History and Fiction in the Kings’ Sagas: The Case of Haraldr Harðráði
By Alison Finlay
Saga-Book, Volume XXXIX, 2015
Haraldr harðráði was the other invader of England in 1066. If he had been as successful in his confrontation with the English king Harold Godwinsson at Stamford Bridge as he had been just five days earlier when he defeated a northern English army at Fulford Gate near York, English history might have spoken of the Norwegian rather than the Norman Conquest. Alternatively, if the English Harold had not been obliged to divert his forces from the anticipated Norman invasion to put his troops through a remarkable forced march to confront Haraldr near York, the Battle of Hastings only three weeks later might have had a different outcome. The end of Haraldr’s life on English soil is recorded in the Icelandic Kings’ Sagas from the thirteenth century, but also in earlier texts: the contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Anglo-Norman sources from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries. At the other end of Haraldr’s life, too, he was involved in events that are also verified by historical records from outside Scandinavia. A period of exile before coming to the throne was a common experience for many Norwegian rulers whose lives are chronicled in the Kings’ Sagas; thus St Óláfr’s early campaigns in England are recorded, as is Óláfr Tryggvason’s being sold into slavery in Estonia; Haraldr harðráði’s immediate predecessor
and for a short time joint ruler, Magnús inn góði, spent his childhood in Russia before being recalled at the age of eleven to be reinstated as king as the heir of his father St Óláfr. In Haraldr’s case, after escaping to Russia after the Battle of Stiklastaðir, he made his way to Byzantium where he served in the Varangian guard for several years, and this is recorded in some detail in Greek sources.
In many ways, then, Haraldr is a well-attested historical figure. His representation in the Norse Kings’ Sagas, however, is elaborated into a colourful biography, best known as one of the sagas in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, but found in its fullest form in the older text Morkinskinna, which was used as a source both by Snorri and by the author of Fagrskinna. In these texts, written about 160 years after Haraldr’s death, his adventures in Byzantium are embellished with anecdotes many of which can be shown to derive from internationally known folktales, including an episode that seems to be a version of the ancient tale of the Trojan Horse.