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Review: Harald in Byzantium, by Kevin Crossley-Holland

Sphinx Review, May 2022

Harald in Byzantium, Kevin Crossley-Holland
Arc Publications, 2022 £7.00

Poetry steeped in tradition

Harald Hardrada was King of Norway and also an unsuccessful claimant to the English and Danish thrones. He lived from around 1015-1066, at the tail end of the period in which many famous Old English poems were written. Kevin Crossley-Holland has created a pamphlet about Harald’s early life in exile in Byzantium, and Chris Riddell’s illustrations help to bring Harald to life. What also makes these poems especially vivid is the way they draw from the traditions of Old English poetry, using many of the tropes and techniques of that literature, in order to anchor the character of Harald firmly in his time.

The poems make heavy use of alliteration and assonance. In poem ‘2’, Harald tells us that a ‘Swede’s spear / opened my entrails’. In Old English poetry, the first three of a line’s four stressed syllables are alliterated, binding each line-unit together. Heaney’s translation of ‘Beowulf’ often replicates this alliteration, describing Grendel as a ‘shadow-stalker, stealthy and swift’.

Like Old English poetry, Crossley-Holland uses gnomic statements to express general truths. In ‘11’, Harald states that ‘Grasses soon grow on a little-trodden road,’ adding ‘of all gifts / friendship freely-given is the greatest.’ Compare this to the gnomic statements of the Old English elegy ‘The Wanderer’, where we are told, for example, ‘No man is wise until he lives many winters / In the kingdom of the world’.

Crossley-Holland’s pamphlet deals with themes of home and exile, such as in ‘16’ where the poem ends by asking ‘What is home?’. This is also a common strand in Old English poetry, as in ‘The Wanderer’ where the protagonist is ‘lonely’ and ‘far from home’.

Even Harald himself is reminiscent of the brave, ultra-masculine warriors found in Old English poems such as ‘Beowulf’, ‘The Battle of Maldon’ and ‘The Wanderer’. ‘I’ll brook no disobedience. None at all,’ says Harald.

By referencing the tools and themes of historic poetry, Crossley-Holland gives Harald an authentic voice. When coupled with Riddell’s lively illustrations, this is a pamphlet which depicts a character as memorable as any from the Old English canon.

Isabelle Thompson, 29 May 2022