King Harald’s Saga

This is a relatively short and straightforward read in an excellent, fluent translation by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson. It was published in 1966, 900 years after the events of the Great Year it describes, for this is the life story of King Harald Sigurdsson, known as Hardrada (hard ruler), the Norwegian king who invaded the north of England in late summer 1066 before being brought to battle, defeated and killed by Harold Godwinsson, King Harold II of England, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge; the ill-fated Harold who then had to force-march his army south to confront that other invasion, from the Norman pretender William the Bastard, where things didn’t turn out quite so well.

King Harald’s saga is significantly different from the 15 or so sagas I’ve read hitherto for the following reasons:

  • authored all the so-called Family sagas are anonymous – Harald’s is by a known and famous medieval author and historian, Snorri Sturlason
  • poetry all the other sagas include poetry and several of them are about famous poets (Egil Skallagrimsson, Gunnlaug Wormtongue) – but the historian Snorri uses poetry as  evidence, carefully assessing what it tells us about the events it records
  • excerpt all the Family sagas are self-contained (though some key characters appear in more than one saga) – Harald’s is an excerpt from a much longer work, the Heimskringla, which is some 850 pages long
  • linear the Family sagas, although they concern the deeds of actual historical people, are consciously shaped and moulded for artistic affect – Harald’s saga, being an almost year-by-year account of his career, is much more linear
  • interference we often know nothing more about the heroes of the Family sagas than their saga tells us and, given the artistic intention of the text, it is satisfying and sufficient to accept the narrative at face value – whereas King Harald is a major player in the events of the dramatic year of 1066 which are taught to all schoolchildren, and so his character – and this text – is slightly swamped by our outside knowledge from numerous other sources.

Snorri Sturlason

One of the key figures in the creative upsurge which led to the explosion of saga-writing in Iceland during the 12th and 13th centuries is historian, Snorri Sturlason (c.1179-1241) was an astonishing renaissance man, poet and historian, politician, chieftain and lawyer. It is to Snorri that we owe one of the two key texts about Norse mythology, the Prose Edda. This long text exists as a primer on poetic technique, leading up to a long section about the different stanzas and methods available to Icelandic poets, for which the opening section about the Norse myths was only intended as a kind of background briefing, but which is now an invaluable source – the only source – we have for many of the tales of the Norse gods.

As if this wasn’t enough of an achievement, he is also famous, in Norway, for having written the definitive history of the kings of Norway, from the earliest mythical times up to around the time of his birth, 1177, the Heimskringla.

The Heimskringla

This vast text is a comprehensive history of the kings of Norway from the mists of prehistory and the doings of Odin and Loki, through to factually accurate accounts of the kings who ruled just before Snorri’s birth. It is divided into 16 chapters which are, in style and structure, very like sagas. By far the longest is the saga of St Olaf, taking up two thirds of the total.

But unlike the Family sagas, Snorri’s long text is very aware of the problems of historical technique, of weighing and comparing sources, of choosing which version of events to follow, and so on. Snorri explicitly addresses these in his preface and in other places. Maybe the most striking aspect of the book is the very strong reliance on poetry.

Poetry

Over 90 verses of skaldic poetry are quoted in the saga, there’s a verse on every page, and most of them are credited to named individuals since the kings of Norway had a special fondness for keeping poets around them to sing their praises and Harald was no exception. I liked this verse by Bolverk Arnorsson:

Bleak showers lashed the dark prows
Hard along the coastline;
Iron-shielded vessels
Flaunted colourful rigging.
The great prince saw ahead
The copper roofs of Byzantium;
His swan-breasted ships swept
Towards the tall-towered city.

Interference

The Magnusson translation is wonderful, no problems there. It has a really useful introduction, good maps, invaluable family trees and potted biographies of almost everyone mentioned in the text. In addition there are ample footnotes on every page, so that many pages are more note than text. And it’s here the a teeny-tiny problem emerges because at key cruxes of Harald’s biography – his time with the Varangian Guard in Consntantinople, in his wars against Svein Ulfsson, king of Denmark, and Earl Hakon Ivarsson, nomadic chieftain, and in the detail of his final campaign against Harold Godwinsson in England – the notes intrude into the text to give really detailed explanations of the complicated genealogical and political connections between the main characters, and this

  • swamps the text you’re reading ie after two pages of notes on just what Harold Godwinsson promised Duke William of Normandy, it’s difficult to rejoin the narrative in the same frame of mind
  • undermines the text because, unfortunately, it turns out the saga is plain wrong in many of its factual claims

The notes, in places, become a kind of anti-text which is actively warring against the saga, undermining its facts and interpretation. This doesn’t happen in the Family sagas which are much more like, say, the tragedies of Shakespeare in that they use historical figures but are obviously crafted to produce dramatic twists and confrontations. Snorri, also, creates dramatic moments in this tale, but they are continually undermined by the scientific tone of the footnotes. In a nutshell, the first time you read it, skip the notes, just read the narrative for the speed and excitement of the story.

Summary

The story opens when Harald is 15 and fighting alongside his half-brother, King Olaf, at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030. Olaf loses and is killed and Harald flees east to Sweden. From there he journeys south-east through Russia, stopping to impress King Jaroslav before carrying on down to Constantinople to join the Varangian Guard, the elite band of mercenaries mostly from Scandinavia who served the emperor directly. He fights for the Byzantines in Greece, Sicily, then in the Holy Land where he makes pilgrimage to the shrines. Back in Constantinople he asks to return home, is refused and thrown in prison, is released by a miracle and takes part in some kind of uprising against the emperor in which he is said to have personally put out the emperor’s eyes. He and his fellow Scands escape across the Black Sea and back upriver to Russia, collect the loot they’d been stashing with King Jaroslav, and return to Norway.

The middle part of the saga details Harald’s numerous confrontations, battles, negotiations, treaties with and double crosses of King Magnus of Denmark (his nephew), his successor King Svein Ulfsson, and the slippery chieftain  Earl Hakon Ivarsson who fights first for one side then for the other then against both. It is a confusing picture made more so by the tangled skein of intermarriages among the royal families of Norway, Sweden and Denmark and the endless squabbles about who promised who which kingdom when they died.

Thus, in around 1038, King Magnus of Norway had made a pact with King Hardacnut of Denmark (son of Cnut the Great who actually ruled England from 1016-1035) that if either of them died childless the other would inherit their realm. Hardacnut died childless in 1042 and so Magnus claimed Denmark. But since  Hardacnut’s father had been king of England, Magnus also claimed the English throne. When Edward the Confessor had himself crowned English king after Hardacnut’s death, Magnus had planned to invade England only to be distracted by war with rebellious chieftains nearer home. When Magnus died in 1047 Harald considered that he’d inherited England along with Denmark. Edward negotiated with his both Harald and William of Normandy throughout the 1050s and managed to keep both at bay. But after his death in January 1066 both William of Normandy and Harald of Denmark considered themselves cheated of the kingdom when Harold Godwinsson got himself crowned, and they both set out to invade and conquer the land they thought rightfully theirs.

And that account not only partly explains the reason for Harald’s invasion, but gives a good flavour of how the fictional or artistic aspect of the saga, the creation of telling vignettes and insightful dialogue, is unfortunately swamped in the great sea of factual prose which is required to explicate these complicated events.

Harald sails Norway with 300 ships and maybe 6,000 men, lands on the Yorkshire coast, wins a battle at Fulford near York and is recovering with his men when the huge army Harold Godwinsson has raised attacks. The slaughter takes place in three terrible waves and leaves a battlefield glutted with corpses and Harald dead, killed by an arrow. Only 20 or so ships suffice to take the survivors back to Norway, and the memory of the slaughter more or less ends Scandinavian ambitions to invade let alone rule England.

In its last few chapters the saga has an obituary of Harald with a 13th century assessment of his strengths and weaknesses.  His old adversary Svein of Denmark gathers forces to invade Norway yet again, but wiser heads prevail to defuse the threat and preserve the peace, and Harald is succeeded by his sons Magnus (d.1069) and Olaf (d.1093) who preside over a long preiod of much-deserved peace.

Related links

The Battle of Stamford bridge, 1870, by Peter Nicolai Arbo (Wikimedia Commons)

The Battle of Stamford bridge with Harald getting shot in the neck, 1870, by Peter Nicolai Arbo (Wikimedia Commons)

Other sagas

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