by Justin Hill
I love good historical fiction. However, it’s not often I discover a book that is totally absorbing and at the same time an author who makes me think, why the devil didn’t I learn all this at school?
Of course, our schools are good at putting our country/countries first, sometimes to the point of dishonesty, or at least self-delusion. So what is it about The Last Viking that breaks the pattern.
1066 was a pivotal year in the history of Britain. We are taught here in the UK that William of Normandy, a French nobleman of no particular worth, invaded England to teach the Saxons and the Britons a lesson. He became the Conqueror. Poor old King Harold, who had been on the throne only nine months, got it in the eye at Hastings.
Justin Hill’s novel tells how it might easy have gone very differently. There was ‘another’ 1066, one we don’t hear much about in the school history lessons.
‘ “Brothers!” I called out. “It was not so long ago that Northumbria was a kingdom ruled from York, and your kings were brought over from Norway . . . I have brought you back under the care of the Norse king.” ‘
The Last Viking is a novel about Harald Sigurdson. Having landed in these islands, he staked a claim to the English throne. Allied with Tostig Godwinson, brother of the newly-crowned King Harold, he easily defeated the Earls of Northumbria and Mercia at Fulford, near York. His triumph was short-lived. Only a few days later, he was defeated by an English army at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Both Harald and Tostig, as well as a considerable number of Norwegians, lost their lives.
Justin Hill has filled in gaps in the extant records with his own imaginative fiction, to give us a credible tale of this Norse hero, whose adventures span the forty years leading to that final defeat.
The Last Viking begins when Harald is a teenager and is seriously wounded in a battle which sees his half brother, King Olaf, killed. Saved from the battlefield by an unknown rescuer, he begins a perilous journey across the mountains to Sweden. There, he is welcomed at the court of King Onund, where he renews his aquaintance with Astrid, his brother’s widow.
‘Sharp against the clear, deep blue of the Mediterranean sky, the Queen of Cities rose from the black waters of the Borphorus – ageless,golden, brilliant . . . .’
But like many young men, Harald has an ambition, to recover Olaf’s Norwegian crown for himself. And to do that he needs to make his fortune as a mercenary warrior. Leaving Scandinavia, he works and battles his way through Russia to Byzantium and Palestine. He earns a reputation, a fortune in spoils and the favour of two empresses.
Returning home married to Elizaveta, daughter of Prince Jaruslav of Kiev, he wins the kingship of Norway and reigns successfully for twenty years. In 1066, ambition leads him to the British Isles and his fate.
‘Six came at me. I broke the first man’s arm through his shield. The next lost his head. I kicked the next off the wall, backhanded the next, and heard the crack as myhilt shattered his skull.’
Viking Fire is high in drama, action and bloodshed. So, if you’re not keen on the last of these, it isn’t a novel for you. Once or twice it borders on the macabre. But Justin Hill can do more tender stuff as well, as in his telling of Harald’s relationship with Helen, the Greek woman he takes as a lover.
‘Helen kissed me as the scent of spices rose to our window . . . . I smelt the oil in her hair, the dust on her skin, watched the moon’s light cross the floor of our room.’
Best of all, Viking Fire, the whole story, has a true historical feel about it, reflecting as it does, the ethos and spirit of an age. The philosophy and morality of the Vikings, despite the fact they have converted to Christianity, is portrayed here with a distinctly pagan edge. The old gods direct their steps. Men are driven by the desire for glory, and death in battle is greatly preferable to death in bed.