Thursday, July 14, 2011

The trouble with Harald

I've posted from time to time about elements of the Icelandic sagas and other world literature that would be at home in crime fiction.  Few, if any, are as noir as a short section from the middle of King Harald's Saga. Here are a few chapter titles from that section: "Murder." "The Mission." "Death in Denmark."

King Harald Hardrada of Norway lures a political enemy into a dark room, where he has him stabbed and hacked to death. Hated after the murder, he enlists a strong warrior to help him win back the people's favor, promising to allow the warrior's brother back from exile as the price of the warrior's cooperation. He sends the warrior on a diplomatic mission, where he wins a truce from the dead man's friends.

The exiled brother then returns to Norway but Harald, having in the meantime achieved his aim of a truce, sends the man out to his death at the hands of an enemy army. It may be the most treacherous act since King David said: "Uriah, would you mind dropping this note off for me?"

Moralists who want the good guy to win in the end will be happy to know that before the story ends, Harald gets his from King Harold Godwinson of England at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, bringing the curtain down on the Viking era, by traditional reckoning. Of course, Harold's forces lose the Battle of Hastings three weeks later.

History. It's a tough game.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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8 Comments:

Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Yes, in THE NIBELUNGENLIED, the protagonist is murdered.

They knew a lot about treachery.

July 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So Germanic epics and sagas were dangerous places.

In the Icelandic sagas, the laconic style sharpens the effect of the killings and the treachery and creates the resemblance to darker crime fiction. I don't know the style of the Niebelungenlied.

July 14, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Well, at Siegfried's funeral, his wounds open to bleed again as his killer passes the bier. I don't think forensics works that way these days.

July 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, today one would have to test the blood first.

July 14, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

But the Normans who won the Battle of Hastings were Vikings resident in France and have been ruling England ever since, so in a sense did the Viking period ever end?

July 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If I have my Norse history right, "Viking" was an occuptional rather than ethnic designation. Norsemen would go a-Viking, which means, go kick some ass. So, once the Norsemen settled down to make apple cider and write stolid mysteries, yep, the Viking period ended.

July 15, 2011  
Blogger Barbara said...

Perhaps that's why Iceland's SWAT team is called the Vikings (or so Arnaldur told me once).

A speaker at UCLA's symposium on Stieg Larsson gave a paper on Icelandic sagas, which sound like the original legal thrillers. Apparently they are not about heroism, but rather about who's best at trickery and ... she didn't use this word, but it sounded like "truthiness."

July 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Read the sagas, and you'd think the old Icelanders and Norsemen were lawyers and farmers who occasionally went to war. Raids get nothing more than the most fleeting allusions, but some of the legal material really is exciting.

My piece of intriguing information from Arnaldur was his explanation for the sagas' laconic style, a style he says he tries to imitate. The sagas, he said, were set down on calfskin, an exceedingly dear commodity at the time, which meant little space for waste words.

July 15, 2011  

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