Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Harald Hardrada: The Warrior's Way
John Marsden's biography of Harald Hardrada is one of the liveliest historical bios I've read. It's also one of the most fascinating. Marsden takes the hyperbole of the Norse Sagas and breaks things down into facts, using in depth research of historical records to get a better idea of what actually happened.
For instance, where King Harald's Saga, as related by Snorri Sturluson might say something like, "And Harald arrived in the land of the Rus (proto-Russia) and was immediately made leader of the king's forces", Marsden, using sources like the Primary Russian Chronicle, will then explain who was king at the time, what campaigns he was involved in, and what Harald was likely to have actually done in his service. Who Harald might have fought, what major battles he could have taken part in and so forth. Marsden's focus is on Harald as a professional soldier, which of course suits me down to the greaves.
Now you might wonder if this makes Harald's career any less impressive. The answer is no. Thing is, even if he might not have been the Norse Superman that the sagas make him, primary historical sources do back up most of the main points of the sagas. Harald is mentioned by Greeks, Russians, and others, and almost always in terms that show he was an impressive individual. By bringing the man into focus, Marsden has made the legend even more impressive.
I've also learned quite a bit about the makeup of what we now know as Russia and encountered tribes and cultures and peoples that I never knew existed, and I love learning stuff like that.
Marsden's detective work is very impressive. Using clues from the sagas (specific battles, names of people and places) he is able to give dates to many of the events that the sagas are unclear on and to clear up things like Harald's unnecessarily circuitous route to Constantinople as given in the sagas.
I'm about half way through the book and up to Harald's time in Constantinople. Looking forward to learning more about his battles with Arab pirates. Not surprisingly, the various Byzantine emperors often made use of their Viking mercenaries in the royal navy, since the Norsemen tended to know their way around a boat.
As I've mentioned before, many people have referred to Harald Hardrada as a 'real life Conan' and this book serves to further that idea. Imagine this seven foot tall Northman stalking red handed through the steppes and across desert sands, in pitched battles on the seas, and wandering the streets of cities like Jerusalem and Constantinople. Scenes to fire the imagination. And best of all, he was a real person.
This book came out in the UK in 2007 and hasn't been reprinted in America, so if you want to check it out you'll have to buy a used copy from Amazon or someone, as I did, but I've definitely found it worth the effort. Highly recommended.