However, many historians cast doubt on whether Fairhair was a historical figure or simply just a character in tall tales and stories. Nonetheless, the appeal of the life and legend of Harald Fairhair continues well into this age.
This is his story.
A great story, even better hair
Harald Fairhair is portrayed in both Icelandic and Norwegian sagas, mostly dating from the 12 and 13th centuries CE, as the first King of Norway. He set about conquering the various petty kingdoms in Norway throughout his early youth through a series of battles and was crowned King of Norway by the time he was 20. Harald was also the first King to rule the southern and western coastal regions of Norway and thus was the first to rule over a unified Norwegian kingdom.
His name – Harald Fairhair – is said to have come from his beautiful light locks. There is a slight problem with the English translation of his name. The old Icelandic word fagr – of which the English translation is given as "fair" – does not necessarily mean "light-colored" but more "beautiful" or "fine." So it would be more correct to call him Harald Finehair in English…but it just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?
Long reign provided economic certainty and political security
Having unified Norway by his early 20s, Harald Fairhair was blessed with a long reign, from 872 to 930 C.E. The stability caused by his long reign allowed his government to form a functioning taxation system and employ rudimentary forms of governance to help cement his control of Norway.
Malcontents (often unhappy at his heavy taxation policies) were banished to Iceland – which, in turn, would be a base for further westward expansion by the Vikings within a century. In many ways, these malcontents fleeing Norway due to Fairhair’s taxation policy were the first, but definitely not the last, Norwegian tax exiles.
Fairhair is said to have sired 20 sons, but only two – Eric Bloodaxe and Håkon the Good - would follow in his footsteps as King of Norway. Reaching 80, he then anointed Eric as his successor and co-ruled with him until dying of old age three years later.
So that is the genuinely agreed-upon legendary story of Norway’s first king. His story can be found in the Norse sags such as the Hemiskringl, Hrafnsmál, and the Íslendingaók from the 9th – 13th centuries CE. Fairhair also makes an appearance in the Historia Norwegiae complied in 1220 CE. However, just how much of his story is historically accurate?
Some runestones, dated to the 10th century, record Harald Bluetooth as the first King of Norway and Denmark. Illustration: Erik Mclean / Pexels
Legendary tales versus historical accuracy
Throughout the 19th and into the late 20th centuries, historians have broadly accepted Fairhair’s life as recounted in the many Norse sagas. However, since the turn of the millennium, that has been a strong revisionist streak amongst historians researching the life and times of Harald Fairhair.
The sagas claim that Fairhair was the first King of Norway, but there is simply no contemporary evidence for this claim. The first mention of a King of Norway – as a unified entity - is found upon the Jelling Stones, which were carved runestones from the 10th century in Denmark. On these stones, it is Harald Bluetooth who is recorded as being the first King of Norway – as well as Denmark.
In scholarly circles today, there are two positions on Fairhair's historicity. One is that Harald Fairhair is part of an "origin myth" for the settlement (remember those tax exiles?) of Iceland. Norwegian monarchs, from the 12th century CE, claimed lineal descent from Fairhair’s blood and further spread and exploited his myth.
The second, more nuanced view is that Harald Fairhair is indeed based upon a historical king called Harald. However, throughout the medieval period, this historical Harald picked up more legendary exploits, tales, and deeds. There is little or no archaeological evidence of a King, dating from Fairhair’s time, who controlled large areas of coastal Norway.
Despite this, his legend lives on today…
Whether there really was a historical Harald Fairhair, the first King of Norway, that unified a nation misses the point entirely. There is great power in the use of unifying legends, myths, or stories amongst peoples or nations. Following the 1814 CE adoption of its own constitution, Norway saw almost a century of struggle for independence from Sweden.
During this period of rising nationalism, there was a need for a foundation myth and a heroic figure. Who else could fill this void than the legendary first King of Norway, Harald Fairhair? This hero worship reached a crescendo in 1872 CE when a national monument was erected on Haraldshaugen, an ancient burial mound in Haugesund, western Norway.
It appears that the legend of Harald Fairhair, over a millennium old, shows no signs of disappearing into the sands of time.
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