Heimskringla, the saga of old Norse kings, was written by Snorri Sturluson. It’s a hard read. I said that partly because my favorite Norse King is Harald Hardrada. Did you see the word play there? Apparently Harald’s last name was actually Siguardsson and he only picked up the nickname because it meant ‘hard ruler’, or maybe ‘harsh counsel’. Tough guy, one of the longer careers in military experience, he lost his first battle, and lost his last battle, and won almost everything in between. In those days losing generally meant you died. And, yes, Harald died at his last battle, a battle he very well might have won, had not an arrow found a way into his throat.
So why do I like Harald? Because he was one of those few “tipping points” in history that revolve upon one man.
Short history of Harald…he was part of the royal family of Norway! fighting against the usurper. He lost, he was 15, and he took a serious wound to a leg. He literally limped into Sweden only to find that the usurper had sent out agents to kill him, not wanting any of the old family to be alive. Harald went further east, to the eastern shore of the Baltic, and then went up river to the Viking settlement at Kiev. The tribe of the Rus was led by Jarolslav. That’s where Russia gets it’s name.
Harald regains his strength and goes to work fighting for Jarolslav to earn his wages. He learns a great deal, and also learns that the Cossacks and Slavs can be beaten, but there is no gold involved. He was never going to get rich fighting in Russia. So he heads to the Black Sea and goes to the capital of the Byzantine Empire at Constantinople. The Emperor has a fondness for tall Vikings. Harald was nearly seven feet tall. The Varangian Guard was almost exclusively Norse, and acted as the personal bodyguard of the Emperor. Most Emperors did not trust their own generals, too much politicking going on, and a lot of blinding, then going into exile. At times, even the Varangian Guard got political.
Harald joined the guard, became very successful in many battles throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, with lots of gold as payment. Harald kept sending gold back to Jarolslav in Kiev. Harald won so often he was made a general and he made even more gold. Finally the Emperor that hired Harald died, or was exiled, and the new Emperor was mistrustful of Harald, and the rumor was that Harald was expected to lose his eyesight, and be sentenced to a dungeon. Harald left town in the middle of the night. And this is where the legend gets epic.
Apparent a huge chain was drawn nightly across the harbor at the Golden Horn. It was a little like a security measure, but mostly a toll gate. It had to be lowered to get in, or out of the harbor. It was so long that it dipped down in the middle, so that it was below the water a few feet. It was still effective in stopping a large boat, shallow rowboats could easily cross over. Harald had two boats, both filled with men, one also filled with gold, the other filled with weapons. Harald was taking both boats over the chain and then up to Kiev.
Harald’s plan was to paddle very hard to get the boats to maximum speed, tell the men to run to the back of the boat as they reach the chain, let the boat run up the chain, then have the men run forward to the bow, and the boat would slide over. The boats weren’t typical Mediterranean boats, they were Viking Longboats. The plan worked perfectly for the first boat, not so much for the second. It was lucky that only the armor and weapons went to the bottom of the harbor, as the second boat broke in half while teetering on the chain. The men were picked up and off they went to the Rus.
Long story shortened, Harald went back to Kiev a very wealthy man, hired a bunch of Vikings for a trip to Norway. The usurper had now died and Harald’s family now ruled Norway, Harald’s nephew was on the throne. Harald was not amused and had come too far, so he threw in with the King of Denmark to fight Magnus, his nephew. After Magnus saw that Harald was a decent military man, he wisely gave half the kingdom to Harald, so long as Harald gave him half of his gold. They didn’t like each other, and only had one meeting that didn’t go well, but Harald waited his time. Magnus died and left Norway to Harald, and Denmark to another. Harald didn’t like that, and took Denmark.
Harald was used to getting his own way. When news came that England’s throne was up for grabs he invaded northern England at York. This was in Sept of 1066. This was two weeks before William of Normandy invaded England at Hastings. The battle at York didn’t last long and naturally Harald won easily, most of the best English fighters were down in Dover waiting for William to come across. It was Harald’s plan to completely conqueror England before that, because he felt he had the greater claim. William the Bastard would just have to go home. Yep, that’s what everyone called him then.
Harald won, fighting the locals from York, and spent the next day laying around the river, resting, cleaning weapons and armor, waiting for the mayor to show up with the keys to the city. The Viking army was on the other side of Stamford Bridge relaxing when suddenly an English army appeared after a forced march up from London. The English King Harald Godwin was leading a very tired group of Housecarls to fight the Viking invader. Harald Hardrada told his army to suit up, and then led a small group to hold the English at the bridge. It is said that a lone Viking held off the entire English army for almost an hour. It is the most famous example of a Berserker, the Viking Death dealer. Finally some English went under the bridge and stabbed upwards to kill the Berserker. This is when Harald Hardrada went berserk himself and charged in, fighting with the small delaying group, without their armor. Harald was an easy target and died with an arrow to the throat, dead at 51. This was early in the battle, and yet they nearly won the day, killing more than half of the best of the English knights, then the Viking sub commander died so the rest of the army faded back to their ships. More than half of them did as well.
Pointless battle, pointless deaths? Well, the nearly beaten army had heard of William the Bastards preparation to invade, and then marched all the way back down to Dover to defend Hastings. The Normans had to fight uphill, from the beach. They couldn’t break through but they also were not being driven to the sea. The English King Harald had lost too many men up north fighting the Vikings. Then almost when the English had the advantage, King Harald took an arrow in the eye slot of his helmet. With King Harald of England dead, there were no natural leaders among the Housecarls that were left. William the Bastard, becomes William the Conqueror.
So one man, Harald Hardrada changed Westen European history forever, first by winning, and then by dying. He also changed California politics almost a thousand years later.
Governor Grey Davis was not liked by many politics from both parties, and was recalled from office. Arnold Schwarzenegger won the recall election and became the new governor. What? He is an actor! But so was Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan was a so-so actor. And this was where Arnold got the jump. Arnold was the Terminator. He was the star of a very successful franchise. And then Preditor wasn’t too bad either. Total Recall clearly painted him as a hero. So that is why he was elected. Sure he was a bad actor, but he was also a badass actor.
And how did Arnold get those great movies. Was it because of the bodybuilder movie? Or his Hercules movie? Wow, absolutely the worst. No producer would risk giving Arnold the role of the Terminator without some record of success. You guessed it, before the Terminator, Arnold starred in several very successful movies, Conan the Barbarian. And how does this relate to Harald Hardrada? They are the same person..
Frank Howard wrote/created Conan the Cimmerians in the late thirties, early forties. Conan was the last survivor of his family that was killed in a raid by a warrior chief. By his own hand Conan became skilled in war, skilled in leadership, until at the head of an army he seized a country and became King. In interviews, Frank Howard said that he did a lot of research and based Conan upon Harald Hardrada, there was an uncanny match. Much of Harald’s life does seem like something out of a heroic novel. Howard died in 1949, so he didn’t see the revival of interest in his character. I am sure that Arnold’s portrayal of Conan would have met with his approval. With Conan successful it was only natural to risk millions on the Terminator. And Terminator leads to being the governor of California.
There was some talk of even changing the Constitution to allow Arnold to run for the president of the United States. I think he might have won, and then the connection to Harald Hardrada would have come full circle.
Fortunately or unfortunately, it all ended with the failure of the man. He was just a man, not an epic warrior. He didn’t really win battles and saved the world. He was an actor, acting a role, and he screwed up his marriage with an American Royal Family, the Kennedys, by having an affair, and a secret love child.
Not Harald Hardrada, not even Conan. Just a horny actor with an accent.