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King Harald's Saga: Harald Hardradi of Norway: From Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla (Penguin Classics)

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Snorri Sturluson

This compelling Icelandic history describes the life of King Harald Hardradi, from his battles across Europe and Russia to his final assault on England in 1066, less than three weeks before the invasion of William the Conqueror. It was a battle that … see full wiki

Tags: Books, Cafe Libri
Author: Snorri Sturluson
Genre: Literature & Fiction, History, Nonfiction
Publisher: Penguin Classics
1 review about King Harald's Saga: Harald Hardradi of Norway:...

An Exciting, if Spare, Tale of a Ruthless King

  • Dec 3, 2000
With all the adventure and action it presents, it's hard to fully grasp that this is no made-up tale (though it may contain some made-up elements), but rather a fairly down-to-earth recounting of the adventures of one of the last (some say THE last) true viking kings. Harald Hardrada (translated variously as "hard counsel" or "the ruthless") was certainly a pirate king par excellence.

This saga is actually lifted out of the larger HEIMSKRINGLA (the Norse book of kings by Snorri Sturlasson). It records the flight and adventures of Harald Sigurdsson, brother of the deposed and slain King Olaf Haraldsson (known in Norwegian history as Olaf the Saint for his Christianizing ways but to his contemporaries as Olaf the Stout). Harald, a youth of 15 stands by his elder brother at Stiklstad, with a sword tied into his hands so he will not lose it in battle, but Olaf is finally brought down and Harald must flee with other survivors. Off they go across the Baltic to the country of the Slavs in what will some day be Russia and Harald makes his way down the sinuous river route from the viking stronghold of Holmgarth (which the Russians called Novgorod) to Kiev and then on to Constantinople where he wins a place in the Byzantine Emperor's Varangian Guard. (For unknown eytemological reasons, the Byzantines and nascent Russians called the people, whom we know as vikings in the west, Varangians.)

In the land of the Byzantines Harald rises to prominence, being a man of great size (said to stand seven feet tall or thereabouts) and military accomplishments. He soon achieves captaincy of the Guard and the trust of the Byzantines, leading expedition after expedition against the Byzantines' enemies in the Mediterannean. He never loses a battle we are told and he spends a great deal of time besting the jealous Byzantine generals and officials. In the end he learns that his brother's son, Magnus, has been returned to his father's throne and Harald, after gaining much wealth for himself, quits Byzantium and passes again through the Russian lands to go home to Norway. There Harald persuades the young Magnus to share the throne with him and they become co-kings.

But Magnus doesn't live long and dies from sickness (?) only a couple of years after Harald's return, leaving Harald the lone king of the restored Norway. Harald thereupon enters into a lengthy feud with the viking king of Denmark, Swein Ulfsson, who also believes he has a claim on Norway through his ancestor Cnut the Great, the son of the Danish King Swein Forkbeard. Cnut had forged a North Sea empire uniting the Danes, the Norse and the Saxon English but his empire did not outlast him. Now both Harald and Swein Ulfsson have fantasies of restoring it with themselves at its head.

But while Harald invariably wins every sea battle with the hapless Swein, he is unable to take Denmark because the population remains loyal to Swein. In the end, the call (and wealth) of England proves greater for Harald than Swein's wind-buffeted island kingdom of Denmark and he embarks on his final expedition to seize the English throne in the tradition of Swein Forkbeard and Cnut. This expedition is generally held by scholars to have been the final gasp of the viking world as it was the last full-scale viking expedition launched from the North that history records. But history had already moved on and Harald, supreme viking marauder that he was, is plainly relegated to the margins as Duke William Bastard of Normandy (another descendant of vikings, by the way), has his own dibs in.

To see how this all played out, it's worth reading King Harald's Saga or, if you've a mind to go a little farther, a marvelous historical novel based on this three-way tug of war by the Canadian author Hope Muntz. It's called THE GOLDEN WARRIOR and there are few historical novels which have been done better. I'd also recommend the HEIMSKRINGLA itself, if you've an interest in the Northern thing. It contains many great sagas like this one of King Harald.

By the way, there are a whole slew of good books out there for those into vikings and historical adventure, including a brand new one by Jeff Janoda called SAGA: A NOVEL OF MEDIEVAL ICELAND which details the events surrounding one of the most intriguing episodes in Eyrbyggja Saga (one of the most renowned of the original Norse sagas). It tells the story of a great feud between two chieftains over a little piece of forested land in an Iceland in which wood was as precious as gold. Other good ones include Cecelia Holland's very modern and psychological TWO RAVENS, a glimpse into the hot-house environment of an Icelandic farm, and Jane Smiley's THE GREENLANDERS which tells of the final days of the the Norse settlement in Greenland as the cold and Eskimos close in around the settlers. And if you still have any patience and want more, perhaps you'd want to try my own small effort, THE KING OF VINLAND'S SAGA, which I wrote to be the saga I'd always wished had been written and preserved about the Norse excursions to North America.

All, I believe, are available in some form or another on-line. Mine I know is.

SWMThe King of Vinland's Saga

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