The Road of the Sea Horse

by Poul Anderson

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

The Road of the Sea Horse appears on the list of The 45 Best Historical Novels Set in the Viking Age

Other novels about Harald:

The Golden Horn by Poul and Karen Anderson (1980); #1 in The Last Viking trilogy. See review or more info at

Byzantium by Michael Ennis (1990), about Harold's service in the Varangian Guard. More info

Crusader Gold by David Gibbins (2006), alternative history about a present-day marine archaeologist who uncovers evidence that Harold Hardrada did not die in the Battle of Stamford Bridge. More info

Nonfiction and original sources about Harold Hardrada:

King Harald's Saga by Snorri Sturluson (1966 Penguin edition), an English translation by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson of the medieval Heimskringla. More info

Harold Hardrada: The Warrior's Way by John Marsden (2007). More info

The Varangians of Byzantium by Sigfus Blöndal (revised edition, 2007), a history of the Varangian Guard with particular emphasis on Harold Hardrada's role. More info


Excerpts from the Saga of Harald Hardrade at the Sam Houston State University website

Back to Novels of Scandinavia and the Vikings

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