start to well with tears. He descends into sorrow and self-pity, loudly lamenting his predicament, wondering aloud just who could have done such a terrible thing in persuading the king to choose him for this suicide mission.
But Sir Patrick soon collects himself. Although this hare-brained venture will end in almost certain death, he has no hesitation in doing his duty and obeying the king's command. He is, after all, a loyal servant of the king as well as the finest sailor who ever sailed the sea.
The ballad of Sir Patrick Spens is based loosely on events of the thirteenth century, but is not intended as an accurate historical account but instead a literary creation that points to universal aspects of human nature.
In this ballad, the King requests that Patrick Spens, known as the greatest and most skilled of mariners, sail to Norway outside the normal sailing season. Patrick, as an expert sailor, understands the risks of such sailing. Given the technology of the period, sailors understood that they risked death in storms by sailing in winter.
When Sir Patrick Spens reads the kings's letter he realizes that to sail at this time will probably result in a shipwreck and his own death, but nonetheless out of loyalty and obedience to his king, he agrees to set sail, despite signs of impending bad weather.