The author of the Raven Viking trilogy, Giles Kristian, talks about how Harald Hardrada inspired his lifelong passion for Vikings
950 years ago, a desperate, bloody battle changed England's course forever, at Stamford Bridge, near York. Harold's Saxon warriors vanquished Harald Hardrada's Viking invaders in a horrific clash that spelled the end for Viking England. Just three weeks later the English King Harold and his victorious but weakened army would have to fight William, Duke of Normandy, at Hastings. We all know what happened then, and England was changed forever.
Had the English not been forced to battle the Vikings at Stamford Bridge, history would very likely have turned out differently. But for Hardrada and his Vikings, Stamford Bridge was a calamity. Their losses were so horrific that only 24 ships from the fleet of over 300 were needed to carry the survivors away. Never again would a Viking army leave their Scandinavian homeland in search of conquest. The Viking Age was over.
Harald Hardrada has long been a hero of mine. He was a giant of a man, flamboyant, ambitious and fearsome in battle. A professional warrior all his adult life, there can be few men who travelled so far or experienced so much. But as well as being the most respected warrior of the age, Hardrada was also a keen poet and it is said that he was even composing poetry on the battlefield that day in 1066. There can be little doubt that he influenced my own Viking novels, particularly the character of Sigurd. I'm awestruck by how far Hardrada journeyed, given the danger and uncertainty of travelling in the 11th Century. I admire his ambition and how he never lost sight of his aims. I'm impressed by his rise from renegade to a position of power and influence amongst the elite Varangian Guard of the Emperor of Constantinople. And I'm astounded that he managed to stay alive so long!
So it seemed to me that a fitting way to honour the great Viking king was to make a short film inspired by the saga tradition and the story-telling culture which has influenced my Raven saga and The Rise of Sigurd series. This idea of a man sitting by the fire telling the tale of his life just works for me. I feel it in my bones. My aim was to weave the great warrior's life story in a poem rich in imagery and kennings; that form of metaphor used in Anglo-Saxon and Norse poetry in which an object is described in a two-word phrase, such as 'whale-road' for 'sea', 'battle-sweat' and 'slaughter's dew' for 'blood' and 'wave-steed' or 'fjord-elk' for 'ship'. They're so evocative, aren't they? And you can have great fun playing with these kenning or inventing your own.
Fortunately, my friend and collaborator, award winning filmmaker Philip Stevens, shares my passion for history and storytelling. Furthermore, as well as being a brilliant director, he's also an actor of breathtaking talent. Besides which, it helps the budget when the director of the film also stars in it. You'll even see me in there somewhere. Not telling you where, but if you see some epic flaming torch holding. . .
Below follows a brief outline should you want one. Otherwise, just dim the lights, grab the popcorn, sit back and enjoy the saga telling:
The Last Viking
25th September, 1066. The Viking King Harald Hardrada's invaders are being slaughtered at Stamford Bride outside York. Caught unawares by the English King Harold and his army, the Norsemen fight to their last breath, as all worthy warriors must.
Battle-torn, bloody and exhausted, the ageing warrior king bursts into a simple thatched dwelling, the clamour of battle and cries of the fallen fading behind him. He stumbles, throws himself onto a bed, is taken by sleep. Wakes to find food bubbling in a pot over the fire. Eats ravenously. The door opens and a spear-armed, one-eyed stranger in a wide-brimmed hat walk in. Sits down. Stares at the great king with his single, soul-searching eye. Under this scrutiny Hardrada feels suddenly compelled to tell this stranger the saga story of his own illustrious, war-filled life.
For though the great Harald Hardrada might not know it, his mortal body even now lies hacked and bloodless on the field by the river. And yet such was the warrior's ambition in life, such was his thirst for sword-fame and glory, that he has one more tale to tell. One final epic to share, of his journey along the warrior's way, before his sould can move on to what lies beyond.
And Odin the spear god, lord of war and poetry, would hear it.
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'A fitting end to a trilogy that fans of Bernard Cornwell should devour. The big set-piece battle that completes the book is one of the best that I have ever read.' Antonia Senior, THE TIMES
Fighting in Sweden for an ambitious warlord, Sigurd Haraldarson and his small but loyal band of oathsworn warriors are winning fame and reputation. But Sigurd knows that to take on his hated enemy, the oath-breaker King Gorm - the man who betrayed his father, a man Sigurd has vowed to kill - he must earn riches enough to build an army.
Many believe Sigurd to be Óðin-favoured, but his exploits have drawn the eye of another god, too: Loki the Trickster, and when a daring assassination attempt goes wrong, Sigurd finds himself a prisoner of the powerful Jarl Guthrum. Bound like a slave, his luck having seemingly deserted him, Sigurd is taken to the sacred temple at Ubsola, a place where the blood of human sacrifice flows to appease the gods.
It is at Ubsola that Sigurd will face the sacrificial knife. And it is here that he will find a powerful relic, the great spear that was said to have once belonged to Óðin himself. With such a spear in his possession Sigurd might now assemble a host strong enough to challenge King Gorm and wreak the revenge he craves.
For, like Óðin, Sigurd will be the Wild Huntsman tearing through the sky on his fearsome steed, and the rage of his passing will be the sound of wings of the storm.
With Wings of the Storm, one of our finest young historical novelists brings his extraordinary Viking saga - an adventure to that is sure to satisfy any 'Game of Thrones' fan - to a triumphant close