Rousing Fictional Biography of a Viking King

The Golden Horn - Poul Anderson

I’m a fan of history. Any history really. I love it all. But tales of the Vikings have always been one of my favorites, especially when they are filled with examples of their legendary prowess as warriors. Well, in The Golden Horn, Poul Anderson gives me just that and more, as he takes a close look at one of the most famous Vikings of all: Harald Sigurdharson (1015-66), who became Norway’s King Harald III.


The tale begins with a teenage Harald fighting along side his older half-brother, Olaf the Stout, at the Battle of Stiklestad. This uprising against King Olaf caused by his devotion to the Christian faith and his constant restrictions against the old ways of worship. The naive and untested Harald discovering first hand the brutality of war and the fickleness of fate.


Unfortunately (according to you perspective, I suppose), the battle goes ill for Olaf, resulting in the king’s death and causing young Harald to flee into exile. His path eventually taking him to Russia where he becomes a mercenary to the ruler of Novgorod before he eventually finds his way to Constantinople where he is determined to become the commander of the Byzantine Varangian Guard. All along the way, Harald fights varies battles, makes innumerable friends and allies, and constantly plans to return home to press his claim to the throne of Norway.


Throughout this near biographical story, Poul Anderson attempts to highlight for a reader both the tough-as-nails warrior mentality of Harald as well as showing that he had other, less celebrated qualities. To this end, Mr. Anderson clearly illustrates the future king’s fiery, Viking temper, his unwavering determination, and his absolute confidence in his own invincibility, but he also highlights his deep devotion to his friends and loved ones, faithfulness to those he owes allegiance to, and his heartfelt desire to finish the work of his half-brother by bringing Christianity to his people.


The only criticism I have of the book is that, at times, the author told me about Harald more than he showed me. The narrative reading more like isolated snapshots of this man’s life than as a linear movie. Not that I don’t understand the need to skip weeks, months, or years when telling this initial chapter in Harald’s long, life story, but I felt it could have been handled a bit more smoothly to produce a more immersive experience.


All in all, The Golden Horn was exactly what I expected it to be: an exciting romp through this period of history with a group of Vikings. How could I not enjoy seeing the world from the frosty Scandinavian lands to the mild climes of the Mediterranean? It was filled with exotic locals, interesting people from the past, and even an emotional and bitter struggle between the old Norse religion and the new Christian church. Sure, it skipped forward in time occasionally, but even that annoyance didn’t detract from me enjoying this tale of King Harald III.