These poems are ‘not narratives but revelations’ says the author, and this seems a perfect way to describe the light of insight and discovery that shines, momentarily, on the forgotten or unknown. Here are fragments, scraps of stories handed down, examples of warfare, leadership and love, contrasts between worlds in the north and in the south, all of which come together to reveal the connections and interdependence among men that are needed for life. ‘If one man breaks the shield-rampart,’ says the narrator, ‘all his companions suffer.’
Harald Hardrada, we are told, was the greatest warrior of his age, true to his Viking reputation for courage, ferocity and ambition for ‘the golden crown, hard-edged fame.’ Several poems end with words of defiance:
‘I’ll brook no disobedience./None at all.’
‘I have no choice, only an imperative.’
‘Let me be blood and flames.’
Yet he is also a man of passion, capable of love if not fidelity. A beautiful woman can inspire him to lyrical, fervent outbursts:
The delicate contraption of your right ankle,
the downy crooks of your arms,
your swan-neck …
I who will rule
the whole northern world …
My head is thumping, my heart spinning
If needs must, he says, he will even take on the gods to alleviate his ‘torment’:
Grant me one night
in your apple garden
and I will outdo the gods.
This is a slim pamphlet – 24 pages of poems and nearly all of them illustrated with drawings in black and white by Chris Riddell, each one complementing the mood of the poems. This is the quality that most appeals to me – the atmospheric combination of text and sketch that creates a world as the author imagines it, a world that is Viking, a harsh and brutal world of cold, wild seas where fate determines if a man shall live or die, enjoy freedom or live in exile and loneliness.
Language, in Harald in Byzantium, creates the setting, is almost the setting itself. Kevin Crossley-Holland is skilful at blending a modern, colloquial style with kennings and phrases of the historical era. Some travellers, for example, are trying to escape destiny, their own ‘death-shadows’, a companion is described as a ‘blood friend’, Harald’s ‘dragon-prow’ is welcomed although his inner self yearns for ‘spirit-fruit’ and, of course, there is a raven, bird of death and doom, that taunts Harald when he is trapped in ‘scorching wind from Africa … red dust whirling/ round me, red dust in my throat, my gut.’
A setting that is Norse – and yet with clear contemporary relevance. ‘This week another boatload of young bucks sailed in,’ says the narrator. ‘A tide of refugees… more, many more than shoals of herring in the fjord.’ Discussions follow as to the best way of dealing with the problem. ‘Stem the tide at source,’ says one, ‘meet them at the crossing-places/and cut off their right hands/and send them home.’ ‘Well,’ says another, we could ‘extend our borders’. Or, declares a thinker, we could let them know ‘our welcome will be strictly conditional.’
Harald in Byzantium is a varied and fascinating pamphlet that can be read at a sitting, dipped into, acted, or read aloud, enjoyed by all ages. A fine publication.
Mandy Pannett 3rd March 2023