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Review: Harald in Byzantium, by Kevin Crossley-Holland

Edmund Prestwich, London Grip Poetry Review, January 2023

The Harald of Harald in Byzantium is Harald Hardrada, the Norwegian king who attempted to seize the English throne from Harold Godwinson in 1066 and was killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, a few weeks before Harold himself was killed at the Battle of Hastings. In his introduction to the book, Crossley-Holland describes him as ‘the greatest warrior of his age’, ‘a man of ferocious energy’, a giant ‘a full hand’s height taller than other men’. Reading these poems I was expecting something in a style like that of Skirnir’s threats. Crossley-Holland gives us something subtler. His Harald may be physically gifted, violent and passionate, but above all he’s intelligent. These poems, spoken when he was the young commander of the Emperor of Byzantium’s Varangian Guard, show him gradually becoming the man who won the throne of Norway and attempted the conquest of both Denmark and England.

Harald’s realism is not that of a man who can only see things in literal terms. He’s a complex, rounded figure, drawn to fantasy, drawn to the voluptuousness of the wealthy south, but uncompromising in his acceptance of the demands reality makes in his dangerous life as travelling war leader. Crossley-Holland’s skill appears in the way he lets different sides to Harald emerge without compromising his portrait of a fundamentally pragmatic and predatory figure. For example, in this poem lyrical feelings glint through Harald’s caustic comparison of Norwegian and Byzantine women and the expression of his resolve to stay longer among the latter, in Miklagard (Byzantium):

The eyes of my women
are dawn-grey, dawn-blue.
Here, they are black stars,

and a little painted fingernail
achieves more than a northern
screech or pitchfork.

In a climate cold and wet
there’s very little blaze,
not even much smoulder.

I have resolved to stay
in Miklagard a little longer.

... strongly as the main lines of Harald’s character are drawn, there’s a kind of shimmering uncertainty, a shifting of shades and tones about the details, so the poems open themselves to different emphases in reading. This makes Harald seem more fully alive, like a real person in a perpetual state of self-discovery and self-making.

Crossley-Holland’s book is illustrated by Chris Riddell’s drawings. Outstanding in themselves, these creatively echo and extend ideas in the text.

As a physical object, in fact, this chapbook is an exceptionally fine example of collaboration between artists in different media.