Filmic and fast-moving, Don Hollway's biography of the bloodthirsty Viking ruler - The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada - carries all the excitement of battle, underscored with a detailed appreciation of the weapons and tactics deployed during the mid-1000s.
While historical data and factual asides tumble out of the pages like gold coins from a raided chest – the currents of the Humber, the marital customs of Kievan Rus, the street lighting of medieval Constantinople – it's the dialogue that drives the narrative.
From Stiklestad to Stamford Bridge
And what a narrative it is. The book begins and ends with the fateful events surrounding the fall in September 1066 of the titular Last Viking, succumbing, as fate had surely dictated, on the battlefield.
To lead the reader back to this starting point, the author apportions 368 pages into 30 chapters and three main parts, bookended by Stamford Bridge.
By then, Harald Hardrada, the Hard Ruler, had become "tyrannical, foul-mouthed, womanizing and greedy" and, worse, indecisive.
His astonishing miscalculations that day, his lightly dressed force, a third of which he had kept a few hours' ride away, unaware of King Harold's approach due to lack of reconnaissance, are exposed by the writer, noting that the Viking had even left behind his trusty mail coat Emma.
Was it overconfidence?
Was it the bad omens Hardrada had sensed when visiting the royal tomb of his idolized half-brother Olaf at Nidaros before setting sail for Britain?
Certainly, the heroic saint haunts the book, from the decisive Battle of Stiklestad in 1030 when the 15-year-old Hardrada flees the scene and his slain older sibling, to the visions of the now divine warrior monarch that appear at crucial points over the 36 years from battlefield to battlefield.
This is entirely conjecture, of course. Apart from his poems reproduced here, we don't know what crossed Hardrada's mind when instigating 18 years of fruitless discord amid rival Scandinavian rulers, nor upon his seeing Constantinople for the first time.
Nobody would have been privy to the pillow talk twixt Hardrada and either of the two Byzantine empresses he apparently bedded, he a Varangian guard, she a queen in the Queen of Cities, able to command castration, blinding or exile at whim.
But, as young journalists used to be instructed back in the day, never let the truth stand in the way of a good story, and Hollway tells Hardrada's most entertainingly.
A regular contributor to History Magazine, Aviation History and Military Heritage, as well as being a battle re-enactor and keen fencer, Dallastown-based Hollway is tackling his first book here, skipping between Stiklestad and Sicily, the Skaggerak and Stamford Bridge, like a swift Byzantine dromon ship over the Adriatic.
Chapter and verse
A flat-out admirer of Harald, to whom the book is dedicated, Hollway is also in thrall to the skalds, the Norse poets who captured the spirit of this heroic age.
Surrounded by fallen Anglo-Saxon soldiers at the Battle of Fulford in Part One, "Seven Feet of English Ground," the prelude to Stamford Bridge five days later, we are first placed, by way of the Introduction, in Snorri Sturluson's spa pool as he composes his Heimskringla to chronicle these events nearly 200 years later.
If the American War of Independence had its painters, and World War II its photographers, Viking conflicts had its skalds, interpreting events through poetry:
"Vikings loved nothing better than a man with the skill and nerve to compose verse while facing death," says Hollway. (Tellingly, Hardrada's verse before Stamford Bridge is poor, forcing him to conjure up another. It's as if he knows this is one escapade too far.) Chieftains goad each other in rhyme, battles are prefaced by stanzas, and verse opens each of this book's chapters.
While lionizing Hardrada and the classic Age of the Vikings he embodies, the author is quick to point out its failings. In his wanton destruction of Denmark's trading hub Hedeby and its comparatively advanced society, the Thunderbolt of the North sets back progress in the region for centuries, allowing Germany's Hanseatic cities to surpass Scandinavia long after his death.
Perhaps surprising for readers previously unacquainted with Hardrada, much of the book doesn't take place in Scandinavia at all but in Europe's greatest cities of the epoch, Kiev and Constantinople.
Capitals of two prominent religious and political domains, Kievan Rus and the Byzantine Empire, they lured the younger Hardrada away from the infamy of Stiklestad and brought him the esteem he would have sought as a teenage warrior, admired by rulers, noticed by empresses and rich beyond measure.
Hollway masterfully illustrates a number of details that make Hardrada's story come to life. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Status would come later, a quest that bogs Hardrada – and, to some extent, the reader – down in seemingly endless intrigue and conflict between his rivals in Denmark, Sweden, and, indeed, Norway.
While he is earning his spurs in the gilded citadels beyond, however, his blonde mane flowing, his mind soaking in the unfamiliar military tactics, we are taken on a whirlwind tour of exotic locations and palatial activity.
Love, lust, and jealousy pepper the subplot, particularly when the Burner of Bulgars is elevated to serve the Empress Zoe as her Varangian guard.
To use Hollway's contemporary American vernacular that may grate on some readers, her security detail makes best use of the situation, scaling the snake-infested ladder of a decaying metropolis, before being cast into a serpent pit as punishment for doing so.
His cellmate and long-term companion in battle, Halldor Snorrason, later sees out his retirement on an Icelandic farm, his sagas handed down from generation to generation until they reach the talented ear of his descendant, the historian Snorri Sturluson, for him to put quill to parchment two centuries later.
Detail is also Hollway's strong point, however. With perhaps one eye on the film rights, planting Hardrada in Jason Bourneesque situations and letting the reader enjoy the dramatic outcomes, the author leans on fact to shape the story.
While Hardrada, Halldor, and crew execute their derring-do, we learn about the thickness of the links in the defensive chain that once protected the Golden Horn.
Elsewhere in the saga, the color of his first wife Elisaveta's wedding dress would have been bright red, the crossing at Stamford Bridge was the width of the swing of a two-handed axe, sunrise on the day of battle came at seven o'clock. The devil, as they say, is in the detail.
Wax and wane
We begin Hardrada's tale with the waning of the Viking world, from Vinland to Rus, and Snorri Sturluson's raging saga against the dying of the light.
By the end, an old man at 51, Hardrada is seen thrashing away at Anglo-Saxon limbs at Stamford Bridge with his sword in both hands, having deceived or deluded every friend, foe, and female he ever came across, an anti-hero as much as champion, striking blows for a way of life that will end as abruptly as it began.
In between, Hollway fills the story with gripping action, waxing lyrical about the characters who instigate it, bit players such as Heming Aslaksson, hanging off a cliff at Torghatten one minute, firing a fateful arrow at Stamford Bridge the next.
In doing so, the author has created a contemporary script fit for Hollywood and faithful to the spirit of history.
After all, what's a Norse saga without drama?
The Last Viking – the True Story of King Harald Hardrada by Don Hollway, Osprey Publishing, is available for purchase on Amazon, here.
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