The Greatest Viking: The Life of Olav Haraldsson

Birlinn Limited. Dec. 2022. 272p. ISBN 9781780277950. $29.95. BIOG
Murderer, predator, saint: rare is the historical figure to whom all three descriptors apply. But King Olav II, aka St. Olav, aka the Eternal King of Norway, was just such a person. The late British historian Seward (1935–2022; The King over the Water) has written a deeply absorbing biography of King Olav II that aims above all to unify his behavior and outlook as a Viking king and all he exhibited as a Christian saint. In this book, readers see that he was a brutal Viking ruler raised on a steady diet of pillaging and cruelty; at the age of 12, he was already carrying out raids with his own longboat in Sweden, Finland, and Gotland. Olav found faith, converted his people, and ultimately united a patchwork of territories into a unified Norway. Why exactly did a Viking ruler turn his back on the Norse gods and embrace a foreign faith for his people? Like many elements of his life, it’s not entirely clear.
VERDICT While some of Seward’s conjectures may leave readers unsatisfied, this is, nevertheless, a riveting, and detailed account of the life and times of an enigmatic ruler.
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