Dragging an obscure Viking boy into the light
Those of you who pop by my blog regularly will know by now that I spend a lot of time in Britain and Spain, mostly in medieval times or in the seventeenth century. Now and then I do dip into Nordic history, but in general those forays are rare. Today, I thought I’d introduce you to a gent who has done the full immersion thing when it comes to Scandinavian (well, more specifically Norwegian) history. I read one of his books some time ago and was impressed by how much he knew about our rather cold corner of the world. Even more, I was intrigued by his choice of protagonist. Yes, I had heard of the young boy/man Eric has as his lead, but hey, I’m Swedish and thereby a neighbour of those proud and fierce Norwegians who once beat the bejesus out of us Swedes in Viking warfare and still continue to twist our noses out of joint by winning every single cross country skiing event in the world (on the men’s side).
So I decided to ask him about this: How did you come upon Håkon Haraldsson and what drove you to write about him. What was the little piece of historical grit that got lodged in your brain and irritated your cerebral tissues until “your” Håkon popped out? (see? I can’t even abbreviate when I ask a question)
Below is Eric’s answer. Enjoy!
For those of you who haven’t read my books, here’s a short summary of the character in question, Hakon Haraldsson. He’s the youngest son (and bastard child) of arguably one of Norway’s greatest kings, Harald Fairhair. When Hakon is roughly eight years old, Harald ships him off to England to be raised in the Christian courts of Wessex. He becomes a Christian and lives among the Saxons until he is a teenager, at which point he is summoned back to Norway to help the nobles oust Harald’s unpopular son Erik “Bloodaxe” from the throne.
So let me start with the first part of your question — how I came across Hakon. In truth, Hakon was not the first Viking about whom I started to write. I was actually focused on a completely fictitious character who had backed the wrong side of history and lost everything at the battle of Hafrsfjord. That was the defining battle that made Harald Fairhair the most powerful ruler in the North and saw the destruction of all petty kings opposed to him, including my character.
As I began to wade farther into the story, I realized it was missing a lot of the conflict I was after. Moreover, I found myself drawn to writing about actual historical figures, like Harald Fairhair. It was as I was investigating Harald that I learned more about his many sons and their conflicts, and one fight in particular: Harald’s favored son, Erik Bloodaxe, against the youngest of Harald’s extensive brood, Hakon.
Which brings me to the next question — what drove me to write about him. While we don’t know all of the facts of Hakon’s life, we do know that even if marginally true, Hakon’s story takes many of the norms of Viking literature and turns them on their head. His upbringing, his religion, his stature in his family — all of these things were dripping with potential conflict. In many ways, Hakon is the anti-Viking, yet a memorable hero nonetheless. What’s more, I saw Hakon as a microcosm of the times in which he lived, which were rife with warfare and religious tension between Christians and pagans. All of these things I thought would make great fodder for a story.
When I say, Hakon takes many of the norms of Viking literature and turns them on their head, here are a few examples of what I mean:
The sagas and literature are bursting with tales of strong, fearsome Viking warriors. Yet Hakon returns from England as a young teen to fight for the High Seat of the North. We presume, though don’t know for sure, he’s approximately fourteen. In other words, his body is not fully developed. Nor is his mind. While he may have been strong or large for his age (we have no way of knowing), he is anything but the Beowulf-esque champion we think of when he think of a challenger to the throne of Norway.
What Hakon lacked in physical strength, he must surely have made up for with internal strength. I saw him, for right or wrong, as an idealist, which many young people tend to be. During his time, the Norse worshiped the “old gods”, and many stories speak of Viking raids on Christian realms and churches. Yet along comes Hakon, a lone Christian boy fighting for the throne of his “pagan” homeland. The pagans look at him askance and urge him to convert, yet Hakon holds fast to his beliefs. That type of courage — that idealism — is a fascinating spin on the traditional Viking yarn.
But lest we forget, Hakon is a Northman and they liked their battles. His ambition to rule his father’s realm is no different than the ambition of the brother he seeks to dethrone. Only I saw Hakon as fighting two battles, one against his brother and one against himself. His strength in many ways is his greatest weakness. How easy it could have been for him to shed his beliefs and earn the favor of his countrymen. But in GOD’S HAMMER and later, in RAVEN’S FEAST, he didn’t, and it plagues him. All of this conflict and internal strife grabbed me, or, as you say, “lodged in my brain”.
There are a few things I’d like to add to this post about Hakon. The first is, Hakon is an historical figure, but there is still much we don’t know about him. Those unknown pieces are what gave me some license to create the Hakon that is in my novels. I got to put the meat on the bones of his character, and I loved that process.
Second, I have learned in my many years of writing about Hakon, that I enjoy characters who experience, and must overcome, some internal or moral strife. I write about Vikings, but it is not enough for me just to write about one-dimensional brutes who go around bludgeoning people.
Finally, some reviewers have said that Hakon comes across as soft and somewhat dependent on his counselors. That, by way way, is intentional. Hakon was a teenager in essentially a foreign land, whose religion was unwelcome. I cannot imagine him having all of the answers fresh off the boat. I wanted him to start off as a somewhat insecure and idealistic teen, yet possessed of (or capable of learning) the skills he will ultimately need to overcome his challenges. I wanted him to have internal struggles and conflicts with those he trusts. I wanted him to lean on his counselors, at least at first, and understand that over time he would need to carve his own path. If you pick up the novels, you will see Hakon become more confident in his decisions, and more independent in his actions. Like all of us, he evolves. Hopefully for the better.
Thank you for this, Eric – and I must say you’ve done a fantastic job of breathing life into your Hakon (or as us Swedes say, Håkan) And for the record, I love our Norwegian neighbours (despite the cross country skiing thing) Heja Norge!
My review of Raven’s Feast:
Very rarely does one come across a book written about the man remembered as Hakon the Good or Hakon Adalsteinsfostre, and as Mr Schumacher points out in his afterword, this may be because we know so very little about him – beyond concluding he must have been quite the forceful young lad, seeing as he was only fifteen when he claimed the Norwegian crown and defeated his substantially older brother, Erik Bloodaxe.
When Raven’s Feast opens, Hakon has just defeated Erik and been acclaimed as king. But bringing peace and stability is not an easy process, and soon enough it seems Hakon’s dreams of a united kingdom will unravel as quickly as a nightmare dissipates at dawn. Other than rebellious jarls and ambitious Danes, there is also the issue of faith: Hakon has been raised as a Christian at the court of his foster father King Athelstan, and wishes to convert his pagan countrymen. They are less than thrilled…
Mr Schumacher has used what little we know and filled in the rather huge gaps quite plausibly, delivering an exciting read about a very young king attempting to hold on to a kingdom cracking wide open. Haakon is an engaging and likeable young man, the prose is fluid and the dialogue crisp – if at times very modern. At times, pace flags due to the detailed descriptions of everything from interiors to food, but all in all this is a book that should appeal to all those gripped by Viking fever – and quite a few others as well.
About Eric Schumacher
Eric Schumacher is an American historical novelist who currently resides in Santa Barbara, California, with his wife and two children. He was born and raised in Los Angeles and attended college at the University of San Diego.
At a very early age, Schumacher discovered his love for writing and medieval European history, as well as authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Those discoveries continue to fuel his imagination and influence the stories he tells. His first novel, God’s Hammer, was published in 2005. Its sequel, Raven’s Feast, was published in 2017. A third, yet-to-titled book, is currently in the works.
For more information, connect with him at one of these sites:
About God’s Hammer
History and legend combine in the gripping tale of Hakon Haraldsson, a Christian boy who once fought for the High Seat of a Viking realm.
It is 935 A.D. and the North is in turmoil. King Harald Fairhair has died, leaving the High Seat of the realm to his murderous son, Erik Bloodaxe. To solidify his claim, Erik ruthlessly disposes of all claimants to his throne, save one: his youngest brother Hakon.
Erik’s surviving enemies send a ship to Wessex, where the Christian King Athelstan is raising Hakon. Unable to avoid his fate, he returns to the Viking North to face his brother and claim his birthright, only to discover that victory will demand sacrifices beyond his wildest nightmares.
About Raven’s Feast
It is 935 A.D. and Hakon Haraldsson has just wrested the High Seat of the North from his ruthless brother, Erik Bloodaxe. Now, he must fight to keep it.
The land-hungry Danes are pressing from the south to test Hakon before he can solidify his rule. In the east, the Uplanders are making their own plans to seize the throne. It does not help that Hakon is committed to his dream of Christianizing his people – a dream his countrymen do not share and will fight to resist.
As his enemies move in and his realm begins to crumble, Hakon and his band of oath-sworn warriors must make a stand in Raven’s Feast, the riveting sequel to God’s Hammer.