Monday, March 03, 2008

Poul Anderson Recalled

One of my favorite authors is much forgotten these days, so I thought I might take a few posts to refresh people’s memories. This is Poul Anderson (1926-2001). Anderson wrote both fantasy and SF with ease, although I personally prefer his fantasy. One of his fantasy series has been on my mind of late. This is his Last Viking trilogy, consisting of The Golden Horn, The Road of the Seahorse, and The Sign of the Raven, all published in 1980 by Zebra books.

These books tell the story of Harald Sigurdharson, better known as Harald Hardrede, who is sometimes called "the real-life Conan." The books are based on as true a history as Anderson could put together from many sources, and though he admitted taking some liberties, he believed that the books were very close to a true picture of Hardrede and his times. The books often do read more as history than fiction.

Hardrede certainly makes a good historical model for Conan. He was born from the blood of Kings, which is different than Conan. And he was never a thief, as Conan was. But he was definitely a reaver and a man of great mirths and melancholies. He was a lover of drink, and of many women--he took two to wife--and he was, quite probably, the greatest warrior of his age. It is said that he was seven feet tall and that he fought with an axe. And even in his fifties he was powerful in battle and always in the forefront. None could top him.

In his youth, Hardrede was much traveled and was quick with languages. Near the age of 15, but already as tall as most men, Harald fought in a battle in which his King and the King's army was cut to pieces. He was one of the few that lived (sounds like Conan), and afterward he traveled to Russia where he lead men in battle for the first time. From there he went to Constantinople where he served the empire and became chief of the Varangian Guard, which was made up of fair-haired northern warriors. He made a name for himself and earned much wealth, which he put to good use in later years when he returned to the north and made himself King of Norway.

Hardrede wanted to be King and yet he chafed at the restraints this placed on him. He was ambitious. He dreamed of a northern empire that no one could break, and he wanted a place for his sons to rule after him. And yet, he also dreamed simply of exploring, of seeing Vinland, or of finding out what lay north of his lands, over the curve of the world. He even took ships into the arctic, though ice turned him back in the only major defeat he ever suffered. Save for his last.

Harald Hardrede died trying to conquer England. He fell at the battle of Stamford Bridge, warring against overwhelming odds, and this was chronicled in the trilogy’s third volume. Anderson did a great job “showing” this battle, making you feel the sweat and the exhaustion, making you smell the blood and hear the shock of shields on shields and axes against flesh.

I remember when I finished the battle scene, I put the book down and just sat quietly for a long time. Hardrede's standard was a raven banner called Landwaster, and it seemed that I could hear the snap of it in the wind behind my head. Though there was no wind in the modern office where I sat.

I tell myself, as an enlightened 21st century man, that war is a nasty and evil thing. That there is no good way to die. I know how desperately I would pray that my son be spared such pain. My rational mind knows that glory is a fleeting thing and not worth its price in pillaged lands and fatherless children, or in trampled fields and dead kine. But sometimes there is a thing in my soul that doesn't quite believe it. I don't like that in myself. But I can't deny it.

I close my eyes and think of frost glittering on spears, of streaming light flashing from helmets and mail and the broad hilts of swords. I think of warhorses, of steam bleeding from their nostrils and their eyes wild. I think of the tramping boots of warriors, and the shock of battle lines coming together beneath black and red banners. I can see the axes, their edges turned copper with gore, and the sleeting drench of arrows. I can hear the whisper of steel, like tearing silk, and the white din of weapons and armor and hate.

And God help me, I think of Harald Hardrede and say: "There was a man."


Steve Malley said...

Hear hear!

And yeah, Poul Anderson was a heck of a storyteller.

I seem to recall that he was of the 'yellow-pad-and-ballpoint' school, and that he prevented writer's block by writing whatever else came into his mind in parantheses in his tablet. Sometimes whole chapters or big chunks of novellas, other times grocery lists and pesky chores. When the paranthesis closed again, he'd pick the story back up and run!

virtual nexus said...

Charles, just catching up after a hectic few days and to say thanks for
writing as you did about your Dad. Very moving story. Might like to do this myself at some point.

Erik Donald France said...

I always liked Poul Anderson and esp. love his Vikings -- maybe a touch of the blood and yes, I get the primal delight in war. Like Vulcans, we try to sublimate, albeit with war-feelings intact.

Rachel V. Olivier said...

Have you ever heard of the book Gate to Women's Country by Sherri S. Tepper? She kind of addresses that double edged war thing in her world. You might find it intriguing if you ever time.

I think I've just read bits and pieces of Poul Anderson but Harald's story sounds stirring. And I like what Steve said about how Anderson got around writer's block. Cool!

Lana Gramlich said...

You make Hardrede look like a mama's boy.

steve on the slow train said...

I can understand your divided feelings. I agree with you that war--especially that of the distant past--is fascinating. I'm sure you know that Harold Godwinson, who defeated Harald Hardrede at Stamford Bridge, prevailed because he led his army on a forced march to meet the enemy, and thus had the element of surprise. Godwinson tried the same tactic against William the Bastard at Hastings, but Godwinson's army was exhausted, and broke ranks when William feigned a retreat.

Thus William the Bastard became William the Conqueror. It was a fascinating time, though I'm glad I didn't live then.

Travis Cody said...

I have a few books from Anderson - Three Hearts and Three Lions, and two volumes of The Annals of the Time Patrol.

I haven't read the books about Hardrede, but I find myself sometimes feeling as you describe about the primal emotions of war waged by axe and by broadsword.

I think that's one reason why I read so many combat biographies. It's important to remind myself that war isn't what I think it is.

Shauna Roberts said...

Somehow I've never gotten around to Poul Anderson, but the Viking series sounds fascinating.

Part of why I enjoy about real and fantasy warrior-heroes is that they dream big and dare big. That's refreshing to read about in a time of tiny dreams. The average American watches four hours of TV a day, which are four hours not spent doing or dreaming or creating or making a meaningful life in any way.

Randy Johnson said...

I was always partial to his Flandry novels. I've never read his Viking trilogy. I may have to look those up. Conan The Rebel was one of the better pastiches.

Heather said...

Wow, his story sure has touched you. What a great post Charles.

My new blog is up now at

please, please visit me there.


the walking man said...

This sounds like Ivan, no not Ivan the terrible but Ivan of Newmarket.



Miladysa said...

Exciting post Charles and although I have never read the books of Poul Anderson his subject matter fascinates me.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge took place a short distance away from where I live. The moors and lands surrounding my home have seen many battles and viking raids.

Somewhere very close by the burial of a Chieftain took place following one such battle. Although there are very detailed Chronicles of these events historians continue to search for the battle site [there are two possible locations]. Our Chieftain remains hidden and long may he do so!

Charles Gramlich said...

Steve Malley, now that you mention it I do remember that story about him and the yellow pad. I'm going to review some of his books for my next post.

Julie, thanks. It was a nice exercise to do too. I enjoyed it.

Erik, it's not pc to admit to such feelings but I think they are a part of our human heritage,

Rachel, I have read some of Tepper's work but not that one. I'll have to check it out.

Lana, you are very good for my ego. Your Sweety Q just went up a few more points. You now have the highest score ever recorded.

Steve, yes, there were great heroics on both sides at Stamford Bridge. I'm a big history buff but yes, am glad I didn't live then.

Travis, I don't know what it is that calls to the blood, but we humans better find out and get rid of it.

Shauna, when you put it that way about TV, wow it is depressing. I probably don't watch much more than an hour to and hour and a half or so. And I'm glad.

Randy Johnson, I thought the best Poul Anderson fantasy was "The Broken Sword." It was just outstanding. I always liked the Flandry books too and have all of them.

H.E. I'm glad to see you are still visiting around. I'll check out the new digs.

Mark, I'm sure Ivan has slain many enemies. Especially if they came in bottles. ;)

Miladysa, I agree, let him remain hidden. We need mysteries. So cool how much history you live with.

WH said...

I love it when someone "resurrects" a great storyteller. Not many people know of George McDonald, for example, who lit a fire under C.S. Lewis. Without McDonald, there would have been no Narnia or Space Trilogy from Lewis. Here's to those who have been forgotten. Great post!

david mcmahon said...

I've never read his stuff or even heard of him, but I'm off to research him ....

Duke Scoob said...

I've not read him either but, like David, will do so. Your account certainly got me interested.

Great poem, too. Thought provoking and engaging. Rare, for me, when reading modern poetry.

Bernita said...

You paint a wonderful word picture, Charles.

Phil said...

Haven't read any Poul Anderson for an age. I will add the saga to my list. Thank you.

Charles Gramlich said...

Billy, we should consider it our sacred duty to keep some of these great names out in the world. There are many great writers whose work still deserves to be read.

David McMahon, if you like his stuff you'll find plenty of stuff. He must have written at least 70 to 80 books.

Duke Scoob, thanks for visiting. GLad you liked the poem. I don't always do rhyming poetry but I do enjoy the flow of it when I can come up with it.

Bernita, thank you. That means much coming from you. Your work is always so polished.

Phil, thanks also for visiting. I'm going to review some more of Anderson's work. I think his single best book is "The Broken Sword."

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you brought up Poul Anderson. I have read some of his short stories. I have always wanted to read some of his novels, but still haven't gotten around to it.

I too share your conflict about war. I love Robert E. Howard and his stories of battle. But, I don't want war.

WH said...

I definitely have to look this man up!