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."