The last Viking

I haven’t been reading much historical fiction lately — probably the last one was Steven Pressfield’s Gates of fire, which I enjoyed.  But I do love a Viking saga and Poul Anderson  delivers another great one with The last Viking

Anderson obviously loves the old sagas himself and most of his fantasy stories use a similarly laconic, poetic style like the sagas — at any rate The broken sword, The war of the gods, The tale of Hauk, and Hrolf Krakis saga do. Three hearts and three lions, “The gate of flying daggers,” and “The valor of Cappen Vara” do not.  I have yet to read The merman’s children.

Uniquely among Anderson’s neo-sagas, The last Viking has no fantasy elements, and almost all the characters are real people.  Anderson does a great job interpolating what various people might have thought and said, and the battles are usually vivid and exciting.  The last Viking tells the story of the incredible career of Harald Hardarda, the king of Norway whose death marks the end of the “Viking era”.

Honestly I never thought that much of Harald Hardrada — the other key players in the drama of 1066 seemed much more interesting.  William the Conqueror was a brilliant if brutal warrior and Harold Godwinson was a resourceful and tenacious underdog who had the terrible of luck of facing both William and Harald on the battlefield within a month’s time.  however, Anderson managed to make Hardrada, who could easily be cast as a villain, into a heroic, if not too sympathetic, character, that we can root for.  Knowing ahead of time that his enterprise in England is doomed, and having grown fond of Harald and his loyal followers along the way, make the final chapters especially engrossing.  The last stand of one of his warriors on Stamford bridge itself — an incredible but apparently true event — channels both the grim comedy of Gimli & Legolas’ contest on the walls of Helm’s Deep with the tragic end of Boromir.  But I suspect this has more to do with the common sources of both Tolkien and Anderson than anything else.  (Another one of the characters in this saga took part in the battle of Maldon, pointing to another common reference point for Tolkien and Anderson.)

I guess the fact that this saga was written as a trilogy is what keeps reminding me of Tolkien.  Honestly I pretty much never read anything that is not complete in one or two volumes because I’m so sick of all the trilogies we were subjected to throughout the 1960s onward in fantasy fiction.  Everyone had to try to be a damn Tolkien, and seemed to think writing more was writing better…  But Poul Anderson did not stretch this saga out into three books; he crammed it into them.  Harald Hardrada did just about everything a Viking could hope to do in his life time, and travelled most of the Viking world (he never made it to Iceland, Greenland, or Vinland, but he adventured in Russia, the Eastern Roman Empire, and the Holy Land, not to mention ravaging Denmark, England, etc.).  He encounters characters that range from the utterly despicable to the noble, and as I’ve found in all of Poul Anderson’s stories so far, both the heroes and villains are entirely human and can be both sympathetic and abominable … like real people, I suppose.

I ploughed through these three volumes of The last Viking in the last couple of weeks (using just the free moments I have at lunch breaks and so forth) and strongly recommend it.

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Published in: on August 9, 2011 at 6:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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