The first thing to say about this book is that it is very much not a biography of Harald Hardrada. Indeed for large parts of the text he is either a bit-part player, or entirely absent! Instead the focus is on the world that he lived in – first Scandinavia, then Russia and Constantinople, before returning home to claim the throne of Norway. After ruling Norway for twenty years, much of which was taken up with a failed attempt to conquer Denmark, he invaded England in 1066, officially as an ally of King Harold’s brother Tostig, and was killed at the battle of Stamford Bridge, the last major battle of the Viking age in Britain (although not actually the last raid – there was another major Viking attack in 1069-70, but that ended without an major battles).
The main problem with this approach is that we never get a clear idea of what is actually known about Harald’s own life. For me it would have worked much better if each chapter had begun with an account of what is actually know about Harald’s life in each of these periods, before then moving on to the wider context. Instead Harald’s experiences are fairly randomly dropped into the text, and even the conclusion spends quite a lot of time talking about Ragnar Lodbrok instead of Harald! It doesn’t help that there are plenty of digressions, ponderings on the nature of Viking life, battle, farming in Norway, Harald’s religious view etc. Some items make several appearances, including a piece of Viking graffiti in Hagia Sophia. I would say that the author is unnessarily defensive about his subject, spending time attempting to justify his actions, on occasion by comparing him to earlier rulers famous for their own conquests and massacres.
Each of the individual chapters contains a great deal of interesting information. Harald had a very adventurous life, spending time in exile in Russia, serving with the Varangian guard in Constantinople for eight years, ruling as a rather warlike if not terribly successful king of Norway for twenty years, before famously being killed at the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. A lot of the material presented here isn’t directly relevant to Harald’s life, such as the fairly lengthy discussion of the identity of the early ‘Rus, or the later fate of the Varangian Guard, but it does help set the context for his life.
Overall this is an interesting account of the world in which Harald Hardrada lived, combined with a much smaller and rather scattered biography of the man himself.
1 – War: Stiklarstadir, 31 August 1030
2 – Rus’: Russia, 1031-4
3 – Varangians: Byzantium, 1034-42
4 – Northland: Norway, 1046-66
5 – Conquest: Stamford Bridge, 25 September 1066
Author: Nic Fields
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military