In Search of Hardrada

"Don't worry!" roared Martin, our grizzled but gregarious skipper, his bellow reduced to anorexic babble behind the winter tempest's howl, "the harbourmaster only hoists that storm warning flag to prevent commercial boats from sailing! It doesn't apply to us!"

Curiously, this enlivened my trepidation rather than diminished it.

Ten minutes later our thirty-four foot sailboat, with six other souls similarly white knuckling the gunnels, teetered terrifyingly at the zenith of yet another mountainous wave before pitching prow-first into its adjacent abyss. We dropped vertically and, rather alarmingly for this lubber, plunged violently beneath the black surface. After an eternity spoiled only by my bubbled screaming, the craft awkwardly heaved from the stygian depths in time to assail the next alpine swell.

Momentarily uncurling from the sobbing foetal position, my forced musing turned from trying to imagine conditions for a seaborne Dark Age army to who would posthumously play us in the tribute movie. Martin, absently adjusting the tiller with a knee, admonished a drowned Bic for failing to relight his cigarette.

This appalling sequence repeated too many times to count. Our skipper seemed oblivious to my terror. "Fun, int it?" he asked when his woolly hat ripped from his head and disappeared into the raging squall, "nothing like sailing in a good breeze." Indeed. When we finally lurched for the stone safety of Scarborough harbour I could've kissed him.

In retrospect it struck me; here was the Viking. This casual disregard for maritime imperilment lives on. There are those still in North Yorkshire who yet pulse with this spirit. And it is here I had come in search of Harald Hardrada.

Growing up in the UK we were always taught, in the polarized vernacular beloved by historians, that the storied Hardrada was the boogieman. The bad guy finally defeated by the just and clever Harold Godwinsson, the shiny hero king of England who fell to the Normans at Hastings just three weeks later. Hardrada was why I was asea off Scarborough on this deceptively robust sailboat, so I could sail the same waters and see what he saw. Experiencing nature's keenest laxative was a gastrointestinal bonus.

He'd landed at Scarborough, then named 'Skardaburg', hoping to secure similar allegiances to the ones he'd fostered further north. Skardaburg alone defied him, unexpectedly considering their shared Norse heritage, so he burned it to the ground and slaughtered the inhabitants. It was this massacre, it is said, that fuelled the successful English resistance with such fury. Without it, the history of the western world may easily have followed an entirely different course. It's not often we can isolate such a vitally important bottleneck, and Scarborough is certainly one of these fulcra.

Brevity prevents extrapolation, but if we shift our stance to neutral, one cannot be but in absolute awe of the man. If he hadn't existed, Robert E. Howard would've had to invent him. Adventurer, freebooter, mercenary, king and occasional arsonist, he was worshiped by his men, dreaded by his enemies, and pursued by the finest women. He saw more of the world and amassed more wealth than any contemporary, and he did this in the Dark Ages, when maps were flamboyant guesswork and everybody was enthusiastically trying to kill each other. You could crown him with a black wig and call him Conan.

Scarborough folk are often unaware of the part their town played as these foundations of the modern world unfurled. Whenever I mentioned it, the normally well-informed resident would stare blandly back, often with an "oh, did he really? How interesting," as if I'd related some conversational trifle. This goes a little beyond mere British understatement. Even those that did know didn't really care. Of course, the inhabitants of a country endowed with so much history could be expected to be somewhat blasé about it, but the lack of appreciation of the importance of their town was really quite fascinating. But then, I considered, maybe this indifference is also part of the Viking influence? Perhaps this endemic understating spurs greater endeavour? One cannot help but admit no other country in the world has had such a monumental effect on global development as this tiny island off Europe, and no people more prone to belittling their own accomplishments.

What really struck home, though, is how skimpy historical evidence actually tends to be. Great leaps of fancy seem attached to the slightest slivers of information. Hardrada landing at Scarborough, for example, is based solely on a mention or two in the Icelandic sagas of the superbly appellated Snorri Sturluson in the thirteenth century. What kind of research Snorri conducted can only be imagined; likely he simply wrote down the stories skalds related for centuries, and we all know the Chinese whispers effect. But that's precisely what makes history so arresting: new discoveries abound on a daily basis, slewing the consensus of opinion one way, then another. Such dynamism can only be boring to the most drool-prone of dullards.

I've always been a fan of such compelling historical figures, typically the more violent, the better. There's something inexplicably fascinating about people who gnaw the very marrow from life, perhaps because the rest of us are burdened with the wisdom of timidity. I know it's not particularly fashionable to admire violent men, as my frequent chastisement by the fairer sex so often attests, but typical distracters appear unfamiliar with what human beings nowadays actually are; hairless chimps with cell phones. (I don't know if you've caught any chimp documentaries, but our closest genetic cousins are real bastards.) To suggest we're otherwise is a naïveté  that shudders into sharp relief whenever a punch is thrown. It's not the lust for inflicting distress and injury that I admire, you understand, it's the reluctance to retreat from it. And one has to appreciate those who can do things one's incapable of. Yes, I may be a Viking, but I'm no Hardrada. Or even, for that matter, a Martin.


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