The Original Grimdark: King Harald’s Saga

Fantasy literature uses the word “saga” quite liberally, as if any story with wizards and battles qualifies. Yet sagas refer properly to the old Icelandic sagas, a vast collection of histories, tales, and legends dutifully recorded by Medieval scholars and poets. Though most of these writers saw themselves as writing factual accounts of the heroic past, they were quite willing to stretch the truth when necessary; thus the legendary King Harald of Norway becomes almost eight feet tall, and can rush into a battle without shield or armor and hack down a horde of foes unscathed.

It certainly sounds better than what must have been the still remarkable, but far more mundane reality. Not surprisingly, given the fuzzy distinction between truth and reality, Icelandic sagas touch on a number of modern genres: history, fantasy, romance, folklore, even horror — it’s all here, written in succinct yet extremely colorful language.

King Harald’s Saga is a self-contained narrative which formed part of the massive history of Norwegian kings known as the Heimskringla. Written by the famous 12th century poet Snorri Sturluson, it records the magnificent career of King Harald, who begins as a Viking mercenary in the Byzantine army (which ended in his blinding the emperor, or so legend would have it), his defection to Russia, and eventual quest for the throne of Norway. Along the way he makes alliances, breaks alliances, fights battles, and makes truces; yet he always comes out on top through a combination of cunning and bravado.

Like many sagas, the story is peppered with excerpts from traditional poetry, telling bits and pieces of the story that would be familiar to contemporary readers. Some of these poems are rumored to have been written by King Harald himself, which adds to the flavor of the narrative. For example, after Harald lets one of his rivals die on the battlefield, he composes this little ditty:

“Now I have caused the deaths

Of thirteen of my enemies;

I kill without compunction,

And remember all my killings.

Treason must be scotched

By fair means or foul

Before it overwhelms me;

Oak-tress grow from acorns.

A chilling song to sing by the campfires, yet one that provides the true moral for Harald’s tale. He kills gladly but not wantonly, and remembers each of his victims, knowing that the trail of blood brings new vultures to the throne. In a world of uncertain allies, treason is ever-present, and no one — not a father, brother, or wife — can be trusted to keep your secrets (or watch your bed).

Throughout the saga, friends betray Harald and he betrays them in turn; indeed, he meets his death at the hands of King Harold of England, who betrayed his oath with King William of Normandy not to take the throne (in payment, William kills him in turn). It’s a dark cycle of betrayal and revenge, yet the story never seems as dark as all that: the sagas move along at a great clip, adding leavening doses of humor and poetry before the tale sinks under its own murderous weight.

The Penguin classics translation from 1966 by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson is a wonder: the prose is spare, yet supple, full of poetic turns of phrase and brilliant characterization. It reads like the best modern fiction, yet never sounds pulp: in short, it reads like great literature that is very easy to read. Here’s an example, a passage depicting the Battle of Fulford where Harald’s forces met the English and led to his death:

“When King Harald saw that the English flank was advancing down the dyke and was now opposite them, he sounded the attack and urged his men forward, with his banner “Land Waster,” carried in front. The Norwegian onslaught was so fierce that everything gave way before it, and a great number of the English were killed. The English army quickly broke into flight, some fleeing up the river, and others down the river; but most of them fled into the swamp, where the dead piled up so thickly that the Norwegians could cross the swamp dry-shod.”

It’s a grim yet exciting image, seeing soldiers marching over the bodies — some still warm — of their foes to reach the next flank. Yet before the story becomes too grim, we get a moment of typical Icelandic humor: King Harald enjoys composing impromptu verses as he goes along, and he dashes off a rhyme before leaping into battle. Yet he no sooner writes one but reflects, “That was a poor verse; I shall have to make a better one.” In the middle of a battle, he sits down to compose a new verse for posterity — as if poetry is just as important as winning a war (and perhaps it is at that!). The second poem is an improvement on the first, and proves his epitaph, for he dies in the next foray. His final words?

We never kneel in battle

Before the storm of weapons

And crouch behind our shields;

So the noble lady told me.

She told me once to carry

My head always high in battle

Where swords seek to shatter

The skulls of doomed warriors.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of King Harald’s Saga is that it tells history from the other side: we get the Vikings account of the pivotal events of 1066 that ended in the Battle of Hastings. It’s all too easy to forget that if King Harold had been defeated by the Norwegians, King Harald would have been fighting William the Conqueror for control of England. The story also shows how the ‘game of thrones’ for England was truly a family matter: King Harold, King Harald, and King William all share Viking blood and boast far less than seven degrees of separation. Perhaps that’s why the battles were so fierce and the betrayals so bloody: no one can disappoint you like family!

When Sturlusson wrote this saga in the 12th century, these events were in the distant past — a glorious world of strife and turmoil that could be casually enjoyed as history. As a Christian, Sturulsson must have taken a guilty delight in a world that, though technically Christian (the Norwegians had been recently converted in Harald’s time), still lived by a pagan code of conduct, following the mandates of Thor and Wierd (fate). In this way, the Icelandic sagas are also kin to Beowulf in its mixing of Christian and pagan themes, though ultimately celebrating the wonder of the pre-Christian world.

Like us, Sturulsson was probably glad to live in more civilized times, though in his heart of hearts, he lived on the battlefield as a mail-clad, blood bathed heathen. I think most of us, in the privacy of our rooms curled up with a favorite book of sagas, can easily relate.

English professor at East Central University (OK); PhD from Miami University (OH); eternal student and lover of books

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