Reviewed by David Maclaine
The Road of the Sea Horse, second in The Last Viking trilogy, dramatizes the middle years of Harald Hardrede, the trilogy's hero. Back in Norway after years serving emperors in Constantinople, Harald's attempt to apply lessons learned during his exile meets frustration. He has come to believe that only realms held by a powerful monarch will survive a coming clash of nations, is eager to impose just that sort of strong rule, and hopes to forge a northern empire that can match Europe's rival powers. But even after he becomes sole king, constraints remain that he cannot escape. The people of the great northern Throndheim fjord have a history of independence and of deposing kings who threaten it, and they are not alone in clinging to Norwegian traditions that assert the king's subservience to the law. Harald's reliance on citizen levies undercuts his hope to add Denmark to his realm, for the Danes prefer their existing king, who proves a resilient adversary, willing to retreat and return as often as it takes to outlast his opponent.
Themes emerge in the novel that are as relevant today as they were a millennium ago. How long will a people proud of their freedom endure a war on foreign soil that drags on without real prospect of victory? Are rulers who claim there are good reasons of state for their wars abroad and their usurpation of rights at home actually driven by a private need for supreme power? In other ways, Harald's private desires and the needs of the state mesh better, as when his lust for a spirited woman, fulfilled at a cost to his domestic tranquility, gives him the sons his dynasty requires. The Road of the Sea Horse offers a keen portrait of a king who wins fame with the sword but whose building projects at home will create a more lasting legacy. (1980; 253 pages)More about The Road of the Sea Horse at Amazon.com