The Sign of the Raven

by Poul Anderson

Reviewed by David Maclaine

The Sign of the Raven brings The Last Viking trilogy to a moving end. King Harald Hardrede has secured the throne of Norway. Denmark still proves elusive, and in the aftermath of another hard-won victory he discovers it has once more slipped from his grasp. This leads to a breach with his key ally from the North, and Harald lives up to his nickname, "hard rede," when he harshly punishes those who support his foe. Meanwhile he must deal with the disappointment of his wife, Elizabeth, and the anger of his mistress, Thora, and puzzle over the strangely different personalities of his teenaged sons Magnus and Olaf. In short, he is mired in the frustrations of middle age. Though he is forced to abandon his grandest dreams and doubt his legacy, one final opportunity beckons, a chance to make a bid for the English throne. Harald sails away to play his crucial part in the world-changing drama of 1066. His "September Song" will blend sadness with a fierce joy.

Anderson's artistry is at its peak in this novel, his descriptive writing tinged with a beauty that casts an autumnal light over the final months of the hero's life. Through the eyes of those who love Harald we share the loss and frustration felt by a man whose drive to bend the world to his will is thwarted by the nature of its changing times. As the final reckoning approaches, so too does grief at the loss of old friends and a strange swell of love for his enemies. Harald is the final great figure of an age about to end. We might expect to rejoice at the passing of a brutal time when life was shaped by the fear of dragon-headed ships spewing ax-wielding warriors. But The Sign of the Raven makes us feel the final blaze of glory that a setting sun casts and shed tears at its passing from the world. (1980; 352 pages)

More about The Sign of the Raven at

The Sign of the Raven 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


Harald Hardrada: a summary at the History in an Hour website

Back to Novels of Scandinavia and the Vikings

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