Sunday, 16 December 2012

The Last Viking Continued

Poul Anderson's The Last Viking is a three-volume biographical novel. The title character, Harald's, age continues to mount. Known to the Byzantines as Captain Araltes, he fights for Constantinople for a year, spends three years leading the Varangians on military campaigns in Syria, then is two years in Sicily where he captures Saracen-held cities by ingenious ruses.

That brings his age to twenty four or slightly higher unless I have missed some time while he was in Constantinople, so he is nearing his half way point and is not yet King of Norway. I think that that happens at the end of this first Volume, The Golden Horn (New York, 1980). I have currently reread as far as Chapter VI, section 1, p. 121, the capture of the third Sicilian city.

The opening sentence of Chapter II seems on first reading to introduce a legendary element. After a defeat in battle:

"Rognavald Brusason left Harald with a poor hind he knew, deep in the forest." (p. 48)

We almost recognise this. Legendary heroes, their lives threatened in infancy, are brought up in humble circumstances until they are ready to come forward to claim their inheritance. But that is not what happens here. Harald, already fifteen, had fought in the battle and stays in the forest long enough only to recuperate from his wounds, then goes abroad to win fame and fortune before returning.

Nevertheless, that "...deep in the forest..." strikes a legendary note. Meanwhile, other events, like an eclipse, occur that weave their way into legendary reconstructions of then recent history:

"After a few years they believed that the sun had gone out at the moment of St. Olaf's death." (p. 24)

If this work were not biographical fiction but historical fantasy, then its plot would comprise legendary and mythical events. 

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