I thoroughly enjoyed reading "The Greatest Viking: The Life of Olav Haraldsson" by the late Desmond Seward because the author succeeds in bringing so vividly to life a society that virtually everyone has some knowledge of, yet which can also seem very alien. History comes in many forms. At one end of the spectrum are academic tomes that are accessible only to those prepared to concentrate and who are used to the conventions of the genre. At the other are dramatic representations such as the long-running TV series "Vikings", whose primary aim is to entertain a broad audience.
Desmond Seward has succeeded in this book in bringing together the best of both approaches. My knowledge of the Vikings is hardly deep, but this book came over to me as having been as rigorously researched as any academic tome: an impression backed up by the notes, bibliography and index at the back. Yet the author succeeds in creating real, believable people whose exploits are engaging and exciting (and at times amazing). All books about historical subjects should be as good as this one: but very few actually are.
So, who was Olav Haraldsson? The book's dust jacket reveals more: "A ruthless Viking warrior who named his most prized battle weapon after the Norse goddess of death, Olav Haraldsson and his mercenaries wrought terror and destruction from the Baltic to Galicia in the early eleventh century. Thousands were put to the sword, enslaved or ransomed. In England, Canterbury was sacked, its archbishop murdered and London Bridge pulled down. The loot amassed from years of plunder helped Olav win the throne of Norway, and a century after his death he was proclaimed ‘Eternal King’ and has been a national hero there ever since.
"Despite his bloodthirsty beginnings, Olav converted to Christianity and, in a personal vendetta against the old Norse gods, made Norway Christian too, thereby changing irrevocably the Viking world he was born into. Told with reference to Norse sagas, early chronicles and the work of modern scholars, Desmond Seward paints an intensely vivid and colourful portrait of the life and times of arguably the greatest Viking of them all."